Saturday, September 26, 2009

They love Paris: So do we

Juliette Binoche and Romain Duris in Paris.

Anyone who has been to Paris -- and I'm lucky enough to be able to say I have -- knows that the city has a special, almost ineffable allure. If one were going to design a city meant to appeal to the senses and the mind, Paris might be the place to begin and end. Like all great cities, Paris seems to have a life of its own, a bustle that you know will continue with or without you.

Director Cedric Klapisch has made a movie -- aptly named Paris -- that introduces us to characters whose lives play out against a Parisian backdrop, and you can't always tell which is more significant the characters or the city in which they live.
Klapisch's characters are a diverse group, interesting without being extraordinary. The rail-thin Romain Duris plays Pierre, a dancer whose heart problems soon may cost him his life. Juliette Binoche portrays his sister, a mother of two daughters who has broken up with her husband. She's a social worker.

Fabrice Luchini appears as Roland Verneuil, a professor of Parisian history who has been hired to do a PBS-like show about the historical life of the city. His architect brother (Francois Cluzet) and his wife are expecting a child.
Lonely and aging, Roland desperately needs a fling: Against his better judgment, he sends flowery love messages to one of his students. Will he suddenly find himself in a relationship that restores feelings of youth or will he be crushed on the rocks of reality? Roland and his brother, by the way, have just lost their father, a fact that Roland seems intent on ignoring.

The characters move around the city. Sometimes they shop. While buying groceries in an open-air market, Binoche's Elise meets Jean (Albert Dupontel), a vegetable seller who catches her eye. He's a refugee from a broken marriage.

Such are the lives in the movie, which is punctuated by views of Paris and the odd vignette. Karin Viard appears as a baker who takes her opinions more seriously than she should. She's a slightly amusing pain in the butt.

Klapisch isn't swinging for the thematic fences here. He's showing us a spectrum of Parisian life, and his characters experience a typical range of joy and sorrow. Only scenes involving a young man in Cameroon fail to blend into the movie's otherwise seamless whole. I'm sure this was intentional, a way for Klapisch to acknowledge the city's growing immigrant population, but this is not a movie about ethnic tensions between Paris' newcomers, many of whom are Muslims, and the city's longtime residents.

For the most part, though, Paris unfolds with an ease that proves increasingly engaging. A mild warning: Klapisch's ending is very French, which means it may bring a frustrated smile to your face. Forget the frustration and focus the smile.

Friday, September 25, 2009

For this poet, romance didn't include sex

Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw in Bright Star.

I'm plagued by many wishes. I wish, for example, that Jane Campion's Bright Star didn't begin to lag about three-quarters of the way through. I wish that the wonderful Australian actress Abbie Cornish, who plays the lover of poet John Keats in the same movie, hadn't overshadowed Ben Whishaw, the English actor who portrays the famed romantic poet. I also wish that Campion, a director whose early career promised a startlingly distinctive approach to cinema, had found a subject that we'd typically expect to find on Masterpiece Theater.

But the world is not made of wishes, and we have Bright Star, Campion's beautifully crafted view of life for artists in the early 19th century. Keats, as we all know from various required English courses, believed ''a thing of beauty is joy forever." He died of tuberculosis at the unforgivably tender age of 25.

As befits an artist who died young, Keats' love for Cornish's Fanny Brawne was both ardent and tragic. Keats was too poor to marry and too full of moral rectitude to sleep with Fanny. He was intoxicated by her, but sometimes found reasons to stay away from her. During these periods, she learned to pine for him. Do people pine for one another anymore or do they simply go on Facebook? I'm just asking.

Perhaps Whishaw's relatively unimpressive performance stems from the way Campion focuses her film. She spends more time following Fanny than trudging after the poet. As Campion imagines her, Fanny seems fully worthy of a movie. She's a self-assured young woman with an eye for fashion. By definition, fashion is fleeting and certainly not intended as "a joy forever." It lasts a season.

