Monday, March 30, 2009

Making the case for incomprehensibility

Here's my question for the day. Must a movie be comprehensible to be worthwhile? For me, the answer is a resounding "no." If I didn't believe that, I'd never look at another of David Lynch's films. Does "Mulholland Drive" make perfect sense? Of course not. Does it sweep you up in a tidal wave of mystery, menace and eroticism? I think so.

Like Lynch, some filmmakers speak a language all their own. But if they're good -- and that's a big "if" -- they create works of magnetism and importance. I'm not talking about annoyingly esoteric cinema, either. Even popular genres -- Japanese horror, for example -- don't always pander to expectation. Put another way, it's not necessarily a bad thing when a filmmaker makes us feel as if we've awakened inside someone else's dream.

Be clear, though: As I make the case for "incomprehensibility," I'm not referring to logical gaffs or lapses in narrative judgment. I'm talking about films that are at once mysterious and compelling, films that are so radically different from the norm, they expand our idea of what cinema can be. If you're familiar with the work of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin ("The Saddest Music in the World") or the "Cremaster" cycle by artist Matthew Barney, you already know what I mean.

So, too, with the explosively colorful cinema of Sergei Parajanov ("The Color of Pomegranates"). Luis Bunuel ("That Obscure Object of Desire" and "Un chien andalu") could be a brilliant baffler. Even some mainstream filmmakers -- Alfred Hitchcock in "Vertigo," for example -- have taken the plunge into deeply subjective territory.

The list could go on, but I have another purpose here, and that's to wrestle with "Opera Jawa," a movie I've been wanting to see ever since I first read that opera director Peter Sellars, a man of adventurous taste and unrestrained enthusiasms, spoke glowingly about it. "Opera Jawa" originally was created for Vienna's New Crowned Hope Festival, which in 2006 celebrated the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth. Sellars -- a showman and an artist -- directed the festival and selected films for it. The movie since has played other festivals and has had limited theatrical runs in a few cities. It's now available on DVD.

"Opera Jawa" arrived in my mailbox Friday, a welcome contribution from Netflix to a weekend of big-screen torpor. As you can tell I was not wowed by the 3-D of "Monsters vs. Aliens" nor was I frightened by the gloomy claptrap of "The Haunting in Connecticut," both of which will outdraw "Opera Jawa" by landslide proportions. Revenue generation, of course, is not the point: A movie such as "Opera Jawa" is not for every taste.

Director Garin Nugroho defines a brand of artistic and cultural eclecticism that puts him in a class by himself. He makes use of 'gamelan' music, traditional Indonesia dance and a story from the Ramayana, a touchstone literary work of ancient India. Using contemporary settings -- sometimes with period costumes -- Nugroho tells the story of two men who want to possess the same woman, the beautiful Siti. Nugroho's story about lust and jealousy ends tragically, which I suppose is essential. After all, the word "opera" takes up half the movie's title.

The core story of possessive love would be enough to keep the wheels of any movie turning furiously, but Nugroho augments it with commentary about the way virtues (strength) can morph into vices (oppression), thus breeding all manner of social ills. The movie is full of singing, and although I know nothing about Javanese musical tradition, I offered no resistance, perhaps because the songs are accompanied by mesmerizing dances that are erotically charged or abrupt and menacing. Take note: Artika Sari Devi, who plays the woman at the heart of the movie's love triangle, can move her hands in ways that are far more erotic than almost anything Hollywood -- with its penchant for nudity and near-nudity -- normally serves up.

"Opera Jawa" also makes use of installation art, most notably candles sculpted into the form of disembodied human heads. Have I mention the hanging carcasses? Of course, I haven't. Or the mannequins that look like crash test dummies suspended from ceilings? No, not those, either. They're all part of the climate of strangeness that raises a stream of questions, encouraging us to digest images that are beautifully composed yet full of discordant parts.

Many of the images in Nugroho's film could support dissertation-scale discussions about tradition and its relationship to contemporary art, about the incautious mingling of naturalism and surrealism and about the power of emotions pushed -- at least in the case of the male characters -- to near murderous extremes. Maybe it's better simply to watch, secure in the knowledge that we'll get the drift and that we'll be transported to a new places in our imaginations. We can leave what we don't understand for another day, even if we suspect that day may never arrive.

That's the point, I guess: Sometimes bafflement surpasses the comfort we feel as a movie moves mechanically from point "A" to point "B," particularly if all sense of amazement is lost in the bargain. I don't entirely know how to judge "Opera Jawa." I think that's a good thing, maybe even an invaluable thing. The movie's nothing less than an artistic wake-up call for bruised and battered senses, and that's something that needs little or no explanation.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Talk about a bad piece of real estate

Right out of the box, "The Haunting in Connecticut" tells us that what we're about to see is based on a true story. This information may be meant to raise the chill factor, causing us to wonder whether the ensuing parade of bumps, thumps and jolts might actually happen to us. Maybe, but on screen, I wish it all could have happened in more interesting fashion.

Set in Connecticut in 1987, "Haunting" tells the story of a family that moves into a house full of raging spirits. The movie tries to load up on shocks, gore and creepy atmosphere, but skimps on just about everything else. That matters because horror seems a whole lot more effective when filmmakers take the time to build a reality that goes beyond rudimentary script mechanics; i.e., when they do more than introduce a problem before turning up the voltage, often with bursts of noise that substitute for more original kinds of scare tactics. We get zapped, but this darkly hued movie forgets that dark feels a whole darker when there's a little light to provide contrast.

The story begins when a harried mother (Virginia Madsen) presses her husband (Martin Donovan) to rent a second house away from their hometown. She wants to be closer to the hospital where one of her sons (Kyle Gallner) is receiving experimental therapy for a severe form of cancer. The rental is affordable because, as the landlord puts it, the house has some "history." Some history? Wouldn't someone ask for a little more detail? Only later do we learn that the house was once a funeral home and that the basement still contains equipment from those bygone embalming days.

The attempts at psychological depth are minimal. Dad once had a drinking problem, for example. But aside from Gallner's character, the rest of the family -- several other siblings -- receives little attention. Director Peter Cornwell tends to focus the drama on mother and son, as well as on a reverend (Elias Koteas) who shows up to conduct what appears to be a makeshift exorcism. He also explains that because Gallner's character is close to death, he's in a borderland where spirits feel free to come out and play.

