Inside Out.

Pixar’s latest movie, Inside Out, lived up to all of the hype and praise it’s received so far, a visually stunning film that hits all of the bittersweet notes that have made Pixar’s best films – especially WALL-E and the Toy Story trilogy – masterpieces not just of animation but of cinema. It’s also, in many ways, one of Pixar’s riskiest ideas, thanks to one of its least conventional plots yet, making the ultimate success of the film even more remarkable. (Full, if obvious, disclosure: Disney owns Pixar and ESPN.)

Inside Out is a metaphysical coming-of-age story that manages to encapsulate a buddy comedy, a psychological thriller, and an Arthur Clarke-style sci-fi story all set inside of the head of eleven-year-old Riley Anderson, whose family has just removed her from her idyllic life in Minnesota so her father can work for a startup in San Francisco. Riley’s personality is determined by a pastel-colored world run primarily by five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear, each voiced and drawn in distinctive fashion (and helpfully color-coded). Riley’s memories each bear one of those five colors, although we learn early on that Sadness (Phyllis Smith) can turn any memory blue (her color) with a touch, a sort of King Midas meets The Old Guitarist-era Picasso. When Joy and Sadness are inadvertently tossed from Headquarters, where the five emotions live and work, along with Riley’s core memories, her whole personality starts to crumble into depression and negativity. Joy and Sadness have to try to find their way back from the archives of Long-Term Memory while the other three emotions try without success to steer the ship.

The five emotionsJoy, voiced by Amy Poehler, is in essence a yellow-skinned, blue-haired, fuzzy Leslie Knope, full of enthusiasm and as much of a leader as the quintet of emotions can have; she was there first, Sadness second, and there’s an uneasy (but not antagonistic) relationship between the two. Their pairing in exile isn’t an accidental bit of plotting, as the film needs the two to play off of each other, even when they run into Riley’s largely-forgotten imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind) and end up in a series of misadventures as they try to get back to headquarters. (My favorite: their trip through abstract thought, where the three are transformed into cubist images, then deconstructed.) Some of the resolutions are a little obvious – Pixar writers have always taken the maxim of Chekhov’s gun very seriously – but the three writers do an excellent job of managing three disparate plot strands: the Joy/Sadness journey, the three knuckleheads still in HQ, and Riley’s real-world interactions with her befuddled (but never distant or cliched) parents.

The Joy/Sadness adventure – and that’s what it is, a buddy comedy with serious consequences for the other storylines – is the primary plot thread of the movie, and the relationship between the two characters, matched in Poehler’s and Smith’s voicing, is more oil/water than acid/base: Sadness doesn’t want to bring anyone down, but she can’t help it, while Joy remains indefatigable in the face of unfathomable odds. Sadness wants to be more like Joy, while Joy looks on Sadness as a well-meaning nuisance, so you can see who’s going to learn what lesson in the end. It’s how we get there that makes most Pixar movies such memorable experiences for the viewer – if you have a kid, you’ll probably get a little weepy, as I did at a few points during Inside Out – and such great art. The ending is happy, happier than, say, Toy Story 3, but it’s yellow with a few spots of blue.

The great achievement of Inside Out‘s plot isn’t the ending, or the adventure in Long-Term Memory, but the fact that the film works so beautifully without an antagonist. There’s no villain, no Big Foozle, no evil queen, hell, there’s no princesses (not that I’m anti-princess but a change of pace is always welcome). Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust are not set in opposition to Joy, but are depicted as essential elements of human personality. We don’t get the Dragon of Solitude or the Alienation Wraith; when Riley’s emotions have to fight their way back, they’re fighting something fundamental, not an artificial plot-contrivance bad guy whom they have to kill to get to their goal. Inside Out‘s tension is built around time, not threat, yet the film never drags for the lack of a foil for our twin heroines.

Inside Out is full of Easter eggs, as most Pixar flicks are; I only caught a few of them, including the music in the nightmare, the Chinatown reference, and the homage to Steve Jobs’ “reality distortion field.” I didn’t realize the two jellybean-like things guarding the subconscious were actually voiced by Frank Oz and Dave Goelz, longtime Muppet performers. There are apparently several I missed in the classroom scene, although I’m not sure I would have caught any without a remote control in my hand to pause it.

I’m kind of bummed that my daughter is too old for the Inside Out Box of Mixed Emotions, five books, one per emotion, aimed at 3- to 5-year-olds. It looks like Driven by Emotions is more age-appropriate; I’ll report back if we read that one.

Lava, the short animated feature that preceded Inside Out, is a cute but insubstantial love story, remarkable mostly for the quality of its animation (especially the landscapes on the sides of the two volcanoes) and the film’s song, which reminded me of the late native Hawai’an singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. Known as Israel K., his cover of “Over the Rainbow” is the only version of that song I can stand, and Lava‘s main voice-over actor, Kuana Torres Kahele, even sings in a similar fashion to Israel K.’s style.

Monsters University.

My report on Saturday night’s doubleheader in Wilmington, featuring Kyle Zimmer, A.J. Cole, and Robbie Ray, is up for Insiders now. I should be at Bowie on Tuesday night to see Eduardo Rodriguez, weather permitting.

Monsters, Inc. is one of my favorite Pixar films because it’s appropriate for kids (as all Pixar films are) but is in so many ways a mature, adult film. The issues involved are real, the perceived threat to the main characters is serious (even though we know it’ll work out), the humor is sophisticated, and the animation is superb. I had a feeling heading into Monsters University that it wouldn’t live up to its predecessor, and it didn’t – this prequel is more of a children’s movie than the typical Pixar film, lacking a strong antagonist and missing much of the trademark sharp humor of Pixar movies, although it was still fun to watch and beautifully rendered.