Initially dismissive of Keats' arty ways, Fanny eventually falls for him. Cornish gives full vent to Fanny's personality: Fanny's free-flowing spirit tends to be burdened by the weight of love. She loses some of the spring in her step. For her part, Fanny would have tossed aside convention and hopped into Keats' bed. He would have none of it. As he moved toward his gloomy death, he refused to compromise Fanny's reputation.

These days, it's more than a little daring to make a love story about two people who never have sex. Bright Star is about love that never removes its clothes, and the ache of Cornish's pent-up passion is something to behold.

Equally interesting is the character of Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), Keats' friend and occasional roommate. The two shared a house close to the Brawne residence. Brown worried that Keats' preoccupation with Brawne would sap his talent and drain his creative energy. Brown attempted to put a wall between Brawne and Keats, but Keats refused to yield to his friend's entreaties. He gently followed his heart.

Somewhere beyond the middle of Campion's smooth presentation, I began to wonder if the movie hadn't already said everything that could be said, which means that it had to turn itself into ritualized drama, the slow movement toward Keat's physical decline and death.

Given the fact that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences foolishly committed to nominating 10 movies for best picture in 2010, Bright Star is sure to wind up on the list. For me, Bright Star is three-quarters of the way toward being a fine movie -- one that evinces bracing clarity -- and a few stanzas short of greatness. Pity.


High school students who just want to perform.
The 2009 edition of Fame is a quasi-remake and updating of the exuberant 1980 movie directed by Alan Parker. The TV series that followed (1982-1987) wasn't bad either. The remake? Like the original, it's divided into four years of high school: freshmen, sophomore, junior and senior. Thankfully, director Kevin Tancharoen doesn't follow these show-business tyros to college. Episodically constructed around a variety of hastily sketched characters, the movie features forgettable musical numbers and lots of faux drama: the young black student (Naturi Naughton) who wants to give up her studies in classical piano to sing hip hop or the aspiring actress (Kay Panabaker) who misreads the intentions of a hunky former student who promises her an audition for a TV show or the young black man (Collins Pennie) who's angry that his father split and his baby sister was killed. Void of emotional impact, the movie lacks the kind of credible story that might have made me root for these kids and its over-amped enthusiasms never encouraged my heart to skip a beat.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

One family leaps off the power grid

No Impact Man Colin Beavan in search of provisions.

In my movie world, only Will Smith and certain comic-book characters are capable of saving our beleagued planet. At least that's what I thought until I saw the documentary, No Impact Man.

No Impact Man tells the story of Colin Beavan, a writer who decides that his family will do its part to spare the environment. Beavan tries to set an example by dropping off the power grid, a brave act that includes giving up the consumption of electricity and much else.

Now as much as I think we all should do more to curtail ravenous consumption of resources, I draw the line at doing without toilet paper. Beavan did not.

Roughly a week ago, I heard an interview with Beavan and his wife -- journalist Michelle Conlin -- on NPR. The interviewer asked about Beavan's decision to flush toilet paper out of his life for a year. Conlin expressed her dismay that media types tend to fixate on the toilet paper issue, ignoring the larger purposes of the family's environmental-friendly experiment.

Really? Look, I'll try not to leave lights burning. I'll curtail aimless driving. I'll watch less TV. I'll turn the thermometer down. I will not, however, stop using toilet paper because, among other things, I have no desire to simulate life in the 17th Century. Abandon two-ply? I'll consider it. Substitute rags for paper. Not in this lifetime.

In addition to helping produce the documentary, Beavan has written a book about the year he spent conducting his experiment, sometimes in ways that frustrated Conlin. She found it difficult, for example, to abandon Starbucks, a sacrifice that wouldn't bother me in the least, although I think I can say with some assurance that I've never used toilet paper in a Starbucks.

Conlin, of course, soldiered on, sticking with the program. The couple's toddler daughter had little choice but to spend 2007 doing without the same things her parents had given up. The idea was to leave no carbon footprint, even a tiny one.

