Thursday, July 26, 2012

Bane: Makes a Man Take Things Over...but Heath Ledger won't let him.

Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises

Director: Christopher Nolan

Reviewed: 23 July 2012

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

"We've got God on our side / And I'm just trying to survive / What if what you do to survive / Kills the things you love / Fear's a dangerous thing / It'll turn your heart black you can trust / It'll take your God filled soul / And fill it with devils and dust." -"Devils and Dust" by Bruce Springsteen

Batman knows that he is righteous, yet he destroyed his reputation to save Gotham from itself in the last film The Dark Knight.  Arguably, the man is crumbling inside, torn by a sense of remorse to those he's lost as well as duty to honor the lie that he has built around Harvey Dent's demise.  What is in Bruce Wayne's soul?  Has he killed the things he loves?  Has director Christopher Nolan?  I've wrestled with this film for over five days before writing this review, and barring a change of heart at my second screening, I'm declaring The Dark Knight Rises to be a misfire, a confusing barrage of plot and speechifying without enough sticking to it.  Nolan directs with very little of the stylistic energy of Inception or the propulsion of The Dark Knight.  Easily one of the most anticipated films of the year, and despite an A-level cast, cutting edge special effects, and a terrifying villain, The Dark Knight Rises sinks.

For a minute, I'm going to focus on Bane, the villain of this third film in the Nolan Batman series.  As played by Thomas Hardy, Bane resembles Darth Vader, Osama bin Laden, Sensei John Reese from the Cobra Kai in The Karate Kid with his trademark lapel-grabbing, and a He-Man Masters of the Universe character with swollen arms.  Bane's spider-like mask robs us of seeing Hardy's full face, but his voice is wonderfully high-pitched and eerie, supposedly modeled on Eastern European voices recorded in the 1920's.  However, I do have to complain if I cannot understand over 20% of the dialogue because of the way it was recorded.  Frankly, I needed subtitles or Bane.  I'm not saying do without the mask.  Absolutely not.  The mask ties Bane to Batman as well as the tradition of samurai, as well as it provides endless speculation about its functionality.  How is it keeping him alive?  Why does he need it?  What happens when Batman punches it real, real hard?  However, when the recording of a major character's voice is murky and indecipherable, Nolan has just undercut his own film.  I lost threads of major speeches because of the sound quality.  Bane's philosophies seem anarchic and revolutionary, and yet I'm not sure what drives him.  Glimmers arrive in the last third of the film, far too late in my opinion.

I'm not a Batman scholar, and I can't rule definitively on the series.  I've read that Nolan did not want to mention the character of The Joker in this film at all out of respect to Heath Ledger's memory, and that to me, again seems like a misfire and a miscalculation.  The Joker's decision to kill Rachel Dawes rocked Bruce Wayne to his core; the open-ended decision to leave Heath Ledger's Joker hanging off the scaffolding of a building, tied up and ready for Arkham Asylum begs the question, What would have happened if Bane had united with the recently freed Joker in this film?  At one moment, Bane calls the inmates of Blackgate, Gotham's most notorious prison, to join him in his revolution and they overwhelm the guards.  Did this film need a slap of Ledger's brilliant, anarchic performance as The Joker?  I say whole-heartedly, Yes!  Bane seems content during the last third of the film to stand in the shadows, retreat and withdraw, in a way that is sadly disappointing and fails to develop him as a character.  I'm endlessly impressed with his quick fighting style, Hardy's ferocious biceps, as well as his WWF-style, fur-coat wearing posture.  I'm not at all satisfied by how Bane's story line was resolved as well.  It felt like a cheat for a character of his mythos.

Here's where we are: Bane is a super-terrorist hijacking the skies above to abscond with Russian nuclear scientists and scurrying away underneath Gotham City's feet in its labyrinth of a sewage system with a cell of believers.  He bides his time as allies above ground try to ruin Bruce Wayne.  Commissioner Gordon swallows the guilt of knowing that his lie has destroyed Batman, led to thousands of arrests, yet his personal life is a shambles (wife and kid have both left him).  Cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) sneaks into Wayne Manor and lifts a pearl necklace from the weakened, cane-addled Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) who has withdrawn into hiding for the past seven years as the Batman suit gathers dust in his basement.  Kyle's dialogue pushes revolution forward ("There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne.  You and your friends better batten down the hatches..."), yet Kyle lives in a small, stylish apartment and seems an unusual mouthpiece to spout such populist, radical sentiments.  She's a thief who wants a clean slate.  Her character is most frustrating, and Hathaway does the best that she can with what she is given.  And as much as I like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he struggles to overcome some poor writing and terrible dialogue as Gotham policeman Blake who works inside the captive city to free his fellow policemen trapped mercilessly underground once Bane releases a frightening attack on the city culminating in the disintegration of Gotham's Football Stadium (really Heinz Field in Pittsburgh and Hines Ward outrunning a falling-away football field).  After a particularly brutal fight to end all fights, Wayne finds himself imprisoned in the very place that birthed Bane, and his "rise" is one of the central motifs of the film.  Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine reprise their roles as Lucius Fox and Alfred, respectively, and Nolan favorite Marion Cotillard appears as Miranda, a powerful woman high up in the echelons of Wayne Enterprises which is floundering without Bruce's innovative touch.

Nolan is reaching in the film, reaching for profundity, for connection to world that we live in with banks terrorizing homeowners, with Wall Street destroying Main Street, with the 1% vs. the 99%.  Attempts are clumsily made to link the Dent Act to the overreach of the Patriot Act in our post-9-11 society.  I admire the desire to be topical and cash in on some of the rage that has boiled over in America.  However, beyond a few riotous crowds pushing the rich out onto the street, as well as some destruction, there is little sense of the chaos that has descended upon Gotham during the days of Bane's rule.  I didn't get a sense of how the populace responded to the brazen act of terrorism or Bane's order to govern themselves.  I was interested in how Commissioner Gordon and other police officers subverted Bane's rules and avoided the death squads, but not enough was ever made clear.  Fall turns into winter, and the film boils down at moment to Gary Oldman jumping onto moving trucks which are simply not as guarded and secure as they should be.  I'm still unclear who was holding the detonator.  Nolan lost an opportunity to present a fully realized universe here, the hidden, cowering citizenry of Gotham with all of their naked ambition and desires unrestrained by police or common order.

At one point, a tattoo is shown in detail on a character's back, and by tipping his hand, Nolan ruins one pleasure of this film, figuring out who is who, how they are aligned, and how it will end.  It felt very strange to see such a leading shot.  I wonder what the wisdom of that shot (and that entire sequence for that matter) was.  It makes little sense, logically or emotionally.

Bruce Wayne fights back, though older and with less knee cushioning.  He has new toys and a potential bomb/energy generator hidden underneath the city.  Some of the science is sketchy (only one scientist in the world can help design it!)  Yet, the prison sequences are strong and feed into the mythology quite well, with Batman's parallel experience in the cave as a child.  The ties, particularly to the League of Shadows from Batman Begins, are fun if not as fleshed out as I would have liked.  And Batman's Batmobile (whatever they are calling it these days) does some very trippy, wheels-flipping moves that I quite liked  The swirling wheels and changing directions took my breath away every time they did their magic on a sharp turn.  And Bane, despite the disappearance from the last third, emerges as a Byronic hero, more Beast from Beauty and The Beast or a loyal puppy, though I wish he had been fully realized throughout the entire film.

Matthew Modine is pretty awful here (Hello, Private Joker!) as a police captain more obsessed with catching Batman than stopping a Wall Street hijacking featuring Bane (kind of nonsensical), and Batman's spaceship, called The Bat, gives him even more superpowers and control, kind of taking the fun out of things.  In the original Batman, I kinda liked how Jack Nicholson's Joker pulled a 357 magnum from his side and shot down the sleek Batplane with Michael Keaton, culminating in a vertigo-inducing climb to the belfry of a modern skyscraper complete with Notre Dame-style bell.  Besides the prison tunnel and Bane's subterranean waterfall of a lair, Nolan's vision doesn't present much stylistically to draw my eye or my wonder.  Sure, I always enjoy his vision of Gotham as an amalgamation of every American city: the bridges and Freedom Tower of New York City; the lower Wacker Drive of Chicago; the football field and rivers of Pittsburgh.  Yet, there's something missing here, and it has to be energy and pacing (which feels off so significantly in the second half) as well as a sense of wonder and scale.  Nolan has transplanted the Batman from the comic books and Tim Burton's  darkly cartoonish vision into the heart of the modern urban aesthetic with serious post-9-11 undertones.  And that's fine and an amazing vision.  But, I wonder if I am alone in looking backwards to Michael Keaton acting crazy, Jack Nicholson chewing the scenery desecrating an art gallery while dancing to Prince on a boombox, as well as the original Batmobile from 1989, and just remembering how much I enjoyed watching Batman.  Really enjoyed it.  Watching it and rewatching it.  Getting a copy of VHS was a huge moment in my life.  It is unfair to hold my youthful nostalgia against Nolan's efforts, yet I wonder if I commit to re-watching the Burton films and the Nolan films where I will come out.  My heart seems to be telling me Burton.