Monsters University is almost a bromance, telling us the story of how the two stars of Monsters, Inc., Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) first met while students – and rivals – in their college’s Scare Program. Aside from a brief and somewhat hackneyed intro with Mike as a young monster, we spend nearly the entire movie watching just a few days of action on campus, learning that Mike was the studious worker while Sully was the gifted son of a famous scarer. (Sully was the five-tool athlete here, while Mike had heart and grit and no natural talent.) We get cameos by Randy Boggs (Steve Buscemi) and other familiar faces from the first film, but the bulk of the activity from characters beyond Mike and Sully comes from new monsters and voices, including the fraternity the two join – Oozma Kappa – to try to win back their places in the Scare Program after a petty fight gets them both kicked out right before a critical final exam.

From there, we get a traditional underdogs narrative with a strong dose of teamwork, where Mike and Sully have to work together to train their misfit brothers, none of whom could scare a panphobe, to win the competition that will get them all back into the Scare Program. As you’d expect, each of the misfits finds some special talent or skill that comes in handy right at the moment when they need the help most. It’s well-executed, especially the parts with the five-eyed gelatinous Scott “Squishy” Squibbles, but aside from one plot element – the Big Twist that leads from the first, false climax to the film’s real resolution – it’s all rather expected. And with no true villain, the tension never gets very high; even Dean Hardscrabble, voiced by the always wonderful Helen Mirren, isn’t so evil or even mean, just strict and demanding. That lack of any character with actual intent to harm the protagonists means it’s appropriate for younger audiences than the typical Pixar film, but there’s less here for the parents, less humor – just a lot of good sight gags involving monster malleability – and less story.

The best thing Monsters University offers is the smarmy, condescending performance by Nathan Fillion as the big, scary head of the cool-monsters fraternity RΩR, who puts Mike down at every opportunity with a classic “I can barely put forth the energy to patronize you” tone. I’m a longtime Fillion fan, dating back to Firefly, and will subject myself to Castle when my wife watches it, just to watch Fillion crack wise a few times. (It’s not a good show by any definition, and Castle Minus Castle would probably be the worst 44 minutes on television.) But Fillion doesn’t get enough good lines, making more happen with his delivery than with his actual phrasing, with the few good one-liners going to his yes-man sidekick, the one-eyed Chet Alexander (voiced by SNL castmember Bobby Moynihan). Whether you think Billy Crystal is funny as a comedian or actor, he was funny in Monsters, Inc. because he took good material and played it up. Here, he doesn’t get the same kind of lines, and there’s little he can do to make them funnier, and John Goodman’s Sully is almost entirely a straight man, although his character benefits from the strongest development, going from spoiled legacy student to top-tier scarer and, of course, a good friend.

I’d take a child of just about any age to see Monsters University, unless s/he was especially prone to nightmares or bad dreams, which is the closest this film comes to producing any actually scary content. It’s lighthearted and sweet, without the emotional depth or breadth of a good Pixar film, which means a lot less explaining after the fact but also gives the film a superficial quality that wasn’t present in Monsters, Inc. It’s worth seeing for the family, and the preceding short film, The Blue Umbrella, is cute, but can’t touch Pixar classics like The Incredibles or the Toy Story trilogy.

42.

This week’s episode of Behind the Dish includes my conversation with John C. McGinley, who plays broadcaster Red Barber in 42 and was a fantastic guest. I also have a new column up discussing recent outings from three young NL starters – Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey, and Julio Teheran.

The Jackie Robinson biopic 42, opening nationwide on Friday, is a superficial, Hollywood-ized version of the part of Robinson’s life from the Dodgers’ decision to add a black player to their organization until the end of his first season in the majors. A complicated person going through an emotional trial largely unthinkable to viewers today, Robinson is reduced in this film to an intense, brooding, slightly reluctant hero, on screen to be worshiped rather than admired for his strengths and his flaws.

The movie limits itself mostly to two years, 1946 and 1947, and simplifies the story to one where the Dodgers quickly identify Robinson as the player to help them break the color bar, let him dominate the International League for a year (taking just moderate abuse from white players and fans), and bring him up to the majors for a perfunctory tour of the racists of the National League. At nearly every step, Robinson responds to the abuse, mostly verbal with a few attempts to injure him, on the field, always providing the well-timed homer or the easy stolen base to shut up, even for a moment, his antagonists.

Only once do we see Robinson truly respond to the torrent of hate from whites, combined with the weight of expectations from blacks, in the way we’d expect any human being to respond, giving the film its pivotal scene and the one point where Robinson felt like a real person, rather than a two-dimensional character descended from Mt. Olympus. The movie needed that scene, as a catharsis for any empathetic viewers who could only imagine the pressure building up inside Robinson, as he isn’t allowed to respond to taunts or humiliations except with his abilities on the field. What 42 also needed, but didn’t get, was smaller instances of Robinson facing the frustrations – days when he might have gone 0-for-4, failed to come up big in a critical situation, and merely empowered the bigots who said he didn’t belong on the field with white players. Instead, we get trivial scenes of domestic bliss, powered by the beautiful Nicole Behairie in a wasted role as Robinson’s wife Rachel.

Even the process of getting Robinson to the big leagues is far too easy. Branch Rickey’s decision is shown as impetuous, and the internal debate within the Dodgers’ front office (which never seems to include the actual owner of the team) is minimal. The trio of executives select Robinson from a stack of folders on players with scouting reports and biographical information, but we never see the Dodgers actually scout anyone – eventually one of the executives tracks down Robinson’s Negro League team, coincidentally right after he has emerged from a whites-only bathroom at a gas station, and summons him to Brooklyn. The year in Montreal is barely shown, and the decision to promote Robinson to the majors is a formality. While 42 doesn’t make it look easy for Robinson, it does make the journey look a lot smoother than it actually was, an emphasis on Robinson himself that detracts from the magnitude of what he accomplished in reality.

