Saturday, August 30, 2008

Strangers and strange doings on a train

Who knew that Woody Harrelson could play a church-going normal person? It happens right in front of your possibly incredulous eyes in "Transsiberian,'' a new thriller from director Brad Anderson. Anderson, who previously brought such indie hits as "The Machinist" and "Next Stop Wonderland" to the screen, employs a strong cast with Emily Mortimer, Kate Mara and Eduardo Noriegajoining Harrelson for the Siberian ride. Some good news: Ben Kingsley, who didn't convince me in "Elegy," this time seems entirely credible as a cynical Russian detective who chases drug smugglers. The drama unfolds on a train that's traveling from Beijing to Moscow. Harrelson and Moritmer portray an American couple that has spent time in China taking care of children as part of a church program. On the train, they meet a friendly couple, a Spaniard (Noriega) and the young American woman with whom he's traveling (Mara). The early going has a scruffy romanticism about it: The help on board the train is unfriendly, but the scenery's exotic and the passengers aren't shy about indulging the Russian taste for vodka shots. The plot -- which involves drugs, duplicity and murder -- eventually kicks in, setting off a chain of events that puts the characters into morally dubious territory. A couple of developments caught me by surprise, and if Anderson doesn't exactly rival Hitchcock, he still infuses the movie with a fair share of dark pleasures. Be on the alert, though: A torture sequence proves extremely difficult to watch.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

"Traitor" winds up betraying itself

For a movie steeped in such incendiary issues as terrorism and the battle for the soul of Islam, "Traitor" seems awfully marginal. A thriller with a surfeit of plot twists, "Traitor" tries hard to deliver the right message, but I agree with those who feel the screenplay shortchanges both its thriller and moral dimensions. "Traitor" also is the first movie in which the talented Don Cheadle gives a less than fascinating performance. Cheadle portrays Samir Horn, a Muslim man whose Sudanese father was murdered by terrorists. Horn later found his way into the U.S. Special Forces. Cheadle's difficulty may have something to do with the ambiguity that fogs the lens through which we see his character. The always emaciated Guy Pearce signs on as an FBI agent, assigned to tracking Horn and the Qaeda-like cell that recruits him. For all its plot ploys, the most surprising thing about "Traitor" has nothing to do with what transpires on screen. It's this: Steve Martin, still best known for comedy, wrote the story on which director Jeffrey Nachmanoff based the screenplay. And, no, there's not a laugh in sight.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Movies make a splash at the DNC

There's a first time for just about everything. After a lifetime of moviegoing, I finally attended a screening that required passing through a Secret Service check. (See photo above.) This bow to security was part of the Impact Film Festival, which is unreeling at the Starz Green Room, which is located across from the Pepsi Center, home of the 2008 Democratic National Convention. The facility -- 12 theaters and a lounge -- normally plays home to the Starz FilmCenter, which also hosts the Denver Film Festival. Festival personnel have cleared out for the week, and the DNC has taken over.

The Impact Festival, designed to show socially oriented documentaries to decision makers, is accompanied by a variety of other events: booking signings (Arianna Huffington showed up Monday to autograph "Right is Wrong"), movies with political themes (from "Medium Cool" to "The Candidate") and panels: "United We Stand: A Black/Latino Vote Conversation" and "They Got the Memo: Members of Congress Reveal How They Push a Pro-Women Agenda" are two examples.

I saw "I.O.U.S.A.," a new documentary from director Patrick Cheadon, who previously directed "Wordplay," a popular and very entertaining documentary about crossword puzzles.

"I.O.U.S.A." does a brilliant job of making a complicated subject (the economy) comprehensible to the economically challenged. That would be me. The movie offers instruction on such matters as the difference between fiscal and monetary policy and explains the role of the Federal Reserve Board. But what makes "I.O.U.S.A." so compelling is the fear factor. Cheadon offers a myriad of examples and much evidence to show that the country is being undermined by burgeoning debt, more than $8 trillion at the time the film was made.

Cheadon attended the screening, along with Dave Walker, the former U.S. Comptroller General who's prominently featured in the film. Basically, "I.O.U.S.A." warns that we're saddling our children and grandchildren with a dismal future.

I'm not sure it was intended, but here's what I took away from the film: Programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid increasingly will come under fire. I've heard Walker argue that health care constitutes a bigger problem than Social Security. In a Q&A session after the film, he cautioned that the U.S. is "going to have to restructure its promises." Hmmm.

Someone else pointed out that more than 50 percent of the country's wealth is concentrated in the hands of 10 percent of the population. I'm betting that that 10 percent won't suffer as much as those of us in the other 90 percent.

Whatever one's politics -- and the film is non-partisan -- "I.O.U.S.A" easily could adopt as its motto: "Be afraid! Be very afraid!" Watching this film, I was.

I also visited the Green Room, a lounge where delegates and other visitors can hang out, eat cookies and sip water. (See photo of people hanging out, but not eating cookies.) The whole deal is being sponsored by Starz Entertainment, SeaChange Communications Ideas Forum, the Impact Film Festival and The Denver Film Society. The Impact Film Festival also will travel to the Republican Convention next week. I don't know if these films have the power to "move the needle," as one of the festival's organizers put it, but they make for an interesting collection of docs.

