Thursday, July 30, 2009

A comic with a fatal disease

According to the new Judd Apatow movie, "Funny People," Adam Sandler has become part of comedy's old guard. Thinking of Sandler, who plays a stand-up comedian who makes dopey movies that appeal to five-year-olds, as a gray beard of humor depresses me, but that may be part of what this sometimes downbeat movie has in mind. After all, it's tough to make a totally funny movie about a guy with a fatal disease.

Here's how it works: Early on, Sandler's George Simmons learns that his days are numbered. Maybe because he wants to do something that offers the comfort of familiarity, George decides to hit the stand-up trail, where he meets a new generation of aspiring comics, most notably Seth Rogen's Ira Wright.

Wright eventually becomes an assistant to Simmons, who confides in the younger man, telling him that he wants him to be his near-constant companion, to write jokes for him and to serve as an all-around whipping boy. Simmons later reunites with his former girlfriend (Leslie Mann). She's married with children, but that doesn't stop the movie from letting the "romantic" part of the story play out. Why not? "Funny People'' runs for an unconscionable two hours and 26 minutes, a long time to be hanging out with self-absorbed comics whose routines center mostly on penis jokes.

Despite an abundance of dick jokes, "Funny People" qualifies as Apatow's attempt to grow his comedy into something more mature than anything he offered in "The 40-Year-old Virgin," "Knocked Up" or in movies he's produced. And at times, Apatow succeeds in showing us the kind of self-absorption and competitive drive it takes to earn a place in show business.

At its best, "Funny People" stands as an unflinching look at a comic whose life is devoted to jokes, celebrity, self-aggrandizement and meaningless sex. Sandler may not be that kind of person in real life, but he does a convincing job of playing one on screen. Apatow's movie doesn't dig deeply into why some comedians fit this profile, but the movie's theme -- the comic as misanthropic jerk -- seems weightier than anything Apatow previously has tackled. These guys aren't always likable; they're not supposed to be.

Apatow includes enough raunchy humor to appeal to his fan base. Whether they'll go along with the rest remains to be seen, and there's little question that an extended third act in which Simmons attempts to work out his relationship with his former girlfriend is a bit of a buzz killer.

There'll be lots of temptation to look at the movie as a collection of autobiographical observations. Apatow and Sandler once were roommates; Sandler's big-screen career is not unlike the one pursued by George Simmons; Apatow is married to Mann and their two daughters appear in the movie. There are also a number of cameos from comedians who appear as themselves: Ray Romano, Sarah Silverman and a hilariously bitter Eminem.

"Funny People'' moves in fits and starts, sometimes sidetracking with stories about Ira's roommates, another aspiring comic (Jonah Hill) and a sitcom star (Jason Schwartzman). Schwartzman's Mark Taylor Jackson is supposed to be a super-successful seducer of women, a trait that sets up tension about who'll be first to sleep with a deadpan female comic (Aubrey Plaza). Eric Bana shows up as the over-amped husband of Mann's character.

"Funny People'' includes scenes that don't work, scenes that do, standup that's not as funny as it purports to be, casual asides that make the movie feel realistic and a few sentimental touches. It's more interesting -- if not more successful -- than previous Apatow comedies. But Apatow should have taken a look at the clock: two hours and 26 minutes is too long for a movie that has about an hour and a half's worth of subject. Simmons learns he has a fatal disease and the movie almost succumbs to one as well, a willingness to go on long after there's any reason to continue.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

It's all in the family -- for Coppola

No matter what kind of movies he makes, I always feel some admiration for Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola's last movie, "Youth Without Youth," was an awful muddle, but I admired the fact that cinema's flamboyant maestro seemed intent on ignoring Hollywood convention and following his muse. Coppola has done that again with "Tetro," this time with improved results, although the movie proves a mixed blessing.

As he did in the "Godfather" movies, Coppola explores the contradictory nature of family life -- the way it breeds resentments even as it provides our most enduring connections. Working from the first original script he has written since 1994's "The Conversation," Coppola floods the screen with astonishing images and beautifully lit black-and-white digital photography, but the inability of the story to match Coppola's visual artistry tends to dampen enthusiasm over the movie's 127-minute running time. Put it this way: Coppola conducts like Toscanini, but his writing lacks profundity or even the excitement of a genuinely propulsive plot. The bigger the movie gets, the grander its gestures become. But the melodrama doesn't always support Coppola's visual artistry, and "Tetro" reaches a point at which we begin to wonder whether we're supposed to take any of it seriously.

The story: Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) visits his brother Tetro (Vincent Gallo). Tetro, who has shed his family name, Tetrocini, has taken up residence in Buenos Aires after abandoning a promising career as a writer. Smoking cigarettes, hanging out at sidewalk cafes and occasionally working as a lighting technician in a small theater, Tetro wallows in resentment. He claims to have no interest in seeing his brother, who has arrived in Buenos Aires. Bennie's working on a cruise ship that has docked in the Argentine port city for a few days.

It's obvious that the younger brother and older sibling will reach some kind of rapprochement after the requisite amount of tension has built toward the obligatory explosion. Coppola pushes a soap opera plot onto an operatic stage, as he works his way toward a third act in which the movie begins to look Fellini-esque. By then we've learned that Tetro has written a play using an obscure code. After tinkering from younger brother Bennie, the play finds its way to an important theater festival sponsored by a powerful critic who goes by the name, Alone (Carmen Maura). The play's the thing that prompts a showdown between Bennie and Tetro, leading to the divulgence of secrets that are meant to shake the movie's universe to its core.