Two aspects of the movie stood out as reasons to see it despite its weaknesses. One was the array of strong performances in leading and secondary roles. Chadwick Boseman (Robinson) does his best with limited material, as he can’t display more than two or three emotions over the course of the entire film, but has a strong enough on-screen presence to command scenes where he sits at the center – except, of course, when Harrison Ford, playing Branch Rickey, is in the room. Ford shocked me with his portrayal of Rickey, one because the script itself did a strong job of depicting Rickey as less than perfect, but also because Ford, even when blustering as Rickey blustered, didn’t chew up entire scenes – he dialed back enough for everyone else, even Boseman, to maintain a presence on the sceen. (We also didn’t get quite enough of Rickey’s motivations for breaking baseball’s unofficial but fifty-year-old color bar; the anecdote he tells Robinson near the end of the film was likely true, appearing in every Rickey biography I’ve read, but the movie doesn’t give the detail that makes the story even more compelling.) Alan Tudyk (Wash from Firefly) is frighteningly effective as the racial-epithet-spewing manager Ben Chapman, whose treatment of Robinson on the field may have led to the early end of his managing career, while McGinley hits his accented, staccato Red Barber impersonation to the point where I wouldn’t have recognized McGinley’s voice if I hadn’t seen him on screen. I wish Leo Durocher had stuck around in the story longer (in reality, that is) so we could have seen more of Christopher Meloni in that role, and thought Andre Holland was largely wasted in a one-note role as sportswriter Wendell Smith, where they made him look less like a writer of the ’40s than like he was about to break into the chorus of “Jerk Out.”

I also thought the baseball within the film was depicted reasonably well, particularly the visuals – creating fields and crowd scenes that looked somewhat appropriate for the time (although, like the entire film, everything is far too bright and clean). The movie relies heavily on apocryphal incidents, like the time Pee Wee Reese may or may not have put his arm around Robinson on the field in Cincinnati and practically read his teammate his eulogy while everyone else waits around for them to finish. The actual movements of players passed the eye test, however, perhaps in part because the extras included a number of former pro players, including one name in particular that jumped out at me during the closing credits. Even the stolen base sequences, which had to be the hardest to film, were good enough for the big screen – not perfect, but I doubt most viewers will be bothered by the catchers’ arm actions or the timing of Robinson’s jumps.

I could see 42 becoming a popular film because of the appeal of Robinson as an American hero – a veteran who destroyed one of the most visible examples of segregation in America, an achievement with tremendous symbolic value that presaged the civil rights movement of the two decades that followed it. But canonizing Robinson was unnecessary; a film that depicted Robinson as angry, frustrated, and flawed would not reduce his myth in the least. It is easier to believe in heroes who are human. The script of 42 tells us twice that Robinson may have been superhuman, and that lionization diminishes his legacy, and us in the process.

* I haven’t read Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Spring Training, but came across it when researching the epilogue’s claim about Ed Charles (which this book apparently confirms). If any of you have read it, I’d like to hear whether it’s worthwhile, as the description on amazon implies that it has more of the ugly details of Robinson’s trials in that first year.

Academy Award thoughts.

I’ve seen eight of the nine Best Picture nominees but ended up light on the acting categories, so take all of this with a huge grain of salt. I’m just throwing my opinions out there for discussion, and because it’s fun to talk about this stuff before we get all serious by talking baseball. All links go to my reviews of the films.

Best Picture

My choice: Zero Dark Thirty
Prediction: Argo

Everyone’s assuming Argo will win after it has won most of the major predictor awards, defying the previous conventional wisdom that a film can’t win Best Picture if its director isn’t even nominated for Best Director. It’s a solid movie, not a terrible choice in the abstract, but not the best movie I saw from 2012. Zero Dark Thirty was better across the board for me – better written, better acted, better staged, and tackled a more serious subject.

Best Director

My choice: Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Prediction: Steven Spielberg, Lincoln

I’m not even sure how to consider these five directors; Kathryn Bigelow would have been my choice, but she, Quentin Tarantino, and Ben Affleck were all snubbed despite outstanding efforts on their respective films. Tarantino may have been omitted for that awful Australian accent, though.

Best Actor

My choice: Hugh Jackman, Les Misérables
Prediction: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

DDL has had this in the bag since the movie came out, but I thought Jackman’s role was more demanding while it was just as central to his movie as DDL’s was to his. I’m still irritated that Richard Parker didn’t even get an nomination, however. Note that I’ve only seen three of the five nominated performances.

Best Actress

My choice: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Prediction: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

She just edges out Jessica Chastain for me, but I think the actual voting won’t be that close. Lawrence’s performance lacked the gravitas of Chastain’s but it was no less convincing or essential to her film’s success. Again, I’ve only seen three of the five performances here.

Best Supporting Actor

My choice: Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained
Prediction: Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook

I think De Niro gets the “hey, thanks for finally making another decent movie” award, and I can’t argue that much with the choice. Waltz had far more screen time in a role that recalled the meticulously malevolent character he played in Inglorious Basterds, but this time with more emotional depth. I have not seen The Master among the five films involved here.

Best Supporting Actress

My choice: Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables
Prediction: Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables

Of the three performances I’ve seen here – Hathaway’s, Weaver’s, and Field’s – this is a no-brainer. I will see The Sessions at some point soon, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Hunt deserved this one more.

Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay

My choice: Tony Kushner, Lincoln
Prediction: Tony Kushner, Lincoln

I could see Argo pulling this off, but I think the more erudite language of Lincoln will resonate more with older voters. That said, if Silver Linings Playbook hadn’t ended with that silly parlay, it would have been my pick here.

Best Writing, Original Screenplay

My choice: Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty
Prediction: Pass

I’ve only seen two of the five nominees here, so I’m just including this category for the sake of completeness.

