Friday, December 30, 2011

War Horse (2011)

War Horse (2011)
Dir. Steven Spielberg

4 out of 5

The use of horses as cavalry mounts and beasts of burden in World War I - a conflict that introduced so many horrors of modern combat - is a sad anachronism tailor-made for effusive metaphors of old ways surrendering to new. While director Steven Spielberg can't completely resist such obvious comparisons in
War Horse, his adaptation of the critically-acclaimed play itself drawn from a children's novel, he deserves credit for largely avoiding simplifications and letting the story's elemental struggle between beauty and brutality unfold at its own pace. For the first half-hour it's the tale of a boy (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse, Joey, a magnificent and headstrong colt impulsively purchased by his father (Peter Mullan) at auction. Irvine's special bond with the animal is solidified when he must turn Joey into the plow-horse that Mullan was meant to acquire. This bond is then tested when the family's continuing financial struggles force Mullan to sell the horse to an English cavalry officer (Tom Hiddleston) shortly after Britain declares war on Germany.

From there Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski create a gradual and seamless transition from the perpetual stillness of the verdant English countryside to the perpetual hell of the Western Front. Joey is featured in a series of vignettes that flow effortlessly into each other, winding up with a pair of deserters, a sickly French girl and her protective grandfather (Neils Arestrup), and a German artillery detail. Slowly but surely, the horse transforms into a type of ennobling symbol, a benchmark of the innocence lost in the great slaughter. Though the film's thematic motifs and emotional cues bear a certain resemblance to those in Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg's trademark sentimentality works just as well with this particular narrative, distinguished by a message more universal than the director's solemn tribute to the Greatest Generation.

War Horse also has a harshness that distinguishes it from typical feel-good fare. Few films do a better job of capturing the utter confusion of trench warfare and its complex mixture of savagery and camaraderie. Virgin forests quickly transform into the muddy, denuded wasteland of No Man's Land, where an encounter between the horse and two enemy soldiers turns into a conspicuously theatrical yet moving commentary on how the promise of friendship could possibly overcome an appetite for destruction. After spending so much time surrounded by anxiety and fear and muck, the film's one major misstep is raising the possibility of redemption too conveniently. But the world of War Horse is one of fundamentally good people trying to make the best of a terrible situation - caring for Joey allows them to believe in the brightness of humanity while they endure a maelstrom attributable to the worst angels of our nature. "The war has taken everything from everybody," remarks Arestrup, echoing a German officer who forcefully requisitions war maté
riel from his small family farm. After witnessing the film's endless string of sacrifices, a sweet catharsis is well deserved.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Separation (2011)

A Separation (2011)
Dir. Asghar Farhadi

4.5 out of 5

A Separation is not so much about a difficult divorce as it is about loyalty, truth, and the vicissitudes of the Iranian justice system. The affecting domestic drama of estranged husband Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and wife Simin (the striking Leila Hatami) takes a backseat to the slow-burning intrigue that envelops Moaadi when he hires a working-class woman (Sareh Bayat) to look after his Alzheimer's-afflicted father. A series of misunderstandings and miscalculations lands Moaadi in hot water with the law, suddenly charged with murder after Bayat suffers a miscarriage while on the job.

The audience quite literally plays jury as the details of the case are hashed out in front of no one but the litigants and a judge operating out of a tiny office in the local courthouse. To Western eyes, these sessions have the look of informal hearings, but they are official proceedings that can produce a binding verdict. The process doesn't appear to involve any lawyers. There is much talk of honor and of God. Though Moaadi and Bayat are gradually convinced to negotiate a financial settlement, we hear plenty of times that it's not about the money. What's important is whose word can be trusted most. even though both parties waver when attempting to pass their stories through their personal moral barometers - for Bayat, the Qu'ran, and for Moaadi, his studious daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the real-life daughter of the film's director).