In his pursuit of hyper-realism, has Nolan lost something in the telling of the Batman legend?  Or, is this film just a minor step backwards from The Dark Knight, a high-watermark of comic book blockbusting entertainment, but still miles above the typical Hollywood dreck?  As for this film's ending, Nolan had an opportunity to fully close a chapter forever with his sage and begin a new one.  I'll say this; I liked the opening of the new chapter, and the penultimate sequence of shots in Italy robs the film of some of its pathos and power.  There was a way to keep some open-ended qualities to that scene, and Nolan chose to avoid his ambiguous Inception spinning top.  In this film, he shows us the top falling over which to me is not as enjoyable as the mystery.  And, Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker and that character itself casts a shadow over The Dark Knight Rises in terms of performance and passion.  It is hard to escape that shadow.  But cheers to Tom Hardy for all that he did to make Bane indelible.

To be continued (after revisiting Batman, Batman Returns, as well as Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises)...

Willkommen, bievenue, welcome Cabaret: Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey soar!

Movie Review: Cabaret

Director: Bob Fosse

Reviewed: 26 July 2012

jamesintexas rating--**** (highest possible rating)

"Life is a cabaret, old chum.  Come to the cabaret!" croons a divine Sally Bowles, the American expatriate living in pre-World War Two decadent Berlin, sleeping around and dancing onstage at the Kit-Kat club, played with great vulnerability and aplomb by Liza Minnelli.  Partnered with Joel Grey's astonishing turn as the Master of Ceremonies, the two shine in Bob Fosse's remarkable musical Cabaret, a film that foregrounds the messy, tumultuous relationships among Sally, her next door neighbor and lover, the very British Brian Roberts (Michael York), a charismatic German businessman Baron Maximilian (Helmut Griem) with his laissez faire political and sexual interests, and another couple, one Jewish, one not.  Ultimately, the film foretells the growing crucible of Berlin with its boots and swastikas, its fear and violence, by focusing on the lives of these men and women in a time of growing crisis.

Liza Minnelli carries the film with a performance of great humanity and grace.  Her expressive eyes do so much work in the many close-up shots that Fosse employs; her singing and choreography are both stunningly original and remarkably human.  She lives, breathes, performs like a performer, and despite the role's manic-pixie-dream-girl template, Minnelli plumbs the depths of Sally's misery and anxiousness: her anger at her absent father, her ardent desire for fame, her unflappable determination to be the life of the party.  A favorite scene involves Sally Bowles trying to contain herself while in the presence of another beautiful woman, and the gestures and frustration boil over in ways that are interesting and true.  Minelli's Sally Bowles is a sad character, one of intelligence and passion, and one that I fear for in the ramp-up to the Third Reich.  Perhaps, Sally's character lacks some of the naivete or hollowness that Fosse intends by casting her with the dynamic Liza Minnelli (In fact, I had a difficult time figuring out how anyone would not be captivated by Sally, not take her to Hollywood, not make her a star!).  Simply put, the film would not work without Minnelli's tour de force performance of singing, dancing, and embodying the weakness and the strength of Sally Bowles, the American who has lost her way in a darkening city.  

In addition to riveting dance numbers and filming everything with medium shots or close-ups which give great focus on the eyes, make-up, and lips of characters, director Bob Fosse stages tableau shots which give us snapshots of the time: the beaten Kit-Kat club owner, bloodied by Nazi boots; a Russian corpse, presumably communist, strewn across a busy street with people looking in horror; an older German man who remains sitting while everyone around him stands in a nationalistic fever singing the song "Tomorrow Belongs To Me," in a moment of ominous foreshadowing.  Fosse inserts German radio in the background of multiple scenes at Sally and Brian's flat, with the chatter underlining the rise of Nazism and Hitler, along with an elderly German woman stating at one point, "I wish we could go back to the days of the Kaiser!"

Allegorically, Fosse is wrestling with culpability, responsibility, and decadence with the hedonistic American trying to make it while remaining dangerously unaware of the growing maelstrom, the stuffy Brit who seems drawn to the Berlin nightlife while exploring his growing unease with the rise of Nazism and his impotence to stop it, and, most interestingly, the Baron Maximilian, who eyes Hitler as an opportunist and one who can be controlled by "real Germany" but ends up abandoning his country in a crucial moment of the film.  A very political film in very subtle ways, Cabaret shows people who will be swallowed up by history; we know the effects of many decisions made by characters in the film even if they do not.  A train out of the country has perilous significance.  A declaration of Jewish identity has a price.  An appeal to mercy can be taken as great weakness or worse, treason.

And the emcee, Master of Ceremonies, and Greek chorus of Cabaret is the marvelous Joel Grey, an elfin performer with a haunting and childlike whimsy of a performance with wigs, make-up, various costume changes which go from milkmaid to goose stepping soldier, and a charismatic sense of play.  The emcee's role, it seems, is to welcome and usher us into the darkness and twisted mirrors of the Kit-Kat club, to entertain us with his commentary and routines, to comment on the chapters of the film itself through song and dance and comedy, as well as to provoke us into considering the role of art in a fascist state, the role of the artist who performs for those he or she may personally abhor.  Can you take a Nazi Party member's money as an artist?  Should you?  In a world where famous musical artists are taken to task for exorbitant birthday party performances such as Beyonce or Mariah Carey's recent events for the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi, the role of the artist when confronted with cruel power is still present with us today.  Grey's emcee playfully sings a dazzling array of songs with amazing choreography, and the film lights up every time he appears.  Fosse shows restraint and lets dance sequences play out in real-time or at least in long, unbroken takes compared to the frenetic editing of today's films, allowing us to drink in everything that is going on at once onstage, as well as giving the cramped, confined quarters of the Kit-Kat club stage with its mirrors, curtains, and band an intimate feel; the barrier between performer and audience is nearly nonexistent as Grey dips into the audience from time to time for jokes and laughter. Fosse uses shots of the Master's face as jump cuts at other important moments in the film, signifying the performer's role as always commenting on those men and women and their travails, always seeing everything around him in the city as it spirals and spirals.

It is an astonishing performance.

The Master of Ceremonies adds an elegiac air to the dwindling days of bustling, cosmopolitan Berlin.  By all accounts, it was one of the most wonderful cities in the world during this time.  The audience slowly changes over the course of the film until the devastating final shot.  His songs and dancing then take on the air of a survivalist, a clownish desperate attempt to curry favor and possible reprieve from what is to come.  Is there hope?  When the SS Storm Troopers come to the Kit-Kat club, and come they will, the Master of Ceremonies and his troupe will have no place in the Third Reich.  We know where the Nazis will place them.  

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Gimme More Take Shelter: Best Scary Movie of the Past 5 Years.

Movie Review: Take Shelter

Director: Jeff Nichols

Reviewed: 20 July 2012

jamesintexas rating--**** (highest possible rating)

Take Shelter is the most frightening movie of the year.  Here are movies that have seriously scared me.

The Silence of the Lambs: Serial killers, cannibals, guys with moving vans, night-vision goggles, and a sense of methodical purpose.

The Exorcist: Demonic possession, little kids spewing vomit and hatred, battle between good and evil.

Scream: Unkillable, unstoppable, undeniable Ghostface killer with his sharp knives, deadly garage doors, and cell phone torments.

Let The Right One In: A realistic, cold, and scary vampire movie set in Sweden.

Martha Marcy May Marlene: Cults, family conflict, your family is a cult, and dissolving reality.

Signs: A sonic nightmare of claws and alien clicks, a father furiously hammering wood over his home's windows, a family terrorized by an unknown force.

Pan's Labyrinth: The Pale Man is a singularly terrifying creature.

Halloween: A supernatural, spooky, silent killer in a William Shatner mask spray painted white.  Babysitting gone wrong.

The Ring: Little girl coming out of the television.  Rainy Seattle.  Grainy, eerie VHS tape.  Enough said.

The Shining: A movie that felt wrong when I watched it in high school, and I still think it would feel wrong now at 33; elevators of blood, twins, hotel rooms with unspeakable images.

Jaws: Undeniably effective and psychically scarring for me; there is no point in stepping into a lake, river, pond, or ocean where I don't think about its apex predator gone mad with human blood.

And now, Take Shelter.  I want to write as little as possible about this movie because I'm still wrestling with it in my mind, and I think that you should go into the film knowing very little.  I need to see the film again, but I think it has something profound to say about mental illness and families, as well as the fragility of a person who knows their own background and makeup.  The underrated and underappreciated Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a working-class guy in small town America (southern Ohio) who works on a construction crew, tries his best, saves his money, and then starts seeing visions.  Horrifying, visceral, realistic scenes best left undescribed.  Curtis lives with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, again brilliant) and their daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) who happens to be deaf.  They are a family struggling to pay bills, to cover health costs for a cochlear implant for their daughter, strains with both sets of their parents.  And then, there's Curtis's visions or revelations or hallucinations which threaten the very fabric of their family and relationships with each other.  Shannon and Chastain are both so good here as a couple under duress, and the sense of small town life seems spot-on.  I won't say more.

For me, cinematic fright takes many forms as you can see from my list above: serial killers, aliens, elevators of blood, creepy little long-haired girls, great white sharks, lethal vampires, the unkillable, etc...  Now, add losing one's mind, family, home, and existence to that list.  Take Shelter is a horror film for our times, a film that delves deep into a community, faith, and a family, and its answers are never simple.

