Thursday, July 31, 2014

'Guardians:' Junk and proud of it

Another comic-book of a movie from Marvel Studios
Guardians of the Galaxy, another Marvel Studios space adventure, seems to have been cobbled together from diverse genre elements in an effort to achieve a supreme level of silliness -- and that's one of its good points.

You have to give some kind of credit to a movie that asks us to develop affection for a talking tree that does little more than repeat its name: "I am Groot." Voice courtesy of Vin Diesel, who -- as it turns out -- may be better heard than seen.

Then there's Rocket, a talking raccoon (voice by Bradley Cooper) who fills the obligatory wise-ass niche.

2001, this ain't, but Guardians inoculates itself against serious criticism by adopting an ethos that goes something like this: Hey, we know this is crap, but we've gone through a lot of trouble to make the best crap possible.

If that's too pejorative, substitute the word "junk" and you're on your way.

To take the most generous view, it's fair to call Guardians a celebration of genre junk: The movie's director -- James Gunn -- also directed Slither, an unashamed and reasonably well-received B-movie from 2006. Guardians qualifies as a more expensive, but still unashamed leap into B-movie tropes.

Chris Pratt plays Peter Quill -- a.k.a. Star Lord -- a galactic scavenger who steals and re-sells his plunder.

The movie begins with a prologue explaining that Quill was born on Earth during the 1980s, but was abducted by aliens shortly after the death of his mother. The story then leaps ahead 26 years, locating itself in a mixed-species galaxy.

Familiar from TV's Parks and Recreation and from small roles in Moneyball and Zero Dark Thirty, Pratt relaxes into a big screen lead as the mildly cynical hero who, in the end, takes his galactic responsibilities seriously and who clearly evokes memories of Star Wars' Han Solo.

The drama revolves around a stolen object called The Orb, a soft-ball sized gizmo with major destructive powers. Lots of folks want to get their hands on The Orb, including Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace).

Ronan yearns to destroy the planet Xander, which is led by Nova Prime, Glenn Close with a platinum blonde hairdo that curlicues upward like something that plopped out of a Dairy Queen spigot.

Is it possible to care whether Ronan succeeds? Not really: The movie's fight against evil couldn't be more generic: The intention, one presumes, is to keep the characters engaging enough to sustain involvement.

Sometimes it works.

Zoe Saldana plays Gamora, a green-skinned alien who's also trying to take possession of The Orb, but who ultimately joins forces with Quill.

The other fledgling Guardians -- aside from Rocket and Groot -- include Drax (Dave Bautista), a heavily muscled hulk who comes from an alien race that has yet to master the concept of metaphors. No, really.

Then there's Yondu (Michael Rooker), the space pirate who abducted Quill and who since has become his ostensible boss.

Gunn manages a couple of tender moments between Quill and Gamora, but they amount to little more than flirtations. The movie's PG-13 rating derives from violence and language.

Guardians is one of those movies that blurs the line between violence and action. There's plenty of it, although none of it struck me as particularly exciting absent anything more than the most perfunctory of rooting interests.

Gunn has given the movie the kind of borderlne cheesy look that requires lots of effort: Like Star Wars, Guardians tries to capture some of the cheap-looking innocence of a bygone days -- albeit in hipper fashion.

Not your average comic book hero, Quill has a fondness for a mix tape that was given to him by his mother. Gunn uses '70s music from this tape throughout, adding an element that may be foreign to younger audiences who know as much about Walkmans as they do about typewriters.

Will there be another Guardians movie?

Is The Orb round? Is Gamora green? Is Marvel an apparently bottomless well of comic-book characters?

I think you know the answer.





Resurrecting the spirit of James Brown

In Get on Up, Chadwick Boseman gives one of the year's most compelling performances as The Godfather of Soul.
Many intrepid writers have tried their hand at the unenviable task of capturing the complicated essence of the late James Brown. A fabulous showman, a canny businessman, and a martinet who bullied his musicians, Brown was also a wounded soul who managed to transcend a difficult upbringing in an America scarred by the blatant racism of the Jim Crow South.

Never easy to pigeon hole, Brown eventually became one of the rare black superstars to support Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

At the same time, he was the undisputed Godfather of Soul, a performer who understood that talent and celebrity can imbue a man with mesmeric power. He wasn't just an entertainer: He was a force.