Of course, these spirits "play" rough. That means a whole lot of destruction accrues to this particular rental property, raising what seems may be the movie's most compelling and very non-paranormal question: Is there a chance in hell that the Campbell family will get its damage deposit back? I'd call it a long shot.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

"Monsters vs. Aliens'' is stuffed to the gills

Forget the 49-foot woman in "Monsters vs. Aliens." Actually she's an inch shy of 50 feet tall.

One of the fiercest women I've known was my paternal grandmother, and she barely broke 5-feet. If anyone wants to do an animated feature about a tough Jewish lady who was hell-on-wheels in a grocery store, I'd be happy to supply details. If my grandmother were alive to confront A.I.G., I'd put my money on her.

But I'm digressing, not a good thing, especially before I even begin to talk about "Monsters vs. Aliens,'' a new animated 3-D movie that features a woman the size of one of those balloons in a Thanksgiving Day parade.

Our giant heroine helps save the world from building-crushing alien invaders. To accomplish her mission, she needs help from several monsters. Needless to say, victory does not come without considerable wreckage.

The filmmakers who created "Monsters vs. Aliens" -- a decent if not entirely inspired animated feature -- definitely don't subscribe to the notion that less is more. They've stuffed their movie to its hyperactive gills, augmenting the whole business with 3-D. (No matter how hard I try, I still can't get used to 3-D glasses. They don't make me sick, but I find them annoying because I have to put them over my regular glasses. I won't be satisfied until someone can give me prescription 3-D glasses, which is another way of saying that I'm perfectly happy living in a 2-D movie world.)

Directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon use 3-D to catapult a few things at the audience, but mostly they create visual depth in a movie that tries -- in is own goofy way --to evoke the tacky splendor of '50s sci-fi. Action trumps storytelling, though, and that means the movie isn't quite as absorbing as you'd want.

The story kicks off with Susan (voice by Reese Witherspoon) on the verge of marrying a conceited TV weather man (Paul Rudd). Shaken by the landing of an asteroid, Susan grows into a towering giant woman known as Ginormica. Hey, nobody said this was based on a true story.

Eventually Ginormica joins with a blob-like creature named B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), a scientist who has turned himself into a bug called Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie); and another character known as the Missing Link (Will Arnett). There's also Insectosaurus, a creature who looks like a cross between an insect and the kind of stuffed animal you might win at some cheese-ball amusement park. All the monsters are being held in a prison presided over by Gen. W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland).

Gen. Monger eventually decides that the monsters probably are the best protectors of Earth, which is being attacked by a giant robot. To pursue his goal, Monger must persuade the dithering president of the U.S. (Stephen Colbert) to unleash the monsters. Before you can adjust those 3-D glasses, the war is on. As the title promises, it's monsters vs. aliens. We later learn that the robot is being controlled by Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson), a creature that operates the massive robot from a space ship that hovers over the Earth.

For those who like to keep score, it's worth pointing out that the monsters in the movie derive from big-screen predecessors: the Fly, the Blob, the Creature From the Black Lagoon and Mothra. Adults may get the joke; kids won't care.

"Monsters vs. Aliens" seemed to go over well at a preview screening; kids appeared happy. Me? I was my usual grumpy self. I wished, for example, that the humor and visual style had felt more original, and, by the end, I was sick of the 3-D. "Monsters vs. Aliens" probably will fly with at the box office, but I'd rank it a notch below "Kung Fu Panda" and a couple of notches below "Wall-E." I've had far worse times at the movies, but I expected more -- not in terms of visual pyrotechnics, but in terms of genuine involvement.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What I know about the pending apocalypse

After reading Roger Ebert's four-star review of "Knowing," I decided that I couldn't skip the movie no matter how Nicolas Cage-averse I've become. It's not that I expected to find what I might consider a four-star movie, it's just that I already was curious and Ebert's review made me more so. I also understood that "Knowing" director Alex Proyas ("I Robot," "Dark City" and "The Crow") has skills, even if they haven't always been put to the best possible use. Like many visionary directors, Proyas may be a little too eager to leap over-the-top.

Anyway, I went. Turns out I was both disappointed and engaged by "Knowing," a sometimes-laughable attempt at a serious film that arrives on screen fully loaded, especially if you enjoy shamelessly portentous dialogue and bombastic musical scores. To stoke the musical fires, Marco Beltrami -- who also wrote music for "3:10 to Yuma" and "Live Free Die Hard" -- abandons nearly every trace of subtlety. The dude works hard for the money.

All true, and yet....

If you can separate them from the movies' narrative context, some of the visuals are amazing. A New York City subway wreck is as compelling as anything I've seen this year, and Proyas' finale transcends sense to become a lofty exercise in symbolism and sensation. The movie's ending probably is meant to leave us both chastened and awe struck. I watched with drop-jawed amazement, staggered by the sheer ridiculousness of the movie's conceits and impressed by Proyas' visual bravado.

"Knowing," by the way, tells the story of Cage's John Koestler, an MIT professor who discovers meaning in an apparently random series of numbers that was buried as part of a 1959 project at a Massachusetts elementary school. Koestler, a widower who lives with his young son (Chandler Canterbury) in a house that's only partially renovated, eventually meets the daughter (Rose Byrne) of the student who contributed the series of numbers to the time capsule, which is opened early on. Koestler eventually joins the woman and her daughter (Lara Robinson) in many breathless attempts to avoid what he's certain is a pending apocalypse.

Cage overacts, the movie overstates, and "Knowing" left me wondering what might happen if the Egyptian-born Proyas, who was raised in Australia, ever gets hold of a script that makes sense. "The Crow," I think, remains his best work.

So what, you're asking yourself, does any of this have to do with ballpark prices?

Only this. While reading The New York Times this morning, I came across a story about the food that will be served at Citi Field, new home of the New York Mets. The story's headline -- "For Mets Fans, a Menu Beyond Peanuts and Cracker Jack" -- gives you a pretty good idea where the article is going.

