Chris_Pandolfi

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Reviews

For a Good Time, Call...
(2012)

A Bit of Sweetness to Cut Through the Filth
"For a Good Time, Call..." exemplifies yet again why female-driven raunchy comedies tend to work better than those that are male-driven. If you think about last year's "Bridesmaids," you might realize that it wasn't only about housewives graphically describing their sexual habits or Melissa McCarthy uncontrollably defecating into a bathroom sink; it was also about its story and its characters, both undeniably crude and yet far from one-dimensional. We could willingly invest in the film on an emotional level, despite the overwhelming vulgarities. "For a Good Time, Call..." follows in this tradition, aiming to be as filthy and as sweet as possible. In the midst of excruciating sexual frankness and scores of four-letter words, we witness the development of a friendship and the beginning stages of a romance. We're actually made to care about what we're watching.

The plot centers on New Yorkers Lauren Powell (Lauren Anne Miller, also one of the writers) and Katie Steele (Ari Graynor). Their relationship in college ten years earlier was acrimonious at best; a brief flashback sequence shows a drunken Katie accidentally spilling a cup full of her own urine all over Lauren during a car ride. To this day, the two have absolutely nothing in common. If appearances are any indication, then Katie is shockingly promiscuous. Compare this to Lauren, who's far more straight-laced. It's a classic odd-couple scenario, their situations forcing them into becoming roommates. Katie is no longer able to pay the rent on her apartment, which was owned by her grandmother, now deceased. Lauren, having been abandoned by her arrogant and unendurably boring boyfriend (James Wolk) for a job in Italy, realizes that she has nowhere to live. Adding insult to injury, she has just been fired.

The two are paired by their mutual friend, the loveably sassy Jesse (Justin Long), who works with Katie at a nail salon. Initially, the animosity between Katie and Lauren lingers, and it only worsens when Lauren discovers that Katie has a second job as a phone sex operator. Things gradually start to change when a stuffy executive (Nia Vardalos) denies Lauren an editorial position at a publishing house; Katie is encouraged to quit the sex hotline she works for, which takes most of her earnings, and go into business for herself on a landline. Lauren would handle the billing. She stresses, rather emphatically, that she will never, ever become an operator like Katie, believing herself to be above that. She also makes it clear that she will do this only for their scheduled summer-long living arrangement. Katie agrees. And with that, 1 (900) MMM-HMMM is born.

Oh yes, the phone calls are every bit as raunchy as you're imagining them to be. "Colorful" is not a strong enough word to describe the language that's used; with gratuitous references to intercourse, genitals, masturbation, ejaculation, and orgasms, this is the kind of talk that would make even the foulest of foulmouths blush in embarrassment. This is true not just of Katie, but of her clients as well. Two of them are Kevin Smith and Seth Rogen making cameo appearances. The former plays a cabbie – with his fare in the back seat, no less – and the latter plays an airline pilot taking a break in the terminal restroom. Eventually, it also becomes true of Lauren, who realizes she doesn't want to be the same old boring person anymore. Katie trains her in the ways of phone sex, going so far as to make demonstrations with word diagrams and sex toys.

As business booms, so too does Katie and Lauren's friendship. This isn't to suggest that it's smooth sailing until the end of the movie. There's an emotional process at work, one that isn't normally associated with vulgar sex comedies, especially the ones starring men. In a surprisingly sweet subplot, Katie has grown close with one of her clients, a young man named Sean (Mark Webber), and the two decide to start dating; their one shot at a successful relationship is hampered by a secret one of them is keeping. Meanwhile, as Lauren struggles to keep her new profession hidden from her wealthy parents (Mimi Rogers and Don McManus), she's once again offered the editorial position at the publishing house and is tempted into accepting it. Needless to say, all this will threaten their newfound friendship.

The most astounding thing happened during a scene where Lauren utters, "I love you," to Katie. A group of young men in the audience, probably in their twenties, started laughing. I think I know why they did this: They interpreted the line as a homoerotic gag. They were probably used to guy-oriented sex comedies, where such words are typically intended to sound or be overtly gay. How interesting that the women in the audience remained silent. Could it be that they had a better understanding of love, that they recognized it as a multifaceted concept not limited to physical attraction? "For a Good Time, Call..." is not a perfect film – certain characters are underutilized, and the subplot featuring Lauren's parents remains unresolved – but it certainly is much better than certain audiences will give it credit for.

-- Chris Pandolfi

The Tall Man
(2012)

What Are These Kidnappings Really About?
"The Tall Man" is a great deal more thought-provoking and complicated than the poster, the trailer, and even the title all suggest. This works both for and against it. On the one hand, it's refreshing that the filmmakers aimed for something a bit more original and stimulating than a routine thriller with slasher overtones, which is how it has been marketed. On the other hand, their aim might have been too high; what's ultimately revealed is logistically implausible, emotionally weighty, and likely to divide audiences in their sociopolitical beliefs. I cannot explain the latter without the issuing of a spoiler warning, but rest assured, it threw me completely for a loop. There's much to admire about this film on a technical level, from the atmosphere to the performances to the pacing to the nail-biting suspense. On a narrative level, however, I find myself questioning the intent and the execution.

The story is set in the isolated small town of Cold Rock, Washington, which was once thriving but is now destitute following the closure of a mine. Recently, there has been a rash of child kidnappings, all of which have been attributed to a local legend known as The Tall Man, a shadowy figure whose face is concealed beneath a jacket hood. Some residents claim to have seen him roaming the dense forests. Others don't believe he exists. One thing they can all agree on is that, because no one has found a trace of the missing children, it's unknown if they're dead or alive. All this is recalled by a teenager named Jenny (Jodelle Ferland), who, despite being unable to speak, serves as the film's narrator. Living with a detached mother, an alcoholic stepfather, and a sister the stepfather in all likelihood impregnated, she communicates through a sketchbook.

The central character is Julia Dunning (Jessica Biel), a nurse. She was married to a well respected doctor, who was said to be the glue that held the community together, but he has long since left the picture. She has a little boy named David (Jakob Davies), who she cares about very much. One night, after unwisely getting drunk with her friend Christine (Eve Harlow), she witnesses David being abducted by a figure wearing a black jacket. Julia makes a valiant effort to get David back; she chases the kidnapper out of her house, climbs on the back of the kidnapper's truck, and successfully attacks the kidnapper while the truck is in motion, causing it to crash. Unfortunately, this hooded figure still manages to disappear into the night with David. All Julia can do is lie in the middle of the road in the fetal position and wait for a car to pass by.

And this is the point at which my review will become annoyingly vague. I will say that Julia, using only her wits, makes her way to an abandoned warehouse, where she believes David is being held prisoner. Does she find him? Does she have an encounter with The Tall Man? Are the police, or any of the Cold Rock residents, trying to help her? All I can say is, with so many parents awaiting news about their lost children, it's understandable that there's animosity and mistrust. Then again, do we really know the situations these children were taken away from? After all writer/director Pascal Laugier doesn't delve into the lives of every grieving parent. For all we know, these children were being abused or neglected. Even if they weren't, Cold Rock is so destitute that their parents wouldn't have been able to adequately provide for them.

Not one but two plot twists lay the groundwork for the entire second half of the film. The first one is actually rather predictable, the structure, pacing, dialogue, and character development all serving as cinematic hints. It could have been satisfying had it not been so routine. A lesser film might have ended at that point. But then we get the second twist, which reveals that there's so much more to the story than we initially thought. On a purely technical level, I must give Laugier credit for successfully employing the element of surprise, especially at a time when twists have become all too commonplace in mystery thrillers. In all honesty, I thought I had become immune to them.

Where makes me wary is a strong suggestion made by the second twist, namely that the events plaguing the town of Cold Rock are actually blessings in disguise. I don't think I buy it. Earlier, I played devil's advocate by insinuating that, by being kidnapped, the children might have been spared a deprived upbringing and a bleak future; in reality, we're talking about boys and girls taken against their will from the only life they've known. Without knowing the full extent of their backgrounds, you still have to ask yourself how fair this is. And then there's the issue of believability, the second twist dependent on complex technicalities and dramatic contrivances. There's no question in my mind that "The Tall Man" is an ambitious thriller. But it's open for debate how compelling it is. That would depend entirely on what you bring into it.

-- Chris Pandolfi

The Good Doctor
(2011)

I'll Bet He Had His Fingers Crossed When He Took the Hippocratic Oath
The irony of "The Good Doctor" is that its title character is anything but good. This would be Martin Blake (Orlando Bloom), a British medical student who has just transferred to a Los Angeles hospital to begin his residency. His initial scenes depict him as withdrawn from his colleagues and superiors, who aren't hostile but certainly don't go out of their way to make him feel welcome. There's even a slight incident involving a Hispanic patient who doesn't speak English and may or may not be allergic to penicillin. But for the most part, Blake is merely suffering from a bruised ego, believing he isn't getting the respect he deserves. We don't see the full extent of his rotten personality until he's introduced to a teenage girl named Diane Nixon (Riley Keough), who's suffering from a kidney infection.

He quickly picks up on the fact that she's attracted to him and longs for his medical care. He's more than happy to oblige. It's not so much that he's attracted to her physically, even though she's indisputably beautiful; like a rapist, what he's really attracted to is the feeling of exerting power over someone vulnerable. Throughout the film, Diane is unaware of the ways in which Blake is manipulating her. This has nothing to do with a lack of intelligence on her part. She's merely young and naïve, having only her current adolescent relationship with a teenage boy as a frame of reference. She now believes her boyfriend is a jerk, and perhaps he is, although that doesn't much matter. What does matter is that this is something else Blake picks up on. He now has one less person standing between him and his patient. If he ever does try to interfere, Blake is well versed in all the medical rhetoric regarding visitors.

Diane responds well to her antibiotic treatment, and in due time, she's well enough to be released. Surely Blake knew in the back of his mind that such a day would eventually come. But because his self esteem is dependent on being in control of others, he cannot accept her departure on an emotional level. Luck intervenes, allowing Blake to enter the Nixon residence twice. The first time is for a family dinner, Blake having been invited by Diane's father (Wade Williams) out of appreciation. Although Diane isn't present during his visit, the wheels in Blake's head start to turn. The second time is when he picks up a thank-you basket made by Diane's mother (Molly Price). This is when Blake takes action; he excuses himself to the bathroom, retrieves Diane's prescription of antibiotics from the medicine cabinet, and replaces the contents of the capsules with sugar from a packet.

Inevitably, Diane ends up back in the hospital. This time around, Blake takes one extra step to ensure she will stay under his care for as long as possible, namely the discrete replacement of the contents of her antibiotic IV bag with pure saline. Obviously, this can only be done during the night shift; Diane is more likely to be asleep, and the floor is minimally staffed. It's at this point we're made more aware of an orderly named Jimmy (Michael Peña), who doesn't take his job seriously and yet is oddly observant of Blake's actions and behaviors. He will be the subject of the film's final act, although I cannot reveal why. You're probably thinking that I shouldn't bother keeping anything secret, as this review reads as if I've given away the entire film. You're wrong. Let it suffice to say that there's more to the plot that what I've described in excruciating detail.

And what of the plot? Admittedly, it pushes the limits of plausibility, relying on the same conveniences, technicalities, and turns of events one would find in a detective story. The saving grace is that plot is not the film's real focus; this is primarily a character study, and a damn chilling one at that. Blake is a reprehensible human being, willing to violate every ethical standard of medicine just to inflate his ego, which is pathetically fragile. Nothing is known about his background, but then again, nothing needs to be known. That's because his actions in this one story speak for themselves. Although he's responsible for several unnerving moments, the single most frightening scene is the last one, for it asserts that some people are undeservedly lucky in life.

Blake is an intriguing character and is closely examined. Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of several side characters that are infrequently featured, inadequately developed, or both. These would include: Nurse Theresa (Taraji P. Henson), who spends most of the film asking about illegible handwriting on medical reports; Dr. Waylans (Rob Morrow), who's always asking Blake about how he's feeling, physically and emotionally; and a police detective (J.K. Simmons), who only appears during the final act and seems oddly detached. If you look at "The Good Doctor" from a technical standpoint, it is noticeably flawed. The thing is, I believe this film works on a purely emotional level. We don't like Blake, and yet we watch with helpless fascination as he cuts away any remaining threads of morality. I'll bet he had his fingers crossed when he took the Hippocratic Oath.

-- Chris Pandolfi

Lawless
(2012)

Three Brothers in the Moonshine Racket
"Lawless" is a triumph of tone and setting, the gritty underworld of prohibition-era Virginia examined with meticulous and sometimes painful detail. This is plainly visible not just in the sets, the costumes, the lighting, the diction, and the rural locations, but also in its depiction of violence, which could arguably put it on the same shelf as the works of Peckinpah, Coppola, Penn, and Scorsese. Director John Hillcoat does not spare the audience the sight of blood or brutality, and although I never lived during that particular time or place, this seems like the most appropriate approach. This isn't to suggest that the violence is glorified or trivialized. There's nothing fun or entertaining about what we see, as it typically would be for an action film or a comic book adaptation; it's quick, merciless, and cruel, as I imagine it must have been all those years ago.

