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February 23, 2012

2011: SHORTS

If you were disappointed by the movies in 2011, and especially if you think that most of the nominees for Best Picture are lackluster and undeserving, I recommend you make every effort to seek out the Oscar nominated shorts. They are ALL good and some are exceptional. Be forewarned, however. "There is no dearth of troubling subject matter,... especially in the documentary category," begins Stephen Holden in his New York Times review, and concludes, "If some... are stronger than others, there are no lemons among them, and a half-dozen are truly memorable." There is also a great deal of musical talent on display in the soundtracks.


Patrick Doyon’s Dimanche/Sunday (Canada) has been "Described as a love letter to children’s imagination...." A little boy goes through the Sunday family routine ignored by the adults and left to his own imagination, which takes its magic realism bent at face value. The drawings are wonderful, as is Luigi Allemano's original soundtrack.

Dimanche (Sunday)

The director Grant Orchard says A Morning Stroll (UK) is "based loosely on a real life event recounted in Paul Auster's brilliant book True Tales of American Life." A chicken takes the same walk through the streets of New York City each day from 1959 into a dystopian future, and despite mounting catastrophes, remains unruffled. This is a clever entertainment, but it was by far my least favorite of the animated shorts. Curiously, I found a different claim for the source. J. R. Jones writing on Reader says, "The source material is 'The Chicken,' a short story by one Casper G. Clausen that appeared in the New York Literary Review in 1986...."

1959 New York City
Still from A Morning Stroll

A chicken rules the roost in "A Morning Stroll"
Contemporary New York City

Enrico Casarosa of Pixar directed La Luna (USA), a sweet little coming of age story about a boy who goes out in a rowboat to work with his father and grandfather for the first time. Once out at sea the father pulls a ladder out of the boat and motions to the boy to climb it. The boy arrives at the moon, which is covered, to his delight and ours, in gold stars. Father and grandfather join him and proceed to teach the boy how to sweep the moon and take pride in him as his confidence grows.



William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg's The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (USA) is a captivating allegory about the worlds of imagination that literally LIVE in books. A man who is something of a cross between Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati is whisked away by a storm -- along with his library -- to a land where books have come alive and fly off their shelves like flocks of birds. There have been many homages this year; this one is a magical bow to books. Variations on "Pop Goes the Weasel" provide the delightful soundtrack.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

Making the film

Set in 1909, Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby's Wild Life (Canada) is about a young Englishman who sets out for Alberta, where he buys ranchland, ready to make his mark. He finds himself utterly unprepared for the demands of the wilderness, but tries his best to put a veneer of success and confidence into his letters home. Increasingly, his solitude and longing become too heavy. Judith Gruber-Stitzer composed the wonderful original music.


In Peter McDonald’s Pentecost (Ireland), a mischievous Irish alter boy, who loves soccer above all else, has been banned from his duties because of an accident he has caused during mass. As a result his father deprives him of anything soccer. But when the Bishop announces a visit, the boy must be called back due to a shortage of altar boys. The film charmingly puts an overlay of football locker room pregame coaching over the preparations for the Bishop's Sunday Mass. The “Ode to Joy” portion of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony serves as the soundtrack in an electro house music incarnation with synthesized four-on-the-floor beat bass line that crescendos and decrescendos with the action.


Max Zähle’s Raju (Germany/India) is a beautiful story about the sad reality of the child trade in India. A German couple have traveled there to adopt an orphaned boy. He and his new father stand on a crowded urban street watching kites overhead when the child vanishes in a mere instant. The father panics and calls out. His desperate search leads him to disturbing information that will force the adoptive parents to an agonizingly painful decision. The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism of Brandeis University has information on fraud and corruption in international adoptions.

In The Shore (Ireland), directed by Terry George, an American returns to his native Belfast after many years, bringing his adult daughter with him. Trying to learn more of her father's past, she encourages him to visit the fiancé he ignored once he got to the States and his best friend who married her. He is reluctant, but the reunion becomes a parable of forgiveness, love and the healing possibilities of time's passing.

Andrew Bowler's Time Freak (USA) was my least favorite short live action film. Stillman is an OCD nerd who inhabits a warehouse space with his charts and formulae -- and a clunky time machine he has invented. It's Groundhog Day all over again, but a Groundhog Day Stillman gets to fine tune. He has always dreamt of time traveling back to ancient Rome, but his neurosis limits his travels to mere minutes or hours back in time trying to get some bit of minutia right (perhaps reflected in his name, Still-man). His friend Evan has serious concerns about the hold the obsession has on Stillman, but cannot help himself being drawn in deeper.

Stillman at the board

Evan and Stillman with time machine

Stillman reaches out

Hallvar Witzø's absurdist Tuba Atlantic (Norway) finds Oskar driving his Christmas-light-strung tractor, then racked by a coughing fit. When his doctor gives the 70-year-old six days to live he calls his estranged brother in America. No answer. So Oskar he sets out to resurrect a monumental tuba the brothers patched together out of scrap metal as children to signal his brother across the Atlantic. Cantankerous by nature, Oskar is more than a little annoyed when Inger shows up to announce she is working to become an official Angel of Death for the local Jesus Club. Suffering not only his verbal aspersions but also his penchant for mowing down sea gulls with an ancient machine gun, she soldiers on for six days ticking off Oskar's six stages of grief  in her Angel of Death handbook. Tuba Atlantic is a story of the redemptive power to be found in the unlikely intersection of disparate lives.


"Not included in the documentary program," according to Stephen Holden in the New York Times "because of licensing issues is the fifth nominated documentary short, God Is Bigger Than Elvis, by Rebecca Cammisa. The film focuses on Dolores Hart, who in her early 20s abandoned a Hollywood career to become a Benedictine nun." Maureen Dowd wrote a piece about the film in her weekly editorial column in the NYT.

James Spione’s Incident in New Baghdad (USA) is narrated by United States Army specialist Ethan McCord. In 2007, McCord was present when an American helicopter attack killed two journalists and nine Iraqi civilians. McCord was able to pull two young children from the wreckage. The memories of the incident haunt McCord, who was denied treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. Upon his return to the United States he has gradually come to terms with his demons and brings his experience to bear on his love for his own children. This article by David Montgomery for the Washington Post details the events in New Baghdad. McCord now lectures on the rights of veterans traumatized by war.

