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Been Through The Movies With A Character With No Name

Erik Hayden at The Atlantic with the round-up. Hayden:

The options could hardly be starker for Labor Day movie-goers. On one hand, there’s the blood-stained Machete, which seems to revel in the number of body-parts it dismembers for the pleasure of audiences. And, of course, there’s also that European-tinged, art-house hitman movie with the relatively unassuming poster of George Clooney furrowing his brow. What’s that one about, exactly? It appears that nearly half of our nation’s finest critics lost their patience with the slow-burning film before trying to figure that out.

The film itself, directed by 2007’s Control helmer, Anton Corbijn, takes its cues from Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 landmark The Passenger and builds upon the book it’s adapted from, Rowan Joffe’s A Very Private Gentleman. It follows a international hitman (George Clooney) whose real name is unimportant , and who quietly delivers all that’s expected of him (the closest thing to a spoiler is that the film is fraught with “butterfly symbolism”).

Christopher Orr at The Atlantic:

In his latest film, George Clooney plays an international hitman variously addressed as “Jack” and “Edward,” though we’re given little reason to imagine that either name has attached itself to him for long. In the hilly Italian hamlets where the bulk of the story takes place he’s known best, and most evocatively, as “The American”—which is also, for simplicity’s sake, the title of the picture.

The protagonist’s name, in any case, is largely incidental: Clooney is playing Clooney. (As if there were anyone else we’d genuinely prefer him to be.) He works here on the somber edge of his personal spectrum, more Solaris than Leatherheads. But dour or droll, he remains contemporary cinema’s most effortless star, and this easy magnetism is the primary engine driving director Anton Corbijn’s low-key, European-style thriller. Evoking Steve McQueen rather than his customary Cary Grant, Clooney is less Everyman than every man’s idealized self: stoic yet not unfeeling, bruised but unfaltering. Sadness lurks in the crinkle of his crow’s feet, but flickers of hope as well.

Dana Stevens at Slate:

For all the demands it will place on the viewer’s attention span, though, The American doesn’t start slow. It kicks off with an absolutely killer cold open in a snowbound cabin in Sweden, where the American of the title, Jack (George Clooney) is romancing a lissome Scandinavian honey. Their postcoital stroll turns unexpectedly violent—a development that’s all the more frightening for taking place in absolute, snow-muffled silence. Jack goes into hiding in Italy, instructed by his superior Pavel (Johan Leysen) to lie low for a while. (We never do learn exactly what kind of organization Jack works for—is he a CIA agent? An international operative of some kind? A mercenary?) A tiny hillside village in Abruzzo becomes Jack’s temporary home. Again on the instructions of the mysterious Pavel, Jack—who, apparently, is a world-class gunsmith—begins working on a special custom-designed weapon for a female assassin (Thekla Reuten).

The entire middle section of the film consists of long scenes of Jack alone in his pensione, machining gun parts. For recreation, he drinks brandy with the local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and seeks the favors of a prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido). This part of the movie may lose many viewers: Hey, I didn’t pay 12 bucks for a George Clooney spy movie so I could watch the man sit silently in front of a lathe! But Corbijn’s bare-bones reduction of the spy genre to its constituent parts has its own dry, spare charm. By the time that gun is finally built, we know a lot more about Jack’s character than we did going in, and we’re keen to see what the weapon will eventually get used for.

Given that—even in character as a gaunt, brooding, emotionally remote assassin—George Clooney is George Clooney, Clara the prostitute soon falls in love with him. (It doesn’t hurt that he uses his brothel time to give her sexual pleasure.) The prospect of a new life with this adoring, implausibly softhearted young woman begins to crack Jack’s shell, and he entertains the possibility of retiring from the business after he finishes this one last job ….

It’s a testament to Corbijn’s directorial gifts that a movie featuring “one last job,” a taciturn loner, and a hooker with a heart of gold could feel as crisp and unusual as The American. Corbijn’s aesthetic choices are consistently unexpected: He films the Italian hill town where Jack holes up not as an Under the Tuscan Sun-style postcard, but as an intriguing set of geometric patterns. And Lord, what a relief to watch a movie, thriller or otherwise, that isn’t scored to within an inch of its life. (When it does appear, the music, by Herbert Gronemeyer, is appropriately contemplative.)

John Nolte at Big Hollywood:

Anyone looking for a thriller will be quickly disappointed. Director Anron Corbijn isn’t interested in action. At all. As a matter of fact, Jack’s pursuers are as easy to kill as red-shirted “Star Trek” crewmen. This is a mood and character piece experimenting with silence and stillness in the hopes of making large the small moments, movements and gestures that come from a character too emotionally isolated and permanently on guard to offer up anything else.  Chatter and exposition and back-story would only betray the essence of this character, which means that it’s up to Clooney fill in the pieces using only his screen presence. Thanks to his first truly outstanding and Oscar-worthy performance, Clooney not only accomplishes this, he also draws us in wanting to know more. Who is this man? What made him who he is?  Will he redeem himself?

Unfortunately, it’s here where the story finally collapses.

Okay, so there’s nothing cinematically subtle about a fallen man at a crossroads in his life and at the same time befriended by the extremes of priest and prostitute. But that doesn’t mean the idea at work there can’t be interesting. The problem is that like the rest of the thematic track you’re deceived into believing the film is laying, it’s all a cheat. Not a single thematic element goes anywhere or even attempts to assume any kind of meaning. Jack might be handsome, worldly and refined, but he also happens to be a sociopath. To root for him, to want Jack to become Edward and get out from under the sins of his past, we have to see something worthy of redemption.  But we don’t, and still the film roots for him, which is especially obvious in the melodramatic climax.

“The American” dares to burden itself (and us) with the heavy symbolism of priest, prostitute, and butterfly, not to mention Jack’s unforgivable crime, but then doesn’t have the courage to deliver on what it means – other than (snore) the futility of it all. This makes for a numbing third act and turns the hushed moments and clipped dialogue and lingering stares into something worse than pretense. Slowly, what once drew you in devolves into cold disappointment and watch-checking tedium — at least until the credits roll, at which point you’re completely numb.

No matter how good the acting, lovely the locations, pretty the cinematography or pregnant the pauses; no matter how much you might tart something up with the whiff of self-important existentialism, just as black is the absence of color, indifference is not a theme — it’s the absence of theme. Nihilism is not art. Nihilism is the absence of art. Which isn’t to say that this subdued and self-consciously quiet examination of the barren existence of an aging hit man tired of looking over his shoulder is without merit. What the film is without, however, is a point – which appears to be the point, which means that we have here is a deliberate act of artistic cowardice.

Todd McCarthy at Indiewire:

The tone of the film recalls the fine, spare 1970s work of screenwriter Alan Sharp in the perennially underrated “Night Moves,” “The Hired Hand” and “The Last Run,” the latter especially because it involved an American criminal dragged out of his retirement in a European village. The fact that John Huston started directing “The Last Run” (he was replaced by Richard Flesicher) and helped write “The Killers” establishes a Hemingway connection; like the hunted figure in “The Killers,” Jack/Edward knows what’s coming but doesn’t know when or from where, leaving him only with the choice of how to deal with it philosophically.

The emotion, such as it is, comes at the end of a very long fuse, when everything that the man has kept so tightly bottled up comes boiling to the surface; Jack/Edward has one shot at possibly escaping his presumed destiny and Clooney indelibly catches the character’s desperate anxiety and fearful hope as he tries to slip through the eye of the needle. You can see the blood rise to his face with his long-suppressed emotion and it’s a sight to behold.

Stephanie Zacharek at Movieline:

Watching The American, it struck me how unusual it is, in contemporary movies, to see a love scene involving a man and a prostitute that’s both carnal and tender. The unspoken wisdom is that these things have to be presented as something tawdry and dirty, because, heaven forbid, we’re not supposed to approve of them.

But even Corbijn’s approach to nudity is refreshingly nonjudgmental and unfettered; he isn’t looking for approval or disapproval, but simply to draw out feeling. Before the screening, a colleague and I wondered aloud why the studio releasing The American, Focus Features, waited until two days before the movie’s opening to show it to critics. The assumption most critics make when a studio “hides” a movie is that it’s lousy. But as we waited for the movie to start, I suggested that maybe Focus had kept the movie from us because they had something with no rapid-fire editing or shaky-cam, because the story makes sense, because the visuals show some thought and some care.

