Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Intriguers of 2013, Part II: Don Jon, The Great Gatsby, and Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg

We're continuing with our review of the Intriguers of 2013. If you missed Part I, you can find it here.

Don Jon. Joseph Gordon-Levitt didn't need to become a director. He's already one of America's most talented young performers in front of the camera, and he's successfully leveraged that talent—a unique combination of movie-star charisma and aw-shucks sincerity—in a variety of ways, appearing equally comfortable in Hollywood blockbusters (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises), mid-level studio productions ((500) Days of Summer, 50/50), and scruffy mind-benders (Mysterious Skin, Brick), not to mention a particularly excellent hybrid of all three (Looper). He could have just kept on acting, and he would've kept us happy.

But Gordon-Levitt insists on pushing himself in new and interesting ways, and so now we have Don Jon, a messy, highly ambitious, slightly misguided, thoroughly entertaining directorial debut. It's also clearly his movie. Working from his own screenplay and casting none other than himself in the lead, Gordon-Levitt imprints Don Jon with an undeniably personal stamp, using a variety of established filmmaking devices (most notably high-speed montage) that are effective without being ostentatious. Most contemporary rom-coms feel like they're made by any hired gun—just point-and-shoot and let the actors' glamour do the work—but Don Jon isn't the product of an eager teenager happy to have finally been handed the keys to the car; it's the work of an artist.

Just not a particularly disciplined one. Never one to settle for the old familiar, Gordon-Levitt envisions Don Jon as operating on a dizzying number of levels. It is, at times, a raunchy bro-fest, a heartfelt romance, a damning critique of our obsession with body image, an honest inquiry into the value of pornography, a skewering of the modern nightclub scene, a winking commentary on gender roles, and even a light satire of organized religion. That's quite a bit of thematic material to balance, though some of it comes across nicely, thanks largely to a fast pace (just when you've figured out the movie's rhythm, Gordon-Levitt fires another curveball) and a game cast (Scarlett Johansson, in particular, proves adept at playing spectacularly shallow). But the critical flaw in Don Jon's execution—and what renders it more a successful curiosity than a rousing success—is that virtually every character in the film is maddeningly one-dimensional. I understand that Gordon-Levitt's very point is that society is promulgating a culture in which beautiful vapidity is something to be desired rather than disdained, but his characters' extreme lack of depth makes it difficult for him to deliver that point with any force.

Except, that is, when he elects to share the screen with Julianne Moore. At 52, Moore may not be as hot as Johansson—O.K., it's not close—but she imbues her character with a tantalizing air of mystery. As a result, the complicated relationship that develops between Moore's quirky widow and Gordon-Levitt's muscle-bound mook is thrillingly unpredictable, and that lends it a charge of sexiness that's otherwise strangely lacking in this sex-obsessed film. For the most part, Don Jon, like Johansson's superficial stunner, is something of a tease: It's too scattered to be a great movie, but there are hints of greatness. It's enough to make you excited for Gordon-Levitt's sophomore effort, whatever it may be, when he presumably dials down the surface-level obsessions and digs a little deeper.

Enough Said. Nicole Holofcener's films don't exactly thrive on conflict. In her past efforts—Lovely & Amazing, Friends with Money, and Please Give—she painted incisive, well-observed portraits of attractive, selfish, mildly desperate women (one always played by the magnificent Catherine Keener), but she rarely drove those women forward with anything as engineered as a plot. She was more content just to follow them around and comment, sometimes archly, on their pitiful attempts to locate purpose in their lives.

Enough Said is both of a piece with Holofcener's past work and something of a departure. Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays the typical Holofcener heroine, a frustrated masseuse named Eva who's struggling not only to find love but also to connect with her precocious teenage daughter. She hits on the former when she meets Albert, a winsome, heavyset man (played with casual charm by the late James Gandolfini) who complains regularly about his obnoxious ex-wife. She also develops a rare friendship with a wealthy client, Marianne (Keener), a poet who complains just as regularly about her loutish ex-husband. Things go well, until Eva learns that—can you believe it?—Albert and Marianne used to be married, and their respective objects of contempt are each other.

