Monday, March 31, 2008

An old Telluride controversy remembered

After actor Richard Widmark died last week, critic Jim Emerson assembled an interesting blog item about a 1983 argument between the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky and Widmark, both of whom received tributes at that year's Telluride Film Festival. Widmark basically derided Tarkovsky -- who traveled to the festival with his unashamedly arty "Nostalghia." Essentially, Tarkovsky and Widmark engaged in an art vs. entertainment argument with Widmark proving a vocal and blunt spokesman for the entertainment side of the equation. Emerson assembled snippets of the some of the stories from an obscure, but telling moment when a controversy could whip through the tiny town of Telluride, creating a rarified kind of buzz. This was back in the days when the festival was smaller and cheaper, and so was the town. If you're a Telluride fan, Emerson's post is well worth a look. Someone told me about Emerson's piece after seeing a mention of it on blog Karina Longworth writes. It seems I'm among the quoted attendees at that year's festival.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

She stole Michael's heart, then vanished

Simonetta Stefanelli is now 53. She has opened a boutique in Rome, presumably to sell the handbags and shoes that she designs. Who, you may well ask, is Stefanelli and why should you care? I'll get to that in a second.

I've seen Stefanelli countless times, but never gave her much thought until yesterday when I happened to watch a few minutes of a "Godfather" marathon on AMC and got one of those cravings that insists on knowing the whereabouts of an obscure name from the movie past.

Stefanelli, as all "Godfather" aficionados will recall, played Apollonia Vitelli-Corleone, the young beauty Michael Corleone married while hiding in Sicily after killing Sollozzo, the Turk, and Capt. McCluskey, the corrupt New York City police officer. That's why you may care -- or at least be curious -- about Stefanelli's fate.

Stefanelli was 17 when "The Godfather" was shot. Perhaps "filmed" is a better word. She didn't hang around the movie long. Apollonia died when a bomb exploded in the car she was driving as a way of impressing Michael, her new husband. Anyway, I couldn't recall ever having seen Stefanelli again.

So it was off to the Internet in search of the woman whose beauty struck Michael Corleone like a thunderbolt.

Of course, Stefanelli had a life. Still does. According to Wikipedia, she married Michele Placido, an Italian actor and director and made movies In Italy until 1992, although none received much -- if any -- exposure in the U.S. Stefanelli and Placido divorced in 1994, after having three children. A daughter, Violante Placido, became an actress. About a year ago, a rumor spread that Stefanelli had died of cancer. Not true.

I have no idea what her aspirations might have been, but Stefanelli did not become an international star, though she appeared in a movie that ranks as one of the best ever. Anyone been to Simo Bloom on Rome's Via Chiana? That's her shop. I imagine a visit would afford an opportunity to see how the beauty of 17 has blossomed and matured, as well as to leave many Euros behind.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The war in Iraq continues at home

Summary: Filmmakers can face insurmountable problems when they try to tackle unresolved issues. The Iraq war seems to prove the rule. So far none of the Iraq war features -- "Redacted," "In The Valley Elah," "Grace is Gone" and "Lions for Lambs" -- has been able to outdo what a host of documentaries have accomplished with more feeling and substantive impact. Kimberly Pierce's "Stop-Loss" takes a step in the right direction, but it's far from perfect.

One of the reasons that I had difficulty with "Stop-Loss" involves the strange nature of fictionalized experience. The performances aren't wanting, but I couldn't shake the feeling that I was watching actors dig deep -- Ryan Phillippe as a disillusioned Army sergeant who resists a second tour in Iraq or Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a GI who has been thoroughly spooked by his Iraq service. And why did Pierce, who directed "Boys Don't Cry," cast the wonderful Irish actor Ciaran Hinds as Phillippe's father? Hinds, who played Caesar in HBO's "Rome" series, looks out of place in a cowboy hat. He's a genetic mismatch as Phillippe's dad. It's a small role, but for me, Hinds' presence proved distracting, an indication that a movie that's desperately striving for authenticity hasn't emerged as a seamless whole.