The HBO documentary Saving Face (USA/Pakistan), directed by Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, is heartbreaking and incomprehensible. The epidemic of acid attacks against Pakistani women is so widespread that the Pakistani government has had to open new burn clinics across the country. The BBC reports that "campaigners estimate that there may be as many as 150 victims every year." The film documents the efforts of Dr. Mohammad Jawad, a British plastic surgeon, who periodically returns to his native Pakistan in an attempt to give these women a degree of dignity. The film chronicles the struggles of Zakia and Rukhsana as they seek justice and the chance to be whole again. The Pakistani government recently passed the Acid Crime Prevention Bill 2011, but many women believe it does not go far enough.

Another story of an acid attack victim is detailed in this report by Rania Abouzeid  for Time World. Naila Farhat was attacked at age 13, and "For the next six years, Farhat doggedly pursued her case in the courts, attending every session despite the trauma of being in the same room as her tormentor; the schoolteacher was not charged, after he allegedly bribed local police and fled — a familiar occurrence, according to women's-rights activists who say some police are unwilling or unable to nab offenders. But Irshad Hussein was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment and ordered to pay damages of 1.2 million rupees (almost $15,000). He appealed and convinced a High Court to reduce his sentence to four years and 1.1 million rupees, with the proviso that if he agreed to pay the fine, his jail term would be voided and he would be released.

"Undeterred, Farhat — with the support of the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) — went to the Supreme Court last November, where the original sentence was quickly reinstated, making her the first woman to win an acid-attack case in Pakistan's Supreme Court."

This photograph...
Naziran Abid, right,, her daughter Haseena Abid, five, and Naila Farhat, a friend and fellow survivor, play games at the Acid Survivors Foundation in Islamabad.
...accompanies another account, "Pakistan's Acid Attack Victims Pin New Hope on New Laws," which appears in Britain's The Telegraph. I include it because the publicity stills for Saving Face below are too tame to convey the film's content.

Directed by Gail Dolgin and Robin Fryday, The Barber of Birmingham (USA) is a tribute to James Armstrong, a barber and raconteur in Birmingham, Alabama. Armstrong was one of the Southern foot soldiers of the civil rights movement who risked brutal physical attacks and jail  to peacefully protest on the front lines of the struggle. Armstrong's shop is papered in news clippings, posters, photographs and other memorabilia, and he has never missed an annual reunion of the foot soldiers. He wanted to share history in the making at President Obama's inauguration, but was held back when he became ill. Nevertheless, he soldiers on and keeps the memory of Dr. King and the foot soldiers alive.

Oscar Guide 2011: Best Documentary Short

Looking at the Mountain Sakura in mist
I miss a person who looks at the Sakura   ~ Kino Tsurayuki

Lucy Walker’s self-described visual poem, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (UK), opens with chilling amateur footage of the approaching tsunami wave making its inexorable way inland to higher and higher ground. Dread sets in as it becomes clear that the path of destruction has no apparent limit. The tsunami struck on March 11 -- just before the sakura, or cherry blossom, blooms -- and in the aftermath of the tragedy, Walker's camera finds a number of victims whose words vacillate between utter despair and stoic resolve. Each conveys a Shinto perspective that finds beauty in imperfection and accepts the natural cycle of growth and decay. The Japanese symbol of hope and renewal, sakura is central to the culture, and at one point we visit the Miharu-Takizakura cherry tree in Miharu, Fukushima, which is more than 1,000 years old. It endures, and the people of Japan will likewise endure. [With hypnotic score by Moby.]

February 7, 2012


Like Martin Scorsese's Hugo, Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist is a loving homage to an earlier era of moving pictures, a time before the talkies when movies were accompanied by an organist in a movie palace. Its protagonist is named Valentin, an evocation of Rudolph Valentino. Peppy Miller is the A Star Is Born engenue, whose career eclipses his riches to rags downfall as movies transition to sound. The allusions to earlier films would make for an entertaining round of trivia. The Artist is beautifully filmed in black and white (naturally), and the actors are excellent. Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, while not Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, delightfully cut the carpet.  Even the Jack Russell Uggie who plays Valentin's little dog has us remembering that other screen-stealing terrier Asta, played by the Wire-Haired Fox Skippy in the Thin Man movies. Ultimately, for all its sleek competence and admirable performances, it is a sweet trifle to delight the senses, yet its abundant generosity of spirit and sheer love for the movies shine through.

In Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, set in Hawaii, the central character, played by George Clooney, is a lawyer descended from a line of landed Hawaiian royalty. His wife lies in a hospital bed in a vegetative state caused by a boating accident. He refers to himself as the "back-up parent," and his wits are being tested by his two daughters acting out their grief. When the elder daughter reveals to the clueless Matt that her mother was having an affair, Matt has nowhere to direct his anger, confusion and sense of betrayal. As the three try to cope, the larger extended family is hoping to sell the pristine land of their forebears to a real estate developer. The two stories run in parallel and ultimately intersect, as Matt takes the measure of his life and those closest to him and gradually comes to terms with his not so simple twist of fate. An excellent cast in a well-executed film, but I would not bestow an Oscar on it.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close was better than I expected it would be, in part because its adult co-stars Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock pretty much stay in the background. The film,  based on the 2005 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer and directed by Stephen Daldry, belongs to Thomas Horn as 11-year-old Oskar Schell. His father was one of the casualties of the 9/11 Twin Towers bombings. Scorsese's Hugo is looking for a key to bring his father's automaton back to life. Oskar has a key to which he is looking for a lock. Both are seeking an answer to a father's loss. Because the envelope in which Oskar finds the key carries the work "black," Oskar systematically seeks out everyone named Black in the five boroughs. His search will allow his life to intersect with many others, which is ultimately the point of the film. It is about the grace of shared humanity, and it could stand on that alone without the backdrop of 9/11, which can at times -- especially the falling victim leitmotif -- seem gratuitous. The ending manages a little too neatly to tuck in the edges orderly. Still Horn's performance and a mute Max von Sydow as The Renter keep the movie from becoming cloying or maudlin. It is a tribute to the boy that he holds his own with the 82-year-old veteran.