The film is adapted from "The Wettest County in the World," a historical novel in which author Matt Bondurant drew inspiration from his own family, specifically his grandfather and two of his great-uncles. They were all actively involved in the illegal moonshine industry of Franklin County, Virginia, which continues to this day despite the fact that Prohibition has long since been repealed. "If you probe the back cupboards of nearly any house in Franklin County," said Bondurant in an essay he wrote regarding his novel, "or check in the garage fridge back behind that bloody hunk of venison, you will likely find a half-gallon mason jar of clear liquid with some kind of cut fruit suspended in it, most often peaches." Strange that this side of Franklin County life is considered normal and yet remains publicly unspoken of.

With all the work that went into establishing atmosphere, it's disappointing the filmmakers didn't try a little harder with the story or the characters. The latter are all competently cast and performed, and yet there's the unmistakable sense that they were developed purely on preconceived notions. The three Bondurant brothers – Jack (Shia LeBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Howard (Jason Clarke) – exist in a gray zone between authentic outlaws and romanticized antiheroes. This is especially true of Forrest, whose misguided belief in his own immortality is unwisely played into by the filmmakers; he survives a number of injuries that would kill most people, including being shot several times and having his throat slit. All the brothers have their roles to play in the moonshine racket, but Forrest is clearly the ringleader, and he has both the brutal survival skills and the fatalistic dialogue to prove it.

The main antagonist is Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a special agent from Chicago who's eager to dispense his own brand of justice in Franklin County. There's absolutely no subtlety to this man. He wears expensive form-fitting dress suits, his hands are almost always protected by clean-looking gloves, and his greased black hair is perfectly parted down the center. His arrogance and cruelty, punctuated by relentless displays of physical aggression and repeated bouts of soft giggling, would make even the most hardened criminal blush. There's no question that he's deliciously evil, the kind of villain audiences love to hate. All the same, I'm forced to wonder if such a heightened character is appropriate for a story like this, which is firmly based in reality. He might have been better suited for a more stylized crime thriller, perhaps something along the lines of an adapted graphic novel.

There are two female characters, both of whom are underdeveloped, underutilized, and apparently included only out of obligation for a romantic counterpart. This is a shame given the talent bringing them to life. One is Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain), a former burlesque dancer from Chicago. Not much is known about her; she claims she wanted to escape the corruption of men like Rakes, and yet she willingly involves herself in the corrupt lives of the Franklin County bootleggers, specifically Forrest, who becomes her love interest. The other is Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska), a preacher's daughter who naturally takes a shine to an outlaw like Jack and teases him with tremendous relish. It's not that he's enticing her into an act of rebellion; it's that she's enticing him into enticing her. Essentially, the two are engaged in a borderline adolescent fling, one that contributes nothing of significance to the overall story.

So yes, I had reservations about the approach to character development. But considering how thoroughly the mood was established, I find that I cannot so casually dismiss this film. "Lawless" doesn't merely transport us to another time and place, it actually immerses us. We get a sense of geography and social climate. We drink in the rustic architectural details – the rotting wood, the dingy floors, the faded walls – and the period-specific weapons and vehicles. We're genuinely disturbed by the shocking acts of retaliation, such as the repeated use of Tommy guns and brass knuckles, or a man who gets tarred and feathered then propped up on a porch with a sign displaying the word "bootlegger." The film doesn't quite have a handle on a narrative, but when it comes to the technical aspects, there's plenty to admire.

-- Chris Pandolfi

Premium Rush
(2012)

Now This is an Action Film
"Premium Rush" is one hell of a ride – an action thriller, a chase spectacle, a mystery, and a tale of international intrigue all rolled into one gloriously adrenaline-hopped package. It was directed and co- written by David Koepp, who proves yet again that, no matter what genre he works in, his flair for outlandish material is his strong suit. To illustrate my point, consider "Death Becomes Her," "Jurassic Park," "Mission: Impossible," "Stir of Echoes," "Panic Room," Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man," "Secret Window," "Ghost Town," and "Angels & Demons," all films his name is attached to; there was nothing subtle about any of them, and they each achieved their own brand of success. Here, he plunges headfirst into pure slam-bang, high-octane fun, and never once does he allow anything pesky like plausibility get in the way.

The central character is Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a New York City bicycle delivery man whose life is nothing if not one huge adrenaline rush. He weaves in and out of traffic with reckless abandon, red lights and crowded sidewalks meaning nothing to him apart from challenges to be faced. He has long since removed the brake on his bike, not only preferring the speed but also believing that that piece of equipment does more harm than good. He possesses an inhuman ability to visualize three possible maneuvers and select one of them only a split second before he has to make it; inevitably, the first two end with him crashing into an oncoming car. These choices are represented, as they are at many points in the film, by an animated line like the ones you'd find on a GPS map.

The plot is constructed around a MacGuffin, specifically an envelope housing a ticket with a smiley face drawn on it. Wilee receives the envelope from a woman named Nima (Jamie Chung), who doesn't delve into specifics and only instructs that it be delivered to Chinatown within thirty minutes. She insists that this is very important. Before Wilee can make his delivery, he's stopped by a corrupt cop named Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), a compulsive gambler who needs the envelope in order to erase a debt with a Chinese loan shark. Wilee, knowing Monday isn't being straightforward, refuses to comply and speeds away. So begins a frenetic chase up and down the streets of Manhattan. It isn't long before Wilee's dangerous pedaling attracts the attention of a bike cop, who soon turns his pursuit into a personal vendetta.

The film continuously goes back in time and shows earlier events from different perspectives. Gradually, the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. We learn that Wilee is trying to win back his ex-girlfriend, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), who's also a bicycle messenger. We learn that Vanessa was once Nima's roommate; for personal reasons she couldn't reveal, she had to ask Vanessa to leave. We learn of Wilee's rival, a messenger named Manny (Wolé Parks), who eventually gets his hands on the envelope without realizing its importance and turns getting it back into a competition. Finally, we learn Nima's back story and the significance of the ticket in the envelope. Naturally, my lips are sealed. It's all rather convoluted, but it's also exciting and incredibly engrossing.

Some will see the Monday character only as a caricature, given his manic personality and highly exaggerated New York accent. True enough, he is a caricature. But no one could have played him better than Michael Shannon, who has made a name for himself tackling memorable, highly intense roles. As Monday, he successfully walks the fine line between a menacing figure and comedy relief. It wouldn't have been right to make him too frightening, for the story isn't meant to be taken completely seriously. At the same time, making him too goofy would have been just as fatal. That's because the concept, while certainly heightened, is emotionally anchored to reality. Indeed, there is a delicate balance at work throughout the entire film; that the scales are never tipped to one side is nothing short of miraculous.

Going into "Premium Rush" with what I had already heard about it, I expected to be entertained. I did not, however, expect to be kept on the edge of my seat in suspense, laughing and gasping at the story and characters, and deeply admiring the clever camera-work, the amazing stunts, the creative visual effects, and the taut pacing. I was completely blindsided. What a white-knuckle experience this is. A week ago, I had to endure a wretched action comedy called "The Expendables 2," a testosterone-fueled fantasy that was devoid of intelligence, excitement, and a proper sense of fun. I hope the makers of that film see "Premium Rush" and study it carefully. Likewise, I hope audiences give it its due attention. Only then will they understand how the action genre is supposed to work.

-- Chris Pandolfi (www.atatheaternearyou.net)

The Apparition
(2012)

A Movie the Ads Haven't Been Promising
The ads for "The Apparition" tell us it's about how believing in supernatural events can make them real. The finished film, on the other hand, never once says anything about belief or non-belief. There's only a lot of generic talk about summoning some dark, evil force from "the other side." Already, we have a huge problem, namely that people will pay to see a film founded on a premise conjured up by a studio marketing department rather than by the filmmakers. Did they know their movie was being so grossly misrepresented, that the prominent tagline, "Once you believe, you die," does not factor into the storyline as they conceived it? This is the most infuriating display of bait-and-switch advertizing since "Case 39," the long-delayed supernatural thriller about a demonic little girl in the care of Renée Zellweger.

But suppose "The Apparition" hadn't relied on a deceptive ad campaign, that its actual premise had been used to entice audiences. What then? Not much, I'm afraid. Here is a horror movie so narratively tepid, so stylistically derivative, and so conceptually vague that one wonders if it began with anything resembling a screenplay. It has plenty in the way of atmosphere but virtually nothing in the way of plot, character development, theme, or insight. The thrills, while technically competent, are mediocre at best, all drawn from the likes of other, more original, and in most cases more successful horror films. This means that, nine times out of ten, we can see a scare coming long before it finally arrives. Unfortunately, this level of predictability doesn't extend to the overall story, which doesn't even try to be understandable.

We open with Super 8 footage of a paranormal experiment conducted in the 1970s, when a group of people sitting around a table somehow summoned an entity from "the other side." This manifestation, known as The Charles Experiment, was successfully recreated decades later by a group of college students, who had an arsenal of high tech equipment at their disposal. We see their efforts courtesy of their own home video footage; rest assured, the Queasy Cam is utilized, and there's a lot of screaming in the darkness. Flash forward to what I assume is the present day. We meet a young couple, veterinarian-in-training Kelly (Ashley Greene) and tech-company service rep Ben (Sebastian Stan). They begin noticing strange things happening in their new house, such as doors open by themselves without tripping the burglar alarm, lights flickering, mysterious thuds, and large patches of mold growing spontaneously in odd places.

And so continue these "Paranormal Activity"-inspired events until Kelly discovers Ben's connection to the recreated college experiment, which resulted in the disappearance of one of the participants. It's obvious that some kind of supernatural entity is haunting Kelly and Ben. But what is it exactly? Here enters a British parapsychology student named Patrick (Tom Felton), a geeky typecast whose role is to provide the lead characters – and vicariously, the audience – with technobabble explanations of a wild, paranormal nature. The more he explains, the less sense the situation makes; this entity, whatever it is, operates under rules so random and confusing that no potential audience is likely to make heads or tails of it. We know that a doorway to the other side was opened, that it wants to exist in our world, that it lives off of our fears, that it wants to kill people, and that, at least in one instance, it can take the form of the missing participant. But why? What does any of this mean?

Yet again, I turn my attention back to "Paranormal Activity," which worked so well because nothing was explained. How is it possible that "The Apparition" fails for the exact same reason? The answer is simple: Unlike "Paranormal Activity," which was much more psychologically driven, "The Apparition" is completely story driven, and therefore is required to be clear in its intentions. One cannot make a movie on merely an idea. It must first be honed into something comprehensible, something an audience can actually navigate through. Watching this movie is not at all unlike playing a game without knowing what the rules are; as you struggle to make sense of your surroundings, you're open to attacks from the opposing team.

The final act, while visually engaging, is a maddening collection of twists and revelations that clarify absolutely nothing. The last scene in particular seems intentionally constructed to make as little sense as possible – and you should know that the trailer spoils it for you regardless. How could this have become such a mess? What movie did anyone involved believe they were making? It might have helped if the filmmakers had used the plot the ads falsely allude to. "Paranormal events are a product of the human mind," says a small section on the homepage of the film's website, "and ghosts only exist because we believe in them." This is an intriguing idea, and it certainly would have been worth exploring. Apart from not being the film it was advertized to be, "The Apparition" is boring, unoriginal, and nonsensical.

-- Chris Pandolfi (www.atatheaternearyou.net)

Les petits mouchoirs
(2010)

An Accident Victim and His Thoughtless Circle of Friends
"Little White Lies" goes a long way – at 154 minutes, an incredibly long way – for so very little. At its most fundamental level, it's about a group of people who come to realize at the most appropriate time that they're more concerned about themselves than they are about others, specifically their mutual friend, who lies in a hospital bed in critical condition. But this discovery isn't made until the final five minutes. Before then, all the lead characters are embroiled in incidental relationship odysseys, all of which are examined at such a distance that it's virtually impossible to become emotionally invested. It doesn't help that the characters themselves aren't that well developed; they're given plenty of dialogue and situations to work their way through, but never once does it seem as if we're getting to know them.

Kick starting the plot is a man named Ludo (Jean Dujardin), who exits a nightclub in Paris high on cocaine, drives away on his motorcycle, and is soon thereafter rammed by a truck. His friends soon hear about it and pay him a visit in the hospital, where of course they do and say the appropriate things. The visit ends, and although it's obvious that Ludo is fighting for his life, the friends decide that they should stick to their normal routine and take their annual two-week lakeside summer vacation. It isn't until the final act that they all watch one of their home movies, staring at Ludo and his larger-than-life antics nostalgically; that, coupled with a very predictable turn of events, finally awakens the friends to the fact that they aren't the most thoughtful of people and made a huge mistake going on this vacation.

These opening and closing segments are every bit as routine as they sound, but we can still give writer/director Guillaume Canet credit for having his heart in the right place. Unfortunately, both segments are separated by a long, meandering middle section devoted to subplots involving the personal lives of the friends. Apart from the fact that almost none of their stories have anything to do with the character of Ludo, most of them are coldly developed and disappointingly resolved. A vast majority of the relationship drama happens at the vacation home of Max (François Cluzet), a wealthy restaurateur so uptight and controlling that it's a wonder anyone would stay friends with him, let alone go on vacation with him annually. And don't get me started on the fact that his wife, Véro (Valérie Bonneton), can actually put up with him.

