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.

Bread and Tulips.

Bread & Tulips (Pane e tulipani) was a huge success in Italy when it was released in 2000, sweeping their version of the Academy Awards and even earning “official selection” status at Cannes and at the Toronto International Film Festival. Yet it’s actually a light, tender-hearted comedy about second chances in life and love, especially where kind souls are involved. (It’s available on Netflix Instant video as well.)

Licia Maglietta plays Rosalba, a harried, unappreciated housewife who, while touring ancient ruins in the Italian countryside with her fatheaded husband and their two sons, ends up left behind at a rest stop, for which her husband blames her even though he failed to notice she was missing for a few hours. (He’s a real peach, the lone one-dimensional character in the film, but at least one used to good purpose as the plot’s main punching bag.) On a whim, she hitchhikes to Venice, a city she’s always wanted to visit but has never seen, and through another series of misfortunes ends up settling there, taking a part-time job, and rooming with an Icelandic waiter, Fernando (played by Bruno Ganz), who has to delay his plans to hang himself due to his unexpected houseguest.

The film marries two old movie tropes, the bored housewife making her escape and the stranger in a town of lovable eccentrics, in a way that shouldn’t work as well as it does. The script’s beauty is that it presents these various oddballs as they are, in favorable lighting but without commentary and often without much definition. Fernando’s neighbor, the “holistic masseuse” (and perhaps lady of the evening) Grazia, ends up in an intrigue involving the hapless plumber-turned-detective Constantino, who should be the story’s main antagonist as an extension of Rosalba’s husband but ends up winning our affection because of his determination and ineptitude.

Bread and Tulips is sweet yet seldom sentimental, and if it’s a little unrealistic at times, it’s more to avoid getting bogged down in the mundane details of a woman just taking off without much cash or means of support. There’s a fair amount of slapstick humor along with some good situational gags, such as Rosalba’s husband asking his mistress to iron a shirt or two for him, while Giuseppe Battiston handles the clownish role of Constantino in a way that engenders sympathy for him as even he tries to ruin Rosalba’s fantasy.

The only false notes in the film, to me, were the dream sequences, in part because they’re not set off from the film in any clear way, and in part because they felt like a clumsy method of demonstrating Rosalba’s own inner turmoil at her abandonment of her family obligations. Awake, she seldom shows any guilt, and relishes her freedom, her independence, her ability to put herself first and revisit long-dormant dreams, including an apparent passion for music that resurfaces when she finds a disused accordion in the wardrobe of the room she rents. The dreams seemed forced, as if the writer or director felt that we needed a reminder that she’d fled her family or that she at least loved her two sons.

Roger Ebert’s review of Bread and Tulips praised the film, but contains one line in the first paragraph that I found shocking to the point that I was slightly offended by it:

Not a classic beauty, not a ”movie star,” but a 40-ish dreamer who’s just a little overweight, with the kind of sexiness that makes you think of bread baking, clean sheets and that everything is going to be all right. 

Man, I like Roger Ebert, but this is a seriously cracked view of beauty. Maglietti – who was around 45 when the film was made – looks gorgeous as soon as she gets to Venice and out of her frumpy-mummy clothes, spending most of the film in flattering sundresses that would certainly have exposed her as “a little overweight” if she had had any weight over. And I’m not even sure where to go with Ebert’s opinion on what’s sexy about an attractive 40-year-old woman (or about the type of women who bake bread?). Besides, if everything’s going to be all right, maybe you’re doing it all wrong.

What Ebert might have said was that Maglietti’s sex appeal is paired with a youthful visage that makes her seem more approachable, not just for the audience, but to lend credence to the idea that strangers in Venice would just take to this woman, offering her a place to rent, a part-time job, or help keeping her location a secret from her husband (who seems to want her back to take care of the house, not to be his wife or lover). Maglietti doesn’t look close to her age in this role, playing a woman in her late 30s with a cuteness that renders Rosalba’s personality as something even younger. She carries the film, with plenty of help from her supporting cast, in the kind of romantic comedy that would never be made by a major U.S. studio because it relies too much on tired tactics like strong writing and actors who bring their characters to life.

The Descendants.

I’ve been less motivated to watch all of the 2011 nominees for Best Picture than I was the previous year, with a few films in this year’s batch in which I have absolutely zero interest (The Help and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and the winner, The Artist failing to meet expectations for me – to say nothing of the time I’ve spent watching rookie league games the last two months. I finally got around to watching The Descendants this weekend, and I’m struggling to find a credible reason why it wouldn’t beat out The Artist in a fair fight, one based strictly on the quality of the films rather than what I presume was a nostalgia move.

