Friday, December 28, 2007

My 10 best movies of the year

You'll find one instance of doubling up here, but in a good year, why be stingy? I saw some truly memorable films toward the end of 2007, and had a stimulating enough time at the movies to make me forget the year's plentiful supply of junk.

My Ten:

1. "No Country For Old Men." Try as I might I can't make a case for any other movie. Spare and beautifully made, Joel and Ethan Coen's movie delivers a mythic dose of the American dark side. Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem all excelled.

2. "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." Julian Schnabel takes us inside the mind of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former editor of Elle magazine who at age 45 suffered a massive stroke and was "locked" inside his paralyzed body. The filmmaking ranges from realistic to lyrical, and Schanbel achieves the near-impossible: He's made a movie about a man who can't move.

3. "Persepolis." Yes, it's animated, but director Marjane Satrapi's big-screen adaptation of her graphic novel tells an unforgettable autobiographical story about the way in which the director grew up in Iran and ultimately fled the country that bridled her spirit.

4. "There Will Be Blood." Paul Thomas Anderson's latest -- with a bravura performance by Daniel Day-Lewis -- is too strange and haunting to ignore, a sparse diatribe about the perils of capitalistic greed and religious hypocrisy. In short, another movie about the American dark side.

5. "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days." Cristian Mungiu's look at the plight of a young woman trying to obtain an abortion in Romania during the 1980s is harrowing and revealing. Mungiu's movie probably won't open in most of the country until 2008.

6. "Michael Clayton." Of all the mainstream movies I saw in 2007, I enjoyed none more than "Michael Clayton," a thriller starring George Clooney as a lawyer who cleans up other people's messes.

7. "Zodiac." David Fincher's recounting of the story of the Zodiac killings was meticulously detailed and ultimately compelling, a great depiction of the way cops and the media work."

8. "Away From Her" and "The Savages." Two movies that deal with dementia. In "Away From Her," Julie Christie plays a woman inflicted with Alzheimer's. In "The Savages," Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney turn into the Spencer Tracy and Kathrine Hepburn of the extended adolescent set. They play siblings who put their aging father (Philip Bosco) in a nursing home.

9. "This is England." Director Shane Meadows tells a hard-boiled story about growing up Punk in England during the 1980s. It didn't spend much time in theaters, so look for it on DVD.

10. "Juno." Teen movies don't get much better, and this one featured a terrific performance from Ellen Page as the title character in a comedy about teen pregnancy. Sharply written by newcomer Diablo Cody, the movie has wit, heart and a welcome willingness to shatter stereotypes.

Honorable mentions, "Once," "Eastern Promises" and "Charlie Wilson's War."

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A movie about a man who cannot move

Summary: Julian Schnabel remains an outsized cultural figure who has dominated the art world and who sometimes has found himself at the center of arguments about the importance of his painting and the size of his ego. I'm not qualified to comment on Schnabel's painting, but after three movies, I feel comfortable saying that he's one hell of a filmmaker. In addition to having an apparently natural talent for the art of film, he's been smart about casting and story selection in three successive movies: "Basquiat," "Before Night Falls" and now "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." Visually creative and thematically daring, "Diving Bell" earns its place as one of the best movies of the year.

Jean-Dominique Bauby led a seemingly charmed life as a Parisian man-about-town and editor of Elle magazine. But at age 45, Bauby's luck ran out. A massive stroke left him with what the doctors called "locked-in syndrome." Aside from being able to blink with his left eye, Bauby was totally paralyzed. But Bauby also was mentally alert; his lively consciousness was trapped in a near-lifeless body.

The movie has been taken from a memoir that Bauby was able to create with effort that only can be described as gargantuan. Bauby dictated by blinking his eye as an attendant read him the alphabet; a blink signaled when the reader had reached the right letter. Think about that for a second; even writing a small book under such circumstances qualifies as an extraordinary act of will. Bauby died several weeks after the book was published.

Just as Bauby's condition was rare, little about the movie's visual expressions can be called matter-of-fact. Schnabel allows Bauby's alarmingly limited point of view to dominate the picture. We see as Bauby sees, following his thoughts as he awakens from a coma and perceives Dr. Lepage (Patrick Chesnais) standing over him. Lepage has been charged with explaining Bauby's condition, and he does so in a frank but perhaps overly chipper way that annoys Bauby.