One of the subplots begins when Max's friend and personal chiropractor, Vincent (Benoît Magimel), admits to Max that his feelings for him have grown into a physical attraction. Vincent is aware that Max doesn't feel the same way, is apparently content with being only his friend, and remains tactful during the vacation. Max, on the other hand, becomes even more of a nervous wreck and is driven to extremes that are initially amusing but eventually become cruel. At the heart of the matter, of course, is that Vincent, a husband and father, is in denial about his homosexuality and had clearly not taken Max's mental state into consideration when deciding to join him at his summer home – with his wife and children. It's a compelling idea, but the way this movie handles it, it's one of many subplots that doesn't get off to a great start and isn't allowed to go anywhere.

We meet an actor named Eric (Gilles Lellouche) and a young man named Antoine (Laurent Lafitte), both struggling in the romance department. The former is in a loudmouth and is well aware that he hasn't been able to commit and can't start now. Why then does he get so upset when his relationship with an opera singer named Lea (Louise Monot) suddenly ends? The latter is fixated on a mostly unseen woman named Juliette (Anne Marivin), who, despite her eleven-year relationship with Antoine, is engaged to another man. Antoine hangs on every text she sends him and is so annoyingly one-tracked that he has to tell everyone about them at all times. The biggest enigma is Marie (Marion Cotillard), whose dating dramas are so faintly alluded to that their inclusions are baffling. It's strongly suggested that she was an item with Ludo, yet she's briefly joined at the summer house by a handsome musician. And what are we to make of an early scene during Antoine's birthday party, where a woman enters the restaurant, has a few tense words with Marie, and then exits both the restaurant and the film?

The film, released in its native France in late 2010 but only now reaching American audiences, has been billed in part as a comedy. I'm not exactly sure why; there are one or two obviously funny sight gags, but on the whole, the lighter moments are so subtle and low key that they're likely to go completely over the heads of the audience. Of course, labeling it purely as a drama wouldn't have saved it from being slow and unrewarding. "Little White Lies" is well intentioned but terribly unsure of itself, spending far too much time on secondary vignettes and not enough time on the main story. Before the final act and the obligatory emotional resolution, there came a point at which I began to wonder why the Dujardin character was introduced at all. He was barely brought up during the two-hour middle section, which suggests the filmmakers were just as unmindful of him as his friends.

-- Chris Pandolfi (www.atatheaternearyou.net)

Robot & Frank
(2012)

The Most Unlikely Partners in Crime
"Robot & Frank" is a wasted opportunity, the chance to intelligently examine the scientific and ethical notions of robotics disregarded in favor of making a generic sentimental buddy comedy. It has the right cast and the right visual style, but the approach to the story is all wrong; the filmmakers regard its title robot not as an artificial intelligence bound by the laws of hard science fiction but rather as a foil, a sidekick, and comic relief. I see no reason to include a robot character if the idea is to make it think and behave in very human ways. That might play well in a family film or a cartoon, but in a more mature story like this, it comes off as a gross developmental miscalculation. I'm sure director Jake Shreler and writer Christopher D. Ford had the best of intentions, but unfortunately, their vision went astray.

Taking place at an unspecified but clearly not too distant future date, the central human character is Frank Weld (Frank Langella), a retired cat burglar in his twilight years and in the middle stages of Alzheimer's disease. He lives alone in a cluttered, unkempt house nestled in the woods of Upstate New York. Although his memory is slipping, he continues his daily routine of walking to the neighboring town and checking out books from the library. He has developed feelings for the librarian, a pleasant yet solemn woman named Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), who uses an early-model robot as a way to sort and shelve books. She laments that the building has been bought and will be converted into a library of the high tech, paperless variety. He regularly visits the local knick knack shop, where the owner (Ana Gasteyer) correctly suspects that he has been stealing from her.

He has two grown children. The daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), makes a living doing humanitarian work in impoverished countries and only occasionally contacts her father via a futuristic video screen. The son, Hunter (James Marsden), frequently sacrifices his professional and family life in the city for the sake of his father, who is clearly no longer able to take care of himself. Frank, a real curmudgeon, refuses to let Hunter take him to a nursing home. Hunter, in an effort to compromise, buys his father a caretaker robot (performed by Rachael Ma, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), which looks uncannily like Honda's ASIMO. Apart from performing general domestic chores like cooking and cleaning, it has been programmed to encourage a healthy lifestyle as well as promote activities that will keep Frank's mind engaged. Frank, a technophobe, initially wants nothing to do with the robot and repeatedly argues with it.

On the basis of what I've described so far, you're probably assuming that Frank gradually lowers his defenses and befriends the robot. To an extent, you'd be right. However, it doesn't have a lot to do with Frank's loneliness or his memory lapses; the more he learns about the robot's programming, the more he realizes he can manipulate it into being his accomplice on a new series of heists. Frank teaches the robot about scouting locations, reading blueprints, and picking locks; in due time, he and the robot are off on two jobs, one to rob the pretentious and arrogant new owner of the library, Jake (Jeremy Strong), the other to steal a rare first-edition copy of "Don Quixote" from Jennifer's safe. It must have seemed like a good idea on paper, but it plays more like an odd couple sitcom episode and doesn't take any notion of robotic programming seriously.

The more we learn about Frank, the less inclined we are to sympathize with him. There's an especially blood boiling scene in which he blatantly and unapologetically uses Hunter as a diversion for eluding the authorities; given his past life, and given Hunter's angry rant, one gets the sense that this would not be the first time Frank has done something like this. Nevertheless, the tone of the film is such that we're supposed to root for Frank, and ultimately feel sorry for him. During the final scene, I knew he was deserving of medical care, but when it came to the love and support of his family, I wasn't at all sure. Even his treatment of the robot was questionable, which is really saying something considering that robots are by definition not real people.

The ending is preceded by a plot twist, and although it's implausible and unquestionably gimmicky, it might have resonated had it been used in a different movie, say a detective thriller or a romantic melodrama. Here, it's stylistically out of place. I think the failure of "Robot & Frank" is fundamental: It applies a science fiction concept to a plot that isn't anything remotely like science fiction. It has good actors, and its overall look is engaging, but its backbone, the title characters, are problematic. This is especially true of the robot, which is developed and treated not as an advanced machine but as a second tier human costar. If you bother to include a robot character in your screenplay, this approach doesn't work. Here is a movie that could have been so much more than it was allowed to be.

-- Chris Pandolfi (www.atatheaternearyou.net)

The Expendables 2
(2012)

The Next Chapter in Action Pornography
Watching "The Expendables 2," I was repeatedly reminded of the Julie Brown single "I Like 'em Big and Stupid," a 1980s synthpop novelty song about the inexplicable attraction to muscle-bound men with low IQs. A sample of the opening verse: "When I need something to help me unwind / I find a six-foot baby with a one-track mind. / Smart guys are nowhere, they make demands / Give me a moron with talented hands." Rare for song lyrics to apply to a film so naturally. Rarer still that they would also accurately describe the audiences that find such films appealing. Just like its predecessor, "The Expendables 2" is pornography for the action film buff – a noisy, aggressive, violent, and utterly absurd testosterone fantasy that doesn't have two gray cells to rub together within its extra-thick cranium. If this is what counts for escapism nowadays, we might have actually devolved back into Neanderthals.

There isn't much I can say about this film that I didn't already say in my review of the first "Expendables." As before, much of the action is an incomprehensible blur of blood, bullets, and body slams, which is to say that, even if you appreciate that kind of filmmaking, the editing has seen to it that you can't distinguish a lot of it visually. As before, much of the dialogue is a pathetic mishmash of one-liners, macho sentiment, and really bad puns. And as before, the plot is weak and has been manufactured solely as a vehicle for scene after scene of people getting shot and things blowing up. I hesitate to call it an homage to the action films of the '80s and '90s, as the word "homage" implies artistry, intelligence, and respect. This movie is more like an extra value meal at a fast food chain; you get plenty to eat but nothing in the way of nutrition.

We're reunited with all of the Expendables, well-armed and well-trained mercenaries. The leader, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone, also the co- writer), is the only one who was given a normal name. The others didn't fare as well; there's Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), Toll Road (Randy Couture), Yin Yang (Jet Li), and Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), the latter, as his name makes all too clear, being a sniper. New to the film are Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth), a young soldier who may not have what it takes to be an Expendable, and Maggie (Yu Nan), a tech expert. Both represent two of the most tiresome action movie clichés imaginable. The former, who has a girlfriend living in Paris and dreams of reuniting with her, gives the Expendables an excuse to swear vengeance on the villain. The latter satisfies the need for a female sidekick and provides the teasing possibility of a romance. As to whether or not one actually blossoms, I leave for you to discover.

The plot, if I can even call it that, involves the Expendables going to Albania and butting heads with Jean Villain (Jean-Claude Van Damme), a heartless kick boxer who schemes to sell the five tons of plutonium stored in an abandoned Soviet Union mine. The mine operates on slave labor, mostly men who have been kidnapped from a local village. Those who fall out of line are not shown any mercy. It's up to the Expendables to rescue the men and help the village women, who know that Villain will soon come after their children. I realize we're not supposed to question the lack of a language barrier, and if the filmmakers had tried harder to make a better movie, I probably would have overlooked it. As it is, I have to wonder how a group of English-speaking tough guys can enter a destitute Albanian village and just happen upon women who know the language fluently.

In the previous film, both Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger made cameo appearances. For this chapter, they're roles are only slightly expanded. Both are so blatantly at the mercy of the screenplay that it's almost embarrassing. In Willis' case, he's required to be nothing more than a mysterious CIA agent that talks in a menacing whisper. It's even worse for Schwarzenegger, who's forced to be annoyingly self referential, especially at the most inappropriate times. Rest assured, his immortal line, "I'll be back," works its way into the film several times. He and Willis will eventually argue over it, promoting the former to mutter, "Yippee kai yay," under his breath. At one point, he even says, "Who's next? Rambo?"

That line is prompted by the sudden appearance of Chuck Norris, who enters almost every scene he's in with the main title from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" playing on the soundtrack. He plays Booker, a sniper who was rumored to be dead. Not that the name of his character matters; "The Expendables 2" is nothing if not a self-congratulatory exercise in all things action packed, which is to say that Norris' appearance will be appreciated at face value and nothing more. I think the greatest failure of this film is that it could never be a complete entertainment or a complete parody; it exists in a gray area somewhere between the two. Had the filmmakers had the courage to make it one thing or the other, maybe it would have been halfway decent. As it stands now, it's only suitable for those that like their movies big and stupid.

-- Chris Pandolfi (www.atatheaternearyou.net)

Why Stop Now?
(2012)

A Trip to Rehab Threatens a Piano Recital
Jesse Eisenberg's performance in "Why Stop Now" is a compromise between his roles in "The Social Network" and "30 Minutes or Less." In the former, he played a dramatized version of Mark Zuckerberg, a young man whose focus was so narrow and intense that Asperger's was certainly within the realm of possibility. In the latter, he played a panicked pizza delivery man forced into robbing a bank with a bomb strapped to his chest. His character in "Why Stop Now" is a piano prodigy who, in the course of one day, is faced with sending his mother to rehab, getting roped into being a drug dealer's personal translator, dealing with his little sister's habit of talking through a sock puppet, and mentally preparing himself for an audition that may get him into a prestigious music academy. He also realizes that he's in love with one of his classmates, and so he must work up to courage to admit it to her.

On the surface, this sounds like the recipe for a zany slapstick comedy. There are indeed some very funny moments, many of them physical in nature, and yet never once does the humor overshadow the story's innate humanity. We see a great deal of it in Eisenberg's performance; his character, named Eli Bloom, is clearly under a lot of stress, and there are times when he loses his temper in sheer frustration, but he still manages to work through each situation. He does this even when he believes he isn't capable, and more importantly, when he has convinced himself that he has messed things up beyond repair. This isn't to suggest that he isn't flawed or in danger of falling into the same traps his mother fell into. His first major scene shows him getting drunk at a party he wasn't invited to; we eventually learn that this has been a weekend habit of his for quite some time.

The story proper begins the morning Eli drives his mother, a drug addict named Penny (Melissa Leo), to rehab. Despite being a user, the urine sample she provides is clean; that, coupled with the fact that she doesn't have medical insurance, prevents her from being admitted, a turn of events Eli wasn't prepared for and is clearly not happy with. He's scheduled to give a piano recital in a matter of hours, and if all goes well, it may pave the way for his future in music. The only way Penny can commit herself, according to a discrete nurse, is for her to arrive under the influence. Panicked but determined to get his mother the help she so desperately needs, he agrees to meet with her dealer and get her a stash of cocaine. This is obviously something that happens more in the movies than in real life, but you've got to give writers/directors Phil Dorling and Ron Nyswaner credit for their understanding of irony.

