Thursday, May 28, 2009

'Up' brims with wild delights

Carl Fredericksen is 78. He's also one of the main characters of a new animated movie from Disney via Pixar. Building an animated movie around an elderly man is amazing enough, but the unusual qualifies of "Up" don't stop with Carl's age. The movie also deals with death and grief and how Carl ultimately responds to losing his wife and life partner. Maybe that's why "Up" was chosen as the opening-night film of the recently concluded Cannes Film Festival. Watching the movie makes you wonder -- at least a little -- whether the guys at Pixar aren't bolder and more imaginative than many of the folks making live-action movies.

None of this is to say that "Up" is a downer: It's not. The movie's prescriptions for Carl are delightfully preposterous; they're also an expression of the kind of imaginative dreaming that movies always have done better than any other medium. Sure ''Up" has it sad moments, but they're played against a background of adventure and cartoonish action that's both down-to-Earth and wacky.

Before we go any further, let's deal with the matter of 3D. Yes, "Up" can be seen in 3D. That's how I saw it. Beautifully and richly colored, "Up" doesn't need 3D. It has interesting characters, enough action to please kids, enough seriousness to keep adults occupied and an overall spirit that can be sweet without turning saccharine. 3D? I don't think I'd have enjoyed the movie any less without it.

The story begins by introducing us to a Carl as a child. "Up" then proceeds to chronicle Carl's life -- from a boyhood in which he fell in love with the idea of adventure through the mundane but touching aspects of his marriage to Ellie, his childhood sweetheart. I watched in disbelief as directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson bravely used a series of vignettes that, among other things, showed the couple losing a baby and remaining childless. The directors even take us through Ellie's hospitalization and death as an older woman. These scenes from a marriage represent a nifty bit of animated storytelling, but we quickly realize that what we're seeing is only a prelude.

Within a matter of minutes, the bright-eyed boy from the movie's opening becomes another gray grump, an old man voiced by Ed Asner. Enter eight-year-old Russell (Jordan Nagai), a Junior Wilderness Explorer who's looking to earn a merit badge by assisting the elderly. I won't burden you with plot details, except to note that the movie trades its early realism for a healthy chunk of fantasy.

Appalled by the fact that he's being shipped to a retirement home, Carl ties hundreds of helium-filled balloons to his house and uproots it. His plan: to float to Venezuela so that he can land on top of a mountain at majestic Paradise Falls, a place he saw in a newsreel as a kid. Of course, Russell winds up taking the trip with Carl.

From that point on the movie opts for comedy and adventure: Not only do we get flying houses, we get talking dogs, a giant zeppelin called "Spirit of Adventure," wild cartoonish action, a giant bird named Kevin and a villain worthy of all the hisses we can muster. Baddie Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) wants to capture Kevin and bring the bird back to the U.S. Muntz is introduced in the movie's opening scene, which shows young Carl at the movies. He's watching a newsreel about Muntz. It seems that Muntz -- a dashing adventurer -- was denounced as a fraud when he brought the skeleton of a giant bird to the U.S. By capturing Kevin, Muntz hopes to vindicate himself and silence his critics. Of course, he'll stop at nothing to make his point.

If all of this suggests far-fetched adventure, you've got the idea. As it progresses, ''Up" becomes zanier, but both Russell and Carl retain personalities that are grounded in reality. Carl gradually sheds his desire to keep things just as they are, a desire that's embodied in his devotion to the house that he and Ellie renovated and which he can't let go of. Russell's a kid and nothing more, but there's something about his sincerity that touches Carl and helps him relinquish his hold the past. This all comes across as more sweet than profound, but credit "Up'' for not shrinking from recognizable emotions.

If little ones don't totally get the movie, they probably will be swept away by its physical comedy and by characters that aren't always far removed from a cartoon universe. Look, I don't want to oversell "Up," but its combination of imaginative daring and emotional realism took me by surprise. "Up" leaves you feeling a little sad and a little happy. But most of all, it leaves you feeling grateful that you felt something. Nice work, Pixar.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Mike Tyson, the real 'Raging Bull'

In "Tyson," director James Toback takes us inside the mind of the former heavyweight champ. It's not a pleasant place to be.

I saw the movie before Tyson lost his 4-year-old daughter to an accident involving a treadmill. I don't know how I would have reacted to the movie had I seen it after this horrible incident. Would Tyson have seemed even more tragic? Would recent news further heighten the sense of pathos that surrounds the former champ. I don't know. All I know is that Tyson is not a guy who needed more pain in his life, and when I read about his daughter, my heart sank.

How you react to Toback's documentary -- which consists of a Mike Tyson monologue, footage from his bouts and additional material -- depends on whether you find Tyson interesting or overbearing or a combination of both. The Tyson we meet can be both self-aware and brutal, and his thoughts -- presented as he sits on a sofa in his California home -- range from insightful to truculent. In a weird way, watching "Tyson" is like being in the ring with him: He keeps coming at you. His observations have a relentless quality, so much so that after awhile you only can imagine what life might be like for Tyson. He lives inside his head all the time. We're just visiting.