George Clooney plays the starring role as Matt King, a successful Hawaiian attorney whose wife, Elizabeth, suffers a serious boating accident at the start of the film, leaving her comatose and eventually without hope of recovery. Matt’s two daughters, the wayward Alexandra and the sassy Scottie, were already struggling before the accident, and the situation is made worse when Alexandra informs her father that Elizabeth had been having an affair. This revelation launches Matt, with Alexandra’s help, on a quixotic quest to identify and confront the man who has cuckolded him, only to find that he, too, has a family likely to be devastated if the adultery is unearthed. It’s clear as this storyline unfolds that this is not only Matt’s way of dealing with his two-headed grief, but a way that his remaining family nucleus can come back together and try to heal as a single unit, rather than three individuals drifting apart on a sea of sorrow and hurt.

None of the film’s characters, even side characters like Alexandra’s sort-of-boyfriend Sid, ends up one-dimensional, a rare trick in a movie with this many people in pivotal roles. The film could easily have demonized Elizabeth’s paramour, and while he’s hardly a good guy, he’s more than just a dark presence around the story’s periphery. Elizabeth’s father similarly appears with a purpose but with a severe underlying pain that governs his anger towards Matt and Alexandra, anger that presents Matt with a difficult decision near the end of the film. I had a little trouble with Judy Greer as the oblivious wife of Elizabeth’s lover, although that was primarily because every time she talked, I pictured Cheryl from Archer (whom Greer voices brilliantly).

The movie’s subplot, however, has all of the sentiment and overstatement that the main plot lacks. Matt is the sole executor of the trust overseeing the 25,000 acres of “pristine” land on Kauai that must be sold before the trust dissolves in seven years, and most of the various cousins involved in the trust want to sell out to a developer who’ll build a resort, golf course, and and other commercial properties, making the cousins instant millionaires. I doubt I need to explain what course Matt ends up taking, although the film offers minimal explanation for it beyond his soliloquy at the time he makes it (in which he acknowledges that he has no immediate solution to the problem caused by the rule against perpetuities); the parallel between his attempt to save the land and his newfound attention to the consequences of his actions and his similar efforts to save what remians of his family is obvious and forced, the one false note in a film that otherwise succeeds on how often it feels true.

George Clooney excels in the role of Matt, although I did find it hard to accept one of the most famous actors in the world in this sort-of-everyman role – doesn’t everyone around Matt realize he looks a lot like George Freaking Clooney? – and the attempts to frump him up a little, like tucking in his shirts, greying his hair, making him run oddly in flip-flops, and so on, only emphasized the disconnect between the character and the actor, much like Cary Grant in his final film role, Walk, Don’t Run. Clooney is at the point in his career where any performance in a serious film that isn’t worthy of an Oscar nomination is a surprise, so I was far more taken by the performance of Shailene Woodley, making her feature-film debut as Alexandra, who begins the film away at a reform school where she’s supposed to be getting help with substance-abuse issues. Her character develops far more over the course of the film, sometimes in mildly surprising ways, as she goes from spoiled, snotty, justifiably-angry daughter to her father’s main emotional supporter and partner-in-crime. Woodley had to show more range than any other actor in The Descendants, from the heartbreaking scene where she learns that her mother isn’t going to recover to the just-as-heartbreaking scenes at the end where the family says goodbye – delivering subtle grace notes like her movements as she brings her younger sister into their mother’s room – enough that I’m surprised she didn’t receive more attention come awards season. With that kind of ability and the requisite beauty (Hollywood accepts no less), Woodley looks like a star in the making.

Of the four Best Picture nominees I’ve seen so far, I’d put The Descendants on top, ahead of Hugo, which I loved but which didn’t have the subtlety of The Descendants and relied more on fantasy to drive its main plot forward. That’s not necessarily bad, but I think it’s harder to make a great film while trying to keep the characters and story firmly grounded in reality, and of course The Descendants couldn’t fill space with special effects or long flashback sequences. The Descendants also found significant humor in the cracks between the darker sequences in the film. Both movies make The Artist look like paper-thin in comparison.

Pelotero.

The stellar new documentary Pelotero shines a light on the way Major League Baseball has used the Dominican Republic as a pipeline for talent over the past forty years by following a pair of up-and-coming prospects leading up to Signing Day in 2009. The 75-minute film is screening in select cities, and is also available as a rental for $6.99 via both amazon and iTunesicon.

