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Film Review: Rio 2

Dir. Carlos Saldanha
Score: 4.5

Do CEOs of huge conglomerated companies simply not have any children? If they do, what do you suppose they go to when they take their kids to the movies? They surely can’t take them to the standard Hollywood animated kids’ flick: Almost universally, huge, autonomous corporations are the catalyst for everything that goes wrong in the characters’ lives. Consider: In WALL-E, we had the diabolical Buy N Large Corp.; in The Lorax, it was the now-regretful Once-ler and his family’s corporation; and in Coudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 the culprit (as usual) was Live Corp. Not saying we should shed any tears for these people — I mean, with their annual take home and bonuses, they could probably just film their own animated specials if they so chose — but it’s got to be difficult to take the kids to a Saturday matinee and have them cheering for the giant, evil corporation to go down in flames before the first box of Sour Patch kids has even been opened.

This film, the inevitable follow-up to the mildly amusing original, involving a squadron of extremely rare blue Macaws facing off against an illegal logging operation in the Amazon rainforest, is hardly an exception (though at least the evil concern here appears to be run by a single wealthy man and not a huge company of suits). After all, if any child does even a modicum of research online about stripping the Amazon, they will quickly find out the names of the faceless multi-national conglomerates behind the real razing of the forest.

As far as the film is concerned, we start several years after domesticated Macaw Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) has found Jewel (Anne Hathaway), the love of his life, in Rio. They have started a family with three hatchlings, one young female who is wise and practical, one wild male who loves practical jokes, and one teen (?) female who finds everything lame. As the film begins, Blu’s former owners, the naturalists Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) and Linda (Leslie Mann), accidentally discover a flock of the ultra rare blue macaws deep in the jungle, the very same jungle that an evil oligarch (Miguel Ferrer), is presiding over his illegal logging operation.

You can pretty much see where this is headed: Jewel prompts Blu, their family, and ultimately several of their friends, including Pedro (Will i Am) and Nico (Jamie Foxx) to head to the jungle in order to meet with this strange new flock. It turns out, this flock is lead by Jewel’s father, (Andy Garcia), long separated from his daughter by some previous altercation with human beings. As a result, he’s distrustful of them, which flies directly in the fact of Blu’s willful domesticity (he insists on carrying around a fanny pack filled with human entrapments such as breath mints, tooth paste, a GPS and a swiss-army knife). Meanwhile, just to complicate things further, Blu’s arch enemy, the dulcet toned Nigel (Jermaine Clement), reduced to flightlessness in the previous film, tracks down his adversary in the jungle along with his friend, Gabi (Kristen Chenoweth), a poisonous frog who is madly in love with him, seeking hearty revenge.

The film never much rises above the bare minimum of what is expected out of it: There are lots of the same sorts of jokes floating around, mostly concerning Blu’s neurotic ineptness when it comes to living in the wild, and nearly every character that got play in the original is dutifully rolled out to get their quick laugh-lines, but the whole enterprise feels less than inspired. It could be the plotting, which is all too quick to get to the point without adding any truly unexpected element; it could also be that writer Yoni Brenner, working from a story by Don Rhymer and director Carlos Saldanha simply didn’t have all that much else to say about the characters than what was already covered in the original. It’s not without its minor charms (the colorful animation sequences are easy to take for granted in this day and age, but there are still some shots set in the Amazon that are visually pretty stunning), but it never bothers to expand on anything beyond it’s previous scope, other than to add the three fairly banal kids into the mix.

In place of real inspiration, then, the writers have resorted to a heavy-handed moral approach with the material. Don’t get me wrong, as a concerned environmentalist, I’m happy to have more propaganda decrying the destroying of the rain forest for kids to have to ponder, but it feels a good deal less impassioned than a necessary cog in order to turn the plot crankwheel a few more revolutions.

To test the theory, I asked my daughter and her friend, the two adorable 8-year-olds I brought with me to the press screening, to tell me what the lesson of the film might have been. My daughter was unsure what I meant by “lesson” (which maybe suggests something about me as a parent), but her friend thought for a few seconds and then suddenly brightened: “That everybody gets along?” she said. Back to the drawing board, enviro-friendly screenwriters.