Upscale food at ballparks hardly qualifies as a new phenomenon, but I was fascinated nonetheless. Reporter Glenn Collins informs readers that Mets fans will be able to purchase such delicacies as pulled-pork sandwiches on brioche buns for $9. It's the brioche buns that got me. They'll also be able to sample steamed corn on the cob with mayonnaise cotija cheese and a "dusting of cayenne" for $3.50. If they're in a seafood kind of mood -- and who isn't these days? -- they can try a shrimp roll that sells for $14. Too expensive? Not when you consider that you get shoestring potatoes with it. Besides, if you're sitting behind home plate in a seat that cost you -- or more likely some corporation -- between $175 and $495, you don't want to be dropping peanut shells all over the place.

Which brings me to the apocalypse.....

How are we going to survive as a species if we raise a generation of kids who go to ballparks imploring Dad for another helping of Belgian fries with dipping sauce? How long before we see a generation of youngsters who'd rather have an autograph from the ballpark chef than from one of their favorite players? And -- most importantly -- who wants to eat gourmet food while watching athletes launch giant wads of spit over their the shoe tops?

So, no, "Knowing" didn't scare me. What really frightens me is a culture that's creating ballparks in which Marie Antoinette might feel at home. The end is near, friends. The end is near, and we don't need Nicolas Cage to warn us. We've got spanking new ballparks.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Analyzing a master of big-screen poetry

British director Terence Davies just might be the cinema's greatest living poet. Davies, whose films include "Distant Voices, Still Lives" and "The Long Day Closes," hasn't made many films, but he's proven himself a master of memory, a filmmaker who captures the exquisite sadness that accompanies our awareness that time has passed, and, in some cases, passed us by. Davies' films are entirely personal but, at the same time, they tap into a universal sense of loss and longing that's carried to the screen in a wealth of beautifully observed detail: mothers doing the weekly wash, anonymous crowds filling the stands at football matches or row upon row of Liverpool council houses in which thousands of lives played out.

Burdened by memory, betrayed by his own desires and bristling with idiosyncratic judgment, Davies once again has given us a film that defies classification. "Of Time and the City" can be described as a visual tone poem that makes brilliant use of current and archival footage; it is also an ode to Liverpool, as well as a testament to the difference between a black-and-white world and one dominated by color. The 63-year-old Davies, who grew up in Liverpool, offers a series of personal memories and quotes from poetry, all punctuated with a litany of pet peeves. The Beatles rode a wave of popular culture that sapped both craft and elegance from pop music; the monarchy is an expensive joke played on the ever-gullible lower classes; unacknowledged poverty underlies Britain's claims of imperial splendor.

"Of Time and the City" is also the story of a lonely gay boy who found solace at the movies, but, more than that, it's an expression of the deep loneliness of all sensitive souls -- and, in Davies' case, of sensitive souls who harbor class anger and simmering grudges. He narrates the film, lacing his eloquence with bitter asides and sardonic jabs. Davies' art does not float on a calm sea of memory. Rather, it rises and falls like waves that thrill and terrify. He describes a family trip to an amusement park in New Brighton that's capped off by cocoa and toast, exoticism followed by the soothing comforts of home.

Raised Catholic, Davies drenched himself in youthful piety, although he makes it sounds as if he prayed with clenched fists. He wanted to turn out to be "normal." His prayers went unanswered, and he became an atheist, albeit one who'll never shake the majestic, threatening hold of the Church that dominated his young consciousness. The world of gayness has become easier with itself these days, but maybe not for Davies, who too keenly remembers past torments -- his and the public humiliations of men who were outted and then criminalized.

"Of Time and the City" is a journey home, to a city Davies loves and hates and loves again. The movie is full of old black-and-white footage that seems to have been excavated from Liverpool's collective consciousness. As we watch faces in the streets, we know -- without Davies' having to tell us -- that most of them are gone, replaced by other faces in other crowds. In that sense, "Of Time and the City" is a cinematic requiem with Davies leading the service.

Art is always a dangerous term to apply to movies. For reasons that no longer make sense, we refer to certain of our theaters as "art houses." If it this description ever had meaning, it no longer applies. The so-called art houses of the still-young 21st century too often attempt to seduce us with low-budget versions of the kind of fare that wants to grow up, sell itself for a higher price and join the multiplex barrage.

Davies does not play this game: He refuses to tip his hat or shuffle his feet for our amusement. In "Distant Voice" and "Long Day Closes," he staged scenes from his youth, and sometimes allowed characters to break into song. He re-creates the community that simultaneously nourished and depleted him. Davies' romance with Liverpool is not (and never was) blinded by nostalgia, although traces of it pop up now and again. With few exceptions, Davies' best movies are about how he feels about his past, as much as they are about the past itself.

And why not? Is there such a thing as objective memory? If so, who possesses it? Not the camera, certainly; the movie's documentary footage has been re-purposed and put to poetic use, assisted greatly by Davies' use of music as ironic counterpoint -- from Gustav Mahler to Peggy Lee.

"Of Time and the City" ends with a bit of a wink -- Davies saying "goodnight, ladies" as images of Liverpool fade to black. But the wink can't disguise what has preceded it. "Of Time and the City" allows us to see the world as the strange, forbidding and sometimes loving place that Davies discovered as he grew to maturity. As we see and hear Davies tell it, we all grow up yearning for paradise before finding ourselves in quite a different reality. The life of the past once seemed vivid and indestructible, but now has vanished. Still, its yearnings may not be as far removed from us as we imagine. Our longing remains close to us -- as surprising as a random thought and just as fleeting.

Davies' understands that each generation has a particular moment -- it can't always be precisely identified but we know when it's happened -- at which everything changes and all that preceded it seems to have evaporated. The people. The feel of a city. The old arguments. The old dreams. The faces of old men in the street. The living present becomes the remembered past and a dual sense of sadness and beauty arises, something to be discovered in Davies' cinematic poetry with its ungraspable beauty and piercing rue. Stay through the credits, even if you don't bother to read them. Listen to the music and allow the movie's dust to settle. Then get up, walk out into the sunlight or into the dark of evening. See if you're not met by your own flood of memories, visitors from a past you, too, never will regain.

You can see "Of Time and the City" beginning this Friday at the Starz FilmCenter on the Auraria campus. If you can't catch it there, be sure to look for it when the DVD becomes available.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Cleaning, magic and crossing borders

This week's biggie -- a thriller starring Julia Robers and Clive Owens -- is accompanied into the marketplace by two smaller films, both of which pass as easily as sighs and both of which have something to recommend them. And both, by the way, feature the work of Emily Blunt and, to a far lesser degree, Steve Zahn.