Directors Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein had full access to Beavan's asceticism. He survived, and apparently learned that many of the things he thought essential were superfluous. I applaud his pluck, but wondered if Beavan weren't trying too hard, perhaps for the sake of writing a book.

Nah, the guy had to be sincere. After all, he abandoned lots of amenities that make life in New York City tolerable: subways, elevators and air conditioning, for example.

But if Beavan meant to inspire the rest of us to consume less and be more conscious about the ways in which our choices impact the environment, the movie didn't work -- not for me anyway.

To me, Beavan's sacrifices seemed like a self-inflicted ordeal. Watching No Impact Man wasn't like reading Thoreau and wondering whether it's time to head for the woods in search of transcendental liberation. No, the movie reminded me that even honorable intentions can be carried to lamentable excess.

And remember this: Viewing Beavan's year-long efforts as idiosyncratic and marginal isn't the same as wanting to despoil the environment. I'm betting even Al Gore uses toilet paper.
No Impact Man opens in Denver Sept. 25. It's likely to stimulate lively post-movie conversation -- pro and con regarding Beavan's year of ecological experimentation.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A comedy about price-fixing? It's true

Matt Damon turns whistle blower in The Informant!

Three cheers for The Informant!, a movie that defies expectation by denying us a rooting interest -- unless it's our wish that sanity might suddenly prevail in what director Steven Soderbergh presents as an intricate web of irresponsibility and corruption.

The lack of a bona fide hero isn't the only improbable thing about The Informant! Who'd have thought that anyone could take a comic approach to a price-fixing scandal involving the amino acid, lysine? But Soderbergh has done it, building a fascinating story around a corporate whistle blower at a major U.S. company, Archer Daniels Midland.

Based on a true story, The Informant! focuses on Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon in an Oscar worthy performance). Unlike Russell Crowe's ultra-serious character in Michael Mann's The Insider, Damon imbues Whitacre with a capacity for naivety and illogical assumption. We're never sure what to make of Whitacre, who calls himself 0014 because he thinks he's twice as smart as James Bond, the mythic 007.

Of course, Whitacre's deluded about his investigative talents; he bumbles his way through situation after situation, violating every bit of advice the FBI gives him.

As the story progresses -- much of it centering on Whitacre's relationship with FBI Special Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) -- the movie becomes funnier without straining to find laughs.

Some of this is due to a narration that reveals Whitacre's thoughts. I usually hate narration in movies, but the script by Scott Z. Burns -- based on a book by Kurt Eichenwald) -- uses Whitacre's thoughts as a comic counterpoint for what we're watching. For his part, Whitacre has no idea that anything he's saying might be construed as amusing or odd -- which, of course, serves to make the incessant workings of his mind even funnier.

Marvin Hamlisch's cartoonish score also emphasizes Soderbergh's comic intentions: The director sees absurdity across the corporate spectrum -- from ADM execs who toe the company line to Whitacre, who agrees to wear a wire as a means to trapping his felonious colleagues.

All of the intrigue centers on a case that led to variety of convictions in what became the largest price fixing scheme in U.S. legal history. Given the density and complexity of such a plot, you can bet that you'll be surprised by some of the script's revelations, particularly if you're not already familiar with Whitacre's story.

Soderbergh, who made a corporate thriller with the equally successful Erin Brockovich, this time avoids climbing on a moral high horse. The Informant! seems designed to show that there aren't many geniuses behind corporate crime or its exposure, and the movie feels firmly rooted in the ordinary world. The ADM office settings have a standard-issue quality, and Whitacre's wardrobe has a studied look that perfectly suits a biochemist who believes he has a strong feel for business, except of course when he doesn't.

It may take a few minutes to adjust to the movie's offbeat rhythms, but if you allow The Informant! to sneak up on you, it should prove one of the more enjoyable movies of the fall, a comic take on serious business that often has you gasping in disbelief, which -- in this case - is a good thing.

