Monday, October 27, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Thief" (1981)

"Thief" is about a man who will not bend. Frank is a professional who's very good at what he does, takes pride in it, and is very particular about the way he goes about his business. He does not cut corners. He plans everything out from beginning to end. He does not take orders from anyone.

The fact that Frank is a jewel thief as opposed to, say, an engineer is merely one key aspect of a character who is complex while also being quite simple.

By simple I don't mean that Frank, played by James Caan in perhaps his finest performance, is dull-witted or dense. He's actually quite cagey in a pugnacious, unschooled sort of way. Perhaps it would be better to say that Frank is defined by his singularity -- a particular set of skills and outlook that serve both to exalt and circumscribe him. Frank is the best there is, but is not capable of being other than what he is.

Every other smart criminal pays off the crooked cops to keep them off his back -- to "round off the corners," as they urge. Frank would rather take a beating, have his house bugged and be followed by teams of undercover police than give in.

When a high-level fence and connected boss named Leo (Robert Prosky) offers to take Frank under his wing, set up high-level scores and "make you a millionaire in four months," Frank stubbornly refuses to become his vassal, insisting on signing up for a single job and then calling it quits. Even when there appears to be mutual respect and affection growing between them -- Leo buys a baby boy for Frank when he and his wife cannot conceive -- Frank goes ballistic when Leo persists in stringing him along.

In a lot of ways "Thief" reminded me of a later film, "Drive," starring Ryan Gosling as a wheelman whose carefully ordered world goes awry when he breaks his own rules and strives for something beyond the perfection of his job. I find it hard to believe that director Nicolas Winding Refn's 2001 film wasn't heavily influenced by Michael Mann's earlier one.

They share a lot of similarities in terms of characterizations, sleek noir-ish visuals and an atypical soundscape -- which, in the case of "Thief," was the result of the work of Tangerine Dream, an electronica band that created a lot of arresting movie soundtracks during the 1980s.

It was the first film score by Tangerine Dream, in a movie that heralded many other firsts. It was Mann's first feature film after success on television. It was the debut screen role for Prosky, as well as Jim Belushi, who plays Frank's right-hand man, plus William Peterson and Dennis Farina, who have bit roles as a bouncer and gunman, respectively.

Though I wouldn't see "Thief" until years after "Drive," the kinship to Mann's work was apparent to me even then. I noted in my review that "Drive" seemed "stuck out of time."
"For at least the first 30 minutes, I was convinced the story was set in the 1980s. The plethora of vintage cars, an ’80s-ish soundtrack and the gold-on-white scorpion jacket worn by the main character seemed to spring forth from 'Miami Vice' crossed with 'Less Than Zero' ... It very much reminded me of the work of Michael Mann, whose visuals could overpower a bare-bones story."
(Mann, of course, also produced "Miami Vice," which generated a lot of interest in its day for the wardrobe and bling, but is now generating reconsideration as one of the best TV shows of the '80s.)

I also took note of both films' use of sudden, explicit violence amidst stories that are much more attuned to mood and character than exploitative action. Belushi gets seemingly his entire innards splatted against the side of a van by a shotgun blast, and Prosky enjoys a similarly gruesome demise.

In his debut outing as a director, Mann mostly constrains his visual stylization to servicing the story. His screenplay, adapted from a memoir by a real master thief employing the pen name of Frank Hohimer, uses the cliche of the skilled man performing "one last job" to explore Frank's interior journey.

After spending 11 years in prison, most of his adulthood, Frank has been out for four years and appears to be a success. He owns two businsesses -- the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, where he makes and takes calls, and Rocket  Motor Sales, a higher-end used car lot. He wears silk shirts and $800 suits, changes cars frequently but favors Cadillacs, and carries himself with the sort of innate swagger that intimidates others.

Frank thinks he's got it all mapped out -- he even carries around a pastiche of photos of everything he wants for the rest of his life: a mansion, cars, a wife, kids and the companionship of "Okla," a master thief he did time with and who is played by Willie Nelson. In perhaps the film's most glaring flaw, Okla is given little screen time, really just two scenes, and Nelson is so good in them it hints at all sorts of unrealized narrative possibilities. Frank gets Okla sprung from jail so he can die a free man, which he promptly does without a real sense of denouement.