Hey, look, plot! And not just any plot; Enough Said features what Roger Ebert dubbed an Idiot Plot, whereby a movie generates conflict solely through the stupidity of its characters. Here, could Eva just calmly explain to Albert and Marianne that she inadvertently became intimate with both of them (rather more so with Albert), then let them all resolve the situation like adults? Of course, but instead she inexplicably withholds this knowledge from both parties, artificially inflating the suspense as we wait for her charade of ignorance to be exposed.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Yes, Eva's behavior can be infuriating to the point that you want to shake her, but her idiocy also provides Enough Said with a frisson of excitement that's typically absent from Holofcener's films. And the emotions on display here are genuine; Holofcener remains devoutly committed to exploring adults' feelings of confusion and loneliness, and the actors are all persuasive in conveying her peculiar mixture of innate selfishness and basic decency (Gandolfini, in particular, is quietly heartbreaking). Still, in the future, Holofcener would be advised to split the difference and make a movie in which smart characters do smart things. Just because her characters are shallow and childish doesn't mean she can't act her age.

The Great Gatsby. Your degree of enthusiasm for Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby will likely depend on your attitude toward book-to-screen adaptations in general. If you enjoy seeing your prized novels faithfully animated to visual life—literal "by the book" filmmaking—you'll likely admire Luhrmann's evocative recreation of 1920s New York and his accurate replication of the novel's plot points. If, however, you prefer works of art that can stand on their own terms, using source material as a template for further innovation rather than a blueprint that must be scrupulously reconstructed, you may be frustrated with Luhrmann's slavish devotion to Fitzgerald's text. I tend to fall in the latter camp—I prefer my screen versions of legendary novels to be adaptations rather than imitations—and as a result, this latest Gatsby often exasperated me. Fitzgerald was a writer without peer, and snatches of his language have embedded themselves into our collective consciousness (pop quiz: What color is the light at the end of the dock?), but Luhrmann's insistence on paying homage to that artful language—whether by saddling Tobey Maguire's Nick Carraway with a labored voiceover or, even worse, frequently displaying actual text on the screen—only reinforces the inadequacy of his own art by comparison. Fitzgerald has been dead for over 70 years, but he still casts a long shadow, and much of Luhrmann's film feels swallowed up by the novel's looming greatness.

But not all of it. Luhrmann may not be a great writer, but he is a master showman, and when he's able to free himself from the shackles of his source, The Great Gatsby pops with cinematic life. Visually, the movie is a stunner, and some of the party scenes set in Gatsby's mansion—when Luhrmann abandons words in favor of an orgiastic sensory assault via booming pop music and shimmering chandeliers—function as glorious depictions of opulence. (I must admit, the 3-D helps; it's immersive but not overbearing.) And as he did in Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann recognizes the power of music as a cinematic tool; a luxurious montage set to an original Lana del Rey song captures the novel's voluptuousness in a way mere dialogue never could. Besides, even if that dialogue occasionally feels stilted, it can be easy to lose yourself in the film's swooning romanticism, particularly when watching Leonardo DiCaprio (excellent, as ever) dive headlong into doomed love.

If only Luhrmann had followed that spirit of extravagance and taken some actual risks with his storytelling. If he had, The Great Gatsby may have been a failure, but it also might have been a landmark, the definitive cinematic incarnation of an iconic novel. Instead, it's a lush, serviceable echo of a far greater work. Fitzgerald told us that we beat on, boats against the current, but Luhrmann prefers to glide along with it. In so doing, he doesn't make waves, or history.