As it turned out, that’s exactly the kind of movie I found The American to be. And in this climate, how is a studio supposed to sell that? The movie’s distinctive qualities aren’t the sort of thing that generates buzz, and I’m beginning to fear that even word of mouth, of the “It’s boring” variety, may come to hurt it at the box office. Perhaps that’s what happens to a movie that asks you to see instead of just look. I hope not.

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Julia Finds Herself Eating, Praying, And Loving

Sally Mercedes at The Stir:

Eat Pray Love, starring Julia Roberts and her hunky companions, opens this weekend.I already have tickets, so I wanted to know what to expect, but the Eat Pray Love reviews are all over the place.

Katrina Mitchell, CBS News:

[T]he best alternative to a pampered getaway might to [sic] indulge yourself vicariously in Elizabeth Gilbert’s journey of self discovery.

Dezhda Gaubert, E! Online:

While the movie is touching in all the right ways, it doesn’t leap off the screen the way Gilbert’s wry voice jumps off the page.

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times:

“Eat Pray Love” is shameless wish-fulfillment, a Harlequin novel crossed with a mystic travelogue

Kim Conte, The Stir:

The movie […] succeeds where the book fails. Instead of telling the story about one woman’s very specific path to spiritual enlightenment and self-discovery, it imparts a more universal tale about the search for love.

So, basically, you’re going to love it or hate it. You’ll either cry because you’re moved or completely bored. Good to know!

Robert Levin at Film School Rejects:

In Eat Pray Love, Liz Gilbert (Julia Roberts) eats, prays and loves, while gliding through some of the world’s most beautiful settings. Populated with gorgeous people, vivid scenic vistas and picturesque multicultural happenings, the film would make an ideal promotional spot for its primary locations of Rome, India and Bali.

Glee co-creator Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best selling, autobiographical self-help book (his directorial debut) gets the surface details right. Seen on a big enough screen, the pictures of Rome’s ornamental city streets, India’s sweat soaked ashrams and Bali’s lushly vegetated countryside provoke the sort of all-encompassing awe that in many respects defines the cinema.

But when it comes to the narrative woven around the scenery, the movie starts flat, stays flat and never recovers. Cast wrong and structured lazily, Eat Pray Love lacks the strong dramatic pull needed to sustain a 133-minute production. Mired in a milquetoast aesthetic obsessed with trendy “healing” tropes (meditation, close-ups on delicious looking pasta, Javier Bardem etc.) the movie rarely deviates from the genre’s standard path.

Eric Snider at Cinematical:

Among Julia Roberts‘ many talents is the ability to be likable even when she’s playing a character who isn’t. She’ll star in something dreadful like Runaway Bride or Mona Lisa Smile, and despite what a shrill stereotype the character is, Roberts herself will be infectiously pleasant.

This skill is taxed to its limits in Eat Pray Love, in which Roberts plays a privileged, self-absorbed narcissist who takes a year-long vacation to “find herself.” (You’re always in the last place you look, amirite?) This lady, Elizabeth Gilbert (also the name of the author from whose memoir the film was adapted), isn’t happy married, isn’t happy single, isn’t happy ever. She figures she needs to spend some time with no one but herself. Speaking as one who has spent 140 minutes with her, I would advise against that.

Dana Stevens at Slate:

Few actresses can telegraph pleasure as well as Roberts, which is why the “eat” portion of the film, in which her character packs away so much Roman pasta that her jean size soars from 0 to 1, is the most enjoyable of the three. But for those who haven’t read the book, it won’t be easy to grasp how and why Liz gets to Rome in the first place. A rushed and cursory setup has her breaking up with her husband (Billy Crudup) and embarking on a doomed affair with a young actor (James Franco) with little apparent motivation; both men, and in fact every male character in the movie, seem handsome, charming, and besotted with her. We know Liz has hit rock bottom because she tells her publisher, Delia (Viola Davis), “I’ve hit rock bottom,” not because we’ve accompanied her on the way down.

Prozac would be considerably less overprescribed if more writers had publishers like Delia, who lets herself be convinced that a book advance large enough to finance a year of world travel will be just the thing for what ails Liz. (It’s a flaw of both the book and the film that the negotiation of this contract is glossed over so hastily. There’s no shame in having landed a sweet book deal, and having the financial underpinnings of Gilbert’s trip made plain would help to mitigate the audience’s resentment at her barely acknowledged privilege.) Once in Italy, Liz takes language classes, wanders around in cute outfits gandering at fountains, and orders marvelous meals with an assortment of international friends, while Martha Stewart’s food stylist hovers just off-screen with a spray bottle of liquid glycerin. This part of the movie is my favorite because it’s an unabashed glossy travelogue; as viewers, we’re not asked to do anything more than acknowledge the irrefutable fact that il dolce far niente looks like a lot of fun.

The “pray” section, in which Liz seeks spiritual solace in an Indian ashram, is a tougher sell. Watching a person meditate makes for less than dynamic cinema, and the ooglety-booglety inner journeys that Gilbert describes in the book are hard to bring to life on the page, let alone on-screen. The dramatic interest of the India chapter comes from Richard (Richard Jenkins), a fellow spiritual seeker and recovering alcoholic from Texas who befriends Liz with mystifying alacrity—minutes into their first conversation, he’s already bestowed on her an affectionate nickname. Jenkins, a fine character actor, invests Richard with an easygoing gravitas, but I never got around the essential phoniness of the Liz/Richard relationship. His character seems to exist for the sole purpose of dispensing folksy epigrams about acceptance and faith. The one scene in which Richard does get a chance to tell his own story is a nakedly manipulative play on the viewer’s emotions. This scene is meant to show that Liz and Richard have reached a new level of trust with one another, but it marked the moment when I stopped trusting the movie.

Once Liz has checked spiritual seeking off her travel to-do list, she heads to Bali, where an old medicine man (Hadi Subiyanto) takes her on as a student and amanuensis. Amid the island’s lush jungles and libidinous expat parties, she meets a crinkly-eyed Brazilian businessman, Felipe (Javier Bardem), whose bossa-nova mix tapes might as well be titled “Have Sex With Me Right Now.” But Liz, still damaged by the wreckage of her past two relationships, takes a while to respond to Felipe’s advances.

Christian Toto at Big Hollywood:

“Pray,” based on the real exploits of author Elizabeth Gilbert, spends plenty of screen time on the main character’s soul search. Audiences may need to stretch during the film’s bloated running time, but despite the relaxed pace we still don’t adequately feel Liz’s pain.

The movie can’t be bothered to paint her marriage in anything but comically fleeting terms, using its dissolution for some quick laughs. And Crudup is left looking wounded and silly in the process. Who wouldn’t leave this sap? Better yet, who would begrudge herself for fleeing?

Roberts shapes Liz in a way lesser actresses simply couldn’t. She buries her “Pretty Woman” smile long enough to make us care about Liz’s plight, even if we can’t point to any particulars regarding her grieving process.

The film’s romantic angle comes so late in the story it’s a wonder it’s able to resonate at all. Credit Bardem for making the moments matter. He’s instantly relatable, a divorced man eager to resume his romantic life and not shy about showing his affection for his grown child.

Yes, the two kiss on the mouth – platonically, of course – and it’s as sweet a screen moment as you’ll see in the entire film.

What’s missing in “Love” is a sense of surprise. Yes, the Italian city scapes are beautiful, and yes, the food looks so delicious you’ll want to stop the movie and run to the nearest, best Trattoria.

But who couldn’t write such scenes?

The India sequences are equally predictable, down to the cute and cuddly old dude who allegedly possesses all the wisdom in the world – but has very few teeth.

“Eat Pray Love” deserves credit for its storytelling patience and having the smarts to install Roberts in the lead role. But those unfamiliar with the famous book will likely wonder what the fuss is all about.

Linda Holmes at NPR:

I’m not particularly interested in Eat Pray Love, I have to tell you. I own the book; I have not brought myself to read it. I might see the movie. I might not.

But I am rooting for it to become a giant smash hit, because maybe that would mean I would never have to read another “Is Julia Roberts Dead Yet?” piece as long as I live. (Or, for that matter, a piece like “Why Does Everyone Hate Julia Roberts?”, which claims that you can tell from Roberts’ smile that she’s a bad person, and that having had three — THREE! — well-known boyfriends before her husband raises the reasonable suspicion that she is “a bit of a man-eater.”)

