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In Nebraska, Alexander Payne paints a deceptively simple portrait of a complex character who’s become a withdrawn shell of a human being by a combination of senility, drink and disillusionment. Filmed in immaculate black-and-white by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska transforms the Midwestern landscape of its titular region, with its endless highways, expanses of farm country and small, desolate towns into settings befitting the film’s themes of despair and one family’s quiet yet profound healing. The end result is Payne’s most accomplished and emotionally affecting movie since his masterwork, About Schmidt (2002). It’s a character study fashioned like a detective story; as viewers, we have to discover for ourselves a sense of Woody’s personal and family history through clues dropped in bits of dialogue and in the subtle dynamics between Woody and his world.

This is a family odyssey that begins as a road-trip variation on the father-son bonding story. Determined to redeem a notice that he’s won a million-dollar sweepstakes prize, a bald-faced scam apparent to all but himself, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) sets out from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim the cash. Hoping that by indulging this nonsense through to its logical endpoint, his old man might finally be dispelled of his delusional ways, his younger son David (Will Forte) agrees to drive him to Lincoln.

After an on-the-road accident lands Woody in the hospital, his wife Kate (June Squibb) and older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) join the hapless pair in Woody’s fictional hometown of Hawthorne, where Woody’s older bother still lives. It’s an occasion for a reunion and for the family to revisit its past, for David to put the pieces together in his quest to understand why his father is the unreasonable, beaten-down drunk he is. Among the movies most profound moments is when the Grants stop by Woody’s childhood home, now a ramshackle ruin; here, with its combination of visual desolation, Woody’s terse words that hint at abuse at the hands of his father, we glean a disturbing picture of a bleak childhood. Another enlightening scene unfolds during a visit David makes to the publishing office of Hawthorne’s tiny newspaper where he encounters one of his father’s early sweethearts who, almost passingly, lets slip an important and traumatic detail from Woody’s service in the Korean War. It’s another clue in Payne’s character-study-as-detective-story.

As word gets out about Woody’s alleged millionaire status, everyone wants a piece of it, from members of his extended family to Ed Pegrem (an excellent Stacy Keach), Woody’s former business partner who wants compensation for all the losses incurred from Woody’s irresponsibility and drunkenness. He’s the closest we get to a villain in Nebraska; he’s all smiles on the outside but Ed soon shows himself to be a cunning, manipulative bastard. And, at first, Squibb is difficult to take; her performance, with is droll, plainspoken sassiness, feels stilted and recalls the charmless shrew she played in About Schmidt. But you warm up to her once you realize that this isn’t a case of a bad performance. Squib’s is actually a very good one as she plays Kate the way she needs to be played: a saucy, tell-it-like-is matriarch to the rest of her family’s reticence and repression. Her performance dovetails squarely with Dern, Forte and Odenkirk’s more colorful, hem-and-haw histrionics. And it’s that directness in her character that ultimately puts everyone in their place.

Bruce Dern gives an admirable, tip-of-the-iceberg performance; the actor’s calculated reserve offers an intriguing glimpse of an entire world hidden below the depths. If we allow ourselves to search his face, his defeated manner of speech and movement, and for what’s unsaid in the long pauses between his bursts of candid pronouncements, we excavate a potential gold mine of decades-old pathos and heartbreak. By the end, we wonder whether Woody is a truly senile drunk or a defeated soul whose childlike trust in others resulted in so much disappointment that he’s since retreated into his own imaginary world (one in which he’s a sweepstakes prize-winner), desperate now to show himself a success to those who’ve either come to pity him or given up on him.

The entire film–and the long section in Hawthorne in particular–provides Payne the opportunity for his patented blend of ethnographic realism and acerbic satire as it comments on life’s underlying sadnesses and the tragic, inevitable shattering of our dreams. Papamichel’s flawless cinematography, by the way, is aided immeasurably by Mark Orton’s gorgeously evocative score, a tender, yet haunting accompaniment to a thoughtful and provocative film experience.

