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By Patricia Ducey. Shadow Dancer takes place in 1993 Belfast during the fitful, bloody denouement of the conflict referred to delicately as The Troubles. In the opening minutes, we meet Colette McVeigh as a child. She sends her little brother out for cigarettes, when her father told her to go, and the boy is killed in a British/IRA crossfire.

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The film then jumps to 1993 as the adult Colette, now played by Andrea Riseborough, steps into the London Tube, apparently going to work. After an uneventful ride, she alights and dashes towards street level, but not before leaving her purse on an empty staircase. We know, after Boston, in a shock of recognition, that this is a bomb. She escapes through a maze of maintenance tunnels, only to be grabbed outside by two men and hustled into a car.

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But Colette is no lamb; she is a hardened IRA “volunteer” now and knows what will follow. As the agents drive her through London, she quietly disappears into herself, preparing for the expected interrogation. After all, her mission in London represents a new IRA tactic: by wreaking violence on the mainland, they hope to destroy the British people’s resolve to remain in Ireland, at all. This entire sequence is almost silent, which amps the suspense even further; no conversation or music distract from Colette’s cool, expressionless face as she hurries to complete her mission and then prepare for arrest.

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The two agents deliver her to Mac (Clive Owen), the MI5 interrogator, and he tries to break her. He offers her the family dossier. In it she finds the forensic report from the killing of her little brother, the act which has radicalized her and her two surviving brothers. But the report identifies the bullet as coming from a known IRA weapon. In a rush, she pushes away the file — and the truth? — against a rising moral revulsion that she has never totally extinguished.

Finally, Mac presents her an ultimatum: return to Belfast and inform on her famous IRA family, or go to prison for decades and watch her little son delivered up to the foster care system. Of course, she relents, and the real suspense begins.

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By Patricia Ducey. On the long road of life, sometimes a fish does need a bicycle.

Tiny Furniture is Lena Dunham’s 2010 filmmaking debut, and led to her HBO series Girls. Given the assurance Dunham shows here as both a writer and director, it is not surprising HBO took the risk.

Loosely based on Dunham’s own life, the movie tells the story of Aura, played by Dunham, who’s on the cusp of a life fraught with uncertainty and danger; she has graduated from Oberlin College with a degree in film theory and has no job, and nowhere to go but home. Like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, and other youth-in-identity-crisis movies, Aura lives in a state of free-floating anxiety, born of personal confusion and career uncertainty.

Aura returns to her family’s stylish Manhattan townhouse cum studio and greets her mother Siri, an artist (played by real mother Laurie Simmons), who can hardly be torn away from her latest photography project – a portrait of daughter Nadine’s legs (real life sister Grace) looming over a tableaux of the aforesaid tiny furniture. Aura awaits a greeting, to no avail. Siri may not have time to say hello, but she has cultivated a wide array of chic friends and contacts in the hip Manhattan art scene that might prove useful to Aura – so Siri dispatches her, on her own, to a party sure to be filled with such possibilities.

There she sees her old friend Charlotte (Jemima Kirke) who holds her hand through her transition home. She also fixes Aura up with Jed (Alex Karpovsky), a YouTube artist, who the recently dumped Aura finds attractive. Her mother and sister depart on a college visiting trip – so Aura invites Jed, in town with no hotel for meetings, to stay with her. Then Aura starts her hostess job, also provided by Charlotte, where she also develops a crush on the chef. But neither swain is interested really, perhaps because Aura wears her need so plainly all over her face. She eventually entices Jed to sleep with her, and he does actually sleep — nothing else. The chef sets up what she hopes is a date, but the date turns out to be nothing but a ghastly hookup in a back alley — they can’t go to his apartment because after all he hasn’t quite left the girlfriend who lives there.

Lena Dunham as Aura and Jemima Kirke as Charlotte in "Tiny Furniture."

So the men are on the periphery of the story, with a mother and two daughters forming the triad that moves the story forward. They compete, argue, lie and – rarely – understand one another. Most tellingly, no father is present or even mentioned; we don’t know if the father is on a business trip, or is absent due to divorce, death, artificial insemination or what. His absence hangs over the entire film; and if this is post-feminist America, I will take the patriarchy. (It would be too easy to assume that this replicates their real family; in fact, Dunham’s father, artist Carroll Dunham, is very much in the family and the marriage and – as Dunham has related in an interview – very much the maker of the rules in the home.)

So you don’t have to be a Freudian to see that what Aura needs is a parent, any parent really, but particularly a father. Her mother is emotionally unavailable, her father physically and emotionally so. The daughter Aura is lost, a child on the verge of adulthood with no one to lead her forward. She has no hope and no boundaries; she (unconsciously perhaps) chases Jed; she tells herself she is going on a date with the chef when he really wants her Oxycontin and some sex, as long as she’s offering. So again, the men she seeks out are either emotionally distant or callous louts.