Include your own picks and predictions below. Anyone who nails every winner gets a free one-year subscription to the dish.

Le Havre.

I’ve got a short post on ESPN.com today for Insiders, covering the top age-25 players in MLB.

I only found Le Havre, a 2011 French-language film from Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, because it appeared on Roger Ebert’s list of his top 20 films of that year, of which I’ve now seen nine and will eventually see at least one more. Ebert noted the film’s major flaw, an absurd ending that bears no connection to the remainder of the film, as if it were a trifle (calling it “certainly satisfying”), but that plot twist took a film that danced on the edge of cute right over into fairy-tale twee.

Le Havre, no relation to the board game and app of the same name, tells the story of an aging French shoe-shiner, Marcel Marx, who discovers an 11-year-old African refugee, Idrissa, hiding in the waters of the city’s harbor. The police are engaged in a comical manhunt for this harmless child, and Marcel, now alone in his house as his wife is in the hospital with a serious illness, decides to take Idrissa in and protect him from the authorities, out of what I presume is pity or empathy for the boy’s plight. Marcel’s neighbors just barely tolerate him at the film’s beginning, but between his wife’s poor health and his caper with Idrissa, the neighbors conspire with Marcel to hide the boy and eventually to smuggle him out of the country to his ultimate destination, London. Meanwhile, Marcel’s wife, Arletty, won’t allow anyone to tell him how serious her condition is, with the doctor originally saying there’s no hope but a miracle, because Marcel is just a child in a man’s body.

Kaurismäki’s directorial style provokes discomfort through lingering shots of expressionless faces, often staring at or just past the camera, as well as closeups that get a little too close. The plot couldn’t be any simpler, and no characters beyond Marcel get any kind of deeper development; even Idrissa is shown to be a perfectly polite and articulate Gabonese boy who speaks French fluently and whose only real flaw is that he doesn’t like to stay shut up in Marcel’s house all day, risking detection and capture. The one neighbor who doesn’t play along, reporting Idrissa’s whereabouts three times to the police, never gets a name, much less a motivation – racism? xenophobia? general douchebaggery? – for his betrayal of Marcel’s secret. Arletty, played quite obviously by a non-native speaker of French (the Finnish actress Kati Outinene, whose French is proper but toneless with an unnatural rhythm), seems to have no purpose in life other than to play housewife to Marcel, and gives no appearance of being happy or in love with him, beyond being terrified that he’ll be unable to cope without her.

The film does boast some dry humor, as well as an absurd subplot involving the musician “Little Bob” (played by Italian blues-rock singer Roberto Piazza), while Jean-Pierre Darroussin offers subtle homages to Inspector Clouseau in his performance as Inspector Monet, hot (or tepid) on the trail of Idrissa. But the film, while cute for its amusing parts, isn’t funny enough to be a straight comedy, and isn’t serious enough to have a point beyond, well, be kind to the less fortunate, there but for the grace of God, and so on. Had the film ended on a less incongruous note, it might have felt like a fable, cute and funny but with a greater theme that forgives its cuteness. Instead, it ends with nonsense, an ending that would feel tacked-on if it wasn’t dominated by a greater feeling of falseness, kind of like opening door #2 to find that you just traded a new car for a pair of goats.

Django Unchained.

I was busy yesterday, with a Klawchat and the Baseball Today podcast, the latter featuring my interview with Nate Silver, who denies being a witch. Those followed my ranking of the top 25 players under 25, which went up yesterday morning and requires an Insider membership.

I went into Django Unchained with somewhat limited expectations: I’m not a Tarantino fanboy by any stretch, and the two most frequent comments I’d heard about this film were that it was too long and too violent. It is violent, although nearly all of it is of the cartoonish variety, with just one scene that I would have cropped or eliminated. It’s long at 165 minutes, but aside from that one scene there’s virtually no fat to trim. It’s also clever, funny, sentimental almost to sappiness, righteously angry, and borderline absurd – a glorious alternate-history revenge fantasy that lacks the broad scope of Inglorious Basterds‘ vengeance but gives us the titular character as a stronger protagonist to exact retribtution on behalf of his race.

Django (a perpetually seething Jamie Foxx) begins the movie in chains, one of a group of recently-purchased slaves who are being led through a dark, dare-I-say mysterious forest by two white brothers, when they are miraculously intercepted by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, who scored a Best Supporting Actor nod for the role), a dentist-turned-bounty-hunter who, as it happens, is looking specifically for Django. His incredible fortune in finding this caravan without a GPS is never quite explained, nor is the fact that Django, who ends up joining Schultz in the bounty-hunting business, is a preternaturally accurate shot with virtually any sort of firearm.

The two hunt down a few targets before turning to the task of rescuing Django’s wife Brunhilda (Kerry Washington, who has two jobs, to look pretty and act scared, and does fairly well at both) from the unctuous plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, chewing scenery like it’s a cud). Candie likes to buy and train slaves for “Mandingo fighting,” a human equivalent to cockfighting with no historical basis in fact but which is named as an allusion to the 1975 blaxploitation film Mandingo, which Tarantino has cited as a favorite of his. (He also honors another blaxploitation film with Brunhilda’s white surname, Von Schaft.) Django and Schultz claim to be slavers interested in buying a slave for use in Mandingo fighting, all as a pretense for seeing and buying Brunhilda on the cheap. Only the head house-slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson, playing this traitor to his race to the hilt), has any inkling that something is amiss.

