Thursday, April 24, 2014

Few laughs on this road to revenge

The Other Woman grates more than it amuses. .
Three women avenge themselves on a philandering man in The Other Woman, a witless comedy that forces stars Cameron Diaz and Leslie Mann into indecorous displays of physical comedy as they grapple with a contrivance-laden script.

When the movie opens, Diaz's Carly Whitten, an attorney, is ensconced in an affair with a handsome businessman (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Carly thinks she's finally found her soul mate.

It doesn't take long for Carly to learn that the man for whom she's scrapped all other relationships is married to a character played by Mann. The script then labors to inform Mann's Kate that her husband Mark is a serial philanderer and all-around louse.

The twist: Carly and Kate develop an awkward, odd-couple friendship that progresses from one in which Kate drives Carly crazy to one of mutual -- if improbable -- respect.

Lest the men in the audience become bored with all of this sisterly solidarity, Melissa Stack's screenplay introduces another mistress, a bombshell played by model Kate Upton, who nicely fills out a swimsuit, as she did in the recent Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

Upton's playing a character named Amber, and director Nick Cassavetes takes as much advantage of her pulchritudinous glow as possible.

Mann overdoes Kate's whining to the point where it becomes abrasive: Diaz soldiers on as best she can, playing the savviest woman of this trio, a lawyer who's never seen practicing law.

Moderation is not a virtue here: Not content with turning Coster-Waldau's character into a rotten husband, the screenplay also contrives to make him a felonious fraud.

I suppose it's necessary to point out that Don Johnson (remember him?) makes a brief appearance as Carly's pleasure-seeking father, and that a lively Niki Minaj portrays Carly's secretary.

If you believe in any of these characters, you may be able to enjoy a comedy with a jukebox musical score and a sense of humor that turns a laxative joke into a comic high point. Need I say more?

'The Railway Man': off and on track

A compelling story told with sporadic effectiveness.
A young but resourceful British soldier during World War II, Eric Lomax became a prisoner of war, part of the legion of British captives and Asian workers forced to toil on construction of the Thailand to Burma railroad.

The Railway Man -- a movie about Lomax's experiences -- is at its most effective when depicting the brutalizing torture Lomax experienced at the hands of the Japanese after he was caught with a radio and a map.

The Japanese insisted Lomax was trying to communicate with China. In reality, he and his imprisoned pals were listening to war news on a radio that couldn't transmit. Lomax, a long-time train enthusiast, used the map to chart the course of the line.

Colin Firth plays Lomax as a man suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome, a veteran whose experiences -- which included water-boarding -- keep him from fully engaging in his marriage to a Canadian woman (Nicole Kidman). Lomax and Kidman's Patti met in 1980 -- on a train, of course.

Director Jonathan Tiplitzky complicates the story by lacing it with flashbacks -- some springing from Lomax's tormented psyche and some from a recounting of events by one of Lomax's war-time pals, a miscast Stellan Skarsgard.

Kidman's Patti pushes Lomax to share experiences he's kept bottled up since the end of the war. Kidman gives the expected fine performance, but her presence in the film proves a little tangential.

Jeremy Irvine effectively plays the younger Lomax in flashbacks to the war.

Eventually, the post-war Lomax returns to the scene of the Japanese war crimes he endured. He fully expects to kill one of his surviving torturers (Hiroyuki Sanada), a man who's now earning a living conducting what Skarsgard's character refers to as "Bridge on the River Kwai tourism."

The big issue -- no less powerful for being obvious -- involves the conflict between Lomax's understandable desire for revenge and his need for reconciliation.

The big confrontation scene between the British veteran and his Japanese tormenter almost shrinks the movie into a play on film, but Sanada and Firth make it powerful nonetheless.

Kirsten Wiig gets serious

Hateship Loveship proves punchless.
Hateship Loveship -- one of several recent movies that has been available on VOD prior to reaching theaters -- proves a restrained but imperfect attempt to turn an Alice Munro short story into a feature-length movie.

Hateship Loveship surrounds Kristen Wiig -- in a serious role -- with some fine supporting talent, notably Nick Nolte, Hailee Steinfeld and Guy Pearce.