Tate Taylor's The Help, which I commented on earlier as a pat on the back to white people for giving black people their voice, is a competent, if intensely annoying, film. The writing subverts itself by allowing the story's running joke (which I will spare you here) to undermine any serious issues the film purports to address. Viola Davis's performance is inargueably praise-worthy. In fact, without her gravitas, the The Help would entirely devolve into sheer stereotype. That a film like this could be nominated for Best Picture speaks to the shallowness with which Americans approach history and difficult questions about the moral lapses in its past and present. I'll bet you that when it comes out on DVD, the jewel box cover will hawk the film as "Heart warming!!" I try to stear clear of "Heart warming!!"

Repeat review from "Hollywood III," which also contains Manohla Dargis, historical information on Georges Méliès:
Based on Brian Selznick's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Martin Scorsese's Hugo is a love letter to the movies. Set in the 1930s, it is the story of a lonely orphan who lives as a squatter in the clock tower of a Parisian train station where his uncle, before abadoning him, worked as the official timekeeper. Hugo carries on his uncle's tasks tending to the gears and pulleys. The central focus of his passion, however, is a lifesize automaton. It is all he has left of his clockmaker father, and he purloins toys from a gruff toy merchant in the train station (magisterially played by Sir Ben Kingsley) to cannibalize parts he needs to bring the automaton back to life. When the toy merchant catches Hugo pinching his wares, he requires the boy to work for him to repay the trespass. Hugo's life becomes entwined with the toy merchant and his goddaughter Isabelle, who is roughly Hugo's age. Along the way Hugo finds the heartshaped key that might breathe life back into the automaton. Spoiler Alert: Eventually Hugo will discover that the bitter toy maker Georges is Georges Méliès! Scorsese employs 3D technology, but uses it with a judicious hand.This is a magical, beautiful, lyrical, melancholy film that never sinks into mawkishness or sentimentality. Steven Spielberg could learn a thing or two.

Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen's, what, 50th movie? It is standard Woody fare, complete with neurotic, misunderstood writer, this time transported to Paris. The trick  here is that each night at the toll of midnight Gil is transported to ex-pat Paris and the world of Cole Porter, Scott and Zelda, Getrude and Alice, Hemingway, Picasso, Degas and Gauguin, et al. By day, Gil's world is filled with his affluent, narcissistic (How many times have I used that word throughout these little reviews? Is a pattern emerging here?) fiance, her parents, and her pedantic know-it-all friend. It's fun -- especially Hemingway -- and it's very, very pretty, but if I may be allowed to repeat an earlier analogy, it is a trifle.

Repeat review from "Biopics:" Moneyball is the story of Billy Beane's transformation of the Oakland A's by retiring romantic notions of recruitment and replacing them with sabermetric principles. [Yes, I had to look that up.] Bennett Miller's film is servicable; Brad Pitt's performance is quite good. Hollywood has established a biopic formula that gets in the way of authenticity for me. European films portraying actual people usually feel more genuine.

I have always found it interesting that when I ask a class about the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden, who ate the fruit of what, they inevitably answer that they ate the fruit of the Tree of Life. This is wrong, of course; Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The premise of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life seems as if it might be an exploration of this misperception. The Tree of Life is a lush film  in the sense of lavish, fertile, sumptuous, magnificent. It is also quiet to the point of near muteness, introspective, spare. On the one hand it is the story of a solitary individual, a boy coming of age in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s. This is the era of my childhood, too, and it is uncannily accurate. The boy is one among a family of four -- a father, a mother, a brother, and, haunting the family, the ghost of a younger brother who  died years before. People claimed to be baffled by the film, but it makes itself achingly clear. The cosmic sequences people so hated are the necessary counterpoint to the finite lives of this nuclear family in this particular time and place. This boy lives within this family in this town in middle America in this time, and all the while an infinite universe courses on. There is the microcosm of this family within the macrocosm. The script is bare. It whispers. The boy's father is authoritarian, the mother overshadowed. The boy senses his father's undercurrent of resentment. He had wanted to be a mucisian but settled for making a living as an engineer. (Alexandre Desplat wrote the original score that alternates seemlessly with works by Bach, Mozart, Couperin, Brahms, Mahler, Respighi, Holst, Smetana, Arsenije Jovanovic among others. Berlioz's magnificent Requiem accompanies the film's climax.) The father loves his son, despite being overbearing. The boy loves his father but is wary of his moods. In fact, the movie is palpable with love. It permeates every frame, as does a sense of loss and finitude in the inexorable march of  time immemorial. If the Academy has any sense of aesthetic and ethical decency, The Tree of Life will receive the Oscar.

Repeat review from "Hollywood III:" Then there was War Horse with John Willliams's score of such emotional manipulation (of which Spielburg is so enamored) that you'd be crying buckets even if you weren't watching a film in which good actors are being directed in such a way as to make a Hallmark Hall of Fame tear jerker look like hard boiled storytelling. The horse is about the only player in the film whom Spielberg is unable to turn into a caricature. His sentimental nostalgia for overwrought Hollywood epics is almost as gratuitous as his addiction to CGI.

February 6, 2012

2011: INDIES

I surveyed a number of "official" lists of independent films and was a little baffled by some of the titles that were included. Does Woody Allen, with 50 films under his belt, count as "independent"? Are movies like Margin Call, The Descendents and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, with their star-studded casts, indie movies? It really doesn't matter, I guess, since my categories thus far have not been at all pure. I placed Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams in with foreign films and not with documentaries. So let's just go with the flow...

Terri is Azazel Jacobs's story of a misfit high school kid. Terri is overweight, introspective and his wardrobe consists exclusively of pajamas. His parents are absent, and he lives with an uncle suffering from dementia, for whom he lovingly cares. Terri the outsider reluctantly allows himself to be taken under the wing of the highschool counselor (played sympathetically by John C. Reilly). The film has something of a cinéma vérité air. It ambles in the same ambling shuffle that is Terri's gait. He is befriended by two other misfits -- bully Chad gives the lie to his brashness with his nervous tic of pulling out his hair strand by strand and the flirtatious Heather is not as emboldened as she would like to seem. One of Terri's chores is to set the traps for mice in the attic. He takes the dead mice to a field behind his school where he feeds them to the resident hawk. Jacobs's gentle direction and Jacob Wysocki's thoughtful portrayal of Terri allow us to understand that this is merely a part of his exploration of the world into which he is becoming an adult, not the perverse behavior of which he is accused.

