Nope, There’s the Kitchen Sink, Too

The phrase “everything but the kitchen sink” has been around for at least a century. It means grabbing everything you can, overloading, filling something to overflowing. However, it doesn’t necessarily have a negative connotation. If you’re on the receiving end, a deal where you get everything but the kitchen sink is great for you, though it might be overwhelming. The phrase came back to me as I watched Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

The first Guardians film was a mammoth sleeper hit. Even though it was part of the Marvel Universe, it literally was far out on the edge with little to tie it to Ironman, Captain America, et al. Even the tag of Thor that introduced Benitio del Toro’s Collector featured two secondary Asgardians rather than the Thunder Lord himself. Chris Pratt was known more for his comedic turn on “Parks and Rec” and was definitely not thought of in beefcake terms. While Zoe Saldana is beautiful and talented, it’s not that easy being green. Former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista had only done a few movies where he was mostly featured for his physique. And arguably the two best-known actors in the cast, Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, were voices for CGI characters, including one who said only three words.

But it worked. After an opening that ripped your gut emotionally, it switched to the pure joy of comedic action during the opening credits. And it did benefit from a truly awesome mix of songs from the 1970s and 1980s. Writer/director James Gunn had paid his dues with some schlocky material, including scripting two Scooby-Doo movies, but he’d also shown his humor with the comedic/horror film Slither and the superhero deconstruction Super. He let the film flow from action to farce to tenderness to humor to heart-tugging emotion. It became the third highest grossing film of 2014, and beat out Captain America: The Winter Soldier as the most successful Marvel movie that year in the US, though Cap took the worldwide box office.

But you don’t get to fly under the radar twice. There was a huge amount of pressure on Gunn to match or beat the success of the original movie, and he had a budget twice as large to work with. It could have been a situation like The Matrix: the original a sleeper hit, the subsequent movies bigger and louder, but with plots that, to be charitable, were piles of mush. The good news is that Gunn’s blasted through the expectations and created an enjoyable movie that recaptures the feel of the original while going a bit deeper. The first movie was about five disparate characters merging into a family. Volume 2 is about how you bind that family into a unit, and about picking up a few cousins along the way.

Needless to say there are growing pains. The movie opens with a short piece from Earth in 1980, showing Meredith Quill with her spaceman boyfriend. Fast forward to the present day with the Guardians hired by the Sovereign race to protect the Anulax batteries from a rampaging monster. Most of the battle takes place in the background while Baby Groot rocks out to “Mr. Blue Sky” by the Electric Light Orchestra, which definitely belongs on an awesome mix tape. In exchange for protecting the batteries, the Sovereign High Priestess, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), gives the Guardians Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillian) for the price on her head. However, Rocket figures since the batteries are right there, unprotected except by the Guardians, he might as well take them. The Sovereign don’t take kindly to it and send a huge drone force to destroy the Guardians. Their ship sustains major damage, but they’re saved by the arrival of Peter’s father, riding on a white egg-shaped spacecraft. The group separates with Peter, Gamora, and Drax accompanying Ego (Kurt Russell) and his companion, the empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff) to Ego’s planet. Rocket and Baby Groot remain to repair the ship, unaware that the Ravagers who kidnapped Peter from earth have rebelled against their leader, Yondo (Michael Rooker) and are coming for the Guardians at the behest of Ayesha and the Sovereigns.

The kitchen sink comes into play on individual sequences, such as one where Baby Groot is asked to find a piece of equipment that will help Rocket and Yondo escape the Ravagers. It goes on and on, dancing perilously close to becoming repetitive and boring, but just when it’s about to tip over the edge Gunn cuts it and leads into a massive battle sequence.

Strangely enough, the two outstanding characters in the film are Yondo and Nebula. For Nebula, she gets to work out her issues of being the least liked daughter with Gomora. Of course, with these characters the “working out” is a prolonged battle that nearly kills both of them. For Yondo, he gets to rise to true hero status.

This is a movie you’ll likely want to see multiple times, just to catch what you missed the first time through, or the second, or the third. The final credits are another kitchen sink moment, with six – count ‘em, six! – tags, plus extras salted into the credits, including lines that say “I am Groot” that eventually are translated into an actual credit.

Volume 2 satisfies. Go ahead and watch it – a few times.

No Reflection

Clint Eastwood’s new film American Sniper has become a sensation after having the best wide-distribution opening weekend for a drama ever. Warner Brothers had rushed the film into limited release in December, to qualify for the upcoming Oscars, and then put it in regular release in January, instead of waiting for its originally scheduled release in December 2015. The studio had done this once before with an Eastwood Film; Million Dollar Baby was release earlier than planned and won the Best Picture Oscar in 2005. Now to go along with 6 Academy Award nominations, American Sniper has made more than $200 million in less than two weeks, giving Eastwood his greatest financial hit ever. It’s also become his most controversial.