If you want the antithesis of Normal Rockwell’s Freedom from Want (1943), that paragon of Americana, look no further than the family dinner-table scene in Nebraska in which you’re riveted to the sociological details of what this group of fringe Middle Americans are consuming even more than the almost-throwaway banter that interrupts the long silences and gulps of Old Mil. This scene is Payne at this best, offering–like so much else in Nebraska–a rueful, post-recession picture of America that’s compulsively fascinating to behold.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Bob Nelson
Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Angela McEwan, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray


The Wolf of Wall Street

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The Wolf of Wall Street, the latest from that freewheeling observer of American crime, Martin Scorsese, can be viewed as a worthy companion piece to the director’s 1990 gangster saga, Goodfellas. Both movies deal with criminal underworlds–Goodfellas with the Italian mafia, Wolf of Wall Street with our financial world’s sub-culture of sleazy stock traders. Both movies’ protagonists come at their respective milieus as outsiders with starry-eyed ambitions: While Henry Hill ingratiates himself into the local mafia so he can bask in the glories of gangsterdom, Wolf’s Jordan Belfort (Leornardo DiCaprio) aspires to become one of the conniving stock traders surrounding him when he’s hired at a successful Wall Street firm. Both Goodfellas and Wolf deal with the inner workings and relationships of crime syndicates and, running parallel to this, are themes of marriage, career, ambition and loyalties within their respective organizations. These movies together gives you the sum total of Scorsese’s stylistic brilliance and his barbed social consciousness.

Absorbing performances, stylistic wit, a lacerating and subversive sense of humor: The Wolf of Wall Street delivers all of these in spades, more so perhaps than Goodfellas. It belongs in the top half-dozen of the director’s films and could’ve been his best film ever if only the material had been shorn of 30 minutes of bulk. As it is, Scorsese drags out and indulges every possible story beat and subplot such that it belabors the whole enterprise. There are probably a few too many office orgies (we get the point after the first few that these guys are unchecked hedonists), several scenes stretch out far too long because Scorsese can’t bear to dispose of a punchline or gag. An awkward plot line involving an elderly British relation whom Belfort uses as a front for his offshore accounts feels tacked on and pointless. Had the director and screenwriter, Terence Winter (adapting Belfort’s memoir), taken another pass at their script with an eye for narrative economy, Wolf would’ve been the lean, mean machine befitting the predatory metaphor of its title.

It’s to the credit of the performers, to the energy of Scorsese’s direction and to the inherent appeal of this subject matter that Wolf is one of the year’s most entertaining films. Yes, the jokes are often in poor taste, the content is scandalous, out of control, over the top. The resulting comedy is on the order of last summer’s inappropriately hilarious post-apocalyptic laugh-fest This Is the End. This is This Is the End done up as a cautionary example of white-collar hubris. The two movies share the comic spirit of Jonah Hill, the selfless buffoon who’s never a met a joke he didn’t mind being the butt of, and that’s what makes him a crucial presence in cinematic lampoons of social archetypes.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a comedy about a bunch of clowns, really, who get away with terrible things. No, not a bunch of  clowns, but a tribal clan as, every so often, Belfort will lead his trading floor through primitive rounds of whoops and howls that paint these Wall Street con-men (and -women) as cannibalistic savages. Some have wondered how it is that Belfort survived those years of defrauding investors, of whoring, partying and gluttonous drug-taking, but the more apt question is: How did he not harm even more people? Leonardo DiCpario delivers one of his finest performances in a role that’s at once tragic and farcical. At times, he’s channeling Ray Liotta (as Goodfellas’ Henry Hill). He’s got the attitude, the swagger, but this man is too unhinged to take seriously what with the helicopters, the yachts, the MTV-Spring Break lifestyle, the parade of strippers and prostitutes. His life is an orgy of excess; disturbing, yes, but certainly more fun to watch than poor Spider getting blown away in that seedy bar in Goodfellas.