I'm a Gus Van Sant fan, but Restless lacked the edge I expect from his movies. I saw previews more than a year before it was released, so perhaps distributers had reservations. Annabel is played by Mia Wasikowska (busy this year with Jane Eyre and Albert Nobbs). She is dying from cancer, rather too beautifully and blissfully. Henry Hopper plays the Gus Van Sant young man Enoch who, because his parents have recently been killed in a car accident, lives with his aunt. Enoch also has an imaginary friend/mentor who is the ghost of a young WWII Japanese kamikaze pilot. Neither seem to have obligations such as school or whatnot so they spend their idle hours crashing funerals. Are these poor souls, confronted with death at so young an age, meant to evoke empathy, sadness, or just shallow sentimentality? Hard to say.

J. C. Chandor’s Margin Call is a morality play about the 2008 financial crisis, an event that caught all of the "experts" by surprise when for years I had been saying, THIS CAN NOT SUSTAIN ITSELF!! The cast is impeccable, the script tight, the sets a reflection of the materiality of lives given over to greed and self-interest. The film is so good not least because the characters are presented not as heartless villians, though heartless they can be, but as human beings faced with dilemmas they believe in their panic they do not have the time and luxury to sort out with any ethical balance. Writing in the New York Times, A. O. Scott remarked, "It is hard to believe that 'Margin Call' is Mr. Chandor’s first feature. His formal command — his ability to imply far more than he shows or says and to orchestrate a large, complex drama out of whispers, glances and snippets of jargon — is downright awe inspiring." It has been a little more than three years since the meltdown; yet I was surprised that a film this smart and deft appeared so soon after those events. I'm glad it was this one.

Drake Doremus's Like Crazy was improvised without a script. It has met with critical acclaim, but I think a script would have been a good idea. Anna is a Brit in Los Angeles on a student visa. Jacob is a young furniture designer. They fall in love, she overstays her visa, she's sent home, and despite her efforts, U.S. immigration refuses to allow her to return. Meanwhile, Jacob moves on. I have to hand it to the filmmakers for refusing to devolve into cliche. In real life, frustrations and complications often take the upper hand. The film tries to stay true to this reality. Still, were I to pick the best love story of the year, it would be The Weekend hands down. (See Foreign Films)

I had low expectations for The Way, which looked to be one of those movies DVD blurbs describe as "inspirational." Emilio Estevez tells the story of an ophthalmologist whose son has been killed in extreme weather in the Pyrenees just as he set off on a pilgrimage down the Camino de Santiago. Tom has lived what he considers a responsible life, a point that he argues with his son in flashback. The exchanges are especially poignant because the father is played by Martin Sheen and the son by Estevez. The tragedy sends Tom to Spain to bring his son home, but once there, events push him into a re-examination of his own life, and a desire to somehow memorialize his son's. He will walk the arduous Camino de Santiago himself (his son's gear has been given to him by the authorities), spreading small handfuls of Daniel's ashes as he goes. Along the way he encounters, and tries to brush away, one after another, three fellow seekers. Together they make up a troupe of four Canterbury pilgrims -- each of whom will find, not what he or she is looking for, but the grace of shared humanity. Martin Sheen's performance is deeply nuanced and the ensemble cast is finely atuned to one another.

Bear with me for the next six paragraphs. I loved Miranda July's 2005 Me and You and Everyone We Know. Her new film, The Future, is not about much of anything, and about everything. Sophie is a failed artist teaching a children’s dance class part-time. Jason does call-in tech support from the couple’s sofa. They have adopted Paw Paw, but because the cat is injured it must stay at the shelter. Their only connections to the outside world are their Macs and the prospect of bringing Paw Paw home in 30 days. Sophie feels they must examine their priorities in their last 30 days of freedom from responsibility. She decides to create 30 dances in 30 days. Jason decides to quit his job to live in a kind of Zen awareness, though he simply ends up volunteering for a donate-a-tree organization.

Paw Paw narrates the film. His opening monologue asks: “Have you ever been outside? I mean really outside. Then you know about the darkness that is inappropriate to talk about.” …. “When night comes I am alone, and always have been and always will be alone….” Paw Paw does speak about the darkness that is inappropriate to talk about, again and again throughout the film. We are alone, living lives of quiet desperation, desperately seeking connection, both human and cosmic.

In addition to a talking cat there is a talking moon, a walking T-shirt and an old savant. Everyday fears and the sense of wasted mundane lives find metaphysical weight as the film turns more and more toward magic realism to tease out its truths. A. O. Scott called it an “ingeniously constructed wonder cabinet of a movie…,” and indeed, it is so meticulously put together that I went back to the theater the next day simply to marvel at the way it is put together.

At first they seem like a quirky couple, but it becomes increasingly clear that their anxiety, their sense of unfulfillment, their passivity that borders on paralysis are the emotions of 21st century anomie. “I thought by now I would have done more,” Jason says ruefully. We do not know the future. We expend great effort diverting ourselves from ontological questions. We have become a culture that ridicules those who ask the BIG questions: What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of death? What should we do with ourselves while we are here? And what will what we have done, if anything, mean in the face of eternity?

Katrina Onstad’s piece on July for the New York Times Magazine noted, “…in July’s work, nobody is cool. There’s no irony to it, no insider wink. Her characters are ordinary people whose lives don’t normally invite investigation. So her project is the opposite of hipster exclusion: her work is desperate to bring people together, forcing them into a kind of fellow feeling. She’s unrelentingly sincere, and maybe that sincerity makes her difficult to bear. It also might make her culturally essential.”

“[Onstad] asked [July] what, if anything, she would like to say to those people [who do not believe her sincerity]. ‘I would just say I’m totally not kidding…. Life is too short. This is all too hard to do to actually be kidding about the whole thing.’"
PS: I am certain that the title shared by Leonard Cohen's song is an intentional allusion.


