The Judge

Drama can be very simple. Just take some interesting characters, drop them into a situation, and have them resolve it (or not). You don’t need innovative plot structures, fancy special effects, or obscure arty acting styles. Humans will never get tired of watching humans interact, especially if they identify with them.
In The Judge, high powered Chicago lawyer, Hank Palmer, played by Robert Downey Jr., returns to the small Indiana town where he grew up to help out in a family crises. His father Joseph, played by Robert Duvall, has been the town’s judge for forty-two years and has been arrested for murder. The victim was a man who came before Joseph and was given a light sentence, even though his guilt was obvious, he then drowned his girlfriend and Joseph sent him away for a long time. He served his sentence and was out again. Joseph has always considered it to be his greatest mistake. So when he hits the man with his car, everybody assumes it was on purpose.
Now, Hank has to defend his father, with whom he is estranged, and deal with the family he left behind.
The acting, of course, is terrific even if the two Roberts aren’t really stretching that much. Vincent D’Onofrio gives a good performance as Glen, Hank’s ex-jock older brother who missed out on a baseball career because he hurt his hand in a car accident where Hank was at the wheel. Vera Farmiga is tough and sexy as Hank’s old girlfriend, Samantha Powell.
The story, by director David Dobkin and Nick Schenk who wrote the screenplay with Bill Dubuque, has a few subplots which detract from the main story, add to the length of the film and in the end don’t really make sense. But for the most part the pace remains brisk and you’re never bored.
I suppose in this day and age something like The Judge is always going to be thought of as a high prestige drama. Anytime Robert Duvall does a film, he gets mentioned in connection with the Oscars, and rightfully so. But in this case I don’t think that film around him is all that great. It’s enjoyable in many ways but in the end, too few risks were taken and the twists they introduced were too predictable and too easy.
If you really want to see it, you should wait for the DVD.

Gone Girl

Gone Girl is the type of movie that relies so heavily on plot twists, that I really can’t say much about it without spoiling it. Of course the book was also one of the biggest bestsellers of last year so a lot of people are presumably going to know the plot going in anyway. But I will respect the conventions of not spoiling movies here.
When Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, reports to the police that his wife, Amy, played by Rosamund Pike, has gone missing on their fifth wedding anniversary, the police, in the person of Detective Rhonda Boney, played by Kim Dickens, advise him to make a plea on television for help finding Amy. The story catches on nationally and it soon becomes a media circus.
Nick’s troubles, however, multiply when it comes out that he hasn’t been completely honest with the police about the nature of his marriage. He’s not the nice, somewhat unsophisticated Midwestern boy that he appears to be. There is the matter of an affair he’s been carrying on with one of his former creative writing students. He can also get a little physical when arguing with his wife. Amy is not what she appears to be either. She has left a string of angry ex-boyfriends behind her.
Also, evidence is piling up that he may have killed her.
And that’s really all I can tell you.
The script is by Gillian Flynn, the author of the book, and she’s really good at making you sympathize with her flawed characters. And that is the theme of the story: manipulating public sympathy, so that they overlook the holes in the story you’re trying to sell them. It’s fascinating in a cynical way. This is her first screenplay and she knocks it out of the park.
David Fincher, the director, is a good fit for this dark material. He keeps the pace moving. There isn’t much in the way of fancy artifice in the cinematography. The performances are kept pretty realistic. There are no eccentric tics or scenery eating speeches here. It’s realism all the way around.
Ben Affleck is well within his range here and turns in a pretty good performance. He convincingly shows us the good and the ugly sides of this man. Rosamund Pike is terrific. I can’t tell you why but she’s great.
I wish I could write more about Gone Girl but I would certainly spoil it if I did. It’s a terrific movie, though.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