Wiig plays Johanna, a woman who embarks on a new adventure after the elderly woman she has been working for dies. Isolated for much of her life, Johanna becomes a kind of housemaid and nanny to Mr. McCauley (Nolte) and his recalcitrant teen-age granddaughter Sabitha (Steinfeld).

The plot engages when one of Sabitha's friends (Sami Gayle) decides to play a prank on Johanna, setting up an affectionate e-mail correspondence between Johanna and Pearce's Ken, Sabitha's drug-addicted father. Ken's contributions to this dialogue are composed by Gayle's Edith.

Acting on what she believes to be her one chance for love, lonely Johanna travels to Chicago and moves in with Ken, who resides in a rundown motel that he makes noises about renovating.

Half spooky and half sincere, Wiig proves convincing as a woman who knows next to nothing about the world and its rules.

Gradually, Johanna takes over Ken's life: She sees hope where we see nothing but potential doom.

To worm her way into Ken's world, the emotionally underdeveloped Johanna must displace Chloe (Jennifer Jason Leigh), one of Ken's junkie pals.

Director Liza Johnson, working from a script by Mark Poirier, files off the story's rougher edges, which has the effect of making Loveship Hateship entirely too easy to shrug off.

What could have been a tender little movie seems little more than a curiosity: Wiig in a role without a comic side.

Great photos that almost weren't seen

Finding Vivian Maier examines the strange life of a gifted street photographer.
A central question haunts and enriches the new documentary Finding Vivian Maier. Why would Maier, a brilliant street photographer who spent much of her adult life working as a nanny, never show anyone her work?

Directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel build their documentary around a discovery made by Maloof. In pursuit of photographs for another project, Maloof spent $400 at an auction. He wound up owning a box containing 30,000 of Maier's negatives and prints. He later acquired more of her work.

Maloof couldn't find out much about Maier, but when she died in 2009, he began to pursue his interest in her, based on his assessment that her work -- much of it done in the 1950s and '60s -- was both significant and amazing.

Maloof learned that Maier worked as a nanny in the Chicago area, that many of the children she supervised did not particularly like her, that she had an international upbringing and that she was a compulsive hoarder.

When Maloof put some of Maier's work on the Internet, interest began to mount.

At its best, Finding Vivian Maier raises interesting questions about what conditions must be met in order for photography to be regarded as art. Maloof argues against those who contend that "genuine" photographic art -- the kind taken seriously by museums -- must be printed by the photographer.

Obviously, the departed Maier no longer can print the hundreds of thousands of negatives she left behind. She seemed to have no interest in establishing herself as an artist during her lifetime.

Maloof's obsession with Maier's work rivals her penchant for secrecy, but I knew nothing about Maier's photography prior to seeing this documentary, and was happy to learn about it.

Maybe we're better off for being able to see these amazing photographs without having to know the woman who took them: Maier does not come off as the most amiable of companions.

Siskel and Maloof learn plenty about Maier, but in the end, it's her beautifully composed and revealing slice-of-life photographs that prove memorable -- that and the strange realization that Maier never will know that we've seen them.

Some of Maier's work can be seen by clicking here.

Seeking paradise in the Galapagos

It's doubtful that you'll find a wackier story than the one told in The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, a documentary centered on a German couple that moved to the Galapagos Islands prior to the rise of Hitler.

Directors Dayna Goldfine and Daniel Geller began their efforts after finding black-and-white footage of Friedrich Ritter and Dore Strauch, the original settlers on the unpopulated island of Floreana in the southern Pacific.

According to the movie's web site, the footage was shot during expeditions by Captain Alan Hancock to the Galapagos Islands, a desolate spot that seems better suited to lizards and giant tortoises than to human beings.

Ritter, a physician who fancied himself a philosopher, was aggrieved when a few other intrepid souls followed him to Floreana, including a purported baroness who seemed to become sexually involved with most of the men on the island.

Life on Floreana wasn't easy, and much of the footage shows Strauch and Ritter working to sustain life by cultivating crops to support their vegetarianism.

Ritter's goal was to forsake the individuality-crushing confines of civilization and community. Naturally, the arrival of other people only fueled Ritter's belief that contact with others meant conflict.

The newbies on Floreana included another German couple and the aforementioned baroness -- one Eloise von Wagner Bosquet -- who brought a couple of lovers with her. The baroness planned to build a hotel on the island.