I want to keep this reasonably short, because we covered this when Duplicity came out, but it’s worth noting a few issues with, for instance, this effort to evaluate her prospects.

The entire idea that Julia Roberts built her career as a rom-com queen is a questionable one. During her original period of popularity, she also made Steel Magnolias, Sleeping With The Enemy, Hook, and The Pelican Brief. Chuckle at Mary Reilly all you like — The Pelican Brief made 100 million bucks. Erin Brockovich made about $125 million. Audiences have never showed any unwillingness to see Roberts in anything except romantic comedies. She may or may not want to return to them. She may or may not need to.

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Salt, But No Pepper?

Erik Hayden at The Atlantic with a round-up.

Christopher Orr at The Atlantic:

I was planning to let this one pass. Honestly. What purpose would be served, I asked myself, by cataloguing the manifold deficiencies of the Angelina Jolie spy thriller Salt, a second-tier summer offering unlikely to inspire much critical or commercial enthusiasm anyway?

But as I was coming to this conclusion, the film itself shamed me back into an appreciation of my duty. It happened near the end, when the heroine committed a homicide that was not strictly speaking necessary, and another character asked her, “Why did you kill him?” She replied firmly: “Because somebody had to.”

Somebody has to. If government assassins and reviewers of mediocre summer cinema have anything in common (and, in fact, we have quite a bit), it is an appreciation of this Spartan credo.

In this instance it’s best, I think, to be quick and businesslike, avoiding emotional involvement and the unnecessary infliction of pain. So here goes. Salt is a dull, dumb, humorless film. I’ve written before about Hollywood’s failure to produce B+ (and even B-) genre films, and Salt is a prime example—a movie that ought to have been a competent if uninspired entertainment but instead approximates Bourne for Dummies.

Dana Stevens at Slate:

Though Salt will appeal to Bourne fans, it’s slicker and less gritty than those films. Also, Evelyn Salt is more inscrutable and less vulnerable than Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne; every time we think she’s revealed a truth about herself, it’s eventually exposed as a bluff. Had a man played the lead role, which was originally written for Tom Cruise, Salt would have come off as dated and predictable. With a woman—with this woman—all the invincible-spy clichés feel fresh and fun again. Jolie gets to doctor her own wounds in a bar bathroom, scale the side of a building, leap down an elevator shaft, and—most impressively—pull off at least three successful makeovers by giving herself chic haircuts and stealing fab wardrobes on the fly.

As she did in the graphic-novel adaptation Wanted, Jolie makes for a natural action hero. Her physical confidence and self-possession are absolute, and even if she’s not doing all of her own stunts, she makes you believe she could. She’s having great fun, but it’s not smug, jokey James Bond fun. Though the story is ridiculous, she plays her character straight, and though the inconclusive last sequence is a shameless setup for a sequel, you give it a pass because, truth be told, you’re not quite ready to be done with the icy, invincible Evelyn Salt.

The audience’s relationship to Jolie as an off-screen superhero—a bona-fide, old-school movie star—makes her ludicrously competent character seem contiguous with her real-life persona. After leaping from overpasses down onto the roofs of semis and single-handedly dispatching a White House bunker full of armed guards, it seems perfectly logical that Salt—if that really is her name—might stop off at the U.N., make a speech about world hunger, then head home to nurse the twins and have sex with Brad Pitt.

Kurt Loder at MTV:

The story does kick off with a clever hook. Top CIA agent Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is in the middle of grilling a Russian intelligence operator named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) when he tells her that the Agency has been infiltrated by a Russian mole, whose ambitious mission it is to destroy the United States. Salt asks Orlov the mole’s name. “Salt,” he says.

Two of Salt’s fellow agents have been watching this interrogation, and they’re naturally startled. One of them, Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber), says he’s certain that Evelyn can’t be a mole. The other, however, a hardass named Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), isn’t so sure. Salt herself doesn’t stick around to explain — she takes off. All kinds of pursuers leap into action, and as the chase proceeds, we marvel at her ability to dispatch hordes of heavily armed soldiers (all terrible shots) and her easy access to guns, chemicals and high-end designer clothing. (At one point in her flight, attired in a flowing fur-trimmed cape and matching hat, she looks like a fugitive from a fashion shoot.) She has also brought along a venomous pet spider. Well, her husband’s pet spider. Her husband’s name is Mike (August Diehl), and he’s an arachnologist so esteemed, we’re told, that he has “unlimited access to the border areas of North Korea.” This would explain why he was on hand when Salt was freed from the North Korean prison where we’d seen her being beaten to a pulp in her underwear at the beginning of the movie. Unfortunately, it doesn’t explain what the Norks have to do with the story, which seems to be nothing.

When it’s not swamped in uproar — one damn thing after another — the movie attempts to maintain its focus on the Russian mole. Or moles, actually — because there’s a whole nest of them, raised from childhood to become deep-cover saboteurs. (We see the devious nippers being schooled in the nuances of colloquial English by watching old “Brady Bunch” episodes!) At first we don’t think Salt is one of these spies, but then it begins to seem that maybe she is. Anyone hoping for a resolution to this question should be aware that the movie is openly intended to be the first installment of a franchise. Stay tuned, presumably.

Stephanie Zacharek at Movieline:

Jolie is great fun to watch — for style and grace, she’s the closest we’ve got to a modern-day Errol Flynn or Burt Lancaster — and Noyce makes sure she looks her best. The action in Salt is shot and edited so cleanly that it makes the movie feel like a miracle of modern-day action filmmaking. There’s no choppy, rapid-fire cutting. Instead, Noyce and his editors, Stuart Baird and John Gilroy, connect the visuals into thrilling but logical mosaics — we always know who’s coming from where, and more often than not, that who is Jolie, running, jumping or sprinting into action.

Noyce has made his share of action thrillers (he’s the director behind the Tom Clancy adaptations Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger), but he’s pulled off more serious, emotionally complex material too (like his meticulous and thoughtful version of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American). Salt is, of course, closer in style to the former than the latter; still, Noyce approaches the material with a healthy sense of humor. The subject matter alone is likely to give moviegoers of a certain age a pleasant shiver of Cold War nostalgia, and Noyce runs with that. (The Cold War wasn’t so much fun while it was going on, but as much as we feared that the Soviets might someday come over and liquefy our buildings, they never actually did so.) Touches like Orlov’s dumpling-thick Russian accent, or the way Salt wraps herself in a swishy fur-trimmed cape, topped off with a Dr. Zhivago toque, are served up with a sly wink.

And yet Noyce takes Jolie and all her capabilities seriously. We’re meant to enjoy her kung-fu kicks and rock ‘em-sock ‘em punches. But her face is the real secret weapon here, and Noyce never loses sight of that. The plot twists of Salt unfold with delicious silliness, but Noyce gives his star a moment of great emotional gravity — we’re allowed to witness a horrific event, but how we might feel about it is inconsequential. Noyce trains the camera on Jolie’s face, and across a span of mere seconds, we see a color-wheel of emotions — horror, suppressed pain, anger and resolve — drift across it.

Shannon Hood at Flickcast:

Angelina Jolie does a very good job in the role, but her body is so frail looking that you fear she will snap in two.  She has no muscle, and no brawn, so no matter how good her performance is, I can’t buy her as an ass-kickin’ chick.  I’m pretty sure I could knock her over with my pinky. I understand why she was cast, but a Jennifer Garner or Alice Braga type with a little muscle would have been more convincing.

Liev Schreiber plays one of Evelyn’s CIA handlers and Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a counter-intelligence expert. Everyone else sort of fades into the background next to Jolie.

Salt is equal parts The Fugitive and the Bourne movies. It is perfectly serviceable as a summer popcorn movie, no more, no less.

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Life Is But A Dream, Sweetheart

John Hudson at The Atlantic with a round-up

Dana Stevens in Slate:

With Inception (Warner Brothers), Christopher Nolan definitively proves that he’s more interested in blowing the viewer’s mind than in tracking where the mind-shards land—or how and whether they can be pieced back together. The director who gave us Memento and The Prestige, along with Batman films The Dark Knight and Batman Begins, may be unmatched among contemporary filmmakers for solemn bombast—but he’s also unmatched for visual elegance and genuinely original action. There are plenty of movies that will give you a spectacular chase scene through the streets of Paris, but how many of them would think to fold a Parisian street onto itself until it resembles a three-dimensional game board designed by M.C. Escher?

