Sunday, August 30, 2009

Will Ben and Andrew make a porno?

How far will Mark Duplass (left) and Joshua Leonard go?

It's hardly news that homoerotic impulses sometimes underlie the conflicted affections that emerge during buddy movies. I'm not saying that hidden or undigested gayness constitutes the whole buddy-movie story, but it can be an element.

Humpday, a movie that caused quite a stir at last January's Sundance Film Festival, manages a neat trick: It turns homoerotic-buddy-movie subtext into text, bringing sexual issues into the foreground.

The premise sounds simple and contrived: Two straight guys decide to star in a gay porn film and enter it into Seattle's amateur porn festival. The videos are judged, and then burned to eliminate all incriminating evidence.

The movie's two men -- played by Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard -- are former college buddies, who haven't seen each other for ten years. Ben is married and living a life that conforms to middle-class expectation. He and his wife (Alycia Delmore) are trying to have their first baby. Leonard's Andrew has been living on the loose, traveling and attempting to mimic the lifestyle he imagines an artist would live.

We know something major looms when Andrew knocks on Ben's door in the middle of the night, beginning a surprise visit that later results in the two of them getting stoned at a party and coming up with the idea for the porno, perhaps to impress strangers who might be a lot more sexually liberated than either of them.

All of this sounds implausible, and if the characters hadn't been exceptionally well drawn, the movie might never have transcended its gimmicky premise.

Character is the key. It's best to view Humpday as the story of three specific people, as well as an often-funny meditation on male identity. Ben is frightened by the idea of settling into a life of routine. For him, the porno might be a last-gasp attempt at showing that he's not entirely bound by convention. Andrew, on the other hand, never has completed any task, and he's not sure how committed he is to his neo-Bohemian ways. Delmore's Anna tries to be open-minded, but knows that she has her limits.

Director Lynn Shelton, who appears in the movie as a bisexual partygoer, gives the movie the humor it deserves, allowing the actors to stumble their way toward moments of surprising honesty. Sure there are laughs, but underlying tension pervades every scene. Will Ben and Andrew actually take their own dare? And, if so, why are they doing something that obviously makes the both of them extremely uncomfortable?

Humpday allows the characters to be open without trying to convince us that they're beyond self-deception. It falls to Delmore's Anna to advance the movie's most reasonable positions while Ben and Andrew turn their potential sexual encounter into a twisted contest. Who will chicken out first and be the lesser man for it?)

Humpday manages to be both fun and challenging, and although it may not have been uppermost in Shelton's mind, it also serves as a nifty illustration of generational self-absorption. Ben and Andrew live in a world that may be coming apart at the seams, but nothing seems more important to them than themselves. They seem to be as interested in how they're perceived as in who they really are.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Faking Woodstock, Ang Lee misfires

I don't know if Taking Woodstock is the most negligible movie in Ang Lee's often-brilliant career, but it's far from the most memorable. Situated somewhere between an addled teen comedy and a light-hearted social document, the movie proves more interesting in outline than as a 120-minute feature.

In 1969, Elliot Tiber (a real guy) figured out how to bypass local objections and bring the Woodstock concert to New York State. According to the movie, Tiber offered his parents' rundown resort as a possible site for what would become one of the decade's most mammoth events. When it turned out, the resort was too small, Tiber introduced the concert's organizers to dairy farmer Max Yasgur, who offered up a sprawling field for the event that would come to be one of the iconic symbols of pop culture. Based on Tiber's book, Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert and a Life, Lee's movie has an appropriately disheveled feel that suits the material but results in an often-shabby moviegoing experience.

Working with screenwriter James Schamus, Lee further muddies the Woodstock waters by focusing on Tiber's family. Tiber, a gay man, is the son of Jewish parents who are presented in caricatured fashion by Lee. As Elliot's mom, Imelda Staunton, gives an offensively stereotyped performance as money-obsessed Jewish mother, and Henry Goodman follows suit as a father who quietly goes along with his wife's intrusions. He looks as if he hasn't bathed in years.

Elliot (Demitri Martin) spends the summer with his parents, leaving his life as a New York City interior designer to help save the ramshackle El Monaco resort, which is on the verge of being lost to the banks. Prior to Woodstock, the resort is largely uninhabited, save for a preposterous theater troupe -- the Earthlight Players -- who run around naked and stage unrecognizable versions of Chekhov.

