Labor Day

Director Jason Reitman has gone straight. Labor Day is a melodrama that’s quite different from his usual style.

Jason Reitman is known for hip, edgy movies that have a biting wit. Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Up In The Air and Young Adult have specific points of view on modern American life. They have memorable flawed characters. They have killer opening sequences.

Labor Day, set in a small New Hampshire town over Labor Day weekend 1987, has its flawed characters. But the story has no significant agenda/message. And its title sequence is standard and ho-hum. Reitman wrote the script, based on the novel by Joyce Maynard.

Frank (James Brolin) is an escaped prisoner who chooses young Henry (Gattlin Griffith) and his divorced mom Adele (Kate Winslet) to hide him out in their home. Over this long weekend, Adele, a lonely woman who is beset with anxiety, finds comfort in the arms of this not-so-frightening convicted murderer.

Frank cooks! He feeds his chili (whose ingredients include coffee) by the spoonful to Kate. (He has temporarily tied her and Henry up so that, should authorities bust in, they would not suspect they were aiding and abetting the convict.) When a neighbor (J.K. Simmons) brings a basket of ripe peaches, Frank makes a peach pie with help from Adele and Henry. Yes, the pie making is sensuous.

Along with romancing mom, Frank is nice to Henry. He’s also nice to Barry (Micah Fowler), a handicapped kid who Adele agrees to watch for a few hours.

Reitman teases with flashback snippets of Frank and Adele’s respective early lives and episodes that made them the people they have become. As the flashbacks become more complete, so do the characters.

Of course, most of the film is a flashback, narrated by the adult Henry (Tobey Maguire). The actor portraying the young Henry, Gattlin Griffith, is impressive in his understated performance.

As authorities intensify their manhunt, Frank and Adele make a plan to leave town and take refuge in Canada. This decision leads to the film’s climax, which will not be revealed here.

Reitman’s effort to go mainstream is partially successful. He tells this suspenseful story well, but it moves very slowly at times. Should there have been more graphic evidence of Frank and Adele’s romance? Probably yes, but they wanted a PG-13 rating—more evidence of Reitman’s desire to play to the masses.

Sadly, Labor Day feels like a Lifetime/Hallmark movie with upgraded acting.

 

 

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Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is similar to other spy caper films you’ve seen, with a few interesting exceptions. Ryan (Chris Pine) is not just an ex-Marine in the CIA, he’s also an economist. And the caper centers on world market trading dirty tricks by devious Russians—particularly Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh)—designed to destroy the US economy.

US Navy Commander Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) recruits Ryan for the CIA. He discovers him at Walter Reed Hospital as Ryan is rehabbing from injuries suffered in a copter crash in Afghanistan. Ryan finishes school, joins the CIA and goes to work on Wall Street to monitor economic terrorism.

Upon detecting suspicious activity in accounts run by Cherevin, Ryan chooses to go to Moscow to confront him. Ryan’s fiancé Dr. Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley) decides to follow along and gets caught up in the effort to fend off the Russian assault on world markets.

Because economic intrigue is not quite enough to sustain an “action” film, a corresponding plot has a van filled with explosives, driven by a man intent on destroying Wall Street physically (even as the wicked Ruskies are planning to beat us down financially).

Okay, there’s a lot going on here and some of it works and some of it does not work. It’s good to see an older Costner in this leadership role. (Seeing him in Navy dress blues briefly recalls that 1987 film No Way Out.) Branagh, who directs the film, is surprisingly good as the Russian bad guy.

Knightley is gorgeous and has shown great acting skills in the past. But in JR:SR, she’s of little value beyond eye candy. Her chemistry with Pine is almost non-existent. Pine is good and, after becoming a star via the Trek movies, has the stature to take on the Ryan role. He defines “rugged good looks.” Guys can appreciate his derring-do and ladies can get lost in those blue eyes.

A couple of plot holes and quick resolutions of complicated business may cause one to say, “Huh?” But if you just play along you’ll enjoy the ride.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is okay for a January release. But that’s what it is, a January release. (Note of interest: it’s rated PG-13, so you can send you mom who hated Wolf of Wall Street to see this one.)

Her

How many movies have given us artificial intelligence entities (computers, robots, machines) taking on human characteristics, including emotions? Way too many to mention.

Such a fantasy may have been fueled in the past couple of decades by voices that give GPS directions, function as Apple’s Siri and check us out at the grocer’s. (I prefer checking out in Spanish because el hombre sounds friendlier than the woman who guides us in English.)

