Movie Reviews – November 2012

Argo ****

Short Take: Actor, Director Ben Affleck brings the now de-classified story of the covert operation to free six Americans during the 1980 Iranian Revolution to the big screen.

Reel Take: For those of us who remember the Iranian hostage crisis that began in 1979 and ended just as Reagan took office in 1980, one would not think a big screen dramatization of the story would hold much suspense (I mean, we know how it ends). However, Ben Affleck’s latest turn behind the camera turns the now declassified story of the extrication of six Americans, during the Iranian hostage crisis, to safety and home, is nail bitingly suspenseful, crowd-pleasing entertainment.

Argo and The Master are the first major film releases this year with Oscar buzz surrounding them. The Master no doubt will be nominated up the wazoo. In Argo’s case I don’t know if the buzz will hold up until Oscar season rolls around, and it matters not. Some will criticize the film for being too much of a crowd pleaser (something The Master could never be accused of) and Hollywood darling than a historical record. I see it as a film that successfully walks a fine line between true story and entertainment.

Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA agent brought in to assist the US and Canadian governments. The tensions in Iran escalate and six American Foreign Service workers escape the American embassy (eluding capture by Iranian revolutionaries) and are given refuge by the Canadian Ambassador to Iran. Mendez has what his boss (Bryan Cranston) calls, “the best bad idea we have.” Mendez proposes that they pose as a Canadian film crew for a science fiction movie. To lend legitimacy to the cover he enlists the help of a Hollywood makeup and special effects man (John Goodman) and a Hollywood producer (Alan Arkin). Hence “Argo” is born. Mendez (under a different name) will serve as Executive Producer in order to personally handle the extrication of the Americans.

A lot of time is spent on the set up of the scheme and this offers the film unexpected humor. This seems like it won’t work in contrast with the rest of the film, but oddly enough it really does. It brings layer of comic relief and an unexpected layer of humanity to the story. It’s also a nice counter to the later scenes in Iran of the almost too intense events and moments leading to their freedom. Affleck heaps the suspense on in layers, stopping just short of laughable. We know from the get go they make it out, so the fact Affleck manages it at all (though just barely) is a feat in and of itself.

Affleck seamlessly integrates news footage with the production, which looks as if it was indeed shot in the 70’s. He takes liberties with the actual extrication of the Americans (it apparently wasn’t nearly as close a call as it is in the film), but it works. Political observation of the Carter administration, and the role the Middle East has come to play in our politics, is made plain, and this too works for the film. My one major complaint is that the characters, even Mendez himself, are underwritten. His actors, however, all bring more to the characters than is written, and this certainly helps. In hindsight, perhaps this actually works to keep the film clean and sharp.

I enjoyed Argo, as did the applauding audience members around me, after the credits finished rolling. It’s certainly new ground for Affleck, but I hope he won’t stray too far from his directorial roots. Personally I think Gone Baby Gone and The Town are darker, edgier and better films over all, but they are films that won’t win over and warm to an audience the way Argo does.

Rated R for language and some violent images. Review by Michelle Keenan

Atlas Shrugged 2: The Strike ***1/2

Short Take: This second installment of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is not nearly as bad as most critics would have you believe.

Reel Take: Most of the reviews regarding Atlas Shrugged 2: The Strike (hereafter referred to as Part 2) are vitriolic to the extreme. This raises an important question. Is it possible to separate political ideology from a work of Art? In classical music it’s done all the time in the case of the operas of Richard Wagner. But what about in movies?

D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will both contain abhorrent political context yet both are considered works of art and their virtues are acknowledged along with their faults. The same cannot be said of the two Atlas Shrugged movies.

I’m not trying to make a case for either movie as works of art, but I do feel that because they espouse Ayn Rand’s philosophy, they have been unfairly dismissed by most critics. In spite of some of the content, both are good examples of films that are well made considering their limited resources.

I liked Part 2 better than the Part 1 which is surprising. The middle film of a trilogy is usually the weakest but not this time. A lot of that has to do with the recasting (all the principal roles from the first one have been replaced). Special kudos to Samantha Mathis for creating and believably looking the part of a harried female executive who does all the work only to have her do nothing brother receive the credit for it.