A pointless blend of satire and gore

Megan Fox flies into a rage in Jennifer's Body.

If it were up to me -- and many will be glad that it's not -- Jennifer's Body would be tossed into a bin where Hollywood keeps the rest of its big-screen junk, things such as satirical teen comedy, gory horror and teasing sex.

Jennifer's Body probably would vanish with little fanfare if it weren't for its pedigree. It was written by Diablo Cody, a screenwriter whose debut movie, Juno, promised to bring a new sensibility to the movie conversation, one that was smart, pop-culturally savvy and funny. Cody, who was discovered as a blogger and who once worked as a stripper, seemed ready to bolster big-screen entertainment with her sharply expressed wit.

Ten minutes into Jennifer's Body -- Cody's second big-screen effort -- and I could feel hope being dashed on the rocks of disappointment. Although the movie gives hottie Megan Fox plenty of screen time, it's ultimately a lumbering attempt to put a comic twist on shocking horror.

Maybe the whole enterprise was doomed from the start. Hip as she can be, Cody seems to have forgotten that half of the teen horror movies that hit the nation's multiplexes already come across as genre parodies. And Cody's dialogue isn't nearly as amusing as it was in Juno.

Directed by Karyn Kusama (Girlfight), Jennifer's Body centers on a teen-age girl with the improbable name of Needy, Amanda Seyfried of HBO's Big Love. Needy is best friends with Jennifer (Fox). She also has a boyfriend (Johnny Simmons). These high schoolers seem to be doing reasonably well until the night Needy and Jennifer find themselves partying at a local bar and a lethal fire breaks out.

Needy and Jennifer, of course, survive, but a bit of satanic foul play -- no, it's not worth describing -- turns the archly seductive Jennifer into a demon. She starts devouring the flesh of teen-age boys, ripping large pieces out of their torsos. Oh well, at least she's not pigging out on burgers and fries.

Kusama's bite-and-bleed approach should give you a clue about the way she throws raw meat on the movie's gory fires. But offenses to taste are the least of the movie's problems: Jennifer's Body goes nowhere and seems to have no reason for existing other than to play around with horror-movie cliches. That's a pretty low bar, and the movie can't jump over it, even as it dabbles in lesbian attraction, projectile vomiting and occult mumbo jumbo. (I know: Many will rank those among the movie's good points.)

If you want to see a truly twisted comedy, try World's Greatest Dad, which opened in Denver last week and which actually feels like something we haven't seen before. Jennifer's Body -- thanks in part to Fox's nubile body -- probably will do more business than Greatest Dad, but Cody should know that Bobcat Goldhwait, who wrote and directed Greatest Dad, has outdone her. And no one ever hailed Goldthwait as the next big thing.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Sports fans and other fanatics

Patton Oswalt prepares for a radio call-in.

Big Fan's kick derives in large measure from the performance of Patton Oswalt, a comedian who plays a rabid New York Giants fan who works as a parking lot attendant but truly comes alive when he phones a sports-talk show called The Zone. Patton's character makes notes before he calls his favorite show, and he reads each screed with as much passion as he can muster, often taking issue with other callers. This kind of personal jousting, complete with insults, seems real enough to anyone who has listened to the more rambunctious sports talk shows, a sin I've occasionally committed.

Director Robert Siegel, who wrote the screenplay for The Wrestler, explores the depths to which devotion to a team can carry a fan. He's also interested in the ways in which sports-talk shows serve as outlets for people whose lives are otherwise barren.

That's certainly true of Oswalt's Paul Aufiero, who has no life save the one he lives on the radio, egged on by his pal Sal (Kevin Corrigan). The two buddies travel to Giants games, but don't go inside the stadium. They watch on a small TV in the parking lot, cheering on their beloved team.

The driving force behind The Big Fan -- the insanity of obsession -- is nothing new, but Siegel works things out in slightly unexpected ways. A pivotal incident involves a meeting in a nightclub between Paul and his favorite Giants' player, Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm). Paul and Sal spot Bishop on Staten Island, where they live. They then follow their hero to a Manhattan nightspot. You don't need to be a seer to know that the evening ends badly.

