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.


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.


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.

Midnight in Paris.

Before this weekend I had actually seen just one Woody Allen film, Annie Hall, which I couldn’t stand, mostly because I couldn’t stand Allen’s character, which I guess means I couldn’t stand Allen himself since they seem impossible to distinguish. Since that’s regarded as one of his best films, perhaps his greatest film period, I always assumed that I wouldn’t like much of his oeuvre and used my movie-watching time on other directors. The reviews on last year’s Midnight in Paris were positive enough, especially in saying that the film was different from much of Allen’s work, that I figured I’d give it a shot, especially since I’m working through most of last year’s Best Picture nominees. I absolutely loved this movie, so my own – dare I say it? – bias against Allen nearly kept me away from a great, fun, romantic film.

Midnight‘s main setting couldn’t be much more in my wheelhouse, as it contains an homage to the 1920s within its meditation on nostalgia and our modern happiness paradox, along with a touch of magical realism that, to Allen’s great credit, is never actually explained. Owen Wilson, as likeable as I have ever seen him, plays the Allen stand-in character Gil, unhappily engaged to a narcissistic, shallow woman (played unlikeably by Rachel McAdams) who seems like she might be one of the Bluths’ first cousins, and whose mother might be Lucille Bluth’s long-lost twin sister. Gil is on a vacation to Paris with his fiancee and future in-laws, yet he wants to settle in Paris and try to become a serious novelist rather than continue as a hack screenplay writer, while his intended wants to live to Malibu and spend a lot of money on material things.

The engagement/family plot is almost worthless except as a setup for Gil’s desire to escape to another life, or, as chance would have it, another era. I was close to giving up on the movie after ten minutes before the real story emerges. (Spoilers ahead.) While wandering around Paris alone late one night, Gil is picked up by an old car full of drunken French revelers who insist that he join them and who take him to a party where he meets an American couple named Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, only to discover after his initial skepticism that he’s been sent back in time to the 1920s. Over the course of several such nights, he encounters a number of famous writers, artists, and critics of that time, develops a crush on a French model, and, of course, reevaluates his engagement and the serious choices he’s about to make with his life and career.

These scenes in the 1920s feature a number of well-known actors and other recognizable faces having a blast playing those famous figures from the Parisian salons of that decade, a pleasure that becomes immediately infectious as Adrien Brody gets into character as Salvador Dali or Kathy Bates steals scenes as Gertrude Stein. Gil getting career advice from Ernest Hemingway or trying to mediate between Zelda and F. Scott could seem precious or sentimental in the wrong hands, but Allen makes the dialogue fit these larger-than-life characters in ways that blend our modern perceptions of them with enough realism to maintain the illusion that Gil’s trips back in time are, within the confines of the film, true to life.

Aside from Allen just having fun with famous figures from one of the west’s most fruitful artistic eras since the Renaissance, he also gradually takes the viewers into a serious meditation on the different lenses through which we view our present and the past, especially a past we only know through historical accounts. The past into which Gil travels is inevitably better than the present; perhaps they were all a figment of his imagination, but regardless, they appear as that time period does in its contemporary literature, while shielding Gil from the personal suffering that might come in his own time where he has established, meaningful relationships. Allen nearly writes himself into a corner with this gilt-edged look at the past, but his resolution, while a little quick, is also clever and uncontrived, a spoiler worth preserving at the same time.

Rachel McAdams is shrill and two-dimensional as Gil’s fiancee, and Kurt Fuller, goofily funny as the socially awkward coroner on Psych, is wasted as her snobby father. I’m not even sure who played the mother but she’s such an awful caricature it’s not even worth looking it up. The joy in this movie is in the nocturnal sequences, where Wilson shines – never quite developing the Zuckerman-esque level of annoying that Allen himself achieved for me in Annie Hall. It’s good enough that I feel like I have erred in failing to give the director a second chance sooner, so I’ll end with a question: If I didn’t like Annie Hall but loved Midnight in Paris, which Woody Allen movie should I watch next?

Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

The documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi has quietly been getting rave reviews from chefs and food writers but relatively less attention from mainstream film critics, probably because of its genre and language (it’s entirely in Japanese, with English subtitles) rather than its content. Following one of the most famous sushi chefs in the world and exploring his obsessive attention to detail and the demands he places on his employees and vendors, the film also features some of the most beautiful shots of food I have ever seen, the kind of cinematography that will have you pouring soy sauce on the floor in anticipation. (It’s available on Netflix Instant, which is how I watched it.)

Jiro Ono operates one of the world’s best-known and most exclusive sushi restaurants, a ten-seat establishment in Tokyo called Sukiyabashi Jiro that only serves sushi – no appetizers, no soba dishes, just the fish. He was 85 at the time the documentary was filmed, yet still works at the restaurant every day, usually serving the fish but at this point preparing relatively little of it himself, instead overseeing the rigid structure of the kitchen, where his eldest son, who will one day take over the business, is the de facto headmaster. Jiro’s obsession with quality and long track record have given him an inside track with key vendors, including a rice vendor who won’t sell Jiro’s favorite strain of rice to a large hotel that asks for it, while also making internships at his restaurant into ten-year apprenticehoods where anything less than perfection is unacceptable.

The film documents some of the more unusual kitchen practices at Sukiyabashi Jiro, although many of these are made possible by the restaurant’s small menu. They age their tuna for up to ten days, and they massage the octopus for as long as 50 minutes, nearly twice as long as other restaurants, to tenderize the meat. (I’ve had octopus sushi once or twice and hated it because it was rubbery. Now at least I know it doesn’t have to be that way.) Jiro and his son have exacting standards for flavor, texture, and preparation that I don’t want to spoil for viewers, as seeing some of these practices in action was among the highlights of the film.

Jiro’s two sons also play significant roles in the film as Japanese custom has placed them in very different roles of succession. His eldest son, Yoshikazu, runs Jiro’s restaurant now, while Jiro’s younger son, Takashi, apprenticed there but had to leave and start his own restaurant, a mirror image of Jiro’s, because the eldest son is the traditional successor in Japanese culture. Yet this subplot of sorts isn’t that dramatic because Yoshikazu doesn’t express any of the regret or frustration you’d expect a son in that situation to express – waiting for his father to retire or, more morbidly, to die, so he can take over the business. Yoshikazu didn’t seem terribly unhappy with his lot, and as it is, he handles much of the responsibility, something his father acknowledges.

One of those key responsibilities is acquiring the fish each day from Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market, forming by far the most informative part of the film for me. I’d read about this market before, including a chapter in Trevor Corson’s indispensable book The Story of Sushi, but had never seen an inside look at the institution or how buyers choose their fish. Watching Jiro’s primary tuna vendor walk around a giant warehouse space, poking at giant whole tuna, taking bits of flesh and examining them with a flashlight, wasn’t gripping – really nothing in this film is – but it was enlightening.

There’s a brief discussion at the end of the film about the future of sushi and of fish as a food source in general, mostly led by Yoshikazu, who blames the spread of what I would call cheap sushi – the crap you get at the grocery store, at non-sushi restaurants, or even at awful chain sushi places like Ra that specialize in bland, lower-quality fish dressed up with toppings like a damn ice cream sundae. Sushi shouldn’t be available in packages of eight maki for $7 at the supermarket. Yoshikazu doesn’t get too far into solutions, although he mentions his own vested interest in maintaining a supply of high-quality fish; given Japan’s refusal to cut down on or eliminate its harvesting and purchasing of bluefin tuna, I’m not surprised that he held back, but I imagine he and his father would carry significant weight if they came out in favor of broad bans on environmentally damaging fishing practices.

What Jiro Dreams of Sushi might lack for some viewers is drama; most good documentaries document something more than a man and his restaurant, running into some sort of conflict along the way or covering a past event that was inherently dramatic. This is an homage to a man’s lifelong obsession with his work, with approaching perfection asymptotically, with preserving an ancient cuisine while elevating it to its highest level. It is also pornography for sushi-lovers, with mindblowing images of nigiri made by Jiro, his son, and the three other men (only men – women don’t make sushi in Japan, another issue they neglected to address) who work there. I’ve never seen fish that looked like that. It’ll make you want to, say, find the next Yu Darvish to go scout over in Tokyo – as long as you have a month’s notice to make a reservation at Jiro’s place.

