Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The bumpy path from book to film

Last night, I received an agitated email from a friend who was gravely disappointed by "Revolutionary Road," a movie my friend had just seen at a preview. The movie -- already open in New York and Los Angeles -- begins its Denver run Friday.

A fan of the Richard Yates' novel on which the film is based, my friend experienced something I've frequently felt after seeing a big-screen adaptation of a book that meant something to me. Call it "reader rage," the conviction that a long-cherished work has been betrayed by filmmakers who mostly missed the point.

I'm reviewing "Revolutionary Road" for the Rocky Mountain News Friday, but I'll offer a brief preview of coming attractions. I thought director Sam Mendes ("American Beauty") and his two stars (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) turned out a legitimate and even worthy interpretation of Yates' much-admired novel. My review, though qualified, will be positive.

My friend didn't see it that way.

For those who don't know, "Revolutionary Road" is a 1950s story about Frank and April Wheeler, two suburbanites who watch the promise of youth gradually slip away from them. April -- played with raw honesty by Winslet -- devises a plan that represents a pathway to secular salvation. Frank and April and their two children will move to Paris. The hope: He'll escape the stultifying routine of a job he hates, and she'll experience a much-needed sense of renewal. Clearly, things don't go according to plan.

So what were my friend's objections to Mendes' approach, which I admit tends to be a bit too arty for its own good.

First, a casting error. My friend thought DiCaprio looked too young to be playing a jaded office worker who staves off boredom by philandering with women from the secretarial pool. I. too, thought, DiCaprio looked younger than Winslet, but it didn't bother me. When Winslet begins to gather April's rage, she practically blows DiCaprio off the screen. This is not so much about any weakness in DiCaprio's performance but about interpretation. DiCaprio's playing a character who's ill equipped to deal with his wife's unfolding fury. This is a slightly different twist from the book, but it's reasonable and, I thought, interesting.

Second, my friend objected to the fact that one of the Wheelers' neighbors -- a man named Shep --has a severely reduced presence in the movie. True, and this may have been a mistake. My friend also thought that the Wheeler children received short shrift. Also, true, but this didn't bother me. Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe have done what adapters should do. They've identified what they see as the core of the novel (the Wheelers' failing marriage) and stripped away most everything else. Mendes does evoke a view of the '50s as a kind of conformist hell, but the pain of the movie has more to do with the Frank and April's insufficiencies than with post-War American disillusionment. I thought that the movie had a sad essence of its own.

Here's a disturbing thought, which I pointed out in a reply to my friend's email: Yates' work may not be widely known for good reason. Some of his concerns have dated. He offers -- in more harrowing fashion than the movie to be sure -- a cameo view of certain kinds of presumptions about life as it began to evolve in the '50s. About 20 years ago, I went on a Yates binge, and I skimmed through "Revolutionary Road" after I saw the movie, re-reading key passages. Is the movie as good as the novel? Hardly. Why? It's certainly arguable that Yates was a better writer than Mendes is a filmmaker.

Still, I didn't feel the same kind of reader rage that brought my blood to a boil when I saw "Elegy," which -- for me -- represented a disastrous misreading of Philip Roth's short novel, "The Dying Animal." I guess what I'm saying is that "Revolutionary Road" struck me as an admirable adaptation of Yates' novel, although it certainly is not without flaws.

I also pointed out to my friend that those who find themselves in the opposite camp may want to read Manohla Dargis' review of "Revolutionary Road," which ran in The New York Times on Dec. 26. Dargis makes the best case for those who leave the theater dejected -- not because of the painful on-screen battling between Frank and April but because of what they see as another squandered movie opportunity.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Ten of 2008's best movies -- maybe

Just about everyone needs a year-end, 10-best list, although I'm hard-pressed to say why. The temptation, of course, is to review the year, say a few grandiose things about the state of ... well ... things. "Movies never have been worse." "They're not as bad as you might have thought". "There's hope." "No, there's not." The occasion seems to encourage critics to say something that attempts to sum up the state of the art while indulging the peculiarities of their own varied tastes.

One is supposed to reiterate matters such as one's reluctance to go along with the critical embrace of Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." Or perhaps one could reminisce about the documentaries that made a strong impression, "Man on Wire" or "Encounters at the End of the World." Or one could join the chorus of celebration that has risen around "Wall-E," a movie that struck a nerve with critics who saw something that transcended the boundaries of animation and catapulted the movie into the rarefied spheres of art.

Or -- and this is where I fall -- one could simply offer 10 movies (an arbitrary number that honors tradition) that one actually might want to see again, although I must confess that there is no movie on my list that attained anything like perfection.

1. Synecdoche, New York." I'm one of those people who usually sees the other side of the story, whether I want to or not. I understand why many rejected writer/director Charlie Kaufman's overly long, somewhat abstract look at the futile creative life of a deeply troubled theater director (Philip Seymour Hoffman). At times the movie seemed confusing. And, yes, at times it even seemed to lose touch with itself. But Kaufman bravely led the charge into cinema's valley of death, engaging a subject that definitely puts you off your popcorn. You will age. You will accomplish little. You will die. You will be forgotten. Happy New Year!

2. "The Class." Ah the French. Just when you've given up on them, they come up with something surprising and fresh. Director Laurent Cantet took his cameras inside a French school where multi-ethnic haggling seemed to be the main course of study. François Bégaudeau, who had actually spent time in classrooms, played a teacher trying to get through a year in a Parisian school with a diverse population. This realistic look at the life of a school preferred honesty to inspiration and made me wish for an American equivalent.