Film Review: Draft Day

Dir. Ivan Reitman
Score: 4.8

If you have the misfortune of being a Cleveland Browns fan (and I say this lovingly as a long-suffering Eagles guy), you have a pretty central question to ask yourself before watching this film about a fictional Browns GM wheeling and dealing on one of the biggest NFL days of the year: Do you take pride in seeing your team’s colors and (partially fabricated) history on display for the world to see as an acknowledgement of your pain, or do you recoil at being the subject of a film whose principle theme concerns the gullibility and misery of being in Cleveland and rooting for the hapless Browns?

The question matters, because the GM, Sonny Weaver, Jr. (Kevin Costner), remains inscrutable to the point where we’re not even sure if we’re meant to be rooting for him or not. On the morning of the draft, he agrees with the GM of the Seahawks (Patrick St. Espirit) for an earth-shattering trade: Three consecutive first-round picks for the top pick in 2014 (in this fictional NFL world, the Seahawks, apparently, didn’t just win the Super Bowl), and consensus franchise player, QB Bo Callahan (Josh Pence).

Only things get raggedy from there. For one thing, his coach (Dennis Leary), hates the move and does what he can to short-circuit it, for another his secret girlfriend, Ali, (Jennifer Garner), the team’s cap manager, keeps pressing him about their relationship, which is about to take a drastic change, to say nothing of his staff (Timothy Simmons, David Ramsey and Wade Williams) who like the move but hate the cost, and the team owner (Frank Langella) who wants only to make a big splash on draft day and to hang the consequences.

We follow Sonny through the day’s tortures and pressures only to see him completely reverse course more than once. The question the film never seems terribly inclined to answer is just what we’re meant to make of a GM who makes a bold move in the morning, regrets it by midday and then does whatever he can to circumvent it that night. The film, clearly sanctioned by the NFL, and featuring numerous talking heads from ESPN and the NFL Network, hopscotches around the league, taking us into the jock-opulent décor of GM offices as far flung as Seattle, Kansas City, Buffalo and Jacksonville in order to provide crucial authenticity, but in the end, the story cooked up by screenwriters Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph doesn’t very much add up.

Still, there’s a kind of sizzling energy in the air. Director Ivan Reitman, a steady hand at comedy, has a way with managing the chaos and false bravado of the war room, with the myriad of back stories, tensions, and emotional history all locked into a tiny compartment together. We briefly follow the fortune of three draftees and their families and agents, which gives the film a bit more space in which to stretch. It’s just a shame they choose to do so little with it.

You have to wonder what a better writer might have done with this material — I could imagine David Mamet taking to these intricate negotiations like a shark to a bucket of entrails — but what we’re left with feels just about half-baked. Between bouts of expository dialogue and wonky football-speak, very little of which comes out sounding authentic, like the would-be dweebs in Twister trying to talk scientifically about storm fronts and the Saffir-Simpson scale without a clue in the world what they’re actually saying, the character work itself is fairly primitive and largely uninspiring, despite the film’s dramatic swells of music that very much try to suggest otherwise.

The truth is, by the end, we still have no idea if Sonny has been brilliantly playing cat-and-mouse the entire day, or has somehow been made to be the luckiest GM on the planet by complete accident. As a Browns fan, you also have to wonder if the only way the team will ever escape its inexorable morass is by being liberally sprinkled with Hollywood fairy dust.

Film Review: Child’s Pose

Dir. Calin Peter Netzer
Score: 6.8

In a well-to-do Bucharest apartment, an older mother is complaining to her sister about her grown son. “If it was up to him, he wouldn’t call for ages,” she laments, swinging her cigarette to her lips. And later, speaking dismissively of her son’s girlfriend, a woman the mother refers to as a “creature,” she says “she’s got him by the tail like a little mouse.”

“Eh,” the sister replies, “I told you to have two children. Then you’d have been able to choose.”