Mann gets a little too caught up in the particulars of the big heist, a "burn job" in which Frank uses a long thermal lance to melt the face of an especially challenging vault. His camera also tends to linger a little too long on objects for their visual appeal rather than their narrative purpose -- but that's been a characteristic of his entire oeuvre.

This being Mann's freshman film outing, it's certainly imperfect. I found the ending of the movie a little too Wild West-y and incongruent with what came before. Also, Frank's relationship with his wife (Tuesday Weld) is rather flat, other than an outstanding first scene at a diner, which Caan has described as the favorite of his long career. In it he essentially lays out who he is, and tells a riveting story about nearly dying after being targeted for a gangbang by a prison crew of inmates and guards.

He learned, he says, to fear nothing by valuing nothing, including his own life. Only by being willing to let go of everything important to him was he able to survive -- an ethos he takes to extremes by brutally cutting all his strings before going after Leo. But that's Frank, recognizing that he's been fooling himself with a vision he cannot have without compromising his hard inner core.

Quibbles aside, "Thief" is a moody minor masterpiece, a probing character study that disguises itself as a heist flick.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Review: "St. Vincent"

I think superior film acting is misunderstood – or, at least, often misidentified.

When we’re talking about adulation and awards, most of the attention tends to focus on “big” acting. That’s where the performers can display a whole lot of studied behavior and over-the-top emotion, or spew great dialogue at a furious clip. Think Denzel Washington in “Training Day” or Natalie Portman in “Black Swan.”

But some of the best cinematic acting is played close to the vest, using only subtle cues, and tends to get overshadowed by the more grandiose sort. Example: I remember watching “Awakenings” and everyone was raving about Robert De Niro’s tics and stammer. For me, the performance was emotionally vacant. Meanwhile, I thought Robin Williams was staggering, seeming to leak pain and loneliness out of his epidermis.

There are a few big moments to Bill Murray’s brilliant performance in “St. Vincent,” but what most struck me about the role was how brave and uncompromising it was. Most movies of this sort about cantankerous older men provide us a window to access his secretly cuddly soul. We feel the actor winking at us even as he parades the sturm and drang.

Not Murray. His Vincent McKenna is a man who is entirely true to himself, even if that truth is off-putting and abrasive. A drunk and a gambler, he doesn’t seem to have anything going on in his life beyond his decrepit Brooklyn house, his battered convertible Reliant K-car (complete with wood paneling) and playing the horses at Belmont Park – mostly poorly, which is why he’s perpetually strapped for cash, with a loan shark (Terrence Howard) circling.

Vin is a sour pill, and he knows it, embraces it, though he doesn’t necessarily delight in throwing his obnoxiousness in other people’s faces. Mostly, he’d just rather leave people alone, and have them return the favor.

This is perhaps the finest turn of Murray’s long career, and one certainly deserving of some attention from awards voters down the line.

The setup is that a newly single mom named Maggie (Mellissa McCarthy) moves in next door with her awkward young son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), and Vin is pushed by necessity/opportunity to form a relationship with the kid.

They don’t meet under the best of circumstances: her moving truck smashes up his place, and they exchange unpleasantries. On the first day at his new Catholic school, Oliver has his clothes, phone and keys stolen, and can’t get into his house. Maggie works long hours as a medical scanning technician, so an ad-hoc arrangement emerges in which Vin babysits Oliver for $12 an hour. She needs a helping hand, he needs the cash and the boy needs a friend.

The pair bond while going to the track, imparting wisdom about standing up to bullies (aka, how to break a nose) and other manly arts.

Most movies of this sort quickly teeter over into rank sentimentalism, with somebody like Vincent softening up like mush in the warm glow of a golden-hearted kid. But Vin more or less stays the same, while it’s Oliver who opens up and grows. This is not so much a story about an old crank who has a change of heart, but one who lets the world into his self-imposed cocoon long enough to discover the reason he got that way.

First-time writer/director Theodore Melfi elicits some terrific performances from his cast. Murray is bleak and brilliant. Lieberher is studious and inquisitive as Oliver, because that’s the kind of child he is. McCarthy is so genuine and wonderful as a struggling everyday woman that I’m willing to forgive her for starring in and co-writing “Tammy.”