The Hunt. "Innocent until proven guilty" is an easy platitude to embrace in theory, but it can be tested in practice. Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt questions the reality of that platitude in particularly queasy fashion. It follows Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen: magnetic, sympathetic, and righteously angry), a respectable, morally upright schoolteacher whose life crumbles after a five-year-old pupil accuses him of sexually assaulting her. The girl is lying, but that hardly matters to the girl's other teachers, nor to the children's parents, nor to anyone else residing in the close-knit Danish community. One of the tragedies of The Hunt is how quickly the mere suspicion of wrongdoing can curdle into absolute certainty, and how actual innocence can prove powerless when battling blind rage. Even after Lucas is legally exonerated, he remains a pariah, and the film's closing scenes suggest he'll be branded with this scarlet letter for the rest of his life.

Back in 1998, Vinterberg made the much-celebrated The Celebration, a similarly clammy domestic drama that yanked back society's veneer of politeness and understanding to expose the ugliness and toxic groupthink lurking underneath. His technique has improved since then—where The Celebration, a Dogme 95 effort, practically prided itself on sloppy camerawork, The Hunt is cleanly framed and soundly composed—but his subtle characterizations have slipped a bit. The Hunt is a powerful and engrossing film, but with its broad outlines and clear villains, it's also something of a cheat; had it opted for ambiguity rather than obviousness, it could have proved even more challenging and thought-provoking. Still, Mikkelsen is fantastic, capturing Lucas' growing sense of isolation and resentment with every sharp-eyed glance and brittle line reading. His mounting desperation would feel at home in a horror movie, and The Hunt is indeed something of a nightmare, one in which the monster is not some mythical beast but society itself. We like to think we're civilized, but in Vinterberg's view, one small lie is all it takes for us to rip up the social contract and tear at each other's flesh.

Kill Your Darlings. Not a whole lot happens in Kill Your Darlings, apart from drunken revelry, drug abuse, the dawning of the Beat Generation, and the occasional murder. The first half of John Krokidas' first feature follows the young Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) to Columbia, where he meets fellow dreamers Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and joins their fight against the establishment. There's talk of a literary revolution, but mostly these iconoclasts just want to hang out, experiment with sex and drugs, and rail against their professors. Krokidas favors a laidback storytelling style, preferring to emphasize mood over plot, and his slack approach can occasionally grow tedious. But that tedium is illustrative of the ennui that plagues these future poets, burgeoning rebels hamstrung by a rigorous academia that actively stamps out any flickers of passion or creativity. And so, not much happens, but you sense that something might.

You also sense an undercurrent of menace in the air, thanks not to any of the Beats but to Lucien Carr, an enigmatic hedonist played with volatile energy by Dane DeHaan. Carr is the biggest dreamer of the bunch, but he's also a fraud, a pseudo-intellectual who uses his good looks and effortless charm to mask both his sexual confusion and his gnawing envy of his more gifted peers. Krokidas' handling of the not-quite-intimacy that develops between Ginsberg and Carr is sensitive and authentic, and Radcliffe and DeHaan exhibit clear, dangerously unpredictable chemistry. DeHaan has the showier part, but Radcliffe is completely convincing as a malleable young mind eager to be shaped. Ginsberg's journey in the film is quite sad, but it is also uplifting, the triumphant tale of a boy waging war against demonic influences, shrugging them off, and emerging as the man he was always destined to become.

Kill Your Darlings, however, is not quite sure what kind of movie it wants to be. Is it a murder mystery, a coming-of-age story, or an indictment of academic and sexual hypocrisy? This uncertainty isn't all that problematic, because it proves fitting for a portrait of young artists who defined themselves through their lack of definition. Watching the film, I admit that I desired a more focused, less rambling story with sharper connections drawn between characters; I sought more order and less chaos. But then, I'm not a poet, and Kill Your Darlings, for all its faults, has a poet's soul.

One more installment to come.

Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Intriguers (Part I)
The Failures (Part II)
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables: The Least Memorable Movies of 2013 (Part II)
The Unmemorables: The Least Memorable Movies of 2013 (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Review of 2013: The Intriguers (ft. Cate Blanchett, Emma Watson, and moody vampires)

So far in the Manifesto's continuing Review of 2013, we've looked at the worst movies of the year, the least memorable, and the most overreaching. The films highlighted in those posts all fail in different ways, but they share a central theme: They're all bad. (O.K., some are more innocuous than bad, but that doesn't make them good.) The good news is that we've now reached the point where I can discuss movies that I actually liked. When you boil film criticism down to its essence, it's really a pursuit designed to respond to one specific question: "Should I see this movie?" Tastes obviously vary, but going forward in our review of 2013, the answer is, happily, "yes".

First up is what I'm dubbing The Intriguers. All of these films are flawed, not unlike those pictures highlighted in my posts on the year's Failures. But these movies are sufficiently intriguing—some explore the boundaries of the form, others push back against typical narrative constraints—that their ambition, while not entirely fulfilled, makes them worth seeking out.

All Is Lost. And so we begin with arguably the most ambitious feature of the year. J.C. Chandor's monumentally challenging depiction of an old man and a raging sea, All Is Lost doesn't even pretend to be like other movies. It features a single actor (Robert Redford, giving it his all), dialogue is virtually nonexistent, and backstory is nowhere to be found. All of this makes All Is Lost fascinating on an intellectual level—there's something exhilarating about watching a movie that exists defiantly on its own terms—but it doesn't necessarily make it good. Redford is credited as "Our Man", and the implication is that his journey is both specific (Chandor dispassionately shows him toiling at the mundane tasks involved in salvaging his submarined yacht) and universal (Our Man typifies humanity's persistent struggle for survival in a cruel and merciless world). That's fine in theory, but are we really supposed to care all that much about a man we know absolutely nothing about? It's all the rage these days to decry backstory as fatty and irrelevant, but I imagine I would've been more invested in—and, dare I say, less bored by—Our Man's plight if I knew where he was sailing and why. Still, All Is Lost remains an impressive directorial achievement, and it's a stunning departure from Chandor's debut, the brilliant but relentlessly talky Margin Call. Perhaps next time, Chandor will split the difference and deliver a film that features both action and words.

The Bling Ring. Sofia Coppola is a child of privilege—her father made a tidy profit on a little mob movie from the '70s you might have heard of—and she's interested in how her own half lives. But while The Bling Ring chronicles the crimes of a band of pampered, bratty teenagers, it's less about wealth than celebrity, and our culture's ongoing obsession with the rich and famous (emphasis on the latter). The real-life miscreants dramatized here stole thousands of dollars' worth of merchandise from starlets' homes in the Hollywood Hills, and while their robberies make for fairly compelling material, what's really interesting about The Bling Ring is how Coppola views her subjects with a curious mixture of judgment and admiration. It's easy to mock both celebrities and those who worship them, and there is something faintly pathetic to these youths' utter obsession with status (to say nothing of their casual disregard for the law). But their actions also seem to be the logical extension of a society that prizes glamour and fame, and one senses that Coppola sympathizes with her protagonists' desires to dress like the stars.

The Bling Ring thus nimbly straddles the line between satirizing celebrity and succumbing to it. It's a tricky balancing act, but the movie mostly pulls it off, thanks partly to its verisimilar depiction of suburban Hollywood (yes, that's Paris Hilton hanging out at the frame's edge in an early scene) but also to Coppola's assured, polished craft; her filmmaking chops are so natural, you'd think she inherited them. (In one exquisite scene, two teens are shown in a static longshot raiding various rooms in Audrina Patridge's villa, the camera silently providing a voyeuristic thrill as we watch bumbling, burgeoning criminals at work.) It also benefits from strong acting from its very young cast, most notably a terrific Emma Watson as a manipulative hedonist who's less evil than merely bored. Miss Watson has been famous since she was 11, which makes her casting a sly, meta move, but she also has genuine talent. She may be a celebrity, but as The Bling Ring proves, she's also something far more valuable: a star.