For those not familiar with Ayn Rand’s epic 1957 science fiction novel of a dystopian society in the near future, there are three primary characters: 1) Dagny Taggert, the harried executive in her father’s company. 2) Henry Rearden the free enterprise loving head of a series of steel mills. 3) John Galt, the mysterious underground leader who wants to “stop the motor of the world” so that he can fix it.

Part 1 focuses on the building of a massive intercontinental train line (it’s too expensive to drive or fly) which is taken over by the government so that it can no longer provide competition. In the meantime prominent business leaders and artists are vanishing without a trace leaving behind the question “Who is John Galt?”

The Part 2 has the government exerting more and more control over people’s daily lives while Dagny & Henry, two like minded people, begin an affair. After a railroad disaster and the disappearance of a crucial engineer, Dagny goes looking for John Galt and finds him. For Part 3 you’ll have to wait for the final installment or read the book.

While Part 2 resembles a TV movie, it does so in the best sense of that much maligned designation. It doesn’t dawdle, tells its story in a compelling fashion (whether you agree with it or not) and is solidly performed. While not a great movie, I found Part 2 engaging without having to take its political message seriously.

Rated PG-13 for brief language. Review by Chip Kaufmann

Frankenweenie *****

Short Take: Tim Burton’s best stop motion animation film is beautifully executed and a loving tribute to the classic horror movies of old.

Reel Take: Of all the movies I reviewed this month, Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie easily earns the title of “top dog”. Burton’s full length expansion of his 1984 short film is a remarkable achievement that is not only his best stop motion animated film but one of his best films period.

Here Burton’s visual creativity is at its purest as he doesn’t have to try and make the real world conform to his singular vision.

The story is lifted straight from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and in particular from James Whale’s 1931 film but with a Burtonesque twist. This time around Victor Frankenstein is a schoolboy living in the town of New Holland. When his beloved dog Sparky is killed by a car, a science experiment at school, gives Victor the idea to bring Sparky back to life with electricity. Of course the resurrected Sparky is misunderstood by Victor’s parents and the townspeople but that’s only the beginning.

Victor’s classmates (including Edgar “E” Gore) decide to follow his example and resurrect their pets after stealing Victor’s formula. Their experiments go unbelievably awry and create a bizarre menagerie of monsters that only Burton could have imagined (the Gamera turtle one is particularly amusing). The monsters threaten the town and Victor and Sparky, along with his friends, must save the day. This leads to a climax inside a burning windmill just like the original Frankenstein.

Burton loads Frankenweenie with numerous references to classic horror films as well as several of his own. He shot the film in black and white which may have hurt its performance at the box office, but he couldn’t have made it any other way. Watching it not only made me think of the Universal horrors but also of The Addams Family (the original cartoons not the TV show). Imagine Edward Scissorhands as animated and in black & white and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect.

In addition to the astonishing stop motion animation work, the vocal cast was absolutely perfect. In addition to the new to Burton Charlie Tahan as Victor, Tim utilizes a bevy of old friends including Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, and Martin Landau who steals the show as the voice of the science teacher.

While it may be underperforming at the box office now, the film has rental and streaming favorite written all over it, so that it will be here for many years to come. Different than ParaNorman and richer and more sophisticated than Hotel Transylvania, Frankenweenie is a film that defies easy classification and if you dismiss it just because it’s in black & white (like some people dismissed Hugo as a kid’s movie or The Artist as a silent film), you’ll be denying yourself a quality cinematic experience.

Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, and action. Review by Chip Kaufmann

Liberal Arts ***1/2

Short Take: When a just jilted 35 year old college admissions officer returns to his old alma mater for a beloved professor’s retirement party, a brush with romantic idealism and a journey of self discovery awaits.

Reel Take: How I Met Your Mother’s Josh Radnor delivers an agreeable sophomore effort as writer, director and star with Liberal Arts. It’s smart, thoughtful and articulate without falling prey [as so many indie films do] to thinking it’s smarter than it is. However, its intelligence alone is not enough to deliver any major epiphanies, which leaves it somewhat flat and ‘so what’ in the end.