But what starts as a bleakly comic examination of a controlling, hyper-clingy mother takes a very dark turn in Romanian director Calin Peter Netzer’s fascinating psychological study, winner of last year’s Berlin Film Festival, when Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache), the son in question, is involved in a fatal car accident involving a young teenager on the freeway. The mother, Cornelia (Luminita Georghiu), a very successful and well-connected architect, has to summon all her powers of persuasion in order to keep her precious son — whom she refers to affectionately throughout the film as a “boy,” “child,” and a “baby,” despite his age — out of jail and his life intact.

Initially, Cornelia swoops in on the preliminary investigation and has her son change his sworn testimony from speeding on the freeway to going the legal limit. Then, with the help of her ex-husband, Relu (Florin Zamfirescu), she immediately sets upon pulling her influence amongst the elite government officials the estranged couple still counts as friends. But that is still not enough: In order to completely eviscerate the case, Relu tells her, they need for the eyewitness, who was driving alongside Barbu at the time of the accident, to change his testimony; and more difficult still, to convince the grieving family of the deceased child to not press charges. This she sets upon with grim determination and envelopes stuffed with Euros.

At first, the film focuses on the undue influence of the rich and connected in the tony upper echelons of Romanian society. Cornelia and Relu furiously pull as many strings as they can, and offer to bribe anyone — including the demanding eyewitness, who has figured out to the last dollar what they should offer him — who might stand in their way. But when it comes to the actual family, Cornelia is forced to pull out all the emotional stops, pleading and manipulating the stricken mother of the dead child as much as she dares — in the film’s most horrific emotional moment, she blurts out “Don’t destroy his life!” to the very woman whose life her son has utterly eviscerated.

And all this for a wholly unsympathetic young man who offers not the slightest bit of gratitude for his mother’s care, and/or interference. “Are you a complete imbecile?” he asks incredulously, after Cornelia has brought back the wrong variety of a medication he demanded she get him. Barbu is a hypochondriac slacker, a man largely incapable of taking responsibility for himself, his doting girlfriend (Llinca Goia), or any of the destruction left in his wake, whether this is the fault of his terribly indulgent parents, or just an inherent character flaw becomes immaterial in the aftermath of this tragedy. And in Netzer’s smartly realized vision of privilege and denial, it doesn’t make a whit of difference to the people who have to suffer for it.

Film Review: The Unknown Known

Dir. Errol Morris
Score: 6.7

To get a quick insight into the mind of Donald Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense in the G.W. Bush administration, in documentary auteur Errol Morris’ latest ‘hang-by-their-own-rope’ opus, consider the title of the film itself. It comes from one of Rumsfeld’s many, many memos that he sent out over the course of his political career, which began in 1962, as a republican congressman for Illinois, and lasted until 2006, mid-way through W’s second term, when the struggling Secretary was finally let go by the administration, following both the embarrassing lack of WMD that he proclaimed was in Iraq, and the hideous torture scandal of Abu Ghraib, which he presided over.

The memo in question posits the variables of “known known” and “unknown unknown” as far as national security goes. The third variety is this “unknown known” which, early on, he goes on to describe as “things you think you know, though it turns out you did not,” perhaps suggesting, several years after his resignation, a more thoughtful approach to the idea of military intelligence. Only, towards the end of the film, after we’ve heard the man’s endless compartmentalizations, his carefully glib re-definitions, and his general lack of institutional awareness for more than 90 minutes, does he suggest that what he meant by that term was actually the opposite: That we know more than what we think we do. Even further questioned, he sticks to this new resolution, cutting against the meaning of even his own dictation.

This is not the first SOD Morris has examined in such a way, his 2003 film The Fog of War focused on the ruminations and ultimate self-recriminations of Robert McNamara, the infamous SOD for President Johnson’s Viet Nam quagmire. Ever the insightful provocateur, what Morris has gleaned about these very public figures once out of office is they have a strong desire to show their side of the story, letting down their political reticence in the process. All you have to do is give them a platform and a bit of prodding and they will all too happily reveal themselves before a camera.