This one has a bit of an odd origin. Ned Benson, the director originally made two films, one subtitled Him and the other Her. It was a Rashomon-like experiment, telling the story from two different viewpoints. Harvey Weinstein, who bought the films after last year’s Toronto Film Festival, decided that this wasn’t going to work. So he made Benson cut the two films down into one. You’d think that the result would be a mess but basically it works.
The story is about a married couple, Conor Ludlow, played by James McAvoy and Eleanor Rigby, played by Jessica Chastain. They live in New York City. Their marriage suffers a serious blow when their young child dies. The first scene in the movie is of Eleanor riding her bike across a pedestrian bridge, getting off and jumping into the river. She survives and then goes from the hospital to her parents’ house to figure things out. She doesn’t tell her husband where she is. Conor makes an effort to reconnect.
Obviously the success of a film like this depends on the leads and here we are in good hands. McAvoy and Chastain are two of the best actors working today. Separate they are terrific and together they have great chemistry. You can see the history of their relationship in the way they interact with each other.
The supporting cast is good too. William Hurt plays Julian Rigby, Eleanor’s college professor father. He and his wife Mary, played by Isabelle Huppert were big Beatles fans. He is a man used to approaching problems intellectually and finds that approach inadequate in dealing with his grieving daughter. Huppert’s Mary is always seen with a wine glass in her hand. She was a classical musician before she got married and Huppert captures the contradiction between a woman whose approach to life is basically emotional but who is also so self-involved that her relationship with her daughter has always been distant.
The plot of the film advances through dialog. People meet up either by accident or after long sojourns on the subway (Eleanor’s parents live on Long Island) and then have conversations, where they try to find the words that will make it better. At one point Conor tells Eleanor that he had thought of the perfect thing to say that would make her feel better and bring her back. He says he forgot it but you know he never thought of it in the first place. That is the central irony of this film: It is a talky film about the inadequacy of words to connect people emotionally.
It is slow moving and a little too long but amazingly it does build to a climax and the ambiguous ending is apt.

The Guardians of the Galaxy

In The Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel expands its movie universe to include…well, the universe. Peter Quill, played by Chris Pratt, is abducted from Earth when he is eight years old by a crew of ethically questionable scroungers. Twenty six years later he is a semi-independent operator, trying to find artifacts and sell them for profit. When he steals an orb from a decimated planet he finds himself in over his head.
The orb, which is one of the Infinity Stones, a series of McGuffins in the Marvel universe, is coveted by Ronan the Accuser, played by Lee Pace. Ronan is a fanatical Kree warlord who is out to “purify” every world in the galaxy that does not meet his expectations of piety. At the moment, he most upset with the planet Xandar, which appears to be home to a liberal polyglot culture, which apparently includes many humans. Presumably they or their ancestors were abducted like Peter. Ronan has promised to retrieve the orb for Thanos, played by Josh Brolin, in return for Xandar’s destruction.
To this end Ronan has dispatched Gamora, played by Zoe Saldana, Thanos’ adopted daughter and a genetically enhanced and highly trained assassin. Thanos has lent Ronan his two daughters; the other one is Nebula, played by Karen Gillan. What Ronan doesn’t realize is that Gamora secretly hates Thanos and has been looking for a chance to betray him. The orb may be her opportunity. Ronan also puts a large bounty on Quill’s head which attracts the attentions of Rocket Raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper and Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel, who are bounty hunter partners. Rocket is a genetically mutated raccoon who walks upright, talks and makes bombs and stuff. Groot is a giant tree that walks and can only say “I am Groot.”
All three catch up to Quill on Xandar and when they try to apprehend him, they are captured by the Nova Corps, Xandar’s police force. They are sent to jail where they meet Drax the Destroyer, played by Dave Bautista, whose family was killed by Ronan. He thinks of nothing but revenge. And thus the team is complete.
That may seem like a lot to set up but the exposition in the screenplay by director James Gunn and Nicole Perlman effortlessly incorporates this strange world into the plot, while cracking jokes and presenting some pretty good set pieces. The whole film is an entertaining romp, a comedy that actually works at two hours. There are also some touching moments too, like Drax’s realization that he doesn’t have the ability to kill Ronan with his bare hands, Quill remembering his mother and his desperate clinging to the mix tapes of 70’s pop music she made him before she died. Even Rocket has a drunken soliloquy about his odd origins and the downside of being unique in the universe. He doesn’t even know what a raccoon is.
This cast is terrific. Pratt plays the fast talking Quill perfectly. He is a man who still has some growing up to do and still misses his mother. Saldana is menacing as an assassin but shows her growing conscience as well. Bradley Cooper is a delight as Rocket’s voice. He captures the bravado and yet manages to show vulnerability too. I can’t imagine a talking raccoon being done any other way.
I have often voiced my appreciation for Marvel’s willingness to experiment with the tones of their live action movies. This year is the perfect example. They have gone from gloomy seriousness in Captain America: The Winter Soldier to The Guardians of the Galaxy which is basically a comedy. It is the most offbeat movie in the Marvel Universe, owing more to Star Wars than to The Avengers.
And it works brilliantly.