So who is this guy? Tyson tells us that he was a frightened kid who learned that he couldn't stand to be physically abused by neighborhood toughs. He responded by getting tougher than anyone else. He dealt drugs. He got sent away. While in juvenile detention, he came to the attention of manager Cus D'Amato, who turned him into a fighter. Tyson found himself and then got lost again when D'Amato died. He became heavyweight champ at the age of 20. Tyson married Robin Givens. They divorced. Much later, he was tried and convicted for rape. He went to jail. He came to view sex as synonymous with power. He bit off part of Evander Holyfield's ear in a fight that took place late in his career. He's a clenched fist of a man, driven by furies that are never far from view.

At 43, Tyson no longer boxes. He can seem emotionally vulnerable, but half the time we don't know what to make of him. It's as if Tyson's constantly fighting a war within, and even he doesn't know who's going to win. Is it possible, as Tyson says, that his entire life has been a response to his fear of being bullied when he was a kid in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn?

Tyson claims innocence when it comes to his rape conviction. He describes himself as an extremist, a man who doesn't know how to live in the middle. In his prime, Tyson fought like an extremist. He would begin by looking at his opponent, sending out beams of hostility from his eyes. If the other guy blinked, Tyson knew that he'd win, even before the first punch was thrown. Like many young people who attain sudden celebrity, Tyson was ill equipped to handle it.

To this day, you can't be entirely sure that Tyson knows how to control himself. The mixture of danger and self-awareness, at minimum, proves fascinating. We wind up with an unfiltered look at a man who fought his way to the top, but hasn't always been able to conquer his own demons.

I could have done without some of Toback's visual gimmickry: split screens, etc. But in the end, Tyson overpowers everything else. It's the force of his rant that stays with you. And yet, there's something inconclusive about "Tyson," perhaps the feeling Tyson's moments of calm proceed some inevitable storm. He has lost the heavyweight title. He has lost his freedom. And now, he's suffered the worst loss of all, his daughter. No matter what else you feel about Mike Tyson, that's one loss no one would wish on him.

If you live in Denver, you may interested to know Carmello Anthony's company Krossover Productions was involved in the making of "Tyson." Anthony is listed as one of the film's executive producers. Next up for Krossover, a bio-pic about baseball star Roberto Clemente. For more on Anthony and his film exploits, check out this ESPN story.

"Tyson" opens in Denver Friday.

Real people, real issues in 'Summer Hours'

I love the French movie "Summer Hours," so if you see it and don't share my enthusiasm, we'll just have to agree to disagree. In my view, director Olivier Assayas has made an impeccably acted study of family deterioration and the disconnect between generations. Finally, a story that feels as if it's being lived by real people. Just as important, "Summer Hours" deals with things that matter to us all -- or should.

Normally, I wouldn't begin with the way a film looks, but in the case of "Summer Hours," the camera is a vitally important to the film's vitality -- and it has plenty. Cinematographer Eric Gautier, who shot the equally absorbing "A Christmas Tale," is one of the best in the business. Gautier knows how to move a camera in ways that keep us involved, capturing the rhythms of ordinary life and allowing important story points to emerge. There's something breathless, exciting and deeply relevant about his work.

In one scene, a woman answers a cell phone call, rises from her chair and leaves the room to talk in private. The camera follows her for a second, yielding to this momentary distraction. Quickly, the image reverts to the discussion that was taking place when the phone rang, a conversation among three siblings (Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling and Jeremie Renier). They're discussing what to do with the family's lovely country home now that their mother (Edith Scob) has passed away.

Grief and practical concerns threaten to overwhelm the characters. As if to complement the emotional quality of the moment, the camera forces our eyes to move more quickly than we'd like, almost as if time is racing ahead of us and we can't quite keep up. It's a way for Assayas ("Irma Vep" and a segment of "Paris je'taime') to heighten awareness about the current imbalance between stability and change.

As we soon discover, Scob's Helene was completely devoted to her uncle, a second-tier painter whose work is about to receive retrospectives in a variety of locations, including San Francisco. In addition to having become the caretaker of her uncle's art and reputation (and possibly more) Helene has amassed a considerable collection of valuable, museum-quality objects and antiques. On her 75th birthday, she already has concluded that her heirs will sell her beloved home and most of her possessions. In a way, she's anticipating the decline of the culture to which she has devoted her life.

Only Helene's oldest son (Berling) wants to maintain the house and its contents. He hopes everything can be passed along to Helene's grandchildren. Bincoche's Adrienne lives and works in New York and sees no benefit in holding onto the property. The same goes for younger brother Jeremie (Renier) who works for a company that manufactures sneakers in China. He and his family are about to move to Beijing, and he's in need of ready cash.

Assayas wisely keeps the conflict level low. This isn't a movie about a clash of sibling wills; it's about the inevitable way in which time and distance erodes family ties and in which powerful new forces can create a national sense of dislocation.

In a wonderfully off-handed moment, Berling's Frederic and his wife visit Musée d’Orsay, the institution that has been the recipient of some of Helene's things. They look at a desk that once was Helene's. Now, it stands alone in a museum, a kind of monument to its design. Just before Frederic and his wife enter the frame, a young man answers a cell phone call from a friend who's touring the museum with a group. He's obviously not riveted by what he sees and suggests that he and his phone friend take in a movie. You get the feeling that these pals are not headed to the local art house. Without underscoring the importance of the moment, Assayas encapsulates a generational attention shift -- from high to popular culture.