Tarantino has figured out the way to tell a good slavery joke: Make the white people involved the joke’s targets. The various slaveowners and white lackeys are all odious in various ways, but Tarantino infuses them with comic weaknesses that he proceeds to exploit, most successfully in the absurd scene where a Klan raid breaks down because the white bags they are using as masks have eyeholes that don’t allow the riders to see properly. Quick yet florid dialogue that is obviously absurd yet can sound real enough to work for the audience is a difficult trick to pull off, yet Django‘s dialogue never broke that suspension of disbelief for me, and Tarantino’s script concludes with a flurry of self-referential lines that build on the humor of the first times the lines were delivered.

That same suspension of disbelief didn’t quite hold as well for the violence, largely because Tarantino appears to believe that human bodies are 98% blood, with perhaps some sort of light exoskeleton that keeps us from turning into landlocked jellyfish. Aside from one murder near the film’s end that evoked raucous laughter in the theater – I’m including myself in that – the extent of the splattering was a distraction, and appeared to be Tarantino just exuding in the fact that, yeah, he can take a tense shootout and make it so gross that it breaks the tension because the splashes are louder than the gunshots. The non-gun violence in the film was more disturbing and generally more effective at ratcheting up our hatred for the white folk Django will eventually target, because of the degree to which this violence, from torture to murder, shows the extent to which these whites view blacks as something less than human.

Tarantino’s last film made Nazis its targets, because, of course, who doesn’t love watching a Nazi get what’s coming to him? With slavery and racism at the heart of Django, however, Tarantino wanders into more dangerous emotional territory with the film’s heavy use of the n-word and with the depiction of some blacks as complicit in their own subjugation. The use of what is today a nasty racial epithet but was, in 1858-59, a common term for African-Americans, didn’t bother me because it is grounded in historical accuracy; I don’t want to see the term removed from Huckleberry Finn or the wandering Jew scrubbed from The Scarlet Pimpernel either, because they are monuments to the racial or ethnic attitudes of their times. But I imagine the role of Stephen as a black slave who, in return for privileges he’s been granted by a serious of owners, takes on the role of overseer of the house slaves, betraying his race and contributing to institutionalized racism, will make many viewers uncomfortable, even as it becomes clear that Stephen is doing so not from ignorance but from a clear strategy of self-preservation. Candie even delivers a speech in the film that argues that blacks didn’t fight back because of neurological inferiority, but we can dismiss that as the outdated racialist thinking of one of the film’s most hateful characters. Stephen is much harder to hand-wave away.

Waltz’ performance as Dr. Schultz could very easily win him his second Oscar as Best Supporting Actor, and his character has the most difficult development in the film, with subtle changes in his attitudes toward slavery from academic detachment to emotional involvement that lead to the film’s slam-bang finish. Foxx’s barely-contained rage gains articulacy through the film, but as strong as his performance was, it had a hint of one-note to it that might explain why he was overlooked in the Best Actor category. DiCaprio, normally such a strong actor in any sort of role, brings a bizarre flamboyancy to the role, starting with the overplayed deep-south accent and continuing with the vaguely incestuous flirting with his widowed sister, herself a cipher of a character despite a fair amount of screen time. Jackson worked with the most difficult material as Stephen, the Uncle Tom of the Candie estate (unironically referred to as “Candieland”), and he dominates most of his scenes between his stentorian delivery, impossible to hide even behind his character’s duplicitous yes-massah stammerings, and a glare so searing that it at one point reduces Brunhilda to tears. His appearance in the film’s second half transforms the movie from straight revenge fantasy to a somewhat more complex study of slavery through a conflict between African-American characters, one that doesn’t delivery any answers but provides a thought-provoking component to the film that would have been absent had we just been following Django around on a justified killing spree.

Revenge fantasies themselves, given the proper targets, can be superficially satisfying but will lack any kind of staying power beyond the closing credits and can leave the viewer feeling slightly empty the way he might after, say, wiping out a package of Oreos. I have little interest in a straight exploitation film, which I feared Django might be based on some early word-of-mouth, especially regarding the copious quantities of blood involved, but the film was both far funnier and more incisive than I anticipated. Tarantino could have stuck with cartoon violence and avoided any hints at the barbarism of slavery, but he took the hard way, with various scenes of brutal treatment, all presented without the sensationalism of the shootouts and made more effective through that contrast. The camera lingers on bodies spurting a quart of blood for every bullet, but when a slave is branded, the scene is truncated, and when a slave is torn apart by dogs, it’s shown so obliquely that the violence is largely implied – and those latter scenes are the ones that matter. Only the fight scene between the two “Mandingos” broke this rule, and deserved a major edit, but otherwise Django makes excellent use of its running length to entertain its audience in a thoughtful way.

Silver Linings Playbook.

David O. Russell’s Oscar-nominated 2010 film The Fighter underwhelmed me relative to its critical acclaim because the story felt so generic, salvaged by great performances in the lead and supporting roles. With his follow-up, Silver Linings Playbook, based on a 2008 novel by Matthew Quick, Russell is mining more serious territory – most of the central characters are grappling with various forms of mentall illness – but with the general tone of an indie comedy, resulting in a film that takes its serious issues seriously, but not so seriously that the movie drags or becomes something less than enjoyable.

Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper, showing unexpected range) is just getting out of an eight-month stint in a mental institution where he’s been receiving treatment for bipolar disorder after “the explosion,” an incident (later hashed out in full) that resulted in a plea agreement that kept him out of jail but left him with a restraining order against him and some fear and prejudice among neighbors and former co-workers. His parents, played by Oscar winner Robert Deniro and Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver (for 2010’s Animal Kingdom), form an unstable support system for Pat, unable to fully understand his disorder or, in the case of Pat’s father, to separate his own needs from those of his son.