During the course of a long career, Brown expanded from the Chitlin' Circuit to the mainstream. Like a wave that couldn't be denied, he broke across the pop cultural shores of a nation that perhaps never knew quite what to make of him, but couldn't help watching anyway.

Now comes Get On Up, an energy fueled big-screen biography that leaps around in time as frenetically as Brown moved on stage.

If you choose, you can find lots about which to quibble in the way director Tate Taylor (The Help) has structured the material and with some of the movie's attempts to broach complicated subjects with sketchy shorthand references.

Mostly, though, you'd be wasting your time. Get On Up stands as a triumphant resurrection of Brown's spirit, an accomplishment for which Chadwick Boseman justly can claim credit.

Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in 42, finds another role that's physically and emotionally demanding. Mastering Brown's trademark stage moves is challenge enough, but Boseman also had to plumb the depths of a man whose amazing story includes abandonment by his parents, growing up in a whore house, stints in jail and dazzling commercial success.

Throughout all of this, Boseman gives full vent to Brown's unwavering capacity for self-assertion, a drive that manifested itself in music that created a primal groove. Brown's rhythms seized the body and made it dance, a form of musical possession to be dealt with as best one could.

Sometimes, even Brown couldn't keep up with himself. There's a moment in Get on Up in which a needlessly jealous Brown hits his wife. A shaken Boseman faces the camera, revealing flickers of Brown's self-awareness, as well as his fears of crumbling order and loss of control.

Of course, Boseman also captures Brown's bravado, his defiance and the musical perfectionism that frequently tormented the musicians whom he mercilessly rehearsed.

At times Boseman speaks directly to the camera, taking charge of the story as he should. It's a risky ploy, but it works, probably because it never lets us forget who's in charge of the narrative.

Seldom has the term supporting cast been so apt. Every performance in the film defines itself in terms of the commanding center provided by Boseman. Craig Robinson appears as saxophonist Maceo Parker; Nelsan Ellis (of TV's True Blood) plays Bobby Byrd, a Brown loyalist and back-up singer. Jill Scott portrays DeeDee, one of Brown's wives.

Viola Davis isn't in the picture much, but has a terrific scene as Brown's mother. After a show at the fabled Apollo, she turns up for a meeting with the son she hasn't seen in years. It's as painful encounter as you'll see in a movie this year, a star fighting against his own feelings for a woman who abandoned him and that woman, understanding what she'd done, trying to express pride in a lost child.

No point recounting Brown's life here. Those who are familiar with his story probably will find areas where screenwriters Steven Baigelman and Jez Butterworth have taken liberties, but they've also sprinkled the movie with images that amplify Brown's biography.

Examples: As a kid in the South, Brown removes a pair of stylish shoes from a lynched black man whose body still hangs from a tree. A still youthful Brown claims the stage with The Flames (his band at the time) at a club where Little Richard is headlining. And the movie is clear about the ways in which Brown made his manager (Dan Aykroyd) do his bidding.

Sometimes, Brown went too far: Early on, he goes off the deep end with a group of insurance trainees who have gathered in one of his buildings, toting a rifle and demanding to know which of them had the temerity to use his toilet -- not a casual question for someone who understood the demeaning rigidities of segregation.

Taylor and company have no interest in canoizing Brown: They've tried to present him as a man who knew how to take and defend his turf, sometimes when it wasn't even being threatened.

I don't know what Brown would have thought of this movie: But it produces some of the same feelings that Brown's performances generated: excitement and amazement -- about Brown and also about Boseman: Both subject and actor seem to embody a force that comes from some unexplained and unreachable place only they can access.

The rest of us? We're spectators in their worlds.

A visual feast, but is it too much?

Michel Gondry's Mood Indigo amuses and then over-amuses.
Not many filmmakers seem to care about visual comedy these days. You'll find abundant sight gags (generally of a gross nature) in American movies, but true visual wit remains a rarity. Gore Verbinski displayed plenty of intricate visual humor in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but he's an exception to the rule.

The French filmmaker Michel Gondry (The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Human Nature) doesn't always score bulls eyes, but left to his own devices, as he apparently was in 2006's The Science of Sleep, Gondry unleashes his capacity for amusing visual invention.