Blue Jasmine. This much you know: Cate Blanchett is very, very good in Blue Jasmine. She commits completely to every crumbling facet of her character: the noxious entitlement, the casual condescension, the escalating desperation, the faltering sanity. It's a stunning, haunting performance. But Woody Allen wants Blue Jasmine to be more than just a star vehicle—he wants it to be a lacerating study of American classism. Yet the movie isn't quite as cutting as Allen would like. Representing working-class Joes has never been his strong suit, and Allen's depiction of middle-income San Francisco rings false. He also unwisely places each of the film's male characters squarely within a rigid stratum; they're either refined and immoral, such as Alec Baldwin's fraudulent aristocrat, or they're wild and rough-and-tumble, such as Bobby Cannavale's blue-collar schlub. It's a clumsy, facile contrast, one that undermines Allen's point and distracts us whenever Blanchett isn't on screen.

Fortunately, she's on screen quite a bit, and she simply mesmerizes us with her gradual descent into madness. It could have been unpleasant to watch such a beautiful woman disintegrate before our eyes, but Blanchett makes her revolting selfishness riveting. Here is a woman whose sanity is slowly slipping from her grasp, yet in her eyes, it's not her fault—the real problem is that everyone else is beneath her. The movie is too, but she carries it all the same.

Byzantium. Vampires are a dicey proposition these days; between Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, and True Blood, undead bloodsuckers have long since reached the saturation point in popular culture. Thankfully, Neil Jordan's Byzantium offers a fresh take on the age-old creatures of the night, one that reimagines vampires as weary nomads, constantly on the run and struggling to reconcile their immortality with a ruthlessly modern and evolving society. (In this sense, it's of a piece with Jim Jarmusch's latest effort, Only Lovers Left Alive, which I saw last week and which the Manifesto will hopefully discuss at some point in 2014.) The movie's plot is nothing special, though it does feature some playful mythology and impressive spurts of violence. Byzantium is more notable for its mood. Jordan envisions vampirism as neither blessing nor curse but more as a perpetual state of drudgery, one in which physically powerful demons must nevertheless hunt for basic necessities—a home, a food supply, meager companionship—in addition to searching for deeper meaning.

Jordan's success in conveying this eternal malaise is thanks largely to his two lead actresses, both perfectly cast: Saoirse Ronan, with those alien pale-blue orbs for eyes, proves a natural at inhabiting the supernatural, while Gemma Arterton practically pops off the screen, her fiery energy contrasting nicely with Ronan's more contemplative soul-searching. What's more, Jordan, who made it big with Interview with the Vampire so long ago, again proves himself adept at delivering knockout Gothic imagery; his languid approach might lull you into a false sense of security, but then he'll arrest you with ravishing beauty, be it a waterfall rushing red with blood or a shadowy cave where literal and metaphorical darkness lurks. Byzantium isn't quite a resurrection, but it's enough to instill confidence that this particular vein of cinema—once so rich with allegorical horror—hasn't been drained just yet.

The Counselor. The Counselor features all the trimmings of a crackerjack thriller. There's the loaded plot, replete with double crosses, botched drug deals, and a hero in way over his head. There's the top-flight cast: three dreamy leading men—the reliable Michael Fassbender (on the verge of going supernova), the wily Javier Bardem (zigging when you expect him to zag), and a very fine Brad Pitt (committed, thankfully)—along with two bona fide babes in a hammy Cameron Diaz (munching scenery) and a woebegone Penélope Cruz (out of her depth). And there's consummate veteran Ridley Scott behind the camera, staging set pieces with typical elegance and flair. But don't be fooled. The dominant voice in The Counselor is not Scott's, nor any of the actors'; it's that of Cormac McCarthy, America's foremost purveyor of human wickedness, dabbling in screenwriting for the first time. In McCarthy's nihilistic worldview, man is beset by evil on all sides, and all efforts to evade society's corruptive rot are futile. The Counselor thus attempts to transplant McCarthy's unyielding nihilism into the context of a modern thriller, where the baddies fire philosophical monologues along with shotguns.