Jesse Fisher is a newly single, uninspired 35 year old admissions officer, going through a bit of an existential crisis. When his second favorite professor (Richard Jenkins) invites him to attend his retirement party, a trip to his old alma mater is idyllic opportunity. Afraid that his best years are behind him, Jesse waxes nostalgic for his college days – days of books, parties, poetry and romantic idealism. Once there, he’s drawn immediately back in to the culture of talking about books and music and ideas. There he also meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a precocious 19-year-old with whom he shares and immediate chemistry.

Hand wringingly aware of the difference in their ages, Jesse approaches their flirtation with caution. Having recently discovered the world of classical music in an introductory class, Zibby burns a disk (today’s equivalent of making a mix tape) for Jesse and asks him to let her know what he thinks. The music [of course] rocks Jesse’s world, and they begin a correspondence. The letters are wonderfully florid by 21st Century standards, which is a complete aphrodisiac for bookish, romantic, academic types.

Over the course of several visits Jesse realizes his nostalgic view of college world is just that; it is the real world for those who live there and it is fraught with as many difficulties as his own. He befriends a suicidal loner (John Magaro) who can’t understand why Jesse misses college so much. Like a convict who can’t live in the real world, the professor who couldn’t wait to retire, realizes he’s not ready for life on the outside. And the professor of romantic literature, who forever altered the course of Jesse’s bookish life, turns out to be a most miserable, jaded and unromantic person. And then there’s Zibby, a soul mate of sorts perhaps, but she’s just experiencing life and love for the first time and Jesse is not.

I’m really not spoiling anything by telling you about these storylines as there is really only one way for Liberal Arts to go. The only truly unexpected element of the film comes from its least angst filled character. Nat (Zac Effron) is a pothead philosopher who apparently just hangs out on campus. While all of the conversations Jesse has with the other characters are of a more intellectual caliber, his conversations with Ned are ‘out there’ in a cliché and vaguely annoying sense of the term, but they are the most cathartic moments of Jesse’s existential crisis.

Liberal Arts is nice, in fact everything about it is nice, but for me it ultimately fell a little flat. Radnor’s script is remarkable in parts; the correspondence sequence between he and Zibby is particularly appealing. His actors are excellent. I think in the end it just doesn’t pack enough punch, but in the end I also think it’s exactly the story Radnor set out to tell.

Rated PG-13 for sexual content including references, mature thematic material, and some teen drinking. Review by Michelle Keenan

The Perks of Being a Wallflower ****1/2

Short Take: Based on Stephen Chbosky’s popular novel by the same name, a shy and troubled high school freshman if befriended by a pair of seniors, and life changing bonds are formed.

Reel Take: I didn’t have any familiarity with the novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but seeing as the film is directed by the author himself, one presumes it does the book justice. The film takes place in the early 1990’s, though based on the music, I’d have placed as being several years earlier. Regardless of when it takes place its emotional appeal is universal and timeless. I confess I was genuinely moved by this film, by the friendships, vulnerability and honesty of its characters. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an unexpected gem of a movie and is not to be missed.

Charlie (Logan Lerman) is a shy and troubled high school freshman. When he is befriended by a couple of seniors, who happen to be step-siblings, their lives are changed forever. Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson) are not the popular kids in school, but they are super cool in their own way. When they take Charlie under their wing, what we see next in their small group of friends is a series of defining moments in each of their lives, caused or influenced in part by the others. Some of the defining moments, or what it takes to get to those moments, is profoundly sad, but the movie is not a downer. If anything, it is a testament to the friendships that help us through life and is refreshingly affirming.

Part of what makes the film universal is its connection to music. In Liberal Arts, Zibby burns CDs of classical music. In this one, it’s all about the art of the mix tape, an essential element for those of us who came of age in the mid 1980’s (a la High Fidelity). The music is astoundingly good and figures prominently, adding color and tone to the proceedings.