Just for the record, the above photograph shows part of the long line of journalists who were waiting to pass through security and enter the Pepsi Center on Monday, the official start of the DNC.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Convention or internment camp -- and other weirdness from the city of Denver

I teach part-time at the University of Colorado Denver, which happens to be located directly across from the Pepsi Center, home of the nightly doings of the 2008 Democratic Convention. The campus, which hosts several other public institutions of higher education, has been closed for the week, locked down for the duration of the DNC. As of Friday, workers were busy putting up chain link fences that turned the campus into a maze.

I know. Security matters. But downtown Denver is beginning to show signs you'd expect to see in a Third World country immediately after a coup. Clusters of heavily armed cops are all over the place, an image that I have difficulty reconciling with the free exchange of ideas, but, hey, safety first, as they used to tell us as kids.

I'm driving west on Alameda Avenue, headed for a Sunday dim sum brunch. On the North side of the road, I see a billboard that boasts a picture of Martin Luther King and these words, "Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican." My first reaction: "Yeah, and Herman Goring played mahjong at Hadasah meetings." For more on this whacked out assertion, checkout this two-year-old story from The Washington Post.

Look, I'm not equating the GOP with Hitler's minions, just registering my surprise at an ad that clearly belies a fundamental truth: Most black Americans vote Democratic and so apparently did King.

Here's a sample from the Washington Post article: "In 1960, King was arrested for trespassing during a sit-in and held in Georgia's Reidsville prison. Fearing for his son's life, Martin Luther King Sr. appealed to presidential candidate John F. Kennedy to secure his release. When King was freed, his father vowed to deliver 10 million votes to the Democrat, even though Kennedy was only a reluctant supporter of civil rights. That began four decades of black people voting for liberals. The younger King voted for Kennedy, and for Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson four years later. In that election, King publicly denounced the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater."

Sponsored by the National Black Republican Association, the ad evidently refers to a time when black party preferences were prompted by segregationist views of southern Dixiecrats. Pre-1965 and passage of the National Voting Rights Act, what exactly did party affiliation mean for Black Americans in the South anyway? Jim Crow laws often made it difficult or impossible for blacks to vote. For a more current story on the billboard, try this link to therawstory.

p.s. The Association's Web site claims that 50 such billboards have been placed around Denver to remind people that Obama is no MLK. Why? Probably because Obama's acceptance speech will coincide with the anniversary of Dr. King's fabled 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech. Is Obama capitalizing on history? Sure, but that doesn't mean he -- or anyone else -- thinks he's Martin Luther King Jr. It does, however, honor the fact that Obama is a beneficiary of King's struggles and the work of many others, as are all Americans.

Besides, even if Dr. King did at one time belong to the Republican Party, his membership would rank as one of the least important things you could say about him.

Note: The photo you see with this article appeared on the Web; it was not taken in Denver, but the billboard is the same.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Another Roth novel loses in translation

Novelist Philip Roth's track record is none too good when it comes to movies. I'd read that "Elegy," an adaptation of Roth's short novel "The Dying Animal," was different, that it managed to respect Roth's themes, building a quietly powerful drama around an imposing performance by Ben Kingsley, who plays the Roth alter-ego character of David Kepesh. As it turns out, I found little about such assessments to be true. "Elegy" comes off as a work that never finds its own rhythm -- much less Roth's.

As for Kingsley. Well, Sir Ben's performance put me in mind of a doctor working with surgical precision. His Kepesh is tightly wound and unrevealed, not the man of savage urges Roth put at the center of his story. Although a narration -- delivered by Kingsley -- tells us of Kepesh's reluctance to watch the male animal in him die, this quality of irresistible desperation never quite comes across in Kingsley's measured performance.

Most of the movie -- which has been photographed in equally measured style by cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu -- involves professor Kepesh's obsession with Consuela (Penelope Cruz). Consuela, one of Kepesh's former students, is 30 years younger than he, and represents the professor's last gasp at rekindling the dying burn of his own carnality. Consuela responds to Kepish's charm, his culture and his sophisticated brand of flattery. For Kepish -- and I'm not sure this comes across in the movie -- culture masks his more carnivorous tendencies. If there's a contradiction in this, Kepesh may believe he can resolve it with Consuela, whom he regards as a kind of living work of art.

The script by Nicholas Meyer interrupts episodes from Kepesh's affair with Consuela with conversations between Kepesh and his best friend, a poet played by Dennis Hopper. Kepesh also has a few strained meetings with his son (Peter Sarsgaard) and with a more age-appropriate sex partner (Patricia Clarkson). As a celebrity intellectual -- the kind of academic who's also a Charlie Rose regular -- Kepesh has a public life that the movie reveals in glimpses.

A lot of the Roth novel finds its way to the screen, but somehow the movie doesn't feel like a living, breathing piece of work. An example: Kepesh's jealousy -- he knows that he never can possess this young beauty fully -- seldom feels like a wrenching source of humiliation for him.

Spanish director Isabel Coixet probably shows more of Cruz's body than has been seen in a movie before, yet Kingsley and Cruz don't generate much chemistry, perhaps because they're being used to illustrate Roth's themes rather than being allowed to develop as full-blooded characters. Kinsgley seems less like a man driven by fear of his own mortality than an actor giving a well-thought-out performance. Cruz, though better, doesn't quite spring fully to life either. Her Consuela -- wide-eyed and not willing to settle for orgasmic fulfillment alone-- contrasts with Clarkson's character, a woman who regards sex as sex -- nothing more.