When the Woodstock hordes arrive, the movie perks up, and we see what might be the strangest performance of the year so far: Liev Schreiber plays Vilma, an ex-Marine drag queen who handles security at the resort when it becomes the headquarters for festival's staff. Here's a shocker: Much dope is smoked, and Elliot even runs into a couple of benevolent hippies (Kelli Garner and Paul Dano) who introduce him to the mind-transforming powers of LSD.

Some of the scenes at Woodstock capture the feeling of a large crowd that -- at least on its fringes -- was beset by a strange mixture of ardor and aimlessness. And when the festival ends, the enthusiastic attendees slouch their way homeward, looking more like refugees than renegades. In all, we don't see much of Woodstock. (If you want to revisit Woodstock, seek out Michael Wadleigh's 1970 documentary.)

Along the way to the movie's fatigued finale, Emile Hirsch shows up in the cliched role of a Vietnam veteran possessed by the demons of flashbacks. Hirsch seems to be doing his best to evoke the bug-eyed insanity Dennis Hopper put on display in Apocalypse Now.

By the movie's end, Lee finds ways to comment on the liberating and naive qualities that seized the '60s, juxtaposing them with other realities; i.e., the fact that Woodstock was conceived as a money-making enterprise and that large gatherings of music-loving kids don't always turn out to be testimonials to flower power. A quick reference to Altamont -- the violence-prone California festival staged later that year -- can be found at the end of the movie.

By the time, I saw a preview screening of Taking Woodstock, I'd already had enough Woodstock nostalgia to last a life time, this being the 40th anniversary of an event that some regard as the center of the pop-cultural universe. Lee's movie did serve one useful purpose, though: More than ever, it made me want to live in the present. Or as the late Henny Youngman might have put, "Take Woodstock, please."

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Portrait of an artist as a cleaning lady

A little-known painter who died in 1942, Seraphine de Senlis spent much of her life working as a domestic. She cleaned houses, but spent her evenings painting, sometimes using blood taken from the local butcher shop as pigment. Spreading her canvases on the floor and working by candlelight, she developed a style that some critics dubbed "modern primitivism."

A woman of mystical bent, Seraphine did not have an ordinary muse; she believed that God had commanded her to paint. She also believed that she had a winking, intimate relationship with the Virgin Mary, revered in a shrine in Seraphine's sparsely furnished room. Not surprisingly, Seraphine wound up in an insane asylum.

That's an interesting enough story, but director Martin Provost's Seraphine exhibits an equally fascinating feel for the physical world that Seraphine inhabited. The rustle of wind in the trees has a nearly palpable quality in Provost's Seraphine, a movie that won seven Cesars, including best picture and best actress.

Once you've seen the movie, you'll understand why the actress playing the title character was honored. Yolande Moreau, the Belgian actress who portrays Seraphine, gives an utterly unselfish and deeply committed performance. Plain and portly, Seraphine isn't the sort of character who endears herself to us or to the residents of Senlis, the town in France's Picardy region where she resides. She may be a saintly figure or she may be mad, perhaps a bit of both. Seraphine grows as an artist, but never entirely abandons the awkward, lumbering personal style that defines her. Moreau's performance proves unforgettable.

Commendably, Provost never suggests that insanity should be regarded as a vital ingredient in creativity. This is not the story of a tortured artist but of a particular life that was spent producing art marked by startling freshness. Had a German critic (Ulrich Tukur) not discovered Seraphine's work, she probably would have lived in obscurity. She wasn't looking for fame.

Tukur's Wilhelm Uhde saw something powerful and original in Seraphine's work. He encouraged her to pursue her talent. The German-born Uhde had to leave France when World War I broke out. He returned after the war, and, among other tasks, began to build up Seraphine's artistic ego. The unsophisticated Seraphine, who tended to take things literally, couldn't understand how a ravaged economy could force Uhde to postpone a planned exhibition of her work. Seraphine, who initially worked for Uhde as a maid, felt betrayed. She began to develop expectations.

Seraphine encourages us to think about the undefinable nature of talent. Sometimes -- as in the case of Seraphine -- it seems to burst from nowhere, establishing itself in ways that are undeniable but mysterious. When Seraphine sits alone, under a tree, listening to the whisper of the wind, it's as if the world is speaking only to her. Perhaps it is.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Migrating toward the margins

A junkie pleads with the woman he was paid to marry.