The film more or less follows a brief chronology of Rumsfeld’s career — with highlights including his Nixon years (getting moved to the State Department just before Watergate hits), screwing over George Bush, Sr. and sticking him on the C.I.A., and taking office with his enemy’s son when W. took control of the White House, all the while explaining himself in the same garrulous tones that made him such a bon vivant with the D.C. press corps, and equally loathed by many of the military leaders toiling under him.

Rumsfeld has a thing for memos, it turns out. He guesses that he wrote more than 200,000 over his four and a half decades in public office. Some of these very specifically deal with his desired definitions for words, and word combinations. Like any successful marketer, he knows the power of obfuscation, thus, in this way the brutishly harsh term “torture” becomes merely “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Ever the political animal, he is insistent that the language used in official releases matches his softened, oft-mealy descriptions.

Morris, who makes damning use of recurrent tropes and visualizations as Rumsfeld speaks, can occasionally be heard off camera, prompting the former SOD with follow-up questions, but is mostly content to let Rumsfeld orate his own disaster. One recurrent visual helps establish Rumsfeld’s aforementioned theory on known and unknown: As Rumsfeld drones on about the importance of intelligence, Morris cuts to long, attractive shots of the shimmering waves of what appears to be the Atlantic, as if to suggest the depth and incomprehensible volume of fathoms as to what we do not know. Later, he makes equally powerful use of a small snow globe, to indicate Rumsfeld’s endless propensity gathering his every thought on an official memo (known in government circles as the “blizzard”), especially when it comes to the WMD and torture scandals that eventually took him out of power.

But, truth to tell, Morris doesn’t have to do terribly much: Rumsfeld, slick and self-satisfied, furnishes plenty of enough of his own pompous outrageousness with a shrug of self-regard and a leering smile — one where upon he slightly lifts his upper lip just past his front teeth — with which he closes many of his most damning sentences. The picture of the self-aggrandizing autocrat is nearly complete. After all is said and done, Morris asks Rumsfeld the obvious question of why he agreed to this documentary process in the first place, to which he responds with one last leering smile: “That is a vicious question — I’ll be damned if I know.”

Home Video Review: The Past

Dir. Asghar Farhadi
Score: 8.6

When we first meet the estranged couple Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) they are in a Paris airport, on opposite sides of thick glass partition separating new arrivals from the people there to meet them. Ahmad is returning to the city after mysteriously cutting out on Marie and her two children four years ago to return to Tehran, so the overt symbolism of the two of them trying to communicate silently through a thick wall of impenetrable, sound-proof glass is more than telling. In fact, there are many such loaded moments in Asghar Farhadi’s scintillating follow-up to the brilliant A Separation. In that film, a couple was forced to decide between trying to appease one another or splitting up and following their own necessary paths. This film considers the aftermath of such a split, which in this case has left an enormous amount of complication in its wake.

Ahmad has finally returned on behest of Marie, who wants him to sign their divorce papers in person, and, at the same time speak with his former stepdaughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), a fiery teenager seemingly headed out of her mother’s fragile control. Part of Lucie’s anger, it turns out, is directed at Marie’s boyfriend, Samir (Tahar Rahim), who has moved into their house with his young son (Elyes Aguis), even as his wife lies in a coma in a Paris hospital. Lucie, it turns out, is convinced Samir’s wife attempted to commit suicide because of her mother’s affair with her husband.

Into this den of drama, Ahmad is left just trying to do right by everyone. Put into an incredibly awkward situation by Marie, who never bothered to tell him she was now living with someone else, he struggles to stay out of everyone’s way. Speaking soothingly, cooking authentic Iranian food, he wants to close out his time with Marie and her children in as civilized and caring a manner as possible under the circumstances, but the twisted family dynamics keep threatening to embroil him even as he does his best to clear the air for everyone else.

Much as he did in his previous film, Farhadi remains the most skilled sort of narrative artist, one who refuses to take sides with his characters: Everyone is eventually given the same even-handed treatment, even with someone such as Samir, who we are bound to loathe at first, if for no other reason that we pull so much for the soft-spoken Ahmad. However, Farhadi is far too skilled to leave us with such an obvious villain: What first appears to be cold bluster and unsympathetic harshness with his son melts into something else altogether in a single moment outside a subway train in Paris, and with it, our sympathies begin to collide in complicated ways. Everyone can partake in some of the guilt, but they also can make a strong case for their point of view on the matter.