Gondry's Mood Indigo is based on a 1947 novel -- L'Ecume des Jours -- by Boris Vian. I'm not familiar with Vian's novel, but after seeing Gondry's movie, I have to believe that the director was inspired by a story that allowed him to pull out every visual stop -- with substantial help from Stephane Rosenbaum, his talented production designer.

The story: Colin (Romain Duris) has money and a quirky Paris apartment. Colin's a bit frivolous, having invented a machine that he calls the "pianocktail." This grandly silly instrument mixes cocktails when Duke Ellington's Mood Indigo is played on it.

Colin's chef and chief advisor (Omar Sy of The Intouchables) whips up fantastical dishes for Colin and his best friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh). Turn on the faucets in Colin's apartment and out come eels, an amusing, if less than appetizing, sight.

Love looms. Chick meets Alise (Aissa Maiga) and falls for her. An envious Colin insists on falling in love, as well.

At a party, Colin meets Chloe (Audrey Tautou). They dance together in a scene in which Gondry uses animation to enhance their limbs in rubbery, cartoonish fashion.

Colin and Chloe also date, flying over Paris on a white cloud that looks like a swan and seems to have been borrowed from an old-fashioned amusement park.

Gondry's mix of live action and effects can be amusing and strange: The doorbell that turns into a mechanized insect that crawls the walls of Colin's apartment, for example.

Colin is such a good pal that he offers money to Chick so that he can marry his soul mate. As it turns out, Chick spends most of his time and a lot of Colin's money acquiring valuable editions of the work of Jean-Sol Patre, a goof on ... well ... you know who.

Gondry's upbeat tone prevails right up to the time when Chloe contracts a Camille-like cough, a malady that stems from the fact that there's a water lily growing in one of he lungs.

Faced with losing the love of his life and his fortune, Colin drifts toward despair.

Mood Indigo takes place over a fleet 92 minutes, but the non-stop invention inevitably loses some its charm, and the movie's visual bric-a-brac proves so plentiful that it can feel as if it exists purely for its own sake.

I liked parts of Mood Indigo very much, and I respect Gondry's desire to ravish and entertain the eye. But like heavy rain on hot pavement, Mood Indigo tends to evaporate quickly, a victim perhaps of its own immoderation.


Inside a Los Angeles emergency room

Ryan McGarry trained to be an emergency room doctor at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, completing his residency at this bustling, high-volume facility. If professional duties weren't enough to keep Dr. McGarry occupied, he also made Code Black, a documentary about the high-pressure world of emergency room docs. McGarry covered the period from 2008 to 2012, which means his film preceded the onset of Obamacare. But this powerful documentary -- which showed at last fall's Starz Denver Film Festival -- accomplishes many things vital to understanding health care: First and foremost, it demonstrates that young doctors are dedicated, eager to help and devastated when they can't. It underscores the loss of collegiality that accompanies a shift from the hospital's old facility to a better equipped new one. That move is accompanied by an increasing demand for paper work that begins to consume the doctors' time and erode their morale. You'll also get a clear picture of what these doctors actually do, and the excitement it can generate for them. It strikes me that working in an emergency room consists of one adrenalin rush after another -- except that physicians can't afford to be swept away by the unpredictable energies of their often chaotic workplace. Slickly produced, Code Black has the pacing and impact of a thriller, but don't get me wrong: This is a ground zero look at health care in a busy urban setting. You will be both amazed and edified, and better able to understand how physicians deal with frustrating wait times, patients without insurance, immigrants and a host of other problems that go a long way toward defining contemporary health care in such a hot-house setting.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

An amazing portrait of boyhood

Boyhood -- director Richard Linklater's 12-year portrait of contemporary childhood -- stands as a time-capsule-worthy movie about the kind of fragmented family lives that have become increasingly common.

Linklater's movie may not be flawless, but it's brave and thorough, and it may make you realize just how difficult growing up has become. I don't know if Boyhood describes a new normal, but it's an eminently credible look at the realities that confront an awful lot of today's kids.

The story focuses on Mason, following him from the age of six to the age of 18. Mason's the son of parents who married too early and subsequently divorced. He lives with his mother, who has notably bad judgment when it comes to men, eventually entangling herself in a second marriage to an abusive drunk.

During his young life, Mason is forced to change residences and schools. He must also navigate a relationship with his biological father, a good-hearted guy who hasn't really grown up himself.