But it is our three young leads who really deliver. Logan Lerman (known to some for the Percy Jackson movies) and Emma Watson (known by everyone as Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter films) both prove they’ve got more acting chops than perhaps previously thought. Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk about Kevin) is the show stopper. He pours his heart and sole into Patrick, a young gay man in love with the closeted captain of the football team.

I don’t know much about Stephen Chbosky, and haven’t had a chance to read up on him. To my knowledge this is his only film. How an unproven filmmaker came to direct his own book, I have no idea, but who gave him the green light made a good call. There is a dignity and honesty to this story that, in the wrong hands, could easily have been lost.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower may not rock your world, and it may not even be a particularly important film, but I dare you not to be moved by it.

Rated PG-13 on appeal for mature thematic material, drug and alcohol use, sexual content including references, and a fight – all involving teens. Review by Michelle Keenan

Seven Psychopaths *****

Short Take: When a struggling screenwriter has a great title for his next film but no story, his friends give him plenty of source material for Seven Psychopaths.

Reel Take: Irish playwright, screenwriter and director Martin McDonough has done it again – walking the fine line between blood splattered macabre and brilliant comedy. It’s something he does like no other, and I am in awe of his wit and talent. As a fan of the trilogy of plays that brought him to notoriety, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara, and The Lonesome West, his entre into feature films with In Bruges was less startling to me than it was to many. If you know and like his work, you will no doubt enjoy Seven Psychopaths. If you don’t know his work, perhaps this review will help you determine if this one is up your alley. If you didn’t like In Bruges, chances are Seven Psychopaths isn’t going to be your cup of tea either.

Marty (Colin Farrell) is a struggling writer and burgeoning alcoholic who has a great title for his next screenplay, “Seven Psychopaths” but no story. Billy (Sam Rockwell) is Marty’s best friend, an unemployed actor, part time dog thief and, unbeknownst to Marty, Psychopath #1. Billy wants to help Marty write his movie and help him beat his battle with the bottle. Hans (Christopher Walken) is Billy’s partner in the dog thieving business. (They steal dogs and return them to their owners for the reward.) When Billy and Hans steal the beloved Shih Tzu of a psychopathic gangster (Woody Harrelson), who loves this dog more than anything else in the world, Billy and Hans get more than they bargained for, and Marty gets all the source material he could possibly ever want for his story, though it may just drive him to drink in the process.

Sounds straight forward enough, right? Add in a ‘Jack of Hearts’ killer, a Vietnamese monk bent on vengeance, and a psychopathic killer of killers who walks with a white bunny rabbit cradled in his arms, and well, it’s just getting interesting. The story does circles within circles, comes close to chaos, but manages brilliance, originality, great comedy and suprising tenderness.

Billy is bat shit crazy, but surprisingly and ernestly devoted to his friends. Hans is a religious man with a mysterious and violent past. His wife is now dying of cancer but he is pretty much at peace with the world and he’s right with God. Ironically, Marty wants to encourage peace through his writing and is seeking a non-violent path for his story.

A better ensemble you’d be hard pressed to find for these rich characters. Farrell, who also starred in In Bruges, is perfect fit for probably most any McDonough vehicle. Rockwell and Walken have never been better. In fact, I’d pay the price of admission just to hear Walken deliver the line, “No” towards the end of the film. He has a way like no one else and his talent is on display here in a beautiful way. Harrelson plays the mad dog crime boss to great aplomb. And last but not least, Tom Waits turns in a disturbingly hilarious performance as the psychopath with the bunny rabbit.

Seven Psychopaths is drenched in blood spatter, but it is delivered with humor, heart, and some of the best dialogue to come down the road in a long time. If you can handle that, you’re in for a total treat.

Rated R for strong violence, bloody images, pervasive language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use. Review by Michelle Keenan

Sinister ***1/2

Short Take: Well made horror film incorporates a number of stylistic techniques but the storyline, especially the ending, left me cold.

Reel Take: Sinister is yet another in the seemingly endless line of recent films which I have seen that I can admire critically for the quality of the filmmaking yet as an audience member I find their content appalling.