Bauby's thoughts, as spoken by Mathieu Amalric, the fine actor who plays the fallen editor, serve as a kind of narration for the movie, immediately letting us know that an immobilized body does not mean loss of the ability to detect nonsense and pap. These early scenes are so compelling that we feel every ripple of Bauby's anxiety, as he slowly grasps what has happened to him.

The movie, exquisitely shot by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, doesn't stay with this perspective. We eventually move in and out of it, as "Diving Bell" expands. But the core of "Diving Bell" involves the brilliant depiction of a journey into the fields of Bauby's memory and imagination. By masterfully immersing us in Bauby's point of view, Schnabel shows us that it's possible to make a truly cinematic movie about a man who cannot move.

Schnabel's film also is a mini-character study. Bauby's no disease-of-the-week foil for an inspirational message. He's rueful enough to grasp and express the ironies that have befallen him. A prime example: He's surrounded by beautiful women, and unable to act on what remains of his sybaritic impulses. Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze) helps him learn how to communicate by teaching him to blink to the alphabet. Emmanuelle Seigner portrays the mother of Bauby's children. He pointedly tells us that she's not his wife. He also thinks about the mistress (Julia Hands) who won't visit him.

Although Schnabel sometimes takes us on Bauby's flights of fancy and makes generous use of a subjective camera, he never loses touch with a sense of authenticity. "Diving Bell" was filmed at the hospital where Bauby was treated, and when Schnabel's viewing things from Bauby's point-of-view, the film maintains strict visual discipline.

An additional performance deserves mention: Veteran actor Max von Sydow -- with very little screen time -- creates a rigorous and hauntingly vivid portrait of an aging man in decline. Von Sydow plays Bauby's father, a mini-masterpiece of acting that tells us a lot about what it means to grow old. To make matters more poignant, a father's frailty -- the result of a natural progression of time -- contrasts with the sudden debilitation experienced by his son.

"Diving Bell" gains in stature because it offers us more than an opportunity to experience life from a harrowing perspective. It reminds us that physical trauma does not cause a loss of humanity. Bauby's body may be paralyzed, but his mind? No, that works just fine. He's rueful, caustic, funny and sorrowful -- immobilized but still shockingly human. When the wind flutters the skirt of an attractive visitor, Bauby's eye is drawn to her legs. We do not know whether he watches with the joy of remembered pleasure or with the pain of current deprivation, but he watches right up until the end -- one eye wide open.

When father is away with dementia

Summary: "The Savages," from director Tamara Jenkins, is one of the most amusing and knowing movies ever made about the problems of dealing with an aging parent. What makes the movie so credible? Its two main characters -- a brother and sister played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney -- have no idea what to do when dad begins to disappear inside his own dementia.

Jenkins hasn't made a feature since 1998's "The Slums of Beverly Hills." Now that she's back with "The Savages," we only can hope that she doesn't wait another 9 years before deciding to move behind the camera again. Frank and often funny, "The Savages" shows us what happens when two grown (though not necessarily mature) siblings are asked to deal with a father who no longer can live on his own. Dad (Philip Bosco) loses his companion, his house and his mind -- all in the movie's opening scenes. It then falls to two ill-prepared children to figure out what to do.

Hoffman's Jon -- an academic who specializes in the plays of Brecht -- suggests that dad be transported from a retirement heaven in Arizona to a nursing home in Buffalo. That's where Jon Lives. From the sunny climes of Arizona to the frozen streets of Buffalo in the middle of a bad winter (and there aren't many other kinds in Buffalo) is journey enough to discourage even the most persistent of optimists and it throws the movie into the icy shadows of despair.

Under the best of circumstances, putting a parent in a nursing home is difficult, and "The Savages" hardly presents us with the best of circumstances. Both Jon and his sister Wendy have been living on their own -- he in Buffalo; she in Manhattan. They're not close to each other or to their father. Both have difficulty with relationships -- Jon with a Polish girlfriend whose visa has expired and Wendy with her married lover (Peter Friedman). Friedman's character stops by Wendy's apartment for quickies when he's supposed to be out walking his dog. So much for relationships.