Pelotero started out as a simple documentary about the way MLB mines talent in the Dominican Republic, focusing on two young players, Miguel Angel Sano and Jean Carlos Batista, as they approached their 16th birthdays and the July 2nd date after which they’d be allowed to sign pro contracts. The directors appear to have gained almost unfettered access to both players, their families, and their trainers, as well as a surprising number of on-camera quotes from scouts with major league teams operating in the Dominican. That alone would have made the film worth seeing, but it probably wouldn’t have had much narrative greed to keep the attention of a larger audience.

As some of you probably remember, Sano ended up at the center of a controversy over his actual age and identity, one the directors were able to follow in real time and to expose in a way that has to have MLB and the Pittsburgh Pirates deeply unhappy. The film makes it quite clear that the family blames Pittsburgh’s top scout in the Dominican Republic, Rene Gayo, for starting the rumors about Sano’s age and then colluding with the MLB investigator (who, off camera, tells Sano to sign with the Pirates for $2 million to make the investigation go away) so he can acquire the player at a discount. The most damning evidence, obtained via a hidden camera, has Gayo strongly implying to the family that he is the reason Sano was partially cleared – and that they should sign with Pittsburgh as a result. The unfolding of this drama, as well as a similar if smaller-scale issue affecting Batista, and the associated effects on the players’ families, turns an ordinary documentary focusing on the exploitation of young Dominican players into a scathing indictment of corruption in MLB’s operations on the island. (The film concludes with a note that MLB declined an opportunity to respond on camera, and that MLB now claims that the depictions in the film are “inaccurate” and no longer reflect the league’s operations and conduct on the island. Gayo is still employed by the Pittsburgh Pirates and says, in another statement displayed before the credits, that he simply did his job. You can read some of MLB’s comments here and here, and it is fair for them to argue that their regulation in the Dominican Republic is stronger today than it was in 2009.)

Setting aside the specific questions of culpability in the Sano case, which may have cost him $1-2 million off his ultimate signing bonus, the film’s greatest contribution is its exposure of how Dominican prospects are treated like chattel in a factory system where independent trainers will develop players on contingency, taking up to 35% of their eventual signing bonuses, while MLB teams pay lower bonuses there than they do to comparable American- or Canadian-born prospects. The new CBA, which caps each team’s total international expenditures on all players in this signing season at a figure less than what the seventh overall pick in this June’s draft received by himself, only makes the varying treatment of players by their places of birth even more stark. Pelotero shows how much Dominican players’ families come to count on a large signing bonus as their lottery ticket out of poverty, with some players (including Sano) living in heartbreaking conditions before they sign – and relative opulence afterwards. The promise of a life-changing bonus leads to a clear sense of entitlement on the sides of some players, to Batista’s mother apparently viewing her son as a cash cow, and to incentives for players to try to cheat the system by lying about their ages or identities. MLB and Gayo come off as the villians of Sano’s story, but that doesn’t mean the players or their camps are heroes.

The directors of Pelotero deserve much credit for staying out of the story, with minimal narration from John Leguizamo that offers some slightly pro-player commentary early in the film but that largely drops off as the Sano controversy takes over. The flip side of their hands-off style is that once that storyline becomes the film’s center, the balance begins to shift, unavoidably, to Sano’s side – we are watching it from his house, and hearing most of the commentary from him, his family, and his agent, but other than Gayo, who comes off horribly, we don’t get MLB’s side because they declined to comment on film. There was little the directors could have done to restore the balance without participation from the Commissioner’s Office, but the film does suffer slightly in the end from their absence. It is an outstanding film even with that caveat, a must-watch for any baseball fan. After you hear a trainer casually toss out “planting seeds” and “harvesting” as a metaphor for how he develops teenaged prospects before they turn 16, you will find it hard to look at any Dominican prospect the same way.

Brave.

Brave is by far the most beautiful animated film I have ever seen, with details so clear and so lifelike that the movie exceeded any expectations I had for how realistic computer-generated images could be. It features a strong female protagonist, something I appreciate as the father of a six-year-old princess-obsessed daughter, and a stirring score primarily written by Scottish composer Patrick Doyle, with two songs performed by Scottish singer Julie Fowlis. Unfortunately, the story is a lot less nuanced than previous entries in the Pixar canon, with a more predictable plot and none of the secondary storylines we’ve come to expect from a studio that has produced so many masterpieces.

The warrior princess at the heart of Brave, Merida (voiced by, who else, Kelly Macdonald), is being groomed for eventual betrothal to one of three princes from allied clans in the Scottish highlands, yet has no interest in an arranged marriage or any fate written for her by her domineering mother, Elinor (Emma Thompson). Her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), is happy to encourage her tomboyish habits, giving her a bow and arrow for a birthday present and making fun of her would-be suitors with her, yet defers to his wife on all matters of import. Merida runs away after a blowout quarrel with her mother over her refusal to accept any of the princes, ending up in a witch’s cottage in the forest, which, naturally, leads to a spell that goes awry, the effects of which Merida must spend the remainder of the film trying to undo.

