Thursday, April 30, 2009

'Origins' explores Wolverine's beginnings

I'm not an X-Men junkie. I can't tell you whether "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" will please those who've immersed themselves in the comic-book series. But as someone whose seen the "X-Men" movies, I can tell you that "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" generates enough heat to keep its heroic mutants on Hollywood's payroll.

Switching gears from his work in "Rendition," director Gavin Hood takes the helm of the series to tell us how Wolverine finds his way to mutant stardom. Hood tends toward streamlined thinking, clinging to the basics of comic-book filmmaking. He steeps "Origins" in bellicose melodrama, amped-up action and fleet editing. The movie clocks in at a reasonable 97 minutes.

Hood also embraces (perhaps too eagerly) the excesses of the comic-book form, and he seldom misses an opportunity to show off Hugh Jackman's torso. I know a woman who plans to see "Origins" only because of Jackman. She'll see a lot of him. At one point he appears in the buff, turning into Nude-o-rine, a mutant streaking across a green meadow. Wolverine seems to have no trouble finding time -- even during the most difficult situations -- to strip down to his T-shirt for a fight. Mostly, Jackson seems to be acting or flexing, which in this movie probably amounts to roughly the same thing.

Liev Schreiber makes a welcome addition to the cast. He portrays Victor Creed, the mutant who eventually turns into Sabertooth. Creed is Wolverine's brother, an animalistic mutant who embraces his status as something that sets him apart from the rest of society, particularly in areas concerning morals. A tightly edited opening credits sequence marches through several wars. Besides learning that mutants can recover from wounds that would kill any human -- a handy skill -- we see that Creed has no compunction about killing innocent people. He's the living, breathing dark side of the mutant force, and Wolverine constantly struggles to prove that he's not like his bad-boy brother.

Besides Shreiber, the biggest additions to the story are Danny Huston (as a rogue general) and Lynn Collins (as a teacher with whom Jackman's character becomes romantically involved when he flees government service and tries to live normally). Wolverine's attempt at domesticity does not involve a leap into some manicured U.S. suburb. He works as a lumberjack in Canada and lives in an isolated cabin atop a mountain bordered by spectacular cliffs. Collins' characters shares Wolverine's humble abode, but her role doesn't amount to much. Huston, on the other hand, seems sharp as a twisted military man who sees the mutants as potential WMDs.

In movies such as "Origins," government almost always can be counted on to do the wrong thing. At a time when polls tells us that most Americans are thinking positively about the present administration, this mistrust of official power may not resonate as loudly as it has in previous editions. Perhaps to compensate, "Origins" adds psychological gloss to its anti-government posturing; father/son conflicts and sibling rivalries dominate. Don't look for depth, though: These issues are so clearly pasted onto the movie's surface, they might as well be labeled.

If you seek out "Origins" do it because of your devotion to the boldness of its comic-book conceits and for a backgrounder on how Logan became Wolverine. I'm not suggesting that "Origins" is without logical flaws, but overall it computes, and it builds toward an ending that features a nice ironic touch. (I wish Hood hadn't bothered with a short scene that's dropped into the end credits. It ties up a loose end that didn't need tying and gives the movie an unneeded moral slant. I also could have done with one less agonized scream from Wolverine, who seems to drop to his knees and howl every time he hears tragic news.)

Hood, who won an Oscar for his South African movie "Tsotsi,'' keeps the pacing tight, and seldom wavers from his obligation to give the audience a mega-helping of Jackman. Buffed and ready, Jackman serves the role well, although I'm not sure he has the depth that a different actor might have brought to the proceedings. Maybe it doesn't matter. This isn't a movie that suggests; it screams its thoughts out loud, carrying them right into some typically bloated end-of-picture action.

"Origins" is not big on astonishing revelations. We learn how Jackman got those retractable metal claws -- devices that seemed hard to square with any known facts about evolution. Mostly, though, "Origins" takes familiar "X-Men" themes, and laces them throughout this look backward. Can mutants harness their powers for the good of mankind? Should they?

The action sequences are mostly good if overly abundant, and, with a couple of exceptions, the special effects are fine. I don't know whether "Origins" has blockbuster potential, and its tethered to the a problem most origin movies face: It must march us toward a conclusion that we've known from the outset. Still, "Origins" does enough to ensure that the series doesn't topple from its perch as a mainstay of our comic-book culture. Is it great? No. But I'd be wary of those who insist on sharpening their claws on it.

'Sugar' moves outside the lines

Miguel "Sugar" Santos is a cocky Dominican kid who sees himself as a bona fide Big League prospect. Unlike most youngsters who dream of someday shaming the world's best hitters, Sugar has reason to believe in his future. He's been selected to participate in a Dominican-based baseball academy: Quickly, he signs with the fictional Kansas City Knights and advances to the team's farm system.

That sounds like a formula for a typical sports movie: Poor kid maximizes athletic talent and finds glory on U.S. playing fields. But that's not the movie that directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have made. Rather than following the normal base path, they broaden their view. Wisely and to great effect, "Sugar" explores cultural conflict and deep issues of identity and aspiration. Boden and Fleck tone down the sports aspects of the movie, giving Sugar's off-field life its due.

"Sugar," which begins its Denver run Friday, begins in the Dominican Republic. These baseball camp sequences might be the most interesting in the film. We see how the players are trained on and off the field. English lessons, for example, include the repetition of phrases that have little use beyond the ball yard. We also see Sugar's impoverished home life. For him, a signing bonus (though modest) isn't about fraternity bragging rights; it's about raising his family's standard of living. Sure, it's a great opportunity, but family expectations add yet another layer of pressure to Sugar's upwardly mobile climb.

Credit Boden and Fleck for making the movie mostly in Spanish. It's an essential choice because when Sugar winds up in in the minor league system, language becomes a major obstacle on the path of adjustment. Unable to handle the subtleties of ordering food, the Spanish-speaking players gravitate toward restaurants that feature pictures on their menus. Sugar also has difficulties -- none exaggerated to the point of unbelievability -- with the strait-laced family that takes him in during his minor league stint with Iowa's Bridgetown Swing.

Algenis Perez Soto, the non-professional actor who plays Sugar, has a reasonably convincing mound presence, but does even better in scenes away from the game. He effectively conveys Sugar's growing confusion. Shortly after arriving in the U.S., Sugar's demeanor changes. He's no longer a happy kid with a bountiful world at the end of his pitching arm, but a young man feeling the pressures of stiff competition and the loneliness of being away from home. He's 19, not exactly an age when one's likely to have figured things out.

Using only a couple of characters, Boden and Fleck -- who previously directed the much harder-edged "Half Nelson" -- nicely chart the upward and downward trajectories found in Minor League club houses. Brad Johnson (Andre Holland) seems confident of his rise to stardom. He's a college grad and Bonus Baby. He contrasts with Jorge Ramirez (Rayniel Rufino), a young man who's on his way out of baseball. I also love the way Boden and Fleck capture the feel of the Hispanic neighborhood around Yankee Stadium.

Boden and Fleck aren't out to vilify baseball. You understand why the Major League teams have established these academies. Something like 15 percent of all Big League players hail from the Dominican Republic and the total rises to 30 percent in the Minors. In an interview (see post on April 27), Boden and Fleck told me that they didn't question any one's intentions, but preferred to look at the whole system -- from Dominican poverty to baseball's tendency to turn players into commodities.