Anyone who's ever dealt with an aging parent will find plenty that's familiar in Jenkins' trenchant little movie. Guilt. Worry. Anger. All of these emotions surface as Jon and Wendy -- even their names sound childish -- suddenly are forced to deal with a problem they can't ignore. Jon may try to lose himself in the books that are scattered around his apartment and Wendy may aspire to become a great playwright, but no amount of busy work or artistic aspiration can disguise what looms. In an odd way, "The Savages" is the first real coming-of-age picture that we've seen in some time, and if the characters are maturing late, well, maybe that's the cultural moment in which we find ourselves.

Watching Hoffman and Linney proves one of the movie's great pleasures. They're the Tracy and Hepburn of extended adolescence, and their interactions can be both touching and amusing. These are two of the finest actors working today, and if you want to see two flawless performances by one actor, you'd do well to catch Hoffman in both "The Savages" and "Charlie Wilson's War." You can't say the same about Linney, but only because she has only one movie in release this season.

For the most part, "The Savages" is a two-hander. Wendy temporarily moves to Buffalo to be near her father, taking up residence on Jon's couch. Life seems to contract for both of them, but in one particularly tender scene, Wendy has a late-night talk with a Nigerian hospital worker (Gbenga Akinnagbe), sharing the kind of intimacies that are possible when at least one participant in the conversation is under great stress.

When "The Savages" showed as the opening-night film of the Starz Denver Film Festival, I heard grumbling. "Too much a downer for opening night." "I lived through something like that and don't want to see it at the movies." I should point out that I did not regard "The Savages" as a downer. Honesty on film is too rare a commodity not to be celebrated when we find it. I also think that those of us who have lived through situations that resemble the one in the movie (and I have) should be applauding loudest.

So if you want "inspiration," go see "The Great Debaters." It's a good little movie, but if you want a slice of life that may strike close to home, "The Savages" awaits.


On the way out of a screening of Denzel Washington's "The Great Debaters," someone pointed out the obvious: This is a formula movie. But the strange thing about formula movies is that they often work. Hence, the formula.

If we've seen any number of movies about underdogs who wind up defeating supposedly superior powers, we haven't seen a story about a small black college in Texas where the debate team eventually takes on mighty on Harvard. Washington, who directed, plays debate coach Marvin B. Tolson, a professor who runs a tight ship at Wiley College. Tolson selects the members of the debate team and treats them with a mixture of respect and tough love.

James Farmer Jr., who eventually helped found the Congress of Racial Equality and who became a leading spokesman for Civil Rights, portrays the team's youngest member in a story that's loosely based on fact. Farmer's played with innocence and charm by Denzel Whitaker, no relation to either Washington or to Forest Whitaker, who appears as James Farmer Sr., a reverend and a man of keen intellect.

Washington obtains fine performances all around, and manages to offer a schematic but nonetheless telling portrait of the Jim Crow South. Harvard's debaters didn't have to push aside images of lynchings before focusing their powers of concentration. The Wiley debaters did.

Washington, who also directed "Antwone Fisher," seems to know that this kind of exercise doesn't allow for much digression. Still, Tolson's interest in organizing poor Texas sharecroppers (both black and white) probably doesn't receive as much attention as it should, maybe because Washington never tries to divert attention from the movie's young cast.

"The Great Debaters" ends with a predictable contest, but at least the participants are called upon to exercise wit, courage and intellect rather than the athletic prowess so many similar movies glorify. It's a nice way to freshen a formula.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Afghanistan -- from far and near

Summary: If you're of a certain age and view the '80s as a time of hard, unapologetic partying, you may relate to "Charlie Wilson's War," a movie devoted to proving that a good time need not be incompatible with a good conscience.

"Charlie Wilson's War" mixes political savvy with satirical observations about life in the '80s. This little-known story about the ways in which power can be wielded in Washington makes for one of the brightest, most entertaining movies of the season. And if director Mike Nichols can't quite give the movie the butt-kicking finale it deserves, he still manages to make points that have plenty of stinging relevance.