Taking its cue from The Amityville Horror and The Shining, the plot of Sinister has true crime novelist Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) who hasn’t had a successful book in years moving his family ( a wife and two children) into a house where the previous owner and his family were found murdered. Once there he discovers a series of Super 8mm home movies that depict various other family murders.

He consults a local specialist in the occult (Vincent D’Onofrio), after he begins to see a demonic face in the movies. The more he watches the films, the more details he discovers. This portion of the story for me recalled Antonioni’s Blow Up and Coppola’s The Conversation. The expert then tells him the story of an ancient demon that “feeds on children’s souls” by controlling the children and then having them murder their families.

Oswalt awakes one evening to find a group of children in the attic watching the movies when the demonic presence appears before him. He destroys the films and quickly moves his family out of the house and to a new location only to discover that the films are there unharmed but with a new addition. I won’t reveal anything further but it’s really not difficult to guess where this is going although there may be a surprise or two for some.

Evil children are nothing new to movies going as far back as The Bad Seed (1956) and continuing through such movies as Village of the Damned (1960), The Omen (1976, 2006), The Good Son (1993), and Orphan (2009). Writer-director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and co-writer C. Robert Cargill don’t really offer us anything new on that theme but their reworking of themes from earlier movies and a clever use of “found footage” are the most admirable aspects of Sinister.

What I found less admirable is the overall tone of the film which I found to be increasingly unpleasant with an overall edge of cruelty that really put me off. After 110 minutes of this, I couldn’t wait to get out of the theater and back home where I could cleanse my cinematic palette with something a little less unsavory. The ultimate litmus test regarding any movie as far as I’m concerned is how well it stays with me after it’s over. Not only did Sinister not stick with me, but I can’t think of any reason why I would ever want to see it again.

Rated R for disturbing, violent images and some terror. Review by Chip Kaufmann

Taken 2 ***1/2

Short Take: Entertaining sequel has Liam Neeson back in action after his family is threatened once again by the relatives of the kidnappers from the first film.

Reel Take: Not every film can be an artistic triumph like Citizen Kane or an out and out turkey like Gigli. The vast majority of them fit right in the middle as entertainment and nothing else. A clever director or a skillful screenplay can insert social commentary or irony into the proceedings but escape from everyday life for a couple of hours is most people’s primary concern and in that Taken 2 succeeds admirably.

For those of you who didn’t catch the first Taken, here’s a brief recap. A former CIA operative Bryan Mills (Neeson) has his daughter kidnapped in Paris by an Albanian human trafficking ring. He goes to Paris and after several complications and numerous heroics where he kills virtually everyone he comes into contact with, he rescues his daughter and returns home.

The events in this film take place shortly after those of the first film. After a cancelled trip to China, Bryan’s ex-wife (Famke Janssen) and daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) decide to join him in Istanbul. Earlier we have seen the Albanian relatives of the dead kidnappers swear vengeance and they set out to find Mills and kill him and his family. Istanbul is much closer to Albania than Paris and so they quickly kidnap his ex-wife forcing Mills to give himself up where he is left chained to a pole.

Before turning himself over to the Albanians, Mills instructs his daughter on how to evade them and how, with the aid of his briefcase, to be able to help him to escape. She follows his instructions, he then escapes, and catches up with the bad guys. He rescues his wife and then dispatches them one by one. The film ends with the family celebrating in an outdoor café.

This rather glib assessment showcases both the film’s strengths and its weaknesses. As in many films of this nature, the improbability factor is huge but if the movie is skillfully made then we get caught up in the action and don’t think about it. The major problem for some is the ethnic nature of the villains who although described as Albanians, could be any dark haired, olive skinned stereotype of terrorists or people up to no good.

Director Oliver Megaton (Transporter 3) directs the film in the style of Don Siegel or Michael Winner and that’s a good thing. Keep things moving and allow us moments to find out a little more about the people that we’re supposed to care about. Although Taken 2 ultimately lacks Siegel’s editing mastery or the depth of Winner’s screenplays, it is still a crackerjack action flick despite a 21% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action and some sensuality. Review by Chip Kaufmann