A Most Wanted Man

Well most of the summer is gone and what have we geeks got to show for it? A great X-Men movie; a Spider-Man sequel that only I seemed to like and a decent Tom Cruise SF offering that underperformed at the box office. Calling this blockbuster season slow is a misnomer. It has been glacial. So much so that I have been driven to my local art house theater in July. I normally don’t see the inside of it until October or November.
Looking at John LeCarre’s page on IMDB, I don’t believe that there has ever been a bad film or TV version of his work. Obviously some of them are better than others but I don’t think there are any real stinkers in there. Maybe he’s just been lucky in this regard. Or perhaps he is in a position where he can sell the rights to his books only to people who he’s convinced will do them justice. The most interesting possibility to me is that his books are written in such a way that only sophisticated and complex films can be made from them, or that the stories only attract filmmakers that are interested in making those kinds of movies.
He’s probably just been lucky but it is interesting to speculate about it.
In A Most Wanted Man LeCarre turns to the War on Terrorism for his plot. A half-Chechen man, Issa Karpov, played by Grigoriy Dobrygin, turns up in the Hamburg Muslim community. Hamburg is Germany’s largest port city and is where Mohammed Atta planned 9/11. There is a great deal of paranoia in government circles there and Karpov’s arrival sets off alarms in various German and American intelligence agencies. He fits the profile of a suicide bomber.
Gunter Bachmann, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his last roles, runs a super-secret crew of spies for the German government. Their mission is to infiltrate the Muslim community and find and diffuse threats before they materialize. Bachmann believes that it is better to wait and observe these threats than to arrest them and take the chance of someone unknown filling the void left behind. He wants to leave Karpov at liberty, to find out what he is doing in Hamburg. The risks are obvious if Karpov actually does turn out to be a bomber. Karpov turns to a liberal lawyer, Annabel Richter, played by Rachel McAdams, to contact a bank run by Tommy Brue, played by Willem Defoe. This bank is holding a vast fortune which was accumulated by Karpov’s Russian father who was a gangster. When Bachmann learns this he believes that he can use Karpov to get to Feisal Abdullah, played by Homayoun Ershadi, a Muslim philanthropist who skims money off his big donations and sends it to terrorist groups.
It is a fairly complicated plot and the director, Anton Corbijn and screenwriter, Andrew Bovell, chose a linear structure to tell it. At the beginning when they are setting things up, scenes are truncated right after they advance the plot, often just before you figure out how this piece fits into the puzzle. There are none of the flashbacks or other time shifting tricks directors usually use when adapting LeCarre. It leaves you intrigued and possibly a little frustrated. The scenes get longer and more intense as the movie progresses. This is the kind of film that hinges on the bad guy signing a paper and Corbijn actually manages to make that exciting and cinematic.
The film’s two plus hours pass quickly.
The characters are typical LeCarre, flawed, cynical, but intelligent and motivated. Hoffman’s Bachmann drinks and smokes too much. His clothes are rumpled, and his tongue is a little too sharp when it comes to dealing with the agencies he needs to collaborate with. He is also a walking contradiction. His crew is authorized to operate outside the law and in total secrecy. And yet he believes in order. He doesn’t want to tear down the structures on the other side and then see them replaced in ways he doesn’t fully understand. That to him is the most dangerous situation. He uses informants, putting them in physical danger, but he cares about them. The scene where he talks a young Arab student out of quitting, and then hugs him his quite powerful. It is a father/son relationship. Hoffman embodies these contradictions with his usual ease, and his German accent isn’t bad.
The rest of the cast is good too. McAdams is great as a smart lawyer who is probably a little too naïve. Dafoe shines as a slick banker, trying to redeem his institution for its past as a vehicle that gangsters used to launder money.
Dobrygin’s performance as Karpov is masterful. He has to play his character as somewhat of a cypher, since his intentions are part of the suspense. On the outside he is a simple devout man, but there are hints of hidden depths. And when you consider that he’s probably not acting in his native language, it is doubly impressive.
A Most Wanted Man is not the best adaptation of LeCarre there is but it is a good movie and well worth seeing.