It's hardly surprising that someone such as the 36-year-old Paul would live at home with his mother (Marcia Jean Kurtz), a woman who constantly badgers him, telling him to get a real job. His bother, an attorney played by Gino Cafarelli, also tries to goad Paul into a more "productive" life.
But Paul treats his fanaticism as if it were a sacred vow. He rejects the kind of droning middle-class existence to which his brother has aspired. He sees his sports mania as something pure and unsullied. Paul may be misreading the way most people live, but he's nothing if not persistent. That's why Big Fan is less about a character who undergoes transformation than a character who remains true to his beliefs: The only cause that matters to Paul, The New York Giants.

Is there something pathetic about all this? Probably. But Paul knows what he's all about, and he doesn't care what anyone else thinks about his very particular pursuit of happiness. That's Paul's idea of integrity: He sticks to his nutty guns.

The Baader Meinhof gang embraced violence.

The Baader Meinhof Complex brings director Uli Edel (Last Exit to Brooklyn) out of the shadows of a prolific career directing for television. In exploring the history of the Baader/Meinhof gang that disrupted life in Germany during the 1960s, Edel has made a movie that bristles with the defiant energy of the violence-prone radicals whose lives it follows.

The main characters in Edel's teeming reconstruction of radical '60s and '70s days are Meinhof and Baader. Martina Gedeck plays Ulrike Meinhof, a crusading journalist who eventually turns to violence. Mortiz Bleibtreu portrays Andreas Baader, a self-styled revolutionary, who seems more guided by his hunger for violent expression than by any political ideals.

Edel mounts one gripping sequence after another, neither skimping on action nor trying to play amateur psychologist. Instead of assigning motivations to his characters, he takes us inside the adrenalin-charged world of the gang members who -- like many fringe activists -- subscribe to a heady mixture of analysis and paranoia.

The always reliable Bruno Ganz portrays a West German official who hunts the terrorists, and also tries to understand the political issues that drive them. But the movie is less about understanding radical behavior than showing it. Still, Edel's movie made me think about the ways in which life on the violent fringe can rob people of perspective, leading them to the kind of ruin that too readily spills onto the lives of others.

Both movies open Sept. 18 in Denver.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

He pays to lose his soul

Paul Giamatti prepares to surrender his soul.

Director Sophie Barthes' Cold Souls opened in Denver without benefit of a display ad in any newspaper and with no local reviewer weighing in on the movie, which was not screened in advance. That's too bad because Barthes' movie merits attention, even though it doesn't always live up to the boldness of its premise. It's not that Cold Souls needed to transcend a gimmicky conceit, but that it could have benefited from a little more richness beneath its clever surface. Still, Cold Souls can be entertaining, and clever certainly trumps dopey.

Cold Souls also is well acted by a cast that deals with a bizarre notion; i.e., the idea that human souls can be extracted from bodies and that those who submit to such a procedure will be happier for it.

But wait, there's more! Not only can souls be extracted, they also can be added. So when an actor who's struggling with his role in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya decides he needs help, he rents a Russian poet's soul for two weeks. Suddenly, Chekhov -- which he'd been treating in cheery, soulless fashion -- deepens for him.

All of this soulful gimmickry is fun, but the movie -- mildly reminiscent of the work of Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) -- has an even greater trick to play. The actor who's trying to plumb the soul-wrenching depths of Uncle Vanya is Paul Giamatti, who plays an actor named Paul Giamatti. Talk about a role Giamatti was born to play.

A despairing Giamatti learns about soul extraction when his agent points out a New Yorker article that talks about how one can get rid of a burdened soul. Giamatti warily visits Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), a soul extractor who tells Giamatti that he'll probably shed lots of weighty baggage when he surrenders his soul. Giamatti is placed in a machine that looks like those used to create CT Scans.