It doesn't quite work. Sure, there's something admirably subversive about denying viewers a climactic showdown between hero and villain and instead replacing it with a portentous speech in which the villain calmly informs the hero that—to quote another film featured in this post—all is lost. But that subversive quality doesn't make the scene any less dull, or any less obviously the handiwork of a prose author better suited to hammering words on a typewriter than imbuing those words with visual life. Scott may want you to have your cake and eat it too, but McCarthy wants the cake to turn to ash in your mouth.

Still, despite McCarthy's best efforts, that cake can be tasty, especially for those moviegoers with appetites for precision violence and choreographed mayhem. Scott may be overshadowed by his screenwriter, but he remains a competent stylist, and much of The Counselor is riveting in terms of pure execution. Decapitations abound, cars chase one another on dusty desert roads, and—in the film's most memorable and controversial scene—Diaz fucks a Ferrari. It doesn't add up to much, which is both the point and the problem. But the story is in the telling, and in the end—to paraphrase the hero of one of Scott's more populist pictures—you will be entertained.

Part II coming soon.

Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Failures (Part II)
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables: The Least Memorable Movies of 2013 (Part II)
The Unmemorables: The Least Memorable Movies of 2013 (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Failures of 2013 (Part II): Lone Rangers, Hillbilly Gangsters, and Walt Disney

Today in the Manifesto's Review of 2013, we're continuing with our look at the year's failures. If you missed Part I, you can find it here.

The Lone Ranger. I concede that The Lone Ranger is not a good movie. Tonally, it lurches between lifeless comedy and nostalgic neo-Western. The writing is both winkingly self-conscious and painfully earnest, but the jokes are dead on arrival, and the odes to the grandeur of the Old West feel strained and unconvincing. The typically reliable Johnny Depp seems unsure of how much humor he's supposed to bring to his character, an uncertainty that applies equally to the film's weird flashback structure. And the plot is both overstuffed and undercooked. It's a mess.

But God bless him, Gore Verbinski knows how to stage an action sequence. As a modern moviegoer, I have grown tired of virtually all "high-octane" action scenes in would-be blockbusters. They're invariably loud, long, and incoherent, confusing entertainment with spectacle; in their giddy embrace of CGI's infinite possibility, action directors relentlessly assault audiences with explosions and rapid cutting while ignoring filmmaking fundamentals like blocking and framing. (For a particularly egregious example, see the first film highlighted here.) Verbinski, who helmed the first three (excellent) Pirates of the Caribbean pictures and the wonderfully bizarre Rango, is different. He puts a premium on balletic choreography, and certain moments in The Lone Ranger—especially when multiple characters are pursuing speeding trains from various angles—are downright symphonic in their fluidity and integration. And so while The Lone Ranger may be a disaster, it's also oddly promising because it reinforces Verbinski as an undeniably talented and energetic filmmaker. If he would only invest a fraction of that energy into minor matters such as plot, dialogue, and character, he'll get back on track.

Johnny Depp in "The Lone Ranger"

Lore. There's considerable potential buried within Lore, and quite a bit of talent visible on the surface as well. The potential lies in the premise, which follows the eldest daughter of a pair of high-ranking Nazis who, after her parents shuffle off to face the music (and perhaps a firing squad), must shepherd her younger siblings in a trek across Germany. And the talent derives from the title character herself, played with extraordinary poise and hidden anguish by Saskia Rosendahl. But Australian director Cate Shortland squanders this promise in a misguided effort to craft a quixotic meditation on family and identity. Or something like that. In truth, I'm not quite sure what Shortland is trying to accomplish with Lore. I just know that she stubbornly refuses to inject any energy into her proceedings. Lore features elements of many genres—it perhaps could have been, in different hands, either a chilling horror movie or a searching character study—but Shortland muddles these elements, resulting in a vague, shapeless picture that occasionally tantalizes but rarely coheres. Certain scenes spark with intrigue, but for the most part Shortland is more interested in evoking a mood than telling a story, rendering a late reveal regarding a critical character's identity forced and false. Lore is by no means a bad movie, but Shortland's deliberate approach feels less contemplative than tentative. As a result, Lore slows when it should quicken, stammers when it should enunciate, and—unlike the American military presence that hovers on the movie's periphery—hesitates when it should charge.