Trouble with the Curve.

Trouble With the Curve opens with a scene of Clint Eastwood’s back as he struggles to urinate and has a conversation with his uncooperative apparatus before it finally complies with his demands. The film is all downhill from there. It’s manipulative, anachronistic, sentimental claptrap that would make Ken Burns blush and is an insult to anyone who works in the baseball industry, including the very scouts it purports to defend through a staunchly Luddite point of view that would have seemed quaint a decade ago.

Aside from a host of baseball-related mistakes, the film is just too superficial to take seriously, probably better interpreted as a wishful fable than a serious story – built around the idea that good things will come to good people if they’re patient and keep their minds and hearts open. That’s cute if the film is aimed at kids, but it’s a little insulting in an adult movie that’s trying to play it straight, hitting every cliché and predictable plot point it can along the way, like the kid in driver’s ed who thinks the goal is to knock over every cone. When you see the young peanut vendor is left-handed, you know what’s coming. When you see Eastwood’s character’s daughter, Micki (the always adorable Amy Adams), play pool in a bar and humiliate the stranger she’s opposing, you know what’s coming next. When Micki is up against a glib, ambitious colleague for a potential promotion to partner at her law firm, you know where we’re going. When Micki and the younger scout Johnny, with whom she’s tentatively been flirting, end up at a lakeside in the middle of the night, you know what comes next. When Micki’s boyfriend at the start of the film says their relationship is “perfect on paper,” your eyes should roll back far enough that you can see the inside of your skull. Absolutely nothing in this film should surprise if you’ve ever seen another movie in your life.

The shame about Trouble with the Curve is that it could have been an interesting film if it weren’t so busy trying to beat us over the head with Feelings: A long-widowed scout facing his mortality not just through age but through disability (declining eyesight) and technological changes that both threaten the loss of the career to which he’s been married for thirty years reconnects with his estranged daughter as they jointly go to evaluate a candidate for the second pick in what could be that scout’s last draft. Unfortunately, the script is so busy trying to convince us what these characters are that it gives us no time to learn it organically. The scout, Gus Lobel, refers to the “Interweb” and “fang shmei,” while referring to yoga as “voodoo.” Micki’s a vegan, because a gorgeous 30-year-old woman isn’t sufficiently distinguished from grizzled 60-year-old scouts as it is. The main antagonist in the film, the office stat geek (played by Matt Lillard like he’s got a sinus infection), never goes to see players and seems to think there’s value in high school stats, while thinking nothing of insulting Gus to his face. Gus crying at his wife’s graveside while mumble-singing “You Are My Sunshine” might have looked good on paper, but in practice it is so blatantly manipulative even a Lifetime executive would send it back for rewrite.

Adams’ performance as Micki was one of the few bright spots in the movie, bringing some semblance of reality to a thinly-drawn character and delivering the best lines of the film in the diner-booth soliloquy to her father, providing at least something of a backstory to explain both her character and her estrangement from Gus. She’s magnetic enough to pull a strong performance from Justin Timberlake, whose job otherwise is to stand around and be likable, something he’s pretty good at doing. There’s a smattering of good baseball in here, including some of the lingo used (dead-red hitter, quick hands, using hips and legs for power), and the fact that the other main candidate for the draft pick in question goes to Arizona State. Micki knowing the hotel housekeeper’s name showed the kind of subtlety too absent in the script, showing she’s the kind of person who’d take the time to find that out and then remember it. But don’t ask me to believe that her law firm, which has no female partners, is seriously considering promoting another white male over her just because she’s tending to her ailing father.