Part of the controversy lies in the subject of the film. Chris Kyle was a Navy SEAL sniper in Iraq who was credited with 160 plus kills, the highest official count in the history of the US military. Some have questioned the whole idea of snipers, in spite of their being a component of war from the time firearms became accurate. As long as there’s been a US Army, there have been snipers. (The British forces during the Revolutionary War were angry at the colonials for shooting at them from concealment rather than marching out on the field so the British could shoot back.) In the past, films often portrayed snipers as cowardly, if they were the enemy’s sharpshooters – see the end of Sands of Iwo Jima when John Wayne is killed by one – while pretty much ignoring US snipers. Recently that changed. The best depiction of a sniper as part of a fighting unit is Private Jackson (Barry Pepper) in Saving Private Ryan. Another movie that focused on sharpshooters was Enemy at the Gates, which told a fictionalized version of the story of Vasily Zaytsev (played by Jude Law), a sniper who was instrumental in helping the Russians win the Battle of Stalingrad in WWII. If you’re going to have a war, there will be snipers, on both sides.

Kyle did four tours in Iraq, and no one can dispute his courage in service. After he returned, though, he collaborated to write the autobiography on which the movie is based. Several of his claims in the book are problematic and doubtful, and led to Jesse Ventura winning a seven-digit judgment against Kyle for defamation of character. The movie ignores those aspects of his post-Iraq life.

Instead the film focuses narrowly on Kyle himself. It begins with Kyle (Bradley Cooper) watching over troops moving through a city in Iraq. Most of the first trailer for the movie (see above) is composed simply of lifting that sequence from the film. From there it jumps back to Kyle’s early life, beginning with his first kill while hunting with his father. His father instills in Kyle a simple religious faith that is rooted in the Old Testament. As an adult, Kyle competes on the rodeo circuit until he’s motivated to join the Navy SEALs following the Al Qaeda attacks on American embassies in Africa.

The scenes of him going through SEAL training are one of the weakest parts of the film. It plays out like a short, light version of An Officer and a Gentleman, though with less conflict. (Kyle’s instructor for sniper training has also taken issue with them.) The intensity of the training was better depicted in the opening of Act of Valor. With his marksmanship experience, Kyle is chosen as a sniper. It’s during training that Kyle first meets Taya (Sienna Miller) who later becomes his wife.  They are together when the 9/11 attacks take place.

Bradley Cooper’s performance as Kyle is rightly being touted as his best ever, mostly because he’s able to convey depths and subtleties while the character himself is unaware of them. The lack of self-awareness has Kyle ignore the effects of combat on himself and his family. In a scene after his first deployment, Kyle accompanies a pregnant Taya to a doctor’s appointment. After hearing Taya describe how Kyle’s heart is racing, the doctor checks his blood pressure and finds it’s dangerously elevated. But rather than being concerned about dying of a heart attack, Kyle’s more upset at what he sees as being ambushed by the doctor. Sienna Miller gives an exceptional performance as Taya, showing both her deep love for her husband and her exasperation at his behavior. Late in the film, Taya tells Kyle, “If you think the war isn’t changing you, you’re wrong. You can only circle the flames so long.” Taya was a source for the production, and most of the scenes of her and Kyle together are told from her viewpoint.

It’s been said that movies are a mirror that allow us to see our lives and the lives of others from a different perspective, but in the case of the war scenes for American Sniper Director Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall do not expand understanding of what happened during the war. Instead they present a mirror clouded by Kyle’s us/them mentality. The movie doesn’t even mention Sunni, Shiite, or Kurd, and instead treats the Iraqis as a monolithic nation of savages. It does allow the filmmakers to expand the character of Mustafa, a Syrian sniper who fought against the US forces. While he’s only mentioned once in Kyle’s book, in the movie he becomes Kyle’s nemesis, which sets up a climatic confrontation between the two. In reality, no one could float between the different fighting factions, who hated each other as much as they hated the Americans.

In some respects, American Sniper has echoes of Eastwood’s classic meditation on the corrosive effect of violence, Unforgiven. The difference is that William Muny was aware of the price he’d paid spiritually, but in American Sniper Kyle is unable to see what has happened to him. He doesn’t have the capacity for reflection that Muny displays. Eastwood underline the tragedy of Kyle’s death without showing the actual event. The archival footage at the end of Chris Kyle’s funeral show how the story is already passing into the realm of legend, which was Kyle’s nickname. Eastwood has followed the advice of the newspaper editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Not Long Ago but Still Far, Far Away

Writer/Director James Gunn has balanced comedy and thrills before, with the comedic horror movie Slither that starred Nathan Fillion, and the superhero takeoff Super, starring Rainn Wilson. Neither of these were hits, though they have their fans. It seemed unusual that Gunn would be entrusted with a new Marvel franchise and a budget of $170 million (more than ten times the budget of Slither). But Marvel knew that for Guardians of the Galaxy to work, the thrills needed to be delivered with several stiff shots of wry humor. And deliver Gunn has.