First up, "Sunshine Cleaning." This quasi-serious comedy from director Christine Jeffs has two important assets, Amy Adams and Emily Blunt. actresses who give the movie most of its appeal. They plays sisters who start a business devoted to cleaning up crime scenes.

Of the sisters, Adams' Rose is the more driven; she wants to succeed in business and she's really trying. It may be her way of fulfilling the promise she showed as a high school cheerleader in Albuquerque, back in the days when she was also the school heartthrob. Blunt's character takes a more casual approach to employment. Adams and Blunt are joined by Alan Arkin who plays (what else?) their lovable grump of a dad.

An unspoken tragedy weighs down the comedy: The sisters, we learn, still are trying to recover from their mother's suicide, and that's just one of several complications. Rose is having an affair with a married man (Steve Zahn), the cop who initially suggests that she might make a big financial score by learning how to clean crime scenes. Rose also takes care of her son (Jason Spevack), a kid with problems who's often dumped at his grandfather's house.

Slender and not always able to find its stride, "Sunshine Cleaning" is nonetheless worth a look. At minimum, it deserves entry on the list of movies you plan to catch up with on DVD. The always appealing Adams, recently nominated for a best-supporting actress Oscar for her work in "Doubt," continues to demonstrate her versatility, and Blunt proves equally convincing as the sister of less ambition. Keep your expectations in check, and you may enjoy a movie that happily goes against the mega-movie grain.

The week's second small movie, "The Great Buck Howard," is less successful. This low-key blend of comedy and drama stars Colin Hanks, son of Tom Hanks, who served as one of the movie's producers.

Written and directed by Sean McGinly, "The Great Buck Howard" pays homage to a one-time show-business phenom whose career has faded. Buck Howard, played with precision and outlandish style by John Malkovich, is a "mentalist" who performs his mind-reading act in small towns and second-tier cities. Hanks' Troy Gable, a law school dropout in need of a job, signs on as Buck's assistant, opening himself to a range of unusual experience. He also meets a publicist and potential love interest (Emily Blunt),

Some of the movie's conceits -- Buck's claim to fame is that he appeared 61 times on the Tonight Show when it starred Johnny Carson -- are amusing and sharp, but the movie doesn't hit nearly enough high notes. This could be a case in which the ideas in the script don't always crystalize on screen. When Buck plans a great, career reviving trick in Cincinnati, he's upstaged in a most demeaning way. He becomes a victim of the shifting tides of show-business interest. It's a nice idea, but it fails to coalesce into a moment of inspired comedy.

Still, I could muster no ill will toward "The Great Buck Howard,'' which did create some intrigue, at least for me. I kept asking myself which character in TV's "Mad Men," Colin Hanks plays. The answer eluded me until about half way through the movie: Ah, I thought, he's Father Gil. Here, the young Hanks proves affable in the right way, a mild presence in a mild comedy that could have benefited from a bit more bite. Hanks, the Elder, appears in cameo. He plays Troy's dad. (Steve Zahn -- also on view in Sunshine Cleaning" -- has a small role in this one, too.)

Another small movie opening this week is "Crossing Over," an immigration drama starring Harrison Ford. Director Wayne Kramer ("The Cooler") tries to create a tapestry of interrelated stories in a movie that's bound to evoke comparisons to "Crash" and that movie's wannabe followers. But unlike "Crash," which was full of overplayed contrivance, this one is full of underplayed contrivance.

Looking as stolid as ever, Ford portrays an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer with a conscience. He's joined by Ashley Judd and Ray Liotta as attorneys who are married to each other. A variety of other actors populate stories that involve immigrant Muslims, Mexican "illegals" caught in raids and an Iranian ICE officer harboring a secret. An aspiring Australian actress (Alice Eve) also tries to break the immigration barrier, trading sex for a green card.

Ford seems too big for this kind of non-star effort, but the real problem with "Crossing Over" involves stories that aren't all that interesting and a malnourished directorial style. In order to wrap up a plethora of loose ends, the movie begins to feel interminable, another drama that seems as if it concludes a half dozen times.

"Crossing Over" should have been an important movie: It reeks with hot-topic promise, but seldom gets past lukewarm.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

I don't love you, "Man"

The new comedy, "I Love You, Man" stars Paul Rudd as a recently engaged real estate agent who needs a pal to bring out his inner frat boy. Enter Sydney Fife (Jason Segel), a disreputable beach bum who encourages Rudd's character to loosen up. Despite some serious ho ho, the resulting comedy feels increasingly so-so, mostly because the humor and tone are awfully familiar. Here's another "bromance" that wants to cap its gusher of movie crude with a little sensitivity, and, heaven help us, a life lesson.

The movie's title is worth a short comment. It seems designed to recall the kind of bleary-eyed drunken moments when guys get sloppy and say things that are best left unspoken. Or maybe guys say things like that when one of them has a terminal illness and is about to cross into the bleachers of some heavily, field-of-dreams where the hotdogs are always tasty and the home team never loses. Or maybe they're words that Adam Sandler's fans dream of saying to him. "I love you, man."

It's the word "man" that keeps things on the up-and-up; i.e., away from anything that might know.

"I Love You, Man" begins with a mildly interesting premise, but develops in ways that aren't always clever, insightful or even credible. It's a movie influenced by TV-think and the comedies of Judd Apatow ("40 Year Old Virgin)," who had nothing to do with it, but who's famous for mixing ribald humor and sensitivity before garnishing the whole business with a little end-of-picture romance.

The movie begins in an atmosphere of pending bliss. Rudd's Peter Klaven is about to marry the girl of his dreams (Rashida Jones). Everything looks great, but Jones' Zooey has friends who can't seem to mind their own business. They convince her that there must be something wrong with Peter if he doesn't have a cohort of guy pals. The guy actually enjoys spending time with her. He's happy when they're together. He doesn't crave time with his former buddies because he doesn't have any.

