Friday, April 25, 2008

Babies in one movie, sex in another


The night that "Baby Mama" screened in Denver, I was torn. Did I want to see a Tina Fey comedy about a professional woman who longs to be a mother or did I want to stay home and immerse myself in talking-head blah, blah and more blah as returns from the Pennsylvania primary rolled in? I don't know which prospect I found more tiresome -- talking-head blah, blah and more blah or one more promising comedy that doesn't really work. I opted for "Baby Mama,'' figuring that the blah, blah and more blah would still be blahing up the airways when I returned home. Between "Baby Mama" and the talking heads, I could ensure myself an all-blah evening.

As it turns out, I was right. There's a definite blah quality to "Baby Mama," although the movie does offer some laughs. Siobhan Fallon Hogan is quite funny as a speech-challenged birthing coach who sounds a bit like Elmer Fudd. I occasionally laughed (and so did the guy next to me) at the unashamedly crude character played by Dax Shepard. He's the boyfriend of Angie Ostrowiski (Amy Poehler), a white-trash woman who agrees to be a surrogate mother for Fey's Kate Holbrook. Steve Martin has some nice moments in another of the movie's small roles. He portrays Barry, a ponytail wearing New Age executive who owns the organic food company at which Kate has carved out a fast-track career. What a guy: When he's happy with Kate, he rewards her with five straight minutes of eye contact.

So what's up with the blah description? Well, the movie is awfully predictable, its ending is pat, flat and unbelievable and there's too much down time between chuckles. Beyond that, a budding romance between Fey's character and a lawyer turned juice-store owner (Greg Kinnear) doesn't ignite many sparks.

Oh well, it's probably not worth a whole lot of head scratching when it comes to figuring out why a comedy is mildly amusing instead of fall-down funny. I guess I'm grateful that I didn't come away hating "Baby Mama," which is saying something for a film that spends a lot of time rehashing odd-couple cliches.

That happens because Poehler's Angie breaks up with her boyfriend, and moves in with Kate, who encourages her to mend her fast-food ways for the sake of the baby that Angie's carrying. Kate's uptight and fastidious; Angie's the polar opposite, a small riot in the form of a woman. Director Michael McCullers, who also wrote the script, pulls a few surprises out of an otherwise familiar hat, and the whole business winds up in that grey area between see it now or wait until the DVD. I guess if you loved Fey and Poehler on SNL, you may be tempted toward the now option. Me? I'd wait.

As for my evening? An unexpected synchronicity emerged. it turns out, "Baby Mama" is set in Philadelphia, so it made a nice prelude to the rest of my evening. I returned home and watched the talking heads bleat, pontificate and analyze and came away wishing that Fey and Poehler -- formerly of SNL's Weekend Update -- had traded places with Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann. OK, maybe just Chris Matthews.


When you hear that "Deception," a new thriller starring Ewan McGregor, Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams, is about sex clubs, you may find yourself mildly curious. Come on. Admit it. At minimum, you probably want to know how such clubs work. I can't read the filmmakers' minds, but to me it seemed as if "Deception" had been designed to tweak prurient interest and hook audiences into an otherwise rote thriller.

Here's how it works: "Deception" immerses McGregor (a downtrodden accountant) into a world where he can have anonymous sex with beautiful women. He's turned on, and we're asked to be voyeurs.

McGregor's character is introduced to sex clubs because of a supposed mistake: He accidentally (wink! wink!) ends up with the cell phone of a hotshot lawyer (Jackman) with a killer smile and a knowing, insider's approach to life. You should already have figured out that Jackman's character is using sex to pull McGregor's character into a larcenous scheme. We see right through the movie's ploys, and outguess it at nearly every turn. So when a blonde Williams shows up, we know that McGregor's character will fall for her, that he'll want more than a one-night fling.

Maybe because the movie is so predictable for so long, screenwriter Mark Bomback ("Live Free or Die Hard") creates a third act in which the plot pivots and dodges as it desperately tries to find ways to surprise us. By this time, though, it's not easy to care what happens.