As neat as Kepesh's spotless apartment, "Elegy" finds nothing to approximate the restless, demanding quality of Roth's prose, and nothing to establish the kind of relationship Roth does with a reader. Is Kepesh, who in the novel tells the story to an unseen listener, truthful? Can he be trusted? That's not the frame of mind with which you watch this well-crafted movie attain its sad and, I think, compromised beauty.

Skating on thin economic ice

If you're after the bleakest movie of the year, look no further than "Frozen River,'' the debut film of director Courtney Hunt. Set in economically withered upstate New York, "Frozen River" has a snow-blown chill that goes directly to the bone. Maybe it's like what happens when you put your bare hand on icy metal and the skin sticks. I attended graduate school in upstate New York, and, I'll say this, Courtney has captured something authentic about the seemingly interminable winters and the economic deprivation that too long has cast a pall over the area.

Courtney's movie, which she also wrote, centers on Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), a mother who's trying to cope with two kids after her husband splits. Ray and her sons (Charlie McDermott and James Reilly) are hanging on for dear life. It wouldn't be accurate to say Ray's struggling to make ends meet; she's dealing with ends that don't even live in the same county. Frequently, there's not enough food in the house, and the family atmosphere is thick with the tension caused by borderline impoverishment. To make matters worse, Ray can't get a long-awaited promotion at the Yankee Dollar store where she works; she's hoping against hope that she can buy a pre-fab home that she can call her own. That's the sum of her ambitions, owning a home that can be transported on the flat bed of a semi.

Desperately in need of money, Ray eventually responds to a suggestion from a Mohawk Indian woman (Misty Upham) who makes a few extra bucks smuggling illegal immigrants across the U.S./Canadian border. Upham's Lila, who can't afford to spend much by way of either money or emotion, eyes the trunk of Ray's car with entrepreneurial interest. She basically suckers Ray into the smuggling scheme, but Ray quickly realizes that she may have put herself on a fast track to that new home.

The movie's title stems from the fact that Ray and Lila drive across the border on a frozen river, harboring Chinese or Pakistani immigrants in the trunk. Lila's also a mother, but she's been forced to give her child to her mother-in-law. Her stoicism hardly masks the bitterness and rage she feels about not being with her child.

Some late-picture plot developments aren't entirely convincing, but overall "Frozen River" feels coldly honesty. Leo contributes mightily as a woman who can't waste time on sentiment, and Courtney perfectly captures a world full of wheezing cars, bingo parlors, shot-and-a-beer bars and bad weather.

"Frozen River" came out of Sundance with a strong reputation, having won the festival's 2008 grand jury prize. It's not a movie that will warm your heart, but it will remind you that there are people living on the margins, trying to walk an economic tightrope without a net. Ray and Lila are tougher than anyone should have to be. That's what breaks your heart.


Hamlet 2, another Sundance hit, also opens today. Although the movie has received some good and some tolerant reviews, I found it close to unbearable. This despite an engaging premise: A failed actor (Steve Coogan) who has turned to teaching tries to save his school's drama program by putting on a play he has written, an improbable sequel to Hamlet. To make matters even more absurd, the play involves time travel, and sets up situations in which figures such as Jesus and Einstein are able to populate the story. But premise (or promise, if you will) doesn't necessarily translate into anything especially funny, and Coogan's over-the-top, drama-queen performance got on my nerves. Even the usually spot-on Catherine Keener, as the embittered wife of Coogan's character, comes off poorly, and the whole movie builds toward a finale that strains for political incorrectness with inclusion of a musical number called "Rock me sexy Jesus." The only bit I found funny: An acerbic high school drama critic (Shea Pepe) provides steady humiliation for Coogan's Dana Marschz. Elizabeth Shue portrays herself, an actress who has taken up nursing as a second career. Shue couldn't coax this one into comic health, not for me.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Time flies when you're in the dark

Robert De Niro turned 65 Sunday. Age doesn't necessarily have anything to do with one's outlook, but I thought it would be interesting to check out the ages of some of the players who appeared with De Niro in "Mean Streets," (1973), still one of his best roles, as well as of some of the actors from other early De Niro movies: "Godfather: Part II" (1974) and "Taxi Driver" (1976). And I'm not even going to get into the actors who aren't with us anymore, names such as Peter Boyle (Wizard in "Taxi Driver"), John Cazale ("Fredo" in "Godfather: Part II"), Lee Strasberg (Hyman Roth in "Godfather: Part II"), Michael V. Gazzo (Frankie Pentangeli in "Godfather: Part II") and Bruno Kirby (Young Clemenza in "Godfather: Part II").

"MEAN STREETS." Director, Martin Scorsese, 65; Harvey Keitel, 69; and Amy Robinson, 60.
When I first saw "Mean Streets," I was working in Manhattan. I had to sneak off at lunch to catch an early show. That's right. I couldn't wait. I left the theater totally shattered, wandered the streets for what seemed like a long time and then returned to my office. I'd seen glimpses of people with whom I'd grown up in "Mean Streets," characters I never expected to reach the screen.

"GODFATHER: PART II." Director, Francis Ford Coppola, 69; Robert Duvall, 77; Al Pacino, 68; and Diane Keaton, 62.
I saw it on the day it opened in Manhattan. One of the few times an eagerly anticipated movie fulfilled and even surpassed my expectations.