I don’t mean to imply, though, that Tiny Furniture is another twee and ennui-soaked Manhattan fable. Dunham eschews many tics of the genre — like the annoying, deadpan non-acting  prevalent in so many similar films, or the hopelessness that stands in for wisdom.  The film manages something more. No spoilers here, but the last sequence, when Aura relates her sexcapade with the chef to her bored, sleepy mother, implies a nascent humanity within her that is salutary. Denied a father, and the better part of a mother, Aura might just save herself.

Posted on January 21st, 2012 at 9:56pm.

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Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher.

By Patricia Ducey. You need to stop humming Hugh Jackman’s showstopping tunes and puddling up – especially in grocery lines. You’ve also just realized that Tehran isn’t Paris – and that no matter how glamorous foreign service looks, it’s probably a good thing you “forgot” to follow through on that State Department job app all those years ago. Plus, you’ve just run out of chocolate-covered candy canes and leftover champagne and have nothing for dinner.

Yes, the holiday parties, the fall movies – Life of Pi’s fantastical 3D journey to enlightenment, Ben Affleck’s paean to the unsung heroes at the CIA and State Department, and the glorious Les Misérables (triumphant over some febrile staging) – they have been rich and tasty this season, but humdrum January is approaching, real life, and you need something or someone to snap you out of it.

And Jack Reacher is just that guy.

Because Jack Reacher is a “ghost.” He’s a cool – as in, “ice-in-your-veins” cool – ghost, and he’s a loner. You don’t know how he got this way but it probably has something to do with his military service. You may find out if there are subsequent films. Or, if you’re a purist, you could read the books. But that might ruin the fun.

Adapted by writer/director Christopher McQuarrie from author Lee Child’s One Shot (from the Jack Reacher series, which I have not read), and produced by Tom Cruise, this old fashioned mystery thriller is fun — and delivers just enough mayhem and clever plotting to keep all but the most jaded critics on board. McQuarrie, who burst upon the Hollywood scene as the screenwriter of the witty, unconventional The Usual Suspects and is now a Cruise collaborator (2008’s Valkyrie, possibly the forthcoming Mission: Impossible 5), delivers another clever whodunit here with plenty of fresh twists and turns, humor, and even a mysterious super-arch fiend, a la Keyser Soze, to keep you interested.

The story is set in gritty, noirish Pittsburgh and opens with a mad sniper in a parking structure across the river from the Pirates’ baseball park picking off five random people. A SWAT team of cops, decked out in full military swag, arrive at his precise location quickly but futilely – the sniper is long gone. But Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo) swiftly retrieves the cartridges and fingerprints and assorted evidence – and a mere 16 hours later sits, smirking, across from suspect James Barr along with the D.A. That was easy! The suspect listens in despair as they tick off the mountain of evidence against him. He reaches for the typed confession to sign; but as Emerson and DA Rodin (Richard Jenkins) smugly congratulate themselves on their slam dunk, Barr writes “Get Jack Reacher” on the dotted line instead of his signature. And off we go. Continue reading »

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Nov 172012

Denzel Washington in "Flight."

By Patricia Ducey. The three most important things in moviemaking are: story, story, story. That twist on the old real estate maxim (“location, location, location”) illustrates why Robert Zemeckis’s Flight stalls out and thuds to earth after an admittedly spectacular opening crash sequence and Denzel Washington’s superior performance.

First, Denzel: I confess that his early work, especially Malcolm X and The Hurricane, impress me more than his turn toward the anti-hero, as in his Oscar-winning role in Training Day as a despicable, corrupt detective – and he chooses another flawed character here in Whip Whitaker, the ace pilot with a tragic flaw: hopeless addiction.

Captain Whitaker awakens one morning in an anonymous hotel room, still drunk from the night before – his doughy, tattooed body looking a lot worse for the wear. He and his bedmate Trina have been up partying all night, and on her way out the door she urges Whip to hurry; they have a flight in a couple of hours. So Whip, with a last beer and a line of coke to chase away the beery fog, strides confidently through the airport to actually pilot 102 souls from Orlando to Atlanta on his Southjet flight.

His young copilot Ken (Brian Geraghty) is simultaneously in awe of the man and suspicious of his condition; Whip inhales a hit of oxygen and offers his young partner one too, which he declines. They take off into the rain, which soon grows into a thunderstorm and stomach-wrenching turbulence. But master pilot Whip pushes the plane to its limits and expertly guides them into the clear. Everyone on board breathes a sigh of relief. As they descend for landing, however, the hydraulics fail and the plane veers out of control and into a nosedive – and the passengers are thrown around the cabin like rag dolls. Whip takes control. He orders Ken and flight attendant Margaret (Tamara Tunie) to help him in a series of unorthodox maneuvers in a last, desperate attempt to land the crippled liner. Miraculously, he does just that. And despite his blood alcohol level, he has pulled off a landing that Sully Sullenberger would envy.