In due time, Eli meets the crippled, tough-talking Sprinkle (Tracy Morgan) and his partner in crime, Black (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), both of whom live with Sprinkle's elderly mother. When Eli inadvertently reveals that he's fluent in Spanish, an initially straightforward transaction becomes complicated; Sprinkle needs a translator in order to conduct business with his supplier, who either doesn't know a word of English or refuses to communicate in it. This is something of a plot hole, given the fact that Sprinkle appears to have thus far conducted business just fine without the aid of a translator. Or perhaps this Spanish-speaking supplier is new. The details are sketchy at best. Whatever the case, a brief confrontation at the supplier's restaurant results in Eli getting his hand injured, seriously jeopardizing his chances of doing well at the recital – assuming he can make it there on time.

As the leads wait for the supplier to deliver the cocaine, other mishaps threaten to derail Eli. He will, for one thing, get loopy on Oxycontin. Not much later, he has to contend with his baby sister, Nicole (Emma Rayne Lyle), who's having behavior problems in school; not only is she too emotionally reliant on a sock puppet, she uses it as an excuse to say mean things to people. Later still, he must work to find some middle ground for Penny and her sister, Trish (Stephanie March) to stand on. Although they have chosen different life paths, the two are surprisingly similar as far as temperament and stubbornness are concerned. Whereas Penny is known for her lying, manipulation, and false promises, Trish is pretentious, judgmental, and self-righteous. And yet, we're made to see the decency in both women, especially in Penny, who may not have her act together but truly does want the best for her children.

There's a subplot involving Eli's love interest, a young woman named Chloe (Sarah Ramos), who's part of a Revolutionary War reenactment society. Although the scenes between Eisenberg and Ramos are competently written and performed, they're by far the most unnecessary and manufactured of the film. I also found myself questioning the ending, the structure of which indicates a lack of consensus on the part of the directors. It starts off rather tidy, perhaps too much so, only to finish on an unsatisfying note of ambiguity. "Why Stop Now" is a flawed film, but its examination of the Eisenberg character is fascinating, and I found myself drawn on some level to most of the other characters, who aren't as clear cut as they appear to be. Even the trash-talking Sprinkle isn't beyond all hope. How would you feel if you had a future in running, only to injure your leg and spend the rest of your life walking with a cane?

-- Chris Pandolfi (www.atatheaternearyou.net)

The Awakening
(2011)

Is That a ... G-G-G-Ghost?
"The Awakening" plays it safe as far as supernatural thrillers go, providing audiences with such reliable hallmarks as a melodramatic plot, an ending with several twists, and plenty in the way suspense and shocks. That it's unoriginal, there can be no question. Nevertheless, there's no denying the skill that went into it. It is, above all, an incredibly good-looking film; the atmosphere is one of perpetual gloom, the sun shrouded by gray clouds, the rooms of the old boarding house faded and decaying, the overall color scheme muted drearily. It mostly takes place in an isolated area of the English countryside, and in a fairly open field of dark gray grass and overgrown trees, a piece of old architecture juts into the sky menacingly. The only noticeable departure is that, in spite of the washed-out colors, much of the scenery is not concealed in shadows. That style is reserved only for a select number of scenes, most of which are featured in the final act.

Taking place in 1921, the story opens in London, where a woman named Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) has made it her life's mission to debunk claims of supernatural phenomena and expose so-called mediums and spiritualists. And before I go any further, no, this movie is not a retread of "Red Lights," which not only examined the debate between faith and reason in a much more ambiguous way but was also focused on psychic powers rather than paranormal activity. Florence presents herself as a committed skeptic, going so far as to write a book called "Seeing Through Ghosts." But as the film progresses and her defensive layers gradually peel away, it becomes obvious that her crusade is less about convincing the general public and more about convincing herself. Let it suffice to say that her reasons stem from emotions rather than by scientific curiosity.

One day, she's approached by Robert Mallory (Dominic West), a shellshocked World War I veteran who now teaches at a secluded all-boys boarding school outside the city. He wants her to investigate the recent death of one of the students, which ties into numerous reported sightings of a boy's ghost, the image of which has inexplicably shown up in group photos dating back to 1902. Florence's explanation of the boy's diffused image is logical enough, although she has yet to account for why the last photo, taken only weeks earlier, shows the boy looking out one of the building's windows. She initially refuses to involve herself, but in due time, she comes around. And so she travels with Robert to the boarding school, a bleak, borderline Dickensian world of strict regiment and harsh punishments. The teachers and staff skulk around, their eyes betraying fear, anger, and deep secrets. The boys stand around in constricting uniforms, their heads lowered guiltily.

Upon her arrival, Florence meets the housekeeper, who insists on being called Maud (Imelda Staunton). She's a right bundle of nerves, hovering around Florence with nothing but praise for her book and yet always seeming to know more than she's letting on. Always at Maud's side is a boy named Tom (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), a lonely orphan who inexplicably turns to Florence for solace. She sets up a series of still cameras, wire trips, powder trays for tracking footprints, and various pieces of machinery that would have been considered the latest in technology in 1921 – assuming they existed at all, and you'll forgive me for having no interest in doing the research. It's all in an effort to prove to the boys that there is no ghost wandering the halls. But ... what if there really is a ghost? How else to explain the strange occurrences that keep happening, some of which are rather startling?

To make the story about something more than the possibility of a spirit haunting an old boarding school, the filmmakers work in a mutual attraction between Florence and Robert, one that inevitably turns physical. It begins with a moment that could have been directly lifted from an erotic drama; while preparing a room with booby traps, Florence discovers that a hole in the wall gives her a view of the bathroom, and lo and behold, Robert emerges naked from the bathtub and treats a gaping wound on his right thigh. I'm not convinced of this subplot's necessity, although I will say that I appreciated the effort to make the film a character study as well as a supernatural thriller. Dominic West, known for his villain roles, at last is given the chance to play a sympathetic character, one who is, in a sense, haunted by his own ghosts.

The final act, which is surprisingly sentimental, requires high suspension of disbelief in order to seem even somewhat plausible. Is that to be expected from a movie like this? I suppose so, although even ghost stories have their limits. Still, there's a definite emotional payoff, one that stems from a logical progression of the plot and appropriate development of the characters. And let it not be said that the art direction, set design, cinematography, and costumes aren't put to good use. This film comes only six months after the release of "The Woman in Black," another suspenseful, atmospheric ghost story made by Hammer Studios in the tradition of classic horror movies. I found it incredibly satisfying, in large part because of its sense of style. "The Awakening" isn't quite up to that level, but it certainly accomplishes what it set out to accomplish.

-- Chris Pandolfi (www.atatheaternearyou.net)

Cosmopolis
(2012)

A Meaningless Wasteland of Wealth
David Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis" plays like a cautionary tale for the wealthy, telling the story of a young billionaire so numbed by money and power that it seems physical harm and even the prospect of his own death are his only remaining avenues. This would be Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), a twenty-eight-year-old asset manager for a company in Manhattan. We follow him as he treks across the city with the intention of getting a haircut. He's driven in a stretch limo that epitomizes the sheer excess of his wealth – a leather-upholstered technological wonderland of television monitors and computer screens, all housed within a layer of cork, added at tremendous difficulty and expense to reduce outside noises, and a polished bulletproof exterior. This is, for lack of a better term, his entire world, hermetically sealed off from the uproar of a Presidential visit, a funeral procession for a Sufi rap star, and a full-swing anti-capitalist riot.

What a fascinating movie this is, so structurally impenetrable and confusing yet so refreshingly uncompromising in its examination of behaviors, personalities, and financial toxicity. It was adapted from the novel by Don DeLillo, which was published in 2003, nearly a decade before the Occupy Movement and several years earlier than the 2008 stock market crash. Cronenberg has turned an eerily prophetic fable into a timely political and social commentary. That it's cerebral in nature only adds to its interest; we're introduced to a slew of disaffected characters thriving on or in some way connected to the corrupting influence of money, and at no point can anyone put together a sentence we can understand. The point is not to figure out what they're trying to say but rather to simply observe them in their perpetual indifference.

Pattinson's career has been relatively short and highlighted by only a handful of memorable performances. This may finally be the film in which his status as a serious actor is cemented. His take on Packer is nothing if not hypnotic. Here is a man so entrenched in utter apathy that not even losing his money can get a rise out of him. The only time he has any visible emotion is when he learns of the Sufi rapper's death, and even then, he's disappointed that natural causes and not an assassination are to blame. He makes several stops as he journeys to his barber and has conversations with a number of people. Most are seen only once, which is to say that they're played by actors giving cameo appearances. These would include Jay Baruchel, Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton, and rapper K'Naan, who plays the dead body of the rapper as he's being transported to his grave in an open coffin. The only two recurring characters are Packer's wife, Elise (Sarah Gadon), and his bodyguard, Torval (Kevin Durand), who eventually warns him of a credible threat to his safety.

Packer will have two sexual encounters, neither with his wife, who knows their marriage is a sham. One is with Binoche's character, Didi Fancher, Packer's personal art consultant; although she makes it clear that the paintings on display in a church are not for sale, Packer is so eager to waste his money that he persists in making offers. The other is with Kendra Hays (Patricia McKenzie), Packer's second bodyguard. Take note of the fact that, although they physically have sex, Packer is much more interested in Hays' taser. He even pressures her into shooting him, perhaps in a last-ditch effort to feel something. When he's back in his limo, he will be examined by his personal physician, just as he's examined every single day. Quite unexpectedly, it's discovered that Packer has an asymmetrical prostate.

All will eventually lead to a confrontation with a man named Benno Levin, a former employee at Packer's company. Holed up in a filthy abandoned apartment building and armed with a serious machinegun, he has come to believe that killing Packer is the only act that will give his life meaning. Levin is played by Paul Giamatti, and although his performance amounts to around ten minutes of screen time, I have a feeling he will be noticed in much the same way William Hurt was noticed in another Cronenberg adaptation, "A History of Violence." His processing, his restrained intensity, ensure that you cannot tear your eyes away from the screen. To most people, Levin would seem certifiably insane; in his mind, he's on a mission so simple and clear that it probably would be a crime not to go through with it. The only element that makes it complicated is Packer, initially passive before becoming disturbingly intrigued.

Of particular note is the film's dialogue, which Cronenberg has said was taken verbatim from DeLillo's novel. Listening to the characters talk is a little like eavesdropping on conversations spoken entirely in code, the sentences intentionally structured to make as little sense as possible. This could, perhaps, further symbolize the nothingness that has consumed the characters' lives; money has poisoned their minds, and so they can only ramble in gibberish. Because there's no meaning to glean from the dialogue, we instead focus on the fluid-like progression from one word to the next. I'll be the first to admit that the challenge of processing verbal nonsense wasn't entirely rewarding, and most audiences are sure to be just as perplexed, if not altogether enraged, by it. But "Cosmopolis" isn't about what the characters say; it's about how they behave given the circumstances they're in.

-- Chris Pandolfi (www.atatheaternearyou.net)

ParaNorman
(2012)

A Zombie Movie for Kids? Well, Maybe....
Nine times out of ten, debating a film's appropriateness for children is utterly pointless. But in the case of "ParaNorman," a 3D stop-motion animated film about ghosts, zombies, and a witch's curse, I cannot help but wonder what age group the filmmakers had in mind. With its morbid imagery, its broad and occasionally twisted sense of humor, and its handling of dark issues such as bullying, death, and the execution of suspected witches, I'm forced to conclude that it may not be appropriate for anyone under the age of twelve. You, of course, know your children much better than I do. All I'm asking is that you keep what I'm saying in mind as you buy tickets – especially if you decide to shell out the extra cash for a 3D presentation. I should also note that this is the first PG-rated animated film I know of to include a gay joke. If you don't have any children and frankly couldn't care less about the issue of how young is too young, you may find that "ParaNorman" is wonderful-looking, appropriately scary, and a great deal of fun. For someone like me, it represents a purer kind of horror movie, in which the purpose is to frighten and entertain without resorting to tacky marketing gimmicks like sex, nudity, and relentless gore. It's also not limited to craft, although that certainly does play a major role; a real story is being told, and it actually sends a message. I grant you that it's not a particularly original message, but it's good to hear nonetheless. Specific scenes are lovingly styled after schlocky B- movies, while others feature clever insider references. Any dedicated horror fan will be the first to tell you that the ringtone on the title character's cell phone is John Carpenter's "Halloween Theme." Taking place in the New England town of Blithe Hollow, where a notorious history of witch trials are now used to attract tourists, we meet eleven-year-old Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), a zombie movie fanatic cursed with the ability to speak with the dead. He's surrounded by ghosts, all of which are only visible to him. Because he always appears to be talking to himself, he's an outcast in his community. At home, he's berated by his shallow teenage sister (voiced by Anna Kendrick), patronized by his liberal mother (voiced by Leslie Mann), and completely misunderstood by his overly stern father (voiced by Jeff Garlin), who clearly doesn't believe in ghosts. He has had it up to here with Norman making requests for his grandmother, who has already died. This is true, but her spirit still lives in the house, and she and Norman have regular conversations. Despite being dead, the grandmother (voiced by Elaine Stritch) made a promise that she would always watch over Norman, which is why she hasn't crossed to the other side. At school, Norman is already an easy target for a bully named Alvin (voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a brute and an idiot. Things only get worse when he begins having visions, which invade his reality like rips in the fabric of time. His only friend is Neil (voiced by Tucker Albrizzi), an innocent and portly boy who takes his daily bullying in stride and thinks Norman's ability is the coolest thing ever. One day, they're both approached by the other black sheep of Norman's family: His uncle Prenderghast (voiced by John Goodman), a hulking bum who lives holed up in a dilapidated house in the woods. He soon drops dead, although his spirit visits Norman in the boys' restroom and explains that his visions are related to a curse put on Blithe Hollow by a witch centuries earlier. This curse will take effect as soon as the sun goes down; the only way it can be stopped is if passages from an old book are read aloud at the witch's gravesite. Norman's sixth sense makes him the only person qualified to do this. Inevitably, something goes wrong, and in due time, seven corpses are awakened from their cemetery slumber. As they lumber around town as groaning, rotted zombies, Norman, Neil, and Alvin team up with Norman's sister and the object of her affection, Neil's teenage brother Mitch (voiced by Casey Affleck), a dimwitted jock. Blithe Hollow's hall of records is the scene of the finale, where an angry mob gathers on the steps with pitchforks and torches. The zombies, meanwhile, are inside and slowly closing in on Norman, who's close to figuring out the meaning behind the witch's curse. What it really comes down to is intolerance, ignorance, and the inability to listen to one another in times of fear and confusion. True enough, these themes are far from original, but they certainly add depth and even some sweetness to an otherwise superficial tale of the macabre. For the most part, the film is in the spirit of fun, walking the fine line between more mature thrills and family entertainment. There are select scenes, however, that push the limits of where a PG-rated movie can and should be allowed to go. The most glaring example is when Norman must pry a book from the lifeless hands of his uncle Prenderghast; as he struggles to free the book, the body is flung around like a ragdoll, and eventually, it falls on top of Norman, causing a huge length of tongue to roll out of the head and slap Norman in the face. Had this been a live action film, this scene would have been disgusting and perhaps even offensive. I believe that many kids will greatly enjoy "ParaNorman," but I also believe that some of them will find it frightening. Exercise caution when taking them to the movies this weekend. -- Chris Pandolfi