Escher is a good reference for Inception, and not just because the film includes the image of a Penrose stairway similar to the one the Dutch artist created in his lithograph “Ascending and Descending.” The action in this psychological thriller pivots on questions of perception and perspective, questions of exactly the sort that fascinated Escher. How do we know the difference between reality and projection, past and present, memory and dream? If we agree to stop asking these questions and simply live in a shared delusion, what have we lost? These are admirably ambitious riddles for a summer action movie to pose, reminiscent of the shape-shifting and romantic trickery of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But in place of Puck’s rueful speech enjoining the audience to imagine “that you have but slumbered here/ While these visions did appear,” Inception is content to end on a Keanu Reeves-esque “Whoa.”

Dustin Hucks at Film School Rejects:

I will say this now, without reservation and fully confident that many will agree; Inception is easily the best big budget film of the year thus far. I’ll go further and say that it’s one of the most beautiful, well written, and fully realized high dollar films of the last five years. Inception, is close to perfection.

Christopher Nolan is the reigning king of the non-linear plot, and master of deeply layered narratives that hook audiences and reel them in slowly. He salvaged the reputation of The Dark Knight on the big screen, and retooled the psychological thriller. Nolan’s body of work is compact, with seven films over twelve years — the most recent being Inception; and what an addition to the collection it is.

Inception is the story of Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a thief of the mind called an extractor who enters the dreams of high powered individuals and steals their secrets via an architect. The architect is responsible for building the world of the dreamer, convincing them their surroundings are real. Dom is assisted by his friend and colleague Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the voice of reason in Dom’s life. We’re brought into the main part of the story in the middle of an extraction, in the mind of sleeping energy company CEO Saito (Ken Watanabe). What seems to be a routine extraction turns into what the entire film ends up being; a question of what is what, when, and who is aware. Much of the groundwork is laid early on, though true to fashion, Nolan makes sure we’re not aware of it.

Dom and Arthur are at an architect-built compound, attempting to lead Saito’s subconscious through the process of tipping his hand and leading them to his greatest secrets. During this event we’re introduced to the mysterious Mal (Marion Cotillard) — whose appearance disturbs Arthur. Mal and Dom have a relationship, the details of which we’re not immediately aware. All we know, is Dom can’t trust her.

Very soon the dream is compromised, Saito aware that they are in his subconscious mind and Mal holding Arthur at gunpoint. Here we learn some rules — if you die in the dream, you simply wake up, but being injured does not have the same result, however. Dom kills (wakes) an injured Arthur, and we’re introduced to the other side of the dream. Cobb is asleep, as is Saito; both hooked intravenously to the machine that makes extractions possible. It is here, through a series of events I won’t ruin, that we learn about the concept of dreams within dreams.

Andrew O’Hehir at Salon:

While Nolan’s images are visually impressive and powered by state-of-the-art digital effects and accomplished stunt work, they’re always ordered and organized with anal precision. They don’t look or feel anything like dreams. (Or, at least, not like my dreams.) They look instead like mediocre action films from the ’90s, or in the case of the supremely boring ski-patrol vs. Arctic fortress shootout found on Level Three, like the Alistair MacLean adaptation “Ice Station Zebra” from 1968. (With Rock Hudson! And Ernest Borgnine!) “Inception” may have been directed by Christopher Nolan, but Nolan’s dreams are apparently directed by Michael Bay.

OK, I know — you want me to back off the high-minded analysis and tell you whether “Inception” is a good destination for those summer moviegoing dollars eager to leap out of your wallet. Sure, I guess so. It’s a cool-looking action movie, carefully constructed and edited, that uses all kinds of nifty locations and a lot of portentous-sounding expositional yammering. It inhabits a Philip K. Dick-style universe of psychological warfare that suggests “The Matrix,” “Total Recall” and “Minority Report” — all of them, by the way, better movies — but it’s fairer to call “Inception” a maze movie or a labyrinth movie than a puzzle movie. Because, as the wisecracking fellow critic sitting next to me observed, every time the story gets puzzling the characters call a timeout and explain it.

So, yeah, if you approach “Inception” with lowered expectations it’s a pretty good time. Problem is, there are no lowered expectations around Christopher Nolan, whose adherents have proclaimed him as the heir to Kubrick and Hitchcock and declared “Inception” a masterpiece. I don’t want to get sidetracked here, but let me suggest that the comparisons aren’t entirely misguided. They’re just not helpful. Nolan has inherited some of Kubrick and Hitchcock’s worst tendencies, most notably their defensive, compulsive inclination to work everything out about their stories and characters to the last detail, as if human beings and the world were algebraic or geometrical phenomena requiring a solution.

But the mysterious power of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” cannot be explained by the ludicrous official story revealed in the final act — indeed, it nearly scotches the whole movie — and the attack of “The Birds” is never explained. As Kubrick’s career progressed he was increasingly drawn to stories that defied or challenged rational analysis, like “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “The Shining.” (I think I’d put “Full Metal Jacket” and “Eyes Wide Shut” in that category too, but let’s discuss some other time.) Nolan seems to have learned exactly the wrong lessons from these mentors. For all the complexity, craftsmanship and color of “Inception,” it’s yet another of his ultra-serious schematic constructions with no soul, no sex and almost no joy, all about some tormented dude struggling with his ill-managed Freudian demons. That same guy sitting next to me cracked that Nolan needs to stop seeing a therapist; there’s not nearly enough sublimation in his movies.

John Nolte at Big Hollywood:

Like the performances (DiCaprio has finally won me over), the special effects are absolutely flawless and serve the story perfectly. From your own dreams you’re sure to recognize the various visual moods Nolan explores: chaos, the inability to move quickly or escape, moments of inexpressible beauty and how an emotional connection conceived in your dreams can profoundly penetrate your waking reality. Nolan could’ve obviously gone anywhere with this idea but using the conceit of an “architect” (that’s all I’m going to tell you), we’re not subjected to dinosaurs or space aliens or any of that other crazy story-killing nonsense designed to sell the film’s trailer.

Like I mentioned earlier, “Inception” is a triumph and certainly one of the best films you’ll see this year, but until an absolutely exhilarating climax, the intricacies of the plot always feel a little further ahead of you than they should be and even then require an awful lot of exposition for the pieces to finally click into place. Also, the characters and their relationships are surprisingly and unnecessarily clinical. Cobb’s team, which includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an efficient fixer, Ellen Page as the “architect,” Tom Hardy as the “forger,” and Dileep Rao as the “chemist” – never gels.

Individually, each character is well-crafted but there’s very little chemistry between them and this causes the second act to be more mechanical and less involving than it should be.  From the beginning, Cobb’s personal journey, which involves his wife (Marion Cotillard), promises to give the film a much needed emotional core, but that promise is always just a whisker out of reach until the very end, which, to be fair, is quite moving.

There are reports that “Inception” cost as much as $200 million to produce, and for that we should be thankful to Warner Brothers. Nolan is a once-in-a-generation auteur whose career is just getting started (he’s still a few days shy of 40) and his talent deserves a studio willing to finance it. Because there’s still a little justice in the world, that’s happened with this bold, challenging, slightly imperfect journey into the true final frontier that’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Christopher Orr at The Atlantic:

Nolan’s film overflows with narrative ingenuity and cinematic showmanship. Snatches of dialogue recur, their meanings refracted through levels of reality and unreality. Gordon-Levitt tousles with henchmen in a rotating hotel hallway, putting to shame his own anti-gravity acrobatics on SNL. Allusions to Penrose stairs rub elbows with canny wordplay (e.g., “Mal,” whose name conjures both “moll” and the French term for her predisposition). Four concurrent climaxes are piled one atop another on interdependent dream layers. And, perhaps most impressive, Nolan assembles the kaleidoscopic elements into a nearly seamless whole and buffs it all to an immaculate polish.

Quibbles can be found for those inclined to look. It is quickly evident to viewers, though somehow not to his teammates, that Cobb’s deep psychic scars make him perhaps the least reliable dreamcrasher imaginable. (It can hardly be a good sign that, around the two-hour mark, Cobb confesses, “There’s something you should know about me—about inception.”) And bravura editing notwithstanding, the four-headed finale tends to undercut the impact of each of its components. It’s one thing to marvel at a master juggler, but rather another to feel as if you are one of the balls.