On the face of it, Guardians of the Galaxy is a risk. It doesn’t have the built-in fan base of the Ironman, Thor, or Captain America series that have been going for decades in the comics. The Guardians first showed up in Marvel Comics in 1969, and then disappeared until 2008 when Dan Abnett and Andy Lansing reformed the team. Rather than superheroes on earth, you have regular guys in the far reaches of space – or at least as regular as a genetically-modified raccoon, a walking tree, and a green female assassin could be. With its off-world settings and space opera story, Guardians of the Galaxy has little in common with the rest of the Marvel universe. If anything it’s closer to the original trilogy of a story from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. As a place to live, that’s not a bad neighborhood.

After an unusual preface for a Marvel movie, we meet Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), an earthling who now wanders the galaxy, making his way as a scavenger. Quill also goes by the name Star Lord. On a deserted planet, he finds an orb that he’s been asked to recover by his mentor/partner Yondu (Michael Rooker). However, he’s interrupted by Korath (Djimon Hounsou), a servant of Ronan who’s also come looking for the orb. Quill manages to escape and decides to sell the orb himself on Xandar, the home planet of the Nova civilization.

Ronan (Lee Pace) plans to destroy the Novans, and wants the orb’s contents to help him obliterate Xandar. He’s assisted by two genetically-mutated adopted daughters of Thanos (Josh Brolin): the blue-skinned, bald Nebula (Karen Gillan) and the green-skinned, black-haired Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who’s engineered to be an assassin. (If you stayed around for the tags at the end of The Avengers, it was Thanos who showed up at the end of the first tag, flashing a very creepy smile. Another character from a previous tag – the Collector (Benito del Toro) from the end of Thor: The Dark World – has a longer role in Guardians. And do stay for the end of the credits for Guardians, where the tag features another legendary, even infamous, Marvel character.) Ronan dispatches Gamora to recover the orb, unaware she’s decided to betray both him and Thanos.

What distinguishes the Guardians story is how they form themselves into a team. With the Avengers, it makes sense for them to cooperate, even if Tony Stark doesn’t play well with others and one of them is a green rage monster who’s happy to hit friend or foe. With Guardians, they’re actively working against each other at first. When Quill tries to fence the orb, he comes to the attention of bounty hunters Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), a walking tree with a limited vocabulary. They strike at the same time as Gamora does, causing mass pandemonium and resulting in them all being thrown in prison by Corpsman Dey (John C. Reilly). There Gamora becomes the target of Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) who has a vendetta against Ronan for killing his wife and daughter. Watching them come to understand that they must work together to defeat Ronan and save Xandar is a delight, and is beautifully written by Gunn along with his co-screenwriter, Nicole Perlman. (Perlman was an uncredited script doctor on the original Thor and is now working on a spinoff for Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow.) An even greater accomplishment is that you grow to care deeply for each of these characters.

Chris Pratt has transformed himself into a heroic physique, but he retains the gift for humor that he’s displayed on “Parks and Recreation” for five years. Zoe Saldana has displayed her action prowess in several movies now, such as Avatar and Columbiana, and she’s perfectly cast as Gamora. In a way she’s the straight person of the group, though you usually don’t that in a kickass character. Former wrestler Dave Bautista has always had the physique, but here he displays a killer simplicity. When Rocket says that metaphors go over his head, Drax responds, “Nothing goes over my head! My reflexes are too good; I would catch it.” Cooper does excellent voice work as Rocket, so much so that you forget it’s Cooper doing the role, while Diesel is able to mine both comedy and emotional depth from three words. For a movie like this to work, you also need believable villains, and both Lee Pace and Karen Gillan provide the right amount of antagonism for the story.

It has to be mentioned that what adds a cockeyed delight to this movie is the musical score. When Quill dances while looking for the orb during the credits, lip-synching “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone, you know this is not your ordinary Marvel adventure. A central factor of the plot is his mix-tape of 70’s hits, including songs like “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede and “Fooled Around and Fell In Love” by Elvin Bishop. It provides a giddy counterpoint to the action. (How his cassette could survive for a couple of decades without stretching, or where he could find batteries for his Walkman, is not explained. Don’t worry about it; just enjoy the music.)

Although this production was a gamble, it’s one that has paid off and keeps Marvel’s streak of hits going strong. It’s rare for a movie to reclaim the top spot on the box office list in its fourth week of release, but Guardians did just that, and has become the breakout hit of the summer. Needless to say, sequels are already planned. Marvel has added a wise caveat to the whispered line from Field of Dreams: “If you build it well, they will come.” And they’ll keep on coming.

Pros At Cons

The Abscam scandal of the late 1970s has been pretty much forgotten these days. It didn’t have the drama of Watergate or the explosive revelations of the Church Committee’s investigation of the CIA. Some think that the public corruption sting operation, which eventually led to the indictment of 6 US Representatives and a Senator, was payback by the FBI for Congress exposing its excesses under Hoover. What it does provide is an excellent true-life base for a fictionalized movie, and that’s how David O. Russell uses it in American Hustle. The movie boasts one of the most honest disclaimers in movie history: rather than saying it’s a true story or it’s based on a true story, it simply says “Some of this actually happened.”