I've grown to hate the tag "coming-of-age" movies. We've seen too many of them. But it's an appropriate enough label for "Sugar." Boden and FLeck have given us a well-told story about a young man who doesn't know exactly what he wants. He's also on a pressure-packed path that makes it exceptionally difficult for him to find out.

To be honest, I'm more of a creature of the sports-fan culture than I thought: At times, I was more interested in seeing Sugar make it in the Majors than in seeing his journey of self-discovery. But Boden and Fleck made me re-examine my values, and that's a good thing. By the end, I wasn't rooting for "Sugar" to pitch a no-hitter, but to find a place where he felt truly at home.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Baseball dreamin' -- Dominican style

If you've seen "Half Nelson," a searing 2006 drama about a drug-addicted junior high school teacher who befriends one of his students, you know that it's gut-wrenching enough to have earned its star, Ryan Gosling, an Oscar nomination for best actor. When you see "Sugar," the story of a 19-year-old Dominican phenom who's trying to make it in the Big Leagues, you may be surprised to learn that its directors -- Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck -- also brought "Half Nelson" to the screen.

Instead of immersing us in urban grit and drug-induced horror, the directors create a world that touches the impoverished backwaters of the Dominican Republic, a corn-fed community in Iowa and the neighborhoods surrounding Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. And instead of a movie that tears at your insides, you'll find a story that carefully observes a young man's struggle to achieve his dream while adjusting to a new cultural environment.

Boden and Fleck recently visited Denver to talk about "Sugar," which has opened in New York and Los Angeles and which begins its theatrical life in Denver Friday. Here's some of our conversation:

Denerstein: The trappings of this story involve baseball, but "Sugar" isn't exactly a sports movie. What's at the heart of the movie for you two?
Boden: At its core, it's really a coming-of-age story from an immigrant perspective. I don't think this type of immigration story is one that people are used to watching ... Usually, the American dream story is about someone coming from another country to a job in a major city in the U.S. where there's already a large immigrant community. This is the story of someone who hopes to become a baseball superstar, but ends up in this small town in Iowa. Miguel (the 19-year-old main character) is in a more isolating and alienating experience than would ordinarily be the case for someone coming to a new country. On top of that, he's not with his family, and he's still trying to figure out who he is. That's the crux of the story for me.

Denerstein: How did you first become intrigued by this subject?
Fleck: I'm a big baseball fan. (Fleck grew up in Oakland, and roots for the As, but now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.) I knew that there were lots of Dominican players in the Major Leagues (an estimated 15 percent of all Major League players), but I never realized why. Once I realized how big an industry this is down there, I became curious about the hundreds of players who go through this every year, young people you never hear about. (Fleck is referring to the Dominican baseball academies that most big-league teams operate.)

Denerstein: One of the most striking things about "Sugar" is the way it depicts the cultural adjustment that players must make. When Miguel arrives in the U.S., he and his fellow Dominicans are limited when it comes to ordering food in restaurants. Lacking more than rudimentary English skills, they tend to gravitate toward restaurants featuring pictures of food. They eat a lot of pancakes. Is Miguel's experience typical?

Fleck: "Every team is different. They have different amounts of money that they pump into their Latin American operations.* I think that they're pretty savvy about helping players: teaching them how to order food; teaching them computer skills. I think they realize that the more off-the-field skills these guys have, the more they're able to focus on baseball.

Denerstein: Not many of these young men are going to make it to the majors. Are they being exploited by baseball or are they being given a great opportunity?
Boden: Both. ... In a way, these athletes become commodities. That doesn't mean that baseball doesn't provide a lot of opportunity to some kids from very poor backgrounds ... But there's a social cost that we need to keep in mind. Miguel is able to get a little money for his family, but you also have kids dropping out of school at 12 or 13 because baseball seems a more attainable dream than becoming a doctor or lawyer. Some of those guys will never get signed and will never have an education. There are two sides to the coin. It's not out of bad intentions on anyone's part. It's a systemic problem.

Denerstein: Algenis Perez Soto plays Miguel, whose nickname, Sugar, gives the movie its title. Until you found him, Soto never had acted. How did you go about casting him?
Fleck: It was really hard. We went down to the Dominican Republic. We had this guy who would take us around to all these baseball fields. We would roll up, break out a video camera and invite kids from 13 to 24 to interview with us. Anyone who had a spark and who felt comfortable with us, we'd invite back. We'd give them a little scene that they'd prepare before they came in for the second time.
Denerstein: You've said that some of the people who came back for a reading were so unfamiliar with acting that they'd include stage directions and character names in their readings. I guess that didn't really matter.
Boden: We were looking for somebody with quiet confidence, somebody who was very natural in front of the camera. Algenis had a natural charisma. He made you want to watch him even when he wasn't talking.
Denerstein: Where is he now?
Fleck: Massachusetts. He has a girlfriend. He's hoping to say here and act.
Denerstein: I guess there's no equivalent of the baseball academies for aspiring actors.
Fleck: He went to one. (He's referring, of course, to everything Soto went through during the making of "Sugar.")

*Note: A spokesman for the Colorado Rockies told me that the club is well aware of the problems that Dominican youngsters can have when they sign with a big-league club. The Rockies offer assistance that begins when a young player is signed and extends throughout his career. The Rockies have an academy in the Dominican Republic, where stress is put on nutrition, as well as on language skills. Rockies pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez -- who speaks English well -- hails from the Dominican Republic, as do a long list of other players, including Manny Ramirez; David Ortiz; and Albert Pujols. For a list of Dominican-born Major Leaguers, click here.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Jamie Foxx's brilliant, disturbed solo

A mildly tormented Robert Downey Jr. does justice to Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. Jamie Foxx does more than justice to Nathaniel Ayers, a cellist who loses his grip on reality at Juilliard and eventually finds himself on the streets of Los Angeles, a homeless man caught in a schizophrenic maelstrom.

Despite a couple of fine performances, "The Soloist" -- an adaptation of a book Lopez wrote about his encounter with Ayers -- doesn't quite make it as a movie, perhaps because the script either feels cramped (when it concentrates on Lopez and Ayers) or padded (when it deals with Lopez' relationship with a former wife and current editor played by Catharine Keener). A relationship story in search of a movie, "The Soloist" has the unsatisfying feel of something cobbled together from a variety of Lopez's columns. Columns, by nature, are episodic; movies need stronger through-lines.

Despite Downey's best efforts, Lopez doesn't entirely work as a character. The script struggles to find ways to define Lopez's life, sometimes resorting to ploys so inelegant, they could pass for Jim Carrey out-takes -- two awkward scenes in which Lopez accidentally gets urine all over his clothes, for example. By the end, he's not sure about what he's accomplished by providing Ayers with a cello, taking him to a Los Angeles Symphony rehearsal and finding him an apartment. For his part, Ayers remains a paranoid schizophrenic with an immoderate love of Beethoven.

It doesn't help that director Joe Wright ("Atonement") burdens the proceedings with flashbacks to Ayers' childhood. An abstract set piece (a light show of sorts) proves more successful, showing us what Ayers experiences when he listens to Beethoven. If nothing else, it's a bold attempt to find a visual expression for what's transpiring in Ayers' mind.