What should be a major cinematic event -- the arrival of a new Dardenne brothers film -- has turned into a kind of footnote, a cinematic afterthought tucked beneath the ceaseless flow of more recognizable but less significant pictures. Lots of self-proclaimed film buffs effuse over Quentin Tarantino, but you won't find many of them singing the praises of the Dardennes, who have directed such estimable films as Rosetta, The Child, and The Son. Widely recognized or not, the Dardenne brothers remain great filmmakers, and nothing about their latest movie, Lorna's Silence, suggests otherwise.

So what makes the Dardennes special? For one thing, they get more out of narrowly focused films than many directors are able to obtain from epic-scaled productions. They're particularly adept at exposing personal crises that point toward larger social breakdowns. Lorna's Silence, the story of an Albanian immigrant who's trying to make her way in Belgian society, immerses us in another life on the margins. The Dardennes tell the story by pushing us into a closed world. They're not wringing their hands about the diminishment of Belgian identity or shedding tears over immigrant woes. The characters in Lorna's Silence are trying to cope with the world as they find it. The Dardennes don't view them through a filter of predigested notions -- and, as a consequence, neither do we.

Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), who works for a dry cleaning company, has married a junkie (Jeremie Renier). Renier's character has been paid to become Lorna's husband. Once Lorna's granted citizenship, she's pushed by gangsters to get rid of her heroin-addicted spouse. She's supposed to make herself available to the next immigrant who's willing to buy citizenship, this time by marrying her. As the movie progresses, the Dardennes slowly reveal what amounts to a ruthless cycle of deception.

Those familiar with the Dardennes will recognize many of their trademark touches: the lack of a musical soundtrack (with a brief exception at the picture's end), the heavy reliance on close-ups that simultaneously disorient and reveal, and a sustained sense of bleak, unforgiving realism. Lorna's Silence has a little more plot than previous work from the Dardennes, but if it's the first Dardenne brothers movie you've seen, you'll be struck by its sparsity and concentration.

The social dimensions of Lorna's story are clear, but Lorna has additional problems -- not the least of which is that she's torn by the dictates of conscience. She's less than eager to fulfill her obligations to the crime bosses who insists that she help eliminate her junkie husband.

In scenes of rare immediacy, the Dardennes expose us to a culture of crime and corruption that has developed around immigration, and Lorna's Silence emerges as a worthy addition to a small but powerful body of work that informs and chastens while refusing to indulge our escapist urges.

Lorna's Silence opens Friday, Aug. 28 in Denver.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A quick take on Tarantino's 'Basterds'

Disregard the four-star reviews. Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is no masterpiece. By the same token, you'd do equally well to discount reviews that claim the moral high ground, arguing that Tarantino has distorted history in ways that are deeply offensive and perhaps unforgivable.

At no time does Inglourious Basterds make a claim to be anything more than a movie. It even begins with a title card that reads, "Once upon a time," a bow to Tarantino favorite Sergio Leone and a clue that what follows shouldn't be taken as literally. I didn't. Even during the movie's revenge-laden finale, I never believed I was watching anything more than a fantasy. Among other things, Tarantino's movies are about the ways in which pop culture can trump history, absorbing its nuances and replacing them with its own assumptions. How else to justify Nazis who sometimes talk like they're in a Tarantino movie?

I'll give you some quick-hit comments, and return to the movie, which I couldn't catch at a preview screening, at a later date:

-- In all, Inglourious Basterds is worth seeing. There's plenty in it that can be appreciated and nothing that need be taken so seriously that you'll want to issue outraged proclamations.

-- As most reviews have noted, German actor Christoph Waltz steals the movie. Waltz plays Col. Hans Landa, a sophisticated SS man who's capable of alarming levels of charm and courtesy, but who has the cunning heart of a killer. His nickname: "The Jew Hunter."

-- As an Army lieutenant in charge of a squad of Jewish soldiers -- the Basterds of the title -- Brad Pitt probably works a southern accent a little too hard.

-- The violence may be kept to a minimum (for a Tarantino movie) but some of it is graphic enough to make you wince; i.e., watching German soldiers being scalped or beaten to death by a baseball bat-wielding Jewish soldier. The Basterds are dropped into occupied France for one purpose: killing Nazis and taking their scalps.

-- Tarantino is nothing if not eclectic. The movie is a real shape-shifter. It can look like a World War II movie, a western and even a gangster film. You can exhaust yourself counting references to other movies.