At this point, Flight is firmly planted in the social drama genre. Whip’s life revolves around his addition to booze and drugs, enabled by his denial and consummate skill in the air. He has already lost his wife and son due to his drinking problem, and his first thought post-crash is to summon his drug dealer (John Goodman) to his hospital bed with refreshments. The media dub him a hero, but he holes up in his ramshackle farm outside of town to avoid them – and the truth. We wonder if he will ever sober up, or if he will continue to escape responsibility for the crash. However, that is not enough to sustain two hours of story. He is already divorced and at rock bottom at the time of the initial crash, so there is no suspense in watching him play that single note.

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Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena in "End of Watch."

By Patricia Ducey. Southland, television’s classiest cop drama, ended its season back in March and won’t return until February 2013. That’s one year! Between seasons! Which leaves me badly in need of a cure for my LAPD blues. And so I dropped in to see End of Watch, an LAPD story written and directed by David Ayer (Training Day).

End of Watch is one part buddy drama, pairing two LAPD officers, Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena). We follow them through the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles as they banter through boredom, shoot bad guys and then stupidly and improbably conduct an extra-legal investigation of a suspicious dope peddler.

Soon they are marked for death by the Sinaloa cartel, who control the dope dealer. But the script drops in the cartel plot mostly to stitch together a series of violent vignettes into a story; the bond of affection and trust between the guys in scene after scene of cruising through L.A. is the high point of the movie. Pena is warm and funny, the tightly wound Taylor always his unwitting straight man. Some have opined that they represent a classic mismatched pair because of their different races – but this is multicultural SoCal 2012, so can we finally retire this meme? They’re just two cops who have each others’ backs and joke about everything – including race, peppered with plenty of Ayer’s trademark f-bombs.

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to their chemistry.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Brian Taylor.

End of Watch is another part adrenalin-fueled action flick. It assaults all of our senses with breakneck car chases, gun battles that leave whole neighborhoods smoking; there are also beheadings, human trafficking, and even a tough-as-nails lesbian gangsta hit girl, and of course buckets of blood. But Ayer doesn’t go totally Scarface on us, and maybe he should have. He can’t mean that this is a real South Central, a neighborhood of nothing more than warring, stereotypical gangbangers – or that this is the real LAPD, a bunch of cynical rebel burnouts trying to keep the lid on their own patch of hell. He notably does ditch the PC moniker of South L.A. for the more traditional ‘South Central’ tag, and sets the main battle here as between the old African American gangs versus the Mexican newcomers, in a nod to new realities.

But if Ayer wanted an over the top comic book film, why not go all the way? Even though the action and violence is almost non-stop – in video game style – this exaggeration distances us from the narrative. So much of the action is stylistic, especially the climactic gun battle, and as a result packs little emotional wallop. End of Watch can’t decide if it’s a movie about people or of violence, and so ends up compromised on both counts.

The emphasis on violence reinforces some unsavory stereotypes, too, about both cops and South Central residents. The characters, except for Mike Zavala, present no family or neighborhood or back-story that would breathe life into them as real characters. We don’t know where they came from and we don’t much care where they are going. In this version of South Central, we meet no people except criminals.

The LAPD do not fare well, either. They are portrayed as rowdy undisciplined pranksters, starting with the first roll call scene, where they taunt the watch commander as they squirm in their seats, giggling at each other’s jokes. I almost expected spitballs to start flying. I don’t know—I think I would be listening to the watch commander about what’s happening on the street before I headed out on patrol with my life on the line.

Smile, you're on candid camera.

Ayer sets up the story as Taylor and his partner clip micro-cameras to their uniforms to record their patrols. Taylor is filming their patrols for a school project. Nice cinematic device, but the movie never stays in that point of view – or any point of view. The bad guys are filming, the ICE agents are, too; sometimes nobody seems to be filming, so we are back at the traditional POV. Who, for instance, put the camera on the hood of the patrol car? Ultimately, it all just becomes irritating and confusing. We want to know what’s happening and can’t see much when we are following the micro-cameras, and we don’t know why the other cameras are filming, either. We keep waiting for a payoff to the planting of the school project film idea– like Taylor narrating the film to his classmates, who will never understand his job, for instance — but it never happens. The director just wanted the cool shots.

But I am not really Ayer’s demographic. I don’t play video games or like “gritty” movies like his previous Training Day. I feel queasy with these narratives; all they do is thrill and terrorize us with the hopeless lives of the “other” from the safety of the suburban Cineplex. So for me, End of Watch is what it is: a buddy movie with the kind of rush that might make you uncomfortable when you come back down.