Frederic's awareness of what's happening makes the movie emotionally effective. He wants to keep the family home intact, but on some level, he knows that it's impossible. He's angry that his siblings plan to sell, but he also understands their position. Berling makes us feel both Frederic's sense of loss and his resignation.

Binoche's work also is pitch perfect. She's playing a woman who's devoted to a contemporary sensibility. She's engaged to an American and can be abrupt and emotionally removed from her siblings. At the same time, Binoche's Adrienne has a moving moment in the funeral home after her mother's death. She leaves the room where the body has been on display, sits down across from other brother and verges on tears. No words are spoken, but we see Adrienne's grief, as well as a suggestion that for all its drama, life ends too quickly and may not amount to much. Renier's performance is also good; his character knows how much his need for money is hurting his older brother. These are not characters who act blindly, but who understand themselves and their situations. Put another way, they're not afraid to display some intelligence.

Assayas ends the movie in a way that closes the story's circle without betraying its themes. "Summer Hours" establishes itself, at least for me, as an important movie. Its style is open-ended, even breezy, and its issues are both specific and universal. It feels current and yet establishes a connection with the French cinema of the past.

On one level, the message here is simple: Time vanquishes culture. Assayas isn't wringing his hands and whining about this; he's watching, observing, alert to the sadness and opportunity in the present moment.

"Summer Hours," then, is a work defined by sorrow and acceptance, two qualities that probably are essential for all of us who are old or wise enough to understand something about the aching beauty of passing time. But -- and this is an important caveat -- there are no traces of faux melancholy in "Summer Hours." Sorrow may be unavoidable, but Assayas refuses to succumb to pessimism. Perhaps it's going too far, but the movie's ending made me wonder whether Assayas doesn't know how to look into the abyss and wink. I think he may.

"Summer Hours'' opens in Denver Friday, and will slowly work its way around the country.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The story behind "A Chorus Line"


You might have a difficult time finding a more enjoyable movie this weekend than "Every Little Step,'' a documentary about the casting of the 2006 Broadway revival of "A Chorus Line."

Directors James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo take us through the casting process and give us a concise but telling history of the original production, the brainchild of the brilliant choreographer Michael Bennett, who died in 1987.

Inevitably, auditions for "A Chorus Line" mirror the musical itself, and, like the musical, the movie turns into a tribute to dancers who pin their hopes on landing a job on Broadway, a task -- we're reminded -- that's enormously difficult. Not only is talent essential, but dancers need an unnatural capacity to withstand criticism and rejection. In short, no one would pursue this kind of life without being driven by a mixture of ambition and desire that's apparent at nearly every turn. You think dancing on Broadway doesn't require grit? Think again. Some 3,000 dancers showed up on the first day of auditions. At the end, 19 were chosen.

The filmmakers follow the months of preparation that go into the show, focusing mostly on how each role is cast. Auditon footage is supplemented by interviews. We meet Donna McKechnie, who originated the role of Cassie on Broadway. We hear from Marvin Hamlisch, who wrote the music for the show. We also meet Bob Avian, who worked with Bennett on the original production and who's directing the revival. Baayork Lee, who played the role of Connie in the original and who's helping choreograph the revival, sounds what might be taken as the movie's them. Lee encourages the young dancers to "eat nails," an exhortation to give everything to every moment.

"A Chorus Line" began when Bennett gathered a group of dancers and asked them to talk about their lives. The filmmakers have found interviews with Bennett that give the documentary poignancy. A spectacular audition by a dancer named Jason Tam, who lands the role of Paul, adds emotional heft.

By now, "A Chorus Line" is familiar to most theater and moviegoers, but "Every Little Step" manages a neat trick: It renews interest in the show while giving us a new appreciation for the dedication it takes to dance on Broadway. Your heart breaks for those who don't make it and exults for those who do.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The buzz on Tarantino's 'Basterds'

Few films have been more eagerly anticipated than Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," which features a star turn by Brad Pitt and an intentional misspelling of its title, borrowed from a 1978 Italian WWII film by Enzo G. Castellari. Tarantino's movie, which debuted Wednesday in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, seems to be receiving wildly mixed reviews from the world's critics. Obviously, I haven't seen "Inglourious Basterds" yet, but I offer links to three Cannes reviews -- one from Variety, one from The Hollywood Reporter and one from The Guardian. Reaction in the so-called blogosphere seems generally positive with several over-the-top expressions of enthusiasm.

Reviews aside, nothing about the trailer dampened my enthusiasm for the movie, which finds Tarantino taking on Hitler and his Nazi hordes. Anticipation doesn't always translate into appreciation. Still, I wish that Tarantino hadn't taken his movie to Cannes, but had allowed it to reach his fans without benefit (or possibly hindrance) of festival buzz. But Tarantino evidently loves Cannes. He headed a jury at the festival five years ago, and won the prestigious Palm d'Or for "Pulp Fiction" in 1994.

One thing seems clear, though, "Inglourious Basterds" won't satisfy those who are looking for historical accuracy. It may, however, be just what the doctor ordered for those seeking a revenge fantasy from a director with an immoderate and undisguised love of movies. Stay tuned: "Inglourious Basterds" is slated for Aug. 21 release.