Chris O’Dowd has a nice turn as a remarkably upbeat priest/teacher at Oliver’s school, and Naomi Watts supplies enviable comic relief as a pregnant Russian hooker who exchanges services, and something more, with Vin.

“St. Vincent” is one of my favorite films this year. It’s got a lot of hard edges, but treats its characters as believable people who, despite their problems and pain, possess an inherent grace.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Review: "Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)"

I always thought “Watchmen” was the anti-superhero superhero movie, but this one takes the cake. It’s not so much against superheroes as movies based on their comic books, registering as a spit-flecked denunciation of the way such flicks saturate our culture, almost like a spreading disease that uses up actors’ careers and audiences’ time.

“Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” is an obsidian-black comedy about Riggan Thomson, an over-60 actor who played a costumed hero decades ago and has struggled to do anything equally consequential since. He’s played by Michael Keaton, who knows something about that.

If this sounds like stunt casting, that’s because it is -- but then this whole movie directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (“21 Grams”) is a gimmick, if a very clever one.

Thomson has now sunk most of his heart, soul and bank account into mounting a Broadway production based on the work of short story master Raymond Carver, which he also wrote and is directing.

At one point he finds himself facing off with a hostile New York Times theater critic (Lindsay Duncan), who announces that she’s going to close the play with a vicious review, even though she hasn’t seen it, because she resents Hollywood dilettantes invading her sacred space where real art is made, taking up a theater (the actual St. James) that could be better used for, well, just about anything.

We suspect her lips are channeling the thoughts of Iñárritu, who co-wrote the screenplay (along with three others), and they’re really talking about caped crusader movies.

Keaton is a marvel in this movie, providing an emotionally naked performance as a self-consumed man who has spent so much of his life worrying about being appreciated that he hasn’t ever really inhabited the present tense. Riggan is constantly reminded of this by his estranged daughter, Sam (Emma Thomson), recently graduated from rehab and hired as his assistant -- partly out of a sense of guilt and partly to keep an eye on her for his ex-wife (Amy Ryan).

Iñárritu created the role expressly for Keaton, which was deft, but then unwisely keeps getting in the way of his lead actor.

The director makes all sorts of showy creative choices, like constructing the entire movie out of (seemingly) uninterrupted tracking shots, so we’re constantly shadowing the actors like a ghostly presence. Similarly, the music score (by Antonio Sanchez) is made up almost entirely of percussion instruments, but the disjointed beats bump the movie off its rhythm rather than riding one.

Riggan professes not to think much about being Birdman, but in fact he’s verily haunted by his feathered former alter-ego. The voice of the hero speaks to him (Keaton’s guttural rasp is wonderfully eerie), offering alternate praise and scorn, trying to convince Riggan to give up his ridiculous dream and return to costume work. In private moments when the alter egos are conferring, Riggan performs feats of telekinesis that, even if imagined (?), help buck up his brittle psyche.

The play is teetering on the edge of disaster. Riggan replaces his awful second lead actor, injured during rehearsal, with Mike Shiner, who’s brilliant but notoriously difficult to work with, and he’s played by Edward Norton, who also has a reputation for… but I think you get it now.

Mike is greeted as the production’s rescuer but soon sets about as its chief saboteur, stealing Riggan’s limelight in the press and even stopping a preview performance cold when his (real) gin is confiscated. He’s also the boyfriend of the lead actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts), a bundle of neurotic self-doubt, who recruited him but soon comes to regret it. Meanwhile, Riggan is having an affair with the other, much-younger actress (Andrea Riseborough).

Flitting around the edges of the story is Jake (Zach Galifianakis), Riggan’s lawyer, producing partner and underappreciated fixit man.

The performances are delicious in “Birdman,” particularly Keaton, who will deservedly be the subject of a lot of Academy Awards conversations. I just wish Iñárritu had enough faith in his star to let him shine in the spotlight, instead of constantly distracting us with his showy, look-at-me direction.

Earlier in this review I called the movie clever, and it is that; but it’s the sort of feckless, selfish clever that feels compelled to keep reminding you how clever it is.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Charade" (1963)

"Charade" has sometimes been described as "the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock didn't direct," but I'm not sure if that's really fair. Hitch often included bits of puckish and morbid humor in his films, but when it came time for scaring people, he was deadly serious about his craft.

