Closed Circuit (R)
A lot of classy talent is involved in Closed Circuit--Eric Bana, Rebecca Hall, Ciaran Hinds, Riz Ahmed, Julia Stiles, and Jim Broadbent in front of the camera; director John Crowley behind--and so expectedly on point are their efforts that one almost overlooks the overall rote and mechanical workings of this thriller. I imagine that seen through native British eyes this thriller comes off as even more routine, for the minutiae of the UK judicial system procedure admittedly adds a layer of (for want of a better term) exotic fascination to an American viewer as two lawyers (Bana and Hall) on the defense team of a suspected terrorist bomber predictably uncover unseemly, unsavory undertakings as they investigate the truth behind the tragic incident. As the corruption traces deep and high into the corridors of various powers that be, hardly much in the basic plotting or characterization (e.g., Bana and Hall's characters are, yes, former lovers) of Steven Knight's script veers far off, if at all, from the course of formula. While there is a quintessentially Brit stiff-upper-lip chilliness to the whole affair that leaves a void of emotional investment, it does lend an added gloss of paranoid urgency to Crowley's direction; and the leads are, as usual, innately watchable and likable that the danger of their situation, however pro forma for a movie thriller, is reasonably absorbing.
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (PG-13)
Within a half-hour of watching the latest screen adaptation of a young adult fantasy/romance literary phenomenon, The Mortal Instruments series, what struck me is how in the mad dash to get in on a zeitgeist trend sometimes more careful attention to certain details falls by the wayside--in this case, a bit of casting no less crucial than that of the male lead. Regardless of how many tattoos and how many variants of a black leather outfit they put him in, Jamie Campbell Bower is much too soft and delicately "pretty boy" of a presence to believably pull off what is supposed to be the badass machismo of Jace, a "Shadowhunter," one of a part-angel bloodline that entrusts him with the responsibility of combating the various mystical evils invisibly lurking everywhere on Earth. While the last part of that sentence reflects how rather convoluted author Cassandra Clare's mythology is, credit is due screenwriter Jessica Postigo Paquette and director Harald Zwart for making it as easy to pick up as it is--though, naturally, there is a gateway character/audience surrogate who is brought up to speed on all the ins and outs onscreen: protagonist Clary (Lily Collins), a teen whose repressed memories of her own Shadowhunter lineage resurface when various baddies start going after her mother (Lena Headey), who has hidden away one of said "mortal instruments," The Mortal Cup. Zwart especially deserves credit as he keeps the pace rapid from the jump, with crucial bits of exposition often coming within the more elaborate fight-'n-FX set pieces, but before long the action starts to serve as a mask to a considerably less interesting story and character foundation that throws together elements of other recently popular young adult fantasy fiction with Underworld and even Star Wars. Collins again proves to be a likable young lead, and she's matched in charm by Robert Sheehan as her "mundane" (read: non-magically-powered) best friend (what is a young chick-lit phenom without a love triangle involving a BFF and a mysterious stranger, after all?); and the veterans in the cast such as Headey, CCH Pounder, Jared Harris, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers do what they can to class up and enliven the proceedings, but in the end it comes off as rather inoffensively been-there, done-that--except for Campbell Bower, that is, who is strictly WTF.
One Direction: This Is Us (PG)
Going into This Is Us, my familiarity and knowledge of boy band sensation du jour OneDirection didn't go very far beyond the basics: individual contestants cobbled together into a group act by Simon Cowell on the UK edition of The X-Factor; losing the competition but winning at post-TV global record and concert sales, propelled by the inescapable earworm of a debut single "What Makes You Beautiful." From the first few minutes of 1D3D (as the marketing and fans abbreviate the title), it's refreshingly clear that Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, and Louis Tomlinson don't take themselves too seriously at all, having a blast with their overwhelming success and teenybopper popularity while at the same time regarding all the outside madness with sincere gratitude and a generous dollop of bemused exasperation. And so the presence of no less than Academy Award nominee Morgan Spurlock in the director's chair is a more natural fit than initially expected, for this especially affable group would indeed make an ideal subject for a quintessentially Spurlock, gently satiric first-person examination of the general phenomenon of teen idols in the pop music realm. But while Spurlock does throw in some quirky touches (such as a brief aside with an actual scientist explaining how and why the brain takes to certain music), he himself doesn't turn up on camera, and the personality that overwhelmingly prevails is that of the quintet. That's just as well, for these likable lads prove to be pleasant enough company; there's no heavy-handed messaging about believing in and working for your dreams (though there is, of course, a comment here and there about it), just these cheeky chappies having fun on their whirlwind of a world tour. And Spurlock doesn't push the film any further than that--like their music, the film proves to be inoffensively genial, if surface-deep. The only thing passing for insight, at least for me as a non-familiar, is the realization that standards for boy bands have apparently plummeted from the late-'90s-early-'00shalcyon days, for 1D is far from the physical and vocal workhorse concert act that their most famous forebears were (e.g., a recently, all-too-fleetingly reunited iconic group), the five singing decently while just running/walking/jumping/
skipping/prancing around the stage during many an uptempo tune with no discernible direction, much less one. I suppose that's part of their laid back appeal, but it doesn't exactly make for terribly cinematic viewing (even with Spurlock sporadically throwing in some 3D digital FX enhancements), nor completely sell the group to non-"Directioners" as actual performers. I'm not sure that nice, enthusiastic guys who come off a bit too slack if not downright befuddled on the live performance stage is exactly the message they wanted to send out on their most wide-reaching showcase to date (or is it "ever"?).