As noted earlier, Farhadi also enjoys working in lengthy, satisfying metaphor. The house the family shares is a shabby mess when Ahmad first arrives, in constant disrepair, desperately needing the new coat of paint the couple are haphazardly slapping up on the walls, even as the fumes cause Samir’s sensitive eyes to swell up and tear. The sinks get clogged, the yard is unfinished and loaded with junk, and the space is too small by half, but over the course of things, it begins to look more and more homey. During the course of things, Samir and Marie begin to remake it into something they can comfortably share together.

Farhadi’s plots, which he describes as tiny mysteries, are also clever, intricate things, built in small moments and telling gestures, but able to withstand a thousand pressures, like an erector set dipped in titanium, as sound and well-built as a Roman aqueduct. One detail leads to a character’s understanding of something, which, in turn, leads to further questions until, at last, the whole apparatus is revealed by the end.

His frame is filled with the stuff of life, sustaining a threadbare lived-in quality — from the car windshield that remains fogged over even after a character wipes it with his hand, to the claustrophobic, chemical confines of Samir’s dry-cleaning shop — that permeates through his characters and works in subtle ways to render everything imminently believable and as natural as a documentary-style home movie — just, in Mahmoud Kalari, with a much better cinematographer.

Not a shot is wasted, not a dramatic moment unearned, the film is a triumph of art, even as what it points to is nothing less than the insurmountable human condition, our collective method of calibrating our pain and longing and guilt to survive another day.
The title is also more than a simple lamentation for things gone by: The film deals with the very complex way in which we, by concise act or circumstance, are forced to live with our tragically selective memories, shutting out those things that would topple us over if their full weight were placed on our shoulders. In Farhadi’s work, answers are always there in front of us, waiting for those moments we are finally able to see them clearly enough as to be recognizable.

Film Review: Enemy

Dir. Denis Villenueve
Score: 6.1

French-Canadian Director Denis Villenueve has adapted his curious oddity of a film from the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novel “The Double,” via celebrated Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago, who wrote an updated version back in 2005. This triple-filtering, involving three continents and more than 150 years, is strangely appropriate, given the surreal nature of the material.

Essentially, in all three works, a neurotic, slightly unhinged man (in this film played by Jake Gyllenhaal) becomes increasingly obsessed with a mysterious fetch — a doppelganger — he discovers by accident. They eventually meet, take a strong dislike for one another (as mousy and nervous is the one, the other is brassy and overconfident), and eventually start meddling in each others’ lives and their relationships.

On top of Dostoyevsky’s keen eye for human observation, and Saramago’s Latino penchant for mental psychosis, we can also add Villenueve’s bleak world view and proclivity towards moral desolation. The director of last year’s well-overdone Prisoners (also with Gyllenhaal, who apparently can’t get enough French Canadian nihilism in his life), and 2010’s critically lauded Incendies, has visual panache to spare, and here, gets a perplexing puzzle of a story to try and wrap his head around.

Gyllenhaal plays Adam, a distraught adjunct history professor in Toronto, who lives in a drab apartment, meets nightly with his pretty but disaffected girlfriend, Mary (Mélanie Laurent), for uninspired sex, and perpetually has a look of worn-out fatigue, constantly rubbing his eyes and massaging his temples as if trying to keep his head from exploding. By chance he rents a recommended video one night, an idiotic farce called “Where There’s a Will There’s a Way,” and is stunned to see an actor who looks exactly like him in a minor role.

Eventually, he tracks down the man, known as Anthony Claire, to his modern, airy apartment (which stands in direct contrast to Adam’s unadorned hovel), and calls his number, only to have Anthony’s pretty blonde wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon) answer, assuming the voice she hears on the phone is her husband’s. The cat-and-mouse game goes on for a while before the men finally meet, peculiarly enough, in a seedy hotel room on the outskirts of town. They take a strong dislike to one another, but before long Anthony, something of a skirt-chaser we are lead to believe, hatches a plan to force Adam into letting him spend the night with Mary on a romantic getaway, and everything comes to an odd head.