Watching the young girl's confidence in her father crumble is especially heartbreaking, and a crucial part of the emotional fabric of a film that has a tendency to put the concerns of its female characters on the back burner. After her compelling arguments for divorce in the opening sequence, Hatami disappears for long stretches of the film as it shifts almost exclusively to Moaadi's perspective. But it's probably this upending of expectations that makes
A Separation so compelling. People make decisions big and small without knowing exactly where it will take them. Writer-director Asghar Farhadi has a similar perspective in weaving the threads of his unassuming dramatic tapestry, eventually rewarding the viewer who knows that life has a knack for unraveling at the corners.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

We Bought a Zoo (2011)

We Bought a Zoo (2011)
Dir. Cameron Crowe

2.5 out of 5

Based on the memoir of a British newspaper columnist, We Bought a Zoo is a big-hearted dramedy about a widower (Matt Damon) who,'s right there in the title, and I'm not going to repeat it. His hope is that a financially risky whim can rehabilitate his grieving family, particularly troubled son Dylan (Colin Ford) who has been filling sketchbooks with angsty drawings that are a little like what Edvard Munch might have posted on deviantART. Damon must also win over the animal park's skeptical staff - led by zookeeper Scarlett Johansson - to get up and running by the summer tourist season.

Undeterred by the thin premise, director Cameron Crowe manages to stretch the film over two hours by relying heavily on melodramatic contrivances, time-expanding editing, and an unbearably lightweight set of obstacles to Damon's success. In a lazy attempt to build dramatic tension, Crowe and co-writer Aline Brosh McKenna settle for a string of hoary clichés, among them an outrageously strict bureaucrat (a campy John Michael Higgins) and an ill-timed rainstorm. All of this is at least partially redeemed by Damon's surprisingly dignified presence in an otherwise cloying role that requires him to hold a conversation with the ghost of his dead wife (Stephanie Szostak). He fares far better than Thomas Haden Church, on autopilot as Damon's surfer-bro brother who is forced to spout gag-inducing maxims like "I like the animals, but I love the humans."

To be fair, We Bought a Zoo makes a decent effort to address the moral complexities of owning a menagerie of exotic creatures. A subplot involving the declining health of the park's beloved tiger is as close as the film ever gets to evoking a genuine emotional response without relying on heated shouting matches or giggling toddlers. If only the rest of the movie was handled with such delicacy. Crowe is still adept at arranging a warm, inviting background for his experiments with a diverse palette of human emotion: witness solid supporting work from Elle Fanning as Ford's love(ish) interest and a finespun Jónsi score that trembles as much as it thunders. It's just a shame that he's endeavored to paint the rest with the broadest brushes in his arsenal.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
Dir. Steven Spielberg

3 out of 5

The world of a beloved Belgian comic book hero bustles to life in the motion capture film The Adventures of Tintin, following the exploits of a young investigative journalist (Jaime Bell) as he unravels a centuries-old mystery involving a cache of hidden pirate gold. When Bell ignores a stranger's ominous warning and purchases an old model ship at a flea market, he comes into possession of a cryptic message that launches him into a maelstrom of adventure, intrigue, and murder. It turns out that the message is a clue leading the finder to treasure concealed on a real ship, the Unicorn, which was sent to the bottom of the sea with an untold fortune in gold bullion stashed in its hull. Joining forces with the tippling Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), an ancestor of the Unicorn's original captain, Bell races to locate the ship's final resting place before a nefarious gentleman (Daniel Craig) who will use any means necessary to get there first. It's the type of ruddy, two-fisted adventure story from the time when Men were Men, sea captains were lovable drunkards, and villains wore mustaches just begging to be twirled.

Tintin features perhaps the most colorful and fluid use of motion capture animation to date. It's a wide-angle cartoon that takes unabashed pleasure in flaunting the laws of physics - a license Spielberg takes full advantage of with impossible tracking shots and a giddy mayhem that's both breathtakingly dense and just plain noisy. The visuals strike an agreeable balance between photorealism and comic surrealism; characters' noses seem to have been assigned in a particularly haphazard and sometimes tragic fashion. Spielberg is successful in being as faithful to the look of the original Hergé books as he possibly can, while adding the proper cinematic touches - a rousing John Williams score here, some deft editing there, topped by the clever juxtaposition of an inebriate Haddock acting out lengthy flashbacks to events on the Unicorn.