-- The first scene -- in which Col. Landa -- confronts a French farmer who's hiding Jews in his basement is full of dread and tension. It's the best scene in the movie -- not always a good thing, playing your strongest card first, but I don't know that I've seen a better scene in a movie this year.

-- The actor playing Hitler (Martin Wuttke) turns the odious Fuhrer into a cartoonish joke. That probably was intentional, but it didn't work for me. Besides, Mel Brooks already took care of that in The Producers. To complicate matters, I can't forget the way Bruno Ganz portrayed Hitler in The Downfall. Ganz seemed to get it precisely right.

-- A scene in which some of the Basterds pose as German officers to meet with a German actress (Diane Kruger) who's helping the allies has an underlying tension that's gripping and strange.

-- The movie's ending (a self-proclaimed Jewish revenge fantasy) didn't really do it for me. It's difficult to talk about the movie's ending without revealing too much, so I'll wait a decent interval before going into detail.

A romance with a difference

We sometimes need reminding that people with diseases or disorders are people -- not diseases or disorders.

The movie Adam does a nice job of humanizing a character that easily could have served as little more than an emblem for disability. The movie's main character suffers from Asperger Syndrome, a developmental disorder that evidently manifests in a variety of ways. In Adam's case, Asperger's creates a shockingly literal mindset. On top of that, Adam's behavior always seems a tick or two off the mark.

Adam, also happens to be an electronics whiz with an interest in astronomy. Although he's capable of falling into uncontrolled bouts of rage, he's keenly focused and exceptionally honest. Did I mention that Adam is a romance? Well, it is. The story centers on the relationship that develops between Adam (Hugh Darcy) and Beth (Rose Byrne). Darcy's English; Byrne's Australian. Both play Americans who live in Manhattan. Adam and Beth meet when Beth moves into Adam's apartment building. She slowly develops a fondness for Adam that eventually blossoms into romance.

Both Darcy and Byrne acquit themselves well. Darcy gives Adam a credible degree of self-awareness, and Byrne proves convincing as a young woman trying to figure out just how far her relationship with Adam can go.

The script by Max Mayer, who also directed, doesn't delve deeply enough into Beth's psychology, dabbling instead in issues of honesty revolving around Beth's CPA father (Peter Gallagher). Issues aside, the real accomplishment of Mayer's script involves the way it eases gentle humor into most of the problems Adam and Beth face.

Predictable moments keep Adam from soaring, but the ending helps Mayer avoid the worst genre cliches. In all, Adam comes off as a quiet crowd pleaser; it may not be great, but it gets further than you might expect considering the pitfalls movies dealing with disorders inevitably face.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Two movies that aren't 'Basterds'

Jason Schwartzman stars in The Marc Pease Experience, a movie you've probably heard nothing about, maybe for good reason.

Alexis Bledel (left) and best buddy (Zach Gilford) share intimacies in Post Grad, but this is Bledel's movie.

I missed the screening of Inglourious Basterds, and will catch up with it over the weekend. Such is the price of making films as well as writing about them. I was busy in the editing room. For what it's worth, I can tell you that the process of making films generally beats writing about them. For one thing, you're not sitting alone in dark rooms or isolated in front of a computer screen, wondering whether anyone gives a damn.

Some day, I'll write more about my filmmaking adventures. For the moment, though, I'll tell you about my week at the movies, which resulted in a couple of low points, namely The Marc Pease Experience and Post Grad. I call these movies low points because the world would be no worse off had neither of them seen the dark at the end of the multiplex tunnel. . Marc Pease (awful title) stars Ben Stiller and Jason Schwartzman; Post Grad provides the talented and "adorable" (my wife's word) Alexis Bledel with a nice showcase. The movie isn't much, but Bledel makes the most of it.

So, The Marc Pease Experience: Can't get to the Sundance Film Festival? Don't fret. Marc Pease makes you believe that you're at one of the more unfortunate Sundance premieres in the cavernous Eccles Center. Imagine you've waited on line in the cold because you were drawn by two marquee names: Stiller and Schwartzman. If you're younger, you may have been attracted to the presence of Anna Kendrick, who plays a high school student who has an affair with a drama teacher (Stiller). You elbow your way inside the theater, collapse into a seat and begin fighting off festival fatigue.

Now imagine that within 10 minutes after the picture starts, you realize that you've been suckered. Aside from a few chuckles, the movie wasn't worth the wait.