A phenomenal achievement.  Please go see it!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Cary Grant: The Original Running Man or Alfred Hitchcock: William Shakespeare would have enjoyed his movies!

Movie Review: North by Northwest

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Reviewed: 19 July 2012

jamesintexas rating--**** (highest possible rating)

Bernard Hermann's memorable driving score announces the arrival of the classic film North by Northwest, and even the title sequence seems in line with the film's themes and interest.  Words rush together from different directions of the screen, only to separate furiously seconds later.  Slow fade in on crowds of bustling, hurrying, busy people, clawing to get into cabs in front of each other, squeezing down a subway staircase, hustling down the street. Alfred Hitchcock foregrounds our national obsession with planes, trains, and automobiles and just simply motion in these opening shots.  Move, move, move.  Besides a chance to indulge in his now familiar cameo (he misses the bus, appropriately), Hitchcock is driving at something deeper: our hurry-hurry culture, the swirling of time, and the media's role in the formation of instant news.  When the dapper wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time, Cary Grant, finds his companion at the UN keeled over with a knife sticking out of his back, a serendipitous camera man is there to snap a Gotcha! picture of Grant's Roger Thornhill with his hands on the knife.  It is as if Hitchcock was predicting the rise of the iPhone and instantaneous news; in the 2012 update of the film, the murder footage would have been uploaded to Youtube and viewed a million times.

Where to begin?  I love this film, and I believe that I've only seen it twice now, the first time being in Mr. Wetta's Comp-Lit-and-Film course at York High School.  In that class, I remember being amazed at his analysis of the heads of Mt. Rushmore lording over certain scenes, connecting their silent judgment to the cabal of government ministers who tinker with the lives of spies, real and imagined, in their Washington D.C. office.  This time, that cabal struck me as an Olympian group of gods, moving people's lives around like chess pieces, adding dangerous elements to the mix from time to time to provoke a reaction.  There is something to the pro-government assistance coming to rescue Thornhill and Eve Kendall (the luminous Eva Marie Saint) at the very end of the film, as well as the severe disinterest of the man responsible for creating agent George Kaplan.  Cryptically named "The Professor," the old man who looks like a gnome (Leo G. Carroll) seems content to push the chess pieces around on the world stage, read his newspapers silently, make decrees from on high that affect and end lives without hesitation or remorse.  The Professor is a Zeus-like figure who interferes with his creations as if it were all one giant game.  A serious game with serious consequences.  At one point, The Professor references the United States losing the Cold War to the Russians, a possibility in 1959 that seems improbable to my generation.  I grew up watching the Berlin Wall come down while in middle school, and Russia petered out when Sean Connery hijacked the Red October and headed for American shores.  For me, American dominance seems an afterthought, a given.  But for the audiences of 1959, I'm sure that Hitchcock's rooting of Cold War devilry amongst the backdrop of our national parks and symbols (the bustle of Madison Avenue, climbing around at Mt. Rushmore, the UN, our railways) was particularly adroit given the political climate of the end of the Eisenhower era.  For me, it is difficult to see North By Northwest so closely after recent viewings of Vertigo, the film preceding it in Hitchcock's canon, as there is no way that it can match Vertigo's emotional and evocative power or legacy.  Yet, consider this: in a three year span, Hitchcock crafted Vertigo, North By Northwest, and Psycho, each film a distinctly American classic, each film a template for all subsequent films of the genre to follow and imitate, each film still eminently watchable and compelling.  What director has ever had such a prolific burst of filmmaking?

Consider Roger O. Thornhill (the O stands for nothing!) as a Mad Man of Madison Avenue advertising, a contemporary to Don Draper who dictates his letters to his secretary as he steals cabs, frets about his theater tickets, fusses over his mother and his two ex-wives.  By raising his hand at an inopportune moment at drinks in a restaurant, Thornhill is mistaken for spy George Kaplan by some tough guys.  A gun is drawn, Thornhill is spirited away to a remote mansion where the elegantly ominous Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) grills him on what he knows.  And true to his middle name, Thornhill knows nothing!  So, Thornhill becomes wrapped up in the life of his double, George Kaplan, finding himself in deadly situation after deadly situation, as he becomes embroiled in a tale of international intrigue.

The character of Roger Thornhill is the precursor to many classic movie heroes: John McLane in Die Hard, outwitting the terrorists verbally and physically; The Fugitive's Dr. Richard Kimble, the accused man out to clear his name, shunning eye contact with people on the CTA who are reading papers that have his picture on them; The Big Lebowski shamelessly cribs two key moments from this film as The Dude deals with the Chief of Police in Malibu (Very reactionary!) and finds a phone message on a notepad from Jackie Treehorn; both Ethan Hunt from Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol and the man from Man on a Ledge, two quick-thinking heroes who stand outside buildings high up in the air contemplating escape routes as well as death.  Sequence after sequence in North By Northwest is groundbreaking and still with us today in the echoes of modern action and chase films.  Thornhill evading the police on the train.  Disguising himself.  Sneaking up to the house and eavesdropping.  Finding an address.  Dropping his matchbook.  What I like most about Grant's performance as Thornhill is his conveyance of genuine annoyance of the confusion caused at times by the double George Kaplan, his exasperation at his circumstances, his sense of righteousness in clearing his name, and his elegantly graceful movements and style.  "But I have theater tickets!  Tonight!  With mother!" he tells his captors at one point, and Thornhill's annoyance converts brilliantly to bitterest gall at his betrayal.  I haven't seen many other Cary Grant performances, but this one is brilliant.

Hitchcock's confidence in his storytelling allows there to be stretches of silence where Thornhill creeps around, listening and climbing around a Rapids City base for Vandamm and his Communist camp.  Hermann's score drives these scenes, but not in an overpowering way.  Rather, the score is the pulse of the film, driving and insistent and full of scary wonder.

The centerpiece of the film is the bravura sequence involving a low-flying crop duster plane about ninety minutes outside of Chicago as a confused Thornhill awaits his supposed meeting with George Kaplan.  The crane shot of Thornhill standing at the desolate, almost desert-like crossroads of rural Indiana farmland is classic, existential, and evocative (referenced in films as wide as Cast Away to O Brother, Where Art Thou?), and as Thornhill wanders and wonders about, the engine of the crop duster cuts in and out of the soundtrack in the background.  When the plane finally does what it does, the result is terrifying and must have been even more so in 1959.  What a perfect image for the hunted man in the wrong place at the wrong time!  What surprised me was how long this sequence was.  Hitchcock took over ten minutes to set up the scene before the madness started.  His patience is one of the things that make him the master of suspense. Even though I knew what was coming this time, it was upsetting and moving to see it play out.  And the end to the scene is a classic action film trope still with us today.

I'm also trying to explore the subtext of homosexuality in this film as the henchman Leonard (a young Martin Landau, cadaverous) seems jealous and in love (maybe?) at times with smooth-talking Phillip Vandamm.  Leonard is lethal and relentless, yet seems hurt by Vandamm's preference for Eve Kendall.  Mason's voice is silky, and I could listen to him verbally spar with Thornhill for hours.  His turn as villain is more terrifying for its lack of histrionics; Mason perfectly exemplifies the cold, worthy, formidable adversary who drives this film and makes the stakes so high for Thornhill.  And he has a wonderfully comedic last line.

And Eve Kendall and Roger Thornhill's flirtatious banter on the train to Chicago has to be a cinematic high point.  Both actors are so comfortable and appear to be having so much fun with the provocative lines and coy propositions.  The lines caused great laughter in my audience at the Sundance Theater in Houston in 2012, so I have to imagine the forwardness and frankness they must have evoked in 1959.  The conversation's context, the traveling of the pair west from New York, is important; Hitchcock slows the film down to give us at least twenty minutes on the train, moving with the characters, savoring the journey and the chase.

And the film's final shot?  One of the greatest innuendos of cinema as well.  The blast of the train horn and the imagery?  Brilliant.

The title of the film comes from a speech from Hamlet, where the eponymous prince states, “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw" (2.2.361).  My explication of the line (it's been a while) is that Hamlet is announcing to his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the level of deception that he has been practicing among the kingdom, to fool his Polonius, Queen Gertrude, and King Claudius.  He is not as he seems to others.  To cloud his murderous intentions, Hamlet must play a part.  Hamlet chooses to play this part, to engage in deception, to learn the truth of his father's death; similarly, at the climax of North By Northwest, Roger Thornhill chooses to play the part of spy George Kaplan, to engage in death-defying heroics, to rescue the woman he loves.

Roger Thornhill's story ends better than Prince Hamlet's, and Eve Kendall is certainly no Ophelia.  And  Alfred Hitchcock?  He's as prolific a filmmaker as any I've ever seen, one that William Shakespeare, were he alive in the 20th Century, would be compelled by the mixture of obsession and suspense displayed in his finest work. Both are for the ages.  Both men were masters constructing masterpieces that will last the test of time.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Worst Movie of the Year: I Award You No Points

Movie Review: Your Highness

Director: David Gordon Green

Reviewed: 19 July 2012

jamesintexas rating--zero stars, (lowest possible rating)

Shame on everyone involved in this unmitigated disaster of a film: Danny McBride, James Franco, Natalie Portman, Justin Theroux, Zooey Deschanel, Toby Jones, and director David Gordon Green.  Pathetic and sad, a colossal misfire as well as a pungent waste of money, resources, time, including mine for watching this sludge.  A thirty-second preview for Danny McBride's uproariously filthy HBO show Eastbound & Down is funnier than the entirety of Your Highness, a wannabee-stoner film that cannot even milk its drug use for laughs.  Neither cursing, nor McBride's goofiness can save this film from falling to the bottom of the heap.  The very bottom.  There has to be a bottom, and this film is it.