Keeping up with DiCaprio is a crackerjack cast that includes the aforementioned Hill, sporting Chiclets-like teeth, as Donnie Azoff, Belfort’s business partner, and the stunning Margot Robbie, who plays Belfort’s trophy wife, Naomi. As Henry Hill and his crew rose from trafficking in stolen cigarettes to robbing Lufthansa airlines, so Belfort, Azoff and friends rise from trading penny stocks to gullible postmen to opening a dazzlingly successful trade firm on Wall Street. As Henry and his wife Karen sparred over Henry’s affairs, so Belfort and Naomi bicker over the same. But, as in Goodfellas, the wives are soon on-board with their husbands’ back-room profiteering, leading to the long, delirious downward spiral of drug-addled insanity that follows. This is when Scorsese is in peak form: Depicting the alternately frightening and comical choices that his increasingly compromised characters make.

Functioning as their counterpoint here is FBI Agent Denham, played by the always-excellent Kyle Chandler. As the modest, middle-class law enforcer, Denham is the moral heart of the film. Scorsese is careful not to make Denham too square though; the man has regrets of giving up past dreams for a police career, and he wonders fleetingly if he’s truly the schmuck that Belfort makes him out to be. While riding home in a subway, Denham stares out at his fellow commuters: The hard-luck, but honest 99%, young and old, for whom he does what he does. In their pasts, Denham and Belfort had come to the same crossroads. But where Belfort chose selfish gains, Denham chose to ride the subway.

Remember the “May 11, 1980” sequence in Goodfellas that took audiences through that dizzying final day in Henry’s criminal life, when he has to accomplish several things (selling guns, preparing heroin, making the perfect tomato sauce) while a police chopper whizzes overhead? The problem with Wolf of Wall Street is that there are too many sequences pitched on that same frazzled wavelength; there are too many “May 11, 1980s” here. Thankfully, DiCaprio is that peculiar kind of star who can make even the most thoroughly dislikable characters likable. His confidence, charm and underlying sincerity wins our trust, so we don’t mind following him from one script indulgence to another. Likewise, Scorsese is too dazzling a filmmaker–Wolf of Wall Street’s comic playfulness, its endless invention recalls Fellini at his most daring– and this is his headiest whirl yet through his patented universe of compromised morality.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Terence Winter
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jean Dujardin, Cristin Milioti, Matthew McConaughey, Joanna Lumley

Inside Llewyn Davis

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I like movies whose plots meander. I like movies whose plots are non-existent, films that are more experimental in their narrative approach. But what’s most frustrating is when a movie loses sight of its thematic purpose, one that floats along, teasing the audience with suggestions of a bigger picture without delivering anything as bold and definitive. Inside Llewyn Davis is that kind of movie.

That sense of floating defines the life of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a Greenwich Village folk singer circa 1961. He was once part of a folk duo, but his partner committed suicide some time in the past and Davis is still bitter and aggrieved over it. He scrapes by on his share of the door on nights when he plays gigs at local coffee shops. Otherwise, he slums along on the kindness of others, crashing on their couches night after night.

One such friend is Jean (Carey Mulligan), who’s got sad eyes, a perma-frown and who upturns Llewyn’s world when she reveals she’s pregnant with his child. Much of the time, Jean berates and belittles Llewyn, says he’s a loser, a good-for-nothing. She says she wants an abortion. So it’s up to Llewyn to scrape together the money for it. Underneath her critical nature, though, we sense that Jean really cares for him, but his lack of gusto and direction frustrates her, breaks her heart; her insults and passive-aggressive interactions with him are Jean’s ways of denying her deeper feelings.

When Jean’s current boyfriend, Jim (Justin Timberlake), a chipper, go-getting folk musician on the brink of big success, enlists Llewyn in a song session, the latter finds the way to raise the money that Jean needs. This session is the film’s bright spot, a change from the doldrums that characterize the rest of the story, as Jim leads Llewen and backup singer Al (Stark Sands, who’s brilliant) in a rendition of “Please Mr. Kennedy,” an inspired and hilarious riff on the Kennedy-inspired folk songs from that era. This is the Coens, collaborating with their brilliant music producer T. Bone Burnett, working in peak absurdist form.