Lee Daniels' The Butler (PG-13)
Upon the most brief and superficial of glances, it's easy, if not somewhat understandable, to approach Lee Daniels' The Butler with some trepidation. After all, history be damned, another high profile Hollywood film about African-Americans doing domestic service work? But to dismiss the film off hand is to not give director Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong their proper due for the value of the story they tell--and not necessarily speaking in terms of its notable fact-based story: that of a White House butler who served under seven presidents from the 1950s to the 1980s. The fact that said butler, here in fictionalized form named Cecil Gaines (played for most of the movie by Forest Whitaker, with a strong assist from Michael Rainey Jr. and Aml Ameen as younger incarnations), was a witness to such revolutionary eras of sociopolitical change, particularly for African-Americans, in such close proximity to the nation's commanders-in-chief is indeed remarkable. However, for all the monumental signpost events touched on and recognizable actors taking on the roles of various iconic figures (such as, for a start, Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, and Alan Rickman are seen as Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan, respectively; Nelsan Ellis as Martin Luther King; Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan), what ultimately registers and resonates most strongly is not the film's brisk and showy tour of 20th Century American history, particularly in terms of racial politics.
Where Daniels and Strong truly engage is in the uncommonly seen story and experience of a late-in-life self-actualization, following the intimate, gradual internal journey as Cecil slowly, inevitably grows away and out from the comfortable silence of servitude to an awakening and awareness of his own value, place, and identity as an individual in the world and, above all else, within his own family. But this is all painted in a more complex way than merely an arc of a silent bystander discovering his voice and strength. Rather, it's one in allowing his strength to develop and evolve with the times; one witnesses how adopting such an outwardly passive role from an early age was a necessary and rather brave survival tactic in the era of his youth, especially after witnessing the brutal loss of his father (a briefly seen but effective David Banner) as a child; and as times progress, so do prevailing attitudes shift from one of remaining in sheltered safety to daring to take the risk of proactive self-expression. Serving as both a counterpoint and unexpected complement to Cecil's journey is the rising political consciousness of his eldest son Louis (a terrific David Oyelowo). His more militant trajectory naturally causes conflict within the more traditional values of Gaines household, but if Cecil is able to ultimately take from his son inspiration to be more assertive, Louis learns from his father's example that one can still fight the existing power without compromising his own by being constructive rather than destructive.
As Cecil's loyal but often neglected wife Gloria, Oprah Winfrey reminds that not for nothing did she first win major widespread attention as an actress, and her natural empathy that has made her such a multimedia phenomenon over the decades works to her advantage in this return to the screen. If some of her darker struggles, such as her oft-mentioned but only momentarily seen struggles with alcohol, are somewhat glossed over, Winfrey effortlessly connects the viewer to those ups and downs. But no one connects as strongly, powerfully as Whitaker. Cecil is a deceptively simple and exceedingly difficult part to pull off, what with his relatively few words and placid inaction for most of the film; but appropriately for a film that follows a lead character whose largely a witness, Whitaker's ever-observing, ever-expressive eyes tell the tale of how he actively processes, thinks, and feels even if outwardly he may appear as nothing more, as his job requires, than a virtually invisible bystander.
Daniels's measured, deceptively unadorned direction works in a similar fashion. Far removed from the brash, in-your-face, go-for-broke approach that has largely characterized the films he's thus far either directed or produced, he exhibits a mature restraint not only in terms of his own body of work but in terms of decades-spanning historical films, with broader melodrama often sidestepped in favor of a more straightforward, matter-of-fact depiction. If, as the film bounces from historical event to historical event, this may feel somewhat routine as a moment-to-moment to viewing experience, it effectively places the viewer squarely in Cecil's literal and figurative vantage point--not only as a fly-on-the-wall observer to the stream of events, but also how the effect of the experiences build to a far-from-routine cumulative catharsis that one could not so easily foresee. Much like the butler by the end of his film journey, a still, silent viewing audience is moved, perhaps to a surprising degree, by the totality of the entire experience, and maybe even enlightened and inspired by discoveries not so much about the world than what the events of it illuminate about oneself.