The story also takes us through Bennie's loss of virginity, and Tetro's relationship with his live-in lover (Maribel Verdu). Verdu's Miranda nurtures both Tetro and Bennie. They need her kind of unconditional love because they have daddy issues. Children of different mothers, the brothers share the same father (Klaus Maria Brandauer), a famous conductor who has dominated his children in tyrannical ways.

As a result, Tetro hates his father with a passion that centers on a secret that's revealed toward the end of the movie and which hardly comes as a total surprise.

Coppola makes movies that speak the way he wants them to speak. "Tetro" occupies a world of its own; it's a film in which emotions are meant to swell like great waves, finally breaking across Coppola's dreamscape. It's telling, though, that Coppola's display of directorial skill might be more memorable than any of the movie's characters.

Still, don't make the mistake of thinking that Coppola is indulging his artistic ego; I don't think that's the case. His movies may not always work or capture the spirit of their times, but I believe Coppola has a great generosity of spirit as a director, that he wants to share his pleasure in cinema with an audience. Coppola's not grandstanding for himself, but for the medium he loves.


Captain Abu Raed takes us to Jordan for a story that initially seems as if it's going to get by on the charm of its lead actor, Nadim Sawalha. Sawalha, a portly man with a gray beard, portrays the title character, an airport janitor who tells stories to the kids in his neighborhood. Sawalha's Abu Raed is mistaken for a pilot by the kids who are eager to learn something about the world that Abu Raed supposedly has seen. He tells them he's no pilot, but they don't believe him. As a man of accommodating spirit, Abu Raed plays along. Writer/director Amin Matalqa, whose film brims with small pleasures, deepens the story by showing how the dreams of poor kids in Amman tend to be stunted. He also takes the drama into unexpectedly rough terrain when Abu Raed tries to help a youngster who has a particularly abusive father.

Both "Tetro" and "Captain Abu Raed" open in Denver Friday.

Economic and spiritual crisis in Japan

A driving rain rakes the side of the house. A woman rushes toward an open set of doors. She hurriedly slides the doors shut, and begins wiping water from the floor. But does she really want to shut out the storm or does something about it appeal to her? She sits for a moment, and then slides the door open. She's like a swimmer on a chilly day, putting her toe in the water to test its temperature.

This early-picture storm isn't the only one that's raging in director Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Tokyo Sonata." Japan also is the midst of an economic storm that's displacing workers, wounding male pride and bringing hardship to families. We soon learn that the woman who watched the storm in the movie's opening scene is married to an administrator whose job has been outsourced to China.

So why did this woman open the window? And why does her husband say nothing when his supervisor asks him what else he might want to do in the company where he has performed so ably for many years? Could it be that, on some unspoken level, both husband and wife want a storm to sweep through lives that have begun to stagnate under the burden of routine? Do they sense that even when times were good, their lives were going nowhere?

Kurosawa, who is no relation to the great Akira Kuroswa and who mostly has made horror movies, is a tricky director, and "Tokyo Sonata" doesn't always yield its meanings easily. On one level, Kurosawa does a straightforward job of charting the impact of economic crisis on a family of four. Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa), the father, fears that he might lose face. That's why he doesn't tell his wife (Kyoko Koiszumi) that he's unemployed. Instead, he dresses in a suit every morning, and leaves the house as if nothing has changed. He lines up for free food at lunchtime, takes a few interviews but doesn't find work until he lands a job as a janitor at a shopping mall. There, he trades his normal business attire for an orange jump suit. He cleans toilets.

Meanwhile, his wife tries to maintain the routine of the household. The oldest son (Yu Koyanagi) seems to be a sullen slacker. Eventually, the young man attempts to turn his life around by joining the U.S. military. He's shipped to the Middle East.*

The more interesting break with expectation comes from the family's youngest son (Kai Inowaki). Inowaki's Kenji is a piano prodigy who uses his lunch money to pay for lessons with a teacher (Haruka Igawa) who quickly recognizes the boy's genius. Dad, who can't always contain his anger, opposes his son's piano lessons. For Dad, reared with Japan's nose-to-the-grindstone ethos, Kenji's musical interests are nothing more than a pointless whim.

What could have been a routine drama about economic hardship morphs into something stranger and more resonant. A late-picture development sees Koizumi's character kidnapped by an intruder (Koji Yakusho) who's lurking in the family's home. Mom's forcibly removed from her surroundings, and put in a situation where she must use the driver's license she recently acquired, perhaps because she's been craving movement and independence. The family doesn't own a car.

I'm not sure that Kurosawa finds an entirely convincing way to blend all of the personal and social forces that ripple through a movie that grapples with everything from the psychology of its characters to the perils of a boom economy gone bust -- with stops along the way for snide asides about karaoke and bloated male egos.

But the movie may be better for not being totally seamless. The characters in "Tokyo Sonata" are trying to break out of unsatisfying molds, but don't know how to go about it. They may not find the new beginnings that they yearn for, but, by the end, they seem transformed. Into what? They're not entirely sure and neither are we. That's probably a good thing.