It’s following this session, when Illewyn takes the cash he earned to a doctor to arrange for Jean’s abortion that Llewyn Davis registers one of its more emotionally resonant heartbreaks: The doctor tells him that Jean’s abortion will be free because a previous girlfriend, also pregnant by Llewyn, decided to keep her child and, unbeknownst to Illewyn, moved back to Akron. The emptiness and worthlessness Illewn feels at this moment haunts the rest of the film as he strikes out for Chicago to seek out a talent manager (F. Murray Abraham) and land himself a shot at success.

That trip to Chicago is the film’s centerpiece as Llewyn hits the road alongside the laconic, slightly menacing Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) behind the wheel and, slumped in the back seat, Roland Turner (John Goodman), a heroin-addicted jazz musician. When he’s not in a drugged stupor, Roland will chew your ear off with his rambling stories of his jazz exploits as Goodman goes on to steal the movie with his towering, grotesque portrayal. Hedlund, meanwhile, seems to be channelling Peter Stormare’s mute killer in Fargo (which I prefer to this rehash).

Indeed, much of this sequence seems lifted from earlier, more successful Coens brothers efforts. The oppressive gloom that hangs over the rest-stop diner evokes the interiors of that decrepit hotel in Barton Fink. Goodman’s over-the-top presence is itself a sight gag–one he completes with the use of canes for both his hands–in the vein of the offbeat fringe characters in the Coens’ best-known comedies. The Coens also trundle out the POV shots of the passing highway, illuminated by headlights, seen to more pressing narrative effect in Fargo. With the deep, menacing thuds on the soundtrack, the road itself becomes a sinister character here. But to what end?

We ask that question because we never get a clear enough picture of what Llewyn Davis is trying to say. The film has a frustrating, neither-here-nor-there quality. A portrait of an artist on the brink of realizing his own failure, a talent born ahead of this time and thus unappreciated, a man whose bottomed-out sense of self-worth (owing perhaps to a miserable relationship with this father) renders him incapable of success whether in his career or his relationships: Llewyn Davis seems to grasp at all of these ideas. What we know for sure is that Llewyn has dwindling faith in himself and his abilities, he’s principled to a fault, and, if things don’t turn around for him, he’s doomed to waste his life away. But that’s only the set-up to a story that the Coens decide not to see through.

Instead, we get beautiful images of a grey and unforgiving America and an ensemble of topnotch performances–Isaac, in particular, is completely convincing as a talented but discouraged man (his musical performances feel natural and lived-in) trying his best not to gamble away his ideals to the commercial machine.

There is also the matter of a recurring character of an orange tabby cat throughout the film, a pet belonging to Llewyn’s uptown friends, whom he accidentally lets out and must take care of. I haven’t spoken of it because I believe it’s part of the grand Coens tradition of red (orange, in this case) herrings. Its purpose is beyond me.

We scramble for meanings when a given film can’t decide what it wants to say. The Coens’ largely brilliant filmography (including their recent masterpiece A Serious Man) have earned them considerable mileage with fans, so, to some extent, Llewyn Davis coasts along on our good will. But as admirable and well-acted as Llewyn Davis is, it’s simply too airy and insubstantial a treatment of personal failure to make a lasting impression.

Grade: C+

Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Written by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Ethan Phillips, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Robin Bartlett, Jeanine Serralles

American Hustle


The best scene in the spazzy, long-winded, 1970s-set shaggy-dog story American Hustle is the opening one, in which the paunch-bellied grifter Irving Rosenfeld gets gussied up in a hotel room ahead of a crucial con job. Writer-director David O. Russell lingers over the details of his dressing process, his clothing and accessories, leading to the coup de grâce: the toupee and combover. Irving’s fussing over his hair-do is emblematic of everything right and wrong with Russell’s confidence-game comedy-thriller. First, there’s the hair itself: luxurious on the back and sides where it still grows naturally but, on the top where it doesn’t are lanks of hair layered under and over the tribble-like hairpiece that Irving oh-so-carefully cements into place square atop his crown. This shot holds for quite a while as Christian Bale, in a terrific tragicomic performance, arranges and adjusts his precious combover, perfecting this sad illusion offset by his beard and his use of ’70s-style aviator sunglasses.