"TAXI DRIVER." Cybill Shepherd, 58; Jodie Foster, 45; and Albert Brooks, 61.
I saw this one at the since vanished New Yorker Theater on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Powerful, disturbing, not fully digestible. To this day, I'm not sure I've made up my mind about Scorsese's searing, violent explosion of movie.

Enough said. Those are movies from the glory days of my cinema viewing. I'm not overly nostalgic for that time, but I'll never forget it either.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Zhang Yimou takes another Olympic hit

Do you suppose Zhang Yimou wishes he'd never heard of the Olympics? Doubtful, but the director of such great movies as "Raise the Red Lantern" and more recently of the martial arts epic "House of Flying Daggers" has taken a lot of heat since the opening-night ceremonies, which he directed. Early on, we had the lip-synching scandal (see Aug. 13 post). Now comes word, via The Hollywood Reporter, that the kids who marched into the stadium in various Chinese ethnic costumes weren't from those ethnic groups. All this may be minor stuff in the big scheme of things, assuming there is a big scheme of things, but I hate to see Zhang take a beating for things that seem entirely avoidable. What's next? Someone counted, and we find out that there were only 2007 drummers instead of 2008?

It may be Barcelona, but it's still Woody

Woody Allen visits Barcelona, and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe does the city justice. But Allen's new movie -- "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" -- features a less-than-appealing collection of Allen characters made even more irritating by a ubiquitous off-screen narration that seems like a substitute for real dramatic momentum.

"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is a definite improvement over Allen's lugubrious "Cassandra's Dream," but the movie's lightness may have more to do with its setting than with its subject or its execution. A fiery performance by Penelope Cruz, who gives the movie a much-needed kick in the pants, doesn't hurt either. Otherwise, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" amounts to 97 minutes of the usual Allen hand wringing over relationships.

This time, two friends (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) show up in Barcelona. They quickly run into Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a painter who boldly attempts to seduce both of them at the same time. Hall portrays Vicky, and it's her indecision that ladles trace elements of angst into the picture. Vicky's engaged to a successful Wall Street type, but her aroused passion -- she's not immune to Juan Antonio's charms -- threatens the stability of her engagement.

Vicky has a brief dalliance with Juan Antonio before Johansson's Cristina takes over. The relationship between Juan Antonio and Cristina seems to be going well until Juan Antonio's estranged wife (Cruz) shows up. Darned if they all don't begin living together in what seems to be a happy and apparently productive threesome.

Allen's shift to European locations has been a mixed blessing. It invigorated "Match Point," set in London, and it blows some warmth through "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," but it sometimes seems as if Allen simply has transposed his standard interests onto younger actors and foreign locations. Hall gives the least convincing performance; Johansson manages to be both pliant and assertive, and Bardem excels as an artist who softly speaks his mind, a roue who uses his lack of subterfuge as a defense against criticism.

"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" isn't a bad movie, but it can be a careless one. An example: Vicky is writing her master's thesis on Catalan identity, but doesn't speak Spanish. Hey, I know higher education has hit the skids (after all I teach at a university), but Vicky's ignorance makes no sense and it serves to make her a good deal less interesting.

Aside from Cruz's amusing histrionics, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" operates at a leisurely pace as it watches its characters make a variety of ill-fated connections. Taken in the entirety of Allen's work, it's little more than occasionally amusing footnote.


"Bottle Rocket" tells the story of a 1976 contest that established the legitimacy of California wines. The California wines beat French wines in a blind tasting held in France. The uplift that one obtains from this Napa Valley triumph proves satisfying, but the rest of the movie stumbles. Director Randall Miller muddies the waters with complications that never acquire much kick. Vintner Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) has a tense relationship with his son Bo (Chris Pine). Bo has an interest in a young woman (Rachael Taylor) who arrives to help with the wine business. Taylor's Sam has a dalliance with Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez), who works at the winery but strikes out on his own after an argument with Pullman's character. A Brit who's selling wine in France (Alan Rickman) dreams up the contest. Although none of this is especially compelling, the settings are picturesque, and, as is the way with these things, the end-of-picture contest boosts things considerably.

"Henry Poole Is Here." Director Mark Pellington has made a drab-looking inspirational movie with a Christian theme. Luke Wilson stars as Henry Poole, a deeply depressed man who moves into a home in a dreary California suburb. When a neighbor (Adriana Barazza) sees the face of Christ on an exterior wall of Poole's home, Poole's tale of redemption begins. Radha Mitchell plays Dawn, a neighbor and potential love interest. Morgan Lily portrays her daughter, a girl who no longer speaks. Pellington tries to keep the religious message from becoming too heavy handed, sustaining Poole's angry skepticism as long as he can. After a screening, a pal turned to me and asked, "Did a church pay for this?" The fact that he raised that question tells you a lot about this strangely uninspiring bit of inspirational moviemaking.
Note: When originally published the item on "Henry Poole" referred to Owen Wilson, not Luke Wilson. The error has been acknowledged and fixed. Apologies.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Who's voice was that anyway?

Another in an occasional series of commentaries on the power of images, this time from the Summer Olympics:

Turns out that 9-year-old Lin Miaoke was lip-synching "Ode to the Motherland" at the opening night ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. (Not so bad.) The actual singing was done by Yang Peiyi, 7, who reportedly was deemed insufficiently cute to stand before the billions who watched. (More disturbing.)