For all its problems, "The Soloist" still may be worth seeing. It provides a platform for a difficult and powerful performance by Foxx. Dressed in sequined suits with his hair parted down the middle, Foxx conveys the pain of a man who can't escape the turbulent weather in his own mind. In those moments when Ayers emerges from the clouds of madness, we see a deep sadness in his eyes. Foxx also conveys the fatigue spawned by the ceaseless demands of schizophrenia and life on the streets. Ayers often stands under an overpass, playing a two-string violin. In what appears to be an act of willful isolation, he's removed from any listener.

It's always perilous to speculate about a director's intentions, but the movie's use of real street people and a general lack of sentimentality suggest that Wright was trying for something socially relevant and authentic. Up to a point, he succeeds: A sense of hellish chaos characterizes life in the streets. Still, this authenticity can't quite save a movie that has some beautifully realized moments, but never quite finds its rhythm.

Note: If you want a crash course in the story, but don't want to see the movie, watch a "60 Minutes" piece on Ayers and read Lopez's columns at a special page provided by The Los Angeles Times. Wisely, the "60 Minutes" piece tilts away from Lopez and toward Ayers.

'La Dolce Vita' in LA; fisticuffs in Brooklyn

Aside from the fact that both involve images on celluloid, "The Informers" and "Fighting" have little in common. I lump them together because both happen to occupy the fringes of pop-cultural consciousness on a Friday in late April. The prognosis: "Fighting" may draw a bit of crowd; I look for "The Informers" to hit the canvas fast.

Not to waste words, "The Informers'' -- an adaptation of a novel by Bret Easton Ellis -- is pure junk, a glossy bit of cinematic refuse that tries to pass off its cynicism as wisdom. Director Gregor Jordan tells the story of a cross section of Los Angeles types who are connected through their sexual activities, which ultimately are threatened by the dawning of the age of AIDS. Set in the prosperous but morally empty '80s, the movie indulges in a twisted kind of nostalgia, insisting that a life devoted to wanton physical pleasure is ultimately meaningless. To which I say, "You think?" The heart of this drama revolves around a threesome: Graham (Jon Foster) sleeps with his girlfriend (Amber Heard), who's also sleeping with his best friend (Austin Nichols). Not to worry, the three of them sometimes climb into the same bed. Around the fringes of this core of young actors are a variety of grown-up actors, all of whom have some 'splainin to do: Billy Bob Thornton portrays a movie mogul; Kim Basinger plays his distressed wife; and Mickey Rourke appears as a thug who kidnaps boys and sells them into sex slavery. In a sidebar story, another young man (Lou Taylor Pucci) travels with his father (Chris Isaak) to Hawaii so that Pucci's character can display his anger in a relaxed setting. Did I mention the rock star played by Mel Radio, a character so stupefied by drugs, he looks as if he's been slammed in the head with a two-by-four? Brad Renfro, gone from an overdose in real life, also appears in a small role. Enough. "The Informers" has only one other point of interest: A nearly unrecognizable Winona Ryder appears as a TV newscaster who's having an affair with Billy Bob's character. "The Informers" doesn't rise to the level of good exploitation or even medium-grade soap opera. The late and often great James Agee wrote the ultimate line that should be cited in all future reference to this one: "The picture deserves, like four out of five other movies, to walk alone, tinkle a little bell, and cry 'Unclean. Unclean.'"


It would be unfair to describe the new movie "Fighting" as junk, but it's not exactly great entertainment, either. Director Dito Montiel divided critics with his 2006 movie "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints." That movie had its problems, but it had no shortage of heart and autobiographical passion as Montiel recalled his youth in Queens, N.Y. This one's little more than a medium-grade formula job with a disarmingly off-kilter performance from Terrence Howard as a street hustler who arranges bare-knuckle fights. Howard's Harvey Boarden goes against the hustler grain, talking slowly and conducting himself with a sense of quiet courtesy. The story: Harvey thinks he's found a new route toward money when he meets Shawn MacArthur (Channing Tatum). He begins to arrange fights for Shawn, who quickly emerges as the new tough guy in the world of underground fighting. Gritty Brooklyn t-a-w-k can't really make the movie believable -- nor can a budding romance between Channing (who seems to be channeling Sylvester Stallone) and a waitress (Zulay Henao). The fights contain a few thudding high points, but are otherwise undistinguished. Credit Montiel with one inspired bit of casting. He hired Altagracia Guzman, the human firecracker who played a grandmother in "Raising Victor Vargas." As Henao's acerbic, no-nonsense grandmother, Guzman instantly brings the movie to life in a way that no amount of fisticuffs can. It's almost enough to make Montiel's fight club worth joining.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Animals -- up close and personal

Dad is out searching for food. Meanwhile, Mom is hanging with the kids, who are just beginning to wobble their way into the wider world. If we were talking about people, neither of these statements would generate much excitement. But we happen to be talking about polar bears. We're also talking about "characters" in "Earth," the mildly anthropomorphic Disney documentary that condenses the BBC series "Planet Earth," but still manages to offer some amazing wildlife imagery.

Directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield have made a movie that centers on migratory journeys featuring appearances by elephants, lions, humpback whales, penguins and more. My wife complained that "Earth," which attempts to increase our understanding and appreciation of animals, should have taken a less biased attitude toward ravenous lions. She probably has a point. Fothergill and Linfield set up many of the movie's situations in ways that make it difficult not to have a rooting interest. It's difficult not to want the grazing animals to escape the clutches of the animals that hunt them.

Part of this results from a narration -- read by James Earl Jones -- that's mildly informative, but a trifle too cute. Small matter. The real reason to see this film -- and it's an awfully good one -- involves its astonishing photography. The credits list three directors of photography, and they all do terrific work. They bring us close to animals, and create a genuine sense of wonder.

"Earth" reportedly represents Disney's attempt to get back into nature films, a genre that doesn't exactly quicken my pulse. I initially thought about skipping this one, but I put my reservations aside and went. I was glad I did.

Note: Younger children may find some of the scenes disturbing -- a polar bear clawing the back of a walrus in a desperate attempt to stave off death, for example -- but the film needed to include some harsh reality; the filmmakers probably wanted to remind us that nature is full of creatures that eat and are eaten. Those of us who reside at the top of the food chain have a responsibility to make sure that these animals continue to thrive on what has been an amazingly abundant planet. And, yes, the movie contains a bit of a warning about global warming.

Note: Jones took the place of Patrick Stewart who narrated the original BBC version, which took four years to make and has been billed as the world's most expensive documentary.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The sobering punishment of 'Hunger'

You'd rather go naked than wear the clothes you've been given. You smear the cement walls of your cell with your own excrement. You've run a gauntlet, screaming and fighting as merciless guards beat you with their batons. After being moved to more commodious quarters, you reject even this minimal increase in comfort. You smash everything in your new cell.

Having exhausted every other means of protest, you stop eating. A hunger strike is your last weapon. You've said it in other ways before, but now you must say it again: The prison will not take your spirit. The guards will not control you. You will deny the terms of your imprisonment even it results in your death. It is only through your refusal that the system will know it has failed and that you can be free.

Those are the kinds of things we're asked to experience -- at least in a cinematic way -- in director Steve McQueen's hash and harrowing "Hunger," now playing at the Regency Theatre at Tamarac Square. McQueen, a visual artist who has forayed into film, has given us a stark portrait of the imprisonment and death of Bobby Sands, an Irish Republican Army man. Sands died in HM Prison Maze in Belfast in 1981 after 66 days without eating or drinking. He was 27.