As an exercise in constructing a comic character, this is wonderful stuff. We’re awed, appalled yet somehow drawn to Irving, as detailed by Russell and played by Bale. The dynamic of period details and performance is what works so well in Hustle, but the film’s comic virtuosity is surrounded by an unrelenting tornado of visual style that eventually serves as a smokescreen to cover up the fact that there isn’t much of a story here.

When FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) blows the lid off the fraudulent lending operation run by Irving and his mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, who gamely commands the film’s dramatic and comedic tones), he gives them an ultimatum: Do time or help him stage an elaborate sting to bring down corrupt New Jersey politicians, including Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the effusive mayor of Camden. Irving and Sydney take Richie up on it, developing a scheme they know will reel in Polito: They tell the mayor that a Middle Eastern sheik is ready to invest hundreds of millions into revamping the down-in-the-dumps Atlantic City into a modern gambling mecca. They dupe Polito, but soon Irving and Sydney finds themselves in over their heads when the mafia also wants in on the action. This all makes the cocky, career-driven Richie giddy with delusions of his own greatness, especially after several politicians take bribes to help speed up what they believe to be a huge windfall for their state.

Irving and Sydney, meanwhile, find their relationship under strain. This is really the story struggling for breath at the heart of the film’s smothering style and con-game theatrics: A love triangle in which the plucky survivalist Sydney leverages her sex appeal vis-à-vis the horny, crazy-for-love Richie to gain the loyalty of the sad-sack Irving, really the love of her life but who’s married (unhappily) to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), his crackpot Jersey-wife who’s in turn using her son as leverage to keep Irving from divorcing her. The chemistry that this triangle sparks among all the above makes it fun to sift through their tacit deceptions and ulterior loyalties, and it’s where Russell approximates most successfully his gift for depicting how love and sex can trigger comedic anarchy.

On balance, the con game in Hustle, the real-life, so-called Abscam scandal, is a non-starter. A cameo by Robert De Niro as a seasoned mafioso is meant to instill suspense and fear, but it registers only as a gimmick of an aging star riffing on his on-screen legacy. And the actual sting in which Congressmen consent to take the bribes from Irving and company doesn’t read as a clever ruse to bring down bad guys; in legal terms, it’s only entrapment, a play that only a dunderhead like Richie would think is ingenious, but, in reality, is just pressuring people to make a bad choice for what they believe to be a good cause. The only legitimate sting in Hustle takes place over a couple of minutes toward the end, when Irving and Sydney attempt to pull out the rug from under Richie. But now it’s too little, too late.

By the end, more successful than any of the cons on-screen is the con Hustle plays on its audience, which has now sat through two hours of every ’70s hair and wardrobe cliche, an enjoyable but predictable 70s pop soundtrack and a camera that refuses to sit the hell still. There’s hardly a shot in this film that doesn’t involve the camera flying into or away from a character’s face, presumably to accentuate their drug-addled, anxiety-ridden vortex; the style becomes so repetitious that it soon becomes a lampoon of Scorsese’s Goodfellas and After Hours (both better films by a long shot). Once you’ve untangled the film’s style, which over-wraps the story–exactly as Irving’s combover shrouds the lie underneath–you’ve got a hollow shell of an enterprise, filled only by the hot air of homage, gimmicks and throwbacks. As the end credits roll, you’ll be wondering what all the fuss was about.