The women in Peter's life -- including his mom (Jane Curtin) -- improbably send him on "man dates." They try to fix him up with guy pals. He also receives advice from his gay brother (Andy Samberg). Everyone seems to think it's very weird that Peter doesn't have a best friend, someone he desperately wants to be best man at his wedding.

Now, admit it. You know what's going to happen. After some false starts -- including one with a gay man -- Peter will meet his new best friend, in this case, a beach bum named Sydney Fife (Segel). Under Sydney's tutelage, Peter will begin to loosen up. And it won't take too long for his initially enthusiastic wife to believe that he's regressing, turning from a decent, sensitive guy into a lout who'd rather spend time with his new pal than with her. Peter, a real estate agent, also is trying to sell a house owned by Lou Ferrigno, who appears in cameo. And if you think that somehow his friendship with Sydney will figure in getting that house sold, you've already understood something about the predictable nature of much of the writing.

One of the movie's major jokes involves the strained way in which Peter attempts to be cool, mutilating slang and giving it a hopelessly nerdy twist, but Rudd looks a little too smart to be acting in ways that prove increasingly annoying and which are presented with the repetitive zeal of a guy trying to collect a bill. If Segel, who last appeared in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," is an acquired taste, I've yet to acquire it, although I'm not sure his performance can be faulted.

It's the script, man. To prove just how disreputable he is, Segel's Sydney refuses to pick up after his dog. I don't know about you, but leaving dog crap all over Venice beach isn't my idea of how to make a character's rebelliousness seem appealing. It's that kind of humor that limits "I Love You, Man" and keeps it from becoming the real comedy deal.

For spies, love is a tricky business

Too complex for its own good, "Duplicity" nonetheless gives us a chance to watch a well-matched Julia Roberts and Clive Owen navigate their way through a movie about characters who seldom seem in control of their fate. To say that "Duplicity" is contrived is to do it an injustice; it's composed of thousands of contrivances, as if the plot is unfolding as a series of high-speed tweets -- not all of them written by the same person.

Writer/director Tony Gilroy ("Michael Clayton") casts Roberts and Owens as former spies, savvy international types who ply their trade for a couple of business titans (Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson). Both Owens' Ray and Roberts' Claire are artifacts of another time. Having honed their skills during, high-stakes missions, they're now working for businesses that have less interest in planetary survival than in being first to the marketplace with a new variety of frozen pizza.

Making good use of dozens of locations -- Rome, New York, Switzerland, the Bahamas and London among them -- Gilroy pushes his story around the world, drawing liberally on a variety of jet-lagged genres: romantic comedy, spy thrillers and caper movies. In that regard, "Duplicity" couldn't be more emblematic of Hollywood at the moment; it's a triumph of eclecticism complete with split screen gimmickry, a bouncy musical score and dialogue that goes heavy on clever bickering between Roberts and Owen.

Despite the movie's globe-hopping jitters, Roberts and Owens still get plenty of time to banter. The main issue between them is one of trust; i.e., there is none. As spies, they've been schooled in skepticism, which raises an interesting question: How do people whose survival depends on never suspending disbelief develop anything resembling a love-based relationship? The answer: warily. Both Claire and Ray are not only surveying each other for signs of possible betrayal, they're trying to discover what earth-shaking new product the vast Burkett & Randall Corp. is about to unveil. Giamatti's Richard Garsick, who heads the rival Omnikrom Corp., desperately wants to discover what that product might be -- and, of course, steal it.

Roberts and Owens worked together in 2004's "Closer," and have an obvious rapport, but "Duplicity" comes up short of perfection. Roberts is beginning to show signs of wear; this isn't her freshest or most buoyant work. Owens, on the other hand, seems to spring to life, perhaps because he's liberated from the brooding misery that weighed him down in movies such as "The International" and "Children of Men."

Given the paucity of quality competition, "Duplicity" may wind up winning stronger reviews than it deserves, but it does offer the pleasure of watching major stars in a movie that believes in poking fun at genre demands while at the same time attempting to satisfy them. Roberts and Owen hold the screen, carrying an elaborate plot to its slightly rueful finish line. But upon arrival, you may find yourself looking back and wondering whether it was really worth the trouble. "Duplicity" has its share of charm, but there's probably less to it than meets the eye.

Monday, March 16, 2009

A lot fewer folks watching "Watchmen"

A week or so ago, I more or less (mostly more) predicted a second week tumble for "Watchmen" revenues. It seemed to me that a two-hour and 43-minute movie that received mostly mixed reviews would have a difficult time repeating its opening weekend triumph. I was right.

In its second weekend, "Watchmen" recorded a whopping 67 percent decline in box-office receipts, grossing $18,070,000 and placing second after "Race to Witch Mountain," which opened with a $25-million weekend. The remake of Wes Craven's 1972 cult favorite, "Last House on the Left," came in third with a weekend gross of $14,658,000.

A couple of things to remember: If you love a movie, you love it. Forget about the box office. Second, opening weekend box-office revenues can be misleading. As the horse-racing cliche goes: It's not how they start, it's how they finish.

I don't normally comment on grosses, but if box-office roulette's your thing, you should bookmark the site, It's a great source of information for those addicted to the numbers game.

Am I gloating? Not really. This short post arrives in response to a reader inquiry about "Watchmen's" second weekend. If there's anything to be learned here, it might be this: If you haven't seen the movie, you might do well to start with the Alan Moore graphic novel on which it's based. It has legions of fans and not many detractors.

Friday, March 13, 2009

A crime wave that never seems to break

There so much chaos in the Italian crime movie "Gomorrah" that it practically obliterates any semblance of plot. Rather than tell a straight-ahead story, director Matteo Garrone assembles a series of violent episodes that bring the activities of the Camorra crime syndicate to light. Garrone, whose movie won the Grand Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival, may not have made the season's most entertaining movie -- an abundance of nihilism tends to loosen its grip -- but he has helped to call attention to the shocking brutality of life where money rules and nothing else seems to matter.

"Gomorrah" can be confusing, as full of violence as it is of ill-defined characters. The essential notion seems to be that the movie's criminals -- operating in and around Naples -- are foot soldiers in a vast army in which nearly everyone is expendable. The gangsters and the people around them live in a climate where violence prevails and where lamentation and remorse are luxuries few can afford.