That's all that needs to be said about Marc Pease, a movie with a script by Todd Louiso and Jacob Koskoff. That's all that needs to be said, true. But that doesn't mean I'm not going to say more.

The movie avoids any real exploration of the consequences that might result from a student/teacher dalliance, focusing instead on the story of a man who can't grow up. Scharwartzman portrays the title character, a limo driver who's unable to get singing out of his system 10 years after graduating from high school. Stiller plays a high school teacher who directs musicals. The Wiz figures heavily in the plot.

Louiso, who also directed, previously gave us Love Liza, a weird little movie about a widower (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who began sniffing gasoline fumes to drown his grief after his wife's suicide. Once again, you can feel Louiso straining to be quirky, and if his movie could talk, it would probably say something like:

"Look, Stiller needs to prove that he can do something that isn't a Night at the Museum sequel, and Schwartzman seems to connect with audiences when he's stuck in a Rushmore-inspired rut. Isn't that enough reason to make a movie?"

To be fair, Marc Pease serves up a few funny moments, but the movie's message -- adolescent boys eventually must mature -- hardly qualifies as earth shaking. Here's a shocking idea: The best way to help immature audiences to grow is by presenting them with movies about adults, not by wallowing in states of suspended adolescence.

Overall, Marc Pease is a negligible effort in which amusing moments are undermined by an annoyingly quirky tone. Mercifully, the movie clocks in at one hour and 24 minutes. Short is good, particularly because the movie's insistence on spoofing the way amateurs adopt show-business attitudes makes the whole effort seem passe, an inside joke that's been told so many times, it long ago was shoved into the cold light of obviousness.

Post Grad should have been a horror film instead of a comedy. What could be worse? A grown kid toes the line, attends college and graduates. Defeated by an inability to find a job, she moves back home with her parents, her grandmother and her younger brother. Talk about nightmares.

Post Grad soft-peddles the more depressing aspects of its premise, opting instead for predictable fluff. Alexis Bledel's performance as Ryden Malby dominates the movie as a recent graduate whose hopes are dashed when she fails to land her dream job with a Los Angeles publishing company. Bledel proves engaging.

A couple of asides: Remember when Michael Keaton was big? Now, he's stuck playing an inept but ultimately supportive father in a second-tier comedy. Worse yet, a major plot point involving his character is left unresolved. Another aside: Looking significantly long in the tooth, Carol Burnett shows up as Keaton's mom. Burnett still can deliver the comic goods, even when her role doesn't amount to much.

Otherwise, the best I can say about Post Grad is that it runs for only one hour and 29 minutes instead of the usual two hours and 10. If it has any purpose at all, it's to raise eyebrows among parents who face the prospect of harboring a grown child in the basement. "Be afraid. Be very afraid."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Agnes Varda travels down memory lane


The longer life goes on, the more we seem to rely on memory and the more we fear its eventual loss. In fretful moments, we ponder the ravages of dementia or Alzheimer's, perhaps panicking at the thought that age and disease might rob us of the sense that we've lived at all. If we can't remember events and people -- even with the distortions that inevitably seep into consciousness -- can we be sure of anything? Without memory, we're like ships bobbing randomly on the ocean of consciousness, unable to pull into port and having no log to remind us of where we've been.

Agnes Varda, the 81-year-old French director, has no such problem. In The Beaches of Agnes, the director remembers her childhood, her development as a still photographer, then as a movie director, and, of course, as the wife of director Jacques Demy, most famous for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Varda's movie is at once French, arty and playful -- serious without ever being solemn. Varda, who was 80 when the film was made, describes herself as a "little old lady, pleasantly plump." At one point, she holds a pancake in front of her face and draws a comparison. "I am alive, and I remember," she tells us at the film's conclusion.

We draw encouragement from Varda's talent and her attitude, which probably are inseparable. You can tell that Varda still believes in the possibilities of cinema, which -- in Beaches becomes both an autobiographical medium and a repository for pleasant asides. Film historians classify Varda as a member of the Left Bank group that included filmmakers such as Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe- Grillet. She opens the movie on a beach, which she says is best suited for this tale. I kept thinking about sand castles slowly crumbling under the force of rising tides.