"Deception" begins by introducing us to a professional world in which men and women are so busy being successful that they have no time for relationships. The sex clubs enable them to satisfy their sexual urges without the inconvenience of having to deal with such trivial matters as dinner and a movie. The sex clubs, you see, cut directly to the chase. That means members don't have to sit through overly stylized thrillers like "Deception" in order to achieve their libidinous goals. Lucky them.

Two small movies that demand attention

Summary: Forget the multiplexes. This weekend, you may want to head for an art house where you can catch the uplifting (but not sickening) documentary "Young@Heart" or "The Visitor," an intriguing (if not entirely successful) movie about an emotionally tapped-out economics professor who learns to play drums

The Young@Heart Chorus – average age 80 – easily could have been the subject of a cloying documentary, but this touching look at folks who you might expect to find behind walkers is built around a major surprise. The movie's octogenarians are not given to wallowing in nostalgia. Instead, the group knocks out songs such as Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia,” Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can” and James Browns’ “I Feel Good.” Throw in tunes from “The Clash” and the “Bee Gees” and hard rock begins to trump hardening of the arteries. All of this may be a gimmick, but it beats the heck out of show tunes.

But wait! There's more! The Young@Heart Chorus does a credible job with these tunes under the guidance of Bob Cilman, a younger man who doesn’t coddle them because of their age. And don’t think that anything comes easily to this group: We watch as various members struggle to gain mastery over music that’s not necessarily in their wheelhouse.

British director Stephen Walker refuses to maneuver us into a maudlin corner, allowing these folks to sing and take their fun seriously. Entertaining and ultimately quite moving – a couple of chorus members die during the course of the film – "Young@Heart" reminds us that (regardless of age) we must learn to soldier on in the face of death. To be close to the end and still sing. Not a bad life lesson.

“The Visitor” -- directed by Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent”) -- stars Richard Jenkins as an emotionally depleted college professor who winds up forming and unlikely friendship with a Syrian drummer (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend (Danai Gurira). The script contrives a meeting for the professor and his new pals, who wind up living in the New York apartment that he seldom uses. Usually, he resides in Connecticut where he teaches -- albeit without much enthusiasm. McCarthy hits false notes here and there, and the movie can’t entirely escape an unfortunate problem: It uses the plight of the poor and benighted to rejuvenate a long-suffering Anglo. But there’s more to “Visitor” than the occasional clinker. Jenkins – familiar to audiences for having played a ghostly father on “Six Feet Under” – creates a character of genuine and credible decency, and the movie soars a bit when Tarek’s mother (Hiam Abbass) shows up. Abbass' regal presence almost made me wish that she'd been the main character. The movie -- which ultimately deals with the fate of illegal immigrants – proves genuinely touching, and if it has a larger message, it might be this: Walter, who has been sleepwalking through his life, needs to wake up – and so, possibly, does his country. I don't know how you feel about illegal immigration, but I hope -- like me -- you'll find the drumming irresistible. I only wish there'd been more of it.

Friday, April 18, 2008

"Forgetting Sarah Marshall" -- I'm trying

Summary: "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" is on its way to becoming another hit from the Judd Apatow repertory company. I managed to control my enthusiasm. As for "Forbidden Kingdom," and "Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden"? Restraining myself was even easier. One is mediocre; so is the other. "88 Minutes?" It's a stinker.

As I watched “Forgetting Sarah Marshall" I wondered how much fuss this latest addition to Judd Apatow's rapidly growing repertoire would kick up. It didn’t take long to find out. On April 13, The New York Times’ Sunday editions carried an interview with Jason Segel, the movie’s 28-year-old star and writer, a young man who wastes little time establishing his credentials: He shows what he’s got – via full frontal nudity – in the movie’s first scene. It’s a declaration of sorts: We are bold. We are unashamed. We want attention.

Segel hails from Apatow’s TV days (“Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared”), as does the movie’s director, Nicholas Stoller. Most moviegoers expect good things from these guys because they know Apatow is responsible for hits such as "The 40 Year Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up."

Maybe it’s the contrarian in me, but I don’t share the enthusiasm that has greeted Apatow and his comic associates. It should be pointed out, though, that the Apatow–directed and Apatow-produced movies have created a mini-genre, comedies that have been praised for blending raunchy humor and genuine human emotions.