3. "Slumdog Millionaire." Some criticized director Danny Boyle's efforts to use slum life in Mumbai as a springboard for the year's most aggressively energetic feel-good ending. But, damn, if he didn't succeed. He also captured a sense of what makes contemporary India tick, its mixture of insane materialism, religious conflict, abiding poverty and irrepressible energy. At first blush, the movie's energy may seem like so much cinematic gimmickry, but it also may be an accurate reflection of a city's overflowing soul.

4. "Frost/Nixon." Ron Howard kept Peter Morgan's play from feeling stage bound and captured a towering, overstated and brilliantly dour performance from Frank Langella as Richard M. Nixon. Some thought Langella went over the top. Others may have been put off by the fact that Langella doesn't really look like the Tricky Dick of memory. But he gave Nixon something he may not have deserved: A sense of tragedy that was nearly Shakespearean in its mixture of venality, arrogance, fallibility and unquenchable resentment.

5. "The Order of Myths." Director Margaret Brown made a documentary about Mardi Gras. No, not that Mardi Gras, but the one that takes place in Mobile, Ala. In examining this highly ritualized annual event, Brown's documentary revealed the abiding (if not always virulent) racism of a city that's at once impressed by its one gentility and just maybe ready to move beyond it -- at least a little. By stepping totally inside this strangely insulated world, Brown revealed its pleasures, peculiarities and contradictions.

6. "Milk." Director Gus Van Sant's big-screen biography of Harvey Milk brought out something we haven't seen much in characters played by Sean Penn, a strain of fundamental decency. Penn excelled as Milk, and Josh Brolin was equally good as Dan White, the man who murdered Milk. Van Sant fans may have found the movie a trifle prosaic (I know I did), but "Milk" showed that there are rare instances when politics do make strange bedfellows, Milk and the San Francisco teamsters, for example. I'd call that really reaching across the aisle.

7. "The Edge of Heaven." Director Fatih Akin again explores the relationship between Turkey and the rest of Europe, particularly Germany, in a multi-layered story about characters who move between two worlds. "The Edge of Heaven'' continued the interest that Akin expressed in his shattering 2004 movie "Against the Wall," and ratified his status as one of the few filmmakers working today who's able to deal with topical issues in entirely human and non-didactic ways.

8. "A Christmas Tale." Director Arnaud Desplechin made a family drama unlike any we've seen before, packing the screen with difficulties that ranged from terminal illness to lost children to intra-family rivalry. I know, it all sounds familiar, but the result felt fresh and exciting. Like many others this year, Desplechin allowed his movie to go on far too long, but for much of it, I felt an exhilaration I hadn't experienced in a long time, the excitement that derives from being unable to wait for the arrival of the next shot.

9. "Let The Right One In." Swedish director Tomas Alfredson made the most original vampire movie in a long time. But the real trick about making a vampire movie is to ensure that it's about other things. Set in a cold, unforgiving world, "Let The Right One In," tells the story of a lonely, alienated boy who meets a neighbor girl who turns out to be a vampire. Alfredson's movie proves emotionally and intellectually chilling right up to an ending that invites us to look ahead and imagine something as horrible as anything we've already witnessed.

10. "Woman on the Beach." Korean director Hong Sang-hoo told the story of a fictional writer/director who visits a Korean beach resort during the off- season. The director travels to this lonely spot with his favorite production designer, a young man who insists on bringing his girlfriend. This quiet exploration of relationships and the role ego plays in love and art makes the list because it hardly played in American theaters. I spotted it as a film of interest at a recent Toronto Film Festival where many other movies received far more -- and less deserved -- attention.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Reading the German past

No one's likely to accuse director Stephen Daldry ("The Hours") of taking the easy way out. Daldry seems to favor big-screen adaptations of film-resistant books. In 2002, he tackled "The Hours," Michael Cunningham's complex 1998 novel that centered on three lives connected by Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway." This year, Daldry turns his attention to "The Reader," a novel by German author Bernhard Schlink that sets a large table as it attempts to deal with sex, collective memory and the Holocaust. Although the novel revolves around a torrid May/December romance between a 15 year old German boy and a woman who's more than twice his age, Daldry's adaptation seems shorter on eroticism than on middle-brow earnestness.

On screen, the story begins by indulging a common adolescent male fantasy. Young Michael Berg (David Kross) becomes sick on his way home from school. A voluptuous woman (Kate Winslet) rushes to his aid. It turns out that Michael has scarlet fever. When he recovers, he visits the woman's modest flat to thank her. It doesn't take long for the two to begin an affair. Winslet's Hanna, who earns her living collecting fares on trolley cars, tutors Michael in the sexual arts. She also insists that her young lover read aloud to her, an activity that gives the story its core meaning.

This story is framed by our introduction to an older version of Michael, played by Ralph Fiennes, who draws inward almost as deeply as he did in David Cronenberg's brilliant "Spider." Young Michael's openness seems entirely to have vanished by the time we see Fiennes. Years after his affair with Hanna, the divorced Michael practices law and has an uneasy relationship with a grown daughter who adds thematic weight in the final going.

Michael grows into a care-worn adult, but his youth wasn't trouble free, either. His affair with Winslet's character eventually hit some rough spots. One day, Hanna packed her meager belongings and disappeared. The story, which begins in 1958, then moves forward to 1966. Michael (still played by Kross) has become a law student in Heidelberg. He's studying with a professor (Bruno Ganz) who takes a small group of students to a trial at which several female Nazi prison guards are being prosecuted.

The stage is set for Daldry to deal with the difficulties a post-war German generation had in coming to grips with the Nazi past. "The Reader" extends beyond Michael's sexual adventures to confront impossibly difficult moral issues, an approach that, at first blush, seems like a virtue, but which, in the long run, raises as many questions as it settles.