*A correspondent, better versed in military matters than I, says that the U.S. military has accepted foreigners throughout its history. I originally had interpreted the recruiting of foreigners -- as depicted in the picture -- as a recent development.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

"The Orphan" abandons all logic

I keep hoping that someone -- other than a Korean or Japanese director -- will make an effectively creepy horror film. After seeing the much-publicized "Orphan," I'm still waiting. The first scene in the movie involves a nightmare delivery of a baby, and, of course, we know that the pregnant woman who's going through this horror is dreaming. In fact, we're able to predict almost everything that's gong to happen in "Orphan,'' with the possible exception of the movie's BIG TWIST, which -- once it has arrived -- seems as preposterous as nearly everything else. The story: a middle class couple (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard adopt a Russian refugee kid who seems perfect. Of course, the perfect kid (Isabelle Fuhrman) isn't really a model child. She's the proverbial bad seed (reference to earlier picture intended), and she manages to wreak havoc in a household where our unsuspecting parents already have two children (Jimmy Bennett and Aryana Engineer). The movie's scare tactics often consists of jolting the audience in one way or another, and the finale extends to the point of bloat. Director Jaume Collet-Serra creates enough tension to satisfy most audiences, but the only truly scary thing about "The Orphan" is how a script with so many gaps in logic made it to the screen. Directorial prowess and a generally strong cast can't cover holes in the script. Note: Farmiga already played the mother of a dangerously disturbed child in the indie thriller "Joshua." Let's hope she's not planning to make a specialty out of this.

He's in love, but is she?

We've all been there or some place like it. You love her, but she insists that she's not interested in a long-term relationship. Eventually, you may come up with a more precise interpretation of her position; i.e., she might be open to going the distance, but not with you. If you're a she, just reverse the pronouns because this familiar bit of relationship calculus isn't gender specific. It is, however, the underlying observation that makes "500 Days of Summer" tick, and it's presented by director Marc Webb in ways that can be fun, although the movie sometimes feels self-consciously inventive.

Webb, who previously earned his living in the world of music videos, bolsters the story with lots of off-center -- or near-quirky -- detail, beginning with the main character's occupation. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Tom wants to be an architect, but earns his keep writing greeting cards. He's good at it, too. He's smitten when Summer, the character who gives the movie its title, shows up as a co-worker. Summer (Zooey Deschanel) is the wilder and more assured of the two characters; it falls to her to make the first move. The movie then follows Tom and Summer's relationship, presenting it out of chronological order and from Tom's point-of-view. By bouncing around in time, Webb mostly succeeds in maintaining interest in a story in which the ending is revealed at the outset.

Watching Tom and Summer proves enjoyable, perhaps because co-writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber create some amusing situations. They also have a good grasp of 20something relationships -- or so it seems to someone who long ago left that stage of life behind.

Some of the movie's conceits -- using title cards to announce which of the 500 days we're watching and a musical number -- seem to have been contrived to impress us with their ingenuity; these stylistic flourishes make the movie more "creative'' than it needs to be. Tom and Summer hold our interest, not the hip excesses of the filmmaker. But even here, Webb occasionally hits his target. A split screen sequence that shows reality vs. Tom's fantasy about reality works well enough.

The same can be said of the entire movie. "500 Days of Summer" works well enough. The movie won't change your world, but it offers a view of life and love that's vaguely familiar to those who, like Tom, have spent time teetering on the cusp of maturity -- without being a hopeless goofball, as is the case with too many movie characters Tom's age.

Did Deschanel's character need more development? Probably. But "500 Days of Summer" succeeds -- at least in part -- because the emotional stakes never feel so high that most people can't identify with them.


"The Ugly Truth" is everything that ''500 Days of Summer" isn't: Predictable, formulaic and full of humor that feels as if it has been engineered in a factory where sleek romantic comedies roll off an assembly line. Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler make a nice enough pair, but the material in "The Ugly Truth" seldom measures up. Heigl, who's working too hard at being funny, plays a tough-minded producer at a local television station in Sacramento; Butler portrays a loose-cannon talent who gives crude advice to the lovelorn on the morning TV show that Heigl's Abby produces. Borrowing a Cyrano de Bergerac twist that has Butler's Mike whispering advice into the Abby's ear, the movie gives its humor a sexual tilt. A scene in which Abby dons a pair of vibrating underpants feels as if it exists only to give the movie a major talking point. I mention it to give you an idea where this one puts its energies. Note: John Michael Higgins has the generic good looks of every local anchorman you've ever seen, which is fortunate because he's playing one.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The week's most adventurous films

Neither "$9.99" nor "Tulpan" likely will cause major explosions in the marketplace this weekend. But both films -- "9.99" at the Esquire and "Tulpan" at the Starz FilmCenteer'' -- are daring, albeit in entirely different ways.

Of the two films, I'd say that "Tulpan" is both more significant and more interesting. While "9.99" -- a stop-action animated film -- does some philosophical naval gazing, "Tulpan" takes us onto the steppes of Kazakhstan, where sheep herders endure harsh, isolated conditions.

On top of that, "Tulpan" -- the story of a young man who aspires to tend his own flock -- portrays life as it's actually lived by incredibly tough nomadic people who occupy the flat, uninviting terrain of the steppes. Put it this way: I doubt you'll be planning your next vacation on the steppes, assuming you can afford to plan a next vacation to anywhere.

In "Tulpan," director Sergey Dvortsevoy focuses on Asa (Askhat Kuchinchirekov), a young man who recently has been discharged from the Navy. Upon arriving back on the steppes, Asa moves in with his sister Samal (Samal Yeslyamova) and her husband Ondas (Ondasyn Besikbasov). Asa aspires to raise a family and tend sheep, but he has a problem. The only available woman on the steppes -- Tulpan of the title -- refuses to marry him. She's evidently eager to pursue a better life in the city. As if to signify the elusive nature of Asa's dream, Dvortsevoy never shows us Tulpan, who remains out of view when Ondas tries to negotiate a dowry with her parents.