Although Nichols, working from a smart script by Aaron Sorkin, doesn't stop to deliver foreign-policy lectures, he reminds us that meddling in the world can be a risky business. Doing the right thing doesn't always produce the hoped-for results.

Aside from any moral you may wish to take from the story, you'll find a movie that's entertaining because it focuses on at least three outsized and mostly fascinating personalities. The first is the title character, Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), a Democrat and fun-loving bachelor who makes little attempt to conceal his taste for adult amusement -- that means women and Scotch.

During his Congressional tenure, Wilson received support and affection from a wealthy Houston conservative (Julia Roberts), who latched onto Afghanistan, partly because of her rabid anti-Communist leanings. The Congressman also managed to form an uneasy alliance with a shambling CIA agent (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

This odd mingling of interests resulted in an amazing increase in financial support and armaments for the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan, helping to hasten the expulsion of the Soviet Union from that rocky, forbidding corner of the world. Afghanistan benefited from the fact that Wilson was a member of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

"Charlie Wilson's War" tells its story in straight-ahead fashion. No stylistic flourishes are needed for a Scotch-soaked yarn about a congressman who enjoys a dip in a hot tub with naked women as much as he relishes a good debate. And Hanks ably conveys a key ingredient of Wilson's personality: The man isn't ashamed of enjoying himself; in the movie, he seldom appears at a social gathering without a drink in hand.

Although both Hanks and Roberts do fine work, Hoffman gives the most engaging performance as CIA agent Gust Avrakotos. On the outs with the power brokers at the CIA, Avrakotos is a witty, irreverent and wary man. If you're not entertained during every scene in which Hoffman appears, you may have a fatal resistance to being entertained. Avrakotos is both appalling and admirable, and you can't help rooting for a guy who isn't afraid to speak his mind and let jaws drop where they may.

In a strange way, "Charlie Wilson's War" overcomes its own cynicism, restoring faith in the human capacity for attainment. Maybe that's because the movie happily mixes absurdity, intelligence with trace elements of conscience. To make the picture even better, Nichols wisely fills the minor roles with strong performers: Amy Adams, as one of Wilson's pretty young assistants; Ned Beatty as a bloviating old pol; and the great Om Puri as President Zia of Pakistan.

Put it all together, and you have a movie that winks its way to success while sounding the most appropriate of cautionary notes: Absent a major helping of reconstruction, the U.S.'s covert victories in Afghanistan went sour. We're still paying the price.

The most exceptional thing about "The Kite Runner," director Marc Forster's adaptation of Kahled Hosseini's bestselling novel, arrives in the form of a performance from a young non-professional, the wondrous Ahmad Khan Mahmoodza. Mahmoozada portrays Hassan, a boy who lives as a servant in the home of a Pashtun aristocrat (Homayoun Ershadi) and his son Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi), the movie's main character.

For those few who haven't read the novel, I won't give away the plot development that sets off a story loaded with guilt, recrimination and last-minute attempts at redemption. What we on screen amounts to a truncated, illustrated version of Hosseini's novel, and that's not an entirely bad thing.

Best in its beginning sections, the movie loses steam when the grown Amir and his father emigrate to the U.S. The adult Amir (Khalid Abdalla) isn't all that interesting and neither is Abdalla's performance.

Though it has been trimmed, the essentials of Hosseini's novel remain, and the story should prove interesting to those who read it, as well as to those who haven't. Forster's direction never quite feels rich enough, though, and reaction to "The Kite Runner" remains admiration and interest mixed with the faint aroma of disappointment.

Stroll, don't run to "Walk Hard"

Summary: "Walk Hard, the Dewey Cox Story" goofs on musical bio pics, notably "Ray" and even more prominently "Walk the Line." Although director Jake Kasdan - with help from comedy whiz Judd Apatow -- understands the genre well enough to deliver a spot-on parody, his movie isn't as laugh-packed as you might expect.

John C. Reilly stars as Dewey Cox, a young man suffering from guilt acquired when, as a child, he accidentally cut his older brother in half with a machete. Hey, accidents happen. From that point on, Dewey's story follows the arc we've seen in what seems like a zillion biopics. Poor boy leaves home, marries young, makes it big, succumbs to the temptations of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, loses his marriage and finally hooks up with the love of his life (Jenna Fischer), a backup singer. He also constantly changes musical styles as he seeks ways to pander... I mean adapt... to shifting tastes.