But in this end, it may be Inception‘s greatest strength, its precision engineering, that also proves its signal weakness. Nolan has always been a nimble, meticulous director, but his best work has exceeded such technical virtues. His first major film, Memento, may have taken the form of a gimmick movie, but it transcended its own structural ingenuity to become one of the most unique and resonant tragedies of the past 25 years. His last movie, The Dark Knight, was also his messiest, with flaws that included a collapsing final act. Yet it, too, perhaps in part thanks to that messiness, found unexpected grandeur and gravity in its subject.

For all its elegant construction, Inception is a film in which nothing feels comparably at stake. (In this it resembles Nolan’s The Prestige, another admirably heady tale of perception and reality that never quite found a hearty emotional grip.) The dangers that loom with the failure of Cobb’s mission range from the inconsequential (Saito’s firm goes out of business!) to the inauthentic (Cobb won’t be able to return to pretty, talismanic children he was forced to abandon: parenthood as MacGuffin). The sorrow of Cobb and Mal’s doomed marriage, too, for all of Cotillard’s hypnotic allure, feels nonetheless remote, a motivation in search of real meaning. Though questions may linger at the film’s conclusion, they are less likely to be moral than mechanical: How many minutes of dream-time comprise a minute of waking life? How, again, did the heroes wake themselves up from their ultimate dream?

Like his protagonist, Nolan excels as an implanter of subversive ideas. This time, alas, he didn’t dig quite deep enough for them to take root.

Scott Tobias at Onion AV Club:

Nolan sets up a uniquely difficult challenge for himself: In order for Inception to work, it has to reconcile the rational and predictable (represented by Page and her maze-like constructs) with dangerously fluid, irrational impulses (represented by DiCaprio and his fevered psyche). The Nolan of The Prestige and Memento is more naturally suited to the former than the latter; the vast cryptogram of Inception has a core of real emotion, but it isn’t always matched by an abundance of visual imagination. Nonetheless, the film is an imposing, prismatic achievement, and strongly resistant to an insta-reaction; when it’s over, Nolan still seems a few steps ahead of us.

UPDATE: Heather Horn at The Atlantic

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And How Are The Kids?

Dana Stevens at Slate:

Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right (Focus Features) is the movie we’ve been waiting for all year: a comedy that doesn’t take cheap shots, a drama that doesn’t manipulate, a movie of ideas that doesn’t preach. It’s a rich, layered, juicy film, with quiet revelations punctuated by big laughs. And it leaves you feeling wistful for at least three reasons: because of what happens in the story, because the movie’s over, and because there aren’t more of them this good.

Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) are a middle-aged lesbian couple in Los Angeles with two teenage children, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Nic, a physician, is the breadwinner of this stable, well-off family, while the unfocused Jules has vague plans to start a landscaping business on her partner’s dime. Near the start of the movie, Joni, at her younger brother’s urging, calls up the sperm bank that provided their mothers with genetic material 18 years ago. Behind their mothers’ backs, the siblings make contact with their hitherto anonymous biological father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a hedonistic restaurateur who’s flattered by the attention but unsure how to proceed. Gradually, Paul is incorporated into the fringes of the family: The children bring him home for an excruciatingly awkward lunch, and against Nic’s wishes, Jules takes on the job of landscaping his yard.

It’s fitting that gardening—Jules’ landscaping project, Paul’s achingly trendy farm-to-table restaurant—plays such a large role in The Kids Are All Right, because the movie is at heart about the ecosystem of a family, and the way that system changes when an exotic species is introduced. The presence of Paul changes everything, exposing fault lines in Nic and Jules’ relationship and forcing the children to defy their mothers and reassess their peer friendships. (A subplot in which the introverted Laser finally stands up to his jerky best friend is particularly well-handled.)

Rob Hunter at Film School Rejects:

The Kids Are All Right is a bright and beautifully acted look at what it means to be part of a family. The ups, the downs, the relationship with your partner and kids… the specifics of it may seem like ingredients for a niche indie picture or even worse, a “message” movie about tolerance, equal rights, and the evil liberal agenda, but it never even comes close to such things. Instead the movie is simply about the challenges of family life. Nic is a doctor who enjoys both her wine and her control streak a bit too much. Jules is the more relaxed and carefree half of the relationship who floats between “careers” with a mix of indifference and enthusiasm. Together they’ve raised their kids as well as any parent could which means there’s plenty of room for doubts and concerns. Joni has just graduated high school and is mere months away from heading off to college, and as nervous as she may be her parents are even more terrified. And then there’s Laser who seems well adjusted but may be exploring his sexuality in some unexpected ways. And by unexpected ways I mean with a ginger of course.

As wonderfully written and directed as the film may be the picture’s real power is in the acting. All five of the lead performers are giving some of the best work of their careers. Granted, that’s not saying much for Hutcherson, but even with a limited background he’s never seemed as natural as he does here. Wasikowska shines as the child on the cusp of adulthood torn between home and the outside world, and she manages more with a quivering lip then many of her peers do with their entire body. Ruffalo is almost always the most watchable and intriguing actor in any of his films and that trend doesn’t change here. His character is an inexcusable dick at times but you can’t help but want to forgive him. A lesser actor (with harder features and without his sad, puppy eyes) would have a hard time accomplishing the same.

Bening and Moore both give fantastic and believably real performances as a couple who love each other, warts and all, and can convey that long history together with little more than a glance. I joked about Moore above (no I didn’t), but she imbues Jules with such a goofy and effortless charm that you could easily see yourself falling into her smiling embrace. But as good as everyone else is the performance of note here belongs to Mrs Dick Tracy herself, Annette Bening. As the most authoritative adult of the three Nic is tasked as straight-man to the more loose and casual performances of Moore and Ruffalo and the childish behaviors of the kids. She never becomes unlikable though, and as her grip on things begins to crack it’s a slow tremble of emotion that begins to spill out. A certain dinner table scene is a masterclass in itself in the art of acting as Nic navigates some surprising revelations and comes out wounded and scarred on the other side.

Andrew O’Hehir in Salon:

By making a movie in which a pair of married lesbians are played by well-known hetero actresses Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, and in which one partner (Jules, played by Moore) has an affair with a straight man, Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg capitulate — in some people’s view — to a whole set of “Celluloid Closet”-type homophobic stereotypes, and possibly lend aid and comfort to the right-wing view of homosexuality as a “lifestyle choice.” Furthermore, Cholodenko doesn’t seem terribly concerned about it. Before our Sundance interview, I read her a few examples from the first wave of critical comments and she laughed them off: “Maybe those people need to take their pink megaphone somewhere else.”

Ultimately, this might not even rise to the level of a tempest in a teapot: Lesbian and gay viewers, along with everybody else who actually sees “The Kids Are All Right,” are likely to find it a sympathetic, honest and frequently hilarious film about the challenges of marriage, parenting and contemporary family life, with one highly topical twist. But if some queer-radical types object to the film on political or ideological grounds, there’s a sense in which they’re right to do so. This movie definitely isn’t aimed at them.

In other interviews, Cholodenko has joked that she’s more interested in drawing in straight male viewers than in placating every possible segment of lesbian opinion. That makes the film sound a lot more calculated and Hollywoodish than it is, but the point she’s making is that “The Kids Are All Right” has a dramatic agenda but no political agenda. It’s not attached to a set of talking points about gay marriage and sexual identity, it’s not advocating some revolutionary artistic or social paradigm and it’s not a seminar in LGBT self-esteem.

Jules and Nic (Bening’s workaholic doctor character) and their teenage kids and the Peter Pan man-boy who threatens to come between them (a scene-stealing Mark Ruffalo) are flawed, selfish, fascinating characters you’ll sometimes like and sometimes hate. This is one of the most compelling and rewarding portraits of a middle-class American marriage in cinema history, as well as one of the funniest. The fact that the people in this particular marriage are both women is important to the story, of course. But perhaps, Cholodenko suggests, it isn’t all that important to the universe.

Dan Gifford at Big Hollywood:

This film is essentially selling a lite version of the leftist utopian political fantasy of not needing men and rejecting male patriarchy.

And what does a hetero guy in Hollywood know about any of that? Please allow a brief digression to establish bona fides.

Del Martin, founder of the modern lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender–rights movement, was my great aunt. It was she and her life partner, Phyllis Lyon, who received California’s much publicized first same sex marriage license in San Francisco.

That outed, I will note that lesbianism, at least according to my aunt and many other other leaders who defined the movement, is a leftist political statement of female bonding against hunter-gatherer maleness that does not necessarily have anything to do with sex. In my aunt’s own words, a lesbian is “a woman whose primary erotic, psychological, emotional and social interest is in a member of her own sex, even though that interest may not be overtly expressed [sexually].”