If you've ever wanted to see a difficult lamb birth -- and who hasn't? -- Dvortsevoy is ready to oblige with an unforgettable sequence.

I don't know what opera director Peter Sellars, a champion of new voices in world cinema, would think of "Tulpan," but I'm betting he'd find it riveting and significant. The events that unfold in "Tulpan" are part of a new wave in cinema, not in terms of style, but in terms of lives that previously haven't made it into cinematic view.

Feelings of neglect and shattered dreams pervade Israeli director Tatia Rosenthal's "9.99," a stop-action feature that stars animated figures made of clay and includes voice work from a variety of Australian actors, notably Geoffrey Rush and Anthony LaPaglia. "9.99" stands as another attempt to give animation an adult flavor. If you've ever wondered what a penis looks like when made from clay, you'll know after watching Rosenthal's attempt to mix the real and the surreal. I leave it to you to decide whether the penis belongs on real or surreal side of the movie's ledger. The title stems from money spent by one of the characters to obtain a book that purports to reveal the meaning of life. As skillfully executed as it is, this adaptation of stories from Israeli writer Etgar Keret left me a little cold: The movie's palpable world of clay seemed more real than most of its philosophical musings.


I'm not sure O'Horten, which opens Friday in Denver as well, qualifies as adventurous, although a case could be made for putting the movie in such a category -- if only because it focuses on a 67-year-old Norwegian man who's retiring from a carefully regulated life as a railway engineer. Baard Owe portrays Odd Horten, a man who founders after being released from years of routine. O'Horten. a bachelor who has worked for the railroad for 40 years, suddenly faces the challenge of living without a schedule. As he adjusts, O'Horten discovers life off the beaten track. Don't look for major revelations: "O'Horten" is a narrow-gauged movie that director Bent Hamer serves up with an unerring sense of refinement.

Friday, July 17, 2009

When girls must fend for themselves

The unseen backstory of "Treeless Mountain" involves a young woman who left her parents' farm and headed for Seoul. There, she met a man, became involved and had two daughters. She probably loved him, but he may not have loved her. Eventually, the girls' father split, leaving Mom to make it on her own. As often happens with a desperate parent, Mom burdened her oldest daughter, 7-year-old Bin (Hee Yeon Kim), with a variety of tasks, picking up her 4-year-old sister Bin (Song Hee Kim) at daycare, for example.

I don't know if director So Yong Kim, who now lives in Brooklyn, had precisely the same backstory in mind, but that's what I thought about while watching "Treeless Mountain," a movie that can be read as a critique of what happens when economics, boredom and the rejected tradition drive women toward the cities.

None of this, of course, is on view in "Treeless Mountain,'' and perhaps I'm creating my own movie, an accompaniment to Kim's story about two girls who -- for the most part -- are left to their own devices.

"Treeless Mountain," which opens today at the Starz FilmCenter, is sensitively wrought and features terrific performances from its two young actors. In addition, Kim wisely keeps the movie's big moments from devolving into melodrama. Her slow-moving, naturalistic style seeps its way into our consciousness. She trusts us to know sadness when we see it.

During the movie, 7-year-old Jin is removed from school. Jin and her sister, Bin, are forced to deal with harsh conditions as they await the return of their mother, who has gone off in search of their father. Where is he? Why has he left the family? Kim leaves it to us to speculate. For her part, Mom drops the children at the home of Big Aunt, an irresponsible drunk. She shows the children no love, and frequently neglects to feed them.

Like most people in bad situations, the kids allow themselves to dream. At one point, they begin roasting and selling grasshoppers in the street. They hope to make enough money to fill a plastic piggy bank left by their Mom, who promised to return once the bank is full. It's a promise we know they shouldn't bank on.

At times, I became mildly impatient with "Treeless Mountain," which moves slowly, sometimes because movies such as this always move slowly, and I could have done without lengthy nature shots that separate scenes: They seem self-consciously designed to allow us even more breathing room.

Kim doesn't go the distance when it comes to absolute grimness, which probably makes her movie even more realistic. She's not pulling out every horrible stop. Still, there's something deeply sad about the situation in which these kids find themselves. Even at their most resourceful, Jin and Bin can't navigate a world they're not equipped to handle.

Only one adult male can be found in the film, the girls' ornery grandfather, who appears when the girls are taken to the country and dumped with their grandparents. Aside from Grandma and the mother of a kid in Big Aunt's neighborhood, most of the women in the movie don't behave admirably, either.

A lot of what we see is quite moving, but I admired the way Kim asks us to fill in blanks. For me, the most interesting question involves the future. What will become of Bin and Jin after the film ends -- not in the next few weeks, but in the next five years? Once the curtain falls, you may find yourself continuing the movie in your head.