Late releases are held back for the coveted holiday movie slot. Then January brings films that have been ignored but received critical acclaim or are being released late in hopes that they will, in that way, remain utmost in the Academy's minds.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John le Carré's famous spy novel, was based on the Cambridge Five (Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt, John Cairncross and Kim Philby), who were exposed as KGB moles employed by Britain's Secret Intelligence Service during WWII and into the 1950s. Tomas Alfredson's cast for this film version of the thriller is brilliant. John Hurt is Control, Toby Jones is Percy Alleline, David Dencik is Toby Esterhase, Ciaran Hinds is Roy Bland, and Colin Firth is Bill Haydon. Some have measurable screen time and dialog, and some have virtually none. For manageable run-time, Alfredson has deftly compressed the story, making it lean and lithe, and that means that, though the narrative has always been Smiley's, it is even moreso in this incarnation. Thus in an impressive constellation of actors, this is nonetheless Gary Oldman's movie, and he does a commanding job of grounding it. I was a bit annoyed by the announcement in front of each subtitle as to which language was being translated into English. (Your ear should pretty much be able to distinguish among Hungarian, Russian and Turkish.) Manohla Dargis observed in the NYT that "Since the 1979 mini-series, [Smiley] has been synonymous with Guinness's performance, as Mr. le Carré has acknowledged. .... Mr. Oldman...wisely doesn't reinvent Smiley. Rather...he and Mr. Alfredson have opted to build on the original interpretation, using it as a foundational text. (Guinness’s turn is the Torah; Mr. Oldman’s the Talmud.)"

How does Meryl Streep do it? Though she gets a bit of aging make-up, she needs little in the way of prosthetics to BECOME a character. It's not just the accent; it's her entire mien, which never looks contrived, as the main characters in Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar sometimes do. Like J. Edgar, however, Phyllida Lloyd's The Iron Lady, though it ticks off the major political events surrounding Margaret Thatcher's time as Prime Minister, is a film that attempts to plumb the inner person rather than explore the complexity of a political career within the greater context of world events. A. O. Scott criticizes the film for being first and foremost a film about a woman and her fulfillment -- or lack thereof. Still, a wonderful performance.

Carnage is Roman Polanski's film adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s 2006 play God of Carnage. Two couples, Alan annd Nancy (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) and Michael and Penelope (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster), cross paths as the result of the former's son having hit the latter's. When the former couple drops by the latter's to resolve the question of how to address the issue, the claustrophobic stage is set for a Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? sort of devolution into long held marital resentments and mutual loathing. But whereas Edward Albee's play excavates the profound underside of human relationships and unassuaged grief, Carnage is simply an excercise in watching a room full of immature, narcissistic adults bray at each other. It becomes tiresome quickly. We see no humanity from anyone whatsoever. If this is what our cell phone, Facebook, Twitter-fed 21st century has made us into, we are soulless indeed.

Brandon, the central character in Steve McQueen's Shame, is being swallowed up by sex addiction spiralling out of control. Every other aspect of his life has become subsumed. When his sister Sissy, in a serious bout of depression, reaches out to him, he resentfully lets her stay with him, but she cramps his style. Tensions mount. Both Brandon and Sissy are thoroughly self-absorbed, narcissistic characters. We get no backstory, but must assume that whatever childhood they shared was troubled. Both have armored themselves with such complete numbness that nothing can penetrate, not his liaisons, not her cutting. Nevertheless -- unlike the characters in Carnage who are gratingly annoying -- as played by Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, Brandon and Sissy both seem to have some deep core where a humanity worth redeeming is buried.

David Cronenberg’s Dangerous Method is a biopic about Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud at the birth of psychoanalysis. When a young Russian woman named Sabina Spielrein arrives at his clinic, she strikes Jung as the perfect analysand on which to experiment with the thus far theoretical "talking method." Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud and Vincent Cassell as Otto Gross are all superb. Keira Knightley as Spielrein is another matter altogether. Yes, she suffers from, as it was then known, hysteria, but even so, never has an actor so relentlessly chewed the scenery. I had a problem with Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 Black Swan, in which Natalie Portman's repressed ballerina seemed like a throw-back, anti-feminist cliche (and was awarded Best Actress Oscar, which should tell you something if you think we've come a long way, baby). Though I don't agree with some of his conclusions, Terrence Rafferty's overview of the portrayal of women's mental illness in the movies is an excellent companion to the film.

Glenn Close played the title character on stage in Albert Nobbs almost 30 years ago, and tried for years to bring the story to the screen. She co-wrote the script based on George Moore's short story and enlisted Rodrigo Garcia to direct. The film is not so much about gender as it is about a strict heirarchical class society and survival. Orphaned relatively young, a girl takes on the guise of a man so that she may find work. The exterior shots of the hotel where Albert is employed are almost evenly divided between the shabby front entrance through which haughty guests pass and the back yard where linens are laboriously washed and dried, wood chopped, deliveries made. Albert is a meek soul in the margins, almost silent, eyes deferentially downcast. A housepainter, Hubert Page, put up in Albert's room, discovers her secret, then reveals her own. Albert is an innocent, a naif, which Close accentuates with a Chaplinesque carriage. She passionlessly woos one of the hotel's maids with whom she hopes to emulate Hubert's domestic life. In the wake of a cholera outbreak, she returns to Hubert's seaside village to discover that Hubert's wife has succumbed. Albert's childlike response is that she and Hubert move in together and all will be as it was. Close's performance is a tour de force, but Janet McTeer's Hubert rivals any emotion I have seen expressed on screen in years. In her reaction to Albert's thoughtless proposal, she finally stuggles to speak: "You don't understand. Cathleen was my world, she was everything to me." Unfortunately this luminous scene is followed by one that should have found its way to the cutting room floor. That aside every performance in this film of complex emotion is exceptional.

February 1, 2012


For those who believe that movies should be fun or action-packed or suspensful, Jason Reitman's Young Adult will disappoint. As she has done before, Charlize Theron takes on a thoroughly unlikeable character. Mavis is an alcoholic writer of young adult novels that are no longer popular among their fickle audience. When her high school boyfriend sends her an inviation to his newborn's christening, she takes offense, but it isn't long before, in her booze addled thinking, she convinces herself to return to the small town she so scorns to win him back from his young wife and new baby. What ensues as a result of her delusional fantasy is a series of humiliations generated by one of the most un-self-examined characters ever put on screen. She thinks in the teen cliches she listens for in public and puts to the page. Theron's naked performance holds nothing back, and in its unrelenting narcissism would be unbearable were it not for the unlikely connection she makes with the small town outcast she should remember from high school, who was disabled back then by a shockingly violent bullying. Patton Oswalt's portrayal of the geeky Matt is humanely complex, as he tries to reach some self-same humanity in Mavis. That that is never going to happen is what sets the movie apart from conventional narrative and gives it its courage.