With the title Austenland--as in Jane Austen--the film couldn't make it any more clear that this is an unabashed, unapologetic chick flick (though, if there were any lingering doubt, the one-sheet features star Keri Russell carrying an "I [heart] Mr. Darcy" tote bag). But being an adaptation of Shannon Hale's (who co-wrote the screenplay with Hess) novel of the same name, Jerusha Hess's film inherits its rather unusual central idea: that of an immersive getaway/role playing "experience" for the die-hard Austen fanatic--which Russell's aptly named, Colin Firth-as-Darcy-in-BBC's-Pride-and-Prejudice-obsessed Jane most certainly is. While no surprise to the audience, during her vacation/experience perpetually unlucky in love Jane unexpectedly finds herself torn between two suitors, the Darcy-like avatar of her dreams (J.J. Feild) and a decidedly more grounded servant (Bret McKenzie), but several things consistently keep this from falling into a typical triangle. First and foremost, there's the mere presence of Russell, who again makes one wonder how such a likable and engaging performer with real emotional depth hasn't had a bigger feature film career. If Jane is a bit underwritten and maybe even the least colorful character of the whole lot, Russell ably fills in whatever blanks are left on the page and has genuine chemistry with both Feild and McKenzie, thus lending immediate investment to her romantic quandary--which, in a decided departure from the rom-com norm, has some genuine suspense as to whom she'll end up with. Part of that suspense derives from the uniquely quirky hook, for after all, one can never be too sure if the amorous overtures are all part of the whole Jane Austen simulation scenario. That hook also consistently gives the whole film a most welcome dose of knowingly cheeky and absurdist humor, whether from characters both familiarly Austen archetypal (from Jane Seymour's classically condescending upper crust matron of the manor to Ricky Whittle's all too perfectly heroic seafaring adventurer) or just completely oddball (namely, Jennifer Coolidge treading familar but still often hilarious ground as an Austenland guest decidedly less refined and generally informed as Jane), that lends a most distinctive personality to the more conventional genre formula.
Not for nothing did the initial hype that surrounded the casting of Ashton Kutcher in a biopic of Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs die rather swiftly upon the premiere of the film at the Sundance Film Festival in January. In the poster for and in the initial moments of Jobs, all appears adequate, for Kutcher bears enough of a passing physical resemblance to the late technology guru, even adopting his gait and some of his familiar mannerisms. But as it soon becomes clear, that's about as deep as Kutcher goes with what looked like could have been a dramatic breakthrough for him, instead exposing once and for all his crippling limitations as an actor. Like a sketch comedy impersonation, he puts on those exterior airs as a surface costume but never inhabits the true essence of the person; and at any moment that requires any semblance of dramatic heavy lifting, one sees him acting, valiantly trying oh-so-hard as his every answer to any requirement for emotional intensity unilaterally comes off as merely shrilly raising the volume of his voice. But to be fair, he doesn't get much help at all from screenwriter Matt Whiteley and director Joshua Michael Stern, who take a similar surface approach both in their approach to both Jobs's life and the characterization of the man. While covering decades dating back to his college-age years in the 1970s, they only zero in on any Apple-related events, skipping some important points such as his involvement with Pixar, which goes completely unmentioned; but even with the Apple-focused tunnel vision, even the rivalry with Bill Gates and Microsoft is barely addressed. In perfunctorily skipping around the timeline to selectively bullet points about Jobs's struggle to keep afloat and maintain control of his company, they also seem to skip around any coherent arc for him; he changes from laid-back hippie techie to uncompromising taskmaster and businessman as abruptly as a cut between scenes, and key personal relationships, such as that with longtime friend and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, are glossed over. On that last point, thank goodness for Josh Gad, who isn't given a whole lot to work with as "Woz" but effortlessly fills in the (plentiful) emotional blanks (particularly in a surprisingly affecting scene in the late going) in a way that the lead is incapable of doing. But even with Gad and other strong supporting players, such as J.K. Simmons, Dermot Mulroney, and Matthew Modine as various execs, populating the fringes, none of it matters when the center--the lead, the script, the direction--doesn't hold.
Paranoia (PG-13) Paranoia lives up to its title, but certainly not in the manner I'm sure the filmmakers quite intended. In fact, if there's anything most conspicuously in short supply in this thriller it's a strong sense of exactly that, paranoia, not that the story based on Joseph Finder's novel of the same name doesn't offer a scenario tailor made to generate it: an upstart tech wizard (Liam Hemsworth) finds himself caught by ever-conflicting loyalties and under the too-watchful eye of omnipresent technology when his former boss (Gary Oldman) recruits him to serve as a mole in his archrival/former mentor's (Harrison Ford) company. It is genuinely thrilling to see Oldman and Ford go to toe to toe in a dramatic context as it was in an action one way back in 1997's Air Force One, but sadly these two titans here only share screen space in one showdown scene, their tense rivalry serving largely as backdrop to the far less captivating arc of Hemsworth's character, who amid all the corporate skulduggery learns the value of virtue in the workplace and life in general--in short, a primary focus and message as generic as the overly general title. Not helping matters is Hemsworth's not only bland performance but flavorless presence as a whole, and when the action (frequently) shifts to him from any of the more seasoned cast (in addition to Oldman and Ford, Embeth Davidtz and Julian McMahon are also memorably shady as figures in Oldman's camp), interest dwindles--and the fairly straightforward direction of Robert Luketic, out of his usual light comedy wheelhouse, doesn't add enough in the way of style nor tension to make up for the lead star's glaring deficiencies.