The story, which includes a possible murder and assorted other mysteries, is carefully assembled with a variety of name actors reading from correspondence by all the participants.

Voices are provided by Cate Blanchett (Strauch), Diane Kruger (as the female member of the second couple) and Connie Nielsen (as the baroness). Thomas Kretschmann reads the words of Ritter.

Interviews with some of the offspring of the handful of people who lived on the Galapagos Islands add a bit of contemporary spin to the proceedings.

The German newspapers wrote about Ritter and Strauch as a new Adam and Eve. It doesn't take much by way of imagination to know that a paradise never found can't be lost.

The Galapagos Affair is an interesting and bizarre story about the way in which noble dreams so often lead to folly.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Johnny Depp dwells in a computer

Transcendence: a muddled look at the perils of artificial intelligence
I don't know exactly what's in the hearts and minds of director Wally Pfister and screenwriter Jack Paglen when it comes to the perils humanity faces as mankind inches closer to a time when artificial intelligence threatens to undermine the biological basis of life.

And that's the trouble.

I should have left Transcendence, which purports to deal with just that subject, feeling a sense of outrage -- or at least brooding concern. I'd gladly have settled for glimmers of hope that we'll come to our senses and cling to the flesh-and-blood quality of our lives.

Instead, I left wondering what the hell Pfister was trying to say and whether too much A-line pap has diminished Johnny Depp as an actor.

I also wondered whether whether Pfister, an excellent cinematographer who has worked on almost all of director Christopher Nolan's movies (e.g., The Dark Knight and Inception) forgot that the main job of the director has less to do with cinematic flourishes (of which Transcendence boasts many) than with with storytelling.

The longer Transcendence goes on, the more it feels as if the story hadn't been thought through or perhaps had been tinkered with by a committee. Don't you think we need a love story? How about adding hybrids? No, not cars, but zombie-like folks ready to form an automoton-like army.

Depp plays Will Caster, a brilliant computer scientist whose work in the field of artificial intelligence has established him as a global genius. Caster's wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), runs the business side of Will's life, raising money for his work in league with Max Waters (Paul Bettany), another computer scientist.

Early on, Will is attacked by a radical anti-technology group called RIFT. He survives a gunshot wound only to learn that he was struck by a radioactive bullet.

With death looming, Hall and Bettany contrive to salvage Will's consciousness by uploading it into a giant computer. They succeed, and the trouble starts.

Will's humanitarian impulses become distorted. With all the world's information at his disposal through the Internet, he becomes power hungry -- for the good of mankind, he says.

Depp doesn't inhabit a computer as well as Scarlett Johansson did in Her. (A better title for Transcendence might have been Him.)

And the supporting cast is largely wasted.

Hall does what she can as a woman whose ideals increasingly are betrayed. Bettany brings hand-wringing sincerity to his role, but the rest of the cast -- Morgan Freeman (as a scientist), Cillian Murphy (as an FBI agent) and a grim looking Kate Mara (as a RIFT activist) is largely wasted.

It's depressing to watch an actor as gifted as Freeman playing a non-character in a sea of non-characters.

Maybe that's the rub: A movie that wants to remind us of our connection to the Earth and of our precious humanity might have made more of an effort to include a few interesting human beings.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Jude Law goes gangster

He's brutal and vulgar, but he fills the film.
In playing a low-level thug desperately trying to find his footing after a 12-year-stint in prison, Jude Law pulls out every stop he can find.

Law's Dom Hemingway -- the title character of director Richard Shepard's foray into the world of cockney criminals -- gives us a main character who's mesmerizingly vulgar.

Dom's a brutal man without impulse control, a stocky, angry mess of a fellow who refused to rat out his partners in crime while in prison.

For that, Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir) -- the crime czar who profited from Dom's silence -- has a debt to pay. So Dom and his buddy Dickie (Richard E. Grant) travel to the south of France to visit Mr. Fontaine's estate and collect Dom's reward.

One assumes that Shepard, who splashes title cards over bright red screens and adds other pop-oriented flourishes, gave Law all the room he needed to find his inner beast.