I prefer the tone of Southland, where the cops are actually part of South Central – not simply its warrior overlords; where there are plenty of good people or even average people to protect and serve. I prefer the slow spooling out of a story, in the luxury of time a television season allows, to build a rich terrain of drama. Yes, I still miss Southland and it will be a long wait to February.

Posted on September 24th, 2012 at 12:33pm.

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By Patricia Ducey. In a magical Celtic kingdom far, far away, lovely queen Elinor and her consort king Fergus are choosing a suitable husband for their daughter – but their sassy tomboy princess is one of those grrls who thinks she needs a man about as much as a fish needs a bicycle. In Pixar’s Brave, little Merida, our headstrong princess, rebels and hies to the forest on her trusty steed, her flaming red curls flying in the wind. Like many cinematic young female protagonists before her — Princess Ann in Roman Holiday, Princess Mia of The Princess Diaries, or even Wendy in Peter Pan — Merida craves independence and adventure as much as any boy or any commoner, and an arranged, political marriage inspires nothing but dread and an overwhelming urge to flee.

Merida’s effort to avoid marriage, which constitutes the first half of the movie, does not muster up much interest or suspense from an adult point of view. But at the midpoint, when Merida escapes into the forest to avoid her fate, the movie enters classical psychoanalytic symbol territory and becomes infinitely more compelling. A tiny CGI creature (think Tinkerbell) leads her deep into the forest, to the hut of an old crone who appears to be a wood carver. Merida soon discovers she can also cast spells, and begs the witch for a spell to help change her mother’s mind about the marriage issue. The witch warns her off – spells are tricky things and can go awry — but Merida brashly insists, and is soon on her way back to her castle, magic cake in hand. She tricks her mother into eating the toxic cake but is stunned when her mother suddenly transforms into a giant bear. The spell indeed has gone tragically wrong — and if Merida cannot break the spell in two days’ time, the transformation will be permanent. Merida has ignored the warning of the crone, and now she could lose her mother, as surely as if she had killed her, and ruin her kingdom, too — as the fragile peace treaty of the clans hinges on the alliance her marriage will create. In addition, the king has vowed revenge on Mordu, a huge killer bear, who had earlier chomped off his foot. Merida knows that Fergus will kill Elinor if he finds her in her bear form, thinking she is Mordu. Now, those are stakes.

Gory, frightening fairy tales are believed by many theorists (Bruno Bettelheim in particular) to be the material manifestations of the issues that children are consciously and subconsciously dealing with. And so Brave deals with Merida’s anxieties at the prospect of growing up, of maturing into a sexual being, and of relinquishing some of her freedom for the bond of love. As in Brave, fairy tales often insist on the need for just that: bravery, to overcome evil and teach children that these difficulties can be overcome. Brave also delves into the Oedipal/Electra conflict, where the child competes with the mother for possession of the father, or of an independent, public life. It is telling that in Merida’s family dynamic, her father Fergus is a bit of a clown (think Braveheart meets Fat Bastard) and plays but a peripheral role in the family. And so Merida’s primal bond, and conflict, rests with her mother. Her mother oversees Merida’s life; she teaches a bored Merida the geography and history of her kingdom, when she really wants to go out hunting; she teaches Merida the proper grooming and deportment of a queen, which Merida ignores to engage in rough sports. In a final betrayal, Elinor plans Merida’s betrothal, but Merida despises what she views as the lowly position of her mother and has no intention of becoming her. The fierce giant bear that Elinor morphs into is thus a symbol of what Merida fears most: a terrible grownup life as a mature woman and queen. Will she kill the mother, so that she can escape her abject fate? There must be a way out of this dilemma!

From Pixar's "Brave."

So Merida calls forth the crone, who then appears to tell her that the only way to reverse the spell is to “mend the bond torn by pride.” It’s up to Merida to figure out which bond, or bonds, she has torn asunder and to fix them. If she refuses to marry any of the suitors chosen by the clans, the peace forged by a long ago treaty could collapse. If she wants to save her mother, she must give up her childish ways and assume the responsibilities of a queen.

Brave’s animation is beautiful: rolling green hills and misty valleys and dappled sunsets, a change from the bold primary colors of, for instance, the Toy Stories. The only discordant note is the snappy modern dialogue style, which works against the movie’s deep chords of myth and emotion so reminiscent of a Disney film. But Brave is a very good movie for the wee bairns, who will probably enjoy the first half more than you, and fear the impending loss of Merida’s mother as strongly as you.

Can you change your fate, without throwing a fatal wrench into the delicate web of life? Brave, like other myths and legends, suggests we can, with a pure and courageous heart. And that lesson, as the good doctors of the psyche have told us, is a good thing.

Posted on June 28th, 2012 at 3:22pm.

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