2 Days in New York
(2012)

Coping with a French Invasion
When we last left Marion (Julie Delpy) in "2 Days in Paris," she and her boyfriend, Jack (the Adam Goldberg character), were gradually coming to the realization that they weren't compatible. This was during a two-day trip to Marion's hometown of Paris, where Jack, an American, was in the thick of life-altering culture shock. Although the film ended with the two of them in an embrace, there was the inescapable sense that they would not make it as a couple. And indeed, "2 Days in New York" begins with Marion telling the audience, via a simplistic fairytale-like voice-over narration and a crude puppet theater, that she and Jack had split up – but not before Jack fathered her son. She's now back in New York and living with a radio talk show host named Mingus (Chris Rock), who has a younger daughter from a previous marriage. They have successfully formed a blended family and, by all appearances, are quite content.

But then Marion's family arrives from France for a two-day vacation. There's her goofy father, Jeannot (Delpy's real life father, Albert), a new widower who tried unsuccessfully to smuggle a series of salamis into the country under his clothing. His English is just as bad as it ever was, and when the mood strikes him, he still has a lot of fun digging keys into the sides of parked cars. And then there's her sister, Rose (Alexia Landeau), who does whatever she can to be a rival and an annoyance. She will, for example, use her training as a child psychologist to overanalyze situations and find problems where none exist, even going so far as to suggest Marion's son is autistic. She will wander the apartment nude in full view of Mingus. She will attend one of Marion's yoga classes knowing full well she isn't wearing a bra. She will ask the wrong questions, start catfights, and in general be snippy.

She's also, as we soon discover, a bit of a sex maniac. Here enters her boyfriend, Manu (Alex Nahon), who tags along on the vacation without having been invited. If you recall from "2 Days in Paris," Manu was once Marion's boyfriend, one of many, much to the shock of Adam Goldberg's character. Manu is an absolute train wreck of a guest – a rude, obnoxious, ignorant, insensitive man who wouldn't know tact even if it came up and bit him. He will clip his toenails at the dining room table while everyone is eating breakfast. When he first arrives, he thinks he's being smooth when he asks Mingus where he can score some pot; when Mingus replies that he has long since given the habit up, Manu can only mutter in French, "The only black man who doesn't smoke." He will loudly have sex with Rose in Mingus' bathroom, and it's quite possible they made use of his electric toothbrush.

Adding fuel to the fire is Marion, who has always been a bit impulsive and becomes hopelessly neurotic when in the presence of her family. It's almost as if being in her natural element stirs up thoughts and behaviors repressed by her Americanization. In the previous film, you may recall, she almost got into a physical altercation with an ex- boyfriend who made frequent sex trips to Thailand; in this film, simply being in the presence of her family makes her behave abnormally. Could there be something more going on? As she struggles to maintain personal and domestic stability, she frets over an upcoming exhibition of her photography, part of which will involve the auctioning off of her soul. Although it's really just a conceptual artistic experiment (Marion doesn't believe in the existence of an actual soul), the film still entertains the notion that actor and filmmaker Vincent Gallo is the devil.

Mingus, unquestionably the film's most rational character, will understandably struggle to keep his sanity in check. His favorite method of coping with stress is locking himself in his office and having one- sided conversations with a life-sized cardboard cutout of Barack Obama. It's not as if he doesn't try to make the best of the situation; he simply realizes after a while that certain relationships aren't meant to be. In one of the film's most interesting scenes, the ever-present language barrier prevents Mingus and Jeannot from having a meaningful conversation during dinner, as does Manu's apparent inability to accurately translate English into French. Example: When Mingus explains that he has two talk shows on public radio and one on Sirius, Manu tells Jeannot, "He says he has the flu, and it may be serious."

Although Julie Delpy doesn't wear as many hats as she did for its predecessor – having relinquished music, singing, and editorial responsibilities to others – she still had a great deal of creative control over "2 Days in New York," serving as the star, the director, and the producer. This time, she shares screen writing credit with two other people, which may account for the film's appropriately chaotic screwball tone. Indeed, the film is funny, albeit in a humanistic sort of way; we laugh because most of the characters are just as annoying as they are lovable, and whether or not we care to admit it, we can see something of ourselves in them. As was the case with "2 Days in Paris," we're not pressured into feeling any particular way about anyone. We see their faults just as plainly as we see their strong suits, and at no point is anything reduced to simple black and white terms.

-- Chris Pandolfi (www.atatheaternearyou.net)

The Odd Life of Timothy Green
(2012)

There's Nothing Special About That Boy
"The Odd Life of Timothy Green" is the third film I've seen in several weeks that involves the notion of a couple having trouble conceiving. On the basis of how they all turned out, it's possible they have to put this concept on hold until it can be applied to a decent screenplay. Here is yet another example of a bad film made with the best of intentions. It tells a story the filmmakers apparently had no idea what to do with; the plot meanders and is often implausible even within the context of a fantasy, the characters are very poorly developed, and its message is so insubstantial that one wonders how it could have possibly taken two hours to arrive at it. It's really a shame, because the ads have been promising a magical, heartwarming, life-affirming fable, and I went into it expecting nothing less. What I got was a film that couldn't decide what it wanted to be.

We open with Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) sitting in an office at an adoption agency. They're trying to present themselves in the best possible light so that they will be deemed fit for parenthood. They plead their case in the form of a personal account, which, for the benefit of the audience, unfolds as extended flashback sequences. And so we get some introductory shots of the fictional Stanleyville, one of those all-American small towns surrounded by a lot of forest land. The only form of industry is the local pencil factory, where Jim works; the bad economy and the prospect of layoffs are worked into the story, although not in satisfying or meaningful ways. Primarily, they seem to have been included simply for the sake of creating more drama.

Anyway, the Greens' story begins when they're given the devastating news that they will not be able to naturally conceive a child. Later that night, in an effort to get some closure from their loss, they write onto mini notepad pages several character traits they would have wanted their child to have – optimism, honesty, musical ability, artistic talent, kicking a soccer field goal, etc. Mournfully, Cindy gathers the papers, places them in a small wooden box, and buries it in her backyard garden. While the Greens are asleep, their property is hit with a sudden rainstorm. This causes a patch of soil to bulge forward, as if something were emerging from underground. Almost as soon as it begins, the rain magically falls upwards. The Greens awaken and soon discover a naked, dirt-coated ten-year-old boy crouching in the nursery Cindy furnished but thought she was never going to use. He tells them his name is Timothy (C.J. Adams). After giving him a bath, the Greens discover the boy has leaves sprouting from his ankles.

So far, so good; a boy has magically sprouted from the ground and entered the lives of a childless couple, who accept him as their own. I'm dumbfounded that no one could have done anything more with this idea. The trailers and TV spots give the impression that Timothy is a special little boy who brings sunshine and hope into the lives of the Greens and everyone else – a Pollyanna, if you will. This is not the case. Not only do the characters not benefit from Timothy being in their lives, Timothy is himself less of a magical miracle worker and more of a frustrating anomaly. The personality traits listed by the Greens are either completely missing or misconstrued to the point that they might as well be missing. An example of the former: The extent to Timothy's musical talent is banging on a cowbell with no sense of rhythm. An example of the latter: Although Timothy does make it onto his school's soccer team, he clearly doesn't understand the rules of the game, and when he finally does kick a field goal, it's in the wrong direction.

The Greens insist Timothy wear socks at all times to keep his leaves covered – which, incidentally, are so strong that trying to prune them will result in broken shears. We do see him occasionally sunbathing, and we are aware that his leaves are gradually turning brown and falling off, but the truth of his existence is ever made clear to the audience. All we have to go on is the way he interacts with the principal characters, none of whom seem to have a real purpose in this story apart from being introduced and then forgotten about. Just to name a few, there's Cindy's competitive, perfectionist sister (Rosemarie DeWitt), Jim's emotionless, disapproving father (Jim Morse), and Cindy's boss, a snooty millionaire (Dianne Wiest). Timothy, being honest to a fault, includes the boss' chin hairs when he produces a sketch of her; the upshot is that several staff members, including Cindy, are fired for their lack of honesty, so I'm forced to wonder what has been gained.

There's a subplot involving Timothy and Jim inventing a new kind of pencil and Jim's boss (Ron Livingston) taking credit for it. We also have a puppy-love romance between Timothy and a teenage girl named Joni (Odeya Rush), whose bonds with Timothy over their mutual love of leaves and a not-so-devastating secret she's hiding. Ultimately, her role in the story is so inconsequential that she essentially amounts to a red herring. So then what is the point of "The Odd Life of Timothy Green"? The disappointing answer to that question gradually reveals itself as the Greens tell their story to a woman at the adoption agency, who would never in a million years believe them, not even in a film like this. All I can say is, two people are raising a child for the first time, and according to what we see, they have no idea what they're doing. Wouldn't Timothy's existence in some way benefit them? In a better movie, it would have.

-- Chris Pandolfi (www.atatheaternearyou.net)

The Bourne Legacy
(2012)

The Superspy Torch Has Been Passed
"The Bourne Legacy" is a competent and satisfying spy action thriller, although I suspect it will be problematic for those unfamiliar with the first three "Bourne" films. This fourth chapter isn't quite the start of a new trilogy, as some of the ads have suggested; the events of the previous installment, "The Bourne Ultimatum," are heavily referenced, as are bits and pieces running through all the films, most notably the Treadstone and Blackbriar programs. It's never fair, having to catch up on ancient history before delving into a new installment, which should always be allowed to stand on its own. Still, if you can get past the intricate details, you may find that the film is engaging. It benefits strongly from the presence of Jeremy Renner, who takes the reins from Matt Damon as the next superspy-gone-rogue, whose name is Aaron Cross. With a fresh character at the helm, the series doesn't seem so repetitive.

Although there is unfinished business with the original trilogy, which were based on novels by the late Robert Ludlum, this film behaves as if the story were staring all over again. This means that it's less about the plot and more about the craft of a spy thriller; scenarios are manufactured primarily so that Cross can employ his superior skills, not the least of which is his ability to engage in hand-to-hand combat. As the film progresses, the action will only get more elaborate and occur more frequently. It all culminates with a rather spectacular motorcycle chase on the surface streets and highways of Manila, at which point Cross is being pursued relentlessly by both an assassin and the entire police force. Does any of this mean anything? I'm hard pressed to say. But I sure enjoyed watching it. And the fact that the final shot is a boat riding off into the sunset suggests the filmmakers knew to not take the film so seriously.

The film opens with Cross, a specially trained agent for a CIA offshoot called Outcome, roughing it in the snowy wilderness of Alaska. At precise intervals, he takes a dwindling supply of blue and green pills, which are later revealed to enhance mental and physical abilities. His unexpected encounter with another Outcome agent (Oscar Isaac) is cut short when a guided missile destroys the latter's cabin. He goes into pure survival mode; as he's being shot at by unmanned fighter planes, he removes a tracking device from under the skin of his stomach and forces a wolf to swallow it. It seems Cross is being hunted, although he doesn't know why. Fortunately, we in the audience do. Here enters Eric Byer (Edward Norton), a CIA official who has made it his mission to have the remaining Outcome agents assassinated. This comes on the heels of Jason Bourne's personal quest for the truth, which in turn led to the Treadstone and Blackbriar programs being publicly exposed.