But while Tintin is often evocative of a great adventure yarn, the final product is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Not even a king's ransom of creative talent - Spielberg, producer Peter Jackson, and three-headed writing hydra Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish - can disguise the fact that the actual Tintin stories haven't aged particularly well. Nor is it guaranteed to capture an aged imagination: the film's intended audience skews younger than you might expect, and there is plenty of room for dissatisfaction in its simplistic, circular storytelling. Bringing modern technology to bear upon this antiquated Euro-curio has not changed its essence, keeping Tintin as clear-eyed and optimistic as ever but making it the cinematic equivalent of a splashy Sunday comics serial that temporarily stirs the senses before being folded up with the rest of yesterday's news.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)
Dir. Brad Bird

3.5 out of 5

Your mission, should you choose to accept it...these are words that call not only to Mission: Impossible series lynchpin Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), but also to the bevy of action-minded directors who have each taken a turn at the helm of this surprisingly hardy franchise. In Ghost Protocol it's former Pixar wunderkind Brad Bird (The Incredibles) who accepts the invitation to play with M:I's inexhaustible toybox of high-wire thrills in his live-action debut and, in doing so, submits the series' best entry since the original. After a bombing at the Kremlin gets pinned on Cruise, he must go off the grid with teammates Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, and Jeremy Renner to pursue a twisted nuclear scientist (Michael Nyqvist) hell-bent on initiating a global thermonuclear war. Veteran spies just can't seem to go more than a few missions (or a couple movies) without needing to restore their good names.

While much of the film is comprised of recycled parts from other spy thrillers, Bird manages to keep the proceedings fresh by refusing to let the audience catch its breath, taking advantage of as many swooping helicopter shots as Paramount can afford. With a narrative confined to three major locations, the action remains coherent and focused, even as the heroes produce a menagerie of gadgets that can't all have fit in their duffel bags. But it's difficult to sweat the details when the next breathtaking action sequence is just around the corner. Cruise and company's visit to Dubai is particularly noteworthy, a bravura piece of action filmmaking that manages to pack as much suspense into a tense exchange of stolen nuclear codes as a risky ascent of the world's tallest skyscraper.

Ghost Protocol suffers whenever there's a plot-necessitated lull - if you see the main characters sitting around a table or standing in a circle, you can be fairly certain that someone is about to start dictating their allotment of the film's expository dialogue. The entire Mission: Impossible series also shoulders the unique burden of attempting to humanize the action automaton that is Hunt/Cruise. It's mitigated in this film by the addition of new agent Renner, who lends a wry skepticism to a franchise that tends to project a greater swagger than it has truly earned. Truth be told, Ghost Protocol isn't too far from being a James Bond rip-off with more than a few hastily-drawn roles, but luckily distinguishes itself with an excess of confidence and panache. It may not stand up to the closest scrutiny, but it's such a successfully wild, satisfying ride that any direct resemblance to other films always feels more kindred than derivative.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Descendants (2011)

The Descendants (2011)
Dir. Alexander Payne

3 out of 5

Far from an exotic paradise where people come to while away the hours in a sleepy idyll, the Hawaii portrayed in The Descendants is a thoroughly modern place, full of anxiety about family, money, and the Way We Live Now. It's not much more than a picturesque place for the American dream to die. Not that busy lawyer George Clooney is in any danger of losing the farm. He does, however, have a million headaches as the sole trustee for a old missionary family's massive tract of virgin beachfront property and the sole parent to a wayward teenage daughter (Shailene Woodley) and a younger one (Amara Miller) who might be headed down the same path. A virtual widower due to a boating accident that has left his wife in a coma, Clooney stumbles upon an unexpected connection between financial and familial crises: his dear spouse was sleeping with the real estate agent who's poised to negotiate the sale of his family's land. "Fuck paradise," he asserts in the copious narrated exposition that begins the film. It's difficult to disagree with him.