The challenge of the film isn’t the solving of the puzzle of the narrative per se — there are certainly clues, but little to suggest a definitive answer one way or the other — but to determine how much of what we’re seeing should be taken at face value. The film takes pains to avoid concrete evidence that the two men are, in fact, the same — going so far as to have Adam walk just out of view after Helen first meets him before calling her husband on the phone — without ever proving that they’re not. Instead, it is Villenueve’s craft that is on full, naked display.

The director has a Lynchian way of stressing his frame just enough to generate a steady buzz of discomfort. Shooting through a filter the color of weak ice tea, the entire film is cast with a layer of grunge, as if dipped in bilge water. The film opens with a particularly unsettling vision of a high-end sex club, where women parade on stage in front of leering older business men, crushing large spiders under their heels. Through use of eerie — often voyeuristic shot selection — unsettling background noise, and a swelling, dissonant score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, Villenueve creates a hellish cast to the whole enterprise. As miserable and under pressure as Adam seems to be, none of the other characters, save Anthony, seem terribly much happier either.

At the Toronto Film Festival, where the film made its debut, the buzz was decidedly mixed, but more than one critic who had seen it mentioned the fact that the ending was one of the more shocking surprises they could recall. Generally, given a detail such as that, one can’t help but wonder what the shock might be, and halfway through the film, you start assessing possibilities in the back of your mind. It’s not normally my approach — I’m usually quite happy to let a film surprise me as much as it can — but, in this case, no amount of guessing will lead you anywhere close to the film’s closing seconds. It’s difficult to assess just what it might mean, of course, (frankly, I’m not sure what Dostoyevsky himself might make of it) but I can assure you, it’s not something you are in any danger of conjuring up on your own.

Film Review: Need for Speed

Dir. Scott Waugh
Score: 3.6

There are many reasons to dislike strongly this video-game-to-feature-film boondoggle — an insipid, entirely predictable plot in which every beat is telegraphed as if from a Telex; a group of characters so dangerously moronic and unlikable you actively root for the cops to capture them; a story incredibly devoid of even the most basic narrative logic — but perhaps the most significant one is the fear it puts into you about the future career of Aaron Paul. Paul, a highly gifted young actor who just completed a miraculous run as Jesse, the moral foil to maniacal high school science teacher turned meth cooker Mr. White, in “Breaking Bad,” now finds himself at a bit of a crossroads in his career, and, at least based on this effort, the early returns are alarming.

He might not be the first gifted actor who simply works better on TV than the big screen — with its large aspect and encompassing focus, film tends to demand more presence from its actors than most TV fare — and there’s no shame in recognizing who you are and what medium your acting persona best works (do you hear that, David Caruso?), but no matter what your agent says or how many zeroes you can fit at the end of your paycheck, if you use your status to make lifeless dreck such as this on the big screen, you’ll squander your chance to ever make a cinematic impact in this lifetime.

Paul has shown range and uncanny grace in his best work, but has a tendency to catch on to malformed projects suited to someone with a lot less emotional access than he appears to have. Between junk like this and positioning himself as some sort of Bratpack wanna be in Ciroc ads, gallivanting around Vegas on a private jet with his good friends Frank Vincent and Diddy, I fear he’s heading in entirely the wrong direction.

This film, which is almost exactly as much fun as going over to a friend’s house and sitting on the couch watching them play on the X-Box for two hours, is such a shameless infomercial, it inserts super-high-end cars as motorporn, and is clearly underwritten by Ford, whose special edition Mustang is paraded about like a trophy wife at a country club.