Zero stars.   

So, I'm handing out punishments for this film, the lowest rating I've given for the entire year so far.

James Franco should be forced to watch his performance in this film on a loop over and over again with his eyes held open ala A Clockwork Orange.

Natalie Portman should have to return her Black Swan Best Actress Academy Award and never speak of her involvement in this film ever.

Justin Theroux should have to stop dating Jennifer Aniston.

And director David Gordon Green?

To paraphrase the classic film comedy Billy Madison, Mr. Green, what you've just created ... is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever watched.  At no point in your rambling, incoherent film were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational (or funny) thought. Everyone who has seen Your Highness is now dumber for having watched it.

I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Safety is Never Guaranteed in Friendship, Love, or Life.

Movie Review: Safety Not Guaranteed

Director: Colin Trevorrow

Reviewed: 15 July 2012

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me.  This is not a joke.  You'll get paid after we get back.  Must bring your own weapons.  I have only done this once before.  SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.

PLOT: Parks and Recreation's Aubrey Plaza plays Darius, an intern at a Seattle news magazine roped into investigating the cryptic personal ad with lead writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) and fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni).  A trip to the small town of Jake's youth allows him to try to reconnect with an old flame while Darius and Arnau stake out the post office box trying to get a glimpse of the man behind the ad.  He is Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a grocery clerk fond of headbands and secrecy, easily one of the most interesting characters portrayed onscreen this year.  He is building a time machine, and Darius becomes the one he trains as his protege and then partner.  WOUNDED LIKE-MINDED FRIENDS.

REVELATIONS: The performances are strong with Plaza and Duplass as stand-outs.  The screenplay weaves Jeff's journey back into the past through connecting with an old girlfriend against Darius's burgeoning respect and love for Kenneth as they fire pistols, run through the woods, break into low-level scientific installations searching for crucial pieces of the time machine.  Washington state looks great, and the movie's humor moves easily.  CONSTANT QUIET SURPRISES.

LOVED: I love the open-ended quality of the film including its wonderful ending.  Kenneth is a singularly weird, possibly mental ill, possibly genius of a character, and Duplass's face is fresh and his work here is nomination-worthy.  Johnson is annoying and crass, and his thread pays off in a rough, raw way.  Overall, the plot takes its time, meanders and wanders.  BEAUTIFUL AND SAD.

MISSES: I don't believe that the plot strand dealing with Arnau (and Jeff's influence over him) is as strongly sketched out, and Arnau's stakes as a character are simply never as strong as those of Jeff or Darius.  I wish that the character was given more to do and say.  And as much as I like Plaza's performance (her first lead, I believe), there's simply too many shots of her staring at Kenneth in meaningful ways versus speaking.  I wanted her character to verbalize more of what she was undergoing, and her transformation lacks the power that I think the director was reaching for with her character.  SOME UNREALIZED POTENTIAL.

TAKE-AWAYS: There is a simplicity to the premise of this film, to the want-ad's haiku-like poetic brilliance and its eternal relevance.  On some level, the conceit of return is present in relationships and friendships as a person risks to find someone who will make them feel at home, safety, peace.  Connections are not jokes; payment is never upfront or assured; the wealth of forging a friendship with another is unquantifiable; with everything, we always have to bring our own weapons, armor, issues, and defenses.  Experience is overrated and uncertain; safety is never guaranteed in building a friendship, forging a connection, falling in love with someone.  Safety is never guaranteed, but I do guarantee that this film will make you think, make you wonder at Mark Duplass's unguarded and sweet performance, make you smile.  GUARANTEED YOU'LL THINK.

Here's my ad:

SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED: Wounded like-minded friends.  Constant quiet surprises.  Beautiful and sad.  Some unrealized potential.  Guaranteed you'll think.  (THAT'S PRETTY AWESOME IN A SUMMER MOVIE!)

Friday, July 13, 2012

Liam Neeson is a Badass. (Wolves Howling.)

Movie Review: The Grey

Director: Joe Carnahan

Reviewed: 13 July 2012

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

When I watch movies at home, I employ subtitles whenever possible because I struggle with my hearing and enjoy catching minor bits of conversations that sometimes are relevant.  I use subtitles as often as possible, even with an action film or thriller, and when watching Joe Carnahan's thriller The Grey, I relished the subtitles for their subtitle interpretation of the film because a person who crafts subtitles has to represent the sonic architecture of a film, its unique sound design, as well as straight-up translate dialogue, a daunting task.

Here's a quick burst of that unnamed person's work on the subtitles from ten minutes of this film:

Wolves Growling.

Wolves Howling.

Wind Howling.

Wolf Growls.


Wolf 1 Whimpers.

Wolves Continue Howling.

Alpha Howling.

Wolves Howling In Response.

The set-up for The Grey is classic: oil pipeline workers and their wolf-sniper-for-hire Ottway (Liam Neeson) in Alaska crash their airplane horrifically upon the frozen tundra, leaving bodies strewn across the horizon.  Ottway's survival skills make him a natural leader post-crash, with a cadre of cagey characters left to negotiate survival against the elements.  All the elements.  Beyond the imminent blizzards and subzero temperatures, there are packs of ravenous, vicious violent wolves roaming around the edges of the frame.  Big wolves.  With sharp teeth.  And no fear.  There's talk of wolves being the only animals that "seek revenge" as well as the danger of being near the den of the wolves (not good).  There's hunting and marking of territory.  There's howling.  There's wolves crushing human faces in their mouths.  There's blood.

Carnahan's film is swiftly told and executed with plenty of genuine scares and surprises, and the film resembles a shark attack film where you wait for nature to take each character and winnow away the group in unsuspected ways while also containing elements of both The Edge and Alive (I particularly like that one character references Alive at one point).  There's a Lost element to the first half hour, with some particularly nasty nihilistic dialogue and jokes as well as the imminent fear of wolf attacks.  Always.  Wolves are demonic forces in this film, unstoppable and omnipresent, indifferent to the maneuvers of the ever-dwindling pack of survivors who contemplate making a break for the tree line amidst a blizzard.  Wallets of the dead are collected for their families.  Ottway wrestles with his faith as well as his survival skills as they clash with the elements: thick snow, treacherous cliffs, chilling rivers.  And the wolves.  Oh, the wolves.

Liam Neeson holds the picture firmly in place with another strong, classic performance with gravitas and some seriously emotional catharsis.  Has any actor displayed more incredible range of his generation than Neeson?  Is there anything he cannot deliver?  The list of roles includes Oskar Schindler, the dad from Love Actually, the dad from Taken, Qui-Gon Jinn, Hannibal from A-Team, Zeus, Henri Ducard in Batman Begins, as well as Alfred Kinsey from Kinsey and Priest Vallon from Gangs of New York.  The guy has been Michael Collins, Rob Roy, Ethan Frome, and Aslan the lion.  Here, his role most closely resembles a performance a few years back in a Civil War era chase survival film that I quite like, Seraphim Falls, with Neeson pursuing and being pursued by Pierce Brosnan.  In this film, there are some glowing sequences with Ottway's wife in flashbacks that violently rip him back into reality upon waking, as well as some cogent discussions of fate, free will, and what it means to survive.  Carnahan is not afraid to let there be quiet moments, examinations of photographs, as well as showing Neeson's craggy face, bloody and scratched, as he considers his ever-diminishing options.

In college, my American Literature Professor Lentz used to encourage us to write papers attempting degrees of difficulty, meaning there were paper topics that he considered significantly more challenging than others.  You could get a higher grade for attempting a degree of difficulty on, say, Huck Finn or The Ambassadors.  It was his acknowledgment that some papers involving wrestling with more challenging ideas, and that should be rewarded and encouraged.  Some movies attempt more than others.  Some play it safe.  Some do not.  Degree of difficulty is something that came to mind with this movie.  Nearly every scene involves Neeson, the swirling snow, howling wind, as well as blood and actors wrapped up in ski masks and gloves.  Carnahan's film feels oppressively cold, and although I didn't learn the names of the supporting characters, I liked some of the conflicts and philosophical debates as well as some of the gallows humor.  In filming The Grey, Carnahan has taken on a degree of difficulty and delivered superlatively.  It must have been an awful film to shoot.

A word about the wolves.  There's some impressively used CGI, as well as quick movements from either side of the frame, long and terrifying shots of sprinting wolves, and pairs of demonic yellow eyes approaching from the darkness.  I'm not sure how many of the wolves used in the film were real wolves, but they felt real.  In close-ups, the downright nastiness of them was overpowering, but they didn't take me out of the film as much as visual effects sometimes do.  Carnahan seems to be using the wolf pack tracking the men to represent a malevolent force, as the ticking of time itself, as emblematic of nature's elements and all that constantly works to destroy a person.  I have never been as scared of wolves as I was watching this film.