At one point, a mobster -- part of a group engaged in what appears to be ceaseless internecine warfare -- asks his cronies whether criminals are nothing more than meat for the slaughter. By the time he raises this question, we already know the answer.

In some ways, "Gomorrah" represents a revisionist view of the mob movie as we know it. There are no wise old dons, and no one with whom we easily can identify. No ballsy gangsters or gutsy cops populate these mean streets. We don't always understand why two sides of the mob are warring. We don't care who wins. And if any of these thugs is having a good time, it wasn't apparent to me.

Garrone immerses us in slums that seem to offer no safe haven. Perhaps that was his point: to convince us that there's a life so alien to us that we hardly know it exists, and to insist that its effects resound throughout the world. A title card at the end of the movie tells us that Camorra money has found its way into efforts to rebuild The World Trade Center.

Garrone based his movie on a bestseller by Roberto Saviano, whose work brought attention to a crime syndicate that seems to have surpassed the Mafia in power. The Camorra deals in everything from drugs to toxic waste disposal, but the street-level thugs don't seem to be making outlandish sums of money. Instead, they scuffle. Young people are forced to choose sides in gang warfare. Innocents (a woman whose son changes sides in the gang wars) are executed. Nothing seems beyond exploitation. These gangsters make Don Corleone's minions look like Cub Scouts.

Various plot threads run through the story, but none are developed in traditional ways: A teen-ager is initiated into gang life; two dim-witted wannabes try to steal from the mob; a tailor is punished for trying to break from the mob and do business with the Chinese; a timid bag man attempts to switch sides in a war in which no resolution seems possible.

The movie's strength -- its refusal to provide us with the comforts of traditional narrative -- also becomes its weakness. If you're expecting a drama that places a premium on coherence and emotional payoff, you'll no doubt leave the theater wondering how "Gomorrah" could have garnered so much praise. The movie, which contains some startling images, winds up being more instructive than moving, a study in what happens when crime is so pervasive it becomes the norm. Money is counted. Bodies pile up. No one seems capable of stopping the carnage. To appreciate "Gomorrah," you probably must realize that Garrone isn't telling a story; he's describing a condition.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

This 'House' deserves foreclosure

To understand how a movie as ragged as 1972's "The Last House on the Left" acquired its cult reputation, you have to understand something about the 1970s. The war in Vietnam increasingly looked like a lost cause; the Manson family's carnage was still fresh in memory; the counterculture was in full bloom, and movies -- which were enjoying a period of creative vitality -- were testing limits.

There are few standards by which "The Last House on the Left," directed by horror maven Wes Craven, could be called a good movie. It was poorly acted; aggressively lurid and burdened by a goofy, banjo-laden soundtrack. But it did have something that endeared it to cultists, a capacity for outrageousness that was reflected in its campy humor, its sneering contempt for flower-power values and its willingness to cross the line of what heretofore had been considered acceptable levels of big-screen violence.

"The Last House on the Left" was very much of its time. Guess what? That time has passed.

The risk of irrelevance didn't stop director Dennis Iliadis from remaking Craven's cult favorite, and the new movie represents a brutal upgrade. Craven's slice of horror thrived on nihilism and chaos; Iliadis' movie cranks up the tension and adds violent special effects, the final one arriving in a brief epilogue that had preview audiences either cheering or recoiling in disgust.

In the 37 years since Craven -- listed as a producer of the new film -- unleashed his cinematic ball of fury, technology has improved, and Iliadis uses it to full advantage in what amounts to an effective, if morally dubious, slice of contemporary horror. Why morally dubious? I say this because I'm shocked by the fact that the violent set pieces in "The Last House on the Left" seem to be asking audiences to accept sadism as an OK form of entertainment. Some critics viewed Craven's original as a kind of grainy critique of a society gone mad; I'm not sure that the new version amounts to much more than a well-oiled horror machine.

The story centers on a family that's visiting its country home. Upon arrival, young Mari (Sara Paxton) reunites with a friend (Martha MacIsaac) who works in a convenience store. A shy young man (Spencer Treat Clark) soon invites the girls to his motel room to smoke pot. Before anything much happens, the boy's miscreant family -- headed by the vicious Krug (Garret Dillahunt)-- arrives. The girls are then kidnapped and dragged into the woods where a session of humiliation, rape and stabbing begins.

Eventually, these miscreants wind up at Mari's house, where they encounter Mari's mother and father (Monica Potter and Tony Goldwyn), and spark another round of brutal violence. Those who aren't familiar with the original won't want to know more, and I won't tell more. (Know that Craven's most excruciating contribution to the advancement of big-screen violence has not made it into the remake. For this, we should be grateful.)

Astute critics have compared the original plot to Ingmar Bergman's gripping "The Virgin Spring," which debuted in 1960. Other critics have cited director Sam Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs," a 1971 study in the violence buried not so far beneath a middle-class surface. The new version of "Last House" might better be compared to Michael Haneke's odious "Funny Games," a 2007 remake of a 1977 Haneke movie that added a layer of pretension to the usual multiplex mayhem. This time, "Last House on the Left" seems to have no pretensions other than raking in the dough.

Taken strictly on its own terms, "The Last House on the Left" works, and I bet it will connect with horror-hungry audiences that may have been disappointed by such recent remakes as "Friday the 13th." Yes, this one works. But the movie raises an interesting question: Do you want it to work on you? I'd vote no. I'm tired of movies that try to make me sick -- and I'm loath to praise them just because they're so damn good at it.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

If it's a horror movie, leave the kids home

Here's the question of the day: Would you take a child to see a movie in which a teen-aged woman is pinned to the ground and raped, in which another woman appears topless and in which sadistic villains threaten a family in its isolated country home? You wouldn't, but some folks would.

Earlier this week, I saw a few young children exiting the theater after a packed preview screening of "The Last House on the Left," an especially brutal remake of Wes Craven's 1972 horror cult favorite. If you know the original, you know that the movie is not an ordinary, run-of-the-mill "R" rated hunk of violence. It's the real ugly deal.

How do parents defend taking kids to this kind of movie? I've heard these excuses: "We can't afford a babysitter." "We cover the kid's eyes during the violent parts." "The kid will sleep through it anyway." "It's none of your damn business."