The animation of Merida’s unruly, curly, red hair is an absolute marvel, both an obvious symbol of her fiery independent spirit and a chance for Pixar’s animators to show off their tricks, which are even more impressive now than they were in Ratatouille, perhaps my least favorite Pixar film but which featured remarkable animation of Colette’s hair. Pixar re-wrote its animation system for the first time in 25 years to allow for more realistic depictions of human characters, and it shows all over this film, even in the depiction of the fur on the two ursine characters and in breathtaking panomaric shots of the highland forests, cliffs, and waterfalls. It is a new high-water mark for computer animation in the movies.

While my daughter enjoyed the movie tremendously, adults will likely find it a little too predictable, and the resolution relied on what was, for Pixar at least, an abnormal amount of just straight-on physical combat between man and bear and eventually between the two bears themselves. The mother-daughter bonding that occurs after the spell takes hold is poignant without becoming too sentimental, with the usual Pixar message of the need for characters who disagree to open their minds and work together. Merida’s three younger brothers, mischievous triplets who are too young to speak but are old enough to understand and use simple machines, steal most of the scenes in which they appear and seem tailor-made for future appearances in Pixar shorts, if not in a film of their own. Yet they don’t have any sort of story, appearing as comic relief and to help Merida and her mother try to break the spell. I also thought the film had less of Pixar’s trademark humor, relying on more obvious sight gags and even some mild bathroom humor to fill that gap.

However, I know I’m holding Pixar to an impossibly high standard – one they set through their first eleven films. (I still haven’t seen Cars 2.) No studio has been so good for so long and it may be unfair to expect every one of their films to be as good as The Incredibles or Up. Brave is an excellent movie by industry standards and my daughter loved it, not least because it has such a strong female lead. It just didn’t quite meet my very high expectations.

50/50.

My ranking of the top 100 draft prospects for 2012 went up earlier today for Insiders. Twenty-two of them now have full scouting repots, with more to go up over the rest of the month.

Last year’s independent comedy 50/50 seems to have garnered little notice outside of some positive reviews, even though it’s quite funny and never as depressing as the premise would indicate (and perhaps not as dark as it should have been). Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a 28-year-old public radio reporter who discovers that a pain in his lower back is actually caused by a tumor on his spine, a rare form of cancer with a survival rate that gives the film its title – yet despite that morbid plot, the film mines substantial humor from all aspects of its protagonist’s experience.

Adam is in a dysfunctional relationship with a somewhat self-centered artist when he gets his diagnosis, but it’s his best friend Kyle (played by Seth Rogen) who rallies, with well-intentioned if not always well-executed attempts to keep Adam’s spirits up through the diagnosis and treatment. Adam’s girlfriend, who doesn’t seem to be that into him before he gets the news, isn’t quite up to the task (and is easily the film’s worst-drawn character, although neither of the other two female characters is all that well fleshed-out), while his therapist, Katherine, is still in grad school and is lost when her sessions with Adam veer off script, and his mother, played affectingly by an almost unrecognizable Angelica Houston, is mostly around to get on Adam’s nerves.

Gordon-Levitt carried Brick and was superb in a minor part in Inception, so it’s no surprise to see him excel here as an overly sensitive, slightly meek guy who gradually comes out of his shell while facing his own mortality. But Rogen, who helped produce the film (based on the true story of the experiences of Rogen’s friend, writer Will Reiser, with a similar cancer diagnosis), stole more scenes than anyone else as the loud, boorish, very crude best friend who also happens to care more for Gordon-Levitt’s character than anyone else in the film, even more than Rachael. I’m sure Adam’s mother cares for him, but she only appears in a handful of scenes and is more of a nuisance than a loving parent until the very end of the film – and even then, Kyle takes center stage when the doctor discusses the results of the last procedure. (I wonder if Reiser was working out his issues through the script here, or how his mother felt about her portrayal.) Anna Kendrick fares much better here than in Up in the Air, putting her great talents for appearing flummoxed and looking vulnerably cute to much better use here as Adam’s therapist, yet she’s still overshadowed by Rogen’s character and ends up short on screen time given how important her character is to the plot.