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a small-time businessman in New York City who operates a string of dry cleaners and a glass company, but his vocation is being a con artist who promises to get loans for poor-risk businessmen for a fee and then never delivers the loans. We first meet him as he creates a comb-over to cover his bald spot that’s so elaborate it puts Donald Trump to shame. At a party he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a former stripper who’s reinvented herself as an assistant at Cosmopolitan. They immediately bond over a love of Duke Ellington. When Irving confesses to Sydney how he cons people, she joins him in the game, reinventing herself again as Lady Edith Greensly, Irving’s contact with European bankers. Irving is in love with Sydney, but he’s also married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and has adopted Rosalyn’s son Danny from an earlier relationship. Rosalyn is a train-wreck of a person with manic-depressive tendencies and sex appeal enough to share, but Irving loves Danny and is committed to him, so he sticks with Rosalyn.

Irving and Sydney’s con runs smoothly until they’re caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Rather than prosecuting them, Richie wants Irv and Sydney to help him catch other con artists. The play goes to a whole new level, though, when it leads to politicians who are willing to be bribed, including the popular mayor of Trenton, NJ, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).

David O. Russell has been on a roll recently with a string of box office and critical successes, and for Hustle he brings back actors who have worked well with him on those previous movies. Bale won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar and Adams was nominated for Best Actress for Russell’s 2010 movie The Fighter, while Lawrence won Best Actress and Cooper was nominated for Best Actor for 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook. Russell, who co-wrote the screenplay with Eric Singer (The International), creates real, flawed people in challenging situations and assists the actors in their embodiments of these characters.

All four main actors have been nominated for Golden Globes, and if there’s justice in the world they’ll also get Oscar nods later this month. Bale is an actor without inhibitions or vanity who physically transforms himself into a pudgy, balding middle-aged 70’s swinger. He’s the antithesis of a leading man, yet you’re compelled to watch him. Sensuality flows from Adams in her role as Sydney, a departure from her previous movies, and the performance is as daring as the plunging necklines on her outfits. Cooper builds on his work in Playbook, creating an FBI agent who becomes obsessed with bringing down those he views as corrupt. It’s a more controlled role than in Playbook, and just as watchable. Lawrence demonstrates again why she’s one of the best actresses in the business. As with Bale, she isn’t afraid to play against her beauty.

This is Renner’s first time working with Russell, and hopefully just a precursor of future collaborations. Carmine Polito is the most honorable person in the movie, a politician who will do whatever he can to help his constituents, and Renner pulls off the role beautifully. There are two delightful surprises in the film. One is the performance of comedian Louis C.K. as Richie’s long-suffering FBI supervisor. In effect he’s the straight man to all the craziness that Richie embraces, but in the end he’s the one with the last laugh. The second is a cameo role by Robert DeNiro as a leading Mafioso. (DeNiro re-energized his acting playing the father in Silver Linings Playbook, garnering his first Oscar nomination in a long time.) It’s just one scene, but in it he recaptures the lethal menace he projected in his early work with Scorsese.

The movie revels in its setting in the ‘70s, with period costumes that make you feel like you’ve stepped through a time warp. Special kudos also go to Music Supervisor Susan Jacobs for a score that features an excellent selection of ‘70s music that supports the story. Having a scene of attempted bribery play out over Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” is absolute perfection.

It’s interesting two have two movies about con artists out at the same time – the other being Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street. There are sharp contrasts between the two, the most notable being that Hustle plays beautifully while you feel like you’re slogging through Wolf. Both are long movies – 140 minutes for Hustle, 3 hours for Wolf – but where Wolf is like running a marathon, Hustle flies by and leaves you perfectly satisfied. Wolf includes a great deal of nudity and simulated sex, while Hustle has almost no actual nudity. However, Hustle is the more sensual of the two. Wolf’s screenplay revels in profanity – it set a record for use of the F-word; over 500 times in 180 minutes – while you hardly notice profanity in Hustle. Instead, the characters actually talk to each other. Both films use the voice-over conceit, but in Wolf it’s like a Greek chorus alluding to what’s to come, while in Hustle it’s the character’s thoughts at the time.

As a film, American Hustle is the stuff dreams are made of, even as the movie itself  shows that dreams turn into nightmares when they’re mixed with obsession. A friend of mine gave this movie 5 thumbs-up in a post on Facebook. I wouldn’t argue with that.

Cloudy, Clearing Later

The word “dramedy” could have been coined with David O. Russell in mind.  In his movies he’ll take damaged people in difficult situations and create heartfelt, poignant and sympathetic comedy.  In lesser hands these stories would become banal and trite.  Even when telling a true story, such as 2010’s The Fighter, he captured quirky characters in ways that made the audience both laugh and tear up, often at the same time.  This quality is on display again in Silver Linings Playbook.