The story, such as it is, involves Tobey Marshall (Paul), a supremely talented street racer living in Mt. Kisco with his pack of fellow gearheads (including Rami Malek and Scott Mescudi), running his late father’s high-end garage, even as it threatens to foreclose. The financial pressures force him to turn to Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), a local kid made Indy racer, who has always had bad blood with Tobey, ever since he made off with his girl, Anita (Dakota Johnson), the older sister of Tobey’s winsome sidekick Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), a kid so freewheeling and good-natured he’s as marked for death they might as well just call him Ponyboy. After an insanely idiotic street race goes tragic, Tobey is sent to prison, taking the rap for the weasily Dino, who denies ever being involved. When Tobey gets out, he determines the best way to get vengeance somehow involves him entering an insanely illegal, super high-end street race known as the Deleon, in order to, um, clear his name, win a huge amount of dough and somehow put the nefarious Dino in his place.

This apparently means driving the aforementioned Mustang supercar across the country to the race, accompanied by Julia (Imogen Poots), a pretty blonde Brit, who acts as the car buyer for her rich employer. Somehow, after attracting entirely undue attention in Detroit and causing untold death and wanton destruction along its highways, the team makes their way to the race, just in time for Tobey’s redemption to begin.

Mere words can’t do justice to the incredible stupidity attached to this entire project, but let’s note a few small, salient plot points just to set the mood:

-Despite the fact that his repair shop is on the edge of being foreclosed upon, and money is such an issue Tobey is forced into working with Dino in the first place, the rag-tag team has such a high-tech arsenal of surveillance equipment and super-computers to monitor themselves, it would make the NSA envious.

-Monarch (Michael Keaton), the man behind this insanely illegal high-end race is a complete mystery to authorities even though he live-video broadcasts his assembling of the racers and the actual event from the comfort of his home office, and seems to do little all day but put his face front and center of his endless broadcasts.

-For reasons never remotely justified, Tobey feels compelled to make enough ruckus in Detroit to attract the attention of all the police in the city in order to be admitted to the Deleon, but takes so many risks of himself, his passenger and every man, woman and child walking the streets of the city, he would have been shot on sight.

-A missing red car that suddenly appears near the end of the film is somehow enough evidence by itself to exonerate Tobey from further persecution, even though in process of acquiring it, the convicted felon on parole, jumps state lines, recklessly drives across the entire country, causes innumerable major accidents and potential life-threatening injuries to a parade of cops and innocent bystanders alike, and seems utterly unrepentant about the entire stupid progression of his life.

All of this, mind you, lead by a band of dimwitted idiots so moronic they make the combatants in The Cannonball Run seem like the Algonquin Round Table. If Paul wants us to buy into his film career going forward, he’s simply going to have to do better than this: Two hours in, you can actually feel your brain begin to wither. Tobey might ultimately win his redemption, but we’re the ones paying the price for it.

Film Review: Tim’s Vermeer

Dir. Teller
Score: 5.8

There is in human beings the desire to believe in the direct power of an almighty, in ways that go far beyond the strict tenements of faith and consecration. After all, you might not believe in the Bible or Qur’an in any literal way, but you can listen to Mozart or read Tolstoy and find your soul magically uplifted and magnified in ways you can’t possibly understand. The soaring resonance of art can be viewed as nothing less than the proof of the soul, and by that, the existence of God. Which is why when something comes along to challenge the notion of this sublime art’s creation, people reflexively become slightly unglued. To contest the work’s invention is to monkey with the basest tenement of their faith.

Now, that’s likely not what Tim Jenison, the obsessive inventor, had in mind when he set about trying to determine just how it was that Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer painted his extraordinary body of work. As documented by world-famous magician Teller, using his show-barker partner Penn as the host, his good friend Jenison just wanted to solve the puzzle of how any human being could recreate so faithfully and in such agonizingly rich detail, the verisimilitude of life.

Putting his considerable intellect into it, Jenison began to develop further the theory famously put forth by the artist David Hockney (one that also met with a firestorm of controversy from the art establishment) that Vermeer, like many of his fellow masters, used a camera obscura to render their paintings in such exquisite detail. To Jenison’s mind, the camera obscura, essentially, a dark room with a small hole bored out to relay whatever lies in front of it, was only the beginning of Vermeer’s technical wizardry. After much deliberation, it occurred to him that if one held a small mirror at just the right angle over a canvas, one could easily match the shapes, colors and nuances of the real thing exactly as you were painting it.