The French movie, "The Girl From Monaco," explores what happens when a middle-aged lawyer (Fabrice Luchini) meets a vivacious young blond (Louise Bourgoin) whose lack of inhibition both frightens and charms him. Luchini's Bertrand visits Monaco to defend a woman (Stephane Audran) who has been accused of murder. Against his will, he's assigned a bodyguard (Roschdy Zem), a stoic man who warns against yielding to temptation with Bourgoin's Audrey, a TV weather girl who knows how to make a man's temperature boil. The film eventually trades its comic tone for something more serious; the swap doesn't entirely work, but some of the late-picture developments in "The Girl From Monaco" may take you by surprise.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

An unparalleled passion for collecting

What a concept, buying art because you respond to it, not because you think it might be a smart investment. That's what Herb & Dorothy Vogel do, and their approach has allowed a retired postal worker and a former librarian to amass one of the world's most extensive private collections of contemporary art.

Beginning the 1960s, the Vogels visited artists' studios and tried to buy at entry-level prices, often paying for pieces in installments. They refused to allow either modest resources or cultural intimidation to keep them from indulging what became a kind of spectacular passion, particularly for folks who don't necessarily fit an art-world profile.

The story of the Vogels has been neatly assembled in the modestly named "Herb & Dorothy," a documentary that should fascinate anyone who's interested in art, obsession or how to ignore the limitations of a one-bedroom Manhattan apartment.

On the face of things, Herb and Dorothy Vogel seem as if they might be the least interesting people in the world, and they probably would have remained as anonymous as millions of other New Yorkers had they not collected art, making their mark mostly in conceptual and minimalist work. We're not talking a few paintings; we're talking more than 4,000 works of art. When Herb and Dorothy donated the bulk of their collection of the National Gallery of Art, it took five moving vans to transport the work out of Manhattan.

Defying all expectation, Herb and Dorothy have devoted their lives to buying art. They have supported artists in early stages of their careers; i.e., before they were famous and their prices skyrocketed. But here's the telling thing: Herb and Dorothy don't buy art as an investment. They never have sold a painting. They've arranged to have all the work they own given to various museums. They're also adventurous. They're willing to acquire work they don't fully understand, realizing that comprehension sometimes develops slowly and that some art is better experienced than discussed. They like what Herb calls "tough" art.

The Vogels collect with a sense of responsibility and stewardship, but that doesn't make their achievement any less strange. Think about keeping 4,000 paintings in a New York apartment that would be cramped if the Vogels had only each other to contend with. Ordinary amenities seem to have become an afterthought for the Vogels, who frequently can be seen sitting at a table that barely fits into the room in which it's located. Aside from turtles, fish and a plump white cat, the Vogels keep company with works of art that reflect a cohesive collecting sensibility.

Not surprisingly, they're known in the art world. To help create a rounded picture of the Vogels, Sasaki interviews artists, including Richard Tuttle, Lucio Pozzi, Christo and Jean-Claude, Robert and Sylvia Mangold and Chuck Close. All of them have become part of Vogel World, and some of them have engaged in regular phone conversations with Herb, who's always eager to know what's new.

An obsessive life -- even one rooted in culture -- can appear bizarre, but the Vogels seem so normal that it's difficult to say that they haven't spent their time usefully. They love looking at art, and have been scrupulous in making sure that the public eventually shares in their bounty. In a time when just about everything is measured in terms of commercial value, the Vogels stand as an extraordinary exception to the crass rule.

During the course of Megumi Sasaki's* fascinating documentary -- which showcases much of the Vogels' collection -- we learn that The National Gallery arranged to give the Vogels an annuity in hopes that they'd normalize their lives. Did the Vogels look for better living quarters or breathe sighs of relief at finally being able to move unimpeded around their apartment?

No. They did exactly what you'd expect from this astonishingly determined couple. They bought more art.

*Sasaki will appear at the Starz FilmCenter at 7 p.m. Thursday (July 16) for a showing of "Dorothy & Herb." The movie begins its commercial run at the FilmCenter on Friday.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Marking time with Harry -- Potter, that is

Generally speaking, the Harry Potter movies have maintained a reasonable level of quality while being careful to remain as faithful to J. K. Rowling's beloved books as possible. The huge fan base for Rowling's massive series probably is enough to ensure financial success, and the sixth installment, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," likely will keep the turnstiles spinning,

Having said that, it seems fair to argue that the movie's main purpose is to pave the way for the finale in which Harry squares off with the Voldemort, the evil wizard who began his dark journey as a student at Hogwarts. If the object of "Half-Blood Prince" was to make us eager for the climactic "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows," it worked for me. It's time to wrap things up. (The agony, of course, will be prolonged with "Deathly Hollows" slated for a two-part release that's not scheduled to conclude until 2011.)

As has and will be pointed out again and again, a major pleasure of the series has been watching its youthful cast mature. If Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) don't get on with it, they'll be old enough to collect pensions by the time the series crosses the finish line. At one point, the sagacious Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) calls attention to the maturation process, noting that Harry could use a shave.

This time, our trio of protagonists has become seriously enmeshed in adolescence. Harry has become something a chick magnet, a role he seems to enjoy; Ron is also ready for love, and so is Hermione, whose crush on Ron thus far has gone unrequited. Meanwhile, Ron's being pursued by Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave), an overeager teen who always seems on the verge of hyperventilation.

Some of what we see becomes repetitious, a Quidditch match in which Ron emerges as a star jock, for example. Ron is the goal minder -- or whatever the term is in Quidditchese.

The special effects are good, clever, and not overwhelming in quantity; they provide a little humor in what can be an extremely dark scenario: Evidence of Voldemort's preparation for the final showdown is everywhere. To make the point, the picture begins with a deadly attack by Death Eaters on London's Millennium Bridge. Although director David Yates creates an opening that looks like the beginning of a disaster movie, he makes little or no later reference to this devastation. Instead, he marches -- sometimes turgidly -- through a talk-heavy plot in which Professor Dumbledore asks Harry to pry a secret from Professor Horace Slughorn (James Broadbent). We're also shown scenes from Voldemort's early life at Hogwarts.