Former teacher Pat (Bradley Cooper) was an undiagnosed manic depressive until a violent breakdown, brought on by his wife Nikki’s infidelity, led to him being legally committed to a psychiatric hospital.  After several months, his mother Delores (Jacki Weaver) manages to get him released and brings him home.  Pat’s father, Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro), has lost his job while Pat was in the hospital.  He’s more than making ends meet by being a bookie, though he dreams of opening a restaurant with his profits.

Pat has dreams himself of getting back with Nikki, despite the restraining order she’s taken out on him.  He’s become fiercely positive, always looking for the silver lining in everything.  To help his chances, Pat’s been working out to lose weight and get in shape, and he also decides to read the syllabus of novels from the English class Nikki teaches.  That turns out to be a bad idea when he finishes Hemmingway’s “A Farewell To Arms” and tosses the book through a window because the heroine dies at the end.  He has a way to go with impulse control.

He’s invited to dinner by his best friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) and Ronnie’s wife Veronica (Julia Stiles).  Veronica also invites her sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who was recently widowed.  Tiffany is a broken as Pat, but she faces it with a fierce spirit.  Initially Pat and Tiffany are like two porcupines, stabbing each other with barbed comments, but eventually they form a friendship.  Tiffany knows Pat’s ex, and he asks her to deliver a letter to Nikki.  Tiffany agrees, though she has a price.  There’s a ballroom dance competition in December that she has always wanted to enter.  If Pat will be her dance partner, she’ll deliver the letter.

This synopsis does not capture the carefully observed character nuances in Russell’s literate script, based on Matthew Quick’s 2008 novel.  Russell isn’t a member of the Robert Altman School of Filmmaking, where you fill a movie with interesting people and let them bump up against each other.  His films capture characters as they grow, change, and learn.  It means that the movie is a treasure trove of fine performances.

Bradley Cooper had shown he could handle complex roles in 2011’s Limitless.  The promise of that movie comes to fruition here.  His Pat is like a shaken bag of broken glass, but he slowly develops an understanding of his brokenness.  He is matched beautifully by Jennifer Lawrence.  Only 22, she’s become one of the best actresses currently working in film.  Even when doing a thoroughly commercial endeavor like Hunger Games, she breathes real life into the character and makes you care about them.  In one scene in Silver Linings, she goes toe-to-toe with Robert DeNiro and comes out the winner.  Her Golden Globe award for this role is well-deserved.

Speaking of DeNiro, this is his best role in a long time.  He’d been sleepwalking through the Meet The Parents and the Analyze This series, and even though he was effective in Limitless, it wasn’t a fulsome role.  You’d really have to go back to 1998’s Ronin for his last indelible performance.  As Pat Sr., he’s borderline OCD and a Philadelphia Eagles fanatic who’s trying to reconnect with his son through football.  Jacki Weaver eradicates her Aussie accent and is completely believable as a middle-class Philly housewife and mother.  The film also features a nice turn by Chris Tucker as Pat’s friend from the hospital who puts some spice into Pat and Tiffany’s dance routine, and Anupam Kher as Pat’s psychiatrist (and closet Eagles fan).

If you’ve ever complained that movies are too formulaic, this is the film you need to see.  At first you might shake your head and wonder if this is really a comedy, but the film keeps bouncing in unexpected directions until it arrives at a wholly satisfying conclusion.

Coming Attractions – Fall 2012

The fall movie season has begun, which also means it’s Oscar season since most of the movies that win awards are released in the fall.  Two different things with this year’s fall preview: 1) it’s in chronological order by release date, and 2) there’s a notation by the title if this movie is an Oscar Contender (for major awards, not best makeup or best sound editing).  So, here goes…

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower  The successful Y.A. novel comes to the screen, with the author in the director’s chair, which means it should stay close to the story.  The movie boasts Emma Watson in her first major role after graduating from Hogwarts, playing Sam, one of two older students who help the hero, Charlie (Logan Lerman).  (September 14th)

The Master(Oscar Contender) This movie is not about Scientology – it’s about a charismatic science fiction writer in the 1950’s who creates his own religion.  Yeah, right.  However, that really doesn’t matter.  This is Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to 2007’s There Will Be Blood, and it stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, and Amy Adams.  (September 14th)

Arbitrage (Oscar Contender) This could be Richard Gere’s ticket to the Oscar stage, or at least one of the seats in the front row for the nominees.  He plays a billionaire whose world is threatened when he makes a mistake with his hedge fund.  Susan Sarandon plays his wife.  (September 14th)

End of Watch  David Ayer, who wrote Training Day, wrote and direct this movie.  He returns to the streets of LA, though this time his focus is two uniform cops (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena).  The actors spent months riding along with the LAPD in preparation for their roles.  (September 21st)

Trouble With The Curve  (Oscar Contender) Clint Eastwood and Amy Adams – that’s enough to get me into the theater.  After directing himself for two decades, Eastwood agreed to take the lead role for first-time director Robert Lorenz.  Lorenz was Eastwood’s producer for those two decades, and also did Assistant Director work on Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River, among other movies.  The movie also has Justin Timberlake, who’s become a fine actor, and it’s sort of about baseball.  (September 21st)