Pat’s one constant friend, Ronnie, himself dealing with a pretty serious anxiety problem but receiving no help for it, ends up introducing Pat to his sister-in-law Tiffani (Jennifer Lawrence), a recently widowed young woman with serious issues of her own beyond her grieving, and the two form an immediate connection over dinner when discussing the side effects of their various medications. (I particularly laughed at the discussion of Klonopin, an anti-depressant I was once prescribed as a sleep aid but never took because I was concerned about … well, exactly what Pat and Tiffani described.) Their partnership in healing is uneasy between Pat’s lack of any filter between his brain and his mouth and Tiffani’s wildly varying emotional states, but it’s also evident from the start that the two will end up together – and, to the credit of Cooper and the always-impressive Lawrence, it feels surprisingly natural. Tiffani extorts Pat into being her partner in a couples dance competition, which feels a little implausible, and that ends up a family-wide event due to a rather improbable two-event parlay that was the movie’s one real false note for me. The Pat-Tiffani storyline works independently of the bet, which is played for laughs rather than plot and only provides a reason for Pat’s father to be there at the end to give his son some advice that Pat didn’t actually need after all.

The film is absolutely carried by the performances of its four principals, led by Lawrence, who I argued was worthy of the 2010 Best Actress Oscar over the landslide favorite, Natalie Portman, for Lawrence’s performance in Winter’s Bone. Lawrence has a stronger groundswell of support now, as one of Hollywood’s It Girls, thanks in part to her lead role in The Hunger Games, but she does the most in this film with the hardest role because her character lacks emotional boundaries – she varies from desperate to angry to crushed to sultry from sentence to sentence, and conveys her grief over her husband’s death and her own previous emotional problems as much through body language and tone as through her dialogue. (She’s also stunning as a brunette.) Deniro turns in what is probably his best work in a decade, playing Pat’s highly superstitious father, himself likely dealing with an undiagnosed mental illness, loving his son and yet obviously fearing him at the same time because he can’t understand why his son acts and speaks the way he does. Weaver, an Australian actress who dominated Animal Kingdom as the amoral head of a ruthless crime family, nails the Philadelphia accent and the role of the subservient wife to a husband who’s probably been something between difficult and impossible for their entire marriage. I could see all three earning Oscar nods, while Brad Cooper, who lacks the others’ history of work in serious roles and would be up in the most competitive category, gets Jim Carrey’d and ends up on the outside looking in. We even get a few great scenes from Chris Tucker, talking faster than ever, and Julia Stiles, somewhat surprising as a domineering wife to Pat’s friend Ronnie.

I was also very happy with how the film dealt with mental illness, taking it seriously but infusing what could have been a very depressing subject with humor, both dark and silly. (Anupam Kher has a couple of scene-stealing lines as Pat’s therapist.) Pat has several episodes of manic or depressive behavior, as well as the “explosion” shown in flashbacks, and some of them are, appropriate, quite painful to watch. I’ve seen several reviews, including the A/V Club’s top 20 films of 2012, that denigrated the film as a “rom-com” that implies that the cure for bipolarity is finding the right, quirky girl. I think those critics miss the point entirely: Pat gets better over the course of the film once he starts taking his medication, investing himself in therapy, and following his therapist’s advice to develop coping strategies and expose himself to potential triggers. That’s how treatment works for any mental illness, including the anxiety disorder for which I’ve belatedly getting treatment this year. Silver Linings absolutely makes it clear that the medication and treatment are working because Pat’s character doesn’t evolve until he gets serious about them. His moods change, his filter reappears, and his word choices start to reflect things he’d likely be hearing or discussing in therapy. Russell doesn’t shove this down our throats, elevating the romantic element (even though Pat and Tiffani don’t actually kiss until the penultimate scene) over the mental-illness storyline, but he lays it all out for anyone who’s paying attention, and respects the subject even while often deriving humor from it. I don’t see how anyone could walk away from this film getting any other message about mental illness beyond “get professional help.”

Silver Linings Playbook is a comedy, and there is a romance, but calling it a rom-com doesn’t do it justice because it omits what sets this film apart from even indie romantic comedies. It tackles a serious subject with intelligence and wit while enveloping the viewer in a compelling romance that builds organically through mostly natural plot elements. The character development is far stronger than in even a good “rom-com,” and the performances are all Oscar-worthy, especially in what seems to be a weak year for serious films. And it’s pretty damn funny too. All rom-coms should be so good.

Argo.

Ben Affleck’s Argo earned substantial praise right out of the chute when Roger Ebert tabbed it as the likely Best Picture winner based on, I presume, a strong story, well-acted, with Hollywood at its heart. (You just have to look at last year’s Best Picture winner to see how much that last point matters.) That aside, I knew the true story behind Argo was in itself interesting enough to make me want to see the film, as did the trailer that strongly evoked the look and feel of an era that exists largely at the periphery of my memories – I remember the hostage crisis and clearly remember seeing the bulk of the American hostages deplaining when they were finally released in 1981 – even if the film played a little loose with history. As it turns out, Affleck and company did a masterful job of infusing drama into a story where the conclusion is known to all at the film’s beginning, and the work they did in recreating 1979 provides a massive injection to your suspension of disbelief, to the point where even the bits that seem obviously false, like coincidental timing of two events, don’t break the spell the movie has over the viewer. The result is a heist movie without the pervasive unreality of most heist movies, yet one that retains the dry humor that sets the best heist movies apart from the rest.