This 1963 romantic thriller, by contrast, is fizzy and fun. Though there are a few moments where Audrey Hepburn, as wan heroine Regina Lampert, aka "Reggie," is imperiled, they are fleeting and frightening only in that sort of way you know everything is going to be alright. After all, she's the star of the picture, and if anything really dire happened to her, the show would be over.

When I say Hepburn is the star, I mean truly that: she far outshines co-star Carey Grant, but she's meant to. He is the moon who basks in her reflected light; he reacts to her rather than the other way around. Romantically, she is clearly the pursuer and he the pursued prey, wielding the shield of propriety to fend off her advances: 'Come into your room? Alone? At this time of night? Heavens!'

In this way director Stanley Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone essentially made a proto-feminist feature film. In some sense Hollywood has backpedaled since then -- nowadays it's almost unthinkable to have a star of Grant's stature in a movie in which he plays second fiddle to an actress.

The basic plot is that she's a widow whose husband was murdered, and now three strangers are chasing her around Paris, claiming she has $250,000 that belongs to them. (That's about $2 million in today's dollars.) Grant shows up as Peter Joshua, a dashing stranger who gets embroiled in the intrigue. She falls for him hard, even when it turns out he's in cahoots with the criminals... sort of. It gets more complicated from there.

The film has an interesting progeny and legacy. Stone and Marc Behm wrote the spec screenplay, but no studio was interested. So Stone turned it into a book, and suddenly everyone in Hollywood wanted it. Thus he turned it back into a screenplay. (Behm got a story credit.)

When they released the film, Universal Pictures improperly copyrighted the movie, so "Charade" became part of the public domain immediately. The fact that anyone could release their own version of it on video, or play it on television, probably helped the film remain popular over the years. It didn't even get an "official" video release by Universal until the awful, unnecessary remake starring Mark Whalberg came out in 2002, when the original was tacked on to the DVD as a bonus feature.

There was also a brouhaha over Hepburn's utterance of the word "assassinated," which was changed to "eliminated" in the wake of JFK's murder.

The movie is a total lark, more comedy than anything else. But I adored the cartoonish villains, the Parisian locales and the genuine romantic chemistry between Hepburn and Grant.

"Do you know what's wrong with you?" she asks as they part at the end of their night. "No, what?" he responds, setting up endless possibilities of Hollywood riffs. Instead, she looks at him pensively and exhales, "...nothing!" A beautiful line, and again usually the sort of thing the guy says to the dame, not vice-versa.

Grant was 59 when the movie was made to Hepburn's 33, though as I've noted before he seemed to stop aging at 38, looking much the same until he was deep into his 60s. Still, he felt self-conscious about the age difference and had the filmmakers add in several self-deprecating references by his character.

Unlike most older stars who fade away or segue into crotchety grampa roles, Grant had a daughter, his only child, at the age of 62 and decided to retire from acting to become a full-time daddy. Apparently he was just as magical in his final role as all his onscreen ones; Jennifer Grant wrote a loving tribute.

The bad guys are:
  • James Coburn as Tex, a tall, preening showboat with a Southern drawl and a mean disposition.
  • George Kennedy as Scobie, who's even bigger and even meaner than Tex, plus he has hook/weapon prosthetic hand.
  • Ned Glass as Neopold Gideon, an older intellectual type, a turncoat who tends to have sneezing fits when he's nervous or endangered.
  • Walter Matthau as Hamilton Bartholomew, a shady CIA man who claims to be helping out Reggie but is actually after the money himself. I'm not really giving anything away here, since Matthau practically smokes with suspicion from his very first scene. Not to mention, despite ostensibly being the Paris bureau chief of a federal government division, he's never able to muster up any actual resources to assist her.
The trio of chase men are introduced in a terrific scene: they each show up to Reggie's husband's funeral, and make close inspections of the body to ensure he's really dead. Scobie even sticks a pin in it -- literally.

In another rarity of mainstream Hollywood films, it's actually Tex, rather than Peter or Reggie, who has a flash of insight and figures out what her husband did with the money.  

But then the bad guys start showing up dead one by one, so suspicion falls on Peter, whose real name turns out to be Alex Dyle... or is it Adam Canfield ... or maybe Brian Cruikshank. One of the cleverest lines of dialogue is the very end, when Reggie and ... her man have gotten engaged, and she proposes they have lots of boys, "so we can name them all after you."