Oddly -- and, I think, wisely -- McQueen does not delve into the background of the IRA battle against the British. Although we learn something about what the prisoners want -- to be treated as political prisoners rather than criminals -- we're thrust into a world that's radically separated from outside concerns. Almost from the beginning, the prison environment takes over. Sands doesn't even appear until after the first act, which focuses on a newly admitted prisoner who's subjected to the torments of the place: its sounds, its stench, its absolute denial of the prisoners' humanity.

I don't suppose I need to tell you that the movie is difficult to watch. It's as close to the experience of these prisoners as you'd ever want to get. The only relief arrives roughly in the middle of the movie when McQueen stages a lengthy conversation (most of it presented in one take) between Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a visiting priest (Liam Cunningham). The two chide each other and exchange news. They smoke. It's as if they're warming up before getting down to business, discussing whether Bobby is upholding the highest moral standards or acting the deluded fool.

Fassbender lost a lot of weight to show us Bobby's hunger-strike decline; he conducts one of those crazy immersion exercises that sometimes seize the imaginations of actors, goading them toward new levels of daring that -- upon reflection -- make us wonder about the sanity of the enterprise. Fassbender's performance raises questions similar to those surrounding Bobby: Is the actor engaging in an act of artistic heroism or is he a little cracked?

Aside from the exchange between Bobby and the priest -- a kind of mini-play within the movie -- "Hunger" contains little dialogue. Still, it's anything but quiet. McQueen effectively uses the sounds of the prison, as well as its silences, most aptly called "dead" silences. These are the kind of silences you can hear, the kind that have weight.

For all the graphic displays of British brutality, "Hunger" doesn't exactly take sides. One of the guards (Stuart Graham) shows us the impact of perpetuating so much violence. He soaks his hands to relieve swelling from use of his fists. It's a simple idea, but one we seldom consider: The human hand wasn't made for punching. After each brutal session, the guard stands alone in the prison courtyard, smoking and possibly reflecting on what he's doing to others and to himself. Still, he's vicious beyond anything the situation possibly could require. A close-up of a youthful looking guard who just has participated in a beating tells a more obvious story. The man's lips begin to quiver. He'll probably never sleep well again. He's just a kid.

Moral questions arise without being uttered. They kick us hard in the stomach. They're obvious, but essential. At what point -- and why -- do we surrender our humanity? Yes, the movie brings Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo to mind. The British justified their extremism because they believed they were fighting terrorists.

I'm always torn by movies as graphic as "The Hunger." I keep asking myself what I'm gaining from watching all this cruelty. I then remind myself that that's probably not the point. Such cruelty has been (and is) part of our world -- or so McQueen seems to be saying. He demands that we see it. Concentrating our attention on Sands' prison experience, he locks the door and throws away the key. What we do next is up to us. Do we take the time to measure our own consciences or do we go about our business? Do we shake our heads at what we perceive as the futility of Bobby's persistence or do we acknowledge its worth? McQueen isn't arrogant enough to answer those questions for us, which is part of the reason his film is so undeniably powerful.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Russell Crowe keeps the presses rolling

The new thriller "State of Play" should make newspaper folks happy -- not because it's a great movie, but because it's packed with dialog that sings the praises of old-school journalism as opposed to blogging and other forms of Internet flotsam.

For me, the most moving part of the movie arrives during the end credits. We watch as the presses roll and an edition of the fictional Washington Globe makes its way toward the streets. Those of us who've spent much of our lives working for papers may not be able to view those credits without feeling a trifle obsolete. With more and more papers vanishing from the publishing landscape, the mighty roar of the presses threatens to go silent -- or at least be reduced to a sporadic growl.

OK, now that I've got that out of my system, a look at "State of Play," a tolerable thriller that stars Russell Crowe as an appropriately disheveled reporter for The Washington Globe. After a gripping opening involving a couple of murders, Crowe's Cal McAffrey finds himself in the middle of a story that involves his old college roommate (Ben Affleck), now a Congressman. Affleck's Rep. Collins has been working to expose a company called PointCorp, which is busy accumulating too much power. Cal's involvement in his new story is complicated by his friendship with the Congressman. It also doesn't help that he once slept with the Congressman's wife (Robin Wright Penn).

For all its topical journalistic references -- the Globe just has been bought by a media conglomerate that can't take its eye off the bottom line -- "State of Play" winds up having less to do with the fate of newspapers than with a web of conspiracy that has engulfed Washington. By now, the ingredients have become movie staples: corporate greed, an unchecked lust for power, sexual hijinx and the kind of personal rot that makes people want to run for cover -- or at least for the next cover-up. I kept wishing "State of Play" would reveal something new. I didn't want it to be satisfied with jaded beliefs that have become de rigueur. In "State of Play," cynicism feels like yesterday's news.

Say this, though: Crowe looks almost as bad as any journalist I've worked with. Hey, I said "almost." Rumpled, pudgy and sporting unfashionably long hair, Crowe's Cal refers to the whiskey he drinks as "Irish wine." He lives alone, a newspaper monk who's known to every cop in the city. Fortunately, Crowe adds touches of compassion to the role of a hard-boiled reporter who's annoyed that his editor (Helen Mirren) has teamed him with one of the paper's Internet reporters (Rachel McAdams). Cal regards McAdams' Della Frye as little more than a gossip monger. Of course, they develop a bond, and, no, it's not romantic.

As befits a good thriller, a complicated plot is dotted with small, tasty roles. Jason Batemen is slick and sleazy as a PR man who knows where bodies are buried, and Jeff Daniels proves convincing as the House majority leader. Mirren, who's given a lot of arch one-liners, makes the most of them.

The plot gets a bit too dense at the end, piling on details and twists, and I had the feeling that director Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland") was trying for something more meaningful than anything he's been able to achieve. "State of Play," which adapts and Americanizes a highly regarded British TV mini-series, proves entertaining enough, but it's not likely to write any lasting big-screen headlines.


Watching "17 Again" I felt as if I were turning pages in a book I'd read a thousand times -- and which wasn't all that great to begin with. Familiarity definitely bred a bit of contempt with this teen-oriented comedy, although fairness compels me to rank it as a middle-grade helping of high-school fare.

And, you can breathe at least one sigh of relief. "17 Again" magically turns a grown man (Matthew Perry) into a teen-ager, but spares us the agonies of time travel. Transformed into a kid, Perry's Mike O'Donnell doesn't go back in time; instead he joins his daughter and son in high school, an adult in a kid's body. Of course, Mike's children don't know that the handsome new kid in school is their dad. Wouldn't he look vaguely familiar to them? Evidently not.

The movie grows out of discontent. Mike has been stewing in bitterness for years because he refused a college basketball scholarship so that he could marry and support his high school sweetheart (Leslie Mann). She was pregnant, and Mike did the right thing. Years later, he's mired in regret. He has allowed his life to become one long look backward, a perpetual longing for what might have been.

Seventeen-year-old Mike is played by Zac Efron, a TV heartthrob and "High School Musical" star. If I cared about TV heartthrobs, I'd have gotten around to Efron sooner. He may well turn "17 Again" into a teen/tween success, and if the movie works at all, it's because Efron holds it together.

Of course, you don't believe a minute of "17 Again," but that hardly matters. I saw the movie several three weeks ago, and my precise reaction has been mercifully forgotten. I think I chuckled a few times. Nonetheless, I'll venture a prediction: Look for "17 Again'' to win the weekend at the box office and to enjoy a profitable life on DVD, thus proving that one should never underestimate the power of medium-grade comedy -- not in these distressed times.