David Fincher’s remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is utterly gratuitous. Take the credit sequence. What's that all about? All those stylized, blackened-steel statue figures dripping in black oily ooze filmed with a camera moving around like a swashbuckling epee. From the first moment we see Noomi Rapace's Lisbeth in Niels Arden Oplev's Swedish adaptation we sense the energy and rage boiling just beneath the surface. By contrast Rooney Mara's Lisbeth is almost mousy, making her outbursts of aggression rather hard to buy into. In Oplev's version, there is nothing to make us doubt that Lisbeth’s sadistic legal guardian lives alone, but in Fincher's, there is a family photograph on his office desk and he wears a wedding ring. That makes the set-up in his apartment bedroom entirely implausible, to my mind. Lisbeth causes Martin Vanger to crash in both films, but Oplev's version implicates Lisbeth in Vanger's death by fire; Fincher's does not, which, for my money, makes his Lisbeth a much less interesting character.

If you want to see Sir Arthur Conon Doyle's great creation, get thee to the BBC's smart, sleek, classy series Sherlock set against the backdrop of contemporary London. Created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Doctor John Watson, it is addictively clever. Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is not. In fact, the sensation it caused in me was an overwhelming desire to flee the theater. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law make fools of themselves and bring down the rest of the cast with them with the exception of Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother, and Jared Harris as Moriarty. Still, not worth the price of admission and two+ hours of your life.

Based on Brian Selznick's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Martin Scorsese's Hugo is a love letter to the movies. Set in the 1930s, it is the story of a lonely orphan who lives as a squatter in the clock tower of a Parisian train station where his uncle, before abadoning him, worked as the official timekeeper. Hugo carries on his uncle's tasks tending to the gears and pulleys. The central focus of his passion, however, is a lifesize automaton. It is all he has left of his clockmaker father, and he purloins toys from a gruff toy merchant in the train station (magisterially played by Sir Ben Kingsley) to cannibalize parts he needs to bring the automaton back to life. When the toy merchant catches Hugo pinching his wares, he requires the boy to work for him to repay the trespass. Hugo's life becomes entwined with the toy merchant and his goddaughter Isabelle, who is roughly Hugo's age. Along the way Hugo finds the heartshaped key that might breathe life back into the automaton. Spoiler Alert: Eventually Hugo will discover that the bitter toy maker Georges is Georges Méliès! Scorsese employs 3D technology, but uses it with a judicious hand.This is a magical, beautiful, lyrical, melancholy film that never sinks into mawkishness or sentimentality. Steven Spielberg could learn a thing or two.

Manohla Dargis, NYT, November 22, 2011:
A magician turned moving-picture pioneer, Georges Méliès (1861-1938) began his new career after seeing one of the first public film projections in Paris on Dec. 28, 1895. Until then, early moving pictures had been commercially exhibited on Kinetoscopes, peephole machines that enabled viewers to watch brief films, one person at a time. The image was tiny — less than two inches wide — and moving pictures didn’t become cinema as we know it until wizards like the French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière created machines like the cinématographe, which projected larger-than-life images on screens that people watched as an audience.

While the Lumières dazzled with nonfiction films that they called actualités, Méliès enthralled with fantasies and trick films like "A Trip to the Moon" (1902). In this comic 16-minute science-fiction masterwork, a gaggle of scientists in knee breeches fly in a rocket to the Moon, where they encounter acrobatic creatures with lobster claws amid puffs of smoke and clever cinematic sleights of hand. In the film’s most famous image, the rocket lands splat in the eye of the Man in the Moon, causing him to squeeze out a fat tear. It was perhaps a prophetic image for Méliès, who, after falling out of fashion and into obscurity, ran a toy store in the Montparnasse station in Paris, which is where he was later rediscovered.

Speaking of Steven Spielberg, masochist that I am, I subjected myself to both Steven Spielberg holiday movies. The Adventures of Tintin starts out remarkably true to the wonderful Hergé creation, but instead of using one Tintin story, Spielberg proceeds to mash three together (“The Crab With the Golden Claws” [1941], “The Secret of the Unicorn” [1943] and “Red Rackham’s Treasure” [also 1943]). Tintin is a child journalist who lives with his dog Snowy and is forever finding himself called to distant shores to solve inscrutable mysteries. The gentle charm of Hergé's stories is soon mauled when, no longer able to contain himself, Spielberg lets loose an almost endless animated CGI orgy that left the youngsters in my audience crawling out of their seats and into the aisles to tune Spielberg out and become lost in their own imaginations. Usually critical of restless audiences, I sympathized while trying to stifle one sigh of annoyance after another. Writing in London's The Guardian, literary critic Nicholas Lezard rued "Coming out of the, I found myself, for a few seconds, too stunned and sickened to speak; for I had been obliged to watch two hours of literally senseless violence being perpetrated on something I loved dearly. In fact, the sense of violation was so strong that it felt as though I had witnessed a rape."

Then there was War Horse with John Willliams's score of such emotional manipulation (of which Spielburg is so enamored) that you'd be crying buckets even if you weren't watching a film in which good actors are being directed in such a way as to make a Hallmark Hall of Fame tear jerker look like hard boiled storytelling. The horse is about the only player in the film whom Spielberg is unable to turn into a caricature. His sentimental nostalgia for overwrought Hollywood epics is almost as gratuitous as his addiction to CGI. If you would like a good, sympathetic review, try A. O. Scott in the New York Times. You ain't gettin' it from me.


During the course of his growing movie oeuvre, I have developed a respect for Steve Carell's ability to steer what could become an adolescent joke of a movie and moor it securely with an emotionally complex performance. A character who could devolve into a buffoon instead reveals a core of humanity with which the inner insecurity in all of us can identify. In Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's Crazy, Stupid, Love Cal's wife has cheated on him and wants a divorce, so he wants to get back by scoring himself. Ladies' man Jacob (Ryan Gosling) can't help but notice Cal's loutish behavior in the bar, and ultimately becomes Cal's pick-up coach. And of course, unlikely bonds are forged, motivations misinterpreted, reconciliations attempted, insights gained.