There's plenty here for film buffs to savor -- Varda knew many great filmmakers and gave such actors as Philippe Noiret and Gerard Depardieu career boosts. She also spends a lot of time on her relationship with Demy. Somehow these two important filmmakers lived and let live. She tells us -- without need for further explanation -- that Demy died of AIDS and that while he was dying, she made Jacquot, a film about her husband's youth. Jacquot was an act of love on Varda's part -- of both her husband and of cinema.

At the age of 80, Varda wears her feminism easily. She talks about Vagabond and One Sings, the Other Doesn't, movies with much to say about women.

Most important, Varda is fun to hang around with, and the film affords us with that opportunity. She may be aging, but her eyes are still wide open, alert to possibilities, ready for engagement. Beaches is much too spirited a film to be taken a swan song. We expect there's more on Varda's horizon.


In 1996, director Leon Gast released When We Were Kings, a brilliant documentary about the fabled 1974 Rumble in the Jungle, the heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Initially, the fight -- which took place in Zaire -- was to be accompanied by a three-night music festival featuring some of the great soul acts of the day: James Brown, B.B. King, Bill Withers, The Spinners and Celia Cruz. The concert footage hit the floor when Gast assembled his movie, which focused on an unexpected six-week delay of the fight that resulted from an injury to Foreman. Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, who worked as an editor on Kings, does his best to assemble a story about the concert from Gast's unused footage. He does a reasonably good job of sustaining a narrative, but the performances carry the day with the Godfather of Soul providing the finale to Soul Power, a documentary for those who want to remember a musical event that wasn't Woodstock.

The Beaches of Agnes and Soul Power open in Denver Friday, Aug. 21.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Aliens are repulsive, but we're worse

Brutish humans victimize alien beings from outer space. That sounds like a formula lifted from some long-forgotten sci-fi trash of the '50s, but director Neill Blomkamp's District 9 is very much a product of the misanthropic present. The aliens may not be saints, but they're the closest we get to a rooting interest in Blomkamp's tipsy sci-fi adventure, nearly all of which takes place on a planet called Earth, more particularly in a South African slum where stranded aliens have been brutally segregated.

The reptilian-looking aliens in District 9 are stuck on Earth from the beginning of Blonkamp's dizzying ride through this filthy urban outpost. At the outset, we learn that that the alien spaceship has been hovering over Johannesburg like a giant pancake for the last 20 years.

The aliens, of course, couldn't have picked a worse spot to break down. South Africa's white Afrikaners -- the inventors of apartheid -- have had plenty of experience developing systems of extreme segregation, and by the time the plot kicks in, the aliens have been herded into a special district -- No. 9 to be precise. Confined to this awful shantytown, they live impoverished, degraded lives.

Enter Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a smiling but clueless bureaucrat, who has been chosen to lead a relocation project designed to move aliens away from the city. The good people of Johannesburg are sick of living near a crime-ridden slum. Their answer: Move the slum.

Blomkamp -- with a producing boost from Lord of the Rings guru Peter Jackson -- keeps things humming, and the movie's detailing can be amusingly strange or blatantly telling. The aliens -- called "prawns" by the residents of Johannesburg -- treat cat food like an illicit drug, buying it from Nigerian gangsters who also offer "inter-species sex" with human prostitutes. The aliens speak with clicking sounds that seem to have been borrowed from one of the Bantu languages. Reluctant residents on Earth, they'd like nothing more than to repair their ship and return home.

As the story -- told in the form of a mock documentary -- progresses, we develop more sympathy for the aliens than for any of Earth's native inhabitants. Of course, Blomkamp pretty much stacks the deck: A self-serving and evil corporation wants to discover the secret of alien weaponry, which is as mighty as most human weapons. A mid-picture plot twist drives Blomkamp's feature toward an ending that puts van der Merwe on the run, while paying homage to the kind of homeward-looking yearnings that made E.T. so poignant.

As sci-fi goes, District 9 proves several cuts above most recent fare, although it's grandest ambitions may be a trifle superfluous. Do we really need movies that serve as metaphors for apartheid and other extreme forms of prejudice? The real deals speak loudly for themselves. And in case apartheid weren't enough of an outrage, Blomkamp throws in a reference to the Holocaust with a lab that's busy conducting ''medical'' experiments on aliens.

Taken as a dizzying example of how to freshen B-movie conceits, District 9 has it all -- action, gore, blazing weaponry and CGI effects. Go. Root for the "prawns." But be forewarned: Blomkamp has gone Pogo on us: He has seen the enemy, and it's us.