Meanwhile, we meet Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a genetic scientist for Outcome. A series of unforeseen events, kick-started by her trusted colleague's inexplicable shooting spree, bring Shearing into Cross' life, the latter saving her life from CIA agents sent to assassinate her. We, of course, are not supposed to question the ease and speed with which Cross is able to make his way from Alaska all the way to Virginia – or perhaps it was Maryland, although I don't think it matters in the slightest. That's just how it happens in stories like this. Anyway, after fleeing the scene of a burning house, Shearing tells Cross that it's possible to make the side effects of his medications permanent. He only needs to be injected with a very specific type of virus. Trouble is, this can only be done at a pill factory in Manila. And so they board a plane for the Philippines, unaware that the CIA is tracking them down.

The Rachel Weisz character is developed on a somewhat more advanced level than the Franka Potente character from the first two "Bourne" films. Shearing's profession, for one thing, has some bearing on the plot, which is to say that her actions can actually advance it. And because she understands the science behind the medications Cross has been taken, she does double duty as a provider of exposition. Having said that, her inclusion is still largely out of obligation for a female sidekick. This becomes especially apparent during the final act, at which point the pace dramatically picks up and we're inundated with stunts and special effects. It's strongly hinted that she will become his love interest, which should come as a surprise to no one. I have a feeling their relationship will be much less open to interpretation once the next film is released.

I sound like I'm complaining, but really, this movie gave me everything I expected and actually wanted. It's not a great film by any means, and it certainly doesn't try for anything original as far as spy thrillers are concerned, but it sticks to its established formula well, and the cast was engaging. I don't think we're meant to delve too deeply into stories like this; they exist primarily as escapist entertainment, giving us plenty in the way of structure and spectacle but not so much in the way of meaning. I knew "The Bourne Legacy" was intended to be mindless fun when I saw a shot of Jeremy Renner scaling the walls of a house with the impossible speed and fluidity of Spider-Man. I watch these films convinced that there's no more mileage for a sequel to cover, and every time I'm proved wrong. This either means these films are genuinely good or I've become lazy. I prefer the former explanation.

-- Chris Pandolfi (www.atatheaternearyou.net)

The Campaign
(2012)

Political Satirizing Need Not Involve Baby Punching
Four years ago, in the months leading to the election of Barack Obama, the film "Swing Vote" was released, a political satire in which the outcome of a presidential race depended on the vote of just one man, played by Kevin Costner. There was a funny, intelligent, observant film; it wasn't about who Costner's character would ultimately vote for so much as what the candidates were willing to do in order to win him over. It's now 2012, it's an election year, and yet again, a political satire has been theatrically released in the months before anyone can set foot in a voting booth. It's called "The Campaign," and it stars Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis. This time around, the results are less than optimal. As is the case with so many other raunchy comedies, this movie is strained, unfunny, and often times in incredibly poor taste.

Anything relating to politics is an easy target for parody, and I'll be the first to admit that certain aspects of running for office are too dirty and backhanded to not be portrayed in a humorous light. But as with any lampoon, getting it right depends entirely on who gets their hands on it. The people behind "The Campaign" have some very wrong ideas about how to elicit laughter from the audience. If you need a specific example, look no further than the scene where Ferrell accidentally punches a baby; to expect anyone to find this funny is to have completely lost touch with reality. In a follow-up to this scene, Ferrell accidentally punches Uggie, the dog from "The Artist." It's bad enough the filmmakers are making light of child abuse. Why make things worse by adding on animal cruelty?

The foundation of the plot involves two corrupt CEOs, brothers Wade and Glen Motch (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow), who have illegal dealings with the Chinese and want to staff factories in North Carolina with cheap labor imported directly from China. In order to gain influence in their state's congressional district, they must first dethrone Democratic congressman Cam Brady (Ferrell), who's running for his fifth consecutive term. This is only because he went unopposed during the first four races. The Motch Brothers set their sights on a local tour guide named Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), a dimwitted and effeminate family man who sounds an awful lot like Mr. Garrison from "South Park." With the help of a ruthless campaign manager named Tim Wattely (Dylan McDermott), who dresses in black and looks like a hit-man, they groom Huggins into becoming a congressional candidate for the Republican Party.

Because Brady is such a dirty fighter, Huggins must learn to be just as unfair in his attacks. And so begins the grandstanding and mudslinging, exaggerated to such a degree on both sides that it eventually stops being entertaining and becomes tiresome and repetitive. Part of the problem is that the filmmakers take amusing ideas and overplay them. There are so many instances where jokes are stretched beyond the point at which they can still be considered funny. After a while, they all come off as desperate and afflicted with a lack of originality. There is, for example, a scene early on where Huggins pressures his wife and children to admit to any indiscretions before the campaign can get underway; the list of things they confess is not only long, it's also only halfway funny to begin with and gets steadily less funny with every passing line. Mostly, it's just gratuitous and disgusting.

If there is something good to say about this film, it would be the way in which director Jay Roach and screenwriters Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell depict candidates answering debate questions. They successfully overstate a politician's tendency to dance around an issue without actually providing a definitive response; in the film, Brady observes that he doesn't understand the rhetoric, but he knows all about pacifying voters by mentioning Jesus and freedom. This is a good start. If only someone had thought to not focus so much on crude sight gags and even cruder lines of dialogue. It's not so much what the filmmakers are saying, but how they're saying it. It doesn't take long for the clever observances to devolve into a monotonous stream of four-letter words.

Other subplots work their way into the story. Huggins vies for the support of his disapproving father (Brian Cox), while Brady faces rejection from his highly superficial wife (Katherine LaNasa), who knows he has been sleeping with a twentysomething cheerleader. Meanwhile, the mudslinging continues; Huggins is compared to an Islamic terrorist, Brady's second-grade illustrated story is labeled as a communist manifesto, and both end up crossing personal boundaries by interfering with members of each other's families. Is any of this funny? Not especially. It's downright deplorable when it resorts to lamebrained ideas like baby punching. "The Campaign" may please die-hard fans of Ferrell and Galifianakis, but I can assure you that their praise will have less to do with satirized politics and more to do with watching these men act like clowns.

-- Chris Pandolfi (www.atatheaternearyou.net)

Hope Springs
(2012)

A Romantic Comedy for More Mature Audiences
Most Hollywood romantic comedies focus on young couples in the early stages of the dating game, typically in ways so heightened that they might as well be classified as fairy tales. I say this well aware that I tend to go easy on such films because ... well, because some of us like fairy tales. Nevertheless, the great pleasure of "Hope Springs" is that the lead characters have been married for thirty years, and therefore have credible life experience to lend to the story. It's not a story about playfully falling in love for the first time; it's about learning to fall in love all over again after a long, emotionally barren dormant period. The audiences that see the common, more youth-oriented romcoms are unlikely to relate to this film, but then again, who's to say mature moviegoers aren't deserving of their own brand of entertainment?

We meet New Englanders Kay and Arnold Soames (Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones), the former a clerk at an intimate clothing boutique, the latter a successful business executive. After thirty years of marriage, things have devolved into a stale routine devoid of intimacy and communication. Every morning, Kay cooks up a slice of bacon and two eggs sunny side up for Arnold, who sits at the kitchen table with his head buried in a newspaper. Every night, after dinner, Arnold falls asleep in front of the TV, which is tuned to the Golf Channel. We eventually learn that they have not had sex in nearly five years, although we immediately see that the only way they touch is when Arnold gives Kay a mechanical peck on the cheek before going to work. The first scene shows Kay unsuccessfully trying to initiate sex; it doesn't take us long to figure out that they're sleeping in separate bedrooms.

Kay, soft-spoken and understandably regretful, begins researching ways of repairing her relationship with Arnold. This soon leads to the discovery of a marriage counselor named Dr. Bernie Feld (Steve Carell), whose office is located in the quaint seaside town of Great Hope Springs, Maine, where it seems the locals have come to expect married tourists in need of therapy. They would include a bookshop owner, a waitress, and a bartender played by Elisabeth Shue. Kay signs both herself and Arnold up for Feld's week-long round of sessions, using her own money to pay the sizeable fee. Arnold naturally wants nothing to do with it, but of course he begrudgingly relents and catches up with his wife at the last possible second – just as the airplane is being seated, to be specific.

Carell's portrayal of Feld, with his calm and very matter-of-fact style of delivery, will undoubtedly leave him open to criticism and mockery. In my personal opinion, I've never seen a more accurate depiction of a therapist, least of all in a romantic comedy. Real life therapists often adopt a soothing tone of voice, presumably to make the patient or patients feel less threatened by the situation. Apart from that, his dialogue is essentially a series of questions, ones I would fully expect an actual marriage counselor to ask. He's not a quack spewing psychobabble in a desperate ploy for laughs; he probes, he listens, he responds accordingly, and he genuinely wants to help. I was expecting a broad parody, but instead I got a fully realized character who's just as likable as he is insightful.

Jones is in remarkably good form given the fact that he's known for strong roles. In this film, he plays an unemotional man who only gradually reveals his decency and shows just how vulnerable he truly is. The idea of couple's therapy is not within his comfort zone. He initially has no idea why his wife is unhappy, and even when he finally does begin to understand her, the process of working towards a solution will not be easy for him. As for Streep, you have to marvel at her chameleon-like ability to be any character; not too many actresses can seamlessly transition from an Anna Wintour send-up to Julia Child to Margaret Thatcher to a housewife looking to rekindle the fire. Watching Kay, we see a woman who has made just as many mistakes as her husband and is sincere in her efforts to be a better partner.

It can be argued that the film isn't as daring as it could have been, given the wide range of issues common to marriages. It goes for feel- good entertainment, working itself towards an ending most audiences will be expecting as soon as the opening scene, perhaps even sooner. But since when was feel-good entertainment something to be scoffed at? What "Hope Springs" lacks in originality is made up for in charm, strength of character, pitch-perfect casting, and wonderful performances. All the leads are reliably good, but I was nonetheless surprised by Carell, whose take on a therapist is not only likable but authentic as well. Never once did he or the filmmakers reduce his character to a typecast we're made to laugh at rather than with. He's a professional man doing his job and doing it well.

-- Chris Pandolfi (www.atatheaternearyou.net)

Killer Joe
(2011)

Southern Fried Violence
William Friedkin's "Killer Joe" is the kind of film where you don't know whether to appreciate it for its audacity or condemn it for its perversity. I suspect most audiences will go both ways on it, not just while it's playing but long after they have left the theater. Exactly how is one supposed to respond to a scene where fellatio is performed on a fried chicken drumstick by a woman whose nose has been broken and has blood smeared all over her face? Here is a film that's intended to make you laugh one minute and get your skin crawling the next; love it, hate it, or both, there's no denying the skill that went into it, from the spot-on casting to the impeccable performances to the uncompromising use of dark humor and cringe-inducing depictions of violence. Let it not be said that this film doesn't earn every bit of its NC-17 rating.

As was the case with Friedkin's previous film, the merciless paranoia thriller "Bug," it has been adapted by Tracy Letts from his own stage play – and I have to admit, it's very difficult for me to imagine how this story could ever have been told through the medium of live theater. It takes place in an unspecified area just outside of Dallas, Texas, where it seems lightning storms and rain are nightly occurrences. At the heart of the plot is the Smith family, each and every member a real piece of work. The son, Chris (Emile Hirsch), is in a serious pickle because he doesn't have the cash to pay off an outstanding debt to the drug dealers who are looking to kill him; he goes to his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), with the idea of having his mother, who also happens to be Ansel's ex-wife, murdered so that they can collect the insurance money.

We never actually meet the intended victim, but on the basis of how she's described all throughout the film, it would seem she's an awful person the world would be better off without. Perhaps Chris and Ansel are right about her, and perhaps they aren't. All we do know is that we get to know both of them quite well, and to be perfectly frank, they're status as human beings is open for debate. Rather than do the deed themselves, they hire a contract killer named Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), who's also a police detective, and by all accounts a highly respected one. He's a cold, calculating man – handsome, a smooth talker, not necessarily without some charm, and always in control of the situation. For obvious legal reasons, he remains rather hush-hush about his methods. But when it comes to his fee, which is naturally nonnegotiable, he's all specifics.

He demands, for example, that he claim something or someone as a retainer until the insurance comes through. Here enters Chris' teenage sister, the simple, soft-spoken, easily charmed Dottie (Juno Temple). She overhears Chris and Ansel conspiring, and she agrees that killing her mother would be a good idea. Not long after, she meets Joe, who so thoroughly uses her naivety to his advantage that we're torn between admiring his cleverness and hating his abuse of power. The single most unsettling scene involves the loss of her virginity; rather than simply ravage her on a bed in a quick moment of passion, he orchestrates a dominant/submissive routine down to the smallest detail. He tells her to strip and put on a black evening dress, and after turning around and placing his cuffs, gun, badge, and pepper spray on the table, he has her come up behind him and gently put her hands down his pants.

Ansel's current wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon), is introduced in a shot that reveals her only from the waist down, which wouldn't be worth mentioning were it not for the fact that she's without underwear. When we do finally see her face and observe her actions as the story unfolds, it's like a typecast come to life – an older woman that dresses provocatively and wears too much makeup, especially around the eyes, with a vocabulary she all too often enhances with crude four-letter words. She has a part to play in the scheme to murder Ansel's ex-wife, although it isn't what anyone in the film thinks it is. Incriminating photos of her work their way into the plot; they're but one of several elements that contribute to the final scene, the shocking brutality of which is matched only by a final revelation that will throw audiences completely for a loop.