Check out this explanation from today's (Wednesday) New York Times: "The reason was for the national interest,” explained Chen Qigang, general music designer of the opening ceremonies, who revealed the deception Sunday during a radio interview. “The child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feeling and expression.”

How exactly can a kid be flawless in internal feeling with someone else's voice? I'm not sure, but I found Chen's statement a little unnerving. In the age of Photoshop, image manipulation has reached new heights, but the Chinese may have gone too far. (For an interesting and only marginally related discussion of the ethical problems stemming from the alteration of photos, see filmmaker Errol Morris' blog, which runs on the New York Times site.)

Chen's quote seems to underscore the heightened fear of blemish that ran through the massive opening ceremonies, which were totally impressive and which I watched with drop-jawed wonder, particularly because they were produced by one of my favorite directors Zhang Yimou. Zhang has given us such classic movies as "Red Sorghum," "Ju Dou" and "Raise the Red Lantern," and more recently, "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers."

Overall, I thought Zhang had attempted something amazing and particularly relevant to the Chinese moment; i.e., he seemed to be searching for an aesthetic in spectacles involving masses of people: 2008 drummers, for example. What better typifies the artist's role in a country that's home to more than one billion people? Inevitably, this kind of presentation tends to obscure individuality, but I'm not sure how much individuality is possible when one is working on a stadium-sized stage.

Still, the task of singing of "Ode to the Motherland" fell to one little girl. Surely the billions of people who tuned into the opening ceremonies would have been just as impressed by Yang as they were by Lin. Did Chen really think that the world believes that China's face (or the face of any other country for that matter) can be depicted as flawless? By that measure, my face -- and probably yours, too -- would be unsuitable for presenting the United States to the rest of the world. What kid would we choose?

Why not go with the girl who actually sang the song? I looked at Lin's picture in the Times, and she seemed like the absolutely perfect Lin to me. Flawless.

Say this, "Thunder" is loud

You're going to read a lot about "Tropic Thunder," a new Ben Stiller-directed comedy about a troupe of actors making an out-sized Vietnam War movie. Moments of smart satire will be hailed as evidence of stunning cleverness, and intermittent laughs will become riotous explosions for those who see this send-up of Hollywood vacuity as something special.

I suppose you can tell from my tone that I didn't buy it, although from time to time, I laughed, and I certainly was fascinated to watch Robert Downey Jr. play Kirk Lazarus, an Australian actor who has had his skin dyed so that he can portray a black man in the movie-within-a-movie. It's one stunt in a movie that's full of them. Downey's playing the best actor in the movie, which comes across convincingly because Downey is the best actor in the movie. There's also a real black actor (Brandon T. Jackson) who takes appropriate offense at Kirk's portrayal. Jackson's Alpa Cino doesn't get the joke.

Although Downey somehow manages to survive this bizarre turn, "Tropic Thunder" has a hit-and-miss quality, as well as the head-splitting amplification of a real action movie, which it more or less becomes by the end. And, yes, Stiller probably could direct a real macho hunk of action. He evidently has the chops for it.

A buffed-up Stiller appears as Tugg Speedman, an action-movie star whose career is foundering. Perhaps tiring of his role as a kick-ass muscle man, Tugg tried his hand at drama. In his previous picture, he played Simple Jack, a mentally challenged man. Critics roasted the movie, and Tugg's performance was greeted with derision. Groups representing the disabled have complained about the movie's use of the word "retard." Stiller and cohorts may have wanted to shatter the boundaries of political correctness, but picking on the mentally disabled? The joke is supposed to poke fun at the lengths actors will go to in order to garner awards attention, but you can bet that some of the laughter will be directed at the Simple Jack character and not at Hollywood pretensions.

To up the comic ante, Stiller brings in some heavy comic artillery: Jack Black appears as one of the actors; Matthew McConaghey portrays an agent; and Tom Cruise has a weird turn as a balding, Jewish producer. Cruise's mini-perforance likely will win him some praise, but it seemed like one more stunt to me, memorable mostly because we didn't know that Cruise could be made to look this bad.

I suppose "Tropic Thunder" manages to hold our interest because there's a sense of danger about it, as if it's about to spin out of control. But like the action movies that it's attempting to send up, "Tropic Thunder" also can get on your nerves. Thanks to a bizarre contrivance, the actors wind up fighting real dope smugglers. To add to the movie's insane velocity, Stiller has hired Nick Nolte to portray John "Four Leaf" Tayback, the author of the book that's being filmed by Stiller and company.

"Tropic Thunder" has a wildly preposterous spirit, but it's not nearly as daring as it might want to be. Yes, it takes some shots at Hollywood, but in the end, this satire lacks a really important target. Many in the audience already believe that actors have swollen egos that spring from rampant insecurities and that Hollywood is full of phony-baloney exploiters who want to drub us over the head with one blockbuster after another. "Tropic Thunder" does nothing to disabuse anyone of the notion. In that sense, it's increasingly obvious -- and bound to be a hit.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Boycott "Tropic Thunder?" Some say, yes

Usually, it's critics who try to warn people off movies, but in the case of the upcoming comedy, "Tropic Thunder," a coalition of disability groups is expected to call for a boycott.

Here's the scoop: The New York Times Monday reported that a coalition of groups representing the disabled was expected to ask audiences to avoid "Tropic Thunder," the Ben Stiller-directed comedy that's being released Wednesday and which received an early rave from David Ansen in Newsweek. "The funniest movie of summer," wrote Ansen.