The film's climactic final scene was riveting, and Neeson delivers the truth.  I feel like it is impossible to witness Neeson in pain and emotional while remaining unmoved.  I don't know if it is because of the personal tragedy that I know he has endured, or just because his face is so expressive and carries with it the remnants of his other characters with it.  He brings baggage to a role in the best possible way.  Wolves, watch out!  Ferocious and bold, The Grey is a very good film with viciousness and harshness.

Alpa Howling.

Wolves Continue Howling.

(Wolves always continue howling.)

And do watch the film past the credits.  Major degree of difficulty and one of the best films of 2012 so far.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Australian on a Ledge

Movie Review: Man on a Ledge

Director: Asger Leth

Reviewed: 12 July 2012

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

Man on a Ledge is exactly what it purports to be: a B-movie plot with an A-level cast with a fun concept that never really goes anywhere, and it doesn't leave much of an impression.  But, it is a kinda fun ride.

Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington), the titular man, stands on a 21st story ledge on a busy street in New Your City, grinding city traffic and business to a halt. A former cop who stages a daring escape during his father's burial at the cemetery, Cassidy requests a specific police officer, Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks), to speak to while standing on the ledge, he makes few other demands, he keeps his cryptic motives to himself.  Cassidy and Mercer build a rapport as helicopters swirl, tactical units prepare to descend on ropes from the roof, and a crowd gathers to watch the show.

Meanwhile, nefarious and reptilian real estate developer David Englander (Ed Harris) who put Cassidy in jail through a complicated frame-up involving a diamond watches the proceeding from his building next door to Cassidy's hotel.  And, Cassidy's scrappy brother Joey (Jaime Bell) and the brother's fiesty girlfriend Angie (Genesis Rodriguez) find themselves wrapped up in the twisty-turny plot as well.  And, throw in a NYPD officer with just the right amount of cynicism (Ed Burns) as well as a few other cops that maybe can be trusted.  Without giving anything away, the man on the ledge is not what he appears to be.

But, the film is really what it appears to be: a fun idea, done with some style and some memorable scenes.  Ultimately, this film is a stew of disparate parts with a rather dull performance from Worthington (whose Aussie accent fades in and out), a fine job by Banks, an underused Harris, a winning and flirtatious combination in Bell and Rodriguez (their scenes add some energy and banter), some outlandish plot twists, some cool stunt work, as well as some pretty elaborate break-in procedures and schemes.  The film attempts some clumsy social relevance with the crowd on the street and the media coverage which doesn't entirely work.  At times, I felt like I was watching an over-budgeted version of the Fox television show Prison Break.  At others, I referenced Spike Lee's Manhattan bank robbery hostage thriller Inside Man, a much stronger film, with a much stronger script, with stronger performances and something interesting to say.  Man on a Ledge doesn't have anything interesting to say, but it is perfectly harmless, perfectly watchable.  And the ledge looks pretty sweet.  Apparently, the actors were really up on a ledge with wires and supports hidden or edited out.  Pretty fun stuff.  But not too much fun.  

Monday, July 9, 2012

Sinking the Iron Lady

Movie Review: The Iron Lady

Director: Phyllida Lloyd

Reviewed: 9 July 2012

jamesintexas rating--*

Meryl Streep is our greatest living American actress.

Margaret Thatcher is one of the most compelling leaders of the 20th Century.

How did this film turn into such an unwatchable mess?

Meryl Streep earned a Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Thatcher, yet I'm perplexed.  Anyone who watches this bloated yet skimpy film will walk away with even more reverence for Streep's impressive abilities as an actress, her topnotch voice work, and her uncanny ability to disappear into a role.  From Angels in America to Adaptation, from Julie & Julia to The Devil Wears Prada, Streep proves ready and able to handle any acting challenge thrown her way.  I look forward to her playing, say, a Bond villain, or her being part of Quentin Tarantino's universe sometime soon, and neither would surprise me.  Yet, both Meryl Streep and Margaret Thatcher deserve a much better script, a better supporting cast, and a far superior director, and the result is simply a mess.  A biopic attempting to serve as a psychological study, the film tells the story of Thatcher's life and rise to power, as the first female British Prime Minister, as well as her agonizing later years, imprisoned in her house and in her dementia as she speaks with hallucinations of her deceased husband Denis.  My favorite moment in the film is the opening sequence where Thatcher sneaks out of her house to purchase milk and is brushed aside by busy commuters; eyes are rolled when she takes a while counting out the change for her purchase.  I wish the rest of the film had that sense of collision and reality.

So, I cannot in good conscience recommend this film.  It was going to receive two stars, but when I woke up this morning, I found myself even more bothered by its limitations and direction.

I'm finding myself lowering the rating on this film for a number of reasons.  I love actor Jim Broadbent and have ever since he appeared in The Crying Game in 1992, and I cringed every time his cloying face appeared onscreen as Denis, Thatcher's loving spouse.  Denis exists to put forth plot and exposition, and sadly, no time is given to his role as first spouse, as father, as support for his wife as she walks the tightrope of international diplomacy, sexism, and stress.  No one else in the cast is allowed to establish himself or herself due to the construction of the frame story which gives far too much time to Meryl Streep in old-person makeup wandering around her prison of a home.  Additionally, the filmmaking is simply inert at times; there is no artistry to the weaving into and out of the past, and several dramatic devices overstay their welcome.  Lloyd's camera falls in love with shots of Thatcher surrounded by taller British men in dark suits, as well as bizarre angles that allow us to see the controversial Prime Minister being booed or adored by protesters banging on her car windows.  There is little context as to how the PM appeared in the eyes of the British beyond stock footage of riots and especially vicious police.  Occasionally, real footage is inter-spliced as the real Thatcher's iconic hair passes through a crowd at a distance.  I feel like that image is central to this film: an iconic figure, kept at a distance without detail or nuance.  And, with Streep's bravura performance, there is simply no need to show the real Thatcher.

What frustrated me the most about this film was the ultimate disservice that it does to a public figure who is still beloved and reviled for her policies.  I'll admit to being very ignorant of the Falklands War in the early 80's, as well as how the conservative policies hindered or jump started the British economy.  A controversial decision to keep fighting in the war seems to be more lucky than wise.  The daughter of a shopkeeper, there is remarkably little compassion or empathy from Thatcher as families are evicted and unemployment looms.  There is a story here, and I wonder if Thatcher herself has ever opened up in interviews or memoirs about her role in these events.  She dances with a Ronald Reagan look alike at one point, avoiding nearly any American connection to the events of the eighties.  A similarly fascinating examination of the IRA bombings in the eighties is unexplored.

I knew Margaret Thatcher from a cheesy cameo caricature at the end of James Bond's For Your Eyes Only where she slaps Denis's hand as he tries to steal a cookie and she coos into the telephone as James Bond's parrot sweet talks her; I knew her reputation as well as from other British films like Brassed Off! and The Full Monty which seemed to outright declare her policies fascist, cruel, and damaging to the working man and woman.  There are hints of the struggles both she and her country faced in this film: the IRA, the end of the Cold War, the Falklands, the miners, unemployment, etc...  Yet, at no point does Lloyd or the screenplay ever wish to delve into the consequences of Thatcherism, either politically or personally.  We see Thatcher agonizing over letters to families of soldiers killed because of her decisions, yet without context, I have no way of knowing whether the Falklands War was justified and necessary to bolster Britain's confidence, if it was a reactionary move made by an insecure female leader determined to show steel in her spine, or even more murky than that.  Lloyd's film focuses on a dementia-ridden older woman, alone in her guarded fortress, watching the news about terrorism as she lapses in and out of reality, unable to process or verbalize her regrets as a mother, a leader, a daughter, a person.

Meryl Streep is truly incredible, and her ability to push past such a sloppy and mawkish film, garnering the top prize in acting for last year is simply remarkable and a testament to the voters overwhelming good will for her and recognition of her continued commitment to acting with aplomb.  Leonardo DiCaprio failed to do the same in last year's J. Edgar, another revisionist biopic which I reviewed a full star above this one.  Although Streep's performance far outshines DiCaprio's, J. Edgar probes ever so lightly at the fastidiousness, the guilt, the repression, and the paranoia underscoring the decades of the FBI activity under Hoover.  The film fails, but it engages the mind on some level and offers some shades.  The Iron Lady aims for cheap, unearned emotions at the end, glosses over fascinating historical events and decisions, eliminates Margaret Thatcher's family from her life story in any meaningful way, and its poorly constructed screenplay mishandles the opening thirty minutes of the film, failing to provide any momentum, any energy for the story of someone who, from my limited understanding, was a dynamo of 20th Century statesmanship, the first woman to hold power in the western world.

What a shame.