A number of you asked on Twitter if the film was even worth seeing just because of its baseball content, but I’d say no, it’s not. Even aside from the baseball errata, it’s just a maudlin father-daughter story melded with an awkward romantic comedy involving the daughter and the younger rival scout. The emotions in the film almost never rang true for me, aside from a few moments where Adams gives the shaky script her best efforts, and the story is so predictable that there’s no narrative greed to keep you engaged.

As for the baseball stuff, this film really could have used a basic fact-checker, a consultant somewhere along the way to just say, “hey, this stuff is dead wrong, and someone on that Interweb is going to call you out on it.” Here’s just a list of stuff I wrote down that was absurd, in rough chronological order.

* Maybe the biggest error of all is the idea that nine days before the draft, Atlanta’s area scout (Gus) hasn’t seen the player in his area who’s a candidate for the second overall pick – and no one else in the organization has seen him either. That player would have been seen more than a dozen times by the area guy, every regional and national cross-checker, and the scouting director (an underutilized John Goodman), and possibly by a front-office exec or two since the player is within driving distance of Atlanta. The idea that this huge pick is hinging on one look less than two weeks before the draft is necessary to feed into the film’s mythologizing of old scouts, but in fact, it’s insulting to scouts of all ages by making their process seem more whimsical and less methodical.

* Gus’s resume is an impossibility. He’s a lifelong area scout in the Carolinas who signed Dusty Baker (Sacramento), Chipper Jones (Jacksonville), and Tom Glavine (Massachusetts)? He’s “only signed three guys in four years” … and that’s a bad thing? Some scouts go a year or two without signing any players because that’s how the draft goes. But the geography thing bothers me more – just pick players from the same region. It’s not that hard.

* Scouts don’t stay at rundown motels like the one where Gus, Johnny (Timberlake), and the others stay. We all like our frequent guest points way too much for that.

* The actor playing the phenom, Bo Gentry … I hate to say it, but for a baseball player, the kid is fat. The only legitimate prospect I can think of in the last five years to look like that is Dan Vogelbach, and he’s probably a DH who was never a consideration for that spot in the draft. When they refer to Gentry as a “five tool” player, they conveniently decline to list those tools, one of which – speed – is clearly not in Gentry’s toolbox. We never even see him field. Just find a more athletic actor and this issue goes away. I did love seeing Cocoa Carl from Good Eats playing Gentry’s dad.

* Gentry is a right-handed hitter, so why are all the scouts sitting on the third base side to scout him? You can’t see his hands from there – scouts want to see a hitter’s open side more than his closed side.

* Are there only five scouts in the whole industry, and only one of them under the age of 60?

* The draft-room scene mentioning a “draft and trade deal” … come on. You can’t trade draft picks in baseball.

* Gus mentions seeing a “hitch” in a player’s swing, which is a real thing – but it’s something even non-scouts can notice, and I didn’t see one in the movie. Besides, it’s not an automatic kill on a player – Hunter Pence has a hitch so big it looks like he stole it off a tractor-trailer and he’s done fairly well for himself.

* I’m okay with a film embellishing the drama of the draft room by implying that the decision on the second overall pick is being made in the final seconds before it’s made, but just for the record, no team operates like that. Reality probably isn’t dramatic enough for fiction in this case, though.

* I don’t think there’s any team that would say no to giving a left-handed teenager with an average fastball and an average (or better) curveball a tryout. It costs them nothing. And when the kid is good, no GM in the universe is going to be concerned with finding an agent for the kid – he’d try to sign the player before any agent got wind of it.

* A struggling minor league hitter gets better because his family came to visit him? That might be the film’s most insulting moment – and the entire thread is superfluous anyway, other than to further aggrandize Gus’ character at the expense of those evil computers.

* I’ll end with a point I’m not sure about. Gus mentions at one point the possibility of “putting a bullet in my head” when he can’t scout any more. I don’t know if that was a deliberate reference to Tony Lucadello, a longtime Phillies scout who did just that at age 77 when the team let him go, but I hope that it was, as Lucadello’s story is one worth remembering, even if the reference is a little morbid.

A Separation.

My notes on Yu Darvish, Zack Greinke, C.J. Wilson, and Brandon Belt are up, as is a short piece on Baltimore promoting Dylan Bundy. I also chatted on Wednesday.