"Stop-Loss" -- which begins on the battlefield and continues when the soldiers arrive home in Texas -- can seem engineered to touch what it may view as all the necessary bases. Difficulties faced by returning soldiers include domestic abuse, alcoholism, flashbacks to combat and, in one case, a badly mangled body. Of course, these are real problems, but the movie ticks them off in ways that suggest it's worried something might be missed.

None of this is meant to suggest that "Stop-Loss" should be regarded as a failure. With help from the gifted cinematographer Chris Menges, Pierce stages some convincing combat sequences, including a harrowing fight in an alley in Tikrit. She also has a feeling for the rhythms of small-town Texas life, and she clearly understands the pressures that weigh on the soldiers, two of whom (Phillippe and Channing Tatum) are supposed to be discharged.

A key dramatic twist arrives when Phillippe's character is "stop-lossed;" i.e., ordered to serve another tour in Iraq. With volunteers dwindling, the U.S. has had to extend the service of soldiers who long ago should have returned to home and hearth.

In a mostly male cast, Australian actress Abbie Cornish stands out as the fiancee of Channing's character. She eventually joins Phillippe's Brandon King on a road trip to Washington. Brandon naively hopes to plead his case to a Texas senator (Josef Sommer). Believing he already has done his duty, Brandon has no desire to continue his service. He's tired of fear and killing.

So a mixed review, but a recommendation. "Stop-Loss" has more heart and gut-power than "In the Valley of Elah" and it feels more urgent than "Redacted." It's not a political movie, but an act of identification with young men who have given much and received little in return. Even those who believe that the Iraq war is worth fighting may come away convinced that the troops are being short-changed.

Card games and marriage woes

Summary: "21" deals straight from the top of the deck, avoiding nearly all traces of subtlety. "Married Life" isn't such a good bet either. The movie accomplishes the improbable: It takes an irresistible cast and makes a resistible movie.

"21" comes out of the gate quickly, introducing its main character, a brilliant MIT student (Jim Sturgess) who needs money to continue his education at Harvard Medical School. Motive established. Financially pressed, Sturgess' Ben eventually joins a card-counting group run by one his professors (Kevin Spacey). Spacey's Mickey Rosa has devised a system to beat the house at blackjack. Those who've read Ben Mezrich's "Bringing Down the House''-- the book on which "21" is loosely based -- will tell you that the screenwriters have taken liberties with a story that transforms Ben from nerd to high-roller and supplies him a love interest in the person of MIT's most beautiful math whiz (Kate Bosworth). Director Robert Luketic, who gave us the abysmal "Monster-in-Law" and the better "Legally Blonde," provides the movie with a high-gloss veneer but can't cover numerous plot holes. On top of that, Luketic allows the game too go one too long. At slightly more than two hours, "21" occasionally lags and some of the Las Vegas scenes are as repetitious as they are glamorous. Of course, someone's trying to put a stop to the group's winning. Enter Laurence Fishburne as a detective who knows how to find those who count cards, an activity that's not illegal but may get you hurt. Fueled by youthful ambition and a giddy sense of fun, "21" scores about a 75 -- on a scale of one to 100.

Director Ira Sachs, who made a splash in the indie world with 2005's "Forty Shades of Blue," follows with "Married Life," a movie that deals with infidelity, lust and murder, but seldom sizzles. Sachs casts Chris Cooper as Harry Allen, a married businessman who has fallen for a younger woman (Rachel McAdams) during the years following World War II. Harry tells his best friend (Pierce Brosnan) about his problem. Brosnan's Richard, a debonair fellow and fabled womanizer, offers to help. Of course, he, too, falls for McAdams' Kay Nesbitt. Meanwhile, Harry thinks about murdering his wife (Patricia Clarkson) so that he can live happily ever after with the beautiful young woman who has re-charged his battery. Sachs throws the right ingredients into the pot, but can't bring them to a boil. The movie remains noteworthy mostly for Brosnan's performance as a double-dealer and Clarkson's always impeccable work.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Gus Van Sant's adolescent dreams

Summary: I'm not entirely sure that Gus Van Sant's "Paranoid Park" has any single thing on its mind, but the movie suggests so much and puts so much pure filmmaking skill on display that you may not care.