'Skills' is poised to become a Denver hit

This looks to be a banner weekend for Denver filmmaking with two Denver-based films playing at the Starz FilmCenter.

"Skills Like This" -- which opens Friday -- was directed by Monty Miranda, who worked in Denver and studied film at the University of Colorado, but has since moved to Los Angeles. Having made a variety of national commercials, Miranda came to the attention of the indie film world when "Skills," his first feature, won the audience award at the 2007 South by Southwest Film Festival. The movie, which recently opened in New York and Los Angeles, is expected to become a major hit at the Starz FilmCenter, and any success that accrues to "Skills" certainly won't hurt the chances of other aspiring Denver filmmakers.

The movie's Denver ties go deep: It was shot in Denver with a lots of Denver crew; its most prominent comic role is played by Brian Phelan, who grew up in Denver and attended East High; and the movie's producer is Denver's Donna Dewey, Brian's mom and an Academy Award winner for her short film, 1997's "A Story of Healing." Brian's father, Jim Phelan, is also a Denver-based filmmaker, and a guy I'm working with on a variety of film projects. Yes, I know many of these folks, and, therefore, have recused myself from reviewing chores.

"Skills," a hit at last year's Starz Denver Film Festival, tells the story of a failed playwright (Spencer Berger) who tries his hand at bank robbery. Reviewing the film in The New York Times, critic Janet Catsoulis, said "'Skills Like This' gazes indulgently on 20-something aimlessness and the comfort of assigned roles. In Mr. Miranda’s hands sloth can be more appealing than you might think." Catsoulis also called Phelan's performance "terrific."

If "Skills" doesn't satisfy your hunger for Denver-based filmmaking, you may want to try Jamin Winans', "Ink," a movie that demonstrates what can be done locally even when a movie doesn't shy away from high-impact visual expression. Eerie and sometimes frightening, "Ink" has a high fantasy quotient, but also deals with issues of loss and reconciliation. (The movie has been doing brisk business at the Starz FilmCenter for the last six weeks.)

I've long contended that it's going to take a home-grown indie success to put Denver on the filmmaking map. You can head to the Starz FilmCenter this weekend and cast your vote. Will one (or both) of these films be the start of something big? Stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The art-house shuffle, a preview

Here's the early verdict on this weekend's art-house fare: The forecast calls for the arrival of a nimble bit of French romance and a very strange movie about the city of Tokyo.


First up: "Shall We Kiss?" This trifle of a comedy from director Emmanuel Mouret eventually tries to get serious. By the time we get to the end, though, it's a bit late for furrowed brows.

"Shall We Kiss?" -- opening Friday at the Esquire -- kicks off when Gabriel (Michael Cohen) puts the moves on a sophisticated-looking woman (Julie Gayet) who's trying to hail a cab in the city of Nantes. What appears to be a budding romance turns into something else. Over a couple of glasses of wine, Gayet's character tells the story of Parisian pals (Mouret and Virginie Ledoyen) whose friendship spills over into romance. Mouret’s character explains that he’s suffering from an acute lack of physical affection. Ledoyen's Judith decides to help relieve his misery, even though she's happily married.

The comedy stems from the detailed way in which the characters talk through their sexual intimacy. The initial exchange goes something like this:

Him: May I touch your breast?
Her: Yes.
Him: The other breast?
Her: Yes.

Those aren't exact quotes, but you get the idea. These lovers try to be as detached from their ardor as possible, which is what makes the scene amusing. It's as if they really believe they can drain their behavior of psychological complexity.

A lush musical score that’s reliant on Schubert and Tchaikovsky lessens the sting of the movie's many contrivances. This is one French movie in which what you see really is what you get. "Shall We Kiss?" resembles a nice glass of wine that lacks the kind of complexity that would make it truly memorable. It's one more big-screen bauble that evaporates from memory by the time you hit the parking lot. If not then, wait a day.


The anthology movie “Tokyo!” is another story. In fact, it’s three other stories – each from a different director. If the idea was to obtain three outsider views of Tokyo, the goal has been achieved -- albeit with mixed results. I wasn't entirely sure whether the movie was about the city of Tokyo or about the sensibilities of the three participating directors. I presume it's supposed to be a mix of both, but the short form doesn't exactly allow for balance. Directorial expression wins out.

-- Michel Gondry (“The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) offers the most playful of the three episodes. Gondry’s “Interior Design” begins when an aspiring filmmaker (Ryo Kase) and his girlfriend (Ayako Fujitani) move in with a friend while trying to establish themselves in Tokyo. Hunting for an apartment and for jobs proves a drag for the characters, but their period adjustment leads Gondry toward amusingly surreal territory. I'm not always partial to Gondry's work, but he never shortchanges an audience when it comes to imagination, and "Interior Design" is no exception.
-- French director Leos Carax dispenses with all charm in the most overtly toxic (and sometimes funniest) of the three episodes. In “Merde,” (look it up in a French/English dictionary if you don’t already know the meaning), Carax tells the story of a demonic madman (Denis Lavant) who lives in the sewers of Tokyo. Lavant’s character – a repulsively filthy fellow with an elfin beard – terrorizes the city. Comic edge gives way to horror when this creature begins flinging hand grenades around. Otherwise, Carax's dark humor prevails. Only a French attorney (Jean-Francois Balmer) is able to carry on a conversation with the creature, who speaks an unknown language and seems to embody every antagonism that lurks beneath Tokyo's teeming surface.
-- Korean director Boon Joon-ho, whose art-house horror movie “The Host” made a splash in 2006, submits the final entry in this sporadically successful trilogy. Bong focuses on a hikikomori, the Japanese name for urban hermits who shut themselves up in their homes. They eat take-out food and never venture beyond their thresholds. In this case, the hikikomori (Teruyuki Kagawa) hasn't left his house in ten years. He's jolted out of his homebound stupor by a pizza delivery girl, by earthquakes and by the need for the film to be about something other than the neatly stored pizza boxes that Kagawa's character has accumulated.

I'm not sold on anthology films, but each of the three movies has something to recommend it. Each director has an idiosyncratic talent that either elevates the proceedings or turns them into a show-off's showcase -- probably a bit of both, and "Tokyo!" comes off more as a curiosity than a full-bodied movie experience. Look for "Tokyo!" at the Mayan starting Friday.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The harrowing journey of 'Sin Nombre'

"Sin Nombre" -- which translates to "without a name" -- has an abundance of an important movie ingredient: pulse. Although it expands our knowledge about the problem of illegal immigration, "Sin Nombre" shouldn't be regarded as a medicinal dose of socially oriented cinema.

Director Cary Fukunaga believes in big-screen excitement, and he begins his movie by introducing us to the fearsome Mara Salvatrucha gang in Mexico. To be initiated into the gang, 12-year-old Smiley (Kristian Ferrer) must submit to a terrible beating. Willy (Edgar Flores) -- a young man who already has begun to see his life as stunted -- sponsors Smiley's initiation. Willy may not have found an alternative, but he's aware of the dead-end dangers of gang life.

Willy's conscience -- perhaps awakened by his relationship with a young woman outside the gang -- brings him into conflict with the gang's leader (Tenoch Huerta Mejia). Mejia's Lil' Mago can be cordial, but he's also ruthless and sadistic. Willy eventually takes flight from the world of gangs and heads north.