The three young actors are all good, and from the outset, the filmmakers have employed a variety of fine character actors to lend support. Maggie Smith (as Professor Minerva McGonagall) returns as does Robbie Coltrane (as Hagrid). Alan Rickman reprises his role as Severus Snape, a Hogwarts professor who stands more revealed by the end of this installment, which also features the death of a major character. Tom Felton, who plays Draco Malfoy, shows more range, although his character remains dominated by a trademark sneer.

No point rattling on: In "Half-Blood Prince," we feel the dark storm gaining force, and are primed for its waves to break. I suppose that was the job that needed to be done. Now, can we please get on with it? How nice it would be to conclude Rowling's popular saga prior to 2011. Think about it. At that point, those who started watching the series at age 10 will be 20 years old.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Laughing at Bruno, but cringing, too

Here's the thing about "Bruno," the second film featuring one of Sacha Baron Cohen's stock characters, an aggressively gay Austrian fashionista who hosts a TV program called "Funkyzeit." Before you purchase a ticket, you need to know that Baron Cohen's follow-up to "Borat" pushes the envelope in terms of its depictions of outlandish gay sex.

If the idea of watching Bruno receive an anal bleaching treatment sounds unappealing or if you've never longed to watch Bruno try to turn dildos into weapons or if you don't think the sight of a talking penis sounds funny or -- this is the last one -- if you can live without seeing an exercise machine rigged for anal penetration, it's best to head in another direction.

Although "Bruno" is not as funny as "Borat," it's far more transgressive, and it has an even heavier hostility quotient, one that extends into the movie's finale, a cage match in which a stunned Arkansas audience of rednecks pelts Bruno and his lover (Gustaf Hammarsten) with everything from beer cups to a chair. The crowd doesn't appreciate the fact that they attended a cage fight and a gay lovefest broke out.

Moreover, Bruno's out-sized ego (he refers to himself as the biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler) can make the blond, proudly vacuous spotlight-seeker difficult to take, even over the course of 82 minutes. The premise of the movie: Bruno loses his Austrian TV show and heads to LA, where he hopes to become a celebrity. The man really wants to be famous -- and doesn't care how he achieves his goal.

A word about hostility and humor: The hostility expressed by an intelligent comic -- and Baron Cohen is no dope -- can stem from a desire to degrade those who avidly uphold the world's worst hypocrisies. But unlike other comics, Baron Cohen's hostility works in two directions. It can be aimed at some of the movie's unwitting participants and also at the audience. It's a double whammy of a kind rarely seen in films. Some will interpret the humor in "Bruno" as homophobic, racist, anti-Semitic (yes, Cohen's Jewish) and unfair. Maybe. Mostly, though, I agree with those who see Baron Cohen as a satirist who's so outrageous that any one with half a brain can see through the jokes. But that doesn't mean the jokes always work.

Take Congressman Ron Paul. At one point, he calls Bruno a queer. Of course Bruno treats the Congressman unfairly, inviting him to his hotel room under the guise of doing an interview and then stripping in front of the Congressman. Bruno explains all this by telling us that he has confused Ron Paul and Ru Paul, an idea that's more preposterous than funny. A bit in which Bruno tries to negotiate an agreement between a former Israeli official and a man identified as a terrorist proves funnier. The two antagonists stop arguing long enough to inform Bruno that he has confused Hamas with hummus.

The early gags -- a bizarre interview with Paula Abdul, for example -- tend to be the movie's funniest, but as "Bruno" progresses, it becomes clear that the movie lacks the same degree of cracked credibility as "Borat." Some of the scenes -- Bruno in an Army barracks, for example -- seem as if they had to have been staged. And other bits have a repellent quality: A scene in which Bruno -- in an attempt to go straight -- joins a group of swingers leaves you wondering why any of the participants agreed to be filmed.

Baron Cohen remains an original, but "Bruno" mixes hilarity with material that makes you cringe. At one point, Bruno attempts to interview Harrison Ford by shoving a microphone in his face. Ford, who evidently doesn't take kindly to such intrusions, tells Bruno to get lost. Much of the audience may share Ford's sentiment. As a character, Bruno is harder to take than the gleefully ignorant Borat, who had a measure of innocence about him.

Me? I laughed a lot, but -- at the same time -- I was disappointed by the sheer ugliness of some of Bruno's encounters, the cage fight being a prime example. And I say that as a diehard fan of the show where I first saw all these characters, HBO's "Da Ali G Show."

The Iraq war through a narrow lens

Kathryn Bigelow makes movies that guys tend to like, pictures such as "Blue Steel" and "Point Break." Now Bigelow has ventured into waters that have spelled doom for most other directors. She has taken on the Iraq war, and to do it she has tightened her focus to the point where the movie isn't so much about Iraq as about the mental state of men who have the most dangerous job in the world -- locating and disarming improvised explosive devises in the streets of Baghdad. "The Hurt Locker" is not a war movie about great movements of troops or even about tightly knit platoons. It's a revealing, concussive look at a three-man bomb squad.