A ramshackle plot like this needs a solid anchor, and it has an excellent one in Clooney. His performance is subtly magnificent, conveying the quiet impotence of a successful striver who can't fathom why everyone else has such trouble keeping up. It's a slightly darker spin on the his character from Up In the Air, where he played a cocksure man who is just learning what it truly means to fail. The Descendants throws even more slings and arrows his way, triggering a simmering rage that manifests itself in frequent verbal confrontation. This is an Alexander Payne film, after all - violence delineates the uncouth and the stupid from the heroic. It's telling that the only hand raised in anger belongs to Clooney's exaggerated bully of a father-in-law (Robert Forster) and comes down upon Woodley's beatific moron of a friend (Nick Krause).

While strong at its center, The Descendants struggles to provide its protagonist with worthy accoutrements. The dialogue is often clunky, particularly that of the younger characters, and the pacing gets tiresome as Clooney bounces from emergency to emergency like a schizophrenic superhero. Beau Bridges has a nice little turn as one of the cousins pressuring Clooney to ignore his moral misgivings and sell the family's land, but the rest of the characterizations are often too weak and set up a clumsy dichotomy between the competent Clooney and the selfish sharks that surround him. That's a shame, because The Descendants ultimately has an affecting message about the immutable bonds of family. It would just be better if it wasn't such a one-man show.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Young Adult (2011)

Young Adult (2011)
Dir. Jason Reitman

3 out of 5

Charlize Theron gives a jolting performance in the pitch-black comedy Young Adult as a profoundly unhappy ghostwriter for a popular book series revolving around the romantic entanglements of precociously glib high schoolers. She's good at her job, the movie suggests, because the self-absorbed characters she creates aren't too far removed from the capricious prom queen she once was - and still is, inside her mind. When an old flame (Patrick Wilson) from Theron's small Minnesota hometown sends her a picture of his newborn child, it throws her life of arrested adolescence into stark relief. Not that this is particularly discouraging to Theron. Instead, it convinces her that she can and must relive her high school glory days by prying Wilson away from his grown-up existence as a devoted husband and father.

That mordant plot capsule is about the only thing Young Adult has in common with anything else by writer Diablo Cody or, come to think of it, any other film by director Jason Reitman. This is their Big Bummer movie, full of writerly miserabilia and moral confusion that second-guesses misplaced nostalgia and our ruthless cultural preference for youth. That this is done with minimal ironic detachment is all the more impressive. Cody's usual linguistic acrobatics disappear when she has to put her words in the mouths of adults, aside from the too-cute device of having Theron translate her gradual meltdown into fodder for the final installment of her soapy teen novel series. For a duo that did their darndest to make teen pregnancy seem kind of cool in Juno (a few years before MTV did the same) it's quite the daring turnaround.

It's hard for me to describe, then, why Young Adult doesn't feel as affecting as it should. Part of it has to do with events near the end that strain credulity and clash with the movie's otherwise nonjudgmental tone. However, it would be difficult to completely spoil the patiently-crafted relationship between Theron and fellow slacker Patton Oswalt (it should be said that nobody does schlubby misery as well as Oswalt). They are both pretty interesting people, as it turns out, and possess talents that are overshadowed by their all-encompassing bitterness. Despite their fantastic performances, that sour taste never really goes away. It makes for an refreshingly acerbic film but comes at the expense of dulling the rest of the senses.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Follow Ambler Amblog on Twitter

I've finally taken the plunge and joined the masses of twits and twats typing ten trillion truncated trickles of textual tedium on Twitter. Please follow my official twittery, @AmblerAmblog, for timely links to my reviews and articles. You can expect the usual menu of URLs and droll one-liners that accompany my Facebook updates, but I'll try my best to include a few more sweet nothings for those of you rubbing me up with your smartphones (aw yeah).

In fact, the creative juices are already flowing as I can introduce you to the hashtag #ScreeningParty. I'll use this tag on tweets when I'm making advance plans to see a film, so those of you who would like to join/stalk me as your schedule permits can message or tweet me back for more details. This could be a bad idea, or a terrible one. I can't wait to find out.