"Paranoid Park" isn't exactly realistic and it isn't exactly fantasy, either. It's a kind of dreamy, self-contained look at adolescent anomie that floats into theaters in the wake of Van Sant's "Elephant" and "Last Days." Although built around a grisly death and loaded with potential guilt, the movie has a trance-like beauty. No one seems to be able to get more out of watching a kid walk down a deserted school hallway than Van Sant.

Van Sant focuses on Alex (Gabe Nevins), a teen-age boy in Portland, Oregon. Narrated by Alex as he writes in a journal, the movie moves around in time, dipping into recent incidents in Alex's life as they crop up in his memory. As played by the angelic looking Nevins, Alex seems unable to express his feelings. His face is an open book, but many of the pages seem blank. He goes with a buddy to hang out at "Paranoid Park," a place where rough kids congregate. Alex doesn't quite fit in, but he's drawn to a spot that seems beyond the bounds of rules and the attraction leads him toward a life-changing event.

Van Sant allows detail to accumulate in casual, off-handed ways. Alex has a girlfriend (Taylor Momsen) who wants to sleep with him. He's not thrilled by the prospect. Alex's parents are both seen, but only dimly. Dad has moved out of the house. Mom never quite comes into focus -- literally. A younger brother suffers from anxiety attacks.

The film also resists coming into sharp focus. Van Sant juxtaposes Super 8 footage of skateboarders with images that look more carefully composed. He also creates a provocative musical mosaic, mixing Nino Roto's score for "Juliet of the Spirits" with Beethoven and adding lots of moody pop in between. When Alex showers, Van Sant surrounds him with the increasingly plangent sounds of a rain forest.

Based on a Blake Nelson novel, "Paranoid Park" feels as if it springs from Van Sant's free-flowing consciousness, making little attempt to settle in what we might call the ordinary world. It's worth seeing and experiencing and wondering about, and it advances what seems to be Van Sant's view of youth: less a point on the age scale than a time of drift and disconnection. There seems to be no place for his characters to drop anchor, no spot from which they can gain a view of the future.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Is this the U.S.? You may have doubts

Summary: It may be early, but Ramin Bahrani's "Chop Shop" belongs on a short list of contenders for this year's 10-best films. Bahrani's clear-eyed, uncompromising movie asks us to consider an important question: How well do we know the country in which we live?

As my wife and I watched "Chop Shop," she leaned toward me and whispered, "This looks like the Third World." Her comment is only surprising because "Chop Shop" takes place in the Willet's Point area of Queens, N.Y. As depicted in the movie, Willets Point does look like another country, and as "Chop Shop" immerses us in its wild array of hand-to-mouth, improvisational living, we begin to accept the notion that post-War, Italian Neorealism can be meaningfully transported onto 21st century American soil.

"Chop Shop" -- Bahrani's first movie since 2005's equally impressive "Man Push Cart" -- tells the story of two kids who scramble to survive as they flirt with dreamy American entrepreneurial fantasies. A brother and a sister played by Alejandro Polanco and Isamar Gonzales have been left to their own devices. We don't know what happened to their parents, and we assume that some particularly cruel set of circumstances forced these kids into early independence.

A boy with a keen -- if not entirely realistic -- survival instinct, Alejandro occupies a room above an auto body shop where he does odd jobs and dreams of owning his own food truck. He invites Isamar to share his room and his dream. He has his eye on a dilapidated vehicle from which he believes they can sell food; he's saving money to for the purchase. She'll be the cook. It's crazy, of course, but Polanco's determination almost makes you believe he can pull off a miracle.

The movie remains in Willet's Point, an area cluttered with auto shops, some of which dismantle stolen cars, selling parts to folks who won't necessarily ask a lot of questions. Alejandro -- known throughout this forbidding neighborhood as Ale -- is a hustler, a good-spirited kid who has learned how to live on society's fringes: He hawks candy on the subway and steals hubcaps from cars in the parking lots of nearby Shea Stadium. He has knows how to make himself useful around body shops. His sister supports herself in ways that are less wholesome, selling oral sex to truck drivers who park their cabs in the area.

If "Chop Shop" were an ordinary movie, Alejandro would be torn between well-intentioned adults and evil exploiters who want to destroy him, but Bahrani wisely resists melodramatic temptation. He's not interested in blame, but in depicting the reality of neglect. That's why adults in the movie either can be callous or helpful and why Alejandro and Isamar mostly fend for themselves. If it weren't for Bahrani's camera, they'd be invisible, waifs lost in an island of spare parts and metal.