'Terminator Salvation,' a junkyard future

"Terminator Salvation" isn't a movie; it's a junkyard, an unadulterated mess that substitutes dark imagery for imaginative vision. Directed by McG, who also brought us "Charlie's Angels" and "We Are Marshall," this fourth installment of a series that deserved to remain in hibernation comes up short on ideas and inspiration. As grim as Christian Bale's expression (he seems to have only one) and as uninspired as Danny Elfman's thudding score, the movie turns itself into a relentless noise machine that's guaranteed to make your head hurt, which -- at least for some people -- qualifies it as superior entertainment.

"Salvation" takes us to the near future, a post-apocalyptic time when machines pretty much rule the Earth. The machines also are trying to squelch what's left of humankind. It falls to John Connor (Bale) to save his father (no that' s not a misprint) so that he can be born and become the prophet who will rescue humanity from the brink of extinction. Yeah, it's the same old Terminator plot, only filtered through a Mad Max Cusinart that turns everything into mush.

Bale, who should have stuck with Batman, doesn't really have much to do, aside from playing Sisyphus with the movie's plot. He's bested by Sam Worthington, an Australia actor who also figures heavily in the plot, but who manages to make his presence felt. It takes all of about two seconds to figure out the story behind Worthington's character, but that hardly matters. At least, Worthington tries not to fade into a background of rubble and discarded machine parts.

It's arguable that 1984's "The Terminator," which introduced James Cameron to audiences, is still the best of The Terminator movies, a tightly wound and acid-laced allegory. Since then, the movies have gotten bigger, but not necessarily better. This edition -- which boasts some of the worst dialog in a major summer movie -- revolves around Skynet, an artificial intelligence network that runs the terminators, which look like a cross between Transformers and giant skeletons. Put another way, they look exactly like you'd expect them to look in a big-budget B movie in which brawn outweighs brains.

Enough. Let others belabor this one. If you enjoy inflicting pain on yourself, "Terminator Salvation" is there to help. McG turns up the volume, tunes out logic and comes on like gangbusters. What does "Salvation" have to say? Nothing much, aside from the fact that, like Arnold, it promises to be back. Literally.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Another experiment from Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh's "The Girlfriend Experience" clocks in at 77 minutes, but can feel just as meticulous as his last opus, "Che," which ran for more than four hours. Though completely different on the surface, "The Girlfriend Experience" and "Che" share at least one common characteristic. Both movies deal with controversial subjects without necessarily expressing a strong point of view. Observant to the point of tedium, "Che" chronicled the ups and downs of guerrilla warfare in Cuba and Bolivia. "The Girlfriend Experience" takes a lingering look at the life of a young woman who works as an escort in Manhattan.

Clearly, Soderbergh doesn't shy from films with an experimental flavor. The best of these small films, "Bubble" (2005), made terrific use of a non-professional cast to create a murder mystery involving workers in an Ohio doll factory. In "The Girlfriend Experience" -- which stars porn star Sasha Grey -- Soderbergh pours his ingredients into an upscale test tube, presenting a slice of New York life in a moment of economic crisis. In the world of "The Girlfriend Experience," money rules. Money also seems to deaden everything, substituting style for life. That's a timely enough observation, but the movie never quite clicks, perhaps because it doesn't demand that we feel much of anything about its characters.

Setting his story during the last presidential election and on the eve of our current economic downturn, Soderbergh takes a look at a society in which business seems to be the only real form of communication, and in which prostitution serves as a metaphor for the ways in which everything has been commercialized -- from sex to fitness to companionship.

Grey's Chelsea works as an escort, but she tries to give full value for her services. She listens to her "dates," relates to them as people and even entertains the idea that one of them might portend a special kind of relationship. Although it shifts around in time, "The Girlfriend Experience" tries to follow Chelsea as she goes about her business while also attempting to maintain a relationship with her live-in boyfriend (Chris Santos), a young man who works as a personal trainer. He's also busy trying to expand his business.

Chelsea eventually learns something about the perils of criticism, subjecting herself to a review by a sleaze merchant (former film critic Glenn Kenny) who runs a Web site called The Erotic Connoisseur. Soderbergh's deadpan approach mirrors the soulless quality of the society he's depicting, but it doesn't make for the most involving of movies. And for a movie that tackles the corrupting seductiveness of capitalism, "The Girlfriend Experience" can feel devoid of committed passion.

The movie makes you wonder -- not so much about its characters, but about Soderbergh himself. With both "Che" and "The Girlfriend Experience" I found myself hoping to reach the place where craft stops and art begins. If that's the measure of success, both of Soderbergh's recent experiments intrigue but ultimately fizzle.


"The Girlfriend Experience" opens Friday. If you're looking for an art-house movie to tide you over, you'd do well try "Lemon Tree." The movie -- by Israeli director Eran Riklis -- opened in Denver last week and features a remarkable performance by Hiam Abbass, an actress who was born in Nazareth but who now lives in Paris. Abbass plays a widow who's trying to preserve a lemon grove from Israeli security forces. The Israelis want to cut down the grove because it borders on the property of Israel's defense minister (Dorn Tavory) and, in their view, represents a threat to his security. The situation can feel a bit contrived, but the depth and humanity of Abbass' performance compensates nicely.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

"Angels & Demons,' hellishly medicore

In my perfect world, Ron Howard and Tom Hanks would leave the Catholic Church alone. I'm not talking about the ability of either artist or director to mount effective assaults on matters of Catholic doctrine, but about aesthetic sins they've committed in the name of mass entertainment. In their second attempt to bring a work by author Dan Brown to the screen, Howard and Hanks have concocted an often-ridiculous sequel to the turgid, plodding "The Da Vinci Code."