The Edge of Tomorrow

You have to use your powers of separation when considering Tom Cruise. As a person, he is a flake. He’s a scientologist and is very obnoxious about it. He keeps getting married, in spite of the fact that he can’t seem to make it work. There’s a bit of an ego there too.
But he is a charismatic and talented actor. He has a range, sure, but he’s smart enough to not get very far out of it. Usually, he is fun to watch. In other words, he’s a movie star.
He also seems intent on making an intelligent science fiction movie, which makes him a fascinating figure to me. Most people in Hollywood equate SF with mindless action. Last year Cruise tried the same thing with Oblivion. It wasn’t very good. Now he’s back with The Edge of Tomorrow.
This one’s better, even though the SF conceit isn’t very original. William Cage, played by Tom Cruise, is a PR flack who joins the army when Europe is overrun by an alien race that shows no sign of stopping there. At first he uses his skills to raise recruitment levels. But after rubbing some people the wrong way, he finds himself in the front lines of a D-Day like invasion, which goes disastrously wrong and he’s killed in the first five minutes, after killing one of the aliens and getting some of its gore on him.
Then he wakes up the day before the invasion. This keeps happening to him and he gradually starts living longer. During one iteration, he temporarily saves the life of Rita Vrataski, played by Emily Blunt. Rita is an ultra-competent soldier, who is the hero of an earlier battle at Verdun, humanity’s only victory in this war thus far. Her picture is on billboards and buses all over the non-conquered world. Before she dies she tells him to find her in his next iteration.
Cage does and she tells him that the aliens are seemingly invincible because they have the ability to create time loops, to go back in time a short distance and try it again, learning a little more about the situation each time. This was why they had never lost a battle until Rita beat them at Verdun. Due to a similarity in genetic makeup, humans are able to use this power as well, if they are exposed to the alien blood like Cage was during the invasion and Rita was during the battle at Verdun. Unfortunately, she lost the power when she was injured and got a blood transfusion. Now Cage must find her during every iteration, get her to train him up and then find a way to defeat the aliens.
Needless to say, Groundhog Day comes to mind, as well as Source Code and a well-loved episode of Stargate SG-1. There are probably many novels and stories that use it and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some pulp writer in the 20’s thought of it first, if it wasn’t Jules Verne or H.G. Wells. The main danger with this kind of narrative structure of course is repetition. You can’t depict the same events time after time, even with slight variations, without boring your audience to tears. This is where montage comes in and The Edge of Tomorrow uses it brilliantly. Cage’s training and his familiarization with unfolding events is depicted in a few short moments of film. It slows down occasionally during moments where they make major advances in their knowledge of the enemy and of the situation. The screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and John-Henry and Jez Butterworth is adroit in navigating these waters as is Doug Limon’s direction.
Tom Cruise is his usual movie star self. His arc from shallow flack to steely soldier is a little unbelievable namely because at the beginning they give us no indication that there is a soldier inside that flack, waiting to get out. But he plays both parts effortlessly. Emily Blunt is fine as a closed off super soldier, still mourning the loss of her ability to create time loops. She had hoped to end the war but couldn’t.
The effects are good and the design of the ships and the cool-looking exoskeletons they use in battle are great.
The Edge of Tomorrow is not going to make anyone forget 2001 or Bladerunner, but it is a pretty good, thought provoking movie that approaches intelligence. The fact that its premise is a little overused shouldn’t bother anybody because they made it work.
Just as the fact that Tom Cruise is a bit of a jerk should not keep us from enjoying his performances.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

