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February 1, 2012


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!"

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