I won't tell you how it happens, but Willy soon encounters Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a young woman from Honduras who's making the trip north with her father. Her initial meeting with Willy is anything but placid.

Scenes in which Fukunaga brings Willy and Sayra together take place on top of a freight train on which the migrants have hitched a ride. To call this an uncomfortable way to travel understates the case. These travelers are exposed to the violence of the weather and to roving bands of gangs who prey on them. It's a harrowing journey, and Fukunaga doesn't have to tell us that no one would undertake it without being driven or desperate, probably both.

"Sin Nombre" -- in Spanish with English subtitles -- is well acted and convincing, a reminder that the problem of immigration is multi-layered and complex. The movie's immigrants head north for a variety of reasons: to search for a better life, to feed their families or to escape some form of terror.

"Sin Nombre" introduces us to some of our unacknowledged neighbors to the south, people who risk so much in an effort to cross our borders. As we watch, we hope for the best and brace for the worst, and we realize how difficult it must be for many of these battered travelers to maintain hope in the face of grave danger.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

'Observe and Report' -- or don't

Right away I'm in trouble. When it comes to "Observe and Report," a dark and deeply twisted quasi-comedy starring Seth Rogen, I can't give you much advise.

Is it a go or no? Should you see it or should you stay home?

I can't supply that kind of opinion because I'm in the worst of all critical positions: I'm in possession of two contradictory views. On the one hand, I found "Observe and Report" repellent, a seriously screwed up comedy about a psychotic mall cop who's deluded and deranged. This walking ball of fury believes he's found his big chance when a flasher begins terrifying the mall's female customers. This is the stuff of humor you ask? Well, not exactly.

And that brings me to my second point of view. Director Jody Hill hits some really interesting notes. "Observe and Report" isn't riotously funny, but it operates on a series of strangely inverted comic principles: sad scenes often are built around gross dialogue; barely suppressed rage bubbles beneath many of the gags; and the predicaments of the characters are wildly exaggerated. That makes "Observe and Report" a comedy of extremes that's embraced by Rogen with no apparent second thought. Rogen risks his popularity by making no attempt to ingratiate himself with his audience. His character is profoundly obnoxious. I admired the movie's grim audacity. Call it a critic's thing.

Know this: "Observe and Report" is not a comedy about a guy who loves gross-outs but ultimately finds his quotient of mushy love. It's a comedy about a deviant who believes he has law-enforcement hero potential. The movie suspends you somewhere between a laughter and nausea with scenes such as the one in which Rogen's Ronnie Barnhardt -- head of security and the Forest Ridge Mall -- listens to his alcoholic mother (Celia Weston) tell him how she spent the night passed out on the floor in her soiled underwear. Not a picture you want rolling around your head. Or consider the scene in which Ronnie makes love to a drunken cosmetics clerk (Anna Faris) and Hill thoughtfully shows us traces of her vomit on the pillow.*

I bring up these gag-inducing details in a buyer-beware spirit. If you go -- and that's an every-person-for-him-or-herself decision -- you should at least know what you're getting into, namely a comedy that unfolds with little consideration for how an audience will respond.

At risk of boredom, I'll say it again. This is no more a typical Seth Rogen comedy than Jay Cutler and Josh McDaniel are best friends.

Say this: Faris is as willing as Rogen to dive into the fermented spirit of "Observe and Report." Michael Pena has an inspired comic turn as a fellow cop and Ronnie's best friend. The two share a scene in which they get high and beat up skateboarders. Fun, no?

Ray Liotta is stuck in the role of straight man; he plays a detective who torments Ronnie, exploiting his cop-wannabe delusions. "Observe and Report" has such a skewed sensibility that you may find yourself rooting for Liotta. That's because Hill tilts the board so that we're never quite sure how to react. Is it funny that Ronnie taunts a Middle Eastern mall worker? Why does Hill feel it necessary repeatedly to show the boss at a sticky-bun stand abusing one of his workers (Collette Wolfe)? And when the time arrives for the flasher to reveal all, did we really need to see it? This flasher is not only exposing himself to the movie's characters, but to the audience.

In the end, I'm not sure that Hill has made "Observe and Report" for anyone but himself, and his movie is light years away from "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," a movie that's bound to share some blame for attracting the unsuspecting to Hill's more user-hostile effort.

I don't know what to make of the movie, so I'll simply repeat that I'm of two minds about it. I found it revolting and I found it daring. I can't say that I look forward to Hill's next movie or that it makes sense for this kind of kinky indie to be released in a multiplex setting. I was amazed at how far Hill was willing to go in giving his movie a sad, ugly spin. I also didn't know what to make of the fact that two older women sitting next to me seemed to think it was pretty funny. Why should I have? Nothing about this weird anomaly of a movie makes sense.

* In case you don't get to the comments on this post, an elaboration: The cosmetics clerk is passed out at the time that Rogen's character is imposing himself on her. A reader points out that this isn't making love, but rape. Possibly to avoid the issue of rape, Hill has Faris' character wake-up during the act and encourage Rogen's character to continue. I guess that's supposed to signal her consent. The point I was trying to make was that the whole business is intended to be distasteful. "Intended" is the operative word. We're supposed to laugh because Rogen's sicko mall cop is so deeply insensitive that he doesn't care that his date has passed out and thrown up. The joke -- if it is a joke -- isn't about the nature of the act, but about the magnitude of Rogen's character's boorishness. On the flip side, the joke on Faris' character involves her nonchalant acceptance of her role as drunken slut. I'm not saying any of this is funny -- but I want to clear up any possible confusion about the nature of the scene, which I probably should have spent more time describing. Should I have used the phrase "making love" for what's going on? Probably not, but I was conscious of not wanting to be as graphic as the movie. I also was more focused on the detail of the carefully placed vomit than on the supposed main action of the scene, which may be precisely what Hill wanted. In any case, the point of what I was saying remains: Hill's movie seems to be trying to create a tension between what might be regarded as amusing and what normally would be seen as appalling.

The verdict is in: '12' is gripping

The idea of remaking Sidney Lumet's 1957 drama, "12 Angry Men," in a contemporary Russian setting seems a bit bizarre. Lumet's movie, which had its roots in the cauldron of live American television of the '50s, can be seen as a kind of triumph of liberal values. In Lumet's tightly wound story, an architect played by Henry Fonda -- an actor of unmitigated decency -- held his ground against 11 jurors who initially saw the case as open-and-shut.

As if to up the liberal ante, the defendant in Lumet's movie was a member of what critic Pauline Kael called "an unspecified minority." I don't mean to sound unappreciative or to denigrate Lumet's sturdy morality. I love "12 Angry Men,'' which remains a gripping little movie in which Lumet brilliantly solved the problem of working within the confines of a single room.

I suppose those who once presided over Soviet cinema would have dismissed "12 Angry Men" as a bourgeois fantasy in which an obviously educated man proved morally superior to some of the bigoted working-class stiffs on the jury.

The times, of course, have changed. Nikita Mikhalkov's post-Soviet "12" pays homage to Lumet's work -- albeit in its own, distinctly Russian way. Mikhalkov -- who won a best foreign film Oscar for 1994's "Burnt by the Sun" -- astutely avoids turning his movie into an act of stylistic or thematic mimicry.