The story, well-known by now but classified until 1997, involves the escape of six employees at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on the day that demonstrators breached the gates and stormed the building, taking another 60-odd employees hostage for what turned out to be 444 days. The six employees who escaped spent a night at the British embassy but had to leave and eventually found sanctuary at the Canadian embassy thanks to the courage of the Canadian ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor, and his wife, Pat, who could have faced execution had they been caught by the Revolutionary Guard. (Taylor discussed the story with BBC Witness earlier this week, stating that the biggest problem for his six houseguests wasn’t fear of discovery but boredom.) The U.S. government was aware early on that these six employees had escaped, but couldn’t come up with a viable plan to rescue them until extraction expert Tony Mendez (played by Affleck) came up with the idea to create a fake movie, with Mendes himself playing the film’s Canadian producer and the six escapees playing members of the film crew. The film in question was called Argo, and was a fairly blatant Star Wars ripoff that happened to be set in a place that made Iran a plausible location for the crew to be scouting. The group of seven ended up leaving Iran without as much trouble as Affleck’s film would indicate, although the truth would have been fairly dull on the screen, and Affleck also boosts the tension with a substantial amount of gallows humor from all angles, including John Goodman and Alan Arkin hamming it up beautifully as the fake film’s makeup guy and executive producer. (Goodman also appeared in last year’s Best Picture winner, The Artist, and if there were a way to quantify the most underrated actors in Hollywood, he’d have to be on it.)

Argo, the real movie, shifts around the timing of certain events to heighten the drama, making the group’s escape from Tehran more thrilling by keeping them a half-step ahead of the Iranians at every point, including a race on the tarmac in the film’s climax that apparently never happened. If you knew none of the real story, however, every bit of this movie would seem plausible except for the coincidences of timing – Arkin and Goodman returning to their sham office in Hollywood just as the Iranian authorities are calling to confirm Mendez’ phony credentials, or the CIA finally authorizing the group’s tickets on SwissAir as the seven are waiting at the ticket counter at Tehran’s airport. The pacing, however, is so crisp that most viewers won’t have enough time to think about these improbabilities; the script never dwells too long on any one character, scene, or plot point, taking a story that, in reality, probably played out quite slowly and instead turning it up to fourth gear almost from the moment Affleck first appears on screen.

His appearance, and those of the six refugees, also help cement Argo‘s power to suck you into its story even with the occasional artistic license. Images during the final credits show how carefully the actors were chosen and made up to resemble the largely-unknown people they’re portraying, with hairstyles and fashions that are instantly recognizable for their era. The film is shot with the slightly muted tones you see when watching movies filmed in that era, while the settings, mostly in Tehran but also in D.C. and in Hollywood, are just as carefully constructed to take you back to that time period. The shots of Tehran are especially stunning, including reenactments of violent street demonstrations that will certainly evoke memories in any viewer my age or older.

Affleck will likely get a Best Director nod for Argo and perhaps one for Best Actor as well, but beyond his central role, it’s an ensemble effort, with the actors playing the refugees working with limited material to carve out unique identities for their characters, and only Bryan Cranston, playing Mendez’ supervisor at Langley, getting enough screen time to earn award consideration. I haven’t seen enough contenders to consider whether Argo deserves to win Best Picture, or even be nominated, but it would be ironic and perhaps a bit awkward if a film that paints the Iranians as dimwits were to earn that honor when the unbelievable Iranian film A Separation was consigned to the foreign-language category just a year earlier.

If you want more of the true story behind the film: the Wired story from 2007 that Affleck optioned for the film version; The Houseguests: A Memoir of Canadian Courage and CIA Sorcery, a self-published memoir from Mark Lijek, one of the six embassy employees rescued by the CIA; and Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, co-authored by Tony Mendez himself.

Looper.

I loved Rian Johnson’s debut film, the neo-noir detective story Brick, which starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a precocious student trying to solve a murder in his cliquey, drug-addled high school, a film driven by punctuated, subtle dialogue, riding instead on the film’s core mystery and the tremendous charisma Gordon-Levitt brought to the lead role. Johnson’s newest film, the time-travel action flick Looper, also stars Gordon-Levitt, and once again leans heavily on how much he can bring to a role in which his lines are limited and his character’s personality is understated. But where Brick aimed fairly small, an indie film paying homage to a genre by nearly parodying it, Looper aimes huge, tackling standard time-travel conundrums while also getting after some of the general moral questions that a time-travel storyline will inevitably pose.

Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a “looper” who, in the year 2044, serves as a hit man for a crime syndicate that sends targets back from the year 2074 – in which year time travel has been invented and made illegal, so it’s only used by organized crime groups. A looper stands at an isolated place, blunderbuss in hand, and the moment a bound and gagged victim winks into their present time, blows him away. Eventually, the future employers will end the contract by sending the looper’s future self back, with gold bars strapped to his back (in lieu of the standard silver), “closing the loop.” As it turns out, the head of that crime syndicate in the future, known only as the Rainmaker, is closing all of the loops, so we know fairly early on that Joe will be confronted by his thirty-year-older self, played by Bruce Willis, and will, in one reality, let him live (since otherwise the movie would be more of a short film). As it turns out, Future Joe has reasons for wanting to come back, with eliminating the Rainmaker before he rises to power at the top of the list. Present Joe ends up in the middle of this battle, primarily opposed to his future self but conflicted by what remains of his conscience and by the fact that he’s pursued by the 2044 arm of the syndicate that employs him.

Time-travel stories in general are difficult to plot because of, no pun intended, the loops the writer must close: The connections between cause and effect are much more clearly laid out on screen, and loops left open or closed improperly are fodder for criticism and mockery from sharper viewers. Johnson’s script here limits the number of such loops he opens, and he’s extremely meticulous about maintaining the film’s internal logic, even at the risk of potentially clueing viewers in to the film’s eventual resolution. (Once it was over, I realized I’d missed one fairly strong clue.) This tight writing bears many other gifts for the viewer, such as the scene where Joe and his future self sit down for coffee and breakfast – left uneaten, which I have to say always annoys me when I see it on screen – in which Future Joe explains how he can remember Present Joe’s actions as they happen.