Grade: C
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: Eric Singer, David O. Russell
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Peña, Alessandro Nivola

Before Midnight


After watching Before Midnight, the third installment in the two-decade-long cinematic romance between the Parisian Celine and the American Jesse, I re-watched Before Sunset from 2004. I wanted to find connections between the two films, the two most recent in the series so that I could compare the preoccupations of the characters in Sunset and how they evolved over the nine ensuing years to become the characters in Midnight. Thematically, the films are seamless, and, all taken together, the three Richard Linklater films are really an outstanding example of how to bridge fully realized human beings across an entire trilogy. Linklater and his stars and co-writers, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, have mined so much from the core of their two characters, so many naked human truths, that Celine and Jesse now seem to exist in that boundary between fiction and reality. We see so much of ourselves in them that they may as well be real people.

Be warned: Before Midnight is no romance. It’s a horror movie. It is a bitter, mocking, cynical rebuke to the hopefulness of the previous films. That’s not a criticism; it’s a simple fact of the film as much as it is a simple fact of life. Do not look for hope here.

Celine and Jesse are now in their forties, the parents of twin daughters, and living a messy and difficult life in a big city (Paris), as so many parents do everywhere. The film takes place at a writers retreat on a Greek island where Jesse, Celine and their daughters have been invited. Linklater places us in the midst of the colony’s earthy and writerly residents. We eavesdrop on their conversations, most of them about marriage, relationships, sex and (the transience of) love, getting the gamut of opinions from the colony’s ensemble. Teen lovers express their youthful rejection of true love while the colony’s more aged souls have found peace with the idea of heartbreak and come to accept the idea that love means letting go. In the middle of that is Jesse and Celine, who find themselves at the brink of some cruel terrors and realities.

Celine is disenchanted with Jesse, as a lover and as a man. At one point, around a table with the others, she begins to mock Jesse’s vision of an ideal woman and slips into a “blonde bimbo” routine, cooing and pouting as she pretends to flirt with him. It’s embarrassing to watch, even more so as Jesse chooses to play along. It’s also embarrassing because, as eavesdroppers here, we never fully understand the dynamic within this small group. It feels unhinged, the friendships false or artificial. Linklater and company never adequately establish the relationships so the openness and cordiality at play here seem alien and unconvincing. Still, the confessional nakedness of these opening sections felt reminiscent of Eric Rohmer or Louis Malle–the film has that awkward yet generous European vibe about it–and I did find that refreshing in a contemporary American film.

“Naked” and “confessional” describes the film in its entirety as Celine and Jesse must decide how to proceed in life. Jesse feels a powerful guilt and parental pull toward his now-teenaged son (from his broken marriage) living in the States. He misses him, wants to be a steadier presence in his life. In fact, the most devastating scene in the entire film is its opening, when Jesse has to say goodbye to his son, Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), at the airport as the latter has to return to the States after a summer in Europe. We see Jesse, the father, doing his best to be strong and convivial toward his son, but his tentative gestures–all he wants is to hug his son and never let go–and his look–the look of a heartbroken parent–tell the truth.

Later, as Celine and Jesse head off to a private overnight stay at a nearby resort, the film’s ugly and jaundiced truths bare themselves as Celine, sensing Jesse’s conflicted heart, reacts to seeing herself as either the villain, keeping Jesse from his son, or as the victim, who must forever compromise her youthful dreams in molding herself to be the obedient spouse. To be fair, her anger is understandable: She has carried the burden of bearing and raising their daughters, keeping house and cooking while maintaining her career as Jesse pursues his writing. Celine’s barbs are particularly vicious, demeaning Jesse’s manhood, intelligence, his sexual and literary prowess, among everything else. Jesse, for his part, is as cocky and full of himself as ever. But he still grounds this relationship, his optimism now tempered by a newfound realism. Regardless of their openness, the sense of imminent terror here is palpable, the imminent break, of two lives approaching the point of no return.