"Charade" also marked the first collaboration between Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, earning an Oscar nomination for original song.

Part screwball comedy, part spy thriller, and a whole lot romantic, "Charade" is what nowadays we would call the perfect date movie. A lot of these movies are forgettable, but not this one.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Video review: "The Purge: Anarchy"

I’m always leery when a low-budget movie becomes a hit and then we see a sequel churned out a year later. The gestation time for most features films is about five years from conception to theatrical release, so most things done in a fraction of that time tend to be hasty and sloppy.

“Crank something out, cash in” is the byword.

“The Purge: Anarchy” bucks this trend by actually being superior to its 2013 predecessor. While the first film was more a schlocky horror film edged with social commentary, the sequel falls into the straight action/thriller category.

If you’ll recall from the last movie, things are set in the dystopian near-future where the United States has been taken over by a group of patriarchal dictators. Once a year they hold the Purge – a single night in which any crime, from assault to murder, is perfectly legal. The idea is for the collective unconscious to jettison itself of all those pent-up negative emotions.

Sounds great – unless you’re one of those who gets pent on.

Frank Grillo, as the unnamed protagonist, is out for some sort of revenge. But when he sees some masked marauders threatening helpless folks, his better instincts take over. Soon he’s defending a whole group of victims from the ultra-rich puppet masters who control the gangs and use the purging to maintain power.

A ludicrous but effective mix of action, scares and 99-percenter outrage, “The Purge: Anarchy” is a catharsis from awful sequels.

Video extras are barely so-so. The DVD comes with a making-of featurettes, “Behind the Anarchy,” including interviews with principle cast and crew. Upgrade to the Blu-ray combo pack and you add some deleted scenes.



Thursday, October 16, 2014

Review: "Fury"

One of my favorite things to do as a critic is to point people to great movies they’ve probably never heard of. Case in point: “End of Watch,” which was in and out of theaters so fast in 2012 you probably missed it even if you didn’t blink.

Writer/director David Ayer’s next film, the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle “Sabotage,” similarly disappeared without a trace. I’m hoping that won’t be the case with his latest, “Fury,” a World War II action/drama starring Brad Pitt that mostly takes place inside a single Sherman tank.

Fair notice: this a grim, dark movie about the dank corners hidden away inside men’s souls. It makes “Saving Private Ryan” seem like a lullaby.

The battle scenes are gruesome, and what happens when the shooting stops is often even more troubling. American soldiers are portrayed not as decent men who sometimes commit evil deeds in the heat of combat, but killing machines who only want to murder the Germans before the krauts murder them.

What a pitiable world Ayers has drawn for us. Unlike most WWII movies that are set when the Nazis still have the upper hand, here it’s April 1945 and the Germans are offering their stiffest resistance before the collapse they know is inevitable.

The soldiers are all scarred, grimy beasts; the German landscape is an open wound, ripped and gasping; the detritus of war lies all around, smoking armored hulks like prehistoric behemoths brought low. It’s not so much that death and carnage are everywhere, but everywhere is death and carnage.

To wit: when the fresh young recruit, Norman (Logan Lerman), is assigned to the crew of the “Fury,” the battered tank that has survived many battles, his first duty is to clean out the bloody mess left by his predecessor. While doing so, he finds part of the man’s face, perfectly intact, staring at him.

So again I say: not for the squeamish, this.

Pitt has a stout, merciless role as Don, aka “Wardaddy,” the sergeant who commands the Fury. His face done up with scars and hair chopped in a deliberately unattractive fop with shaved sides, Don is sure-handed and unrelenting with the enemy, and the same with his crew. He’ll let them bicker and bitch, but when it’s time for them to perform he will brook no hesitation.

When Norman fails to spot and kill a German soldier with an anti-tank gun, and absolutely horrific results ensue, Don makes personally sure that the lad will not flinch next time, using brutal but effective means. He’ll let the Neanderthal gunner, Grady (Jon Bernthal), indulge his base instincts, but only up to a point.

Don takes a softer hand with Bible, a thoughtful young man played thoughtfully by Shia LaBeouf, and Gordo (Michael Peña), the rock-solid tank driver. The sergeant has promised all his men he will keep them alive, but their latest mission will test that pledge.