In order to prove his theory, he then set out to try to faithfully recreate one of Vermeer’s masterworks, specifically “The Music Lesson.” He built a set in his native San Antonio that recreated Vermeer’s studio in Delft, quite literally building each aspect of the painting by hand, including the stain glass windows, chairs, and flooring. Once reproduced, he then set his contraption up to a canvas in order to make the actual painting itself, a painstaking process that ended up taking over 200 days to complete.

In the final tally, it’s hard to determine what, if anything the film actually proves. Vermeer famously left no notes, there’s no record of his methodology and few clues on the paintings themselves, which had no sketches or false starts underneath the final version. Jenison, as quirky and obsessive as he is, ultimately isn’t trying to formulate scientific evidence of Vermeer’s approach (apart from everything else, even as meticulous as his re-creation is, it’s riddled with compromises and work-arounds, after all, the light in Vermeer’s studio in Delft is world’s different from what appears to be a small strip mall in San Antonio), just putting forth a loving theory as to how he might have worked.

One gets the sense that Teller, ever the illusionist, is mostly interested in the slight-of-hand unveiling of the great Dutch Master, like watching archive film of Houdini in his prime and theorizing how he must have made his escape from inside a straightjacket encased in concrete. Little or no attention is paid to the staggering controversy of Hockney and Jenison’s theories in the art world, or giving opportunity for any art historian to offer alternate ideas. Nor does it speak to what the ramifications might be to those of us who consider Vermeer one of the few unquestionable geniuses in the annuls of humankind. What Teller is more moved by is his friend’s obsessive nature, and the way his great mind works to solve an enormously complex problem.

The film thus ends abruptly with Jenison, having spent several obsessive years and hundreds of thousands of dollars on this particular endeavor, standing proudly before his Vermeer portrait as it hangs over the mantle before him. Famous Dutch master mystery solved, now, we suppose, its on to the next thing.

Film Review: In Secret

Dir. Charlie Stratton
Score: 4.7

I had to smother my amusement when a fellow film critic companion, after a long, hard day at TIFF, slogging though difficult, archly depressing films, decided to join me for this screening, thinking it might offer a brief flash of sunlight on an otherwise dreary day. I asked her if she had ever read any Émile Zola, the French novelist and practitioner of naturalism, whose oeuvre consists of some of the most pitiless and unabashedly miserable books on human record, and upon whose novel (Thérèse Raquin) this film was faithfully adapted. Needless to say, my friend’s day turned no brighter upon this viewing.

The story involves Thérèse (Elizabeth Olsen), a beautiful orphan having to live with her oppressive aunt, Mademe Raquin (Jessica Lange) and sickly cousin Camille (Tom Felton). The family moves to Paris, but not before Thérèse is forced to marry Camille, leading to an utterly loveless marriage, and the young bride desperate to find any way out of her predicament. Enter the dashing artist Laurent (Oscar Isaac minus Llewyn Davis’ beard), who sweeps her off her feet and begins a torrid affair. Before too long, the young lovers devise a plan to kill Camille in order to be together, a drowning that goes wretchedly wrong before succeeding and the subsequent drama leads to Mademe Raquin’s having a stroke that leaves her unable to speak or move about.

You can pretty much see where this is headed, with the culmination of grief, guilt, lust and the silent accusation of a badly damaged mother hanging over the couple like a cloud of thick radioactive dust.

Director Charlie Stratton does not shy away from Zola’s hauntingly gruesome conception of humanity: In his harshly callous world, no human being is absolved of the culmination of their sins and everyone suffers unduly before they are given the sweet release of death. Olsen and Isaac work well with one another, but it is the callow Felton, playing the frail, utterly repressed Camille who is the major standout. He is best known for playing Draco Malfoy, the most villainous of the evil students in the “Harry Potter” films, but here he shows a vulnerable side that makes his plight all the more heartbreaking.

Not for the frail of countenance (my friend stared into space miserably for some minutes after the credits rolled), Stratton’s film is dutiful in its recreation of the urban squalor and twisted souls of the residents of Paris at the time, but here, as with Zola’s novels themselves, one simply longs for any jot of mood other than abject misery.