What Before Midnight offers in terms of verbal firepower, it lacks in subtext and undercurrents. Nowhere does it achieve the breathtaking power of that first scene. The effectiveness of that opening airport scene was all achieved in those undercurrents of heartbreak and loss, conveyed simply and silently. The temperature of Before Midnight soon becomes a rising, overheated trajectory of verbal jabs and accusations. Everything is literal, right on the surface, leaving nothing to be gleaned elsewhere.

Others might say,”Of course, it’s all on the surface. These are raw, immediate issues that need to be expressed between two people.” I say that’s totally legitimate; people have arguments like this all the time, everywhere, but it doesn’t make for great cinema. Before Midnight is a bold movie, but it never achieves poetry (minus that opening scene) because Linklater and his stars never vary the tone, their dramatic strategy; it’s all in-your-face and the whole thing is an much an act of emotional aggression toward the audience as it is toward its characters.

To be fair, this is the same strategy employed in the previous two films. But when I watch Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, I’m not listening to the dialogue so much as watching the performances, trying to discern deeper secrets and foreshadowings, to discern the implications of what’s said. Before Midnight, on the other hand, is a difficult film to watch. We sense nothing in its depths. Maybe that’s the point, I have to wonder; maybe there’s nothing to be sensed below what is stated explicitly. Its depiction of an unraveling relationship, of harsh words and tough realities, heartbreak and what’s it like to stare into the unforgiving chasm that is the rest of one’s life make it an important and worthy film, though not a particularly lyrical one. I admire its honesty and wish this couple well.

Grade: B-

Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Ariane Labed, Jennifer Prior, Walter Lassally, Athina Rachel Tsangari

World War Z

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For a zombie movie, the PG-13 rated World War Z is among the tamest in the genre. There are scenes of horror and hysteria, induced by mobs of undead going berserk as panicked citizens flee–some do escape, others are bitten and transformed into zombies themselves. The only sure way to kill them is a bullet in the head. In that sense, this follows the zombie playbook. Otherwise, there isn’t the level of gore to which we’ve become accustomed coming from this genre. Indeed, the focus isn’t on the subject’s goriness, but the human drama that unfolds around it. World War Z is less about zombies than it is a portrait of human despair and one man’s quest to rid the world of the plague, fueled only by his love for his family. This movie is really about a father and husband’s devotion and his willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Themes don’t get any more profound.

The world has been overrun by a terrifying virus that turns its victims into raving, run-amok zombies. Former UN investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family learn that firsthand when they find themselves in the midst of a zombie attack and a military crackdown in Philadelphia. Because of his UN status, Lane is able to secure safekeeping for his family aboard a U.S. Navy carrier, which serves as a kind of floating safe zone, before he embarks on a globe-trotting hunt for a way to stop the pandemic. Along the way, the film lingers on details of survival–on how a family that takes in the Lanes on the day of Philadelphia’s collapse clings close to their radio for news and on American soldiers in a remote South Korean military base and how they’ve barricaded themselves against the zombies waiting outside. And, of course, there’s the depiction of Jerusalem, sealed off the outside world by newly built steel walls, and housing a diaspora of Jews and Palestinians. Yes, it’s the zombie apocalypse but, because of its real-world geopolitical considerations, World War Z also feels like a convincing depiction of a humanitarian crisis.

The direction by Marc Forster, while never inspired, is dependably utilitarian. Forster follows the paces outlined in this adaptation, which only takes its cue from Max Brooks’ novel in its premise and global overview, and he lets Pitt anchor the material and deliver one of his sturdiest performances. Over 20 years, Pitt has become of Hollywood’s best and most compelling actors; there’s both conscience and conviction at play in his work. It was front-and-center in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, and it commands this film as the story tapers down from the large-scale chaos of its first half to a third-act stand-off set inside a WHO research lab. Sure, there are the alternately obligatory and frightening depictions of zombie carnage, civilian breakdown and military resistance, but they pale in comparison to Lane’s personal journey. Pitt’s soulful performance lends World War Z real heart and strength. When the end credits roll, you really wish that the movie were longer, extending and deepening its investigative mystery as Lane (and the rest of us) learns step-by-step the origins of the plague and its nature. The story’s premise, the seriousness and intelligence of this adaptation and Pitt’s performance towering over it all could’ve handily accommodated an epic of that scale. Were it so.