Written by Brown as prequel but brought to the screen as a sequel by Howard, "Angels & Demons" seems to have been made to silence critics who snoozed through the first movie. It's as if the filmmakers want to tell us that they're skilled enough to get our pulses pumping. What once was talky has become action-oriented. What was dramatically tepid has been sprayed with gas-fueled melodrama. And the structure of the movie -- a point-by-point race against the clock in Rome -- should serve as an embarrassment to film students who are attempting to learn the subtleties of a well-balanced three acts.

In the only coinage that really matters in Hollywood, Howard probably has a hit on his hands. Though a bit mixed on the movie, Variety pointed out that "Angels and Demons" will make "an unholy amount of money." Maybe, but for me potential profitability does nothing to take the sting off a film that's short on both characterization and sophistication and which substitutes arcane Catholic jargon for real depth. I don't know about anyone else, but I have not eagerly been awaiting a concise definition of the duties of a Vatican Camerlengo, and if I had been, I probably wouldn't have expected to find it at a multiplex.

This time, Hanks' Robert Langdon is summoned to Rome to help stave off what he's told is a plot by a dissident group called The Illuminati. The Illuminati -- a splinter sect that evidently has a greater devotion to reason than faith -- is trying to avenge some long-ago purge of its membership. The group reportedly has taken four cardinals hostage just before a papal conclave is about to begin. With the election of new pope imminent, the kidnapped cardinals -- each considered a frontrunner for the pontifical office -- must be rescued. Langdon -- a symbologist by trade -- knows how to read the clues that will help stave off catastrophe, the threat of which has been made worse by the placement of a canister of anti-matter deep within the recesses of the Vatican. Yes, it's the old ticking-bomb trick, applied here without shame.

As our representatives of science -- Langdon and a physicist partner (Ayelet Zurer) -- race around Rome, often finding themselves at odds with the Vatican's head of security (Stellan Skarsgard) and an old-line cardinal (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who wants to proceed with the papal conclave regardless of any risk to the Vatican or to the thousands of onlookers who have gathered in St. Peter's Square. At various points, the church's Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor) tries to be of assistance, adopting what appears to be a measured approach.

OK. Here it is: Among other things, the Camerlengo takes over the papal duties between the death of the old pope and election of a new pontiff.

A ham-handed sprinkling of red herrings may supply some suspense, but "Angels & Demons" is a thrill ride without real excitement. And although the stakes are boosted -- possible evaporation of Rome -- nothing feels real other than the movie's need to rush from one scene to the next. The supposition, one supposes, is that if all the characters are breathless, we'll eagerly follow suit. And just in case, we don't take the threats against the cardinals seriously, Howard shows us several of them being murdered in particularly vicious ways.

"Angels & Demons" has set off a small firestorm of Catholic opposition, and there's plenty about which the Church might be wary. But in the fight between faith and reason, Howard -- working with screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman -- cops out. He tells us we need them both, delivering the message as if it were a sudden realization. If this movie had any teeth, someone conveniently pulled them. And unlike with "The Da Vinci Code" we never feel as if we're discovering some forbidden secret that might irrevocably alter the way we view our culture and ourselves. We're watching one more summer movie -- only with lots of choral music played loud enough to rattle the fillings of any angels who might be listening.

As for Hanks ... The movie is so intent on being propulsive, he could have stayed home. Maybe Nicolas Cage wasn't available. In fact, at times "Angels & Demons" reminded me of the kind of Jerry Bruckheimer treasure-hunting movies that have turned into cash cows for Cage. OK, maybe it's a bit more sophisticated -- but not much.

I know. This one will do great business. The fans will flock, and no one will be tempted to shout it out of town. But make no mistake: "Angels & Demons" is far from heavenly. It's hellishly mediocre.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Soccer and the sweet smell of success

The new generation of Mexican filmmakers -- led by a trio of Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu -- is getting older, but the group remains a loose band of cinema brothers who support one another and extend the courtesy to others.

This trio of important filmmakers -- now operating under the rubric "Cha Cha Cha" -- has produced "Rudo y Cursi," a comedy written and directed by Carlos Cuaron, a younger brother of Alfonso. Carlos remains best known for having written the far more engaging "Y Tu Mama Tambien," which was directed by Alfonso. Sorry to bog down in names, but here are two more: Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal, who starred in "Y Tu Mama,'' are reunited in a story about a couple of half-brothers who win a taste of soccer stardom.

Given all this, it's difficult not look at "Rudo y Cursi" as a kind of reprise, an attempt to capture "Tambien's" art-house magic in a new bottle. Not to worry. The movie manages to carve out turf of its own while offering a sly -- if never scalding -- critique of contemporary Mexican life.

"Rudo y Cursi," the nicknames the brothers acquire when they take the soccer world by storm, barely qualifies as a sports movie. Its insights into sudden celebrity may not be astonishingly fresh, but its depiction of Mexican society comes at us in ways that feel casual, even a bit chaotic. Even in the backwaters of Mexico, there seems to be a genuine longing for fame, and it burns most brightly in Bernal's Tato Verdusco, a young man who'd rather make his mark singing and playing accordion than in booting soccer balls around.