Emily Blunt is extremely compelling – not to mention incredibly gorgeous – in her supporting role as Sarah, the mother of one of the candidates on Future Joe’s hit list, and the woman who takes Present Joe in while he’s on the run from the syndicate. Five-year-old Pierce Gagnon is incredible in his role as Cid, Sarah’s son, articulate beyond most kids his age and able to manipulate his emotions as an adult actor would. Jeff Daniels is brilliant, by turns hilarious and menacing, as the syndicate’s main representative and local kingpin in 2044 – but one of his gunsels, played by Noah Segan (who played Dode in Brick), was mostly a waste of time, not developed enough to have an intriguing storyline, and scarcely necessary to the main plot. Piper Perabo plays a stripper because we just couldn’t have an action film unless there’s at least one woman walking around topless, and she’s maybe the fourth-best looking woman in the movie anyway. (Her character is about as irrelevant as Segan’s.) And there’s a fair amount of over-the-top violence across the film, which may seem like an odd complaint with a hit man and, well, the same hit man as the main characters, but when you see the movie you’ll probably know which parts I mean.

Looper has also spawned a fair amount of analysis online of its internal time-travel logic, with Johnson himself going on record (here and here) to discuss some of its mysteries, including the possible infinite loop created by the film’s ending. That kind of intensive commentary can be a function of poor writing, of course, but in this case I think it’s largely to Johnson’s credit that he can answer most of these questions and yet managed to leave so much extraneous material out of the film, helping maintain some of the mystery until the final fifteen minutes. What starts out as a psychological thriller branches out into both an action film and a morality story on the importance, of all things, of strong parenting, with enough suspense to keep you hooked even if you figure out some or all of where the film is going. It’s far more clever than your typical mainstream action or sci-fi movie, skipping the naked sentimentality of the similarly ambitious Inception without aiming any lower in its plot.

The Odd Life of Timothy Green.

The Odd Life of Timothy Green works best as an all-ages movie, one that had to be simplified to appeal to a younger audience as well as the adult crowd taking the kids to see it, but that process of simplification went too far to make the film interesting or compelling on an entirely-adult level. Granted, there’s a market for movies that are strictly for kids, but the best films for kids are those that still resonate for older audiences, something that Odd Life fails to do.

A childless couple, Cynthia (Jennifer Garner, also known as Sydney Bristow) and Jim (Joel Edgerton, who was superb in a supporting role in Animal Kingdom), are telling the story to two adoption officials to explain why they would be suitable candidates to adopt a child. (The lead official is played by Iranian-American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, who might have one of the five best voices in Hollywood.) After learning that, for reasons unstated to us, they will be unable to have children of their own. In a wine-fueled attempt at closure, they write the list of traits their ideal child would have had on sheets torn off a tiny notepad, place those sheets in a small jewelry or cigarbox, and bury it in their garden. That night, with the help of a highly localized thunderstorm, a ten-year-old boy named Timothy appears in their house, calling them Mom and Dad … and bearing leaves on his lower legs. No one seems to ask too many questions about how this couple suddenly are parents to a fully-formed child, nor is anyone all that concerned with the slightly odd things that seem to happen when he’s around. Best not to ask too many questions if you realize you’re participating in someone else’s fable.

The movie spends most of its 100 minutes dancing on the line between sweet and maudlin, and it tends a little much toward the latter. Its best moments involve Timothy acting with almost Zen-like calm when faced with others, mostly adults but occasionally children, who attempt to take out their misery on him, only to find his demeanor immutable. The one who won’t change, the blatantly sleazy and absurdly named Franklin Crudstaff, scion of the family that own’s the pencil factory that provides the bulk of employment in the town, gets his compeuppance in the end in an overly pat, sentimental scene where his own mother sells him down the river. Even when you want to like what’s going on on-screen, there’s an element of empty calories to the story that, for me, spoiled my ability to suspend my disbelief even for a few minutes.

The main problem I had with Timothy Green, in the film’s own terms, is that he had one leaf too many. The various anecdotes that add up to Timothy’s odd life are all so abbreviated that even the best-explained one, involving Timothy’s artsy sort-of-girlfriend Joni, remains fairly shallow – again, easier for the single-digit portion of the audience to follow, but very unsatisfying for their parents. Cynthia’s sister, played to annoying shrillness by Rosemarie Dewitt, is the caricature of an overbearing soccer mom, making frequent digs at her sister and at Timothy’s oddness, apparently masking some inner sadness or emptiness that is never explained. Dianne Wiest is wasted as a one-note character, Franklin’s humorless mother; she’s great, but this is sort of like asking Linus Torvalds to help you change your computer’s wallpaper. The script only gave the meaty roles to Garner and Edgerton, who do their best with somewhat stock characters, and I called every plot twist before it happened, not just because the setups were obvious but because the film couldn’t progress in any other direction.

Foremost among those obvious points was the fact that Timothy Green had to die. Without that – and his death is portrayed as a disappearance on screen, which should be minimally traumatic for younger viewers – the film would devolve from fable to pure fantasy: A childless couple gets the perfect child and they live happily ever after. With Timothy working against the clock, it’s easier to interpret the film on an adult level as a classic if slightly hoary fable – our time is finite, whether we’re referring to our lives or to specific relationships, and we don’t know how long we have, so we need to make the most of it by making other people happier.

Odeya Rush, playing Joni, stood out as an actress to watch both for her performance and because she’s going to grow up to be a stunner. Lin-Manuel Miranda (was completely wasted as the nerdy (and perhaps gay?) gardening expert who makes just two brief appearances in the film, although even a brief cameo from the man who wrote and sang “Silent E is a Ninja” makes any film better. Both are exactly what The Odd Life of Timothy Green needed more of – charismatic actors whose characters didn’t get enough screen time because the script called for Timothy to get involved in one or two stories too many for the movie’s run time. It’s appropriate for kids but I’m afraid there isn’t enough here to engage their parents.

Next up: I saw Looper last night and really enjoyed it. I’ll shoot to get that review up in 24 hours, before Arizona Fall League insanity starts on Tuesday.