Grade: B

Directed by: Marc Forster
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof
Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Matthew Fox, David Morse

White House Down

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The White House gets commandeered by a gang of anti-American conspirators and mercenaries, whose members include ex-soldiers and an elite computer hacker. They’re led by a zealous saboteur–who also happens to be chief of the President’s security detail. It’s a premise that seems tailored for a throwback ’80s or ’90s action bonanza. Indeed, White House Down plays a lot like Die Hard-lite, heavy on the artillery and the macho swagger but lacking the edge and creepiness that made us take baddies like Alan Rickman seriously. This is, after all, a Roland Emmerich affair, and–having avoided most of his output since Independence Day–I guess I’d forgotten just how schmaltzy the man’s films can be. There is an overload of cheese here, a fondue of it here dripping over the edges of this jingoistic B-movie hokum, and it makes for a very queasy combination with the sarcastic, even subversive comedy that peeps through at times from the lead’s performers.

Channing Tatum picks up where he left off in 21 Jump Street, playing an oafish yet confident security officer aspiring to the ranks of the Presidential Secret Service. As Cale, he marshals the same combination of befuddled machismo that created comic sparks opposite Jonah Hill’s nerdy buffoonery in 21 Jump Street, and it’s almost as effective here opposite Jamie Foxx, playing the President with about as stately and dignified an air as he can muster. Had director Emmerich allowed the chain reaction of comic chemistry sparked by these leads to carry the film, there’s no telling how good White House Down could’ve been. What we have instead is a sporadically amusing, ridiculously corny “thrill ride” contrived for maximum, infantile patriotism.

It so happens that, on the same day as Cale shows up for a bungling interview with Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhall), a top White House staffer, the aforementioned gang infiltrates the White House and promptly begins to raise hell. It also happens to be that Cale’s daughter, a budding political junkie and pint-sized, all-American hero, is part of a White House tour. When Cale learns his daughter is among the terrorists’ hostages, he goes into overdrive, partnering up with the Foxx’s equally beleaguered President Sawyer–who finds himself the target of traitors in his own ranks–to save the day.

While its set-up and initial action set pieces have a breathable and involving-enough style, the movie completely unravels the deeper Emmerich goes into the takeover conspiracy and the more over-the-top its theatrics get. Top quality actors like Woods, Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins and Jason Clarke do the best they can with a ludicrous screenplay by James Vanderbilt. They hit all the notes that Emmerich’s direction, which tries to squeeze as much melodrama out of the script’s parental, presidential and patriotic themes, demands. His direction is otherwise nondescript–this is shot and edited as a straight-ahead, generic action movie of outsize scale and the hysterics to match. Emmerich’s depiction of the American media types, the jingoistic citizenry and the nefarious bad guys is so riddled with cliches and hammered home with such brain-deadening obviousness that White House Down is eventually a joyless enterprise in calculated mall-crowd moviemaking of the dumbest order.

The silver lining is the occasional spark of comedy seen in the team-up of Tatum and Foxx. They have a few moments that have a sense of slapstick and genre subversion that go about halfway to making White House Down a watchable experience. The best among these might be a frenetic moment when Cale and Sawyer, under fire, hustle into the White House’s garage and climb inside the presidential limo. But, even in the heat of battle, the President ducks into the back seat of the limo while Cale takes the wheel before taking off on a rockets-and-bullets addled tear around the White House lawn. “Why the hell did you get in the back?” Cale shouts. “Force of habit,” Sawyer answers. That’s a genuinely funny moment in a movie that should’ve had tons of them instead of the wall to wall of silly, self-serious melodrama punctuated by forgettable action scenes.

Grade: C

Directed by: Roland Emmerich
Written by: James Vanderbilt
Cast: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, Joey King, James Woods