By now you've heard all the praise for Tate Taylor's The Help based on the 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett about black maids who raise children for well-to-do white women. Aspiring journalist “Skeeter” Phelan convinces the maids to tell their story. The sin of the film (and I assume of the book) is that it treats white people as the saving catalyst for blacks. Let's pat ourselves on the back for pulling "those people" out of their misery. It is at its very core patronizing and self aggrandizing, and has absolutely NOTHING authentic to say about the real struggle for civil rights.

There is a lovely little movie that used to be shown on late night TV, way back when network television still aired late night movies. Robert Mulligan's 1978 Same Time, Next Year starred Alan Alda and Ellen Burstein in a chance encounter. Each is married, but they agree to meet on the same weekend each year. Each year finds one at a time of personal crisis that the other helps through. Echoing this premise is Lone Scherfig's One Day. It is a horrible movie, made more horrible by the exploding calendar trope that in turn is made worse by the fact that we virtually never get the relief of the time skip trope to move us along a little faster, please. Instead we get EVERY SINGLE July 15 of almost every sequential year, from 1988 to the present of the characters' saccharin almost-romance. Ms. Scherfig, according to NYT critic A. O. Scott, is "a veteran of the Danish Dogme 95 movement" established by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. That, and the fact that she directed 2009's An Education with stunning performances by Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard, make this movie hard to fathom. Scott admits that the film is done a disservice in the end by its "maudlin excess," but he praises it "at its best — observant, relaxed, touching and charming.... As they make their way through professional ups and downs and serious relationships with other people, the movie opens up and allows its attention to wander into odd corners and byways." Spoiler Alert: My attention wandered A LOT, and as the calendar pages kept floating by, I thought, "Maybe she'll get hit by a bus," and moments later, SHE DOES. But we are not spared. She lives, and July 15 continues to go on and on and on.

Nazi Germany continues to be a hot ticket for movie narratives. Last fall brought John Madden's The Debt, a remake of a 2007 Israeli thriller, which I haven't seen but probably wish I'd seen instead. In East Berlin circa 1965 something took place when three Mossad operatives set out to capture a Mengele-like Nazi fugitive. The daughter of one has written a book about their heroic exploits. Yet as the film oscillates between present-day Tel Aviv and 1965 East Berlin, circling ever closer in on the past, a more complex war story emerges. An examination of memory, ambivalence and guilt, this servicable film gets racheted up a few notches with performances by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds.

The origin story Rise of the Planet of the Apes places the onus on the Frankenstein-esque genetic engineering lab where Will Rodman (James Franco) works. John Lithgow turns in a good performance as Will's Alzheimer's-afflicted father and Caesar, played by Andy Serkis (who inhabited the role of Gollum in Lord of the Rings) is loveable when young and justifiably outraged by the time he goes berserk. Director Rupert Wyatt keeps everything well-paced until the apes embark on their apocalyptic rebellion, at which point all sense of timing is lost in an endless CGI melee wherein the film, along with the apes, runs utterly amok.

I liked Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, based on the pulp novel by James Sallis, and I defy anyone to make the claim that he did not at the very least like the opening sequence. The man with no name maneuvers an invisibly souped up Chevrolet Imapa through narrow streets and down urban highways, hiding in underpasses and shooting out again with nary a flutter of emotion. Most of the film's electro-pop score was composed by Cliff Martinez, who wrote the score for Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies, and Videotape, but that opening sequence is paired with the French musician Kavinsky's (Vincent Belorgey) "Nightcall." The driver falls hard for a young mother (Carey Mulligan) and decides to go straight as a race car driver, an idea that ends up being financed through local gangsters played with relish by Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks. The plot involves a bag of money, double-crosses, a stab in the eye with a fork. We all know where it will lead...

I just took a tally of the films discussed thus far, including those latecomer 2010 flicks, and The Ides of March is the fourth film in which Ryan Gosling stars or co-stars. My feeling is that it was a lot more. He's a wonderful presence on the screen. Ides, directed by its star George Clooney, is a political campaign drama. Clooney plays they pol and Gosling plays the press secretary who goes rogue as the reality of down and dirty politics begins to obscure the lofty rhetoric of the campaign. It's a good movie -- well-written, well-acted, nicely shot -- but I wanted more.

David Frankel's The Big Year is a lovely and loving little movie. The co-stars Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson clearly had a good time making it. Their characters are avid birders strenuously competing in a year-long quest to log the most bird sightings. It is a sport requiring both the athletic prowess to scale challenging terrain and encyclopedic knowledge of bird songs, migrations, and all things ornithological. It also takes oodles of free time and money. Owen Wilson's Kenny Bostick is the reigning champion out to break his own record. Steve Martin's Stu Preissler is in a perpetual state of trying to retire as CEO of a company he has built  into enormous success. By contrast Jack Black's Brad Harris is a loser who still lives with his parents, yet they support his passion. Like any story of this sort, the birding ultimately functions as a catalyst for the greater lessons each character discovers about himself through the journey.

Brett Ratner's Tower Heist is just that, a heist movie, but with a Robin Hood-y twist. There is the evil Wall Street owner of the ritzy high-rise penthouse, Arthur Shaw played by Alan Alda, juxtaposed with the ensemble of building staff and residents headed up by Ben Stiller and augmented with some street cred supplied by Eddie Murphy. Shaw is meant to be a stand-in for a Bernie Madoff-type who has bilked the staff of their life's savings, and the plot turns on setting that wrong right. It is a nice little entertainment, though if you suffer from vertigo, as I do, you will want to spend much of the movie with your eyes squeezed shut.


Matthew McConaughey turns in a sure-fire performance as Mick Haller, the corrupt Lincoln Lawyer who defends low lifes from the back seat of his chauffeur-driven Lincoln Town Car on a cash up front basis. LA gets a sleazy, noir look from director Brad Furman adapting Michael Connelly's book. Marisa Tomei and William Macy head up a super supporting cast as Mick's spunky ex-wife and his private investigator friend. A nice twist on the classic hard-boiled detective. Have some fun!