You can follow the Amblog on Twitter right now - just click the handy button at the top of the right sidebar. It's tweetin' time!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

We Need to Talk About Kevin
Dir. Lynne Ramsay

4 out of 5

A dowdy Tilda Swinton steps out of her dinky cottage home near the beginning of We Need to Talk About Kevin, only to find her entire porch streaked with rivers of bright red paint. It's the mark of a pariah, and we quickly learn - by way of a brief visit to the local penitentiary - that Swinton's bad seed of a son (Ezra Miller) has committed unspeakable sins that are now visiting themselves on the mother. To outsiders, Miller's crimes are isolated tragedies, a marginal evil that irrevocably changed their lives in the course of one terrible day. What director Lynne Ramsay daringly asks us to imagine, however, is what it would be like to live with and work against that sort of evil for sixteen years. Might we have a little sympathy for the devil?

Quickly jumping backwards in time, Kevin shows us a carefree Swinton and her paramour, John C. Reilly, taking a plunge into domestic life as the result of an unplanned pregnancy. For vague reasons it's Swinton, formerly a globetrotting writer, who ends up as the stay-at-home parent. The job that fills her with more than a little ambivalence. It doesn't help that little Kevin returns the favor from infancy all the way to adolescence, putting on a sweet face for his permissive dad while secretly terrorizing mom with behavior that grows ever more malicious. More than anything, it's Swinton's nuanced performance that keeps the film's dark fantasy grounded just enough for it to have a horrifying plausibility. It's the most thankless role of the moviegoing year. Though we may be titillated by the prospect of what nefarious deed the boy will do next, she must somehow try to love such a child while hiding her disgust and disenchantment.

Of course, we already know that things will not end gracefully for this family - if the film's disjointed narrative doesn't tip you off, Ramsay is right there with blunt visual symbolism and constant foreshadowing. Swinton aside, several of the characters are written with an annoying obliviousness that nudges them into Lifetime territory, inured to a narrative that might as well be bathed in blood. But that's all secondary to the extreme - some would say honest - portrayal of a mother-son relationship gone sour for reasons that defy simple explanation. Is Miller simply a sociopath, or could Swinton have saved him by being a better parent? Ramsay doesn't give us an easy answer to this question, and the result is movie that masterfully combines pulpy melodrama with ravenous psychological horror, relentlessly asking us to absorb a parent's guilt whether or not we think she has earned that privilege.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Jump Cuts: Citizen Ruth, You Again, Beginners

Full reviews aren't right for all films - movies that seem past the point of timely comment, movies I can't find an interesting angle on, or movies I just don't feel like explicating. Some films are better off with bite-size opinionating. Let's call them "Jump Cuts."

Citizen Ruth
Dir. Alexander Payne

3.5 out of 5

Before applying his deft touch and dry wit to harrowing yarns about student body elections and Santa Ynez wine tours, Alexander Payne honed his approach on a suitably lightweight topic: abortion. Citizen Ruth's effectiveness as an ensemble satire rests predominately on the fiercely unglamorous shoulders of Laura Dern as the indigent, paint-huffing expectant mother who is used as a political football for competing pro-life and pro-choice groups. Her boorish honesty and lack of self-awareness - as well as spot-on supporting work from the likes of Kurtwood Smith and Swoozie Kurtz - help offset what is otherwise very depressing subject matter (a late appearance by Burt Reynolds amounts to little more than a glorified cameo). In fact, Dern is so convincing as a wastrel that her character's third act machinations feel somewhat unbelievable, but it can't distract from Payne's impish glee in lampooning the polemic politics that turn spectators into participants and individuals into unwitting symbols.