That’s what comes through in Moore’s Jules character since she so hungrily embraces heterosexual sex, the thought of which apparently disgusts her parther, Nic. Pure sex aside,  lesbian feminists have always told me that the object of women’s politicized sexual links is to overthrow the patriarchal order and replace it with a feminist culture. “Just as sexism is the source of all our other oppressions, maleness is the source of sexism,” according to a statement from the Dyke Collective. Implicit in that rant is a rejection of males as fathers that provide anything positive to the raising of children.

Can that be true?

A study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found “… children in lesbian homes scored higher than kids in straight families on some psychological measures of self-esteem and confidence, did better academically and were less likely to have behavioral problems, such as rule breaking and aggression.”

Maybe the kids are all right.

But critics say that considering this research was “funded by several lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender advocacy groups, such as the Gill Foundation and the Lesbian Health Fund from the Gay Lesbian Medical Association“  plus the obvious fact that the political left dominates all media, even the scientific media, whatta ya ’spect?

So, maybe the kids aren’t all right.

Irin Carmon at Jezebel:

The action happens, so to speak, when the couple’s children track down the sperm donor that is their biological father — and apparently Julianne Moore has an affair with him. (In the trailer, this looks like chaste kissing.) With this twist, writes O’Hehir, “Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg capitulate — in some people’s view — to a whole set of ‘Celluloid Closet’-type homophobic stereotypes, and possibly lend aid and comfort to the right-wing view of homosexuality as a ‘lifestyle choice.'” That, at least, appears to have been the complaints of some of Salon’s commenters — not a famously enlightened bunch, alas, but an interesting claim nonetheless.

In other words, does every Hollywood movie involving a lesbian have to suggest she really needs cock?

As a San Francisco Bay Guardian interviewer put it to Cholodenko, “We don’t see a lot of queer characters on screen, and so when we do, many want them to be perfect: the queer voice, the lesbian, the gay man. And when they step outside those boundaries, suddenly it becomes an issue, politically.”

Cholodenko replied that she (also a lesbian mother) identified strongly with the film and felt that it was true to her, and also that she didn’t find the boundaries between straight and gay to be so rigid. She went on,

I feel like, it’s kind of an interesting intermingling of straight and gay. I felt like, if I really want this to be a mainstream film, that’s good. This is really inclusive of gay and straight, and I like that. I like that personally and I like that for this film. I was much more interested in reaching out to the male population than I was concerned about alienating a sector of the lesbian population.

In other words, this was explicitly, at least in part, a capitulation to having more people identify with the story — but in a way that felt narratively true to Cholodenko, at least by her own account. If the film does succeed with “mainstream” (giant scare quotes around that one) audiences, then maybe the next time won’t be such a hard sell. And it won’t have to stand in as the “perfect” representation of a given group, not being the only one.

Judy Berman at Flavorwire:

The greatest strength of co-writer and director Lisa Cholodenko’s (who, it’s worth noting is a lesbian parent) script, as well as Julianne Moore and Annette Bening’s pitch-perfect portrayals of the couple in question, is that it paints its lead characters as very specific, likable but fallible people. Nic (Bening) is a resolutely Type A OB-GYN with strict rules for the kids, a tendency to be called away to work at just the wrong time, and a nasty habit of drinking too much to take the edge off of stressful situations. Jules (Moore) isn’t quite her opposite so much as her counterpart: a sort of free spirit with a lighter touch who’s never exactly managed to launch a successful career. They argue, like all couples do, but the love and deep attachment between them is always palpable. Oh, and they watch guy-on-guy gay porn together while they get it on. In a spectacularly awkward clip that is nonetheless true to the characters, Jules explains to their 15-year-old son that human desire is a strange and unpredictable (not to mention inexplicable) thing.

It’s easy to understand why oppressed groups can be so protective of the way they are portrayed in media. Movies like The Kids Are All Right, which may be rocketed to mainstream success on the strength of its two A-list stars (and equally strong supporting performances by Mark Ruffalo and Mia Wasikowska), might have a chance at getting Middle America to empathize with a lesbian-led family. But that shouldn’t mean Bening and Moore’s two moms should have to be perfect. Any film with flawless main characters is bound to be a forced, boring one more concerned with being politically correct than telling a powerful story.

The Kids Are All Right plants the viewer right in the center of this family in flux’s most difficult summer. By creating characters we feel we know, not in spite but because of their shortcomings, Cholodenko and her stars will undoubtedly win over viewers and rise above stereotypes.

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Cruising For A Bruising

Christopher Orr at The Atlantic:

First, a clarification regarding the title of the newly released action-comedy Knight and Day: “Knight” refers either to a) the long-abandoned family name of one of the two principal characters, a glamorous superspy played by Tom Cruise who, for all narrative and promotional purposes, now goes by the name “Roy Miller”; or b) a small toy paladin in which a Secret Device that Could Change the World is briefly hidden. And “Day”? One might imagine that it refers to the spunky everygal played by costar Cameron Diaz. One would be wrong. (Her character’s name is “June Havens.”) In fact, it doesn’t refer to anything at all; the word’s sole purpose is to balance the already-a-stretch “Knight.” I mean honestly. If we had to go down this path at all, why not A Knight to Remember, or Knight Moves? The titillating PG-13 innuendo of A Knight in June? Or, with appropriate legal representation on call, Darkest Knight? But no, for no discernable reason outside the preferences of some anonymous focus group, we’re given Knight and Day, Cole Porter be damned.

A film that treats its own title so, ahem, cavalierly can hardly be expected to be diligent when it comes to such niceties as plot, character, and pacing–but Knight and Day exceeds even such anti-expectations. It is woefully scattered, alternatingly slack and frenetic, and transcendently preposterous. Remarkably, it is also, for a time, reasonably diverting for anyone willing to jettison everything they know about love, espionage, and narrative cohesion.

Dana Stevens at Slate:

Whoever read the last draft of the oft-rewritten script never even bothered to check whether the title made sense, which it doesn’t. “Knight,” it eventually comes out, is one of the aliases and possibly the real name of Cruise’s character, who goes by Roy Miller. It would have been easy enough to surname Cameron Diaz’s character “Day” for the sake of parallelism, but instead, she’s June Havens. You can’t help but wonder whether some assistant mentioned this discrepancy in a story meeting, only to be quashed by the confident assertion, “Ah, no one’ll notice!”

That misplaced self-confidence is exactly what’s so aggravating about Roy Miller. He doesn’t need to answer for his motivation, his origins, his reason for being. He just flashes that set of outsized mah-jongg-tile teeth in his disturbingly ageless face and jumps astride another vehicle careening through the streets of Salzburg, or Seville, or wherever the protagonists of this globe-hopping yet strangely incurious travelogue happen to find themselves. Even though Knight & Day wasn’t written for Cruise—a recent Times piece tracked its journey through the hands of Adam Sandler, Chris Tucker, and Gerard Butler—in its final version the film reads as a kind of treatise on the state of Cruise-itude in our time.

The character of Roy Miller is so quintessentially Cruise-ian that he skirts the edges of self-conscious parody. He’s an indestructible superspy who’s bottomlessly cheerful and yet vaguely malevolent. Roy seems to lack any interiority whatsoever; even when he’s telling the truth, he appears to be lying. (Cruise’s most memorable characters have tended to be liars: Jerry Maguire, the kid in Risky Business, the unstable self-help guru in Magnolia.)

Cole Abaius at Film School Rejects:

June Havens (Cameron Diaz) is trying to make it back home to Boston when she bumps into Roy Miller (Tom Cruise), a secret agent who has gone rogue with something very important to the federal government. As much as he tries to avoid her becoming a part of the game, she ends up either having to be glued to his side or taken out by some very bad men. The two will have to secure a young inventor (Paul Dano) and expose or kill the true rogue agent before it’s too late.

High concept stuff like this is usually a connect-the-dots version of filmmaking, and there are a lot of elements here that seem like they were looked up in the Screenwriters Dictionary. The characters, when they can, do their best to keep it light and distract from the fact that the chase scenes and momentum is the same we’ve seen from almost every spy movie out there (including a few that Cruise has been in before). At some points, the movie dances right up to the line of parody, but instead of crossing it boldly, the situations or shots end up simply looking like bad filmmaking.