If German authors wish to explore the guilt and denial connected with the Holocaust, German filmmakers probably ought to follow suit. This English-language production never really feels as if a scab is being ripped off a societal wound. The mixture of attraction and later revulsion that Michael feels for Winslet's Hanna makes her as much a symbol as a flesh-and-blood being, this despite ample baring of Winslet's naked body. Oh, hell, why be coy? Hanna was a concentration camp guard, an occupation that turns Michael's youthful lust into something sick and regrettable. The past ambushes him in ways he never could have imagined; he's unable to own it.

Toward the end of the film, the grown Michael travels to New York City for a conversation with a Holocaust survivor (Lena Olin). Olin's character injects a tone of intellectual rigor into the proceedings, and Michael finally seems able to understand something about German guilt and the need to acknowledge past horrors.

Well and good, but after watching the movie, you may not know exactly how you're supposed to feel. I'm not suggesting that Daldry should have spoon fed us the movie's emotions, but that his movie can seem more interested in carrying literary weight than in digging through the tormented remains of history. David Hare, who wrote the screenplay for "The Hours," wrote this one as well, and it unfolds with a steadiness that may be inappropriate to the dizzying array of emotions that might have been elicited.

In a way, "The Reader" adds to a climate of mild revisionism about Nazi Germany that seems to be gripping the screen at the moment -- here and in movies such as "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas." Neither Shlink's novel nor the resultant movie allows Winslet's Hanna a full measure of redemption, but the movie creates a kind of odd sympathy for her. It's a sympathy that this character, no matter how well played by Winslet, can't possibly earn. Toward the end of the movie, Hanna tells Michael, who finally visits her in prison, that her feelings are unimportant because the dead are still dead. It's a great line, and, oddly, it comes close to obliterating the movie's entire reason for being.


And while we're on the subject of the German past, another movie marches into the Christmas fray. In "Valkyrie," Tom Cruise plays Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, a key figure in a 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler. Von Stauffenberg and his cohorts figured the war was lost and wanted to negotiate a quick peace agreement, details of which weren't entirely commendable and which are not discussed in a movie that's meant to show...well...I'm not sure what. That some Germans were heroes?

As directed by Bryan Singer ("Superman Returns" and the X-Men movies), "Valkyrie" moves quickly and includes a broad array of characters played by some terrific actors, notably Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Terrence Stamp. But a screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander keeps characterization to a minimum, preferring instead to treat the movie less as a historical exploration than a thriller with German uniforms.

Cruise, of course, portrays the hero of the story, a German officer and aristocrat who abhors Hitler, played here by David Bamber. Von Stauffenberg joins with a coterie of German officers in a plan that not only aims to topple Hitler, but also to set up a replacement government for Hitler's inner circle. Singer and company do an interesting job showing the aftermath of the attempted coup, the chaos that spread through Berlin when word of Hitler's death reached the city. It wasn't immediately clear that a bomb planted by von Stauffenberg at Wolf's Lair hadn't gotten the job done. Nighy particularly excels as Gen. Friedrich Olbricht, an officer whose indecision and overly cautious approach might have doomed the coup, which could have toppled Hitler's government even though Hitler survived.

Like the conspirators who plotted against Hitler, Singer and company don't quite get the job done, either, and, as is the case with "The Reader," a German production might have been more interesting. "Valkyrie" takes place during a dark historical moment. At one point, von Stauffenberg -- who only once is seen giving the Nazi salute and then sardonically -- suggests that the concentration camps be closed as soon as Hitler had been dispatched. I wondered, though, whether some of these admirably rebellious officers would have been so quick to scorn Hitler had it not already become apparent that Germany would lose the war.

A minor question: How did von Stauffenberg and his wife (Carice Van Houten) -- both played by actors with dark hair --manage to have nothing but blond children?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Cleaning up Dirty Harry

I admit it. I don't get it. The praise -- immoderate and enthusiastic -- that has been heaped on Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino" has me scratching my head.

Because Eastwood both stars in and directed "Gran Torino," the movie has been hailed as a kind of valedictory for the iron-faced icon, who's now 78. As Walt Kowalski, retired autoworker and recent widower, Eastwood creates an unlikely mind meld between Dirty Harry and Archie Bunker. Kowalski, an unapologetic racist, spews slurs at his Hmong neighbors, people who hail from South East Asia and who moved to the U.S. after the Vietnam War. They were on our side, but that's not enough to deliver them from Walt's wrath.

But no movie -- even one made by someone who's unafraid of political incorrectness - can linger inside Walt's racist attitudes for its entirety. Nick Schenk's script eventually allows Walt to explore his bigotry and his violent tendencies, and "Gran Torinio" turns into one more Eastwood movie that insists on examining the consequences of violence. Many will view the movie (and perhaps rightly so) as another big-screen atonement for an early career in which Eastwood played brutal characters such as The Man With No Name. In those days, Eastwood wasn't so much an actor as he was a collection of tics and sneers. That's still true, but age has put some real weight behind those tics and sneers. Enough already. We get it. Violence is bad for the soul.

The story, which is set in Detroit, focuses on the relationship between Walt and two of his neighbors, an insecure young man (Bee Vang) and his sister (Ahney Her). Hmong gang members are doing their best to recruit Van's Thao. As part of his initiation they order him to steal Walt's cherished 1972 Gran Torino, which has been kept in mint condition. After the robbery goes wrong, Thao develops a relationship with the reluctant Walt, who's slow to drop his racism and even less interested in listening to the baby-faced local priest (Christopher Carley) who urges him toward confession.