Lumet raised the intensity level by refusing to "open up" his story. He didn't add scenes that were best left to the imagination. He used the claustrophobic qualities of a one-room setting to great advantage, concentrating on the character of the jurors and the high stakes of their deliberations. It should surprise no one that by the end, 12 Americans from different backgrounds overcame their idiosyncracies and did the right thing.

Mikhalkov keeps the frame of Lumet's story and even some of its plot points, but takes a radically different approach to the movie's style. Instead of emphasizing the suffocating nature of the setting, Mikhalkov contrives to place the jury in the large gymnasium of a Moscow school. The discipline imposed by four-wall confinement gives way to flashbacks, and Mikhalkov pounds home the drama with disorienting close-ups.

Thematically, Lumet emphasized the importance of courage and persistence. The justice system was sound, but men had to find the fiber to live up to its demands. Mikhalkov also applauds individual initiative, but he doesn't seem to believe that systems can accommodate truly just results. In an atmosphere of severe ethnic strife can decency prevail? How much responsibility are ordinary people willing to take in answering such a question?

Where Lumet's movie -- from a script by Reginald Rose -- didn't really define the defendant's ethnicity, Mikhalkov makes it central to the story. He focuses on a Chechen youth (Apti Magamaev) who has been accused of killing his Russian stepfather. The politics of prejudice -- Russian antipathy toward Chechens -- are augmented by the anti-Semitism of one of the jurors.

Because he has opened up the drama, Mikhalkov may have felt that he could enlarge it in other ways. Actors are given long character-revealing monologues, and, at times, pressurized drama boils over into melodramatic exclamation.

As was the case with Lumet's movie, we're introduced to characters who may be stand-ins for various components of Russian society: an indecisive TV producer, a Jewish man who parries the anti-Semitic thrusts of the most vitriolic juror, and a surgeon who eventually reveals something surprising about the range of his knowledge.

The role that Fonda played in the American version goes to Sergey Makovetsky; he's the juror who first raises the possibility that the Chechen youth may be innocent. Mikhalkov himself appears in the film, playing the character who provides a summation of the movie's themes. This coda feels a bit tacked-on, but it allows Mikhalkov to make the film his own and rounds out the expression of his ideas.

So, yes, "12" differs from its American predecessor, but in an odd way, it's entirely faithful to the spirit of 1950s American television which sometimes wore its conscience on its sleeve. "12" also tends toward obvious declamation, and it, too, leans toward revelatory moments that might as well have a great "ah ha!" scrawled across them.

Take these reservations as just that -- minor criticisms of a generally intriguing work that proves that a story can make the journey from Manhattan to Moscow and still hold us in its grip. To put it in the most reductive way possible: On a scale of one-to-ten, I'd put "12" at about a nine.

The movie opens Friday at the Mayan.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Prepping for "Hannah Montana: The Movie"

Here's how I prepared for "Hannah Montana: The Movie," a film that this weekend could knock "Fast & Furious" off its No. 1 perch.

-- I watched the trailer and learned that the story puts Hannah in touch with her roots and helps shrink her swollen pop-star ego. To accomplish this vital task, Hannah's dad brings her to Crowley Corners, Tenn., so that she can receive something we all desperately need, a lesson in what's truly important. New music videos?

-- On that score, I watched a few seconds of a music video on the official "Hannah Montana" Web site. I didn't make the journey to iTunes in search of more iPod material, but I did discover that "Hannah Montana" star Miley Cyrus has plenty of talent. This is someone the camera loves and probably vice versa.

-- I pondered the movie's capsule summary of itself: "She has the best of both worlds ... Now, she must pick just one." Ah, I thought, an examination of identity issues. Sounds deep. Not Leibniz deep, but still...

-- I read the Wikipedia entry on "Hannah Montana." Guess what? There are lots of Hannah Montana products you can buy: clothes, jewelry, dolls, etc. Sweet.

-- I read a report that President Obama watches "Hannah Montana" with his daughters. I wondered if the president soon will be tapping his toes to rhythms of "Hoedown Throwdown," one of the movie's songs. For a "Hoedown Throwdown" dance lesson, click here. Come on, admit it. You know the Macarena doesn't do it for you anymore.

-- I noticed that Lael Lowenstein of Variety described the movie as "a kind of meta-commentary, at least in part, on the 'Hannah' phenomenon." That ought to make tween pulse rates rise.

-- I read that Miley Cyrus, who's 16, has been making promotional appearances for her new memoir. Yes, memoir. I would have thought it best to wait until age 18 before beginning a memoir, but that's just me.

-- I learned (from that Miley Cyrus is a vegetarian and that someday she hopes to read the entire Bible. Me too. The Bible part, that is.

-- I read Christy Lemire's review of "Hannah Montana: The Movie," which begins by noting that "'Hannah Montana: The Movie' just shouldn't be analyzed from an adult perspective — which, frankly, is irrelevant."

I agree. That's why the one thing I didn't bother to do was see "Hannah Montana: The Movie." Why should I? The movie looks as if it has been well-made and has a serviceable premise. It includes 18 songs, and is bound to give its target audience precisely what it wants. I'm happy to say that I'm not entirely sure what that is, but I'm not about to stand in the way of hordes of stampeding girls as they race to watch their heroine bounce into multiplexes everywhere.

So, you go, girls. This one's for you. You'll excuse me if I wait here.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Audiences race to "Fast & Furious"

So what did America do this weekend? Did it pore over baseball previews in the nation's newspapers? Was it glued to the NCAA basketball semifinals? Was it nervously tapping its toes in expectation of Sunday evening's return of HBO's "In Treatment?" Or maybe it was quietly -- or not so quietly -- fuming over bank bailouts?

The country may have been doing all those things, but it also spent a lot of time and money on "Fast & Furious," the fourth installment of a series that kicked off in 2001.

According to Box Office Mojo "Fast & Furious" raked in $72.5 million in its opening weekend, making it the biggest grossing movie of the year to date. Note: I did not say the grossest movie of the year so far. That might be "The Last House on the Left," which has made only $30.7 million since it hit the nation's screens four weeks ago.

As it turns out, "Fast & Furious" also scored the biggest April box office victory in the history of ... well... everything. Time Magazine's Web site reported that "Fast & Furious" beat 2003's "Anger Management" in the all-April sweepstakes. That movie's stars -- Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson -- were able to scare up only $42 million in their first weekend. I'm not ready to say that Vin Diesel and Paul Walker -- the stars of "Fast & Furious" -- could outrace Sandler and Nicholson every time, but they did it this weekend.

In my ceaseless effort to remind you of the great power that critics wield, I direct you the aggregate review site, which reported that "Fast & Furious" scored a meager 45 (out of 100) with surveyed critics. Don't like that score, try Rotten Tomatoes. That site's cumulative rating for "Fast & Furious" topped out at a woeful 24%.

Audiences don't always love what critics hate, but it does break that way sometimes, even in April. Or maybe it's just as Nikki Rocco -- Universal Pictures head of distribution -- told Variety: Great pictures can open at all times of the year.

Or maybe not. Maybe the grand opening for "Fast & Furious" shows that young audiences -- 60% of those who turned out for "Fast & Furious" were under 25 -- like big-screen action. Whatever the explanation, the picture's success definitely tells us that there'll be another "Fast & Furious" and perhaps another after that.