This isn’t aided by how cheap the movie looks. A distracting amount of CGI looks like it was slapped on with an old brush – most noticeably the car sequences, which look like an updated version of the old green screen technique which found Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart doing the cabbage patch on the steering wheel while the car was going straight forward. Substitute Tom Cruise for Grant, gunfire for the cabbage patch, and stock footage of the city, and you’ll start to get the idea.

Those scenes seem in direct conflict with some capably shot action that genuinely evokes the gasp for air that a good explosion should. Plus, director James Mangold and company do something different with a handful of those scenes: taking a look at the action from the point of view of June’s character, a character completely trapped by circumstance. There is enough action to satiate (in fact, the whole movie is basically action), but in the beginning, much of the action happens from strange angles. Back seats of cars, off to the side just barely in view, from around a corner. It places the viewer right in the mindset of someone who’s effectively been kidnapped and tossed into a reality where grenades are the norm, and it works incredibly well. The ingenuity alone should be applauded, but pulling it off deserves a slow clap and a round of champagne.

Unfortunately, the experimentation of the film doesn’t stop there. There’s a particular plot device which also thrusts the viewer into June’s position, and it’s intriguing, but it makes the film choppy in an unforgivable way and often feels like the Lazy Man’s Plot Fix. It’s the kind of pacing issue that Mangold ran into with Identity, and it’s enough to make this movie feel more like Knight and Day, Interrupted.

As for Cruise and Diaz, this isn’t the first time they’ve worked on screen together, but they come off as far too cold. Each seems to have lost some of the original spark that first drew audiences to them, and it makes an otherwise brisk movie drag like it’s carrying a dying career carcass behind it. When the two do find that spark, the movie is full of life and eyebrow-raising moments, but too many times the pair seems to want to go through the bullet-dodging motions in order to get to the scenes that they’re actually looking forward to. Simply put – it’s always good to see actors having fun, but it’s torture to see actors working.

Patrick Bromley at Reelloop:

Say what you will about Tom Cruise –and in recent years, he’s given us all plenty to say — but for a long time, there were few superstar actors who knew how to pick just the right projects for themselves as well as he did. Even when the movies weren’t great (and they often weren’t), you could feel Cruise single-handedly dragging the film towards success through the sheer force of hard work and star power. But the Tom Cruise of 2010 (post Lions for Lambs and Valkyrie) is floundering, and it’s on display in Knight and Day, a movie that looks and feels like one of Cruise’s movies but which is just going through the motions. He can’t get away with playing another variation on Ethan Hunt anymore. The Knight and Day trailers suggest that Cruise’s character could be a superspy or he could just be a crazy person detached from reality, and the promise of that possibility is what got me into the theater. Not only would Cruise be subverting his own status as an action star, but also knowingly acknowledging the questions of his mental stability that so many audience members have had in the last four or five years. It would have been Cruise taking a risk as an actor, and transitioning his usual steel-eyed determination into a new phase of his career. More than anything, though, it would have given Knight and Day a reason for existing.

Sadly, Knight and Day has nothing new to offer. After a promising opening, the movie just melts away into a series of noisy action beats and sloppy dialogue exchanges. Diaz is appropriately shrieky, I guess, but fails to recapture any of the Vanilla Sky chemistry she once had with Cruise. Even the action is mostly handled in front of unconvincing green screens, all but ruining the inventive, practical stunt work we’ve come to expect from Cruise in the post-Mission: Impossible world. The villains aren’t threatening, character motivations don’t make much sense and director Mangold, usually so good at crafting solid populist entertainment just isn’t able to bring it all together in a satisfying way. The result is an action comedy that is neither funny nor exciting, trying to coast on the charm of two movie stars who haven’t been given characters to play.

Alison Nastasi at Cinematical:

If you want to see Tom Cruise reprise his role as secret agent Ethan Hunt then word around Hollywood is that you better pony up the ticket price to see Cruise’s latest film, Knight and Day. If that film flops, Paramount may drastically alter their plans for the fourth installment in the Mission: Impossible franchise.

Reports state that Paramount executives are concerned about the opening tracking numbers for Cruise’s latest action film and are hoping the five day totals are respectable (which seems more like a dream than a realistic hope given that the opening day tally for the film was a paltry $3.8 million). Meanwhile, the script for the fourth installment in the M:I franchise has just been turned in, and Brad Grey and Rob Moore are in the process of trying to determine that film’s preliminary budget. If Knight and Day underperforms, the thinking is that Paramount will either scrap M:I4 completely, shift the focus of the film to Hunt and Shia LaBeouf a younger agent, or cut the budget dramatically. None of those things seems to bode particularly well for Cruise or the studio.

Brooks Barnes at New York Times:

Boy, are the knives out for Tom Cruise.

Consider a few of the headlines that have popped up even before “Knight and Day,” his latest big-budget movie, has completed its first weekend in the marketplace. Forbes: “Toys Will Crush Cruise At Box Office.” Cinematical.com: “See ‘Knight & Day’ and Save Tom Cruise’s Career.” New York Magazine: “Fox Struggles to Overcome the Tom Cruise Problem.”

There is certainly a case to be made that Mr. Cruise made this bed and now must lie in it. The couch jumping, the Scientology spouting, the dumping of his power publicist – it has without question hurt his career, perhaps irreparably.

And “Knight and Day” is certainly a wreck, with opening-day ticket sales of $3.8 million and some over-the-top critical hatred. But let’s be fair: This movie’s troubles don’t hang on Mr. Cruise’s shoulders alone.

Why is nobody talking about the failure of his co-star, Cameron Diaz, to deliver an audience here? Who came up with the title? It’s odd and doesn’t telegraph what the picture is about. Meanwhile, the studio marketing has also appeared tentative at times: billboards at the same time pump Mr. Cruise’s involvement — his name is big – while also downplaying it — where’s his picture?

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Has Anyone Thought Of Asking Pixar To Fix The Oil Spill?

Christopher Orr at The Atlantic:

As Charles de Gaulle dryly observed, the graveyards are full of indispensable men. One might add, in a related vein, that the attics are full of indispensable toys–once central players in a childhood fantasy, now upstaged, outgrown, and consigned to the corrugated purgatory of a cardboard box.

Such is the cruel afterlife facing the eponymous heroes of Toy Story 3 as the film opens. In the 11 years since the last installment of the Pixar franchise, their half-pint custodian, Andy, has grown up, and as he prepares to debark for college, retirement looms for Buzz Lightyear, Jesse, Rex, Ham, the Potato Heads, and the rest of their narrow Toyverse. (Though not Woody, who initially appears fated to accompany Andy to school as a childhood memento–a touching plan, but one that, if my own collegiate memories are any guide, would likely entail Woody being refashioned into a bong by sophomore year.)

Andy, however, makes the mistake of putting his attic-bound ex-playmates into a plastic garbage bag, and his mother makes the mistake of assuming this was not a mistake. After a brief flirtation with the sanitation department (it will not be the last), the gang finds themselves delivered to a local daycare, presided over by a Strawberry-scented pink bear named Lotso (short for “Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear“), who promises them an endless stretch of play-filled days with a rotating cast of kids who will never grow old. This Paradise is no sooner found than it is lost, though, and the bulk of the film delightedly toys (so to speak) with the conceits and conventions of the prison-break genre.

John Nolte at Big Hollywood:

What gives this refreshingly simple, perfectly paced, and absolutely flawless story the kind of emotional depth that creeps up and catches you off guard, is a richly complicated theme that explores the struggle between the loyalty and faith required to slug ones way through the ups and downs of any relationship and the universal need and understandable desire for constant validation and affection. The toys feel, for lack of a better term, jilted. Andy’s moved on, grown a little bored with them, and now they live in that awful in-between world filled with the artificial highs that come with any sign things might go back to the way they were and the unavoidable lows that are a natural part of the insecurity that comes with the fear of being discarded.

Essentially, “Toy Story 3” is about the consequences of disloyalty, of losing faith and giving up on an imperfect relationship to go off in search of something better. But what consequences! Through an immersion into wondrous detail that boggles the mind and Pixar’s uncanny ability to effortlessly and fully exploit any concept – in this case, a world where toys come to life when humans aren’t around – the adventure and, yes, the humanity makes for the best time you’ll have at the movies since, well, Pixar’s last go-round, “Up.”