His bother Beto, portrayed by Luna, is the gruffer of the two, a staunch goalie who takes his soccer very seriously. The two eventually wind up in Mexico City. All this happens because a scout (Guillermo Francella) combs the countryside looking for hidden soccer talent. He comes on as agent and mentor to the boys, a role he might have been better suited to play had his character been a little less frayed around the edges. Beto falls into gambling and cocaine. Tato pursues a model (Jessica Mas) who's bound to break his heart in a very public way.

The movie's most ironic flourish remains at home in the provinces where the brothers once languished. A successful drug dealer -- perhaps the film's most stable character - marries their sister and begins providing for their mother, a task the boys had set for themselves. Although much of the story takes place in the world of high-powered soccer, the movie's real target has nothing to do with scoring goals: Its the fizzy, insubstantial nature of get-rich quick capitalism that Cuaron's after. These two brothers are nobodies who turn into somebodies without ever really becoming anybody.

A wry joke at the end helps give the film an airy feeling, and if "Rudo y Cursi" never really goes deep, it's a pleasurable enough pastime.

I don't know which would be worse: to have to write extensively about Jim Jarmusch's "The Limits of Control" or to have to sit through it again. Both probably are equally taxing because Jarmusch has made the great non-event movie of the year, so thin in plot that it hardly seems to be there. Meditative to the max, "The Limits of Control" follows a hit man (Isaach de Bankole) on a mission that takes him through Spain. John Hurt woke me with a cameo, but the same can't be said of the other actors who accompany de Bankole on this journey to nowhere: Tilda Swinton, Gael Garcia Bernal and Paz de la Huerta. By the time Bill Murray shows up at the end, I'd gone numb, having subdued even the impulse to bolt. Limits of Control? I guess where Jarmusch is concerned there aren't any -- at least not when to comes to flat-line minimalism.

Now out of fairness to Jarmusch. whose independence I respect, and his many devotees, some of whom are good friends, I provide this link to critic J. Hoberman's review, which ran in the Village Voice on April 28. If Hoberman, who has given the movie as sympathetic a reading as possible, entices you, proceed. But don't say I didn't warn you.

Both "Rudo y Cursi" and "The Limits of Control" open in Denver Friday.

Friday, May 8, 2009

A "Solo" flight worth taking

I know. You -- along with everyone else in the western hemisphere-- want to run off to see "Star Trek" this weekend. I'm not saying you shouldn't. I enjoyed "Star Trek" myself. (See review below.) But that super-buzzed helping of sci-fi isn't the only movie in town, and there's at least one smaller movie -- "Goodbye Solo" at the Chez Artiste -- that deserves particular attention.

Directed by Ramin Bahrani ("Man Push Cart" and "Chop Shop"), "Goodbye Solo" is an American gem, a movie that captures the texture of life far from the theatrical drumbeats that threaten to deafen us at the multiplex. Those familiar with Bahrani, who lives in New York but grew up in North Carolina, are well aware that he understands the immigrant and outsider experience. Just as important, though, he has a strong appreciation for the way life is changing around us, for an America that's being irreparably altered by more new faces than most of us can absorb. To reach the center of our current experience, Bahrani wisely moves toward its edges.

In his latest effort, Bahrani tells the story of an uneasy relationship between a Winston-Salem cab driver (Souléymane Sy Savané) and an embittered older southern man. The old white guy -- who reminded me a bit of Nick Nolte -- is portrayed by 72-year-old Red West, a guy who attained minor-legend status by working as a body guard for Elvis Presley.

Deeply influenced by its surroundings, "Goodbye Solo" has the ostensible look of an odd-couple pairing. But the African- immigrant and redneck story lines don't follow predictable arcs, and Bahrani has no interest in supplying viewers with a sentimental catharsis.

Bahrani isn't the kind of filmmaker who answers every question -- nor does he have to. His characters have depth, and they pull you into the spheres of anger and loneliness (the dog-faced West) and ebullience and hope (the engaging Sayane). Both characters have their needs, and both, finally, have their sadness. Bahrani's willing to leave it at that.

"Goodbye Solo" is only Bahrani's third movie, but he's already established himself as an important new voice in American movies. I wasn't able to see "Goodbye Solo" until the day before its Denver opening -- Friday -- so I may have to return to it later, but I wanted to say something about its opening.

So consider this an alert: Don't let "Star Trek" take all your moviegoing energy; save a little for a director who's carving a path that increasingly sets him apart from the rest of the pack. While movies assault the multiplex at warp speed, films such as "Goodbye Solo" are helping to keep American cinema alive. Look carefully, and you may even see some people who seem real.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

'Star Trek' hurtles us back to the future

Ever a source of unintended irony, Hollywood once again has launched its search for new frontiers by looking backward. Case in point: "Star Trek," the 2009 edition from director J.J. Abrams, the wunderkind who helped create the "Lost" series on TV and who also brought significant wallop to "Mission: Impossible III."