Presto: Giamatti's soul, which turns out to be the size of a chickpea, is extracted. Rest easy, guys. Dr. Flintstein assures Giamatti that when it comes to souls, size doesn't matter.

Eventually, Giamatti tells his wife (Emily Watson) what he's done, and vows to get his soul back. Turns out a Russian courier (Dina Korzun) who smuggles souls into the U.S. has taken Giamatti's soul to Russia where it winds up in the body of an aspiring actress.

Korzun's Nina and Giamatti eventually team up, travel to Russia and try to retrieve his soul. All this soul swapping grows less amusing as the movie wears on, but Cold Souls doesn't stint on creativity and makes fine use of Giamatti's capacity for exasperation, which at least in this case seems boundless.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A look at 'Vogue' that sticks to the surface

Anna Wintour. Does she know something we don't?

Those who worship the gods of fashion undoubtedly will find The September Issue revealing, absorbing and perhaps -- providing they're of generous spirit -- insightful. As one who never has genuflected at fashion's altar, I found this documentary about the production of Vogue's massive September issue (the 2007 edition) to be a flat pancake of a movie that never convinced me of its relevance.

Prior to seeing the movie, all I knew about the fabled Vogue editor Anna Wintour, I learned from watching The Devil Wears Prada, a movie in which Meryl Streep turned bitchiness into an art form playing an editor who supposedly resembled Wintour.

After seeing The September issue, I didn't know much more. In fact, I felt as if I might know less.

Wintour certainly talks authoritatively, and she clearly runs Vogue, but her sphinx-like half-smile seems to mask ...well... who knows what.

As is the case with most very important people these days, Wintour's significance seems directly related to cash flow. Wintour can spot fashion trends, make or break designers and generally facilitate the movement of clothing into the closets of women around the world. And if you want to know something about contemporary values, consider that Vogue's massive September issue -- '07 was a record breaker -- probably outweighs the collected works of Emanuel Kant.

Oddly, Wintour may be one of the least interesting people in the movie. The work of the magazine's creative director, Grace Coddington, seems more accessible, and Coddington conveys none of Wintour's goddess-among-us qualities. She occasionally disagrees with Wintour -- something lesser mortals evidently avoid -- and she doesn't seem to believe that all of human evolution builds toward a well-displayed fall line.

Director R.J. Cutler evidently was allowed to roam the halls of Vogue without fear of intervention, but his documentary lacks a strong point of view, relying instead on eavesdropping and on interviews from designers such as Oscar de la Renta, Vera Wang and Jean Paul Gaultier. Andre Leon Talley, a Vogue editor whose personal wardrobe seems as plush as that of a pasha, makes the boldest fashion statement in the movie.

Perhaps to show Wintour's beneficent side, Cutler includes testimony from American designer Thakoon Panichgul, whose talent Wintour recognized early. (Panichgul has developed into a top-ranked name in global fashion.)

I can't say that I was bored by The September Issue -- which at one point travels to Rome for a shoot with actress Sienna Miller -- but I never was convinced that there's something terrifically intriguing beneath the surface of a magazine that's devoted to surfaces. Take that as a fault of the film, not of the people who assemble Vogue. I wanted to know more about almost all of them.

For her part, Wintour remains beyond reach, someone who seems to know something the rest of us don't; I only wish the film had done more to show us what exactly that might be.

Dark humor goes back to high school

A rare moment of happiness in World's Greatest Dad.

Aside from the face of a forlorn beagle, few living creatures are capable of looking more crestfallen than Robin Williams. When in full bloom, Williams' sadness has a near accusatory quality, as if he expects someone to break through the screen and resuscitate his collapsed spirit.

Working in full hangdog mode, Williams manages to hold his wildness in check in World's Greatest Dad, the latest darkly hued comedy from Bobcat Goldthwait (Shakes the Clown and Sleeping Dogs Lie.) Goldthwait, perhaps the most annoying comedian who ever lived, is far more palatable when working behind the camera than when we're actually able to see him. (Goldthwait's brief appearance in Greatest Dad does nothing to hinder the movie's comic flow.)