What's more repulsive, the movie asks, a slithery alien with a face that might not feel at home in an aquarium or a corporation that will stop at nothing to obtain the biggest weapons? In a comic-book obsessed popular culture, that may be as profound a question as we're likely to get.

Friday, August 7, 2009

And now for a brief intermission

I leave town and a torrential rain falls, John Hughes dies and who knows what else? If you believe in forebodings, none of these qualify as particularly good omens for the coming week, which I'm spending in NYC, with a planned foray into the Pennsylvania mountains. I may post from time to time, but I'm reasonably confident you don't want to hear about my family business in an inanely detailed series of Facebook-like postings, complete with predictably cute photos. Meanwhile, there's nothing to stop you from commenting on movies or anything else, "moving forward" as the bureaucrats like to say.

My favorite John Hughes movie: "The Breakfast Club." Sad to see that Hughes died at age 59.

My favorite thing about Budd Schulberg, who also died this week: He wrote "On the Waterfront."

I'll be catching up with movies I find interesting when I return -- some belatedly. And, yes, you do have to be a little crazy to head for NYC in August. I don't deny it.

We'll talk soon.

'The Cove,' a riveting documentary

The Cove might be the most exciting of all the recent movies that have attempted to deal with environmental issues -- from An Inconvenient Truth to Food, Inc. to End of the Line. I'm referring to a broad spectrum of problems that encompass everything from a nutrition-imperiled food supply to depletion of the globe's undersea population.

The Cove, which deals with the threat posed to dolphins, focuses on the small Japanese town of Taiji. Taiji is home base for fishing operations in which dolphins are driven into a small cove where they're systematically killed or captured for shipment to theme parks. Not surprisingly, money is the root of the evil that has beset the world's dolphin population.

Director Louie Psihoyos keeps the story suspenseful. He also explains that the movie was a kind of stealth operation. The crew, which had to sneak into position to do much of the filming, used cameras hidden in fake rocks. In order to photograph the mass killing of dolphins, the filmmakers also had to dodge authorities.

According to Ric O' Barry, the most prominent of all the movie's voices, dolphins are aware of what's happening to them. O'Barry should know. He was responsible for training the star of the TV show, Flipper. Dolphins, O'Barry tells us, are smart, sensitive creatures that don't deserve to be brutally slaughtered. O'Barry came to this conclusion after his work on Flipper. He since has devoted his life to freeing captive dolphins and trying to keep more of them from being killed.

There's a kicker to the story, as well: The dolphins that are killed for food have been so tainted by mercury that they're not healthy to eat. But this kind of danger hasn't slowed the killing.

Eventually, we're shown what happens inside the cove. As you can imagine, it's not a pretty sight. The waters of the cove fill with blood.

We're long past the time when we probably should adopt a live-and-let-live attitude toward wildlife on the planet. If you didn't think so before, it's difficult to imagine that you won't feel differently after watching this harrowing and heartbreaking feature about creatures that haven't been able to escape our predatory habits.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Julia is more interesting than Julie

Here's my fantasy: At some point during the filming of Julie & Julia, director Nora Ephron had to give instructions to Meryl Streep, who plays master chef Julia Child.

"Just be taller, Meryl,'' Ephron might have said, encouraging Streep to find ways to suggest all of Child's 6 feet, two inches.

Streep, whose performance as a nun in Doubt was good but showy, seems to be turning into a special effect. Raising her voice a couple of octaves and trying her best to appear large, Streep dominates every scene in which she appears. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, but it gives you a clue about what you may find most memorable about Julie & Julia, an enjoyable repast that winds up a few courses short of a really great meal.

Allow me to continue with a digression. If the birth dates on IMBd are correct, Streep is 60 and Stanley Tucci is 48. I mention the real ages of the actors because in Julie & Julia, Tucci and Streep play a married couple, and, to me, they never seemed precisely right together. Tucci plays Child's husband, Paul. The real Paul was 10 years older than Julia, a woman who had a voice like a bird and a body like a power forward.

End of digression. Despite age differences, Streep and Tucci orchestrate a nice enough duet. Tucci's Paul comes across as a meticulous man who takes impish delight in all things libidinous, and Streep seasons her performance with displays of wit. Julia and Paul both loved to eat, and watching them savor a favorite dish qualifies as something to behold, two extremely articulate people struck dumb in their pleasure.