Eastwood delivers certain kinds of lines with more venom than anyone else. "Get off my lawn," he warns a group of Hmong toughs, aiming a rifle at them and threatening to blow them to smithereens. But some of Walt's targets are too easy. After all, how much gumption does it take for a man with Dirty Harry's sarcasm to go toe-to-toe with a priest who looks young enough to have just graduated from high school. And the movie feels totally predictable when Walt confronts a group of young black men who are threatening Her's character. Walt does everything to intimidate them but tell them to go ahead and make his day.

Eastwood being tough always has some kick, but this kind of movie wields a double-edged sword. Those who will find Walt's racism amusing are given a free pass to yuck it up as he calls his Hmong neighbors gooks and slopes. (Why they're so good-natured about these slurs is beyond me.) At the same time, the movie goes to great pains to make sure that we know it doesn't share Walt's views and even forces Walt to admit that he might be wrong about a few things. At one point, he says he feels closer to his earnest Hmong neighbors than to either of his two sons.

"Gran Torino" no doubt will connect with audiences, but I'd rank it low on the Eastwood totem poll, a bland-looking and not entirely credible effort when compared with Eastwood masterpieces such as "Mystic River." Make no mistake; I've been an Eastwood fan since the Dirty Harry days and before. I don't need another lecture, though, on the awful, soul-shattering consequences of violence -- not from a movie with more than its share of sitcom dialogue.

In one scene, Walt takes young Thao to meet the local barber (John Carrol Lynch). He wants to teach the boy how to interact with men -- by which he means white ethnic men. Walt and the Barber trade ethic slurs in a gruff but supposedly good-natured way. This scene -- perhaps intended as the movie's funniest -- seemed so self-consciously concocted that I wondered why Eastwood, a man whose movie taste can be impeccable, didn't hide it under a rock.

"Button" up for a long, sad ride

At the beginning of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," a man invents a clock that runs backward. He installs this regressive timepiece in a prominent spot at the local train station. His intention is silly but oddly noble. If time moves backward perhaps we can recover the lives of young men lost during World War I. Of course, the backward-moving clock also stands as a metaphor for what's about to happen to the movie's main character.

I'm sick of symbolic gestures in movies, but I let the business about the clock pass, hoping I'd become absorbed in "Benjamin Button's" rhythms regardless of which way its clock happened to be running. But for too much of its 167-minute running time, "Benjamin Button" feels as if the clock's not running at all. David Fincher, a director with a taste for edgy and weird drama, takes a radical step away from his strong suit for a movie that doesn't really kick in until Cate Blanchett shows up and -- single-handedly, I think -- turns the proceedings into a mildly poignant romance.

Although "Benjamin Button" is an impressively massive undertaking, I found little reward in watching Benjamin, the movie's main character, evolve backward -- from a tiny, wizened and incredibly ugly infant (his birth) to a sweet-looking baby (just before his death). Benjamin is born an old man in a tiny body. He goes through old age and middle age before turning into a handsome young man played by Brad Pitt.

At least, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote the short story on which the movie very loosely is based, had the good sense not let things drag on and, then, on some more. (Read the story on line.)

I'd say I struggled through roughly half of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," an admittedly good looking movie with lots of intriguing digital effects, particularly when it comes to playing games with perspective. I warmed to the rest, but can't say that "Button," which was shot on digital video, is the emotional blockbuster that may have been intended. I'd be surprised if "Benjamin Button" is omitted from Oscar's best-picture short list, but I propose that all talk of a masterpiece be chalked up to seasonal overstatement. And, yes, there's a lot of it going around.

With nary a serial killer in sight, Fincher ("Se7en" and "Zodiac") moves as close as he can to sentiment in a tale that attempts to deal with love, loss and the transient nature of...well...just about everything.

Fincher has taken on a difficult task. In truth, Benjamin Button -- the character at the center of Fincher's mini-epic -- isn't all that interesting. He's the kind of empty vessel that already has prompted some to compare "Benjamin Button" to another popular epic, "Forrest Gump." But for Button, played for most of the movie by Pitt, life isn't like a box of chocolates; it's like a balloon that deflates, exhaling sad vapors as it shrivels.

Although much of the movie can be turgid, I'd certainly like to see more of Taraji P. Henson, who plays the woman who takes Benjamin in after his father (Jason Flemyng) abandons him at the doorstep of an old age home. Benjamin's mother has died in childbirth, and dad, taking one look at his withered son, is repelled by what surely must be the most hideous baby ever, a miniature replica of an old man that looks as if it might have sprung from the mind of David Lynch. No question, the early scenes are technically interesting, but that's not enough to turn a movie into a classic.

As time marches on, the baby begins to look more recognizably human. In his backward march -- somewhere around the age of 50 -- Benjamin comes into contact with a variety of characters, including a hard-drinking tugboat captain (Jared Harris) who takes him to Russia. There he meets a British swimmer (Tilda Swinton) with whom he has an affair. Benjamin's also enlisted -- along with the rest of the tug's crew -- to fight in World War II. A walk down this kind of picaresque path should be revealing, but the movie seems less interested in saying something about WWW II than in noting that Benjamin participated. It's as if the screenplay raises a semaphore: See, history is happening!

The best thing about "Benjamin Button" are the peripherals. The costumes, make-up and effects are first-rate, but emotional involvement remains low as Fincher concentrates on the Olympian view. I perked up when the movie gets around to telling us the story of how Benjamin woos the love of his life (Cate Blanchett's character), someone he knew in childhood and who has grown up to be a ballet dancer.