Greatest Dad should satisfy those who like their humor with a sick twist. Count me in that group -- at least when the humor's working.

Much of the humor hits home in this story about a father (Williams) who attempts to deal with the world's most obnoxious teen-ager, a son (Daryl Sabara) who seems to be earning a letter for anti-social behavior. It's virtually impossible not to despise Sabara's Kyle, the kind of obnoxious kid who makes you hope the school bully picks on him.

Just when you think you can't take one more minute of Kyle, Goldthwait pulls a fast one and turns the movie into a commentary on the way people create mythology. I know. It's hard to believe, but it's true: Goldthwait has made a movie about the ways in which legends are born, and how it's possible to attract great attention by ignoring the truth.

Lots of comedy is based on bombarding the main character with one disaster after another. In this case, Williams' Lance Clayton receives more than his share of lumps. He's a high school teacher whose poetry class is about as popular among students as an advanced case of acne. Lance's girlfriend (Alexie Gilmore) may be on the verge of two-timing him with another English teacher (Henry Simmons), a guy whose first submission was published by The New Yorker, a bit of success that serves to pour salt on Lance's literary wounds. Lance has written poetry and novels, but has failed to attract an iota of interest.

I thought Goldhwait copped out a bit at the movie's end, but I supposed I'd already had enough dark humor to fill my quota for the year. An end-of-picture joke involving singer Bruce Hornsby -- big during the '80s -- put a little sting back into the proceedings, which are best when they're steeped in Goldhwait's envelope-pushing humor, which he liberally pours over anything that moves.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

An animated view of post-apocalyptic life

Searching for meaning in a desolate world.

Early at a preview screening of the movie 9, I took this note: 9 joins with 5 in search of 2. This number-heavy plot summary makes sense -- and then only marginally -- when you realize that the characters in director Shane Acker's animated opus have numbers instead of names. It's a little odd, but you get used to it.

Acker's impressively creative expansion of a 2005 animated short features a hero made of burlap with a zipper that runs from naval to neck. Life isn't easy for 9 who's voiced by Elijah Wood. Nine has born into a post-apocalyptic world, and the movie that bears his name continues Hollywood's fascination with the destruction of human civilization.

What is it with us? We definitely seem to enjoy watching ourselves get wiped out or maybe our post-apocalyptic, dystopian joy ride -- from WALL-E to District 9 -- has something to do with the economic collapse that's destroying life as we knew it.

Acker, whose first-class voice actors include Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover and Jennifer Connelly, sets his movie in the aftermath of a war between man and machines. No humans survive the conflagration, so it falls to 9 and his cohorts to battle an indefatigable beast, a flying predator and a machine that sucks the soul out of its foes. The burlap people (sounds like something from an old Flash Gordon serial) also try to understand how they arrived on Earth. Do they have a maker? If so, what was the maker's plan for his creations?

Tim Burton produced 9, so it's no surprise that the movie offers a smorgasbord of visual achievements, many on the frightening side -- at least for younger children.

I can't say that 9 makes perfect sense, and its ending proves a little too spectral. But that shouldn't diminish the movie's kick, which stems from battles involving ferocious looking machines, from a series of appropriately devastated landscapes and from creatures who find themselves facing dangers without understanding the rules of the world they inhabit.

On that last count: Any resemblance to humans is probably not coincidental.

Friday, September 4, 2009

George Hamilton, the early years

Renee Zellweger displays her charms in My One and Only.

When you see My One and Only -- the surprisingly entertaining story of actor George Hamilton's early years -- you'll know why Hamilton often appears to be in such good humor. The reasons aren't obvious. Hamilton's dad philandered, and his mom engaged in serial marriages -- or attempts at them. As a teen-ager, Hamilton was uprooted from his Manhattan home the summer Mom told Dad she'd had enough of his wandering ways. From an early age, Hamilton must have learned to find the comedy in potentially disturbing situations. Maybe that's why My One and Only is as smooth as one of Hamilton's talk-show appearances and just as much fun. And, no, the real George Hamilton, who served as one of the film's executive producers, never appears.