Tone is as important as content in Bahrani's work. He never allows sentiment to contaminate his movie, and he doesn't play harsh truths for shock value. But as the movie unfolds, Bahrani's young actors grab your heart and break it into little pieces. For these kids a chop shop isn't a single place, it's their whole world. And yet, there's something so innocent about Alejandro that you dare to hope for him, to believe that somehow he won't be crushed. As reflected in Polanco's performance, he has something that Barak Obama might applaud: Call it the audacity of hope.

The film, which has played selected cities nationally, opens in Denver Friday at the Starz FilmCenter, 900 Auraria Pkwy.

Friday, March 21, 2008

A gloomy indie and another failed comedy

Summary: "Snow Angels" comes off as another gloomy American indie. "Drillbit Taylor" doesn't come off as much of anything.

I admit it, although in some critical circles my confession may sound like heresy. I'm not particularly fond of the work of David Gordon Green ("George Washington," "Undertow" and "All the Real Girls"). I'm willing to call it a taste thing and readily acknowledge that others have hailed Green as an important voice in American movies. But when I saw "Snow Angels" at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, I wondered whether Green hadn't lost the dreamy, poetic groove that made him so appealing to his devotees. In adapting a novel by Stewart O'Nan, Green puts his finger on the monotonously downbeat pulse that throbs across the current indie scene.

"Snow Angels" opens with gunshots, and then flashes backward. We know we're going to spend the rest of the film learning what led to those shots, fired during a high school band practice. As this retrospective process of discovery unfolds, the movie recites a litany of woes. Decaying marriages, alcoholism, religious fanaticism and adolescent angst ripple through "Snow Angels" like currents of despair.

Green centers his story on Arthur, a teen-ager played by Michael Angarano. When he's not in school, Arthur works at a local Chinese restaurant. One of his co-workers (Kate Beckinsale) was once his babysitter. He has a bit of a crush on her. Arthur's also involved in a budding relationship with Lila (Olivia Thirlby), a fellow student.

The adult world that surrounds Arthur orbits his coming-of-age story like so many gloom-struck moons. Beckinsale's Annie is being pursued by her relentless husband (Sam Rockwell), an alcoholic who zealously has turned to religion. She's having an affair with the husband of a co-worker (Amy Sedaris). Arthur's parents (Griffin Dunne and Jeannetta Arnette) are separating. Dunne's character teaches science at Arthur's school.

Most of this has the feeling of mandatory malaise that defines the kind of fiction that seems designed to give us the lowdown on American suffering. There's nothing much for us to do but ride the emotional waves that engulf the movie's small-town setting: Jealousy, ambition and boredom, the creeping fog of too much domestic failure.

I've seen Green's film compared to "The Sweet Hereafter," but I don't buy it. Both films have an icy reserve about them, but Green doesn't display --- at least not here -- Atom Egoyan's ability to take us deep inside a profound and irrevocable sadness.


All those who genuflect at the comedy altar of Judd Apatow, the bright comedy light who has been associated in various capacities with movies such as "Superbad," "Knocked Up" and "The 40 Year Old Virgin," may be forced to tone down their enthusiasm when they see "Drillbit Taylor," a mostly unfunny comedy about three dorks (Nate Hartley, Troy Gentile and David Dorfman) who hire the homeless Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson) to serve as their bodyguard. The kids think Drillbit's a lethal human weapon who was quietly discharged from the Army.

The movie, which hails from Apatow's production company with Steven Brill ("Mr. Deeds" and "Little Nicky") handling the directing chores, tells us that its three nerdy heroes need protection from the school bully (Alex Frost), a teen psycho who seems a little too sadistic for a goofy comedy.

The script by Kristofor Brown and Seth Rogen misses more than it hits, and "Drillbit" proves that bullying -- one of the most serious of school problems -- might not be the best place to look for laughs.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Immigrants and sentiment cross the border

Summary: Illegal immigration remains one of the hottest of hot-button issues. Filmmakers can take one of two approaches to the subject, a political and potentially incendiary tack or one that attempts to humanize the subject by appealing to emotion. Director Patricia Riggen and screenwriter Ligiah Villalobos opt for the latter strategy in "Under the Same Moon," a boldly melodramatic story of a nine-year-old boy who crosses the border in search of his mother.