Law obliged by putting as much physicality into the role as possible. When Dom gets out of prison, he looks as if he's going to burst the seams of his dated double-breasted blue suit.

Dom's post-prison life isn't easy. He runs into a problem with Mr. Fontaine's larcenous lover (Madalina Diana Ghenea).

When he returns to London, a thug threatens to slice off his ... well ... you know. I suppose it's appropriate since the priapic Dom opens the movie with a soaring, ferocious monologue proclaiming the glories of his penis.

For all his bravado, Dom's a magnate for bad luck. He probably doesn't expect to be greeted warmly when he tries to reunite with the daughter (Emilia Clarke) who grew up without him. Clarke's Evelyn resents Dom deeply -- and probably justifiably.

By the time, Dom locates Evelyn, she's living with a Senegalese musician with whom she's had a son.

In trying for too much (the movie's episodic story elements create a cascading slice of contemporary British life), Shepard may have achieved too little. Dom Hemingway becomes the movie's story, a pretty big burden for any character -- even one as out-sized as Dom.

A scattershot collection of low-life bits and pieces, Dom Hemingway mellows with the unfortunate emergence of some late-picture sentimentality.

Still, Law's performance has too much raw energy to ignore: He's playing a man who doesn't know whether there's anything about himself that's worth salvaging. Dom rails at others, at an uncaring universe and perhaps at himself.

If Dom has any charm, it derives from his naive determination not to let the universe win.

Living in an alien world

Under the Skin tells a different sort of tale.
Under the Skin, a deadpan helping of sci-fi, turns out to be an exceptionally strange affair.

Director Richard Glazer's movie brims with stylistic and thematic flourishes that give it an other-worldly aura -- an achievement of sorts because the movie is set almost entirely on Earth.

Glazer achieves this unsettling effect by showing us Earth -- mostly the Scottish city of Glasgow -- from the detached viewpont of an extraterrestrial.

Scarlett Johansson portrays a character who -- after the film's spacey beginning -- travels around Glasgow in a van. In a black wig and fur jacket, Johnanson looks attractive and remote, an alien who seems to be following a set of programmed instructions about how to relate to the men she encounters.

The mood is one of extreme alienation. The people walking Glascow's streets may think they're headed somewhere, but to us they appear purposeless, maybe even superfluous.

Johansson's character can be friendly when she needs to be; i.e., when she's luring men (some of them non-actors who reportedly didn't know they were being filmed) into her van.

We quickly come to regard this woman as a kind of deep-space femme fatale. She never delivers on her sexual promise, but takes her prey to a rundown hideout and then sinks them into a dark, fathomless murk from which they'll never return.

Glazer's adaptation of a Michel Faber novel keeps every scene dimly lit, making it feel as if we must fight our way into the movie.

If you've seen enough sci-fi, you'll probably surmise that Johansson's character is on an aien mission. What mission? Where does she come from?

Glazer leaves it to us to fill in the blanks or, more likely, to push such questions aside as irrelevant.

The movie's purposeful ambiguity suggests that Glazer wants to keep our minds working overtime, which isn't always easy because his uninflected style can tend toward monotony.

That's not to say that there aren't amazing sequences here. A rescue on a beach leaves a terrifying, pitiless aftertaste, particularly in the way it concludes.

I won't say more, but if you're troubled by the idea of watching a toddler in jeopardy, Under the Skin will provide you with material enough for several nightmares.

The images at the end of the movie put Johansson's earlier nudity (of which there's a fair amount) into a new and provocative light, turning Under the Skin into a meditation on the body. The movie's title encourages us to look deeper.

Johansson's playing a predatory creature who, at various times, explores the humanity that she has assumed, less with wonder than with stunned curiosity.

At one point, she even seems to take human emotion for a test run: She feels sorry for a man with a facial deformity, and later becomes sexually aroused with a man she meets at a bus stop.

In general, though, Johansson suppresses the user-friendly charms she brought to Her, a movie in which she was never seen. Here we see plenty of her -- and nothing at all.

Under the Skin marks Glazer's third movie, after 2000's Sexy Beast and 2004's Birth. He's definitely a talent, although one that's not easy to pin down.

Those who are so inclined can read all sorts of things into Glazer's movie -- and probably will. Others will find it interesting -- even trancelike -- but unrewarding overall.