Saskia Rosendahl in "Lore"

Out of the Furnace. If there's one thing you learn watching Out of the Furnace, it's that Scott Cooper is a fan of The Deer Hunter. Set convincingly in a dreary Appalachian town—the kind where the steel mill is forever belching smog and the locals are always either fighting or drinking—this crime fable plays like a paean Michael Cimino's Oscar-winning opus, right down to the protagonist sizing up a target with his rifle and debating whether to pull the trigger. But while Out of the Furnace effectively captures The Deer Hunter's singular tone—it unfolds in a decidedly uneasy Middle America, where hardscrabble decency mingles with perpetual discontent—it's also proof that evocative atmosphere can only carry a thin story so far. And Cooper's screenplay, which he co-wrote with Brad Ingelsby, is just plain starved. The movie's hero, a frustratingly virtuous ex-con (imbued with typical, which is to say staggering, authenticity by Christian Bale), just wants to live honorably, but that honor compels him to exact vengeance after his brother (Casey Affleck, chiseled and impressive) falls victim to the misdeeds of a repugnant gangster (Woody Harrelson, holding nothing back). (The film's opening scene, in which Harrelson's heavy sexually assaults a woman, then nearly beats a man to death for interfering, clues you in to the degree of subtlety Cooper wields in his characterizations.) And that's pretty much it. Guns are fired, punches are thrown, and righteousness wins out, or so Cooper would have you believe. He wants you to think that you've borne witness to a profound morality play. But Out of the Furnace is far too simplistic—and too dull—to impart any sort of lesson, other than perhaps that if you witness a brute terrorizing his date at the local drive-in, keep your mouth shut.

Christian Bale in "Out of the Furnace"

Reality. Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah was widely hailed as a masterpiece, undercutting traditional mob-movie romanticism with harsh realism and miasmic suffering. It left me a bit cold, partly because it divided its time across too many vaguely sketched characters, but primarily because Garrone's insistent refusal to sentimentalize his gangsters felt arch and studious, robbing his ostensibly dire proceedings of urgency or even interest. With Reality, Garrone solves one of these problems: He focuses his film entirely on a downtrodden fishmonger (played brilliantly by Aniello Arena) who becomes obsessed with the prospect of appearing as a contestant on Italy's version of Big Brother. But the heightened intellectual approach persists, and Garrone seems so intent on chronicling his protagonist's descent into madness with detachment that the movie feels less insightful than merely labored. Several critics have interpreted Reality as a satire of organized religion—our fishmonger has absolute faith that he's destined to appear on the show, despite no visible evidence—but Garrone's aloof style blunts any satirical impact. Indeed, the movie seems opposed to delivering any impact, preferring quiet observation over actual storytelling. Reality is redeemed somewhat by Arena's extraordinary performance; he's completely convincing as a man who's capable of interpreting the most mundane events as signs from his producer gods. But he's a bright vessel toiling in a dark, listless film, one that mistakes indifference for intelligence. Garrone's resistance of formula may be laudable in theory, but on the screen, Reality could have used a dose of artifice.

Aniello Arena in "Reality"

Saving Mr. Banks. At an elemental level, there's much to enjoy in Saving Mr. Banks, John Lee Hancock's overwrought, sap-stricken depiction of the battle over the film rights to Mary Poppins. Emma Thompson is her usual sharp self as author P.L. Travers, and the "making of" conceit lends itself so naturally to light, pleasurable filmmaking that even Hancock's grandiose tendencies can't sabotage it. To that end, most of the scenes set in 1960s Los Angeles—in which Travers bickers contentiously with a much-harried writing staff (Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, and Jason Schwartzman, all good) and their playful, persistent overlord, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks, dangerously relaxed)—are airy and enjoyable.