All of this is revealed through a framing device. Blanchett's Daisy tells Benjamin's story to her grown daughter (Julia Ormond) just before dying in a New Orleans hospital that's about to be besieged by a hurricane that not only brings wind and rain, but heavy metaphoric weather. Had Fincher, working from a script by Eric Roth (who wrote "Forrest Gump"), begun the movie about an hour and a half-in, he might have sounded a truly heartbreaking chord.

But "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" rattles on for two hours and 47 minutes. There's more movie than meat here. and that, in my estimation, will remain true whether "Benjamin Button" wins a best-picture Oscar nomination or not.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Seven reasons to forget "Seven Pounds"

Yeah, I've seen "Seven Pounds," the new movie that reunites Will Smith with Gabriele Muccino, who directed him in 2007's "Pursuit of Happyness." This time, Smith -- joined by Rosario Dawson -- brings an inspirational weepy to the multiplex -- and, no, it's not much good. Smith plays Ben Thomas, a guy who visits a bunch of folks as a murky story unfolds. Smith's supposed to be an IRS agent, but instead of driving people crazy about their taxes, he tries to help them. The plot is structured as a mystery so that we're not sure what's motivating Thomas' actions until the very end. Here are seven reasons why I'm not writing anything more about this downbeat, logic-challenged movie.

-- I haven't finished reading today's New York Times.
-- I also haven't finished Julian Barnes' "Nothing To Be Frightened Of," a wonderfully written book that's part memoir and part philosophical speculation about death.
--I don't want to ponder why Will Smith looks different in this movie. The hair? The teeth? If I do, then I'll have to consider why Tom Cruise looked a little weird the other night on David Letterman. Loss of weight?
--I have a cold.
--I refuse to think ill of Rosario Dawson.
--Given the state of the economy, I don't need additional reasons to feel depressed.
--If I were going to shed tears, it would be for the declining fortunes of American newspapers, including the one where I used to work.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

There's room for "Doubt"

I grew up with lots of kids who attended Catholic schools. Sometimes, we'd play basketball in the playground that adjoined the Epiphany Church school, where my pals learned the so-called four Rs -- reading, writing, arithmetic and, of course, religion. I'd occasionally see nuns scurrying off after the final bell had rung. From friends who attended the school, I knew a few nuns by reputation. I'd heard stories about knuckles rapped with rulers. To me, the nuns seemed to divide into two general categories, those who looked sweet and those who looked fierce. It wasn't always easy to tell which nun fell into which category because they all wore habits that tended to obscure personal identity, and, to tell you the truth, I was glad I only had to observe these cloistered women from afar.

Both kinds of nuns-- sweet and sour -- are reperesented in John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt," a movie set largely in a Catholic school in the Bronx and which obtains mixed results by mingling telling details of a 1960s parochial school experience with deep philosophical questions about the nature of certainty.

Meryl Streep, sporting another pronounced accent, plays Sister Aloysius, the school's principal. Sister Aloysius is the kind of nun who slaps kids on the back of the head if they're caught dozing during mass. She wants the kids to fear her. To that end, she has learned all the tricks that ensure that they will. She encourages a younger teacher to hang a picture of the pope just above the blackboard. When the younger teacher asks why, Sister Aloysius explains that it will enable this newbie nun to see her charges reflected in the glass while she's writing on the board. That way, says Sister Aloysius, the kids will think you have eyes in the back of your head. To sister Aloysius, the ballpoint pen is tantamount to an instrument of the devil, something that signals a diabolical decline in penmanship. She views "Frosty the Snowman" as an abomination because it encourages a belief in magic. Snowmen, as we all know, do not really come to life.

The younger and sweeter teacher (Amy Adams) is called Sister James. She has entered the church during a time of change, and she's softer and easier on the kids. She's too young to be suspicious of her charges, and as Adams portrays her, she's a woman who occasionally tempers her naivete with displays of conviction.

There's lots of well-observed detail in Shanley's adaptation of his own play, but Shanley, who also directed, has big thematic fish to fry and he's not especially interested in writing a memory play about his Catholic youth. Instead, he raises tough questions that show how difficult it can be to discover anything resembling absolute truth. To do this end, he introduces another character, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

As a result of a series of vaguely apprehended events, Sister Aloysius begins to suspect that Father Flynn is molesting the young man (Joseph Foster II) who happens to be the school's first and only black student. For his part, Father Flynn knows that the winds of change are starting to blow, and he's interested in establishing what he views as a more welcoming environment within the Church. At the same time, he's seen with older priests, laughing and enjoying a dinner, clearly at home in the Church's old-boy network.

At best, the evidence against Father Flynn is shaky, and he insists on his innocence. Sister Aloysius doesn't buy it; she wants to get Father Flynn away from the children, and she works at her goal with wily persistence.

Shanley, of course, doesn't want to answer the most obvious question: Did Father Flynn molest the boy? Instead, he creates ambiguity around key plot points and even goes so far as to reveal that the boy in question already has developed homosexual tendencies. In one of the movie's pivotal scenes, Streep meets with the boy's mother (Viola Davis), who (quite surprisingly) wants the boy to remain in the school no matter what. Davis' performance has been singled out in many reviews, and she's likely to find herself nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar.

The boy in question becomes a pawn in Shanley's theatrical game, a drama centering on Streep, Hoffman and Adams. Streep's performance tends toward the showy, but she also reveals the caring side of Sister Aloysius, who can be hell on students, but who seems solicitous and even tender with the school's older nuns. Adams' Sister James has a more compassionate approach to Flynn. The movie's title tips us to the possibility that Shanley wants to wag his finger at those who insist that their points of view -- and only their points of view -- are right. He then makes that point echo through the hallways of an institution where discipline often seems to trump inquiry.