It may sound odd to call a movie about illegal immigration a crowd-pleaser, but that's what Riggen and Villalobos have concocted with a sentiment-drenched story that enumerates the ABC's of immigration hardship -- low-paying jobs, fear of deportation, dangerous border crossings, personal sacrifice and prejudice within American society -- while telling a story built around a boy's determination.

Here's the set-up: Every Sunday Rosario (Kate del Castillo) calls her son (Adrian Alonso) from a pay phone in Los Angeles. The boy, who remained in Mexico with his grandmother (Angelina Pelaez) looks forward to these calls, but feels slightly abandoned by the mother he hasn't seen in four years.

From the start, it's clear that young Carlitos is a child of indomitable spirit. So when grandma dies, it's no surprise that he embarks on an adventure that allows the filmmakers to highlight the immigrant plight.

To begin with, nothing goes as planned. Carlitos crosses the border with two economically stressed Mexican American students (Jesse Garcia and America Ferrera). Things quickly go awry, and Carlitos is left on his own, to fend for himself in Texas.

Eventually, Carlitos hooks up with the wandering Enrique (Eugenio Derbez), a migrant worker who at first resists the boy, but gradually takes on the role of mentor and protector. Carlitos --engagingly played by Alonso -- and Enrique give the picture heart and humor with each taking turns at goading the other on.

Those looking for subtlety probably should look elsewhere. "Under the Same Moon" telegraphs most of its moves, and seldom misses an opportunity to play to cinematic expectation. I'm not particularly partial to movies that underline every emotional beat, but "Under the Same Moon" communicates its message with primer-like clarity: Those who cross the border from Mexico in search of better lives for their children deal with many difficulties and seldom find the hoped for payoff. And of the hardships, the worst probably involves a separation from loved ones.

The movie, on the other hand, works hard to give the audience the big payoff it expects -- even at the expense of probability and credibility. Riggen and Villalobos seem intent on tugging at the heartstrings: Hard-core realism can wait.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Attacking the paying customers

"You lookin' at me?"

That might the slogan of Michael Haneke's perversely pointless Americanized remake of his 1997 "Funny Games." A shot-for-shot recreation of the original, "Funny Games" apparently wants us to question our fascination with cinematic sadism, but the movie might have done well to question its own obsession with the same subject. In telling the story of a family that's confronted by two wandering killers, Haneke has made a meticulously crafted but intellectually dubious movie that's not nearly as complex or intriguing as his brilliant 1998 movie, "Cache."

"Funny Games'' is so carefully constructed that it seems to be asking to be studied rather than watched. When we meet the well-heeled family that's about to be terrorized, we're told that their kitchen clock isn't working. What could that mean? That they're about to step outside of the parameters of normal time? We see a close-up of a knife, and it's as if Haneke is prompting us to ask what role it will play in the unfolding drama. And when mom drops her cell phone into the kitchen sink, we know that Haneke wants us to understand that possibilities for communication with the world outside this gated community rapidly are diminishing.

The story is as simple as it is punishing. A preppie-looking young man in a tennis outfit (Brady Corbert) shows up at the home where George and Anna (Tim Roth and Naomi Watts) live with their son (Devon Gearhart). Corbert's character claims to be staying with a neighbor and asks to borrow some eggs. Soon, his pal (Michael Pitt) arrives on the scene, also in tennis garb. These unexpected visitors are eerily polite; their conversations with family members feel stilted and frightening, especially in the upscale brightness of the kitchen.

The two young men are playing games with George and Anna, and it's obvious from the start that the games will turn lethal. Less obvious is Haneke's desire to toy with our expectations, even to the point of having Pitt's character break the cinematic fourth wall and talk directly to the audience.

"Funny Games'' pierces other walls, as well. The script has a post-modernist disdain for motivation. Roth's character asks his tormentors why they're behaving so monstrously. "Why not? " responds Pitt's character. Perhaps Haneke wants to immerse us in a moment when psychology no longer applies and to implicate us in the resultant chaos.