As is the case with most broadly conceived parodies, "Walk Hard" runs the risk of giving offense. The song "Mama You Got to Love Your Negro Man'' -- sung by Dewey when he substitutes for a black blues singer who has taken ill -- may cause as much wincing as chuckling, and the movie doesn't hesitate to serve up tasteless jokes based on the bigoted belief that Jews run all of show business.

Still, Walk Hard" is not a movie to belabor: There's an amusing sendup of the Beatles during their LSD, Transcendental Meditation period. Paul Rudd, Jack Black, Jason Schwartzman and Justin Long play the Beatles. And you should find just enough laughs to keep you from turning against a comedy that grows repetitive as it mocks every genre cliche it can find, throwing in a few shockers to boot. Most notable among these: some full-frontal male nudity.

Those who know Reilly's work won't be surprised to learn that he's pitch perfect as the increasingly ravaged Dewey, but I was expecting Kasdan and company to hit the comedy bull's eye. Instead, they've managed nicely to survive the perils of what amounts to a one-joke comedy.


It's not a comedy, but "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" is a joke, a preposterous movie that follows 2004's "National Treasure." Nicolas Cage returns to show that he can still overact. More trash than treasure, this one seemed to prove only one thing: Ed Harris and Helen Mirren can appear in bad movies and survive with their dignity in tact. That's saying something, particularly when we're talking about a movie that expects us to believe that there's a golden city located beneath Mount Rushmore. The plot: Cage tries to clear the name of an ancestor who recently has been implicated by a theorists who say he was part of a conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. If there's any real fun here, it's as hidden as the silly book of secrets that gives the movie its title.

"Sweeney Todd" is dark and razor sharp

Summary: Tim Burton's big-screen adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" may not be a musical triumph, but Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are fine actors, acceptable singers and gutsy artists. Moreover, the entire production has a dark and vicious gleam that seems entirely right.

On the way out of a preview screening of Tim Burton's big-screen adaptation of the musical "Sweeney Todd," I heard someone mutter, "What garbage!" This quick condemnation made me think that this sometimes gruesome movie might be in for a rough ride at the box office, particularly among those who don't understand that they've purchased a ticket for a musical about an aggrieved and apparently remorseless serial killer.

Depp, who in addition to being a fine actor seems to specialize in weird hairdos, sinks deeply into the role of the notorious Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and Burton -- no slouch when it comes to darkly hued material -- makes the movie his own while still honoring Sondheim's intent.

Not surprisingly, Burton also refuses to shortchange those who expect gore in a story about a man who kills with a razor. Be forewarned: You can feel the repulsive gushing of blood as Sweeney plies his unholy trade in a quest for the vengeance to which he sees himself as richly entitled. I don't know what it means, but Depp ("Edward Scissorhands") again joins forces with Burton in a story involving sharp objects. (In fairness, the two have worked together in other capacities. Witness "Corpse Bride," "Sleepy Hollow" and "Ed Wood.")

Sweeney is cold-blooded and dead-eyed, but Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovett is no prize either. Mrs. Lovett delights in making meat pies out of the remains of Sweeney's victims, corpses that are unceremoniously dumped into the basement of her pie shop. As interpreted by Bonham Carter, an actress who also seems to have a knack for hairdos that obey no rules, Lovett is both conniving and loving. She's devoted to Sweeney in ways that make her both lover and accomplice.

Alan Rickman, whose voice can be smooth as a flat prong on the devil's pitchfork, plays Judge Turpin, the man who wrongly sentenced Sweeney -- then known as Benjamin Barker -- to a 15-year term in prison. Worse yet, the judge raised Benjamin's daughter (Jayne Wisener) and now keeps her as a prisoner. He hopes to use her to satisfy his most lascivious cravings.

Just when you thought the movie was weird enough, up pops Sacha Baron Cohen in a cameo as Signor Adolfo Pirelli, a barber who dares to challenge Sweeney's tonsorial skills.

Despite the presence of such goodies, fans of the musical should know that Burton has cut the story from three hours to two and you won't hear every tune that graced the Broadway and touring productions.