The Iranian film A Separation won universal acclaim from critics on its release last winter, landing the top spot on Roger Ebert’s list of his favorite films of 2011, winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and prompting Will Leitch to harass me to see the film. (He’s since moved on to taunting me about Trouble With the Curve.) I did finally see it this week and it is among the best movies I have ever seen, and had it been filmed in English it would have been a lock for a Best Picture nomination – and should have gotten one anyway.

The separation of the title refers to the dissolution of the marriage between Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (the beautiful Leila Hatami), a schism spawned by Simin’s desire to leave Iran permanently and raise their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) in another country, while Nader refuses to leave his ailing father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s and is rapidly fading. The film opens with Nader and Simin arguing in front of a judge who refuses to grant her petition for divorce, because Nader doesn’t consent and she lacks sufficient grounds. Simin moves out, so Nader hires a woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat, frumped up to appear less attractive), from a lower economic stratum to take care of his father during the day. Razieh struggles with the job, leading to an accident that draws her, her volatile husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), Nader, and Simin into a legal battle that threatens to tear both of their families apart.

The power of writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s script, which was nominated for Best Original Screenplay but lost to something written in English, is in its simple, unsparing realism. At several points the film seems to move as if in real-time, with painfully rendered arguments between Nader and Simin, Nader and Razieh, Hodjat and pretty much everyone in sight, and eventually Termeh, who naturally finds herself caught between the warring sides. The drama is organic, growing inevitably about of a few small misunderstandings, many of which are never cleared up (as they might not be in real life), each of which adds exponentially to the misery of the people involved.

This degree of attention to the mundane aspects of the conflict allows Farhadi to populate the film with small, intense details that punctuate the pervasive despair of the central characters. Nader doesn’t want to leave his father, who doesn’t recognize his own son but asks several times for his daughter-in-law, and feels her absence more than he would Nader’s. Hodjat’s fury is driven by his own unemployment and lingering resentment over the injustice done to him by his former employers. Nader tries to comfort Razieh and Hodjat’s young daughter, Somayeh, played by a first-time actress, Kimia Hosseini, who probably should have won the Academy Award for Best Eyes. And the final plot point hinges on something so small and so brilliant that a simple request unravels the entire resolution, leading to a final scene that may just rip your heart out for good, assuming you still had it after the first 110 minutes.

Truth, or the futile search for it, lies at the heart of A Separation, as every crime or offense that takes place in the film leaves room for doubt about culpability or even whether a crime was committed, with unreliable witnesses and dubious motives shading nearly every character’s words and actions. With the truth thus obscured, Farhadi gives us terrific portrayals of human responses to this uncertainty – usually interpreting events to fit their predetermined notions. The five principal actors are all superb in roles that demand that they show a broad range of emotions and convince the viewers that there is real empathy underlying much of the suspicion and the senses of betrayal.

It’s a small miracle that Farhadi was even allowed to make a film that is far from subtle in its criticism of life under an autocratic government in Iran. The oppressed status of women is central to the plot, in Simin’s inability to unilaterally leave her husband, in her (never fully elucidated) reasons for wanting to raise Termeh somewhere else, and in Razieh’s difficulties in finding and holding a job. The absurdity of the justice system and the stark differences between economic classes – especially Hodjat’s fear that he will be and Razieh will be treated unfairly by the authorities – also play significant roles in the story, and the overall picture painted of Iranian society is quite unflattering.

A Separation blows away most of the other 2011 films I’ve seen; of the four Best Picture nominees I’ve seen, only The Descendants comes close, yet a head-to-head comparison makes the Clooney vehicle seem ham-handed and superficial. I don’t know if A Separation was the best movie to come out in 2011 – I still haven’t seen Shame, for example – but it is the best I’ve seen from that year by far, and the presence of subtitles shouldn’t deter anyone from watching such a precise, heart-wrenching work of art.

If you’ve seen A Separation already, check out Children Of Heaven, another Iranian film that shares this film’s subtle approach and deep empathy for its main characters.