I'm inclined to put it more cynically: These movies are a bit like the guy who has too much to drink, throws up on your expensive rug but apologizes profusely once he sobers up and realizes that he's exceeded his consumptive capacities. When he leaves, you're still a little appalled, but you may also think, "Maybe the guy wasn't so bad after all."

In this comedy, Segel’s Peter Bretter suffers an indignity common to many comic heroes. Sarah Marshall -- a TV actress played by Kirsten Bell – dumps him in the movie’s first scene, the one in which Segel bares all.

On a recuperative trip to Hawaii, Peter winds up staying at the same hotel as his ex, who happens to have checked in with her new boyfriend, a rock star played by British comic Russell Brand. Brand’s Aldous Snow quickly establishes himself as an unashamedly lecherous fellow for whom displays of ego have become second nature.

Snow's apparent competence with women contrasts with Peter's hapless fumbling. Poor Peter. He can’t seem to turn the corner on his romance with Sarah, who stars in a TV crime show for which Peter writes the music.

No one familiar with romantic comedy formula will be surprised to learn that another woman helps Peter shed his depression. Rachel (Mila Kunis) works the desk at the hotel, and eventually presents herself as a possible love interest for Peter.

Now I’m not saying that “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is a dim-witted dud. Segel tries to tell us that Sarah had good reasons for leaving Peter; Kunis’ Rachel isn’t exactly the saintly type, and the finale – an unveiling of Peter’s dream project, a musical version of Dracula performed by puppets – is a small parodic gem.

So, yes, I laughed here and there, but I’m tired of comedies about schlubs who are self-absorbed to the point of annoyance. Right from his overexposed, full-frontal start, I felt as if I’d seen enough of Segel. I relented a bit as the movie progressed, but never totally changed my mind.

A footnote: Those keeping score should recognize such Apatow stalwarts as Paul Rudd (who plays a stoned-out surfing instructor) and Jonah Hill (who appears as a waiter with show-business aspirations). Both are good for a few chuckles.

“The Forbidden Kingdom” – a middling martial arts fantasy about a young man (Michael Angarano) who saves the universe – could be considered a martial arts movie for people who don’t particularly like marital arts movies. The movie’s main achievement involves the teaming of Jackie Chan and Jet Li, warriors of a different stripe who wind up helping Angarano’s character negotiate his way through various adventures, many set against beautiful Chinese backdrops that seem wasted in this trivial exercise. Clearly, money was spent on “Forbidden Kingdom,” but mostly it bought a movie in which Chan and Li receive some special effects help and in which cliches seem to outnumber thrills.

As for Morgan Spurlock’s “Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?” I’m one of those people who thought that Spurlock’s breakthrough documentary -- “Super Size Me” – was hardly worth commenting on. It was slick, Michael Moorish, obvious and gimmicky. The same can be said of Spurlock’s second effort, a movie that has him traveling to dangerous places in search of Osama bin Laden. Spurlock hopes to make the world safer for the baby his wife is about to deliver. This pseudo-doc is a little less flippant than expected, but not especially revealing. Oh well, we do eventually get to see Spurlock's new baby. It might have been a whole lot cheaper, though, had he just sent out announcements.

I was planning to write something about "88 Minutes," a thriller starring Al Pacino as a hot-shot forensic psychiatrist. I was going to wonder out loud about why Pacino has been in so many really bad movies -- "Bobby Deerfield" and "Revolution" to name only two. I intended to talk about a preposterous plot that has Pacino's character being threatened by an unseen enemy. The mystery caller plans to kill Pacino's Dr. jack Gramm in 88 minutes. I was going to say the movie is dumb, offensive and poorly acted. That was my plan, but I decided it just wasn't worth the trouble. Pacino, whose face looks as if it's melting, spends nearly the entire movie running around with a cell phone pressed to his ear. I hope he used it to call his agent.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Corrupt cops and those university blues


Novelist James Ellroy ("Black Dahlia," "LA Confidential" and "White Jazz") wrote the story for the new movie "Street Kings" and evidently helped write the script, which is credited to Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss. But the presence of the acclaimed master of hard-boiled crime stories can't quite save "Street Kings," a movie based on the now hackneyed notion that you're more likely to find a winning Power Ball ticket in your coat pocket than an honest cop in Los Angeles.