"Sweeney Todd" may not be the kind of musical that leaves you humming to yourself on the way out theater. The movie has (as it should) a truly ghastly quality. Don't be surprised, though, if "Sweeney Todd" garners Oscar attention for cinematographer Dariusz Volski and production designer Dante Ferretti. That's as it should be. "Sweeney Todd" is a dark beauty of a film that alters Sondheim's musical for the screen without cutting its cold heart to pieces.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Teen pregnancy -- for laughs and for real

Summary: Most teen-agers don't talk like Juno, the pregnant heroine of Jason Reitman's new comedy, but then most movies about teen-agers don't credit young people with having much depth or intelligence. Written by newcomer Diablo Cody, "Juno" manages a neat trick: it's breezy and human at the same time.

Juno (Ellen Page) begins the movie of which she's the title character by discovering that she's pregnant. It may sound strange to say that teen-pregnancy marks the beginning of a comedy, but it's probably fitting. Before it's done, "Juno" manages to shatter more than a few stereotypes. Director Jason Reitman brings snappy pacing to his second movie, following on the heels of "Thank Your For Smoking," and Page's performance already is being pushed for an Oscar nomination. She deserves one.

Awards aside, credit Page, who starred in the little-seen "Hard Candy," with creating a character who responds to her situation as a child of the new century. She might as well be a reacting to a movie. She's smart, funny and critical about what's happening to her, and she probably doesn't fully grasp the difficulty she's created for herself.

Those who find "Juno" off-putting because teen-agers don't usually come wrapped in so much glib banter may be selling Page's performance short. She makes the character into a believable young eccentric, and the times when the eccentricities seem a trifle forced are overcome by stretches in which you forget about Cody's writing (she was discovered turning out a blog) and begin to take Juno for what she is: a plucky kid who pushes past resistance -- in her brief and slightly absurd life and in the hearts of audiences unaccustomed to kids who give as good as they get.

After flirting with abortion, Juno decides to have the baby but to give it up for adoption. Enter a suburban couple (Jason Batement and Jennifer Garner) so typical they look as if they've been torn from the pages of a catalog. Don't let appearances fool you. As the movie progresses, Bateman's character becomes more shallow, and Garner's deepens, and before you know it, "Juno" begins to dig deeper than its breezy opening may have led you to believe possible.

Even Juno's parents -- dad (J.K. Simmons) and step-mom (Allison Janey) -- are allowed to blossom as characters. When they first hear about Juno's pregnancy, they acknowledge that they'd hoped her "confession" could have been about drug use or a DUI. Anything, but a pregnancy. But guess what? Turns out they'd rather support their kid than humiliate her.

Reitman further adds to the movie's appeal by casting Michael Cera ("Superbad") as Juno's more-or-less love interest and the father of her child. For every moment that threatens to shatter credibility, Cera serves as an odd antidote. His expressions of mild confusion say a lot, as do the times when he (as you would expect from a kid in his position) says nothing. Dumbstruck by the situation, he doesn't try to express more than he's capable of understanding. His personality may not be fully formed, but he, too, is bowled over by Juno.

"I Am Legend." "I Am Also Noisy"

Summary: Hollywood finally has its holiday moneymaker, a big-screen adaptation of Richard Matheson's futuristic novel about the sole survivor of a biological apocalypse. Set in the deserted streets of New York City, the movie has a powerful look, a strong performance by Will Smith and (alas) vampiric zombies whose body-smashing, ear-splitting attacks arrive with increasing regularity.

Will Smith seems to be the only star left who can open a movie, and he's bound to score again with "I Am Legend," the story of a scientist who finds himself living alone in New York City after the population has been decimated by a plague-like virus. Smart in its development, the movie quickly gives way to the customary horror shocks. And I have to admit that my heart sank when I realized that "I Am Legend" was going to spend time pitting Smith's Robert Neville against flesh-eating former humans who've been turned into sun-fearing cannibals by a virus to which Neville (for some reason) is immune.