I was reminded the other day that the first X-Men movie pre-dated the first Spider-Man movie by two years, making the X-Men the real progenitors of the current superhero craze. The X-Men was surprisingly popular but I still maintain that Raimi’s Spider-Man was what really cemented the current dominance of the superhero genre. In the years since it is interesting to note that both of those franchises have had spotty records. The X-Men in particular has had almost as many lows as highs. There are two universally recognized stinkers in the series, two very well regarded installments, an aging origin film and nobody seems to know what to make of The Wolverine. I liked it. I don’t follow the industry enough to know if this inconsistency is reflective of regime changes at 20th Century Fox, but I have heard griping from fanboys about the studio’s cavalier attitude toward the series and superhero films in general.
Bryan Singer returns to the director’s chair for Days of Future Past, and despite his recent legal troubles, he is a talented director, and his vision for the franchise is a good fit. Here, however, he is taking his cues from Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men First Class, which is the main set up for this film, and was of course a prequel that introduced us to the two teams of mutants, those following Professor X, played by James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart and those following Magneto, played by Michael Fassbender and Ian McKellen. The reason there are two actors playing each of those roles is because Days of Future Past is one of the most famous and beloved story arcs in the X-Men comics and it is also a time travel story. This is perfect, because it allows Singer to unite the two casts into one movie.
In the present (or a present) Professor X and the rest of the mutants are in hiding and on the run. Giant robots, called sentinels are hunting them down and exterminating mutants. The collateral damage from this conflict has largely collapsed civilization on the planet. Professor X and Magneto have gotten together and determined the historical point when things went wrong. It was back in 1973 when Mystique, played by Jennifer Lawrence, kills Bolivar Trask, played by Peter Dinklage, the weapons designer who makes the sentinels, largely from knowledge he gained by experimenting on mutants. She is captured and they use her shape changing DNA to make the sentinels invincible. Using the ability of Kitty Pryde, played by Ellen Page, to send a person’s consciousness back through time to inhabit their earlier body, they send Wolverine back to 1973 to try and prevent the assassination. To do this, he must convince the earlier Charles Xavier, who is taking a drug to suppress his powers and allow him to walk. The drug was developed by Hank McCoy, played by Nicholas Hoult, who also turns big and blue and is known as the Beast. Charles has given up and given in to bitterness over Mystique siding with Magneto. Oh, and Wolverine also has to break Magneto out of his cell, which is located one hundred stories below the Pentagon.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is definitely a high point of the series. The script by Simon Kinberg is tightly plotted and takes these sprawling and complicated ideas and boils them down to a two hour and eleven minute film that never drags. Also Singer’s direction keeps things moving and legible. He gets great performances out of his cast, although considering this cast that’s not a difficult task.
The cinematography is dark and slick, similar to the first two films but not as artificial looking. They were definitely going for a more realistic feel in this one. The same goes for the art direction and the costumes. They add 70’s fashions and cars to the usual black leather costumes and their high tech jet. And it all works.
With this size of a cast, there are bound to be some actors who are not given much to do. In this case that includes Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. And at this point they really do owe Halle Berry a Storm movie. I bet she hasn’t had more than twenty lines in four movies. And all those mutants in the tremendous first fight sequence against the invincible sentinels are left uncharacterized. I’m sure people who follow the comics know who they are.
Overall the performances are excellent but a few stand out. Michael Fassbender is menacing and uncomfortably reasonable as the young Magneto. He has his viewpoint and it makes sense. Likewise James McAvoy, shows us a young, humbled and very vulnerable Charles Xavier. He has an arc going from an extended dark night of the soul to taking the first steps toward becoming Professor X. And I have to mention Evan Peters who almost steals the movie as Quicksilver. He plays him as an arrogant punk, sure of his abilities and equally sure he can get away with anything. I wish he was in the movie more.
With the Amazing Spider-Man movies and Man of Steel, I’ve been talking a lot about rebooting these franchises. In a way Days of Future Past reboots the X-Men. It repairs most of the damage done by the third installment. But mostly it restores the series’ momentum by being a darn good movie.

October 2014
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