We're watching aren't we? And if we are, maybe we're every bit as sick as these two remorseless perpetrators?

It struck me as a cheat that Haneke tries to make the movie about the audience's responses, even if he goes about his work with relentless efficiency and obvious directorial aplomb. Before the movie's over, Haneke strips Watts down to her underwear. He neutralizes Roth's George, tying him up and crippling him as a father and husband. And for what? For the terrible sin of believing there's safety inside their gated world?

It's all very creepy, but there's little to be gained from watching this warped chamber piece, aside from discovering that Pitt really knows how to play this kind of character.

If Haneke, who keeps most of the physical violence off screen, wants us to wonder why we're watching, he succeeds. "You lookin' at me?'' the movie seems to ask defiantly, poking its finger in our chests. You may not want to put yourself in a position where you have to respond.


Holocaust movies usually have a leg up when it comes to Oscar, and this year proved no exception. The German movie "Counterfeiters" won the Oscar for best foreign language film for its depiction of the way some Jews were coerced into helping the Nazis. Austrian writer/director Stefan Ruzowitzky -- adapting a true story -- focuses on "Operation Bernhard," a Nazi plan to flood the U.S. and Great Britain with fake currency. To execute this economy-wrecking plot, the Nazis use Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), a premiere counterfeiter and a Jew who's introduced in the movie's opening, which takes place in Monte Carlo after the war. The rest of the story is told in a long flashback.

German officer Freidrich Herzog (David Striesow) oversees Sorowtisch's work in the camp, and "The Counterfeiters" shows the dicey bargain that Jews such as Sorowitsch were forced to make. They used their skills to help the Nazis, but were given decent living conditions within the concentration camps.

The movie opposes Sorowitsch with another character, a purported Communist named Burger (August Diehl). Burger believes that any attempt to assist the Nazis is morally reprehensible. The movie poses a question: What' s right? Saving one's life or refusing to aid the twisted Nazi cause? The film ultimately tips toward the latter answer, but it's a debate in which we can't honestly participate. The only people entitled to answer such a question are those who actually faced it. (The movie is based on a book by Burger.)

"The Counterfeiters" may wind up as a relatively minor entry in the big-screen literature of World War II -- a footnote of sorts -- but director Ruzowitzky has written it with enough clarity and skill to command our attention.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

It's 3 a.m. Do you know what your ad is saying?

Sociologist Orlando Patterson writes an op ed piece in the New York Times, and delves deeply into what's implied by the now famous 3 a.m. advertisement that played a role in Hillary Clinton's victories in Ohio and Texas. Patterson's piece -- read it all the way through before you decide -- is an able exercise in image analysis. Buy Patterson's conclusions or don't, but his article is worth a look, particularly by those of us who believe in the power of images to imply and insinuate, even when at first glance they seem stunningly obvious. And, yes, from time to time, I'm going to point toward writing that I believe has something interesting to say about the many ways in which film speaks to us.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Robbing banks and pillaging the past

Summary: "The Bank Job" may not steal the weekend's number one spot at the box office, but it allows director Roger Donaldson to do a workman like job with a story about a robbery that rocked England. The movie has the extra kick of being based -- if loosely -- on a true story.

We've seen so many tasty little British heist movies that the prospect of another may prompt yawning even among genre aficionados. Despite its air of cockney familiarity, "The Bank Job" -- the story of a renowned 1971 British bank robbery -- has enough novel twists to keep it on track. This little movie tackles some big themes, and although it lacks a mega-payoff, its perfectly pitched performances and carload of sleazy characters lead to the kind of satisfactions that accrue from watching competently made films.

Competent, yes. But it's the movie's cynical reading of British society lifts it from the caper realm. Without getting pushy about it, "The Bank Job" asks us to decide which form of rot we prefer -- that which permeates the upper or lower portion of society's crust. I don't know enough about recent British scandal to tell you precisely when fiction waves goodbye to fact, but I do know that "The Bank Job" can be entertaining.