The picture begins to slip once Neville's German Shepherd Sam (short for Samantha) meets her sorry fate. And I'm tired of creatures whose greatest strength seems to involve a willingness to crash into walls - again and again. But that won't stop audiences from gobbling this one up the way that the zombies devour the living. Enough said.

Oh, one more thing: Director Francis Lawrence does a fine job handling large-scale scenes such as the evacuation of Manhattan, staged at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. And, yes, I spent a lot of time wondering how the effects wizards managed to make New York City look deserted. Glutted with abandoned cars, vacant buildings and overgrown weeds, the Big Apple definitely appeared to be rotting. Oh well, it's amazing what computers and a little cooperation from a city's bureaucracy can accomplish.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

"No Country For Old Men," the ending's right

Summary: In response to those who quarrel with the ending of "No Country For Old Men," all I can tell you is that I had no problems with it. Here's why.

When people complain about the ending of "No Country For Old Men," as some have, I'm not entirely sure whether they're upset about what the Coen brothers show or what they don't. Perhaps it's the abruptness of the cut after Tommy Lee Jones, as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, finishes the movie's final bit of dialogue that spooks people. Bell tells his wife (Tess Harper) about a dream he's had. The screen goes black as death before the credits roll. Maybe we feel uneasy because we can't help but yearn for a little reassurance after watching a movie that has spent the better part of two hours demonstrating that none shall be forthcoming.

It's also worth remembering that the movie began with Sheriff Bell talking about where he thought he'd been and where he found himself at the moment the film starts. Evidently Bell believes that, in the not-too-distant past, criminal activity was connected to motives. A lawman who fought crime eventually might get around to understanding what he was up against. In any case, Bell's two monologues -- one off-camera and one on -- serve as battered old bookends, leaning against all the sorrow and horror the movie has to offer.

In the opening monologue -- delivered while the Coens' camera reveals a desolate Western landscape -- Bell recounts the story of a 14-year-old boy who not only committed a senseless murder, but made no attempt to hide a matter-of-fact attitude toward the evil he had wrought. Bell made the arrest. The kid went to the chair.

What a waste. It wasn't even a crime of passion. Crimes of passion can't be justified, but they can be understood.

"No Country For Old Men" deals with incomprehensible violence, incomprehensible to everyone except Chigurh, the character played by Javier Bardem. Chigurh, whose first name is Anton, operates on a different plane than those he pursues. Although he's versatile when it comes to killing, Chigurh's preferred method involves use of an instrument normally employed to kill cattle in slaughterhouses. People. Cattle. It's all the same to him.

Chigurh has principles of some sort, although we're not entirely sure what they might be. Whatever they are, they're not the same as whatever motivates folks in the ordinary world -- greed, lust or a desire simply to get away with something. No, Chigurh brings a purer kind of menace to the proceedings, and maybe he stands for just about everything that's driving Bell toward defeat, the horror he (and we) can't see coming.

But back to that final scene. The newly retired Bell sits across the breakfast table from his wife. He's just hung up his badge, which we take as less of an act of satisfaction than an abandonment of hope. We may fairly conclude that Bell's twilight years will be tinged with puzzlement and sorrow. In his troubled leisure, he'll probably dream the same dream again and again, the one he describes to his wife, the one in which his lawman father rides ahead of him, negotiating a dark mountain pass to make a safe place for his son. Each time Bell dreams about the father who silently rides ahead, he'll awaken to a defenseless world in which there are no safe places.

We're chastened at the severity of the movie's view. To build that feeling into something even more powerful, the Coens don't bother to show us the biggest murders in the movie. They offer no climactic satisfaction in the bloodshed and no solace for those who hope for even the mildest expression of optimism. As Bell says about Chigurh -- whom he never lays eyes on -- the man's got some hard bark on him.

So does the movie. So does the ending. I have no complaints about it. Not one.

Friday, December 7, 2007

A literary "Atonement" reaches the screen

Summary: "Atonement" is well crafted in the way that a thoughtful literary adaptation should be, yet the movie lags from time-to-time and ultimately suffers from a feeling of over-construction, the self-conscious air that sometimes arises from arty aspiration. Beautifully shot and slavishly respectful of its source -- Ian McEwan's much-admired 2002 novel -- "Atonement" proves impressive, but fails to deliver a knockout blow.