After the squad's team leader (Guy Pearce) dies in an early scene, a new soldier (Jeremy Renner) takes his place. Renner's Sgt. William James may be one of the most complex military characters ever put on film, an action junkie who can be as harsh as he is brave, a born leader who guides his companions through tough spots, gently encouraging them when they need it. He's also capable of caring about some of the Iraqis he encounters. Sgt. James develops an interest in an Iraqi boy that leads to one of the movie's few ironies. But there's no denying a disturbing fact about Sgt. James: He's into his work.

Renner, whose ordinary-guy looks add to Sgt. James' credibility, is teamed with two other actors: Anthony Mackie plays another sergeant, and Brian Geraghty portrays a lower ranking soldier. The movie covers the days before the trio is supposed to finish its tour and head home.

A director would have be pretty inept to make a movie about a bomb squad that doesn't contain a fair amount of tension -- and Bigelow is by no means inept. She gets the most out of scenes in which Renner, who wears a protective suit that makes him look a misguided spaceman who somehow has landed in the middle of a desert, disarms bombs. Whatever's going on in Sgt. James' head, Bigelow never diffuses the gut-wrenching tension that surrounds this kind of activity.

"Hurt Locker" becomes even more amazing when compared to other war movies. We don't have any loosey-goosey- cynicism (a la "Platoon") and certainly none of the standard tropes about an ethnically diverse force fighting for a common cause. The reasons for the war are never discussed, which means the movie is essentially apolitical. Or maybe it's that once soldiers have taken to the field, it no longer matters what prompted the fighting. "The Hurt Locker" is about diffusing bombs and staying alive.

Despite common goals, Mackie's Sgt. Sanborn and James are frequently at odds. When they get drunk, they play a game in which they punch each other in the stomach. Sanborn sees no reason not to do things by the book. James focuses only on getting the job done. At one point, he discards his protective gear, casually noting that he prefers to be comfortable if he's going to die. He's so good at his job that he makes his own rules, and, by the end of the movie we know that James only can enjoy this status -- a man of remarkable accomplishment and poise -- in the military, and, then, only when there are bombs to disarm.

"The Hurt Locker" seems as realistic as you'd want a war movie to be. I don't know if Bigelow supports the war in Iraq or hates it. You can draw your own conclusions about this movie which is set in 2004. Regardless of her opinions, Bigelow has tried to plumb the psyche of the warrior, and to show that the keenest warrior probably is beyond the reach of officers (David Morse plays one) and just about everyone else. Sgt. James inhabits a class by himself.

Perhaps because of its subject, the movie can't help but be episodic. A couple of cameos -- from Pearce and from Ralph Fiennes -- don't do much to disturb the sense that anonymous GIs are carrying out jobs that require them to respond to events that crop up in nearly random fashion. Bigelow seems to have made the movie as something to be felt, not considered. and as I watched, I kept wondering what Sam Fuller ("The Big Red One") might think of this movie. I'm guessing he'd be impressed because Bigelow has stripped her story to the bone, discarding excess and focusing on harrowing essentials, one of which is the opportunity for soldiers such as Sgt. James to find their true callings.

If war is a drug, as a title card at the beginning of the movie says, Sgt. James is one hell of an addict.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

It's worth discovering 'Secret of the Grain'

The final half hour of "The Secret of the Grain," a film about a Tunisian family living in the French port city of Sete, contains some of the most agonizing footage I've seen. Murder? Hardly. Another form of criminal mayhem? Nope. In this case, the pain and frustration we feel involves nothing more than a pot of grain. Director Abdellatif Kechiche builds this extended finale around a vital ingredient in the preparation of couscous, a dish that comes to symbolize the well-being of an entire family.

The situation involves the trial run of a restaurant to be owned and operated by Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares), a divorced husband who lives in a hotel owned by his mistress (Hatika Karaoui) . Throughout the movie, Slimane attempts to relate to his own children and to his lover's daughter (Hafsia Herzi) -- or maybe it's more precise to say that they're constantly trying to relate to him.

A rich and absorbing domestic drama, "Secret of the Grain" deals with family issues, the treatment of Tunisians in France, the infuriating complexities of the French bureaucracy and the bumpy progression of lives in which boundaries frequently collapse. Kechiche has a gift other directors should envy: He's able to re-create the vitality of ordinary life in ways that advance his story and also give the movie an almost palpable appeal. A scene in which Slimane's sons and daughters share a Sunday meal is so full of good-natured humor, you almost wish you could propel yourself into the middle of it.

The story begins when Slimane loses his job at a shipyard and must seek a new means of support. He decides to open a couscous restaurant on an abandoned ship, an ambition that forces him to deal with an absurdly complicated series of regulations. In the end, Slimane decides to renovate the boat on his own. He also hosts a dinner for the town's dignitaries and bankers. This leads to a long scene that's infectiously involving, yet, at the same time, exhausting.

Kechiche's ending may not prove entirely satisfying, but there's too much wonderful work in "The Secret of Grain" to speak ill of the it, particularly when the movie's so full of life -- and what may be the longest belly dance in the history of movies.

"The Secret of Grain" opens Friday at the Starz Denver FilmCenter.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Three movies: Miserable in New York, lonely on the moon and disoriented in China

Teaming Woody Allen and Larry David suggests a quotient of unhappiness that could push any misery meter over the red line. On the surface, the combination seems like a natural.

But differences in approach between the two comics keep them from forming the expected perfect union. Where Allen's comedy has a philosophic slant, David's is tethered to endless petty annoyance. Put another way, Allen is likely to become anxious over man's position in a godless universe; David's more apt to become inconsolable should he find a hair in his soup. In "Whatever Works," Allen turns David, the brilliant force behind HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," from a man whose reprehensible behavior can be outrageously funny into a simple pain in the ass.