Linklater shot his movie in 39 days over the course of 12 years, employing the same cast throughout the entire project. As a result, we get to watch the young people in the movie grow and mature, a process that takes them through stages of cuteness and ungainliness and finally deposits them on the cusp of adulthood.

We feel as if we really know these youngsters, and as they get older, we're constantly looking for traces of the children they once were. We live with these characters.

To his credit, Linklater doesn't fill the movie's 2 1/2 hours with wall-to-wall confrontation. Although there are a couple of tough emotional outbursts, Linklater mostly allows his characters to live their lives unhurriedly, often struggling to do the best they can.

In that sense, Boyhood is a movie about the ways in which we learn to live with imperfection, to adjust to it as time passes.

Young Ellar Coltrane provides the glue that holds Boyhood together. He gives the movie a strong center as Mason's moves toward young adulthood.

Linklater's daughter Lorelei, who plays Mason's older sister, is equally good, although her character doesn't get equal time with Mason.

In an early scene, Lorelei Linklater and Coltrane battle in the backseat of a car in ways that will be distressingly familiar to any parent who has lived through similar moments with a contentious set of siblings.

The rest of the cast does strong work, particularly Patricia Arquette as Mom and Hawke as Dad. Marco Perella plays another man in Mom's life, a guy who tries to over-control his kids because he can't control himself. His alcoholism eventually turns mean.

Mom later takes up with an Iraq war vet, another guy who's clueless when it comes to women and kids.

It's fair, I think, to regard Boyhood as a collection of telling moments: a kid watching his parents argue and us knowing that the moment is spring-loaded to have later impact, for example.

Late in the movie, we see Mason's first serious relationship with a girl (Zoe Graham).

As I watched Boyhood, I kept wondering when melodrama would strike, when the dramatic chickens would come home to roost. That never really happens.

Yes, circumstances can be difficult, but the characters muddle on. Some fall by the wayside -- or are pushed. Some grow and prosper. Mom, for example, becomes more independent, although she also sees the hollowness in a life that has left her on her own.

Hawke's character finds a second wife and starts a new family. He puts irresponsibility behind him, and trades his beloved GTO for a mini-van.

Throughout, Dad remains in touch with the kids from his first family. A scene in which he takes them to meet his new wife's parents typifies the way Linklater plays against expectations.

Grandma and Grandpa are Bible-toting churchgoers, and Grandpa's a gun enthusiast, but they're also people with a natural sense of generosity.

When Grandpa (Richard Andrew Jones) gives 15-year-old Mason one of this prized shotguns (his father gave it to him), the moment becomes truly touching.

Shifting cultural references pop up as we go. We get scenes during the height of the Harry Potter craze. Cell phones crop up. Musical tastes evolve. Mason changes hair styles, and eventually dons earrings.

But Linklater seems significantly less interested in shifting styles than in the substance of the lives he's observing.

When Mason begins to mature, he becomes interested in pursuing a career in art photography. It's clear that he's dealing with adolescent confusion, but also that he's smart and sensitive.

Besides, there could be a good side to the emotional distance that Mason learns to maintain, a hint of wariness that should serve him well in a world that's not always waiting for us with open arms.

In its later stages, Boyhood begins to feel like a talk-heavy Linklater movie in the Slacker and Waking Life vein: Characters reveal themselves (or not) through conversational riffs. And the movie overstays its welcome with a prolonged final act.

But taken as a whole, Boyhood represents an impressive achievement, a beautifully observed portrait of contemporary life, rooted in Texas but not confined to the peculiarities of the Lone Star state.

For all of its difficult detours, Boyhood qualifies as an optimistic movie, expressing Linklater's belief that most of us survive, get along and do our best to keep on going. We try.


Another helping of John le Carre

In A Most Wanted Man, author John le Carre shifts his espionage focus to Hamburg and Berlin. With the Cold War receding into memory, le Carre continues to find other milieus in which he can examine the chilly world of men and women who earn their living plying history's back channels.

Director Anton Corbijn tries to respect the tone and intricacies of le Carre's informed imagination, immersing us in a complex story built around German spy Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

As head of a special unit, Bachmann spends his time keeping tabs on Hamburg's radical Muslims. He hopes that he can uncover terrorist plots as he moves through a shadowy world that he doesn't always understand. Who could?

We're in a post 9/11 environment: The movie begins several years after Hamburg played home to Mohamed Atta, one of the leaders of the World Trade Center attack.