Director Joe Wright received mixed reviews for his adaptation of Jane Austen's "Pride & Prejudice," but he did manage to infuse Austen with a welcome sense of buoyancy and youth. In turning his hand to another novel -- Ian McEwan's "Atonement" -- Wright appears committed to doing justice to a second obviously literary book. He and writer Christopher Hampton create a movie in which the polish and refinement of craft often outstrips the vivifying tumult of art. The longer the movie goes on, the more constructed and the less organic it feels.

The story centers on Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring young writer who -- at the age of 13 -- commits a crime that haunts her for the rest of her life. The adolescent Briony's uneasy about sex and mistrustful of her older sister (Keira Knightley). She also adopts a rather cavalier attitude toward the upwardly mobile son (James McAvoy) of the family housekeeper. Spurred by a pungent adolescent imagination, Briony proves that what one sees isn't always what it seems.

"Atonement" takes us from 1935 through World War II and beyond for the movie's surprising and poignant epilogue. About a quarter of the way through, Romola Garai takes over as the adult Briony, a woman who serves as a nurse during the War, as does her estranged sister.

Along the way, Wright finds time to put his virtuosity on display. A five-minute shot on the beach at Dunkirk seems like a bit of a stunt, a burst of show-off surrealism. But you can't fault the music and art direction, and screenwriter Hampton certainly seems to have grasped the themes of McEwan's novel, the deceptions involved in storytelling and the ways in which a single event can reverberate throughout an entire life. Wright also makes careful use of sound, sometimes treating it as if it were a thematic talking point. Pay attention to the clickety-clack of typewriter keys.

The acting all seems top drawer, with Knightley speaking in the kind of clipped British accent that gives words the ping and velocity of marbles hitting a highly polished tile floor.

More commendable than gripping, "Atonement" begins to look like a prestige item before it's done. In other words, prepare for Oscar nominations for a work that's not such much covered with the dust of literary pretension but shackled by a lack of passion. Too often, it's not the heart that beats loudest here, but the mildly intrusive tap of those all-too-present typewriter keys.

Questions about "The Golden Compass"

Summary: "The Golden Compass," based on one part of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, is the latest entry into a teeming fantasy field that remains dominated by "The Lord of the Rings" movies. Pitched at younger audiences, this one seems a slightly generic helping of fantasy that includes a supposedly controversial anti-church spin. The Magisterium, an organization that wants to control everything, seems an obvious reference to the Catholic Church. Those who want an anti-religion message may be disappointed by the movie's lack of bite, and those who take offense probably won't be mollified. Most audiences probably will be too busy watching the movie's CGI-created animals to care. Meanwhile, "The Golden Compass" left me with many questions:

1. The movie suggests that the characters who occupy its alternate universe all have souls that manifest as animals. Are these so-called "daemons" housebroken? Are we to believe that people have to clean up after their own souls? Does one paper train one's "daemon" before letting it run loose in the house?

2. Why does a fighting polar bear with the consonant-heavy name of Iorek Byrnison (voice by Ian McKellen) need to wear armor? But, hey, who's complaining? Watching ice bears snarl and grapple proves one of the movie's more involving diversions.

3. Is the apparently evil Mrs. Coulter (a beautifully blonde Nicole Kidman) related to that other Coulter woman? Kidman's character's soul manifests as a monkey. Draw whatever conclusions you wish.

4. What led the money to director Chris Weitz, whose previous credits include "American Pie" and "About a Boy?" For the record, Weitz does a decent job, but the movie concludes in unsatisfying fashion, leaving loose ends dangling shamelessly in hopes that audience response will justify a sequel.

5. The movie's heroine is a 12-year-old girl named Lyra Belaqua. Don't you think the actress who gamely plays Lyra -- Dakota Blue Richards -- has a better name? Lyra's shape-shifting "daemon" is called Pantalaimon.

6. I know it's a bit off the subject, but maybe not. Would the "Wizard of Oz" have been a better movie with CGI-created flying monkeys?

7. OK, so "Golden Compass" passes muster as this season's helping of computer-generated fantasy, but how many more of these movies do we need? Let me venture an answer: As many as it takes to bolster Ian McKellen's bank account.