Now, let's push for Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher as a James Bond villain!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Best Film of 2012 so far: Troop 77, Camp Freeland Leslie, and Over the Moon with Wes Anderson

Movie Review: Moonrise Kingdom

Director: Wes Anderson

Reviewed: 3 July 2012

jamesintexas rating--****

Being a Boy Scout for me was about a few basic things: learning how to survive away from home in far-away sounding places (Two Rivers, Herrick Lake, Big Timber, McDowell Woods), acting like an adult (or at least try to be one by swearing, cooking, telling jokes), forging friendships with guys older (Tom, Todd, Scott, Marc, Steve...) and younger (Nick, Jeff, Dave, Dan...) than me and also including my brothers (Dan, Pat), learning my place in the hierarchy of a patrol (Patrol Leader, Senior Patrol Leader, Troop Guide, Junior Assistant Scoutmaster) and learning my rank (Basic, Tenderfoot, Second Class, First Class, Star, Life, and Eagle), and hiking, swimming, chasing others, lighting fires, sharpening sticks, playing cards, and laughing.  An aspect of Boy Scouting that I felt particularly drawn to included earning the merit badges with their panoply of textures and colors and skills displayed on my sash: Wilderness Survival, Personal Fitness, Scholarship, Mammal Study, Swimming...  Obviously that love and interest in badges and requirements and checking off items culminated in my pursuit of the rank of Eagle Scout.  But for me, Scouts went beyond the quasi-militaristic socks (which we hated and never wore), the hats (which we spun into a worship of khaki Australian cowboy hats courtesy of our beloved Scout Master Doc), the Army issue green fatigues or shorts (still have 'em!), and the khaki uniform shirt (only worn for special occasions; you were more likely to find Troop 77 wearing red t-shirts).  Scouting was a special universe for me, and I know that from memory, I could still sketch a pretty accurate map of our sanctuary every summer, Camp Freeland Leslie in Oxford, WI.  I know where the Waterfront is and the two ways to get there (the long, windy, round-about way and the treacherous Suicide Hill way), the Commissary in the center of camp where we picked up our ingredients to cook our meals three times a day, complete with Tradin' Post (our place to send and receive mail for our week away from home, as well as to buy candy and pop), the Gun and Archery Range on the edge of camp, the vague outlines of frigid Lake Emrick with its nonexistent (for me) fish and marshy shores, and our campsites named after Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields (Trenton, Antietam, Bunker Hill, Ticonderoga, Chickamauga...).  I remember the tradition of CFL where a troop asked a counselor to dinner, taking their totem necklace of sorts, and the thrill of having a cool counselor hang out with you at the picnic tables in your campsite as you cooked chili (sometimes without the chili powder) over a sheepherder stove.

Meetings were important then, as were tactics and rules that we made up in our troop.  There were competitions within and even rivalries among troops.  There was always the vague threat of violence, though usually it was self-inflicted (falling into a fire or out of a tree, cutting yourself sharpening a knife, rolling down Suicide Hill into the lake...).  There was always music: They Might Be Giants and Wilson Phillips in 1990; Pearl Jam and Nirvana later.  There was a puffed-up pride in our troop's fashion sense, panache with Australian hats and patches (American flag on our right shoulders flowing away from our hearts, like the Marines!) as well as in our leaders: Doc, who rarely attended summer camp but sometimes made it up for the last night; Pete, a beloved parent quick with a joke and a smile and a cigar, Bob W. and Bob Van G., two adults deeply interested in letting us figure out how we would survive that week while always being there to ensure that we were okay.  We knew that we had the coolest troop; we knew that we did things the best way, if unorthodox from the official handbook.  We kept a fire burning from Sunday evening through Saturday morning at CFL.  We loved Scouting.  I know I did.

Scouting, exploration, and hierarchy are all at the forefront of the new film Moonrise Kingdom.  Appropriately, Wes Anderson's loving, meticulous, studied qualities as a filmmaker are in full display in Moonrise Kingdom with the island of New Penzance, of ancient trails, hidden inlets, precarious treehouses, and khaki scout badges plastered over waterfront walls.  An extremely detailed review may ruin some of the movie's charms, so let me stick to the edges in my praise.  Anderson's casting continues to be inspired: Edward Norton as Scout Master Ward, Harvey Keitel as his mentor Commander Pierce; Jared Gilman as troubled protagonist Sam, Bruce Willis as his mentor Island Police Captain Sharp; Kara Hayward as troubled protagonist Suzy and Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as her mentors and lawyer parents Walt and Laura Bishop.  A narrator is played by Bob Balaban with great fun.  A troop of aptly named khaki scouts delight in their roles: Roosevelt, Lazy-Eye, Nickleby, Panagle, Deluca to name a few.  On the surface, this film concerns two kids running away and falling in love, and it concerns survival in all of its forms as both young Sam and Suzy break ranks with their respective troops and meet for an exploration of epic proportions in Anderson's self-contained universe, each with his or her respective baggage (quite literally for Suzy who brings a suitcase of her favorite books with her to read at night and a kitten).  Sam with his coonskin hat, thick glasses, and encyclopedic knowledge of camping, smokes a corncob pipe of sorts, listening intently to Suzy read, telling her when she pauses after removing his pipe, "Go on.  I'm listening."  Naturally, both family and scouts pursue them with both hilarious and violent results.  A massive storm is brewing off the coast of the island.

Anderson's filmmaking resembles the orchestra that bookends the film.  With a wonderful premise, Anderson adds phenomenal sets (Suzy's house, Scout Master Ward's tent) to innovative art direction (fonts for signs, Norman Rockwell-ish lighthouses and colors, neckerchiefs and badges that look and feel just right), as well as wonderfully well-chosen disparate music.  Each performance (a quietly sad Bruce Willis, a straightforward and rebellious Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, a wonderfully bossy Jason Schwartzman as Cousin Ben) is like an instrument added to the concert, playing a variation on the orchestral theme, separate and distinct yet unified to the overall piece.  Anderson uses maps, handwritten letters, typewriters, badges, and costumes to add a texture to this film, a feel for it that jumps off the screen.  He builds musically, fully integrating bugles and camp songs with  Hank Williams, French songs, and classical.  He never condescends to his lead characters or gives them simple arcs.  Finding a pamphlet entitled "Coping with your Troubled Child," thinking that you're weird is a terrifying thing for anyone.  Suzy and Sam resist easy answers.

A great film, like a great scout troop like mine, is a concert of voices, attitudes, fears, talents, and laughter.  Each person, each instrument, each shot sequence does a variation on the theme, a repetition, a development, a connection.  Wes Anderson's filmmaking embodies this fugue state, fully capturing the anarchic sense of young boys wandering the woods with weapons, the hierarchy of communities like families and troops, the heartbreak of a Scout Master forced to discipline while also acknowledging commendation (a wonderful moment with Edward Norton), as well as people (including the adults) not feeling at home anywhere and searching for the maps and compasses to navigate their ways.  There were times in my life when I felt sanctuary while camping, while being around other scouts and the leaders, while being alone in the woods, while inching across a frozen river on two stretched cables, while earning Canoeing merit badge, Reading, Cooking, Environmental Science, Orienteering...

Moonrise Kingdom is the best film of 2012 so far.  Go on, Wes Anderson.  I'm listening.

Monday, July 2, 2012

J. Edgar + L. DiCaprio + C. Eastwood = Misfire.

Movie Review: J. Edgar

Director: Clint Eastwood

Reviewed: 2 July 2012

jamesintexas rating--**

With the pedigree of Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Armie Hammer, and Judi Dench, with the cachet of Oscar-winning director Clint Eastwood and Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, and the tantalizing subject of one of America's most secretive public figures debunked, the film J. Edgar collapses under the weight of its own self-importance, pounds of garish make-up, and its unwieldy focus on the eponymous subject.  The film simply isn't sure what it wants to be.  Tell-all biopic?  Commentary on our post-9-11 world?  The movie about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping?  A study of repression within the one American who knew everyone's secrets?  A tragic love story?  After viewing this bloated film, I'm still not sure.

Clint Eastwood begins the film with promise: the (unknown to me) 1919 Bolshevik bombings of American houses and Senators, a coordinated attack of great power and a precursor of later day terrorism, which scars a young Edgar as he bikes by the carnage and picks up the leaflets left by the attackers.  DiCaprio's Edgar is a go-getter in the Bureau, a momma's boy who is fastidious about his wardrobe and socially awkward with a nervous stutter, yet conniving and relentless in his myopic pursuit of what he wants  A botched marriage proposal to secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) results in a lifetime commitment as his personal secretary and keeper of secrets.  Dinner every night with Mother (Judi Dench) influences Edgar's clothing and philosophies, as well as his self-loathing and guilt.  Friendship with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) reveals him to be the crush that Edgar hires impulsively as Assistant Director and befriends while rebuilding the Bureau's reputation and his own wardrobe.  As a frame narrative, Eastwood shows an army of young male agents helping Edgar type his life story which is intertwined with the history of the Bureau and the rise of forensic science.  For as much time as Edgar is shown to be a visionary of law enforcement with his prescient belief in the integration of science into their work such as fingerprinting, Eastwood gives at least twice as much focus to Edgar's bloated, reptilian face and his waddling to the window during inaugurations as well as his cryptic blackmailing of presidents with his infamous files.  There's a lack of balance or just priority in this film.  For example, so much time is given to the Lindergh case, but without context, emotion, and clarity it is difficult to tell how the case enraptured the public's attention, the timeframe of the kidnapping and its investigation, the aftermath of its resolution.  Edgar rushes a federal law into place post Lindbergh kidnapping which Clint Eastwood seems to be drawing comparison to the Patriot Act, yet was making kidnapping a federal crime an example of overreach or just good politics?  Edgar menacingly states that rules have to be bent to find the criminals, and there's the implication that the Lindbergh killer may not even be guilty.  He seems to push for profiling and wire-tapping, all post-9-11 hot topics, though he stops the brutal beating of a suspect at one point, suggesting a disgust for violence?  Yet beyond these surface comparisons to modern day America, I'm not sure where Eastwood is going with this.  The film lacks the conviction to do much with Edgar's repressed sexuality and his close friendship with Clyde Tolson beyond hint and dodge.  A mid-film throw-down fight is welcome for its change of pace, but the blending of past and present becomes tiresome and artless, draining the film of any momentum or sense of time.  And a final scene loses any dramatic power, though a quotation chosen to end the film is intriguing.