You Again (2010)
Dir. Andy Fickman

1.5 out of 5

Psychoanalysis is bunk. All your subconscious motivations and enduring mental hang-ups are forged in the fiery crucible of high school, dictating your destiny until the day you die. I know this because the movies told me - movies like You Again, in which a former wallflower (Kristen Bell) is shocked to discover that her brother is engaged to the tyrannical queen bee (Odette Yustman) of her teenage years. In many ways this film is like the season finale of a long-running sitcom - the action is brisk, the slapstick is broad, and (non-spoiler alert) it all ends with a wedding that looked to be in jeopardy. Overall, You Again gives the audience very little to think about that isn't spelled out with insipid gags or ham-fisted morals, so I'll try and provide a few discussion questions: Is there a scene that Betty White can't steal? What, exactly, are the subtle differences that make Sigourney Weaver an expert scenery-chewer and Jamie Lee Curtis an insufferable ham? Why did Yustman borrow Daniel Day-Lewis' body from Gangs of New York? And is that you, Carl Winslow?

Beginners (2011)
Dir. Mike Mills

4 out of 5

Though his character's death hangs over the entirety of Beginners, Christopher Plummer is an indispensable source of warmth as a perfectly jocular septuagenarian who reveals to his son, glum graphic designer Ewan McGregor, that he is gay and that he has cancer, in that order. He is able to enjoy at least a few years out of the closet before his health begins to falter, an experience (told via numerous flashbacks) that serves as the last piece of fatherly advice digested by McGregor as he begins a whirlwind romance with a French actress (Mélanie Laurent). Undercutting any assumptions of morose pretension with whimsical asides and the cutest Jack Russell terrier this side of The Artist, director Mike Mills spins a saga of despair and hope that cuts to the core of what it takes to care so deeply about another person. And while it might chafe a bit to sit alongside these lonely, lovesick Angelenos as they ride their never-ending romantic carousel, Beginners still has an undeniable optimism that keeps us surmising that, maybe this time, things will finally turn out differently.

Monday, December 12, 2011

New Year's Eve (2011)

New Year's Eve
Dir. Garry Marshall

2 out of 5

A kind of Decameron for rubes,
New Year's Eve is a vapid omnibus full of dubious wisdom and unearned sentiment. It asks us to fully invest ourselves in the lives of nearly two dozen lovelorn New Yorkers, few of them achieving the depth necessary for us to appreciate their individual plight, which spans the importance spectrum from a nurse (Halle Berry) trying to clock out by the end of the second shift to a man (Robert DeNiro) in the same hospital who is dying of cancer. It is the kind of movie that puts great emphasis on the "midnight kiss," a threadbare convention that, at this point, feels like it was invented exclusively to build romantic suspense in movies and television shows. It is the kind of movie that wants us to believe that Zac Efron and Sarah Jessica Parker are siblings, 22-year age gap be damned.

It's difficult to determine which of
New Year's Eve's interlocking stories is the best, and perhaps even harder to identify the worst. The tentative relationship forged by Ashton Kutcher and Lea Michele while trapped in a sitcom plot, I mean elevator, is a tour de force of anti-chemistry. Equally odious is a tale of two pregnant couples who are vying to deliver the first baby of the new year, a title which comes with a $25,000 cash prize. I suppose there have been greater risks taken for 25 grand, but it's unsettling to see prenatal tampering and medical irresponsibility played for big, broad laughs.

Yet even in this repository of recycled bits from other, better romantic comedies, there are some redeeming qualities. The movie benefits from genuinely funny performances by TV veterans like Seth Meyers and Sofia Vergara, people who know a little about how to stand out in an ensemble. And Efron's unconvincing alpha-male bike messenger can't spoil the film's best narrative thread involving his unlikely friendship with Michelle Pfeiffer, a mousy record company drone who quits her job to fulfill a decade's worth of New Year's resolutions in one day. It's a refreshing change of pace from the film's silly twists and general air of desperation, a keen reminder that our couplings need not always be ordained by cosmic prophecy. They're the only pair starting with a clean slate in a movie that insists on celebrating new beginnings with a counter-intuitive reliance on the tried and true.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Sitter (2011)

The Sitter (2011)
Dir. David Gordon Green

2.5 out of 5

The Sitter may be the most apropos title for a Hollywood film in a while. Never straying too far from the confines of a familiar construct, it babysits the audience for 90 minutes until our minds can return to more substantive matters. It doesn't entertain so much as it occupies. At times it attempts to inject the into-the-night genre with a new enthusiasm but always returns to the warm, welcoming bosom of incredulous plotting and ethnic stereotyping. Somewhere, there will always be people comforted by the sight of white suburbanites forming uneasy alliances with streetwise African-Americans as they go off the reservation and onto the unpropitious turf of the inner city.