Shanley may wish to oppose two kinds of child abuse, one that is sexual and direct; the other draconian and far less apparent, a rigid suppression of individuality. Many scenarios are possible. Suppose, for example, Father Flynn is gay, but refuses to act on his sexual impulses. Suppose that he identifies with his young charge and with the suffering that comes from being a gay person in a difficult environment. Suppose that this is the extent of his "crime," feeling a special bond with a boy he never abused physically. Suppose that Father Flynn is deeply (and justifiably) upset by the way children at the school are bullied by a principal who refuses to see her charges as anything but potentially rebellious spirits who must be controlled.

That kind of discussion helps make "Doubt" a worthy and absorbing enterprise, but I couldn't help wondering whether Father Flynn was a pedophile. Maybe I'm being too literal here. I understand that there are matters about which I (and no one else) ever can be entirely certain. Criminal abuse of children may not be one of them. For me, that weakens Shanley's movie, though not beyond redemption.


For a time, Jim Carrey seemed to rule the box-office world of comedy. Now comes, "Yes Man," Carrey's latest, which arrives this Christmas with all the urgency of an afterthought. At times, "Yes Man" is cute. At times, it offers chuckles. At no time does it seem fall down funny. Mostly, it's forgettable. Carrey plays Carl Allen, a bank loan officer who fills his life with negative responses to just about everything. One day a friend coerces him into attending a seminar given by a self-help guru (Terrence Stamp) who advises devotees to say "yes" to anything that crops up in their meager lives. Carrey's Allen follows this ridiculous prescription of ascent, which leads him into a variety of comic adventures. He also finds love with a flaky singer and amateur photographer (Zooey Deschanel) who responds to his devil-may-care attitude. Given all the serious movies that are lighting up Hollywood's tree this year, "Yes Man" might just click with audiences, but it's pretty much a one-joke affair that even the rubber-faced Carrey can't stretch into something robust and rewarding.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Shaking hands with the devil

When Richard M. Nixon shows up for a taping of his famed interviews with British TV personality David Frost -- in the new movie "Frost/Nixon" -- James Restin Jr., a young academic and researcher who regarded Nixon as the embodiment of anti-democratic evil, is asked whether he's going to shake hands with the Great Satan of Watergate.

Of course not, says Restin. But then RMN enters the room, a clear and lumbering presence. Restin's resolve disappears. He shakes Nixon's hand.

I had a similar though decidedly less dramatic experience. While attending graduate school at Syracuse University during the late '60s, I worked part-time for the Syracuse Herald Journal. One evening, I was dispatched by my editor to cover a speech Nixon was giving to whip up support for a Republican congressional candidate. Nixon was doing the rolled-up sleeves dirty work that kept him alive with Republicans, even after it seemed that his career had sputtered, flamed and reduced itself to ash. Like many successful men, Nixon was not easily daunted.

Although I grew up in a household in which the name "Nixon" never was uttered without contempt, I lacked the stern convictions of my union-loyal father and my fiery leftist mom. I was more amused by Nixon than appalled. Remember, we're talking about the time when most of us were convinced we wouldn't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore. Nixon, who evidently didn't take his political obituary as seriously as we did, appeared at the Onondaga War Memorial, a venue at which circuses, ice shows and concerts were more common than political rallies. A great portion of the arena had been walled off so that no one would notice that the crowd was a bit sparse. Before Nixon appeared, a warm-up speaker divided the audience into three sections, asking each to chant one part of Nixon's name. "RICHARD!" yelled section one when given the signal. "M!" roared section two. "NIXON!" chanted section three.

Prior to his speech, Nixon met briefly with reporters. He walked around a small reception room, introducing himself. I remember New York Post columnist Murray Kempton, who had the look of a wry and intelligent stork, watching the scene with an amused smirk. (For those who don't know, the Post once was a liberal newspaper.) Nixon approached me, stuck out his hand, and said, "I'm Richard Nixon," which I already knew. I shook his hand -- the only presidential hand I've ever touched -- but never mentioned it to my parents. Why the hell Nixon would want to shake hands with a journalism student working part-time at an upstate New York newspaper was -- and still is -- a mystery to me. I guess he was an indiscriminate campaigner.

When Restin shakes Nixon's hand in the mesmerizing and entirely absorbing "Frost/Nixon," the gesture has a different meaning. It's meant to show that Nixon still could generate his strange political mojo and that even a hardened researcher, a man who knew every nook and cranny of the voluminous Watergate canon, might briefly fall under Nixon's spell.

What fascinated me about "Frost/Nixon," a big-screen adaptation of Peter Morgan's play, has little to do with the Frost interviews, famed for Nixon's admission of his profound personal failures during Watergate. No, I was taken by Frank Langella's portrayal of Nixon. At times, Langella captures the Nixon look -- the sagging jowls, the widow's peak that left a peninsula of hair down the middle of his forehead, the way he tended to lean forward, a man on the prowl. But those of us who've seen Richard Nixon know that Langella is not Nixon. That sometimes distracted me but in ways that proved oddly beneficial to the movie. It forced me to focus on how Langella was interpreting Nixon, the shrewd, insecure man who felt his betters would scorn him no matter what he accomplished. Langella captures the sly intelligence and the sense of inevitable defeat in Nixon, who -- at least to me -- looked like a loser, even during his moments of greatest triumph.

Director Ron Howard, who overcomes any stage-bound qualities that might have smothered the movie, creates an absorbing character study, a clear-eyed look at man who never could take his eye off the door leading to the corridors of power, even when it already had slammed in his face.