The picture requires that Allen (from behind the camera) and David (in front of it) walk hand-in-hand into an indifferent universe where they're left to swallow the most bitter of pills, the sheer meaningless of everything. As far is the movie is concerned, the pill doesn't go down easily for either of them.

Allen has explored the consequences of this distressing point of view in ethical spheres ("Crimes and Misdemeanors") and in the world of romance ("Hannah and Her Sisters.") He's run his finger over the edge of despair many times. It's sobering to realize that Allen, who's now 72, has made a staggering 44 movies, an output that rivals some of the old-time Hollywood pros. I sometimes wonder whether Allen isn't making all these movies as a way of holding his own demons at bay. Whatever his motivation, he doesn't seem to have much new to say, which shouldn't be held against him.

Someone once told me a story about Ralph Waldo Emerson, A fan (did they have fans in the 19th Century?) asked Emerson how he managed to write so many essays and give so many lectures. "I say everything I know in the first 20 minutes -- and then I repeat myself,'' Emerson supposedly said. Taking a cue from Emerson, it's safe to say that novelty can't be the sole criterion by which we judge a person's art, and with a director as prolific as Allen, it seems inevitable that some of movies will be superb, some will fall flat and some will carry baggage of badness that weighs them down like an anchor.

"Whatever Works," an Allen comedy about a self-justifying misanthrope, falls somewhere between mediocre and bad with David playing Boris Yellnikov, a once renowned physicist who has lost his wife, his career and his belief in anything resembling a fulfilled life.

Reduced to teaching chess to incompetent kids and sitting in cafes, where he insults his friends, Boris wallows in a personality turned sour by too many encounters with an uncaring cosmos. Boris, of course, lives in Manhattan, where -- as he tells us in asides spoken directly to audience -- he hangs out with pals or shuffles around his loft apartment. I'm not sure what Allen intended with these asides, but they failed to turn me into one of Boris' co-conspirators.

In one of his less supple writing moves, Allen decides to rock Boris' miserable world by having him take in Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), an uneducated southern girl he finds huddled in an alley outside his apartment. Boris constantly insults Melodie's intelligence, but he begins to adjust to her presence and eventually decides to marry her. Yes, it's the all-too-familiar older man/younger woman syndrome.

Watching this odd couple provides limited amusement, and we know that it's only a matter of time until Allen again must upset the rotten apple cart of Boris' life. The second jolt arrives when Melodie's mother (Patricia Clarkson) shows up for a visit, beginning the journey from fundamentalist scold to liberated artist, a transformation that Clarkson infuses with a sense of irresistible abandon. But wait: There's more. Allen also arranges for Mom's estranged husband (Ed Begley Jr.) to show up. He makes a transformation of his own, one that you can see coming from a mile away.

David lets the acid flow, but in this context -- the narrowness and sublime annoyance of his "Curb Your Enthusiasm" character -- becomes as difficult to take as the movie's resolution, which suggests that we grab what happiness we can because there may not be much of anything else. If you follow this advice, you may have to look for cinematic pleasure in some other movie. There's too little of it in "Whatever Works."

Moon, the debut picture from director Duncan Jones, is the kind of movie that reflects the heady intelligence of a young man who studied philosophy in college, shifted into advertising and has now made his first feature. It's also unavoidably notable that Jones is the son of David Bowie, which sets you to thinking, although I'm not sure about what.

So much for background. Taking a cue from "2001: A Space Odyssey," Jones sets his movie on a dreary mining station on the moon. The place is manned by Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), a lone worker in the depths of space. Sam's only companion: a computer named Gerty (voice by Kevin Spacey) that's more sincere than Kubrick's chilly HAL.

Beautifully conceived on what must have been a modest budget, the moon base makes us feel as if we've been cast into space with Bell, who occasionally has a Skype-like chat with his earthbound wife. The movie begins brilliantly, and, I think, loses something when it plays its hole card. I won't reveal the movie's main conceit here, but I will tell you that Rockwell, a vastly underrated actor, works as hard as he has in just about any other film.

If it's possible for a movie to be smart and dull at the same time, "Moon" makes the case. I admired Jones' intentions and some of his execution, but found myself increasingly disengaged from Bell's deprived, lonely existence.


Director Jia Zhang-ke quietly has built an international following that regards him as one of the world's most important filmmakers. Jia's reputation results partly from his ability to capture the bizarre paradoxes of life in contemporary China. Jia's "Still Life" (2006) won widespread critical acclaim for its look at displacement caused by construction of China's massive Three Gorges Dam, for example.

In "24 City," Jia splices together a series of monologues about the transformation of the city of Chengdu in Sichuan Province from the muscular industrialism of Maoist China to the more consumer-oriented preoccupations of the present. This transformation centers on a Factory 420, a facility that's being dismantled for the construction of high-priced condos.

Individual stories come from people who worked in the factory, where engines for fighter planes were made, and from a couple of actors, notably Joan Chen. Chen's segment makes playful but self-conscious reference to the fact that the character she's playing looks like Chen; to me, Chen seemed like an actress trying to play someone who's not acting.

Overall, though, Jia succeeds in making us feel the way some of the residents in Chengdu must feel, suspended between a past they may not totally have embraced and a future that promises to be strange, elusive and perhaps insubstantial.