The Fury is assigned to a platoon of five tanks to guard a crossroads against a force of fresh German troops, who are threatening the advancing division’s supply line. If they fail, the entire Allied advance will ground to a halt and the war could last months longer.

Ayer shows an expert hand for the battle scenes, keeping the focus on the men inside the Fury while giving a pulse-jumping view of the action outside. Tracer bullets and ordnance flash at the screen like lasers, lending the proceedings an eerie stuck-out-of-time feeling. An encounter with a technologically superior Panzer Tiger is especially effective.

The movie works better as a war picture than a character piece. We never quite get all the way inside the heads of the characters, so their peril doesn’t carry as much emotional freight as you’d expect. And a scene inside the apartment of a German woman and her cousin goes in many different directions at once, like a grenade, rather than focused, like a sniper’s bullet.

Still, this is one depiction of war destined to linger in our memory. At times this movie almost seems like a pugnacious middle finger to the classic war epics, in which disparate men come together for a violent but altruistic cause. “Fury” crushes the notion of the nobility of war under its grinding, pitiless treads.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Review: "Men, Women & Children"

"Men, Women & Children" is an audacious, ambitious film that dives into the deep end of cinematic contemplation and, eventually, disappears beneath the ripples it commenced. But not before a heroic effort.

It's not so much a coherent story as a mirror turned around at the audience, daring them to consider how we live today, how the digital age has bent and distorted the way we approach love and sex -- especially teenagers, who have never lived in a world without instant communication and universal access to visual gratification.

This is one of the rare movies I wish was longer; its sprawling narrative and heady themes needed more space to give themselves a full workout. Director and co-writer Jason Reitman ("Up in the Air") ends up drowning in the same trouble that afflicts most films with large ensemble casts and intersecting storylines: it moves on too quickly when it should linger, and tarries when it has outlasted its purpose.

If the notion of underage kids communicating graphically about what they'd like to do to each other is shocking to you, then you might sympathize with Patricia, played by Jennifer Garner. She monitors every step her daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) takes online -- she reads the girl's text messages before she sees them, deleting if she finds them objectionable. Using tracking software on Brandy's phone, mom knows her daughter's whereabouts 24/7. Indeed, Patricia, with her pained expression and wounded eyes, doesn't seem to have a job or a personal life, only a cause: to keep kids safe online -- even if it means stripping them of any semblance of freedom.

Needless to say, Brandy is driven to seek release, and finds it with Tim (Ansel Elgort), another wayward soul. He's the star running back of the football team, but quits mid-season so he can have more time to play Guild Wars, an online role-playing video game. He's bereft by a personal loss, and in Brandy sees a companion with whom to drift. They plug the rents in each other's fragile psyches, forming a relationship that is -- by the standards of other couplings in the film -- remarkably healthy and not dictated by sex.

On the other extreme is Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), a 16-year-old who flaunts her sexuality instinctively, aided by a mother (Judy Greer) who enables her Hollywood ambitions. They take risqué, but not obscene, photos of her and post them on a website -- including private shoots for paying customers. What's scarier than the idea of a mother basically pimping out her daughter is that neither seems to fully grasp the impact of what they're doing.

Most affecting is the story of Allison (Elena Kampouris), a painfully thin girl wracked by twin, intermarried crucibles: anorexia and being the last female (she thinks) in her social circle who hasn't "hooked up." She visits websites where beauty-obsessed girls provide emotional support to willingly starve themselves -- Google it; they're real -- and fantasizes about the football player she's known since seventh grade. Her body is an unruly burden to her, both her corporeal heft (any) and her wretched virginity.

The stories of some of these kids' parents also float in and out of the foreground. Most notable, though not as interesting as it sounds, is Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt as a married couple whose sex life has turned cold, and they each use the Web to fulfill their needs with strangers.

It's an interesting idea, especially in that it's she craving sexual adventure while he mostly pines for simple intimacy, but their path seems more pathetic than dangerous. Meanwhile, their 15-year-old son has grown impotent after being burned out on hardcore porn.

"Men, Women & Children" gives us an almost entirely bleak view of lust in the 21st century, but that's not its problem. By focusing on too many characters and tales, the film's dark, brave message loses signal strength. There either needed to be a lot more of this movie, or a lot less.

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