Not without reason, Bachmann considers himself a savvy guy. He's seen plenty, and he's not likely to be bested by anyone. He's a bit disheveled, but he's knowing and efficient, and has a deep mistrust of bureaucracy -- anyone's.

The movie starts when Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen/Russian arrives in Hamburg. A devout Muslim, Issa may be dangerous or maybe he's merely a pawn in someone's plan to lure and catch a bigger fish.

A German immigration lawyer (Rachel McAdams) tries to help Issa gain permanent residency in Germany. They approach a German banker (Willem Dafoe) to gain access to a substantial bank account left by Issa's father, a bad actor in the Russian criminal world.

The movie's cast of characters also includes Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a high-profile spokesman for the German Muslim community, and a cagey CIA agent (Robin Wright), who tries to work her way into Bachmann's plans.

Corbijn (Control and The American) doesn't totally conquer le Carre's complicated plot, the movie's pacing can become turgid, and the story might have been better served with a German actress in the role played by McAdams.

Still, the payoff perfectly reflects le Carre's cynical intelligence, a rueful defeatism that emanates from too keen a knowledge of the many ways in which people betray one another.

I wish it weren't so, but, for me at least, the fact that Hoffman's no longer with us imbued A Man Most Wanted with unintended eeriness, a sense that perhaps, in the end, life trumped any performance the gifted actor could give.

Put another way, it's difficult not to mourn the fact that A Man Most Wanted should have been one more Hoffman movie among many more to come.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Roger Ebert's life -- as it was

Life Itself -- director Steve James's revealing look at the life of film critic Roger Ebert -- is difficult to watch. This isn't because Ebert's life had its bad patches (which it evidently did), but because in his post-cancer, post multiple-surgeries days, Ebert's face became unrecognizable.

Even before filming started, Ebert was left with a flap of a jaw that didn't always conceal the holes created by cancer of the thyroid, salivary glands and the surgeon's knife.

I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that there were times when I had to look away from the screen.

Those who knew Ebert -- and who didn't feel as if they knew him after his lengthy career on TV's Siskel & Ebert and the Movies -- were accustomed to seeing him looking a good deal more robust, and it's shocking to see him inching toward his last days.

Still, if Ebert didn't shrink from showing us how he looked, we must respect his choice. Even before James's film, Ebert had released photos of himself that were enough to take the wind out of anyone's sails.

Those of us who knew Ebert from the festival circuit (which is to say that some of us were acquainted with him) knew him as an indefatigable worker, an astonishingly prolific writer, a good journalist and an adventurous critic who was willing to attend events that sometimes were not as well known as he was.

I don't know if anyone's movie reviews will (or even should) stand the test of time, but Ebert's interviews with actors and directors remain some of the best ever written.

More than a cancer chronicle, James's biography is also a sketch of an amazing career. The movie begins with Ebert's childhood, covers the budding journalist's college years and his early newspaper life at The Chicago Sun Times.

The movie also charts Ebert's rise on television, which -- we're reminded wasn't meteoric. Siskel and Ebert began on Chicago public TV long before either of them expected to attain a national profile.

Later, Ebert would fill his popular web site with reviews, interviews and more.

Perhaps eager to avoid an exercise in hagiography, James tries to show that Ebert could be less than pleasant -- less in his reviews than in his personal life. I should say that Ebert always displayed generosity toward me.

In hindsight, all of Ebert's missteps (the alcoholism he overcame; his egotism; his purported bad taste in women during his younger days) seemed to lead him toward a kind of personal redemption that culminated with his marriage to his wife Chaz.

I suppose that the rivalry between Gene Siskel and Ebert will interest those who are fascinated by the wave of pop-cultural oomph they created, their thumbs turning up and down for our amusement and occasionally, our edification.

It's possible that Ebert's life as a journalist was unique. I doubt whether a career such as Ebert's ever will happen again. Newspapers have declined. Movie critics with stable positions are more difficult to find.

TV still creates personalities, but it's difficult to imagine that one of TV's lights ever again will shine so brightly on another film critic.

Once, at a Telluride Film Festival, I asked Ebert if he planned to retire. As near as I can recall, Siskel already was dead, and Ebert had partnered with Sun Times columnist Richard Roeper to preserve the show's down-to-earth informality. The TV show wouldn't last forever, Ebert said.