As directed by David Ayer (who wrote "Training Day" and who directed "Harsh Times"), "Street Kings" is an acid bath of a movie --a cop yarn washed in cynicism, violence and tough talk of a kind that only seems to turn up in movies and sometimes is mistaken for realism.

Maybe the whole thing would have been better had Ayer not cast Keanu Reeves in the lead. Reeves isn't awful, but he doesn't bring enough simmering torment to the role of Tom Ludlow, a detective who's allowed to operate on his own. If Ludlow wantonly guns down a bunch of bad guys, his boss (Forest Whitaker) covers for him. After all, Ludlow is indispensable, a guy whose skill at slime control keeps LA from sliding right into the Pacific.

To get through his incredibly difficult days, Ludlow primes himself with vodka shots sucked from the kind of mini-bottles you can buy airplanes. He may be anesthetized, but he's not entirely immune from problems: A former partner (Terry Crews) thinks that Ludlow's making mince meat of the law. He wants to call a halt to Ludlow's no-account ways.

The plot contrives to make Ludlow a suspect when Crews' character is gunned down during an apparent robbery at a convenience store. In trying to prove his innocence, Ludlow spills enough blood to turn Los Angeles into a war zone.

Whitaker seems to struggle with his part, and the whole movie winds up feeling bloody, overstated and familiar, like someone turning a page from an old book -- albeit one with fresh blood stains on its pages.


As for "Smart People," a small movie about a spiritually exhausted academic who finds a measure of renewal, try this: The screenplay boasts some clever writing, but the movie comes off as too flat for its own good, another film that seems to have made for screening at Sundance on a dreary afternoon when snow is falling and the busses are running late.

Looking as downtrodden as he's capable of looking, Dennis Quaid plays Lawrence Wetherhold, a widowed English professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Wetherhold never seems to have recovered from his wife's death, and he shambles through life as if he's carrying an anvil on his back. Wetherhold's 17-year-old daughter -- "Juno's" Ellen Page in another role as a smart teen-ager -- seems to have taken responsibility for her father's emotional well being. Wetherhold's son James (Ashton Holmes) is pretty much ignored -- by both dad and the script.

When Wetherhold's wastrel brother (Thomas Haden Church) shows up, normal patterns are thrown out of whack. An irresponsible guy who borrows money he never pays back, Church's Chuck encourages his brother -- and anyone else who'll listen -- to live more fully.

Perhaps taking his brother's advice, Wetherhold meets a former student (Sarah Jessica Parker) and toys with the idea of courting her. The budding romance has all the luster of a gray day in Pittsburgh, possibly because Parker doesn't bring much to the party. Oh well, she'll probably spring back to life in the upcoming "Sex and the City" movie.

An increasingly awkward relationship between Church's character and his niece strains credibility, and the movie winds feeling like a small novel that shows definite signs of promise but never quite hits its stride.

Monday, April 7, 2008

A collect call from Moses

Charlton Heston, who passed away this weekend at the age of 84, was an actor of epic accomplishment, a man who didn't just appear in movies but conquered them as if they were spacious new territories. Most of the appreciation pieces that have appeared since the announcement of Heston's death rightly have downplayed the man's leadership in the National Rifle Association and more appropriately have noted that he was the kind of actor for whom grandly scaled movies could well have been invented.

Heston also might have had the greatest scowl in the business, whether he played a furious Moses scorning hard-partying Hebrews for returning to revelry while he climbed Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, a disillusioned detective in the dystopian slums of "Soylent Green" or an embittered astronaut in "Planet of the Apes." The man could do sarcasm. He could do disdain. He could look down from the high peaks of history on lesser screen gods.

I had only one contact with Heston, and it did not come at one of his best moments. In 1980, Heston appeared in "The Mountain Men," a movie written by his son Fraser Clarke Heston. The elder Heston played an aging trapper in search of pelts. Let's just say that this was no "Ben-Hur" or even a "Ben-Fur," but someone called and asked if I wanted to speak to Heston. Of course I did. Who wouldn't want to talk to a guy who had been directed by Cecil B. DeMille ("The Ten Commandments"), Orson Welles ("A Touch of Evil"); Anthony Mann ("El Cid") and Carol Reed ("The Agony and the Ecstasy")?