Serving, I suppose, as a preview of the finale is a scene where Chris is beaten by biker thugs. He spends the rest of the film limping and with purple bruises all over his face. I don't think the violence in "Killer Joe" was intended to be fun or entertaining, although given the film's stage roots and Letts' affinity for characters struggling with moral and spiritual questions, I'm hard pressed to say that the violence is in any way allegorical. It is, however, very much consistent with the Southern Gothic genre, a category this film most certainly falls into. I cannot sit here and say that I liked this movie. Truth be told, I don't think I would ever want to watch it again. Having said that, I recognized what it was aiming for, and I definitely appreciated it for its technical merits and the strong performances.

-- Chris Pandolfi (www.atatheaternearyou.net)

Celeste & Jesse Forever
(2012)

BFFs on the Verge of Divorce
Celeste (Rashida Jones) is the owner of a media market firm in Los Angeles, but given the recent publication of her nonfiction book about the direction American pop culture has headed, she prefers to think of herself as a trend forecaster. Jesse (Andy Samberg) has artistic talent but is currently unemployed and seems rather indifferent about finding a new job. High school sweethearts who tied the knot, they have been separated for six months and are in the final stages of divorcing. That hasn't stopped them from remaining the best of friends; they still go to restaurants, sing in harmony with the radio, mime hugs for each other by crossing their arms and cupping their hands, and perpetuate a game where they pretend that a tube of petroleum jelly is a tiny penis. Although Jesse has moved out of the main house, he lives in his studio located on the same property, which Celeste doesn't seem to mind. They even say that they love each other.

Much like the recently released "Lola Versus," "Celeste and Jesse Forever" takes a fairly standard romantic comedy concept and fine tunes it for more indie-minded audiences. This is not to suggest that the plotting or characterizations are any less manufactured; it simply means that the film is overall quirkier, subtler, and not as easily attracted to the idea of a fairytale ending. I liked the title characters, although for most of the film, I struggled to empathize with them, in large part because they persisted in being so caviler about their feelings for each other. Although Celeste is a right fighter and control freak, and although Jesse has the emotional maturity of a five-year-old, they're both in denial about the reality of the separation and lack the courage to admit that they really do belong together.

Fortunately, the final scenes helped to reshape some of my perceptions. Essentially, the film is a cautionary tale of not taking relationships for granted. For Celeste, it's a journey towards relinquishing control and accepting the mistakes she has made. For Jesse, it's about realizing that he has made his bed and now has to lay in it. Both changes come about as the result of a plot twist that actually hasn't been given away in the ad campaign. The publicity department at Sony Pictures Classics deserves a lot of credit here; we live in an age when trailers and TV spots will either hint too strongly at a crucial plot point or altogether spoil it, a reality audiences don't seem to care about anymore. I'm going to follow Sony's lead and keep my mouth shut. Should you decide to go see this film, you deserve to actually be surprised.

What I can say is that the other people in Celeste and Jesse's life seem genuinely bothered by their current arrangement. Jesse's potheaded best friend, for example, is too focused on the opposite sex and too under the influence to say anything of value, which should tell you a thing or two about how he copes with life in general. Celeste's best friend, Beth (Ari Graynor), seems downright devastated by everything, perhaps because she's currently engaged and fears her marriage may someday end up like Celeste and Jesse's. Celeste is fairly close with her gay co-worker, Scott (Elijah Wood), and repeatedly runs the developing situation by him for his two cents. He's probably the most levelheaded character in the entire film, although he isn't saying what the audience is already thinking.

Celeste will make a surprising emotional connection with a spoiled teen pop star named Riley Banks (Emma Roberts), who goes to Celeste's company in order have her newest album marketed for today's audiences. To reveal the hilarious mistake made in the logo design would be doing you a great disservice; here is a visual gag that comes out of nowhere and, in the best possible sense, throws the audience for a loop. Suffice it to say, the personality clash is palpable, and the two initially want nothing to do with each other. This is not a simple case of Celeste eventually discovering the "real" Riley Banks; it's more a matter of Celeste coming to terms with who Riley is and realizing that even a young woman packaged and sold within an inch of her life can have her heart broken.

Another important subplot involves a man named Paul (Chris Messina), who intentionally signs himself up for yoga classes to meet women. He uses that method to enter Celeste's life, and although she initially resists him, romcom logic dictates that the two will eventually start dating. What's not made explicitly clear is whether or not they will end up together; he's a decent enough guy, although the situation with Jesse, who's always so passive about everything, will repeatedly complicate matters. I've given passing grades to numerous romantic comedies, but it's always refreshing when filmmakers go for something unconventional. "Celeste and Jesse Forever" not only stars Rashida Jones but was also co-written by her, which proves surprisingly beneficial to the story. Who better to capture the essence of a character than the woman who contributed to her very creation?

-- Chris Pandolfi (www.atatheaternearyou.net)

Total Recall
(2012)

If Memory Serves....
I could turn this review of "Total Recall" into a debate over which version of the film is better, but unless there are obvious gaps in idea, execution, and quality, I refrain from approaching remakes on that level. Paul Verhoeven's 1990 film of the same name had particular traits that made it entertaining, and the same can be said for the 2012 reboot. I'm most appreciative of the one element common to both films, namely the concept of false memories being surgically implanted in the brain; the question of whether the events in the story are actually happening or are merely a technologically-induced delusion is ultimately never answered, and we're left to wonder the extent to which virtual reality will someday extend. Is it possible that one day we will be unable to distinguish an authentic physical object from a computer simulation? Can it be that memory files will eventually be uploaded into and deleted from the human mind?

Loosely drawn from Phillip K. Dick's short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," the film differs from its 1990 adaptation in that it doesn't take place on Mars. Instead, it takes place on a future Earth rampant with extreme pollution and severe overpopulation. Following a societal and governmental collapse, the world is now divided into the United Federation of Britain, a domineering superpower, and The Colony, which today we refer to as Australia. In the former, the powerful and elite live in comfort. In the latter, all the workers are cramped into miniscule living quarters, which are restrictively piled into superstructures of staggered concrete and steel. The two are connected via a massive underground tunnel called The Fall, which actually bores through the Earth's core; travelling past it, passengers experience momentary weightlessness as the gravity reverses itself.

In The Colony, we meet a lowly factory worker named Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), who has been plagued with nightmares involving a woman and a failed escape attempt. By day, his job is to piece together law enforcement robots. Although he has been happily married to a woman named Lori (Kate Beskinsale) for seven years, his lot in life, coupled with his recent rash of bad dreams, has made him solemn and introspective. His dissatisfaction leads him to Rekall, an organization that specializes in implanting artificial memories of alternate lives in the minds of its clients. Quaid selects a secret agent package, believing himself in such a role. But before the procedure can begin, a Rekall tech (John Cho) analyzes his brain and discovers that he is an actual secret agent. Quaid has no idea where this accusation is coming from, but in due time, he realizes he has the quick reflexes and precise coordination necessary to take down an entire squad of policemen.

Panicked, he returns home to Lori, only to discover that she isn't his real wife and that she now wants to have him killed. According to her, his name isn't really Douglas Quaid, and every memory he has of being married to her and working at a factory were all implanted. He doesn't have the chance to fully process this; he has to outrun the lethal Lori and the entire police force. He's eventually approached by a woman named Melina (Jessica Biel), who claims his name is really Hauser and that he's part of an underground resistance movement hell bent on bringing down the ruthless Prime Minister Vilos Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston). Quaid/Hauser follows a trail of clues, most provided by himself, in the hopes of finding out who he really is. He's eventually asked to meet an elusive resistance figure known only as Matthias, thought by most to be nothing more than an urban legend.

All this is told with a great deal of style. The production designs by Patrick Tatopoulos and the cinematography by Paul Cameron convey a grittier, filthier, murkier, less streamlined vision of the future. Large sections of The Colony have a distinct urban Asian market influence, and neo-noir scenes are repeatedly set by the addition of rain and wet neon-reflected surfaces. This could, perhaps, be an homage to "Blade Runner," another film adapted from a Phillip K. Dick story. The more space-age designs are reserved for The Fall, a technological monstrosity that stretches the limits of plausibility but doesn't actually break them, and for a highway system in which cars float over and under magnetic fields. Looking at them, one is reminded of "Minority Report" – again adapted from a Phillip K. Dick story.

True to its cinematic origins, "Total Recall" is also a pulse-pounding action thriller and a dazzling special effects extravaganza. Both are utilized in ways that set the film apart from the 1990 version. The violence, for example, is toned down to a level in which escapism is at last possible; it has shootouts yet doesn't become a shoot-'em-up, if you get my meaning. Admittedly, one of my issues with Verhoeven's film was the gratuitous gore, which didn't serve a purpose any higher than that of sickening spectacle. All the actors prove themselves adept at handling the stunt work. As for the performances, all I know is that, no matter what movie he's in, Colin Farrell is an infinitely better actor than Arnold Schwarzenegger. This time around, there's more at stake than a bodybuilder landing the lead role in a sci-fi movie – we can actually invest emotionally in a man who has had his memory erased.

-- Chris Pandolfi (www.atatheaternearyou.net)

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days
(2012)

He Was Never Wimpy, and He's Not a Kid Anymore
Maybe I'm just not paying attention, but I've seen three of these movies now, and I still fail to see exactly how the Greg Heffley character is wimpy. The definition of a wimp is a coward, a weakling, and an unadventurous soul. This does not adequately describe him – not, at least, according to how he's presented in the films (having not read any of Jeff Kinney's original books, and with no plans to ever read them, there's no way for me to know). A more fitting description would include phrases like unlucky, irresponsible, naïve, accident prone, and just a touch insensitive. I'd say he has a tendency to overdramatize, but that wouldn't be fair given the fact that all the characters in these stories are heightened to the point of almost total unbelievability. It wasn't all that cute to start with, and now that they're entering their teen years, it will only get even less cute.

"Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days" sees Greg (Zachary Gordon) on summer vacation, which isn't to say he's given a vacation from the embarrassing situations he repeatedly puts himself in. When a family comedy takes place during the summer, which almost always involves swimming pools, you can bet your bottom dollar that at some point some character will (1) lose his bathing suit and (2) frantically exit the pool when all the other kids look as if they're about to pee right in the water. Rest assured, Greg will find himself in both predicaments. The only obvious summer gag that isn't included is someone getting sunburned. And to think of all the wasted opportunities for skin slapping and spelling out messages with sunblock; none of that would have made the film any more enjoyable, but at least the filmmakers would be giving audiences exactly what they're expecting.

The plot is not especially dense, although it might seem that way to younger crowds considering the sheer quantity of Greg's misadventures. It boils down to just three things: He will pursue Holly Hills (Peyton List), the schoolgirl he has a crush on; he and his father Frank (Steve Zahn) will desperately try to find some common ground; his longstanding friendship with the innocent Rowley Jefferson (Robert Capron) will be put to the test yet again. Along the way, he will have encounters with several familiar characters, including the overly aggressive Patty Farrell (Laine MacNeil), the bizarre Fregley (Grayson Russell), and the shrimpy Chirag Gupta (Karan Brar). And then there's Greg's well meaning but uncool mom Susan (Rachael Harris), his baby brother Manny (Connor and Owen Fielding), and his teenager brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick), who gets increasingly buffoonish with every new sequel.

Rodrick is the subject of his own subplot in which he tries to woo Holly's sister Heather (Melissa Roxburgh), one of those bitchy spoiled heiress stereotypes who can only put people down and complain the instant the world stops revolving around her. Rodrick hopes to win her affections by singing her favorite song at her Sweet Sixteen party. Greg, meanwhile, has been attending a country club as Rowley's guest, in part because Holly gives tennis lessons to children there, but also because he has convinced his father that he has gotten a part time job and needs a place to spend the day. He has yet to realize that every smoothie he orders is actually charged to an account. Here enters Rowley's father (Alf Humphreys), who has never had much of a reason to get along with Greg. Tensions between them will only increase when Greg spends the night with the Jeffersons at their summer beach house not far from the boardwalk.

Although Frank would genuinely prefer it if Greg stopped playing video games and spent the day outdoors, his decision to enlist Greg as a boy scout stems entirely from his apparently longstanding feud with his neighbor, Stan Warren (Phil Hayes), an outdoorsy competitor whose sons wrestle in the front yard. For a time, the threat of being sent to a military academy looms over Greg's head. This subplot is about father and son learning how to communicate, although I can't help but wonder why there wasn't a more convincing – or, at the very least, more satisfying – way to go about it. When it's established that both hate the same newspaper comic strip, and when it's already known that Greg is a talented doodler and Frank is a history buff, you'd think at least one of them would put two and two together and suggest that they collaborate on a historically-based comic strip.