The movie's main story line focuses on a group of actors who are making a kick-ass Vietnam War movie. Stiller appears as Speedman, an action star whose career may be foundering. In an effort, to branch out, Speedman previously appeared in a sappy and badly received drama called Simple Jack. He played a mentally challenged young man, who looks a bit like Mad Mgazine's Alfred E. Newman.

According to the Times, several groups objected to use the word "retard" in reference to Simple Jack. The movie's defenders say that "Tropic Thunder" is making fun of the ludicrous ambitions of actors, not of the disabled.

According to Defamer , the releasing studio -- DreamWorks-- pulled its mock Web site for Simple Jack, although it hasn't altered the movie. The joke site had been part of the studio's "complex interweaving of 'Tropic Thunder' tie-ins," wrote Defamer. The movie evidently was making an in-joke, lambasting actors who have played mentally challenged people in attempts to ingratiate themselves with audiences and with organizations that dispense year-end awards.

I guess it's fair to say that filmmakers who make comedies always run the risk of crossing a line that will offend someone, but when people who are offended voice their opinions, why not take a second look? The Times, for example, quoted David C. Tolleson, executive director of the National Down Syndrome Congress, as saying that he felt as if he'd been assaulted. (I felt a bit assaulted by Stiller's comedy, too, though probably not for the same reasons as Tolleson. More on that when I review the movie.)

Is this a non-issue? Some would say, yes. "Tropic Thunder" is satire and lots of folks are skewered by Stiller, who includes a fair measure of rude, crude humor. But if you've got a child who's mentally challenged or have spent the better part of your professional life trying to change attitudes toward the mentally disabled. I can understand why you weren't laughing when you saw the movie.

I tend to put such issues in the hands of the audience. Those who see "Tropic Thunder" and who know about the controversy now must decide whether the disabled community is over-reacting or whether viewers should take a closer look at what's making them laugh.

As for impact? I"m guessing a boycott will have little effect on a movie that's set to challenge "Dark Knight" for the nation's number one box-office spot.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Getting high on a wire -- really high

I've always been skittish about heights, so "Man on Wire" -- a documentary about Philippe Petit, the man who walked across a cable strung between the twin towers of the World Trade Center -- was a genuine white-knuckle experience for me. I watched the movie with my eyes, and felt it in my stomach.

You may remember this bit of 1974 insanity, which unfolded long before the World Trade Center became a symbol of something far more disturbing than a violation of common sense and city ordinances. Oddly, 9/11 never is mentioned in this generally fascinating documentary, which includes some recreated footage that's well done, but still may offend purists (I'm one) who think documentaries shouldn't contain wholesale recreations. On the other hand, this may be a time when an exception really does prove the rule. No one would have been able to photograph the real events that took place inside the World Trade Center in 1974, and seeing just how Petit's crew turned two buildings into a high-wire stage has an obvious value.

As for mentioning 9/11 ... The argument here presumes that director James Marsh wanted to take us back to the time when Petit was able to leave New Yorkers (and the rest of the country) gawking with wonder. Petit, a mime and daredevil by temperament and training, long had had his eye on the towers, which he learned about while perusing a magazine in a doctor's office. He read about the towers, and knew that he'd found his destiny.

After a variety of warm-up stunts (the Cathedral of Notre Dame among them), Petit enlisted a crew to help him sneak into the towers and string his cable. These sequences have compared to a good heist movie. Maybe so, but the reason to see "Man on a Wire" has more to do with the walk than with preparation. Footage of Petit on the wire is breathtaking, and it had me clutching the arms of my chair.

As an artist who's able to find poetry in his efforts, Petit -- who now resides in rural New York -- makes an able storyteller, and it's difficult not to appreciate the crazy courage it took for this Frenchmen to step off one of those towers onto a wire. Petit actually went back and forth eight times, as if to emphasize the sheer magnitude of what seems like the height of folly to those of us who prefer keeping two feet firmly planted on the ground. Petit, I suppose, would find such an idea dull, prosaic and perhaps even unthinkable.

Local publicists offered a variety of pre-release screenings of Nanette Burstein's "American Teen," but I wasn't able to get to one until the night before the picture opened. So here's my quick take: Burstein ("The Kid Stays in the Picture") has made an over-produced, disturbingly slick documentary about a year in the lives of four high school seniors in Warsaw, Ind. As if sent from central casting, the main characters fill out a roster of standard-issue teen types: the jock, the nerd, the super-popular princess and the rebellious girl. Some critics have suggested that some of the movie's scenes look as if they might have been staged. Maybe, but here's the good news: The stereotypes eventually give way to flesh-and-blood human beings who endure romantic heartbreak, anxiety about getting into college and rampant insecurity. I stayed with these characters as the year unfolded, but ultimately found the movie less moving than the best of director John Hughes' work (say, "The Breakfast Club") and less profound than Frederick Wiseman's 1968 documentary, "High School," which felt more like a bona fide cultural investigation than a documentary that fits a little too neatly into a teen-pic mold.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The stoner comedy makes a comeback

"Pineapple Express" almost makes one nostalgic for a time when many lived their lives through a thick haze of marijuana smoke. Of course, I don't know about this from personal experience, but I've read widely and have seen "Up In Smoke," the granddaddy of all stoner movies. I guess it's appropriate that "Pineapple Express," which marks a major departure for indie darling David Gordon Green ("George Washington," "All the Real Girls" and "Snow Angels"), arrives in theaters shortly after the announcement that Cheech & Chong again will be working together. Are we talking a pot resurgence here? Could this be the final the legacy of the Bush years?