And your kids will enjoy themselves even more.  The action set-pieces rival the best of the Indiana Jones’ films and this is easily the funniest of the three thanks to a cast of well-rounded characters whose relationships continue to develop realistically and with honest warmth and clever humor.

Dana Stevens at Slate:

The idea-generating table at Pixar must be one lively and raucous place, because if there’s a toy-related visual gag conceivable by the human imagination, it’s somewhere in this movie. Shot after shot bursts with whimsical weirdos popping out of boxes and scuttling atop shelves: There’s a Fisher Price rolling telephone who communicates only by ringing up his interlocutor. A monster robot guy who toggles in between two expressions—happy and mean—by pounding his own head. A lederhosen-clad hedgehog (hilariously voiced by Timothy Dalton) who fancies himself a gifted thespian. And a brilliant long-form gag that raises the ontological question: In what feature of a Mr. Potato Head (voiced by Don Rickles) does the spud’s spiritual essence reside? But somehow, the profusion of characters, jokes, and action sequences never feels disorienting or excessive. Through it all, the toys’ motivation remains simple and crystal-clear: They must get back home to the boy who, grown up or not, still loves them. As for that last sequence after they do—hold up. I need a moment.

Go ahead and sneer it: Is there anything wrong with Toy Story 3? Well, the addition of 3-D to the franchise’s universe does seem like a move motivated more by marketing than artistic necessity (which was also the case, I thought, with Up). The depth effect looks crisp enough, but with a couple of somewhat gimmicky exceptions, it rarely gets used. (That weakness is more than overcome in Day & Night, a wordless short that precedes the movie and is the most inventive use of animated 3-D I’ve ever seen.) And I guess—racking my brains here—that a few of the newly introduced characters are a little underwritten. (Though Ken is a marvel—one of the most complex characters, animated or otherwise, to appear on screens this year.)

Anyway, nitpicking a movie this abundantly stocked with wonderments feels like an act of ingratitude. Toy Story 3 is a near-perfect piece of popular entertainment, a children’s classic that will be watched and loved when my daughter’s (and one day, her daughter’s) now-beloved toys are gathering dust in a basement. Shit—now I’m crying again.

Jonah Lehrer at Wired:

Screenwriter William Goldman once famously declared that the most important fact of life in Hollywood is that “nobody knows anything.” It was his way of describing a reality that continues to haunt the movie business: Studio executives have no idea which pictures will make money.

Unless, of course, those pictures are made by Pixar Animation Studios. Since 1995, when the first Toy Story was released, Pixar has made nine films, and every one has been a smashing success.

Pixar’s secret? Its unusual creative process. Most of the time, a studio assembles a cast of freelance professionals to work on a single project and cuts them loose when the picture is done. At Pixar, a staff of writers, directors, animators, and technicians move from project to project. As a result, the studio has built a team of moviemakers who know and trust one another in ways unimaginable on most sets.

Which explains how they can handle the constant critiques that are at the heart of Pixar’s relentless process. Animation days at the studio all begin the same way: The animators and director gather in a small screening room filled with comfy couches. They eat Cap’n Crunch and drink coffee. Then the team begins analyzing the few seconds of film animated the day before, as they ruthlessly “shred” each frame. Even the most junior staffers are encouraged to join in.

The upper echelons also subject themselves to megadoses of healthy criticism. Every few months, the director of each Pixar film meets with the brain trust, a group of senior creative staff. The purpose of the meeting is to offer comments on the work in progress, and that can lead to some major revisions. “It’s important that nobody gets mad at you for screwing up,” says Lee Unkrich, director of Toy Story 3. “We know screwups are an essential part of making something good. That’s why our goal is to screw up as fast as possible.”

The proof is in the product. The average international gross per Pixar film is more than $550 million, and the cartoons are critical darlings—the studio has collected 24 Academy Awards. Nobody in Hollywood knows anything. Pixar seems to know everything.

More Orr

Derek Thompson at The Atlantic:

But Pixar’s specialness must come from something on top of that omnipotence. After all, there are plenty of animated movies that were horrible (the last one I saw was Shrek 3). What’s more, the novel provides authors with similar omnipotence, and without naming names, let us merely agree that some novelists are downright bad. In short, control is not the only key to narrative brilliance.

I used to rationalize Pixar’s otherworldly consistency by thinking the time and resources needed to produce a CGI picture were so overwhelming, one had to aim for perfection. But that’s an incomplete answer, too. The first Toy Story movie was completed on a $30 million budget with a staff of 110, according to Wikipedia, and it spearheaded an entire genre. Kevin Costner’s Waterworld was released the same year on a $175 million budget, and it spearheaded a lot of jokes about Waterworld.

Maybe looking for the secret to Pixar’s sauce is pointless. They make beautiful, familiar, old-fashioned stories about relationships that happen to use monsters, toys and fish for characters, and they do it almost perfectly time every time because … well, they’ve just figured out how to do it.

John Tyler at Cinema Blend:

Until a few hours ago, Toy Story 3 had a 100% fresh rating on the review compiler Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a feat almost never accomplished by modern movies. The few other films to carry the 100% fresh rating all pre-date the modern era or they were reviewed by a small handful of critics, usually fewer than forty or fifty. Yet with more than 130 reviews in, Toy Story 3 had a 100% fresh rating. Enter two assholes.

Their names are Armond White and Cole Smithey, and they’re the only two critics in the world who hate Toy Story 3. Thanks to them, and only them, Toy Story 3 now has a 99% fresh rating on RT. And they’re wrong. Flat out wrong.

Armond attempts to justify his hatred by accusing you, and everyone else who loves the Toy Story movies of being brainwashed. He slanders Toy Story 3 as being one big advertisement, overwhelmed by ridiculous amounts of product placement. This actually isn’t an opinion, it’s an accusation, and it’s the entire point of his review. One problem: It’s untrue.

White would have you believe that simply using a Barbie doll in your movie means you’ve sold out to some corporation. But if that were what Pixar was doing, they’d have used the latest Barbie and decked her out in all the latest outfits to dazzle viewers into running out and buying one. But this Barbie is frumpy, her wardrobe is outdated, and she’s clearly trapped in the 80s. Instead what Toy Story has done, and has always done, is use something specific. They could have thrown in some random Barbie-like doll, but you’d have been distracted by it and left wondering why they didn’t use the real thing. Instead they use Barbie and in the process make an instant connection between your memories of playing with that specific toy and what’s going on in the film. It’s your window into their world. It’s not product-placement, it’s good storytelling.

Armond White’s review is full of hatred, unfounded accusations, and condescension. It rails against anything which is popular and begs people to watch obscure movies instead, just because they’re obscure. He actually thinks Small Soldiers is better than anything Pixar has to offer, and that’s not just a bad opinion, it’s insanity.

A look back at Armond’s past reviews reveals that he’s not someone who should be allowed to review movies. He’s more a negative film critic stereotype than an actual reviewer. He’s the kind of guy that’s getting fired from newspapers in droves, and no one seems to miss them. This is a man who hated Avatar and Up in the Air, but loved The Losers and From Paris With Love. His review record indicates that he’s a contrarian. If everyone else likes it, he hates it. If everyone else hates it, he likes it. If it’s an obscure indie movie nobody cares about, he’s given it a positive review. If it’s a Hollywood blockbuster which most people enjoyed, he thinks it represents the end of modern cinema. This is not someone that anyone should listen to.

Cole Smithey’s review (which I refuse to link to) is slightly more reasonable, but perhaps that’s only because he barely managed to write three paragraphs about the film. His website proclaims him “The Smartest Film Critic in the World”, yet he doesn’t seem to have anything to say. He’s writing one of the only negative reviews of one of the most universally loved movies of all time, yet he can barely come up with three small paragraphs to justify his position. Scratch that, two paragraphs. One of them is devoted entirely to plot synopsis. He seems less interested in the film than he is in ancillary issues. He spends most of his review complaining about the film’s rating, an issue to take up with the MPAA and no fault of Toy Story 3’s. The closest he comes to a real criticism is in complaining about how much money the movie cost to make.

Yet Cole Smithey loves Marmaduke of all things and didn’t seem to be bothered by its bloated budget. And he loves Shrek Forever After, which cost as much to make as Toy Story 3 but had less to say. He managed four paragraphs about that one. Look through his resume and you’ll find yourself asking this question: Did Cole Smithey really hate Toy Story 3, or did he like the traffic hating it would bring to his website? He is, after all, the Smartest Film Critic in the World.

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