OK, maybe it isn't any of my business. Tell a parent that he or she is out-of-line, and you take your life in your hands. Look, I'm definitely not an "it-takes-a-village" kind of guy, but it makes me ill to see little kids in movies with hard "R" ratings. I watched adults avert their eyes during the more violent scenes in "The Last House on the Left." I only can imagine what havoc the movie's more graphic images can wreak on a child's fragile mind.

I've said it before. I'll say it again. To my way of thinking, taking a kid to this kind of movie constitutes a blatant form of parental irresponsibility. Theaters only can caution parents about potentially objectionable content in a movie. The same goes for publicists who run preview screenings. Kids accompanied by adults can't be kept out. I wish it weren't that way, but it is.

So unless a movie has been given the more restrictive NC-17 rating, it's up to parents to protect their children from big-screen terror. Shame on those who don't.

p.s. If you've read me over the years, you know this is not a new complaint, but I feel that it must be made from time-to-time lest the subject stop being a cause for shock and dismay.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

"Watchmen" kicks box-office butt

According to the aggregate reviews site,, "Watchmen" scored an average of 56 on the site's one-to-100 rating scale. Five of metacritic's surveyed critics gave the movie a 100 rating, an unusually strong level of acclaim. Their enthusiasm, however, was tempered by the fact that 18 surveyed critics slammed the movie with a rating of 50 or lower. The lowest rating came from the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern, whose metacritic score was a blistering 20.

A preponderance of mixed-to-negative reviews didn't stop "Watchmen" fans from pushing the movie to the top of the weekend's box-office heap. According to Variety, the movie grossed $55.7 million over the weekend, a result Variety described as "lower than expected, but still the best opening of the year."

But here's the deal with this kind of opening: You have to watch the second weekend to know whether audiences agree with the critics. The first weekend -- particularly with "Watchmen" facing no real competition --was bound to bring out fans of Alan Moore's graphic novel, as well as those hungry for some hard-boiled diversion. If "Watchmen" tops next weekend's charts in a significant way, you'll know that audiences are going against the critical tide and can be relied on to turn "Watchmen" into a top earner.

My bet: At two hours and 43 minutes in length and without uniformly positive word-of-mouth, "Watchmen" will slip. Stay tuned.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The story of a girl and her dog

"Wendy and Lucy," released in New York and Los Angeles last year, is a slender, minimalist movie that many critics have embraced, perhaps because of its very smallness. It's set in a backwater town in Oregon. It's not overburdened with plot, and it inches its way toward the slimmest of resolutions.

On top of that, "Wendy and Lucy" features a performance that seems so totally in the moment, it's difficult to believe you're not watching a real person. Michelle Williams -- a gifted if undemonstrative actress -- plays Wendy, a young woman whose journey to Alaska is interrupted by a series of debilitating setbacks.

As a fan of modest movies, I respected what I thought director Kelly Reichardt was trying to accomplish, yet I still found the movie dull and undernourished -- although definitely in ways that hint at something more profound, a cinema of complete ordinariness, of immersion achieved less through a belief in dramatic enhancement than through a commitment to narrow-gauged realism.

It's difficult to simplify a movie as simple as "Wendy and Lucy," but you should know that Reichardt doesn't so much tell a story as take us into Wendy's drifting world. Wendy's life has been reduced to a series of mishaps. Her aging Honda breaks down. She shoplifts. She's arrested. She loses her dog. She's released from jail. She searches for her dog. There's not much more. When she's walking around, Wendy tends to hum to herself, a self-generated soundtrack for an unbearably modest life.

The idea, one supposes, is that Wendy -- she says she's bound for Alaska -- either is running toward something or running away from something. Wendy's dog, Lucy, provides her only emotional stability. As the movie unfolds, Wendy interacts with a few of the people she meets as she tries to get her car repaired and locate her lost dog. At one point, Wendy visits the pound where she views lost, unwanted animals, hoping that one of them will be Lucy. Very sad.

Reichardt ("Old Joy") seems fascinated by a character who, in my view, earns our sympathy for the most conventional of reasons: Wendy -- who doesn't have much else going for her -- has lost her dog, the only living being with whom she has any kind of relationship. Wendy's disconnected from just about everything. Some of the townsfolk, notably a friendly security guard (Wally Dalton), offer help, but Wendy's in a world of her own.

So, I'm afraid, is this movie. I found it difficult to enter Wendy's world, and as I watched "Wendy and Lucy," I wondered if a movie can be so small, it makes its own argument for why it shouldn't have been made in the first place. just a thought, but one I couldn't shake.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Flawed heroes, brutal action and a blue guy

During the course of "Watchmen," the two-hour and 43 minute adaptation of a graphic novel by Alan Moore, a convict has his arms sawed off and a giant blue superhero walks around naked. But wait! There's more! Women in leather prance through dystopian debris, and real-life figures such as JFK and Richard Nixon -- played by actors, of course -- show up for cameos. Director Zack Snyder tries to fill every second of "Watchmen," and the result is something akin to creative glut.

"Watchmen" reportedly sticks close to Moore's story, which seems to take a step backward every time it inches forward, crawling its way through the main plot while dropping a variety of back stories in its wake. As various jaded heroes try to save the world from nuclear annihilation, Snyder ("300") fills in background on each of them.

We learn, for example, how a character called The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) treated women. Judging by the movie's opening -- The Comedian is heaved through the plate glass window of a skyscraper -- he wasn't exactly building a lot of good relationship karma.

We also discover that Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) had a bad childhood, and has become cynical and uncompromising in his pursuit of raw justice. Rorschach, who wears a mask composed of ink blots, narrates the movie in a noir style that's as pungent as a package of dead fish on a crowded subway. Geez. I'm starting to sound like the movie.

We also learn about the relationship between Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman) and Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup) and Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson). Doctor Manhattan is blue-skinned super-powered giant with a habit of walking around without clothes. (See blog entry entitled: "He's big! He's blue! He's naked!")

Don't bother filling out your scorecard. What you need to know is that a variety of known and semi-known actors play tarnished heroes, miserable souls who wander through a decaying world spouting pulp dialogue and looking clinically depressed.

The movie is so committed to comic-book eclecticism that it even throws in a visit to Mars; the Red Planet, by the way, has seldom looked redder.