Interesting points include Edgar's sheer terror at having met his match in the hands of Richard Nixon and, perhaps, some remorse at the natural result of his paranoia and wire-tapping, the Nixonian tactics that would lead to Watergate. Also, the relationship between Edgar and his loyal secretary Miss Gandy is one of great interest.  What drew Miss Gandy to Edgar?  Was she a lesbian?  Why the loyalty, even until the end?

However fun it is to consider the role of a public figure who served under eight presidents (Just consider the sheer jumps in technology and law enforcement from Presidents Hoover through Nixon!), ultimately, J. Edgar chooses not to go deep into Edgar's obviously haunted psyche, what drove him to such lengths, his obsession with using Hollywood and the G-Man image to project his will on the American public, or his thirst for power.  How much of his actions are self-loathing?  How did Edgar personally reconcile his own hypocrisy with his pursuit of hypocritical public figures?  Did religion play a part at all in his inner-life?  Early on, Director Stone informs Edgar that his colleagues call him Speedy behind his back.  He chooses the name J. Edgar when asked to create a new account at a clothing store after meeting Clyde.  The name as title is an interesting one.  What was J. Edgar's reputation behind his back during those years of power?  How public was his homosexuality?  How did J. Edgar turn into the lampooned caricature well-known to most Americans?  What was going on with his father's mental illness?  These questions are exciting ones for me, but the the roving pack of writers helping tell the story and the ultimate exposure of Edgar as an unreliable narrator address these ideas remotely and obliquely, and never in a satisfying or thoughtful way.  Edgar's racism lies similarly unexplored during an especially virulent attack on Martin Luther King, Jr. on the eve of his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance.

I guess I am confused because Clint Eastwood has made some of the most acclaimed films of the past twenty years: Unforgiven, A Perfect World, Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino.  He built a story around one of the finest actors of our time in DiCaprio, and he employed a top screenplay from acclaimed Milk writer Dustin Lance Black.  His film ultimately registers alongside Public Enemies, Michael Mann's misfire from a few summer's ago: a promising film of the 1920's-1930's with a star performance of an American icon which loses its focus as it goes on for far too long.  That is not to say that there is not a great movie in here somewhere.  J. Edgar Hoover remains a captivating 20th Century figure, a contradictory tragic hero, one seemingly shaped by Bolshevik attacks on American soil which infused his paranoia and obsession.  I think that J. Edgar Hoover deserves a more thoughtful film with a better script.  And none of the cast benefits from the pounds of garish make-up that they wear for more than half the film.  I wonder if it would have been better to cast older actors and actresses instead of piling on the receding hairlines, the liver spots, the paunch, and the neck wrinkles to stars DiCaprio, Watts, and Hammer?  If your movie is going to require more than half of its running time with your stars hidden under latex and make-up, when does that decision ultimately hamper a younger actor or actress?  I like all three performances, and I wonder why DiCaprio was not nominated for Best Actor.  I just simply might not be a great performance from him.  I wonder how it stacks up against Meryl Streep's Oscar-winning performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.  A disappointing misfire.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Seeking a Better Movie for this Concept (or go rent Joe Versus The Volcano)

Movie Review: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Director: Lorene Scafaria

Reviewed: 30 June 2012

jamesintexas rating--**

Shame on the director.  A promising concept of imminent apocalypse which could be mined for great humor and pathos results in a messy road trip romance film with either miscast lead actors or just severe lack of chemistry, a sloppy script, and an avoidance of nearly everything that might make such a scenario interesting, funny, or terrifying.

It's the end of the world as they know it, and everyone does not feel fine.  People react differently to the news that the asteroid that will incinerate all is headed towards earth in three weeks, and the final space mission could not deflect it from its path (I guess Bruce Willis and the Armageddon-crew failed).  In the inspired opening shot, Dodge (Steve Carell) listens, transfixed and unemotional, to the broadcast on his car radio; Nancy, his wife (played by Carell's real-life wife), opens the door and runs off into the night without saying a word.  Dodge slouches towards destruction, returning to his apartment, sticking to his routine.  As the asteroid approaches, Dodge's cleaning lady keeps showing up to work, confused by Dodge's attempt to tell her that her services won't be needed.  Dodge remains one of the few workers left at his insurance company, answering distressed calls, throwing up into his garbage can, and enduring quasi-hilarious staff meetings of five people where a supervisor asks, "Anyone want to be a CFO?"  Dodge fights traffic.  Dodge attends apocalyptic parties with his friends who curse at each other and their children, press young children into drinking martinis and shots, do heroin as a bucket list item, and clumsily throw themselves at each other.  Nothing seems to wake Dodge out of his torpor.

A jolt arrives when Dodge's unknown neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley) cries on the fire escape outside of his apartment, seemingly trapped in a contentious relationship, and struggling because she has missed the last trans-Atlantic flight home to her loving parents in Surrey, England.  Dodge's attempt to comfort her results in a hug and an establishment of trust:"I won't rob you if you agree not to rape me," offers Penny, and Dodge agrees.  As it turns out, she has been collecting his mail and has a letter from the woman who got away, his high school love; her hoarding of his mail has resulted in him not getting the letter which seems to intimate that there is a possibility of reconnection.  Anarchy erupts on their street below, and as Dodge and Penny escape on a road trip, he agrees to find her a flight home to die with her family if she helps him find his lost love (I guess because she has the car?).  Seeking a Friend for the End of the World then turns into a road trip movie, complete with cameos from recognizable actors and scenarios increasingly nonsensical, annoying, and ultimately, sloppy: hitchhiking moment in a truck, burial scene, obligatory pit stop for food scene, as well as visits to various homes that are in pretty good shape with lots of electricity, gas, and wine.  The inevitable happens between Dodge and Penny, and their relationship is depicted in harmonica playing and in the montage of shots on a beach, holding each other, talking but who knows what they are saying!  And the plot rumbles on, and the countdown to the destruction of life ticks down.

My problems with this film are myriad.  It squanders two excellent actors (as well as a supporting cast of note) by giving them very little to do.  Knightley is especially egregious as I found her performance as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (a term coined by AV Club writer Nathan Rabin to describe this particular archetype) increasingly annoying and unlikable.  But, let's not give Steve Carell a pass, who seems to have taken his career and tried to turn it into latter-day Bill Murray with less is more, somnolent, increasingly depressing performances.  His arc is even more frustrating, and his performance is ultimately a misfire.  The screenplay is wildly inconsistent with titanic rifts between characters healed in less than two minutes of screen time as well as unexplained plot points and cliched dialogue.  The streets that they travel (New Jersey by way of California?  Camden has never looked this nice!) are remarkably unlittered and free of looters or those without cars who would want to take their car.  And this film is just free of people.  Where are all the people?  Is everyone at the beach?  Does everyone has access to underground bunkers?  Are churches overflowing?  What is the government's position?  Where is the president?  Too many questions like these are not even considered in this film.

There is promise in exploring the idea of how do people confront the end of days as it is an exploration of a life's unfulfilled promises, regrets, and bucket lists.  There is promise in the idea of someone without anyone negotiating companionship at the very end.  There is promise in the idea that some people will try heroin, push children to drink, explore previously unsaid sexual attractions, as well as loot and destroy at will.  However, instead of pushing to explore the psychology of survivors (including a slightly menacing sequence with Penny's ex-boyfriend Speck (Derek Luke) who lives in an underground bunker prepared for the worst, hoping that she will be one of the select females that his group uses to repopulate the earth, a Dr. Strangelovian moment that I wish the film had been dark enough to explore), the film instead withdraws from controversy and deflates into a cliched romance between two ultimately unlikeable people.

Exploring why some people will cling to routine even in the face of imminent disaster is interesting.  Exploring why some people abandon dogs by tying their leashes to the legs of strangers passed out in the park is interesting.  Exploring why some people turn to or away from faith is interesting.  This film is not interesting.  I think Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a better television show or miniseries with episodes that are more fully sketched out which allow the characters to develop and percolate than it is as a film.  Maybe it needed more time with scenarios and its ideas.  I wonder if apocalyptic television shows like The Walking Dead, novels like The Road, and even the Young Adult novel Life As We Knew It have inured me against the whimsical charms of a romance at the end of days because they have me considering marauding packs of criminals, food shortages, and general lawlessness instead of traffic-free streets, electricity, and safety.