Michael Sheen's Frost is less interesting, perhaps inevitably so. He's portrayed as an ambitious, shallow man with a taste for parties and women. The Frost of the movie knows how to have fun, an activity at which Nixon never excelled. According to the movie, Frost saw Nixon as a target of opportunity. He was less interested in mining the deepest layers of Nixon's guilt than in reviving a sagging TV career. Frost bought (and almost couldn't pay for) the Nixon interviews, the first the disgraced president had granted since he resigned his office. Ultimately, the movie pits the shallow man against the cagey man, and finds drama in the fact that the two men move in opposite directions at the same time. During the precise moment Frost rises to the occasion, Nixon hits his bottom.

To totally embrace "Frost Nixon," I suppose you have to be willing to acknowledge Nixon's humanity. The Nixon of this movie still may be Tricky Dick, but he's oddly pitiable, a vassal who rose to be king and then fell again -- albeit into the luxurious comforts of his San Clemente estate.

Another way of saying this is that Morgan, who also wrote the screenplay, invites us to shake hands with Nixon, to simultaneously condemn his actions and understand his profoundly flawed humanity. As a young journalism student, I'd already shaken Nixon's hand, so I had no trouble going along with the movie, which comes neither to praise nor to bury Nixon but to excavate and analyze his endlessly fascinating character.

The whole thing proves compelling, even if Howard can't quite sell us on the idea that we're watching an epic battle of wits, two fighters thrust into a television ring, each with their corner men. Kevin Bacon does fine work as Nixon advisor Jack Brennan. Oliver Platt (as Bob Zellnick) and Sam Rockwell (as Restin) bicker with Frost as they push him to dig deeper.

Langella surely will be nominated for an Oscar, and may well win, although Sean Penn's portrayal of Harvey Milk should give him a run for his money. Consider the delicious irony of a potential Penn win. A gay politician would have beaten Richard M. Nixon in a posthumous battle neither could have anticipated. It just might make the Oscars -- watched more out of a sense of duty than anticipation -- into something truly memorable.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Earth may be doomed -- again

With the end-of-the-year mired in pre-Oscar seriousness, I found myself looking forward to "The Day the Earth Stood Still,'' a remake of Robert Wise' s 1951 sci-fi classic. I should have known better. Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly are a long way from Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal, and director Scott Derrickson is no Robert Wise.

This newly minted edition shifts the peril from the threat of atomic warfare to destruction of the Earth via man-made pollution. Fair enough, but the movie's attempts to mix the naivete of '50s sci-fi with a more contemporary approach too often winds up looking either portentous or cheesy. And as Klaatu, a stony-faced visitor from another planet, Reeves has never been more expressionless -- and that's saying a bunch. Maybe he's somber because only the most misanthropic Earthlings could be glad to see Klaatu, who's supposed to begin the destruction of humanity, a task made necessary by man's environmental negligence. Connelly portrays a microbiologist, and Jaden Smith plays her stepson. They try to convince the skeptical Klaatu that humanity can change.

The movie features many floating spheres and a hulking, giant robot, as well as an equally gigantic product placement for McDonald's. In all, this edition of "The Day The Earth Stood Still" makes it feel as if time is standing still. The movie, however, is notable for casting a woman (Kathy Bates) as the U.S. Secretary of Defense and for allowing Jon Hamm (as one of Connelly's scientist colleagues) to try his hand at something other than advertising. Hamm stars in "Mad Men," the well-received AMC series.

Just for the record, a few things that Wise understood that seem to have eluded the current production: how to compose an interesting shot; how to get a nuanced performance from Rennie, the actor who played Klaatu, how to infuse touches of irony into a few scenes; how to develop a real relationship between Klaatu and the boy in the story; and -- most importantly -- how to keep a film short. The new version runs one hour and 43 minutes; Wise's movie lasted 92 minutes. Of course, Wise's movie is dated, and, yes, a bit clunky. Derrickson and company have added more menace and updated the effects, but haven't accomplished much else.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

She writes as she pleases

"The Reader," an adaptation of a novel by Bernhard Schlink, opened Wednesday in Los Angeles and New York. New York Times critics Manohla Dargis panned the movie, which won't be released in most of the country until later this month. Directed by Stephen Daldry ("The Hours"), the movie tells the story of a romance between a German teen-ager (David Kross) and an older woman (Kate Winslet) and eventually gets around to dealing with issues of guilt and memory regarding the Holocaust. I won't comment on "The Reader" now, but I was surprised to read a Los Angeles Times blog item explaining why some film companies dread a Dargis review. "It's an open secret in indie Hollywood that no one wants Manohla Dargis to review their movie, fearing that the outspoken critic will tear their film limb from limb," wrote Patrick Goldstein. The brief article went on to say that it's not exactly Dargis' opinions that are objectionable, but "her seeming lack of empathy for the challenge of tackling difficult material." Dargis, of course, is perfectly capable of defending herself, but it should be stated that neither she nor anyone else who writes about movies is under any obligation to express empathy for those who undertake difficult projects. Some critics do; others don't. But there's absolutely no reason why Dargis should dilute her criticism with messages of condolence. She's not in the business of soothing filmmakers' egos, but of expressing herself to a large and interested audience, most of whom are entirely capable of reading her reviews and arriving at their own conclusions. I'm sure that Daldry -- and screenwriter David Hare -- can stand the heat that Dargis has turned up in their creative kitchens.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Let the fun begin! It's time for awards