Even though 'Pineapple Express" ultimately blames pot-smoking for the life-threatening predicaments in which its characters find themselves, it spends enough time in a rag-tag, pot-addled daze to earn a place in a growing pantheon of movies that take pride in their dishevelment. The movie draws its title from a rare form of marijuana that sets the plot in motion.

This time, Green -- whose hallmarks have been slow and sensitive movies with a feeling for place -- works with producer Judd Apatow, the comic hotshot whose movies ("Superbad" and "Knocked Up") have been known for gross-outs and bawdy humor. The movie also stars Apatow regular Seth Rogen, who plays a process server who spends most of his day stoned. Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who wrote the "Superbad" screenplay, turn out a script that teams Rogen with James Franco, as a pot dealer whose personality seems to have been molded by repeated viewings of "Dumb and Dumber."

Don't expect a tidy package. "Pineapple Express'' is part doper comedy and part action-film spoof. Thanks to a convoluted plot, Rogen and Franco spend most of the movie running for their lives. It seems they've gotten crosswise with a major dope dealer (Gary Cole) who's in cahoots with dirty cops.

Rogen's character has a girlfriend named Angie (Amber Heard), and jokes are made about the fact that she's still in high school. It should come as no surprise that Angie's parents (Ed Begley Jr. and Nora Dunn) are appalled by Rogen's character, who shows up at their home during his flight.

Rogen is Albert Brooks without the self-doubt, an actor whose comedy involves a tacit acknowledgement to the audience that they're watching a guy who's not afraid to let his sweat-stained personality show. Franco, who hasn't done much comedy, steals the show as a dopey dope dealer whose pants look like a psychedelic experience and whose intellect is...well....less than keen.

You'll find some graphic images here, and not every comic bit is fall-down funny, but the movie whips up enough laughs to keep it percolating, and Green holds it together even as its loosey-goosey tendencies threaten to blow it apart.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The strange message in a fortune cookie

I've been eating Chinese food ever since I was a kid and too young to get much beyond the mushy pleasures of chicken chow mein, usually accompanied by egg rolls and fried rice. Although I'm by no means an expert, I've since learned something about Chinese cuisine and am delighted that my home city, Denver, now has a few exceptional Chinese restaurants, one of them being the China Jade, which specializes in Szechuan-style dishes such as twice-cooked pork and eggplant with basil. I'm a fairly adventurous eater, but remain leery of any dish involving pig's intestines. I mention this only because many "authentic'' Chinese restaurants -- and the China Jade in one -- feature dishes that can offer a steep challenge to sensibilities that are squeamish about offal-related dishes. I've never tasted a chitterling, and probably never will.

But most of China Jade's fare need not be accompanied by offal alerts: As one of the restaurant's patrons told us during our last visit, the restaurant's food has punch, all of it delivered in a no-frills store front that appears to be a converted fast-food franchise. Actually, China Jade is located in a strip mall in Aurora, Colorado. Odd ethnic retail combinations lately have been popping up in such smaller malls. The same strip of stores that's home to China Jade also features a Ukrainian grocery and a French bakery.

Take all this as a lengthy preamble to the real subject of this post: fortune cookies.

Even authentic restaurants such as China Jade offer these more-or-less tasteless treats, usually dumping them on the tray that arrives with the bill. After the spicy enticements of a China Jade meal, a fortune cookie seems the ultimate anti-climax, and the messages most cookies deliver usually are as disposable as paper napkins. Fortune cookies generally proffer harmless aphorisms, optimistic predictions and flattering personality assessments. But every now and again, one is dazzled by the sheer lunacy one finds inscribed on a thin pice of paper that has been implanted in a cookie.

Years ago, a friend and I were dining in a Denver Chinese restaurant of no particular distinction: He received this fortune, which up until last week, was my favorite: "A close relative will travel in outer space." As far as I know, the cookie's prediction never came true. Still, it was instructive: A mixture of specificity and outlandishness make for the most amusing fortune cookies.

So here's one that I received at the China Jade last week: "Don't kiss an elephant on the lips today." If this admonition has special meaning in Chinese culture, it eluded me. But I particularly loved the fact that it was only a one-day warning. Presumably, I safely could have kissed an elephant on the lips the following day. I didn't put the theory to the test, but receipt of this warning reminded me that no cookie should be left uncracked. You just never know.

And while we're on the subject of Chinese food, a book recommendation: Must reading for enthusiasts, Fuchsia Dunlop's "Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper, A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China" (W.W. Norton & Company, 320 pp., $24.95). Dunlop, a Brit, trained at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. Her book is a good-humored ramble through a great cuisine and though Chinese culture as experienced by an eager and engaging Westerner. A quote: "Texture is the last frontier for Westerners learning to appreciate Chinese food. Cross it, and you're really inside." Among delicacies that Dulop sampled: tripe, chicken's feet and a clawed turtle's foot.