No, that's not it.  I do not think that this concept is flawed (though the title, as friend Natalie L. pointed out, seems a bit misleading).  I think I just reject the central conceit of this film (Dodge's pursuit of the one that got away) when ultimately the director mishandles that by first, not letting us see the contents of the actual letter that drives the action, and second, building the film around that character arc and refusing to give any sort of the payoff included in the confines of that architecture.  The one that got away is given short shrift and then cast off mercilessly as a plot point late in the film.  Put simply, it is a betrayal.  It is clear that the film was made on a lighter budget because there are no memorable settings or shots, but the lack of any sort of consistent tone is inexcusable.  We are supposed to laugh at the employees of a restaurant as well as the behavior of a policeman, but neither is truly that funny or well-written.  Indeed, the funniest scene in the movie occurs when Cop #2 (Jim O'Heire, Jerry from Parks and Recreation) spills a cup of coffee while realizing why Dodge and Penny have been arrested by a rogue officer.  Why wasn't that actor in the movie more?  Early on, a jarring tone is established by a suicidal coworker of Dodge's and the vague riot, as well as some transgressive humor through friend Roache (the talented Patton Oswalt, crashing his cameo into the ground with one joke that gets less funny the more he repeats it) and potential lover Diane (the underused and charming Connie Britton).  There are lines written and delivered by characters and the one television reporter still on the air (Mark Moses from Mad Men) that are meant to feel ironic or nihilistic with so little time left in the world, but most of them are chuckle-worthy at best, and at worst, take me out of the film, causing me to wonder why someone would say that with a straight face at this time.  Why is the reporter still broadcasting?  Does he feel some responsibility?  Where is his family?  What is his story?

I wish that director Lorene Scafaria had committed to a darker or funnier vision for this film, one of anarchic moments and unconventional pairings of characters and philosophies.  Is it wrong to expect someone in a film about the end of the world to consider (even if it is to ultimately ignore or reject) faith?  It is it wrong to consider that some people will use the remaining days to destroy and take whatever they want?  (Case in point: the scene in Steven Soderbergh's Contagion where Matt Damon's character watches thieves break into his neighbor's house is infinitely more chilling and real than anything in this film.)  Is it wrong to want either character, Dodge or Penny, to exist beyond the confines of a screenplay?  Instead, there's a sappy, cliched film that cheats its audience out of potentially rich and moving scenarios and an adult exploration of how people would approach their imminent destruction.  He's dodging life, and she's his lucky penny?  Really?

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World might have been a better movie if it focused on the dog tied to Dodge's leg.  For my money, I'd rent Joe Verus The Volcano with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan for a similarly themed, but much more well-executed, moving, and funny story about the end of one man's world.  Dodge this one.

There's Just Something About Ted

Movie Review: Ted

Director:  Todd MacFarlane

Reviewed: 30 June 2012

jamesintexas rating--*** (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

Sometimes you go see a movie on a lark because friends suggest it on a Friday in the summer evening, and there are still a row of tickets available to a ten p.m. show on opening night.  It may not have been a film that you were clamoring to see (you could rank three other films currently in theaters ahead of it), but the thrill of seeing an opening night film, in a packed house, with the hope that it will be funny and make the crowd roar are all present.

One of my favorite movie-watching moments ever was seeing There's Something About Mary on the Friday it opened in the summer of 1998 with a packed house, sitting in the third row with friends Ed, Mike, Mark, and Matt, watching the audience fall out of their seats in laughter.  I actually saw that for the first and only time in a theater.  For that film, I had heard little beforehand and thus was unprepared for the raunchy hilarity.  I remember missing up to thirty seconds of dialogue at a time because the crowd was still exploding and recovering with laughter from previous scenes.  A masterpiece and a thrilling movie-watching experience.

Now it is the summer of 2012.  As I watched Ted last Friday night, I realized that this environment was the best possible one to see this film.  Some movies are just meant to be seen on opening weekend or opening night if possible.  Does that affect my rating and review of the film?  Ultimately, no.  A clunky movie is a clunky movie, crowd or no crowd.  However, I found Ted both enjoyable and hilarious as I watched its best moments reverberate through a crowd, though admittedly, no one fell out of a seat with laughter.  Admittedly, that's a pretty high bar to set for a comedy.  

My admiration for Ted begins with the narration of a young boy wishing his Christmas gift teddy bear would become alive, his real best friend, and the ramifications of that wish coming true.  A stentorian Patrick Stewart narrates as John Bennet meets Ted, his best friend forever and thunder buddy, John's parents freak out rather wonderfully in the kitchen at the sight of a walking and talking stuffed animal, and the opening pre-title sequence culminates in Ted becoming a celebrity and appearing Forrest Gump-like on Johnny Carson's show before, as Stewart tells us, pretty much everyone got used to him and stopped making it such a big deal.  Roll titles with hilarious photographs in place of plot.

A 35-year old rental car employee John Bennet (Mark Wahlberg) and his PR executive girlfriend Lori Collins (Mila Kunis) begin the film struggling to find balance within their lives while living with Ted.  Ted drinks, smokes up, hires prostitutes, and pretty much serves as mouthpiece for anything graphically sexual, virulently racist, or homophobic, and a his mouth spews a fountain of eighties and nineties references; his influence over John leads to conflict as John misses work, is late for work, still shares a bed and hilarious chanting ritual whenever thunder sounds.  As voiced by MacFarlane himself, what Ted lacks in facial expression he more than compensates for in verbal acuity and acidity.  Most of the joy of the first portion of this film consists of the incongruity of the visual of a kid's teddy bear spouting racist, homophobic, and sexist comments in a matter-of-fact manner.  Very little is taboo, and part of the fun is trying to guess what Ted is going to say next.

So, in order to appease Lori, Ted moves out, gets a job at a local grocery store where his inappropriate behavior keeps getting rewarded, and struggles living without John.  They both stay in touch, with Ted calling John to come over to his place to get hight instead of working his job, with a double-date that goes awry featuring Ted's new girlfriend, as well as an eventual chaotic party at Ted's new pad.  Said party  forces John to choose between a work-related shindig with Lori's predatory and slimy boss Rex (Joel McHale) or Ted's wild bash featuring an icon from both of their childhoods.  The party sequence seems to be the centerpiece of the film, with Ted eviscerating Hootie and the Blowfish (as well as most of 90's pop rock) with supporting fights, cocaine, and hilarious one-liners.  John's choice to attend the party and the consequences of that act drive the rest of the film, as does a bizarre subplot involving a deranged stalker named Donny (a creepily effective Giovanni Ribisi) who wants to buy Ted for his deranged son.

Wahlberg is winning in this film, a highlight being his offering a litany of white-trash names for Ted's girlfriend that brought the house down.  Wahlberg rattles off over 25 names in one take before adding the second layer to the joke and repeating.  Although I think Wahlberg's best role ever is that other Boston film The DeParted, his performance is great here, as he does not get swallowed up by  a visual effect.  MacFarlane's Ted fires up shot after shot, many of them layups, but there are occasional three-pointers of hilarity, and the consistent effort pays off with most shots going in (Ed McMahon thought Ted was Alf; a Teddy Ruxpin crack results in a three minute Kill-Bill style thrashing of an apartment with Ted punching John in the face, repeatedly; a 9-11 reference still catches the breath for its audacity or rarity).  Ribisi brings the right level of creep to his role, and both Lori and John's work friends seem poised for more minutes of screen time but never get it.  The film races to its inevitable conclusion with a Norah Jones concert as well as a chase scene ending up on the tower above the Green Monster at Fenway (Shouldn't that park be better guarded than it is, considering its role in this film and The Town?).  A final joke at the end goes over extremely well and is offensive.

There is a trend in recent comedy films to evoke the 80's or early 90's through nostalgic songs, pop culture references, and in particular, actual stars of that time period.  I Love You, Man did this with both Rush and Lou Ferrigno, Bridesmaids featured Wilson Phillips love via an end of the movie sing-along, and now Ted enters the comedy canon with its extended love fest involving Flash Gordon.  I don't know if this has always been a feature of comedy (There's Something About Mary did feature a scratchy Chris Elliot, a thick Brett Fav-Ra, and the musical stylings of Jonathan Richman), but when John recalls a memory of first meeting Lori, and the film flashes back to him as the white-uniformed lead from Airplane! in the dance spoof scene of Saturday Night Fever, the moment works on level after hilarious level.  I enjoyed laughing at the reference within a reference, but I realize that not everyone, particularly those younger than me, will get that reference.  And it is funny even without understanding the reference of Mark Wahlberg as Ted Striker as Tony Manero.  I like being able to get most of the references, though I'll admit to being lost with the Flash Gordon worship.

And therein lies the strengths of this film. A willingness to throw joke after joke up with many of them sticking.  An affinity for transgressive humor though not as bodily-focused as a Farrelly Brothers film.  A skillful glee in referencing 80's and 90's culture (at one point, Ted grabs his torn arm from behind a doorway ala Indiana Jones, with just a line of John Williams' score).  An assembly of really good actors who look like they're having fun.  An off-the-wall, anarchic sense of play and that nearly anything goes.  A fully realized commitment to having Ted be a character, not a visual effect.  Impressively, Ted focuses on the character's statements more than his actions.

Three stars is a strong rating.  I had fun watching this movie, and I would watch it again.  I think some of the surprise and shock will dissipate and some of the weaknesses of the story might become more glaring.  But there were enough shining moments for me to recommend this film.  And the few cameos, another staple of the comedy, are handled well.

I don't know if you can see Ted in the third row of the Sundance Theater in Houston with Vini, Denise, Kyrlyn, Natalie, and Lanny, but I recommend that too.  Ted is a movie best shared with a crowd and with friends.  And, I suspect, a film that warrants a sequel.