OK, it's once again time for awards. The Broadcast Film Critics Association,* which boasts one of the most extensive lists of awards in the business, has just announced its 2008 nominees. I'm going to comment later, but wanted to post the entire list so that those who wish to jump-start the awards season merry-go-round can begin making their own picks. BFCA's short -- or not so short -- list should give you some idea about the direction of 2008's year-end winds. Note: “Milk” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” tied for the most BFCA nominations with eight each. The Association will broadcast its awards program on VH1 on Jan. 8.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire
The Wrestler
Clint Eastwood - Gran Torino
Richard Jenkins - The Visitor
Frank Langella - Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn - Milk
Brad Pitt - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke - The Wrestler
Kate Beckinsale - Nothing But the Truth
Cate Blanchett - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Anne Hathaway - Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie - Changeling
Melissa Leo - Frozen River
Meryl Streep - Doubt
Josh Brolin - Milk
Robert Downey, Jr. - Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman - Doubt
Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight
James Franco - Milk
Penelope Cruz - Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis - Doubt
Vera Farmiga - Nothing But the Truth
Taraji P. Henson - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei - The Wrestler
Kate Winslet - The Reader
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Rachel Getting Married
Danny Boyle - Slumdog Millionaire
David Fincher - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard - Frost/Nixon
Christopher Nolan - The Dark Knight
Gus Van Sant - Milk
BEST WRITER (Original or Adapted Screenplay)
Simon Beaufoy - Slumdog Millionaire
Dustin Lance Black - Milk
Peter Morgan - Frost/Nixon
Eric Roth - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
John Patrick Shanley - Doubt
Kung Fu Panda
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
Waltz With Bashir
Dakota Fanning - The Secret Life of Bees
David Kross - The Reader
Dev Petal - Slumdog Millionaire
Brandon Walters - Australia
The Dark Knight
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Iron Man
Quantum of Solace
Burn After Reading
Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Role Models
Tropic Thunder
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
John Adams
Coco Chanel
A Christmas Tale
I've Loved You So Long
Let the Right One In
Waltz With Bashir
Man On Wire
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired
Standard Operating Procedure
Young At Heart
"Another Way to Die" (performed by Jack White and Alicia Keys, written by Jack White) - Quantum of Solace
"Down to Earth" (performed by Peter Gabriel, written by Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman) - Wall-E
"I Thought I Lost You" (performed Miley Cyrus and John Travolta, written by Miley Cyrus and Jeffrey Steele) - Bolt
"Jaiho" (performed by Sukhwinder Singh, written by A.R. Rahman and Gulzar) - Slumdog Millionaire
"The Wrestler" (performed by Bruce Springsteen, written by Bruce Springsteen) - The Wrestler
Alexandre Desp lat - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Clint Eastwood - Changeling
Danny Elfman - Milk
Hans Zimmer/James Newton Howard - The Dark Knight
A.R. Rahman - Slumdog Millionaire
*Yes, I'm a member, even though my tastes don't always mirror BFCA voting.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Chess game with music

"Cadillac Records" chronicles the history of Chess Records, a Chicago-based label that introduced such artists as Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Etta James and Chuck Berry. "Cadillac Records'' is less a big-screen biography of Chess Records, which reached in apex in the late '50s and early '60s, than a bio-pic about a couple of decades of American popular culture. The Chess era, if that's not too grandiose a term, began with the segregated sounds of so-called "race music" and moved to the days when artists such as James and Berry staged a rhythm and blues crossover. The whole business was presided over by Leonard Chess, played here by Adrien Brody.

Director Darnell Martin ("I Like It Like That") might not have the sharpest eye in the business, but whoever assembled the soundtrack has a good ear, and the movie does capture the rough-and-tumble of a time when the breezes of change were beginning to acquire whirlwind force. Leonard Chess, who co-founded Chess Records with a brother who's not shown in the film, is nicely rendered by Brody, who's playing a character we can't quite figure out. Maybe that's because Chess was a man of many faces, an opportunistic and shrewd businessman who also loved music. Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) seems to regard Chess as a bit of a hustler. Waters seems fond of Chess, but can't totally shake the feeling that the impresario is a bit of a music pimp who lives a lot better than the singers who work for him.

A variety of other social issues are boldly presented as the movie builds around two relationships: one between Chess and Waters, the other between Chess and James (Beyonce Knowles). Wright, who recently played Colin Powell in Oliver Stone's "W.," captures Waters' puffy-cheeked charm, sly candor and musical confidence. At one point, Waters hooks up with harmonica player Little Walter (a volatile Columbus Short), a man with whom he had a creatively productive but sometimes troubled relationship. About midway through, Waters becomes a second-tier star at Chess, surpassed by the likes of James and Chuck Berry, played with crafty humor by Mos Def. Waters hard-drivin', broken-hearted blues never quite got him off a circuit composed of radio stations and clubs that catered mainly to African-Americans.

According to the movie, Chess fell for James, who for a time slipped into the junkie/singer role. I don't know if Knowles, who's listed as the movie's executive producer, had a hand in casting herself, but if she did, she made the right move. Her James is full of life, pain and sass. Knowles gives a kicking and screaming beauty of a performance that puts her work in "Dreamgirls" to shame. Eamonn Walker also scores as singer Howlin' Wolf, a force that even the wily Chess couldn't harness.

The movie should bring back memories for those who lived during the period, even if they can't forget that they're watching a period piece. The performances add urgency, and "Cadillac Records" -- a nickname stemming from Chess' habit of giving his singers new Cadillacs -- captures a moment when music history still could be made out of a converted storefront on Chicago's South Side.

Alan Rickman tries to pronounce every syllable he can find in "Nobel Son," a tricky, over-stylized thriller about an SOB chemist (Rickman) who wins the Nobel Prize and learns that his son (Bryan Greenberg) has been kidnapped by a nut-job (Sean Hatosy) who likes to chop off people's thumbs. The movie practically screams with look-at-me touches, which would have been fine had there been anything worth looking at. To say more is to waste words. The plot has many twists, but none feel particularly surprising.