I'd be lying if I told you that I remembered the conversation, but I do recall how it began. I was sitting at my desk at the Rocky Mountain News -- in a building that since has been demolished to make way for new courtrooms and a jail -- when the phone rang.

"Is this Robert Denerstein?"


"I have a collect call from Charlton Heston."

Before I could remind myself that Heston probably had associated himself with a no-budget movie that needed a boost, I blurted out these impolitic words:

"You mean to tell me Moses is calling collect?"

I accepted the call, not knowing whether Heston had heard me. If he did, he didn't bring it up during the interview, which I appreciated.

Like many others, I also appreciated Heston's performances, many of which seemed to have been chiseled from Italian marble. The guy was solid, but to his credit, there also seemed to be a little craziness behind those blazing eyes. So when we remember Heston -- and we will -- it might also be wise to recall Gloria Swanson's aptly put line from "Sunset Boulevard." The pictures do seem to have gotten smaller.

Friday, April 4, 2008

"Flawless" isn't; neither is "Leatherheads"

Demi Moore probably will be hailed for understatement rather than fitness by those who see her in "Flawless," a movie that teams her with Michael Caine. Moore plays an American who works in London for a powerful diamond firm. Moore opens the movie under layers of make-up; she's an older woman who's telling the story of how her character came possess a stolen diamond, a gem that's roughly the size of an Easter egg. The rest of the story unfolds in flashback as we learn that Moore's Laura Quinn was a victim of a glass ceiling that kept her from rising in the ranks of the diamond firm and made her vulnerable to the entreaties of a shrewd janitor (Caine) with larceny in mind. The movie entices us into believing that Quinn is one smart but possibly vulnerable cookie, which surely means that there's a plot twist or two lurking and that she won't see them coming. Caine, who can play this kind of role in his sleep, doesn't: He gives a cagey performance as a man with a secret. Director Michael Radford does a competent job, but Moore -- who gives her character a mild British accent from years of living in London -- seems too restrained, and the whole affair winds up flying under the radar of sustained excitement.

If you don't count the unscreened horror movie "The Ruins" (and who does?), "Leatherheads" ranks as the big movie of the weekend. George Clooney directs and stars in a romantic comedy about the early days of professional football. If the movie had spent more time immersing in the rough-and-tumble of smash-mouth football and less time reiterating ploys from old-fashioned screwball comedies, it might have been more of a success. If you want to read a full review, check out the one I wrote for the Rocky Mountain News.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The critical ranks keep thinning

Several people have e-mailed me David Carr's article in Tuesday's New York Times, which ran under the headline "Now on the Endangered Species List: Movie Critics in Print." The headline pretty much tells the story. Many papers are buying out or otherwise bidding farewell to their movie critics.

Wrote Carr: "Nathan Lee, one of The Village Voice’s two full-time critics, was laid off last week by Village Voice Media, a large chain of alternative weeklies that has been cutting down the number of critics it employs across the country.

"The week before, two longtime critics at Newsday — Jan Stuart and Gene Seymour — took buyouts, along with their editor. And at Newsweek, David Ansen is among 111 staff members taking buyouts, according to a report in Radar.

"They join critics at more than a dozen daily newspapers (including those in Denver, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale) and several alternative weeklies who have been laid off, reassigned or bought out in the past few years, deemed expendable at a time when revenues at print publications are declining, under pressure from Web alternatives and a growing recession in media spending."

Though not named, I'm the critic in Denver. Fortunately for me, I was not laid off, but accepted a buyout and was eager to pursue new challenges. Still, it's sad to read about those whose fates may have been more painful.

No need to recount the woes of newspapers here, but on a personal note: My father earned his living as a Linotype operator at a New Jersey daily. He retired right around the time that his trade was vanishing. Computers were beginning to make major inroads into newspapers, the first real revolution in printing since Gutenberg.

Oh well, I guess the current situation can be taken as a sign of generational progress: My dad's species became extinct; mine is only endangered.

After the fact, it occurs to me that I probably should explain that a Linotype machine came equipped with a 90-character keyboard. The operator set lines of type in hot metal. Each line of type (a slug) was used to form a story and individual stories were later assembled into pages. If you want to see one of these ungainly looking machines, click here.