At least the beginning of Jonah Hill's journey is somewhat unique. He's already a sad sack and a ne'er do well when pressed into duty as an emergency sitter for three children on the outskirts of New York City - an anxious teenage boy (Max Records), a tween fashionista (Landry Bender), and an adopted Salvadorean with a penchant for destruction (Kevin Hernandez). Hill's reasons for dragging his charges into several dangerous situations revolve around scoring drugs for a woman (Ari Graynor) who doesn't much like him but has dangled the possibility of sex if he can make it to a Brooklyn house party with a little bit of nose candy. This storybook romance is threatened, however, when Hill runs afoul of unstable drug dealer Sam Rockwell and must produce a large sum of cash before daybreak. Thus the film allows some room for creativity, since narcotics are typically not affordable for folks working for $10 an hour.

Of course, there's an argument to be made that Hill should be getting paid as a psychiatrist, not a nanny. The kids' emotional boo-boos seem like a constant preoccupation in
The Sitter, which bounces incessantly between its heartwarming and caustically chaotic modes. And while it's nice to see director David Gordon Green rebound from the silly debacle of Your Highness, his style is still too shaggy for all of the film's mismatched parts to hang together. Hill is amusing as an older version of his Superbad character that's less manic and prematurely wise, projecting a familiarity with failure that outstrips his age. But I would trade the movie's excessive schmaltz for more hysteria in a heartbeat - apart from a few inspired comedic setpieces, The Sitter wants to slack off and put us to bed early when we could be having so much more fun.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Shame (2011)

Dir. Steve McQueen

3.5 out of 5

The deleterious effects of addiction make for easy admonitions against poor behavior and poor choices by meth heads and alcoholics, but what about when the drug in question is as elemental (or as banal) as sex? That's the dilemma posed by Steve McQueen in Shame, a message film that's often as emotionally detached as the stoic sex addict (Michael Fassbender) at its center. With a warm smile and an understated sophistication that belies his tendency to masturbate and copulate vigorously in a variety of locations, Fassbender is mesmerizing as an archetype of masculinity gone wrong. His prurient pursuits are upset by an unexpected visit from his bohemian sister (Carey Mulligan), exposing the disturbing nature of his private affairs and sending both of their lives into a desperate tailspin.

McQueen almost has a documentarian's curiosity toward Shame's subject matter, with multiple long takes and static compositions lending the film a fascinating fly-on-the-wall quality. Shame examines humanity in a fundamental state - not just the understated moments of honesty, but also the stark meanness that accompanies a craving as insatiable as Fassbender's. Doubling as an encompassing portrait of the lonely, Stygian side of New York City, the movie pulls the eye away from the skyscrapers and penthouses towards the gutter, and suggests that the distance isn't as far as you would think. In the movie's best moments man and city intertwine, codependent agents that feed off each other's need for a little bit of action. The takeaway seems to be that some people seek just to prove that they can find.

One thing you won't find a lot of in Shame is sympathy. Mulligan projects some heartbreak as a cipher for the families that struggle with their "difficult" loved ones. Doing everything short of writing her brother an intervention letter, she doesn't define her own desires as much as she tries to deny his. But what, besides the complex chemistry of siblings, motivates the pernicious push-and-pull in this odd coupling? It's hard to say. But to know Fassbender is to be riveted by him. His bold performance is largely responsible for making Shame a compelling, clinical day-to-day examination of asynchronous emotional and physical needs, even if the bulk of the film's courage rests in the supple montages of Fassbender's unfathomably Dionysian existence.