In Her, filmmaker Spike Jonze, most famous for 1999’s Being John Malkovich, takes the fantasy even further. Set in the near future, hopeless romantic Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his computer operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who is never seen in the movie). “You seem like a person but you’re just a voice in a computer,” he says.

Phoenix shows his acting range by following up his powerfully crazed performance in The Master by playing this nerdy writer of love letters. That’s his job: low-tech work in a high-tech world—he writes letters for people who have outsourced this personal task. (By the way, the URL of his fictional company, beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, appears to be non-functional in our real world if you want to claim it.)

Theodore is heartbroken when he meets (or installs) Samantha because he is in the midst of a divorce from childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara). He has a platonic female friend Amy (Amy Adams, looking pale, wearing minimal makeup) with whom he shares some of his woes.

His relationship with Samantha goes through many of the stages and episodes that real life relationships have: sharing of personal details, sex (virtual), the honeymoon period, trips to the beach, double dates, jealousy and disappointment.

Because several scenes in the film consist of conversations between Theodore and Samantha, the film is often visually tedious. On the other hand, the vision of Los Angeles created by Jonze is amazing to see: clean and modern with shiny high rise buildings and a dazzling public rail system that takes Theodore everywhere, even to the beach. (Some exterior scenes were shot in Shanghai.) Also, for some reason, the film’s costume designer has put all the men in pants with no belts.

Her is not for everyone. Its weirdness, coupled with its slow pace, may turn some moviegoers off. But adventurous movie lovers should give it a shot. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is worth seeing and Scarlet Johansson’s is worth hearing. You might like the cool soundtrack by Arcade Fire.

Her is clever and creative and will receive more nominations and awards. It is certainly not your run-of-the-mill romantic comedy/drama.

Lone Survivor

Spoiler Alert! The title of this movie is Lone Survivor.

Despite that big giveaway, Lone Survivor is a pretty good war movie. Set in 2005 in Afghanistan, the film is based on true events.

Four Navy SEALs are sent to check out a village where a Taliban leader is believed to be hiding out. The frogmen (who do this mission on dry land) are Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Axe (Ben Foster).

After being ‘coptered in and dropped off, they scoot across a mountaintop and begin to monitor the village below. Their communications gear fails and they cannot make contact with their base commander (Eric Bana).

So they wait. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, up walks a group of locals with a herd of goats. They are unarmed. Do the SEALs kill them, tie them up or let them go on their way? Alas, they choose the last option, which soon leads to a confrontation with Taliban fighters.

The SEALs engage in a firefight that is fierce and brutal. The battle is on a hillside and the four Americans take some tough falls down the inclines. Being outnumbered by a large margin, all except Luttrell are eventually taken down. With help from a group of locals who are anti-Taliban he makes it out alive.

Lone Survivor is not a political film. It does not judge American involvement in the region. The men who fight are fighting for their county, yes, but also for one another.

I read Jon Krakauer’s excellent book Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman last year. It described a mission in Afghanistan with bad planning, communication snafus and clumsy execution not unlike this one. The two tales do not inspire great faith in our military.

They do, however, generate appreciation for the men who fight. Stick around for the sequence at the end of the film which offers a salute to the real life fighting men.

August: Osage County

If you think your family is screwed up, go see August: Osage County. The Weston family from Oklahoma is among the most dysfunctional you will ever witness. The main source of the trouble is the family matriarch, Violet (Meryl Streep), a pill and booze addicted woman who is filled with resentment.

Violet’s daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) all have their own issues, some of which have come straight from mother. Just as Violet has had a tempestuous relationship with her husband (Sam Shepard), so has Barbara with her man Bill (Ewan McGregor).

August: Osage County should win the Screen Actors Guild award for Best Ensemble. Without listing the entire family tree, here are some of the other talented actors in the film: Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin and Durmot Mulroney.

Director John Wells and writer Tracey Letts have done an excellent job of taking a stage play to film. Only a handful of scenes have a stagey feel.

August: Osage County has been described by some as a comedy. Chris Cooper’s long-winded blessing is a classic scene and quite funny. And there are several more laughs in the movie. But, make no mistake, August: Osage County is more tragedy than comedy. The Westons are not a happy family.

Originally set for a Christmas Day 2013 release, A: OC did get the necessary runs in NYC and LA to qualify for awards season. (Expect Meryl Streep to grab an Oscar nom for Best Actress when they’re announced next week.) Don’t skip it just because it was pushed back to the movie wasteland of January. See it to witness an all-star cast delivering the goods—especially Meryl.