I mentioned much earlier that the main characters are entering their teen years. This means that, should any further sequels be produced, Greg's comedic misadventures will become increasingly less relatable to the series' preteen demographic. How sad will it be, watching maturing individuals continuing to fall victim to innately juvenile scenarios? I wasn't especially fond of the original "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," but at least I recognized that kids were involved and therefore had some license to act goofy. With "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days," I got the sense that everyone was getting too old to perpetuate this kind of behavior. The military academy is depicted as an overly harsh place where students have their palms slapped and ears grabbed in broad daylight; although I don't ordinarily condone that kind of discipline, it might actually do some good for the characters in this series, especially now that they're of age.

-- Chris Pandolfi (www.atatheaternearyou.net)

Dreams of a Life
(2011)

The Mystery of the Forgotten Woman
In January of 2006, the severely decomposed body of a woman was found in a bedsit flat above a shopping mall in the Wood Green district of North London. By pathology, it was determined that she had remained undiscovered for approximately three years. Her body was surrounded by Christmas presents, and apparently, she died in the process of wrapping them. The television set, which sat in one corner of the room, had been left on the entire time. The virtually skeletal condition of the remains meant that she could only be identified by comparing dental records with a photograph of her smiling. Her name was Joyce Carol Vincent, and at the time of her death, she was thirty-eight years old. Although the grim discovery would be mentioned in local newspapers, details regarding Vincent's personal life, including a picture of her, were noticeably missing.

Due to the state she was found in, a specific cause of death could not be determined, and the coroner recorded an open verdict. It remains unknown to this day, although it's strongly believed that she died of natural causes. Filmmaker Carol Morley read Vincent's story in the daily tabloid "The Sun" and was haunted by the questions it raised. Now I am, too. How is it possible that the local council, the housing association, and the utility companies didn't notice mounting unpaid bills? How could her neighbors attribute the stench of decaying flesh to dumpsters? Why were the police unwilling to delve any further into the case? The official explanation, according to what Member of Parliament Lynne Featherstone was told, was that there was nothing to answer to in terms of foul play. How they figured out Vincent wasn't murdered in the first place has not been made entirely clear.

Morley has channeled her fascination with this story into "Dreams of a Life," a morbidly curious, deeply tragic, strangely compelling documentary constructed entirely from hearsay. It shows that Vincent's life was just as much of a mystery as her death; the scraps we're fed about her are provided by interviewees that at best knew her superficially. Listen to them talk, and you'll repeatedly hear them qualify their statements with phrases like, "I think," "I believe," "Maybe," "I seem to remember," and, "It could be," among many others. It would appear she never let anyone get too close to her, which is ironic given the fact that, by all accounts, she was a beautiful woman and had a fairly active social life. She would ultimately lose touch with everyone, and by the time her body was discovered, many of her former friends and acquaintances didn't initially realize the tabloids were referring to the woman they knew.

The interviewees were found only after Morley placed an ad with various publications and internet sites. We see the ad printed on the side of a black cab: "Did you know Joyce Carol Vincent?" Even then, it took months to get a response. Of the people Morley features, three stand out as the most interesting. One is Martin Lister, who met Vincent in 1985 when he worked negotiating client renewals for a shipping company; Vincent was twenty at the time and was his boss' secretary. They would date for three years and then sporadically keep in touch until 2002. The last time she was in his life, he claims, she was staying in his flat and was seemingly in some kind of trouble. He says that she knew every inch of the city, having moved at least once a year. He learned very little about her, although he recalls her telling him about her Indian mother, who died when she was eleven, and her African father, a carpenter. This contradicts what was published, namely that her parents were from the Caribbean.

Another featured subject is Catherine Clark, who befriended Vincent when they were renting a room in the home of musician Kirk Thorne. She wasn't surprised when she learned that Vincent had spent some time in a battered women's shelter, for she knew that Vincent had attracted many men into her life. Perhaps her isolation towards the end of her life had something to do a controlling boyfriend. This could account for why her older sisters, who allegedly raised her following their mother's death, were only briefly seen during Vincent's inquest and didn't want to participate in this film. And then there's Alistair Abrahams, a former music manager and Vincent's ex-boyfriend. He too describes a beautiful, fun woman who never shared her past. He recalls when they attended a Nelson Mandela tribute concert in 1990 and how she shook Mandela's hand.

Just about everyone in the film expresses disbelief and guilt over not knowing something had happened to her. They don't understand how the woman they knew – a happy, bubbly spirit with a beautiful singing voice and aspirations of being a pop star – could have possibly ended up in a bedsit and died alone. Morley attempts to fill some of the gaps with strategically placed reenactments, which feature Zawe Ashton and Alix Luka-Cain as the adult and child versions of Vincent respectively. It was reported that Vincent was medically treated for a peptic ulcer, and so Morley depicts her looking gravely ill and doubling over in pain the night she died. Perhaps it happened that way, and perhaps it didn't. "Dreams of a Life" raises a lot of questions, but the most important is: How is it possible for someone to slip through the cracks in today's fast-paced, technologically innovative, socially centered world?

-- Chris Pandolfi (www.atatheaternearyou.net)

Sofia
(2012)

The Twist They Wanted You to Know about
"Assassin's Bullet" is a halfcocked attempt at a political thriller – a film that not only skimps on the expected action thriller elements but also labors mightily on a profoundly implausible plot and incredibly weak character development. It actually constructs itself around two twists, one the filmmakers didn't even attempt to keep hidden and another they didn't attempt to resolve. Apart from the fact that this amounts to an absolute mess of a screenplay, one that clearly wasn't ready to be shot, this also puts me in a very awkward position. How can I adequately describe a movie that is all spoilers without having to cop out and issue a spoiler warning? I've trained myself to give away only that which is essential for good reading and no more; perhaps I was fated to see "Assassin's Bullet," for it would test my worth as a film critic.

Let me start with what I know I can reveal. It takes place in Sofia, Bulgaria. There, we meet a former FBI black ops agent named Robert Diggs (Christian Slater), who's there essentially to escape the memory of his dead wife. He's called back into duty at the U.S. Embassy by Ambassador Ashdown (Donald Sutherland), who wants him to track down and identify an unknown vigilante who's assassinating Islamic terrorists high up on America's Most Wanted list. This rash of killings could have something to do with a now defunct counterterrorism program called Project Sofia; it seems this assassin not only has access to these high profile targets but can actually wipe them out in a matter of days, something the black ops specialists haven't been able to do in years. How is this possible?

To be sure, we do see this assassin, albeit in initially vague ways. We know that it's a woman in an all-black getup, her eyes concealed by sunglasses and her face somewhat obscured by black bangs of hair. I was under the assumption that assassins were supposed to be inconspicuous; given the way her wardrobe makes her look like a cross between a dominatrix and a biker chick, she would never have gotten away with her line of work. To her credit, she's a skilled sniper, and she can even engage in hand to hand combat if the occasion calls for it. Granted, that's almost never in this movie. The only scene in which there's any real action is reserved for the very end, when she fights Diggs with a pipe. She almost never speaks. The only words that pass her lips are, "No witnesses," which should tell you everything you need to know about her methods.

Two other women enter Diggs' life, in a manner of speaking. One is a mysterious dancer at the club, who does her act with a scarf and seems to be channeling Mata Hari. Diggs inevitably falls in love with her, and although she seems receptive, there's also the unmistakable sense that she's hiding something. The other is Vicky (Elika Portnoy), who teaches English as a second language to teenage students. A damaged woman who regularly suffers from memory gaps and frequent visions of her own traumatic childhood, including the death of her parents, she's the patient of Dr. Khan (Timothy Spall), an incredibly odd therapist who, rather than take notes during his sessions with Vicky, sketches her instead. He has the tact of a classic James Bond villain, always speaking his dialogue as if he had an ulterior motive for everything. He also happens to be friends with Diggs, and they regularly convene in the club.

And this is where talking about this film starts to get tricky. What I can say is that, for a large portion of the film, the person giving the unknown assassin her assignments isn't shown; all we see is a man's hand playing around with a coin and tapping on an iPhone. I can also say that, given what is made all too clear to the audience fairly early on, Diggs is without a doubt the densest black ops agent in the history of the FBI. He's so dense, in fact, that one wonders how he got accepted in the first place. It can't possibly be a good sign that the main character, who's said to be one of the best in his field (the exact word used to describe him is "exemplary"), ends up being the most clueless one of the story. I swear to God, there were times when I wanted to crawl up into the screen and slap some sense into him.

An interesting sidenote: Portnoy not only co-stars but is also given story credit. In Hollywood, whenever someone is given story credit, that typically means that the first draft of the screenplay was seized by other writers and eventually altered to the point of destroying the author's original vision. Was that the case with "Assassin's Bullet"? Did Portnoy pen a screenplay, only for Nancy L. Babine and Hans Feuersinger to take control of it and ultimately receive final credit? That would be the story I'd stick to, if I were her. Not only can we not believe anything we see or hear in this film, but at no point did anyone even try to surprise us with its "twists," nor did anyone bother to take the story in an original direction. This movie is a sad case. I feel bad that the names Slater, Sutherland, and Spall had to be attached to it.

-- Chris Pandolfi (www.atatheaternearyou.net)

The Imposter
(2012)

We Can't Even Trust What We Perceive
"The Imposter" plays like a particularly good episode of "Unsolved Mysteries," not just because actual documentary footage is interspersed with reenactments, but also because the true story it tells is a thoroughly absorbing combination of intrigue and suspense. As with all good thrillers, fictional or non, what begins as a seemingly simple crime eventually escalates into something much more complicated; it's not so much about who has done something as it is about what has actually happened and why. Truth is always a murky subject, mainly because it depends entirely on perception. In this case, because our sources of information prove to be unreliable, we can't even trust what we perceive. On the one hand, we have a family who may know more than it's letting on. On the other hand, we have the title subject, a notorious pathological liar.

The film simultaneously documents and dramatizes the case of Nicholas Barclay, who disappeared in June of 1994 at the age of thirteen. When he was last seen, he was playing basketball with his friends in his native San Antonio. A street smart kid with a history of behavioral problems and a juvenile criminal record, he had run away before, and it was initially assumed that he had run away again. However, when his absence stretched beyond his typical window of one day, it was obvious that something more serious had taken place. It wouldn't be until 1997 that a new chapter of the case would begin. In October of that year, the police in Linares, Spain received a phone call from a tourist reporting a lost, frightened, apparently traumatized teenage boy with no identifying documents. He initially said little to authorities, but eventually, he told them he was an American named Nicholas Barclay.

He claimed he had escaped from a child prostitution ring and that his memories of his life back in Texas had grown dim. He also claimed that his originally blonde hair and blue eyes were chemically treated by his abductors to appear brown, and that his distinctly European accent and phrasing was the result of having been away from the U.S. so long. The Barclay family was soon contacted, even though no one in Spain could be sure of the boy's story. Nicholas' older sister, Carey, flew all the way to Spain to retrieve him from a children's shelter, and although she was heartbroken by the profound changes she noticed, she believed that he was in fact her long lost brother. Once embassy officials and U.S. federal agents were satisfied and he was sent back to San Antonio, the rest of the Barclays believed it as well. And so life would go on until March of 1998, when the persistence of a skeptical private investigator named Charlie Parker lead to the discovery that the person living with the Barclays was not sixteen-year-old Nicholas.

He was, in fact, twenty-three-year-old Frenchman Frédéric Bourdin, who began impersonating others as a child and by 2005 had assumed nearly forty false identities, three of which were of missing teens. The press has nicknamed Bourdin, now nearly forty, The Chameleon. After pleading guilty to passport fraud and perjury in San Antonio, he was sentenced to six years in prison. He would continue to assume identities in both the U.S. and Europe, until, supposedly 2005, at which point he vowed to retire. Although he's now married with three children, I take his vow about as seriously as I take his claim that he never knew his father, that his mother had tried to abort him and would eventually abandon him, that he was raised in a children's home, that he was sexually abused, and that he did what he did as a way to find the love and affection he never received. His history, coupled with his theoretically candid interview footage, leaves me with no reason to believe him.

But that isn't the end of the story. How is it possible that the Barclays were so blind to the obvious physical differences between Nicholas and Bourdin? Why were they so willing to believe his story and let him stay in their home? Could it be that they had something to hide? It eventually came to light that both Nicholas' mother and older half- brother were both in the throes of severe drug addictions, and that the mother failed the second of two polygraph tests when questioned about the disappearance. The half-brother was considered a person of interest, but his death in 1998 as the result of a cocaine overdose effectively stalled the investigation. To this day, the remaining Barclays deny any involvement in Nicholas' disappearance. And Nicholas is still listed as a missing person.

The reenactments, deliberately vague in the way they look and sound, feature Adam O'Brien as Bourdin, Anna Ruben as Carey, and Alan Teichman as Parker, the latter starring in a chilling segment where a corner of a relative's back yard is dug up in search of Nicholas' body. According to Wikipedia, these dramatized segments were precisely why a viewer who saw the film at the Seattle International Film Festival objected to its classification as a documentary. I think this person is too focused on labels; the simple fact is, a true story is being told. That the facts of the case are open for debate, that there has been no closure for the Barclay family, is something director Bart Layton cannot be held responsible for. "The Imposter" is about deception, of others and of ourselves, and as such, it makes for an irresistible cinematic experience.

-- Chris Pandolfi (www.atatheaternearyou.net)

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