Unfortunately, this breezy movie divides into two stories. Child's formative years in Paris, beginning in 1948, are contrasted with the blogging life of Julie Powell (Amy Adams). Powell is a contemporary author and foodie, who tries to establish herself as a writer by blogging about the year she spends cooking every recipe in Child's classic cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Streep and Adams, who worked together in Doubt, share no screen time. Ephron alternates between the two stories, sometimes gracefully, sometimes not. Child's My Life in France and Powell's book, Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, served as source material for the script, also by Ephron. The story of Child's Parisian adventures proves the more interesting of these two food-obsessed tales.

Paul Child served in the American embassy in Paris. Julia, who was 36 at the time of Paul's posting, seemed at loose ends. After a few forays into womanly activities -- hat making, for example -- she decided to learn about food, enrolling in the prestigious Cordon Bleu school. There she competed with unwelcoming men, but still managed to find her calling. Later, Child met Simone Beck (Linda Emond)* and Louisette Bertholle (Helen Carey), the women with whom she eventually co-wrote her classic cookbook.

Adams' character, who works for a New York City program that tries to help people who lost loved ones during the Sept. 11 attack, needs diversion from her depressing job. With encouragement from her husband Chris Messina, she begins her adventures in cooking, which gradually morph into a confidence-building exercise. Aside from a late-picture spat, Messina's Eric supports his wife's pursuits, but contemporary life -- mostly scenes in a Queens apartment -- can't compete with Paris in the '50s.

In sum: Ephron has made a movie for Child fans, foodies and anyone who wants to see Streep slice a mountain of onions. It's a pleasant diversion -- if a little less rich than one might have hoped.

*A reader noted that I misspelled Linda Emond's name. Now fixed.

The year's best satire keeps us 'In the Loop'

If this year produces a better (or more bitter) satire than In the Loop, I can't wait to see it.

This British import about a pending war in the Middle East proves compelling and funny, mostly because just about everything in it rings true on some level. The government officials that we meet are a venal lot, careerists who spend as much time jockeying with one another as they do advancing the interests of their respective countries.

Director Armando Iannucci draws the U.S. into his loop, showing us a war-hungry State Department official and a general who argues that the U.S. lacks sufficient manpower to fight a war. What war? It doesn't matter. The unseen conflict in the movie easily could be located in Iraq, but Iannucci allows us to fill in the blanks as he barrels through a story that's put across by a terrific group of American and British actors.

The whole business kicks off when a minister in Britain's department of international development makes a remark about war. "War," he says, "is unforeseeable." The fact that this statement doesn't mean much of anything doesn't put a halt to the storm that ensues. Working from a script he co-wrote with Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche, Iannucci navigates his way through series of turbulent trans-Atlantic negotiations, mercilessly skewering just about everyone who walks in front of his camera.

In the Loop has a large cast, so it's impossible to name everyone in it, but highlights definitely are in order. Tom Hollander brilliantly portrays the minister who starts the ball rolling, a man whose major talent seems to involve squirming. Unbridled viciousness is the main talent of Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), a profanity-spewing realist of a PR man and master of insults. Malcolm is one of those guys who go through life with a chip on their shoulders; knock it off at your peril. He also appears to know the "real" story -- I mean the really "real" story -- about anything and everything.

Working with minister Foster are some equally vicious minor characters: Judy (Gina McKee) has a disquieting air of savvy about her; Toby (Chris Addison) is quick to take credit for anything he can. On the American side, we meet Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy), a smart state department official who opposes war. Her boss (David Rasche) is so eager to go to war, he's lost interest in whether the facts actually support such a decision. Anna Chumsky plays Clark's assistant, an up-and-coming state department employee who squares off with another up-and-comer (Zach Woods).

James Gandolfini does some of this best big-screen work yet as a general who opposes war, but who -- like everyone else in the movie -- is a bottom-line careerist. Dry and funny, Gandolfini puts aside all memories of Tony Soprano, mastering the style of insider pragmatism that defines so many of the movie's characters.

Maybe it's the British accents. Maybe it's the intricacies of the plotting. Maybe both. Whatever it is, you may have to work to keep up with the plot. It's worth it. In the Loop is witty and, most important, knowing. I doubt whether anyone this year will make a movie in which humor and satire put such a powerful stranglehold on hypocrisy. Is the movie too cynical? Maybe. But who among us hasn't noticed that purported higher purposes often mingle with base self-aggrandizement?