Cary Fukunaga's first feature film was the 2009 award winning Sin Nombre about a young member of the Mexican Mara Salvatrucha gang struggling to break free and start anew en El Norte. Like Sin Nombre, his Jane Eyre plumbs its young character's complex of emotions. The film is delicately balanced among genres of dark romance, horror, piety tract and bodice ripper (though no bodices are actually ripped). Charlotte Brontë’s novel, my research tells me, has been incarnated in film at least 18 times, in addition to nine TV treatments. It resonates down generations as a story of a character who, through sheer dint of will and in spite of her sex, endures. The film is a particularly beautiful embodiment of the novel. Mia Wasikowska's performance does justice to the contradictions that make up Jane's nature, and Michael Fassbender is excellent as always.

Win Win comes from director Tom McCarthy of The Station Agent and The Visitor. McCarthy brings together ensemble casts playing characters who unexpectedly and unconventionally find themselves thrown together. In the midst of a disfunctional society, losers, loners, cynics, outcasts, forge mutually supportive relationships in spite of themselves. In Win Win Paul Giamatti's Mike Flaherty is a harried elder care attorney and volunteer wrestling coach who, in a humanly complicated mixture of compassion and financial desperation, becomes the legal guardian of one of his clients. When the client's grandson, Kyle, a seemingly disaffected youth, shows up unexpectedly with no place to go, Mike and his family take the teen in, unaware that he is a top tier wrestler. The film grew out of McCarthy's own love of the sport, and he sought absolute verisimilitude for its wrestling aspects. When 17-year-old, real life highschool wrestling champion Alex Shaffer showed up for auditions, it was a match, as they say, made in heaven.

No, I have not read Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, which is supposed to be better than Francis Lawrence's film, but then ANYTHING would be better than the fim. Pulled from his veterinary finals, Jacob uses his training to land a gig as Rosie's (the elephant of the title) circus trainer. Whoever did the casting should be run out of Hollywood. Robert Pattinson is Jacob. Even though I did not see any of the Twilight franchise, I was not immune to their cultural saturation, and he just creeped me out through the whole film. Reese Witherspoon as the circus owner's wife is just wrong. The two bright spots are Hal Holbrook as the aged Jacob and Christoph Waltz -- who, no matter what he does, brings enormous intelligence to a role -- as the brutally sadistic circus owner.

I am always skeptical of a remake, in this case especially skeptical since the original film in question is the 1981 Arthur with Dudley Moore in the title role supported by a stellar cast. Peter Baynham and Jason Winer's Arthur is Russell Brand, and John Gielgud's butler is replaced by Helen Mirren's nanny, who selflessly struggles to inculcate some shred of discipline in her infantile, alcoholic ward. The over-the-top opulence is still there, but with today's substance abuse consciousness, Arthur will find sobriety instead of privation when he gets the girl. It lacks the poignancy of the original, but it still manages to have a few moments.

Dan Rush's Everything Must Go (2010 but not released until 2011) is based on Raymond Carver's story "Why Don't You Dance?" Will Ferrell plays utterly defeated Nick Halsey, a middle-aged, middle-level sales exec who gets fired and returns home to find his stuff in the yard, the locks changed and his accounts frozen. After a brief frenzy of futile frustration, Nick passively settles in to life on his front lawn in full view of his suburban neighbors. When a boy shows up on his bicycle day after day and refuses to leave Nick alone, Nick finally gives way and lets the boy in. Ferrell turns in a remarkable performance. He keeps Nick just on the precipice of morbid self-pity, while allowing us to sense that he is not really ready to be swallowed up entirely. Ferrell gives Nick a fundamental decency that keeps us engaged and sympathetic. This sad narrative could have tipped into bathos, but both Rush and Ferrell are too sensitive to the humanity of their character to let that happen.

The delicacy and compassion with which Everything Must Go is imbued is absent in Jodie Foster's The Beaver about a depressed toy manufacturer (Mel Gibson) who, when he fails at suicide, projects his psyche onto a dumpster discard. This sort of family dramedy has been reincarnated in any number of films, so much so that it is little more than a cliche unless something challenges the familiar trope: troubled family faces some hardship, takes it out on each other, and comes out stronger and more closely knit as a result of their misfortunes. Knowing of Gibson's brutish personal behavior tarnished what little sympathy I could dredge up for what is ultimately a self-absorbed, one-dimensional character.

I can't tell you how many people raved to me about The Hangover. I finally rented it one day, sat down in front of the TV, and tried for an hour and three quarters to get something, anything, out of it. At the most I got a sense of puzzlement. As far as I could tell there was no there there, and yet all sorts of intelligent people, men AND WOMEN, had told me how collapse-into-tears hilarious it was. I didn't get it. So I tried again with Paul Feig's Bridesmaids, written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, which sports a nice ensemble cast, but again, all that scatalogical humor just seems sophomoric to me. Well, I didn't like it even as a sophomore. Maybe I'm psychologically stunted having grown up without a brother.

J. J. Abrams's Super 8 is an homage to Steven Spielberg, so it goes without saying that I'd have problems with it. critic Matt Zoller Seitz catalogued the mentor's motifs, including "daddy issues," "flashlights or searchlights as harbingers of impending doom," "God’s-eye point-of-view shots," "lens flares," "storybook skies," and "upside down shots" -- all of which are reasons, among many others, I DO NOT LIKE Spielburg. Furthermore, I have no fond nostalgia for the late 1970s. The kids are making a movie with their Super 8 camera, when an outrageously CGI trainwreck occurs. The camera gets knocked down in the conflagration, but keeps running. The recovered footage will turn the amateur filmmakers into sleuths. Frank Bruni, in his profile of Abrams for the New York Times Magazine, says, "Friends and collaborators say that when he homes in on a project dear to him, he can be a relentless perfectionist." That's odd, because there is a major continuity problem during the over long wreck scene. When the kids first try to flee they leap into the car, which has been damaged or gets damaged -- a tire flattened or wheel ripped off (fuzzy recall, left rear, I think). From some angles the car is fine, from others it's not. Drove me nuts! Kept wanting to yell at the screen, "Hey! You need to fix that!"