Looper  Joseph Gordon-Levitt grows up to be…Bruce Willis.  Oh, it’s science fiction.  Gordon-Levitt has reunited with Rian Johnson, with whom he made the well-received Brick in 2006.  In the future, the Mob has found a better place to dump people than New Jersey – in the past, where assassins (called Loopers) are waiting to kill them.  But what happens when Joe, a Looper, finds he’s been tasked with killing his older self?  (September 28th)

Taken 2  The original Taken was a sleeper hit that turned Liam Neeson into an action hero.  He had done “action” movies before, but they were usually historical and/or literary, including Rob Roy and John Boorman’s Excalibur.  In the first movie Neeson’s character, Brian Mills, used his “particular set of skills” to wipe out the Albanian mob in Paris.  Now Brian’s in Istanbul, visiting with his family, and the Albanians (the few left after the previous movie) want revenge.  (October 5th)

Argo (Oscar Contender) tells a bizarre but true story that was kept classified for fifteen years.  When the Iranian embassy was overrun in 1979, a half-dozen staff members who weren’t in the compound at the time of the takeover found shelter with the Canadian ambassador.  To get them out, the CIA mounted a mission under the cover of a Canadian movie director scouting for locations in Iran for a sci-fi movie called “Argo.”  Ben Affleck both directs and stars in the movie, with a strong supporting cast that includes Alan Arkin, John Goodman, and Bryan Cranston. (October 12th)

Alex Cross  James Paterson’s detective has previously been embodied by Morgan Freeman, who’s a great actor but is about 30 years older than the character.  This time it’s Tyler Perry filling Cross’s shoes, under the direction of Rob Cohen, who made the original The Fast and the Furious.  It will likely be a more energetic portrayal.  (October 19th)

Not Fade Away  David Chase returns to New Jersey, where his HBO series The Sopranos was set.  This time, though, it’s for a bit of nostalgia, looking at a group of three teens who form a band after seeing the Rolling Stones on TV during the group’s first US tour in 1964.  He does have one holdover from The Sopranos.  James Gandolfini plays the father of one of the bandmates.  (October 19th)

Killing Them Softly  I enjoyed The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, even though few people saw it.  It was a very rare breed – a historically-accurate western.  Now its writer/director Andrew Dominik is back with a contemporary thriller of a hitman tracking down two losers who rob a mob poker game, with Brad Pitt as the hitman.  (October 19th)

The Sessions  (Oscar Contender) This movie won the Sundance Festival’s Audience Award, and stars two excellent actors: John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) and Helen Hunt.  It’s the true story of Mark O’Brien, a poet and journalist, who’d spent much of his life in an iron lung because of polio.  In his late thirties, he decides he wants to lose his virginity, and hires a therapeutic sex surrogate (who’s a married soccer mom).  Also in the cast is William H. Macy.  (October 26th)

Cloud Atlas This one is a “maybe” for me.  It has a strong cast – Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving – playing multiple roles that span centuries, but it could be a case of too many cooks.  There are three directors, and they wrote the script together.  Andy and Lana Wachowski did The Matrix, one of those films that changed how the movies after it were filmed.  But they also did the two sequels, which were confusing and self-indulgent.  Tom Tykwer made the exceptional Run Lola Run.  Can they make a coherent movie? (October 26th)

Wreck-it Ralph  This animated movie has Ralph, a classic video game bad guy, having a crisis of conscience after 30 years and going on a voyage of self-discovery through the video-game world.  It was directed by Rich Moore, who’d worked on both Futurama and The Simpsons, with the vocal talents of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, and Jane Lynch.  (November 2nd)

Flight  Robert Zemeckis returns to live-action movies after his so-so adventures to motion-capture animation.  He’s taken on a lower-budget movie ($30 million) telling the story of a pilot who heroically lands his stricken plane, saving the passengers, but then is alleged to have been drunk at the time.  While the budget is low, he attracted a first-rate cast with Denzel Washington as the pilot, supported by Don Cheadle, Melissa Leo, and John Goodman.

Lincoln (Oscar Contender) When you have Daniel Day-Lewis as the star of a movie, Oscar Contender is pretty much a given.  When you have Steven Spielberg in the director’s chair, with David Strathairn, Sally Field, John Hawkes and Joseph Gordon-Levitt filling out the cast, and it’s based on the excellent book Team of Rivals, you have the stuff that cinema lovers’ dreams are made of. (November 9th)

Skyfall  Finally, James Bond is back.  The bankruptcy of MGM had put this new entry in the long-running series on hold for a while, giving Daniel Craig time to do The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  Now Bond returns in what promises to be a strong movie.  You have Oscar-winner Sam Mendes directing, who had worked with Craig on Road to Perdition, and you have Javier Bardem as the villain (so this could be No Country for Old Spies).  Also in the cast is Naomie Harris (28 Days Later) as an up-and-coming new agent.  (November 9th)