Snyder opens the movie with a clever barrage, but "Watchmen" too often curdles into an overly dense mixture of adolescent fantasy, garbled metaphysics and visual razzle-dazzle. A plot of sorts begins in the '60s, and soon turns history on its ear. It seems that the U.S. won the Vietnam War. Does that bring peace? Nope, the U.S. worries that the Soviets want to engage in a nuclear showdown, bringing about the doomsday that looms large in so many comic-book series.

Or something like that. I qualify because the nuances of the "Watchmen" plot may reveal themselves only to aficionados, and I'm definitely not one of them.

Of course, there's more to "Watchmen," much more. If you're of a certain mind -- and I'm not entirely sure what kind of mind that might be -- you'll enjoy parts of "Watchmen," which tries to redeem its nihilism with a half-baked philosophical ending that touches on profoundly unoriginal questions about whether the means justify the ends. No problem, there; I only wish that Snyder had used his "super" cinematic skills to power this strange and bloated movie toward a speedier conclusion.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

He's big! He's blue! He's naked!

The above photo shows only part of Doctor Manhattan, one of the more significant characters in the new and much-anticipated "Watchmen" movie. If you're a comic book illiterate like me, you may not know Doctor Manhattan from Dr. Scholl. I was ignorant until I saw all two hours and 43-minutes of "Watchmen," the big-screen adaptation of a 12-issue comic-book series by Alan Moore, who also authored "V for Vendetta" and "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."

Doctor Manhattan may not be the film's most emotional character, but he is its most revealed -- as in full-frontal nudity. Most of the time, Doctor Manhattan -- actor Billy Crudup mixed with digital effects -- appears sans clothes, a big blue exhibitionist who acts as if strutting around in the buff is no big deal.

About the doctor's complexion: As the result, of an accident -- something involving a device called an Intrinsic Field Subtractor -- Doctor Manhattan was transformed from a mild-mannered scientist into a being with superpowers. He also turned blue.

On screen, Doctor Manhattan looks a bit like a giant Oscar statue, only one that's anatomically correct. Doctor Manhattan, you see, has a penis, and director Zack Snyder shows it as part of what some see as the movie's slavish commitment to the comic book's defining details. Snyder evidently has kept faith with fans who insist on a high degree of fidelity in their big-screen adaptations.

Early on, the blogosphere fretted that "Watchmen" might not show Doctor Manhattan in his full blue glory. As far back as October of last year, though, the Web site confirmed in that Doctor Manhattan's private parts had made (you'll pardon the expression) the final cut.

"Watchmen," which I'll review Friday, is rated R for graphic violence, sexuality, nudity and language; i.e., the whole gamut of R-rated possibility.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Today's worst person in Colorado

If you've looked at this blog before, you know that from time-to-time I get off the movie track to talk about something else. This is part of my recognition that there's life beyond the multiplex, which puts me in mind of a story that Martin Sheen told me in an interview almost 30 years ago. Sheen, who had a heart attack during the filming of "Apocalypse Now," wound up in a hospital in the Philippines. Let's just say he may have been a little over-committed to the role of Captain Benjamin L. Willard. Standing over his hospital bed, Sheen's wife looked down at him, shook her head and said, "Hey babe, it's only a movie."

Those of us who spend too much of our time watching and thinking about movies need that reminder now and again.

Which is why I'm ranting about something else today.

Jared Polis, a Democrat who represents Boulder in Congress, told the Denver Post that bloggers -- the so-called New Media -- helped kill The Rocky Mountain News, presumably an exemplar of Old Media calcification. Polis evidently isn't unhappy that the Old Media is fading because a beautiful phoenix may be rising from the still smoldering ashes; i.e., the possibility for increased democratization of journalistic culture. The Internet rules. Citizen journalists will help keep an eye on government -- at least when they're not too busy watching one another.

Never mind that it takes years to become a skilled reporter. Never mind that it takes time, tact and savvy to develop sources. Never mind that talk radio has given us a pretty good idea of what a broadened expression of opinion can be worth. Never mind that some of the best bloggers in the world ply their trade on Old Media sites. Never mind that bloggers had little or nothing to do with the demise of the Rocky Mountain News.

All I can say is that if Polis' grasp of other issues is in any way comparable to his understanding of this one, his constituents should be afraid. Very afraid. So with apologies to MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, I'm naming Jared Polis today's worst person in Colorado, even if he happens to be in D.C. at the moment.

Or maybe I've got it all wrong. Maybe I should remember the words of Mrs. Sheen. "Hey babe, it's only a newspaper."

Monday, March 2, 2009

Getting ready to watch "Watchmen"

I made the mistake this morning of glancing at negative reviews of "Watchmen" in The New Yorker and New York Magazine. Variety's review was a little more tempered. Early warnings aside, I'm still looking forward to the movie -- and also to the crowd. I'm going tonight (Monday).

Movies based on comic-book series tend to attract hordes of fanboy enthusiasts, young men bursting with geeky devotion. I'm talking guys who can discuss "Watchmen" with the kind of ardor and precision you'd normally expect only from Talmudists.

I'm no follower of comic-book series, so I rely on these guys. I usually get up to speed by interrogating the guy who has the misfortune of sitting next to me at a preview screening. This guy -- and, yes, there's always one -- is usually good for a comic-book crash course, which sometimes continues through the movie's opening credits, albeit in hushed tones. I'm hoping "Watchmen" will not be the first exception to my "ask-a-fanboy" rule. Look, the last thing I want to do is read a comic-book series. I'm a fan of Art Spiegelman ("Maus") and I loved "Persepolis," but I've got too many books on my nightstand to add "Watchmen" to the already teetering pile.

Author Alan Moore, a purported god of the form, supposedly used the "Watchmen" series to re-examine the superhero idea. Wikipedia trots out the dreaded "d" word for Moore's approach. I'm talking "deconstruction." Moore, by the way, also wrote "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" and "V for Vendetta," both of which became movies.

Meanwhile, a Variety blog entry warns of possible fanboy backlash against the movie. If those guys turn against it, the movie's fortunes might begin to look Dow-like. I'd bet against it. It's difficult to imagine "Watchmen" not grabbing this week's top box-office spot.

All I know for sure is that the preview screening will be crowded; the anticipation, keen. Tune in later for an update on how I survived my night among the fanatics. My "Watchmen" review will appear Friday.