Seeking to tell us how the original "Star Trek" crew entered the warp speeds of pop culture, Abrams makes the clock work for him. His "origins" story may be spiffier looking than anything we associate with early Star Trek; it may lack the dorm-room philosophizing we once craved from the series; and the actors don't all seem like possible predecessors to the characters we've long associated with the original, which ran on television from 1966 to 1969. But the movie works surprising well, extending what has been reprised on film and in subsequent television incarnations that reach into generations that I never even started tracking.

A click or three short of perfection, "Star Trek" manages to get the summer season off to a better start than "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." Its story is swifter and the characters more engaging than those in "X-Men," and it's clear that Abrams has approached the project with an admirable mixture of respect and re-inventive spirit. I'm not sure the story -- how Capt. James Tiberius Kirk takes over the helm of the Enterprise -- is quite as strong as it might have been, but Abrams wisely glosses over confusion and gaps by moving as quickly as possible, and by building a solid base from which these ongoing -- and they will be -- characters can evolve or, perhaps more accurately, re-evolve.

The best discovery here may be Chris Pine, who portrays Kirk as a young man, a motorcycle-riding rebel whose father was killed in a clash with a Romulan vessel. Young James grows up in Iowa to be a butt-kicking, beer-drinking gold ole-teen with an aptitude for speed. He needs saving. Enter Capt. Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), a Starfleet commander who suggests that James swap bar brawling for a career of space exploration with the United Federation of Planets.

Kirk signs up, heads for the academy and is off and running -- straight into Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto), as it turns out. The filmmakers imagine the young Spock, already an important Starfleet officer, to be deeply wary of Kirk's reliance on instinct, so much so that at one point he throws him off a ship, leaving the series' future hero to fend for himself on an ice-covered planet. Meanwhile, Spock himself is riven; he's constantly negotiating a tug of war between his Vulcan and human sides. To feel or not to feel? That's Spock's question, and the script seldom lets it rest.

Like guests at an eagerly awaited party, the rest of the crew receives proper introductions, as well. John Cho signs on as Sulu; Karl Urban assays Leonard "Bones" McCoy; Zoe Saldana brings Uhura back to life, and Anton Yelchin does the same for Checkov. Mr. Scott, a winning Simon Pegg, is introduced later.

Unless you live in some alternate universe, you know by now that Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance as an older Spock. It's great to see him even if this time-travel element of the script might be its weakest link. And, of course, there's a villain. Eric Bana plays Nero. We know he's the villain because he's covered himself with facial tattoos and because he's out for revenge, blaming Spock for the fate of his vanquished planet. Credit Bana with underplaying his role, a nice idea in a movie that has no shortage of theatrical bombast.

If you're looking for action, "Star Trek" shouldn't disappoint. There are leaps off tall objects, dizzying flights through space and pitched battles. The Romulan space ship -- which looks like something grown under the sea -- proves suitably ominous, a floating mass of tentacles that resembles some sort of intergalactic bottom-feeder.

Acting? Only two roles really count: Pine captures Kirk's youthful arrogance and his growing maturity, some of which he may have gleaned from William Shatner's original portrayal. I thought that Quinto lacked the spectral aloofness of the older Spock, but perhaps he'll grow into it. The rest are fine, although Urban's "Bones" doesn't show much of the crust that distinguished DeForest Kelley's trademark portrayal. And it was unclear to me why Winona Ryder, who may be able to make a new career out of not looking like herself, was cast as Spock's mom.

I make these as personal observations that don't necessarily matter much, but which are part of the fun of watching a movie such as "Star Trek." This is one time when the game of compare-and-contrast isn't strong enough to be distracting. Besides, it offers enough fodder to set off lively debates among aficionados. About those Trekkies. Paramount seems to be positioning "Star Trek" in that part of market space known as "crossover;" it's supposed to satisfy old hands while making a new generation of friends. I suppose we'll have to wait official word from the blogosphere or wherever it is that Trekkies congregate these days before knowing whether Paramount has reeled all the old hands on board.

Trekkies aside, "Star Trek" does its job. It relaunches the series, gives a sizable collection of its actors the opportunity to earn paychecks in the years to come and proves once again that for Hollywood, space is not the final frontier. It's television. And, yes, that means it's almost always behind the times, but we'll leave that story for another day.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Now go rent the real 'State of Play'

It has been several weeks since a studiously rumpled Russell Crowe led the journalistic charge in "State of Play," a truncated version of the six-part British mini-series that made waves across the pond in 2003, and which was relocated to Washington, D.C. for Hollywood purposes. I'm currently immersed in the series, and I'd say that the Hollywood version -- which I thought decent though hardly superb -- suffers mightily at the hands of its English predecessor.

Unbothered by any need to lament the dying of U.S, newspapers or the undisciplined encroachments of the Internet, the British series simply dives into the messy world of reporting. According to the series, British cops and reporters trade secrets, sources sell information and ethical lines blur as fast as a rain drops on a smudged windshield. I won't reprise the labyrinthine plot, which is similar to what screenwriters Michael Matthew Carnahan and Tony Gilroy concocted for their movie, but will say that the story makes more sense when it's not being jammed into 127 minutes. Murder, political corruption, sexual improprieties and large amounts of money constitute a pretty full plate.

This is not to say that the BBC series should, in any way, be considered languid. Director Paul Abbott keeps the proceedings taught, wields a lively camera and staves off dullness. Yet, the story feels like it's actually unfolding in plausible chunks of time. The six-episode format also allows relationships among the characters to develop in keener and more revealing ways, and not everything needs to be presented in the kind of compact shorthand style I remember from the movie.