Anna Karenina (Oscar Contender) Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel of marital infidelity is coming to the stage and screen.  This version is set in a theater where the actors are presenting the story.  I was lukewarm at first when I heard about the movie, but it is being directed by Joe Wright, who did the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice along with the devastating Atonement in 2007.  He’s also reunited with his star of those previous movies, Keira Knightley.  With that pedigree, it’s definitely worth watching.  (November 16th)

Silver Linings Playbook (Oscar Contender) David O. Russell has a knack with quirky comedy-dramas, having made such movies as Flirting With Disaster and Three Kings.  He also made The Contender, a quirky but heartfelt true-life movie.  His new movie, adapted from the 2008 novel of the same name, has Bradley Cooper as a former teacher who ended up in a sanitarium.  Upon his release, he has to move back in with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver) who are die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fans.  Cooper’s character connects with Jennifer Lawrence, who plays a young widow.  Plenty of quirk there, and likely plenty of heart as well.  (November 21)

Life of Pi  (Oscar Contender) Adapting a bestselling book that centers on an Indian teen adrift in a lifeboat with a tiger could be seen as problematic.  Several writers and directors were attached to the project, but bowed out.  Finally the producers approached Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).  If the trailer is an indication, he’s nailed the story.  The visuals are stunning.  (November 21st)

Hyde Park on Hudson (Oscar Contender) It sounds crazy to have Bill Murray playing FDR, but from the buzz this picture is generating it’s crazy like a fox.  The movie is based on a BBC radio play dealing with a weekend get-together at his home in Hyde Park between the president and King George VI.  It’s 1939, and without the support of the US, things are looking very dark for England as it faces Hitler’s Germany.  The film’s told from the viewpoint of FDR’s niece and confidant, Daisy Stuckley, played by Laura Linney.  (December 7th – an appropriate release date for a film about FDR and WWII)

Les Miserables (Oscar Contender) This is the top of my must-see list.  I’d seen the musical version of Victor Hugo’s classic tale on stage in London with the original cast in 1986, and was enthralled throughout its three hour running time.  I was also in tears several times.  Now it’s come to the screen, with a dream cast of Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway, directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech).  Watch for the Bishop early in the film, who saves Jean Valjean’s soul.  He’s played by Colm Wilkinson, who originated the Valjean role in London and then on Broadway.  (December 14th)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Oscar Contender) I’m looking forward to this movie, though with a small sense of foreboding.  The original LOTR trilogy is an all-time favorite of mine; once a year I’ll watch the extended versions in one sitting.  This has Peter Jackson directing again, and has several holdovers from the trilogy (Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Andy Serkis).  But this time you have a trilogy coming from one book, filled out with other material from Tolkein’s writing.  I remember another time when a director went back and did another trilogy to fill in the earlier story after making a very successful trilogy – yes, I’m talking to you, George Lucas.  (December 14th)

Zero Dark Thirty (Oscar Contender) Rep. Peter King (R-NY) got his knickers in a twist when this movie, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, was announced with a release date before the presidential election.  He wanted to have hearings about whether the filmmakers got access to classified documents.  Later the release date was moved to December.  The movie is directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, who did 2009’s The Hurt Locker, and stars Jessica Chastain and Joel Edgerton (who did the ethically-challenged detective on AMC’s The Killing).  (December 19th)

Jack Reacher  There’s been a lot made about star Tom Cruise not measuring up to bestselling author Lee Child’s character, who’s about 10 inches taller than Cruise and brawny.  But after Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol I’ve a feeling Cruise will bring it off.  The movie’s based on Child’s 2005 book, One Shot, and was adapted by Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote The Usual Suspects.  McQuarrie also directs a cast that includes Robert Duvall, Rosamund Pike, and German director/writer/actor Werner Herzog.  (December 21st)

The Impossible  This thriller tells the true story of a family who almost died in the 2004 Christmas Tsunami.  It stars Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts as the parents who struggle to survive.  The picture was filmed on location, and most of the tidal-wave was not done with special effects but with real water.  (December 21st)

This Is 40  Judd Apatow has created his newest comedy in an unusual way.  He took Pete and Debbie and their kids, the supportive family who helped Seth Rogan in Knocked Up, and wrote a new movie centering on them facing the milestone of both turning 40.  He also kept the same actors in the roles.  It likely helped that Paul Rudd has worked with Apatow on a couple of movies, Leslie Mann is Mrs. Apatow, and the two kids are Maude Apatow and Iris Apatow (nepotism has its benefits).  The cast also includes Jason Segel, Megan Fox, and Albert Brooks.  (December 21st)

On The Road  Walter Salles directed The Motorcycle Diaries, an excellent road picture dealing with a historic trip taken by a young Che Guevera.  Now Salles is directing the ultimate road book, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.  The main stars are Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, and Sam Riley, but the movie also boasts an incredible slate of actors in smaller roles or cameos, including Kirsten Dunst, Terrance Howard, Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi, and Amy Adams.  (December 21st)