But, said Ebert, he thought his Web site would allow him to continue writing no matter what else happened. He was right about that. He continued watching movies and writing as long as he could, turning a blog into a kind of personal and philosophical journal.

I don't mean this as a sick joke, but even now, I sometimes half expect Ebert to weigh in on a current release. He was a critic who became a touchstone. There always will be good -- even great -- film criticism, but it's unlikely anyone will take Ebert's place in the national conversation. With his passing in the spring of 2013, that sun has set.






Zach Braff's soggy sitcom of a movie

Aidan Bloom (Zach Braff) is not religious, yet he's sending his daughter and son to an Orthodox Jewish school. Aidan's kids are receiving a Jewish education because Aidan's father (Mandy Patinkin) wants them to understand their heritage. Just as important for the financially pressed Bloom family, Aidan's father picks up the tuition tab.

This, unfortunately, makes Aidan a bit of a hypocrite, a Los Angeles man so fearful of public education, he's willing to put his kids in an environment he doesn't take seriously.

Aidan is the main character in Braff's sometimes irritating Wish I Was Here, a movie about an aspiring actor (Braff) who's struggling economically, but won't consider giving up his dream of becoming a working performer.

Aidan's half-Jewish wife (Kate Hudson) holds the family together financially with a job she hates. Aidan's kids (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon) are ... well ... kids.

The twist that sets a sitcom-like story in motion occurs when Zach's father announces that his cancer has returned, that he's probably terminal and that he's going to spend all his money on what he hopes will be a miracle cure. Money for private school tuition suddenly vanishes.

Aidan's son is delighted to be free of the strictures of religious school. Hs daughter takes her religion seriously; she's also upset about losing touch with friends.

Improbably, Aidan takes on the responsibility for home-schooling his kids, a decision that leads to scenes more painful than funny. Besides, a guy like Aidan has no real reason to believe that he can teach his children math, science or anything else.

And that's the rub: In trying to be clever, the movie often seems to trash anything resembling comic or dramatic truth.

Braff, who financed Wish I Was Here with a much-discussed Kickstarter campaign, seems to be engaged in a hodgepodge of a project: part sitcom and part melodramatic tearjerker.

Just when you think the movie couldn't get worse, Aidan's defiantly geeky brother (Josh Gad) decides to attend a Comic-Con event dressed as a space man. And, yes, that's a definite turn for the worse.

Braff, who wrote the screenplay with his brother Adam, also includes fantasy sequences in which Aidan imagines himself as a kind of comic-book hero, a ploy that provides one more reason to wince.

Hudson brings a sense of reality to her character, and Patinkin makes a convincingly doctrinaire former professor who must, of course, soften his heart before he bids the world adieu.

Braff, who made his directorial debut with 2004's Garden State, attempts to humanize some of the fringe characters: The religious Jews, for example, begin as stereotypical figures, but eventually display a bit of recognizable humanity.

By then, though, the movie has dissolved into a soggy river of sentiment. Braff obviously wants to move us, but Wish I Was Here struck me as a self-absorbed exercise in failed cleverness that doesn't deserve its tears.

In case I haven't been clear enough: I didn't like it.

Polanski and the battle of the sexes

Roman Polanski tries his hand at another stage play in Venus in Fur, a mini-movie that represents a definite improvement over 2011's Carnage, a movie also based on a play. This time, Polanski translates David Ives's Broadway production into French, turning it into a claustrophobic power struggle between a playwright/director (Mathieu Amalric) and a mysterious actress (Emmanuelle Seigner) who's trying out for a part in the director's adaptation of a novel by real-life, 19th-century author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Polanski's remarkably fluid opening and closing shots are enough to justify the price of admission. Better yet, the performances are intriguing, perhaps because they totally embody the movie's deeper meanings. Seigner's character wheedles her way into an audition. Amazingly, she already knows her lines, and she's quite good. Amalric's character reads with her, playing the part of an aristocrat. As the story unfolds, director and actress begin jockeying for position. Seigner's character becomes increasingly bold, often taking aim at the director's judgment. In Seigner's capable hands, the play becomes a sharply observed study of acting, pretense and sudden shifts in direction. Polanski's two-character drama is limited only by the material itself: It can seem more tricky than profound, but Polanski knows how to stage a battle between the sexes with the advantage, in this case, tipping toward Seigner's wily, alluring and seldom predictable chara