John Simm, who plays the main reporter in the case, is not Russell Crowe, an actor of considerable heft. Simms is slighter and less easily pinned down than Crowe. And unlike Crowe, the British script doesn't fuss over his character, loading him with traits that are meant to set him apart from everyone else -- unfashionably long hair, a pudgy body and a desk that looks as if only a cyclone might clean it. Simm's Cal McCaffrey, like Crowe's version of the character, can be morally conflicted, but he's generally more at ease in his surroundings.

The Hollywood version, which was directed by Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland"), passes a certain kind of muster, particularly when it comes to casting. The movie -- which includes appearances by Helen Mirren, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman and Jeff Daniels -- can't be faulted for most of its performances.

But there are slips, as well -- and they become more glaring once you've settled into the BBC version. Rachael McAdams does not get close to Kelly Macdonald as the young female reporter who teams with McCaffrey, and, in the American version, Robin Wright Penn comes up empty as the wife of the philandering congressman played by Ben Affleck. Writing is partly to blame for Penn's difficulties because the role of the U.S. pol's wife -- played in the British series by Polly Walker -- never really clicks. Affleck, on the other hand, more than holds his own, although I prefer David Morrissey's MP to Affleck's congressman. Morrissey's Stephen Collins feels a bit softer around the edges, just rubbery enough for a philandering MP.

As the editor of the fictional Washington newspaper in the American version, Mirren provides the movie with the sting of some sharply written one-liners. There is no world in which one can (or should) compare the work of the always-exceptional Mirren with the always-exceptional Bill Nighy, who plays the editor in the British series. But the script in the BBC version gives Nighy more to do. Being a fine actor with a rueful sense of wit and intelligence, Nighy can't help but outshine his U.S. counterpart.

It's no secret that mini-series can outstrip movies when it comes to novelistic plots that require many characters, and there's something liberating about being able to control the pace at which you watch "State of Play." You don't have to consume all six-episodes at once, and might even enjoy them more if you don't.

If you've got the time, you may want to see both the movie and the series, It's fun to play compare and contrast. Movie fans, however, may not be heartened to discover that this is one battle they probably can't win.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Odds, ends and a bit of animated sci-fi

The most interesting movie opening on the "art" scene this week is "Gigantic," a first film from director Matt Aselton. The movie, which begins its run Friday at the Starz FilmCenter, isn't much good, but it shows that Aselton has a knack for catching you off-guard, and, just as impressive, that he has good luck with casting. Paul Dano -- still most familiar to viewers for his work as the speechless brother in "Little Miss Sunshine" -- seems perfectly suited to playing an inward-looking mattress salesman who falls for a young woman named Happy (Zoey Deschanel). For years, though, Dano's Brian has been dreaming about adopting a Chinese baby, and he's constantly checking on his application. The good casting extends to John Goodman, who's agreeably offensive as Happy's rich dad, and to Ed Asner, who signs on as Brian's dad, a man with the hyperbole to match a generous spirit. The script doesn't always make sense, and the parts can't get anywhere near a satisfying whole. I reacted to "Gigantic" a bit like the late Pauline Kael reportedly reacted to Wes Anderson's "Rushmore." She told him there was something there, but she wasn't sure what it was.

Michael Caine provides the only one reason to see "Is Anybody There?" a story about the relationship between a 10-year-old boy (Bill Milner) and an aging magician who reluctantly checks into an old-age facility operated by the boy's parents. As The Amazing Clarence, Caine gives another fine performance. Clarence, a minor entertainer whose career has hit the skids, alternates between the sweet and sour sides of his personality. That's the easy part. More difficult is the way Caine allows his character's vulnerability to show through in scenes that demonstrate that the actor has hold of something deep: regrets about how Clarence treated his late wife and a fear of losing his mind to the ravages of dementia. Other than that, "Is Anybody There" offers a bit of English-style quirkiness (not much more appealing than American-style quirkiness) and a gentle spirit that too often lapses into outright dullness. If you happen to fall asleep during the movie -- a possibility -- you'll wake up to find that things have gone pretty much as expected.

"The Battle for Terra" mixes a wistful drawing style with some deep-space battling. This animated movie -- available in 3D at some locations -- isn't nearly as brassy as the entertainments we're used to seeing from the creative minds at Disney and DreamWorks. Canadian director Aristomenis Tsirbas tells the story of Mala (voiced by Evan Rachel Wood), a young creature who floats around the planet Terra. (See above photo.) Eventually, alien forces from Earth -- survivors who've been living on a space station after making several planets uninhabitable -- try to take over Mala's planet. Maybe violence can be avoided. Mala meets an Earthling pilot (Luke Wilson) and the two strike up a relationship. Alas, it's not strong enough to keep the Earthlings from invading Terra in hopes of finding yet another planet to despoil. Ultimately, "Battle for Terra" is a green-leaning, sci-fi adventure that builds toward a noble sacrifice. I'm not sure that the littlest children will love it, and I'm not quite sure how adults will react to it, either. But "Battle for Terra" definitely deserves credit for daring to diverge from the road taken by most of Hollywood's animated fare. As for the 3D. I enjoyed it for a while, but soon grew weary of it and those damnable glasses.