Jason Statham -- recognizable to action fans from the "Transporter" series -- plays principal robber Terry. Early on, Terry's contacted by a beautiful young woman (Saffron Burrows) with whom he once had an affair. He's suspicious, but signs on to tunnel under Lloyd's Bank on Baker Street. A car dealer who's not exactly thriving, Terry -- like so many before him -- lusts after a big, liberating score. He tells his fretting wife he'll be gone for a bit, and gathers a group of neighborhood pals to complete the job. The gang -- such as it is -- has no idea that they're being used by higher ups in the British government.

Linking the gang and the British establishment allows Donaldson to steer the movie into sleazy, tabloid territory where the characters are squeezed and manipulated. Burrows' Martine, for example, cuts a deal to extricate herself from legal difficulties involving a drug bust. That's why she approaches Terry in the first place.

The British spies who use Martine point the robbers at a vault that houses safety deposit boxes, and the movie suggests that those who have such boxes use them to store all manner of incriminating or embarrassing evidence. This includes compromising photographs taken of a hard-partying Princess Margaret. But consider, too, Lew Vogel (David Suchet), a porn king who keeps a record of the cops he's paid off in his safe deposit box. There's also Michael X (Peter De Jersey), a black activist with criminal ambitions that extend into drugs. The script neatly contrives to have a variety of self-interested parties -- from spies to gangsters -- looking for the robbers, who more interested in money than in the controversial items that have been stashed at the bank.

Donaldson, whose fortunes sagged with the Anthony Hopkins picture "The World's Fastest Indian," doesn't try anything fancy, but he keeps the story percolating, and he pushes a bit beyond the suspense ploys we expect to find in heist movies. The resultant effort may not always be a white-knuckle affair, but it's got plenty of grit and an appropriately jaded view of a society in which the rot can be either royal or common.


"Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" offers an entirely different view of British society. Based on a 1938 novel by Winifred Watson, the movie revolves around the relationship between a glamorous American singer (Amy Adams) and her emotionally stifled personal secretary (Francis McDormand). Adams' Delysia Lafosse -- as chirpy as a canary and twice as flighty -- has a complicated sex life. She's being supported by Nick (Mark Strong), a gangster who runs a nightclub. She's also being courted by a Phil (Tom Payne), who promises to use his theatrical connections to land her a role. Delysia's piano player (Lee Pace) also wants to steal her heart. What's a girl to do? How about trying to keep all three men guessing?

Meanwhile, McDormand's Miss Pettigrew battles her alcoholism, brings order to Delysia's disheveled life and catches the eye of a disillusioned fashion designer (Ciaran Hinds), who happens to be engaged but who seems fed up with the artificiality of the world he inhabits.

Director Bharat Nalluri creates a polished, deco version of '30s London, and the whole movie feels like a throwback to a dreamy time that laced screwball comedy with sophisticated banter, but this artificially sweetened concoction never quite brings us to the point where we can believe in its overdressed characters, its overdone decors or its overstated theatricality.

Mammoth scale, puny entertainment

Summary: "10,000 BC" travels a long way into the past in search of entertainment. It doesn't take much time for director Roland Emmerich ("Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow") to prove that the trip wasn't worth making.

Here are some things you may not know about what life was like 10,000 years before Christ was born. First off, there was a whole tribe of folks who spoke English, although many of them had accents that seemed only vaguely identifiable. You also probably didn't know that prehistory could produce a movie that looks like a cross between a National Geographic spread -- circa 1950 -- a Joseph Campbell lecture, an Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp novel and Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto." Put another way, Emmerich has made a movie in which the greatest pleasures arise from the inadvertent laughter that results from portentous dialogue and an inflated sense of seriousness.

Me tell story now: The movie's main character -- D'Leh (Steven Strait) -- tries to save his girlfriend Evolet (Camilla Belle) who has been kidnapped by a band of cruel warlords. Along the way, D'Leh seeks help from a variety of other tribes, and Emmerich throws as many special effects into the mix as possible -- from giant woolly mammoths to what appear to be predatory ostriches.

All of this culminates at the headquarters of a Mayan-like civilization that enslaves its captives to build pyramids in scenes that look as if Mel Gibson's primal instincts have been channeled into Cecil B. DeMille.

Mythic mumbo-jumbo collides with computer-generated vistas, and the result is little more than grand-scale junk.