Parental Guidance  This Christmas, the gift for movie lovers is the return of several beloved comedic actors in major roles (see following review as well).  Here you have Billy Crystal and Bette Midler as grandparents asked to babysit their three grandchildren for a week.  However, there daughter (Marisa Tomei) is a helicopter parent who doesn’t fully trust her parents.  (December 25th)

The Guilt Trip  After only doing a couple smaller supporting roles over the past 16 years, Barbra Streisand returns in a major role in this road comedy, playing Seth Rogan’s mother.  This will be a Christmas present to all of Streisand’s many and loyal fans.  (December 25th)

Django Unchained (Oscar Contender) Quentin Tarantino has an interesting relationship with history, as evidenced by Inglourious Basterds, where WWII was won by Brad Pitt and his commandos assassinating all the Nazi high command in a movie theater in Paris in 1944.  Now he’s cast his eye at that most American of movie genre’s, the Western, though it’s mixed in with the antebellum South.   In the lead roles, Jamie Foxx plays a slave seeking revenge on plantation owner Leonardo DiCaprio.  The best thing to do with a Tarantino film is leave your reason at the movie theater door and just enjoy his crackling dialogue and action sequences.  (December 25th)

Faust Times at New York, High.

The Faust legend is rooted in our culture, so much so that it’s become an adjective – Faustian – and it’s given us common phrases such as “Make a deal with the Devil” and “Hell to pay.”  The story continues to exert an influence.  The latest example is the movie Limitless, which was released on DVD this week.

When the movie opens, Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is on edge.  Literally in this case, since he’s standing on the wall of his apartment’s balcony, looking down forty or fifty floors at the street below, while Russian mobsters cut through his apartment’s security door.  It seems the only choice he’s left with is the how he wants to die, which he finds ironic since up until recently he was the smartest man in the world.

The story jumps back to when this arc of his life began.  Eddie is an author in the midst of a case of world-class writer’s block.  He’s just lost his girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish), who has been supporting him but has finally given up trying to save him.  The endearing aspect of Eddie is that he’s completely aware that he’s a pathetic loser.  He tells you so in the voice over narration that runs throughout the movie.  It’s a nice touch, supporting the character being an author.

A chance meeting with Vernon, his former brother-in-law from a brief marriage after college, changes Eddie’s life.   Vernon (Johnny Whitworth) had always been slightly shady, but now he’s dressed in fine clothes and says he’s working as a drug company representative.  When Eddie confesses over drinks that he’s blocked in his writing, Vernon gives him a sample of a new drug that he says will help him.  On the way home, Eddie pops the pills.  In a wonderfully filmed sequence with his landlord’s girlfriend, Eddie realizes the drug open every synapse of his brain, allowing him to pull together forgotten tidbits of knowledge and reorder them into brilliant insights.  (The movie makes thinking a thrilling exercise.)  In short order, Eddie writes enough of his book to stun his editor and revive his career.  But then the drug wears off.  It looks like Eddie will have to become Vernon’s servant to get more, but when he returns to Vernon’s apartment after a trip to the dry cleaners, he finds Vernon murdered and the apartment ransacked.  Eddie discovers where Vernon hid his stash of the drug and takes it.

That’s the beginning of a roller coaster ride for Eddie.  He uses his insights to play the stock market, though he needs help from the Russian mobster Gennady (Andrew Howard) to bankroll his start.  Eddie’s success brings him to the attention of Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), a Wall Street legend who makes Wall Street‘s Gordon Gecko seem warm and fuzzy.  Hovering in the shadows, though, is a killer bent on recovering Eddie’s drug stash and obliterating anyone who knows of the drug.  And then there are the blackouts.

Limitless was directed by Neil Burger, who also directed and wrote the screenplay for The Illusionist in 2006.  Burger uses shots and sequences to give you the same rush that Eddie feels as he travels through New York City.  (In the theater it came close to give the audience motion sickness.)  This is a twisty thriller that keeps you enthralled right up to the last frame.

Bradley Cooper had been mostly cast in supporting roles, such as Sydney Bristow’s friend on the TV show Alias or in light comedies like He’s Just Not That Into You.  With The Hangover he showed he could carry the lead role, but with Limitless he cements his leading man status.  Recently Robert De Niro has been sleepwalking through comedic roles.  As Van Loon, though, he’s convincingly menacing, like a mature, wealthy version of Travis Bickle.  Abby Cornish has a thrilling action sequence where she’s targeted by the killer tracking Eddie.  To escape from him in the middle of Central Park, she has to use the drug.   However her reaction afterward cements her as the emotional heart of the movie.  She also serves as the Eternal Feminine who, as in Goethe’s retelling of the Faust legend, offers the chance for redemption to Eddie.

At 105 minutes, Limitless races by with pacing that hardly gives you a chance to breath.  I saw the movie twice in the theater.  After your first viewing you may find yourself wanting to buy another ticket to take this rollercoaster ride again.