I think I lean more toward the latter category. Murky, ambitious and remote, Under the Skin can be very much like its main character: serious and intriguing, but lacking a human core.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

'Heaven' is best when earthbound

A best-selling book finds its way to the screen.
If a four-year-old boy awoke from a coma and told you that he had just visited heaven, seen Jesus, met his long-departed great grandfather and had experiences that banished all his fears, would you have the heart to suggest that the boy wait until he's old enough to investigate what neurobiologists might have to say about his story?

Neither would I. I'd smile, and wish the boy well.

Of course, there was just a such a boy, and his Nebraska-based family made his experiences the subject of Heaven Is for Real, a blockbuster best-seller that helped establish a publishing mini-trend: cheerleading for the afterlife.

Those seeking adult affirmation about heaven may wish to try Proof of Heaven: A Doctor's Experience With the Afterlife by Eben Alexander. A movie based on Alexander's book reportedly is being developed.

As Variety reported on April 14, Hollywood is displaying a growing faith in Christian movies. Put another way, Hollyood's always eager to find another lucrative niche market.

Stripped of some of the boy's more apocalyptic declarations -- the coming war between Satan and Jesus that will destroy the world, but vanquish evil forever -- the movie version of Heaven Is for Real has been carefully crafted to keep its tone down-to-earth.

Greg Kinnear's Todd Burpo -- a pastor in a small rural church -- provides the movie's entry point. Todd struggles to come to grips with what his son Colton (a cute Connor Corum) tells him, information about heaven disclosed casually and sporadically by Colton -- almost in time-release fashion.

Colton's visit to heaven takes place while he's in a coma after emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix.

When Todd thinks that his son may be dying, he fumes at God. Later, he's taken aback by the boy's account of things he only could have seen if he had an out-of-body experience.

The movie includes some transparently obvious skepticism -- not so much to question the authenticity of young Colton's story but to give the proceedings an aura of objectivity.

And an end-of-picture speech by Kinnear - the movie's Frank Capra moment -- suggests that the boy's vision of heaven may have been tailored by God to match the expectations of a four-year-old; i.e., Colton sits on Jesus's lap, sees other kids and meets a second sister he would have had had his mother (Kelly Reilly) not miscarried.

Colton has one older sister (Lane Styles), but the story doesn't pay much attention to her.

Director Randall Wallace probably knew that he couldn't make the movie without showing Colton's heaven.

We see Colton's grassy version of heaven, his vision of angels and even a full-faced picture of the Jesus Colton encounters, which arrives like an exclamation point at the end of the movie.

For the most part, though, Wallace's approach is less ethereal than earthly, which I suppose is in keeping with the matter-of-fact attitude Colton displays toward heaven.

Such a tone suggests -- at least to me -- that significant commercial calculation went into how this material would be presented by Wallace, who had a hand in writing the screenplay and who is best known for having written the screenplay for Braveheart. Wallace tries not to overplay the movie's heavenly hand.

At times, Heaven Is for Real plays like an after-school special. At other times, it grapples (albeit gently) with the community's attempts to decide what to make of Colton's story.

Not all of Todd's congregants are willing to accept the boy's story, and one woman (Margo Martindale) sees it as a potentially destructive to the church over which Todd presides.

We're not exactly entering spoiler territory if I tell you that Todd does not loose his job over any such dissension or that the movie's most touching scene is one in which Kinnear and Martindale share their grief.

Kinnear, of course, operates at his likable best. He and Reilly create a convincing portrait of a couple struggling with financial issues in a rural community that seems to lack for rich benefactors.

Heaven Is for Real isn't likely to gain much audience beyond those looking for family entertainment with a Christian spin, presumably a sizable enough group to keep turnstiles spinning through the Easter holiday. Other religions are left out of this particular heaven.

Colton's story also includes a couple of pivotal trips to Denver, where the family visits the Denver Butterfly Pavilion. Colton eventually overcomes his arachnophobia and holds a tarantula named Rosie in the palm of his tiny hand.

I'm not sure why I feel compelled to share this detail, perhaps only as a way of saying that it's one more localized element in a movie that presents what appears to be a decidedly middle-American vision of life on Earth and of the world to come.