But that isn't enough for Hancock, the director of the equally mawkish The Blind Side. No, Travers must be haunted by flashbacks to her Australian childhood in which her alcoholic father (a wonderful Colin Farrell, who flings himself into the part) wages war with his own allegorical demons. The existence of backstory itself isn't a cinematic sin, but Hancock inexplicably spends nearly half of Saving Mr. Banks' swollen runtime in the distant past, tirelessly scrounging for emotional clues to the adult Travers' prickly obstinacy, then spoon-feeding them to his audience. It's a catastrophic miscalculation, one that torpedoes an enjoyable picture and saddles it with sentimental drivel. Near the end of Saving Mr. Banks, there's a critical scene in which a bushel of pears roll portentously across a dusty floor, their motion presumably freighted with significance. To Hancock's credit, the moment indeed elicits a powerful response; to his detriment, I doubt guffaws are what he had in mind.

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in "Saving Mr. Banks"

Shadow Dancer. Shadow Dancer is a deeply promising film, one haunted by sadness and tinged with regret. It exhibits a strong sense of place—you can practically feel the Irish chill seep into your bones—and it features a breakout performance from Andrea Riseborough, a terrific and emerging actress on whom I'll continue to heap praise as the Manifesto's review of 2013 progresses. Riseborough is so good at conveying steely resolve and submerged longing that you're almost willing to forgive Shadow Dancer for its fundamental shortcomings, namely its languid pacing, muddled storytelling, and thinly sketched supporting characters.

But those shortcomings are present, largely because James Marsh (who also directed the middle installment of the excellent Red Riding trilogy) never fully commits to his espionage plot, in which Riseborough's IRA firebrand agrees to do the bidding of an MI-5 agent (Clive Owen, steady) in order to protect her son. There's potential there, and if Marsh were as dedicated to careful plotting as he were to building an atmosphere of oppressive dread, Shadow Dancer could have proved to be a powerful fusion of slow-burning thriller and thoughtful character study. But even as allegiances continuously shift and murders pile up, the film's story never coheres, and as convincingly as Riseborough evokes her character's utter despair, we're left confused rather than dismayed. Shadow Dancer is ostensibly a movie about searching—for criminality, for love, for peace of mind—but ultimately, it's just a stunning performance in search of a movie.

Clive Owen and Andrea Riseborough in "Shadow Dancer"

Trance. The cool thing about a movie like Trance, Danny Boyle's mind-bending thriller, is that anything can happen. But that creative freedom also proves to be the film's undoing. Trance takes place in a gleefully illogical movie-verse, one in which flashbacks abound, plot points fold in on themselves, and dream sequences blur into reality. (At one point, the top half of Vincent Cassel's head gets sliced off, which only seems to make him angry.) It's pulpy nonsense, which makes it a natural fit for Boyle, a director who's never needed much goading to jump into the deep end (remember that baby scene in Trainspotting?). And for a time (and with the help of Rick Smith's terrific score), it's easy to immerse yourself in Boyle's frenetic, hyperactive world of sensory overload, one that eagerly explores a variety of alluring genre elements: hypnosis, stolen art, honor among thieves, Rosario Dawson's body. But navigating Trance's constant fakeouts, double-crosses, and narrative figure-eights eventually grows wearisome, and as Boyle keeps firing neon curveballs at you, it becomes increasingly clear that he's less a magician than a charlatan. He'll show you what looks to be a diamond, and on its surface, Trance is an impressively glitzy piece of work. But give it one poke with a well-aimed hammer, and it turns to dust.

James McAvoy and Vincent Cassel in "Trance"

Next time out: The Intriguers.

Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables: The Least Memorable Movies of 2013 (Part II)
The Unmemorables: The Least Memorable Movies of 2013 (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013