The problem with 50/50 is that it’s only a witty dark comedy, nothing more. The cancer is merely a plot device for exposing how the patient’s relationships with friends and family change once he receives the diagnosis – but only the humorous aspects of the changes, not the subtleties. I have no problem with cancer being played for a laugh, but when the film was over, I thought of a dozen ways in which the film had fallen short, from Mark’s father’s dementia to the way the film made chemo almost seem easy to the fact that every female character was two-dimensional. It’s a funny film, and it’s a well-acted film, but the script was too superficial for it to have any lasting impact with me.

Drive.

It didn’t take me long to find a 2011 film that I thought was better than The Artist. I admit to a strong partiality toward noir in all its forms, but even adjusting for that, I thought Drive was tighter, more interesting, better performed, and a lot less cliched than the actual Best Picture winner. (Drive wasn’t nominated.)

Based on a novel by James Sallis (just $5.18 on amazon), Drive follows its nameless stunt-driver/mechanic protagonist, played by Ryan Gosling with the bare minimum of emotion, as he moonlights as a getaway driver for hire, a role that gives the film’s car-chase scenes some actual justification. The Driver develops an attachment to a new neighbor Irene, (Carey Mulligan), and to her young son, Benicio, whose father, Standard, is in prison when the movie begins but comes home to find himself pursued by thugs to whom he owes money for protecting him while he was in prison. When the Driver sees Standard take a beating at the hands of the thugs and learns that they’ve threatened Irene and Benicio, he offers to help Standard fulfill the gangsters’ demand that he rob a pawn shop holding a substantial amount of cash, which, inevitably, leads the Driver into a conflict with the gangsters themselves that he resolves (in part) through his skills at the wheel. It’s a pretty simple plot with a small number of characters, but they’re all looped together very tightly, if a little improbably, unless we believe Los Angeles is so small that it only has two gangsters in it.

One of the hallmarks of the noir genre is understated dialogue, which is one of Drive‘s two greatest strengths. The Driver couldn’t say less if he was made of stone, and even his expressions are so slight that it’s often unclear whether he’s motivated by anger, self-preservation, or the desire to protect Irene and Benicio. He barely smiles or frowns, and is almost inhuman in his calmness under pressure. I wish that understatement had extended to the film’s depictions of violence, which are unsparing (fine) and gory (pandering?), and which added little to the film itself. I expected bodies, but the director seems to take a perverse delight in the destruction of the human head.

With scant dialogue, a movie like this lives or dies on the quality of its performances, which turns out to be the other strength of the film. Gosling is excellent as the Driver, playing him as emotionless without turning him into a hackneyed “tightly-wound hero about to explode” character. Albert Brooks is even better playing against type as a high-ranking gangster who hides an inner ruthlessness behind a somewhat erudite facade. (I’d also give points to Carey Mulligan for being cute, which the role requires since the Driver is supposed to develop feelings for her fairly quickly.)

Gosling’s character is so calm and insular that it requires a precise performance that keeps emotions you’d expect to see in scenes involving fear or rage below the surface, yet Gosling doesn’t come off as a charmless robot or a monotonous antihero. Brooks steals every scene he’s in, even those with Gosling, again by keeping his sinister nature underneath the sarcastic but not humorless exterior; when he’s not taking care of business, he has his charms, yet when he flips the switch and needs to commit some horrible act of violence, there’s no overplaying – this is just business, from a man who knows when something needs to be done. The failure of the Academy to give Brooks a nomination for Best Supporting Actor earned them much criticism in a year when they seemed to screw a lot of things up (Dujardin over Oldman for Best Actor would be one such mistake in my mind), and based just on Brooks’ performance here I can see why, although I still would have given the award to Christopher Plummer for Beginners. Gosling makes the movie, but Brooks elevates it every time he’s on screen.

The story itself doesn’t have much depth behind it, but imbuing a noir film with too much subtext would rob it of its essential noir-ness. Noir is entertaining without targeting the least common denominator: Phrasing is clipped, dialogue is sparse, explanations are few. The viewer is drawn into the film because he has to work a little harder to understand motivations or connections between characters. Drive only veers from typical noir through its depictions of violence, but not the intensity attached – there should be a coldness pervading all conflicts between protagonist and antagonists, which Drive achieves; the gore only served as a distraction to me.

(I should probably mention the plaudits given to the film’s soundtrack, but I can’t say I noticed it at all. Soundtracks and scores almost never make any impression on me unless they’re intrusive.)

The limitation of Drive is that you have to like this style of movies – it’s an action movie without a tremendous amount of action (which led to one of the more frivolous lawsuits I’ve ever heard of), and it’s a sharp movie without a ton of dialogue. I like hard-boiled detective novels for the same reasons I liked Drive, because I like seeing a plot stripped down to its essentials, with tension that’s derived from the story itself. Your mileage may vary.