So relax. At least someone’s future is secure. Walker and Diesel may be able to work the “Fast & Furious” franchise until there's nothing left for them to do but race for the early-bird special. Gentlemen, rev your walkers.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Amusement parks, aliens and the movies

I grew up five blocks from Palisades Amusement Park, a long-gone amusement park in Cliffside Park, N.J. I even worked there for part of a summer. As a former age guesser, I was particularly interested in "Adventureland," a slight but pleasant coming-of-age movie about a young man (Jesse Eisenberg) who lands an amusement park job, hangs out with his fellow employees and falls in love with a kindred spirit (Kristen Stewart). I played lots of pinball in my spare time at Palisades. I did not fall in love and I ate too many of what I still regard as the best French fries ever made.

Greg Motolla ("Superbad") has directed three features, beginning with 1996's "Daytripper." Oddly, "Adventureland" feels more like a first movie than a third, perhaps because Motolla offers a collection of small insights and minor characters and gives his movie an autobiographical feel.

No one in the movie is as colorful or interesting as some of the characters I met during my amusement park days -- remind me to tell you about a guy named Applejack sometime -- but Motolla has a gentle approach that makes his movie easy to take. Even a local womanizer (Ryan Reynolds) -- a character we're prepared to dislike -- turns out to be less obnoxious than expected. Another character (Martin Starr) becomes the object of an anti-Semitic attack, and an attractive young woman (Margarita Levieva) turns heads even as she proves that her's is rather empty.

"Adventureland" is awfully slender, but it's insightful in its low-key way, and if you liked Eisenberg in "The Squid and the Whale," you'll probably enjoy him here. No point belaboring: "Adventureland" is one of those nicely observed films in which modest ambitions become a definite virtue.

"Alien Trespass" spends 90 minutes attempting to parody the kind of sci-fi movies that were popular during the 1950s. Here's the drill: An alien spacecraft lands in a small town. An alien takes over the body of a scientist who works at the local observatory. The alien turns out to be doing Earthlings a favor: He wants to stop the onslaught of a planet-threatening, one-eyed monster that turns its victim into puddles of goop. Shot in colors that would feel right at home in any '50s kitchen and full of tacky effects, the movie does a nice job of observing the details of '50s life -- at least as we like to imagine it. Too bad, "Alien Trespass" faces an insurmountable obstacle. No parody of '50s sci-fi can be as funny as the real thing. A game cast led by Eric McCormack of TV's "Will & Grace" provides a few chuckles, and director R.W. Goodwin displays an obvious affection for the genre he's satirizing. But the movie's too mild for its own good, and the one thing it can't replicate is the mixture of innocence and paranoia that fueled '50s sci-fi and which made the strange sounds of the Theremin so perfect for it. (Don't know what a Theremin is? Have fun googling away.)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Car sick: "Fast & Furious" returns

Back in the ancient days of popular culture -- that would be 2001 -- director Rob Cohen found himself at the helm of a movie that made lots of noise at the box office. "Fast & Furious," which plunged us into Los Angeles' street-racing scene, had plenty of action, and, for once, little of it felt digitally created. "The Fast & The Furious" was an adrenalin shot of a movie, and at the time, we weren't even sick of Vin Diesel, who played street-racing guru Dom Torreto.

Two sequels later, Diesel reunites with Paul Walker, who appeared in both the first and the less interesting second movie. Justin Lin, who directed the third movie ("Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift"), takes charge of the fourth movie, a gratuitous reunion tour that speeds us through Southern California and Mexico. The plot has something to do with drug smuggling and with Dom Torreto and Brian O'Conner (Walker) working out differences that have been hanging around since the first installment. Torreto's a street guy; O'Conner earns his living as an FBI agent.

Story doesn't much matter because the movie really exists only to put petal to metal. That wouldn't be so bad if we actually cared who survived all the fender-bending brutality. And although this edition builds on the first movie -- racing around like crazy in the bargain -- it doesn't really go anywhere. In what amounts to its biggest novelty, "Fast & Furious" spins its wheels underground. A prolonged chase sequence hurtles through secret tunnels connecting the U.S. and Mexico.

I don't know where Diesel trained as an actor, but wherever it was, they evidently didn't believe in facial expressions. Walker is like a poor man's Keanu Reeves, and, no, I don't even want to think about what that might mean.

The movie starts with a bang -- Dom and cohorts -- try to hijack a semi-truck on a winding mountain road in Latin America. This action sequence allows Lin quickly to put his cards on the table. "I am director." "Hear my movie roar."

I enjoyed the original, which seemed to barrel out of nowhere, and found the Tokyo edition to be sleek and stylish, but this one left me cold. Instead of speeding up my pulse, it made me walk a little faster toward my car, eager to rev the engine and get home to a good book. Once there, I did, however, find myself turning the pages at a faster-than-usual clip.

A brief history of LA's most feared gangs

Before he's done, Stacy Peralta may wind up exploring every known subculture in southern California and a few we've yet to unearth. Peralta started with skateboarding ("Dogtown and Z-Boys") and advanced to big-wave surfing ("Riding Giants"). In what amounts to a major expansion of previous interests, Peralta now turns his attention to another LA phenomenon -- gangs, notably the Crips and the Bloods.

"Crips and Bloods: Made in America," which shows at the Starz FilmCenter beginning Friday, might be the most powerful and important documentary Peralta thus far has attempted. It deals with economics and race, and it tries, as few films have, to put gang activity in a social and historical context. It also charts the evolution of a gang mentality that increasingly has relied on the kind of firepower usually associated with small armies.

Peralta -- and I think this is one of his strengths as a filmmaker -- is not a fly-on-the-wall kind of guy. He seems to believe in underscoring the drama in his material. As it turns out, South Central has no shortage of drama, much of it lethal. According to the film, more than 15,000 young men have died in Los Angeles during the last 20 years as a result of gang-related activity.

"Crips and Bloods" revolves around testimony from former gang members who've been on and around the block. They explain how they became involved in gangs, and of how gang activity has morphed into an apparently intractable problem. Factors contributing to gang membership -- back in the day and now -- include rejection by the larger society, a proliferation of fatherless households and brutality at the hands of the LAPD, which is portrayed less as a law enforcement agency than an occupying army.

In reviewing "Crips and Bloods" in the New York Times last January, Manohla Dargis argues that Peralta wrongly conflates the history of Los Angeles' black population with that of the gangs. While I was watching the film I had a similar reaction: The difficulty with Peralta's approach, I thought, mirrors the difficulty we have in thinking about gangs at all. In trying to understand gang behavior, how do we determine where social forces leave off and personal responsibility begins? It is possible -- if I may coin a word -- to "sociologize" the problem out of existence?

Having said that, I wouldn't back off a strong recommendation for "Crips and Bloods," which is both harrowing and heartbreaking. How heartbreaking? As heartbreaking as the silent tears that roll down the cheeks of mothers who've lost their sons to gang violence. Toward the end of the film, Peralta photographs these mothers without asking them to speak. The camera lingers on faces etched with sorrow. Nothing more needs to be said.

The pain and grief of these women makes a good starting point for our own response: How long are we going to tolerate so much violence and wasted potential? The value of Peralta's film is that it asks us to grapple with such questions while insisting that we not dismiss gang members as part of some hopeless criminal rabble.

No matter how you feel about that, it's difficult to argue with Peralta's overall approach; commendably, he tries to give us something most gang-related movies lack: perspective.