Friday, August 1, 2008

A slow march toward a final test

Consider the following: For most of your adult life you have rejected religion. You've worked hard to shed what you view as the stifling strictures of a church that seems to have been designed to drain life of its pleasures. But now, you've reached old age, and you're on your deathbed. Will your convictions hold? Will you remain faithful to your lack of faith or will you make a last-minute reach for salvation?

That question looms throughout "Brideshead Revisited," the latest adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel. In this much-abridged big-screen version, the characters can be divided into believers, non-believers and those who are uncertain. If this kind of rarefied subject matter -- very much alive to Waugh -- holds no interest for you, you may find yourself on the outside looking in as director Julian Jarrold's semi-successful movie unfolds.

Still, there's always decor: Replete with period trappings (the story unfolds in the years prior to World War I), "Brideshead" displays a doting fondness for days gone by, bathing itself in the customary aura of high culture. Jarrold has directed a work worthy of Merchant/Ivory, an assessment that can be taken as a compliment or a warning, depending on your tastes.

"Brideshead Revisited" became one of Waugh's best known novels, thanks mostly to the 11-part miniseries that played on PBS in the 1981, and which featured a stellar cast: Jeremy Irons, Claire Bloom, Anthony Andrews, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier. Working with a talented but less renowned group of actors, Jarrold whittles Waugh's story into a slightly irregular love triangle between Charles (Matthew Goode) and a brother and sister of the Flyte family (Ben Whishaw and Hayley Atwell).

In the early going, Charles -- a non-believer -- pops off to Oxford where he meets Whishaw's Sebastian, a gay sophisticate who draws Charles into his lively circle of friends.

Perhaps craving more intimacy, Sebastian invites Charles to visit his country estate, Brideshead Castle. There, Charles is smitten by Sebastian's sister, Julia (Atwell). Charles' attraction to Julia can't help but bruise Sebastian deeply. Thus begins the downward spiral of the brilliant young Sebastian, who slips ever deeper into alcoholism. Sebastian ultimately travels to Morocco where he lives in physical and moral squalor until he finds shelter in a monastery.

Both Sebastian and Julia are part of a family that has split. Presiding over the English half of the clan is the severely Catholic Lady Marchmain (a fine Emma Thompson). Having rejected what he regards as the stultifying Catholicism of Brideshead, Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon) has fled to Venice where he has taken up with another woman (Greta Scacchi) and become an advocate for sybaritic pleasures. The always remarkable Gambon presents Lord Marchmain as the very picture of easy-going indulgence.

Jarrold and writers Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies build the story around Charles, who aspires to be a painter. Charles' ambiguity becomes a source of both interest and frustration. What precisely attracts Charles to Sebastian? The young man's charm? His aristocratic wealth? The plush surroundings of a family that's significantly more established than Charles' own? Charles' father, a man who seems cheerfully oblivious to just about everything, hardly looks up from his work when his son leaves for Oxford.

The homosexual currents in Waugh's novel are more pronounced here than they were in the PBS series, but still appear as somewhat vague. However, the Flyte siblings -- each of whom alternately captures Charles' attention -- are well played: Whishaw makes a convincing transition from buoyancy to despair, and Atwell proves a suitably elusive object of desire.

Condensation -- as opposed to artistic ambiguity -- leads to some of the movie's problems, and the whole production never rises to the level of a classic.

The story ends with the outbreak of World War I and the apparent collapse of the Flyte way of life. Curious isn't it? The suffocating elitism of the upper classes, the upwardly mobile yearnings of those who crave privilege and the rigidity of believers who perch on barricades of religious certainty should have produced a work of urgency and passion instead of one that seems a little too covered by literary dust.


"Swing Vote," a new comedy starring Kevin Costner, tells the story of Bud Johnson, an alcoholic father who finds himself in an extraordinary situation. Turns out a voting-machine glitch has created a situation in which Bud's lone vote will decide a presidential election that quite improbably has ended in a dead heat.

Putting such an irresponsible character in the middle of a Capraesque comedy may seem like a bold move, but little about "Swing Vote" struck me as daring, particularly its refusal to adopt anything resembling a real position. Maybe that's because the movie can't make up its mind whether to criticize "dumb-ass" American voters or turn one of them into a hero. I guess it's no surprise that the movie ultimately argues that even a wastrel can take citizenship seriously. By the end, Bud has become a spokesman for ordinary folks everywhere.

Throughout the movie, Bud's goaded toward responsibility by his down-to-earth, 12 year-old daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll). She basically has taken on the role of the adult in the family. Mom, we learn, has flown the coop. In a late picture scene, we learn why Molly lives with her father. Turns out Mom (Mare Winningham) is even worse.

Though its deployed in obvious ways, satire may be the movie's strong suit. "Swing Vote" has fun with the notion that candidates will do anything to win. Kelsey Grammer portrays the Republican president, and Dennis Hopper plays the Democratic challenger. Each candidate has an unscrupulous adviser: Stanley Tucci strategizes for the Republican; Nathan Lane handles dirty work for the Democrat.

In their efforts to appeal to Bud, the candidates visit the small New Mexican town where he lives, and, in the bargain, flip flop all over the place. Their changing positions result in one sharply funny pro-life campaign ad. But the movie does its own brand of shape-shifting, moving from intentionally dumb comedy to equal-opportunity satire to serious drama.

Oh well, Bud's slovenly look may have penetrated the movie's core: Like Bud, "Swing Vote" provides a few laughs, but overall, it's a pretty shabby effort.