Set during the 1950s, the movie begins when the young Hamilton (Logan Lerman) shows up at a Cadillac dealership to purchase a new car. He's a teen-ager, but he has more than $3,000 in his pocket. His mother (Renee Zellweger) gave him the money after announcing that George and his half-brother (Mark Rendall) would be leaving Dad's New York City apartment and accompanying her on a road trip.

Zellweger, who lost a lot of screen cred with the woeful comedy, New in Town, has found a role that suits her to a tee. Zellweger's Anne Deveraux is the kind of woman who knows how to get men to take care of her and she uses that skill until it just about wears out. Anne has problems, but she insists -- for no good reason -- that things will turn out well. Anne also knows that her skills as a parent are limited; she treats her sons more like traveling companions than offspring. She may not be the most responsible parent, but she doesn't seem to have a vindictive bone in her body.

In all, My One and Only is the kind of a movie that puts you at ease with its tasty small performances -- notably Kevin Bacon as Hamilton's philandering, bandleader father -- and its stylish evocation of the '50s.

Richard Loncraine, who directed, must have realized that My One and Only has no great lessons to teach, only an idiosyncratic story to tell about a very strange road trip. Better yet, the movie's dramatic moments don't undercut the enjoyment Loncraine wants to share with us. This is no parent-bashing confession of a wounded child, but a movie that displays affection for its characters -- flaws and all.

OFF THE BEATEN TRACK.... The Starz FilmCenter this week offers The Windmill Movie, an autobiographical film about Richard P. Rogers, who taught filmmaking at SUNY Purchase and Harvard. Born into wealth, Rogers worked on his filmed autobiography for 25 years, but died before it was finished. Directed Alexander Olch, a former student, put the film together from Roger's footage. We watch with fascination as Rogers grapples with his own narcissism and with guilt engendered by a life of privilege. The movie opens with Rogers short film Quarry, which is terrific, and which I'm half tempted to say is enough to justify the price of admission.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Two comedies; too few laughs

Sanrda Bullock leaps into badness in All About Steve.

Not enough laughs in Jason Bateman's factory.

With Labor Day weekend upon us, it would be nice to report that there are comedy treats to be had at the nation's multiplex. Sorry, not by my measure.

You might, however, take the weekend as an opportunity to lament the fact that so many Hollywood comedies are either lame or just not funny enough. Consider two new movies that open this weekend. All About Steve (abysmal) is a one-joke comedy that tries not to look like one. Extract, on the other hand, reveals the peculiar sensibilities of Mike Judge, who previously directed Office Space and who created the invaluable Beavis & Butt-Head. Judge isn't a formula guy, so Extract raises hopes, only to dash them with a comedy that ranges from mildly amusing to not at all funny.


When I tell you that Sandra Bullock stars in All About Steve, you immediately should know that the comedy (produced by Bullock) won't be groundbreaking. Bullock, who earlier in the year brought us The Proposal -- an abject formula job -- this time tries a change-of-pace, appearing as an obsessively geeky woman who designs crossword puzzles.

The "romantic" part of this exceptionally lame comedy kicks off when Bullock's Mary Horowitz goes on a blind date with a TV cameraman (Bradley Cooper). Cooper's Steve -- the character who supplies the movie with its title -- sends Mary clear signals of rejection. She promptly misreads them and winds up following him to a variety of news sites, blurring the line between infatuation and stalking. Steve probably ought to call the cops and have Mary hauled away. Lamentably, he doesn't.

Thomas Haden Church appears as a self-absorbed and shallow TV reporter (like we haven't seen that before) and the movie winds up in a category I'd call "embarrassing for all concerned." Bullock can act (see Crash and Infamous if you don't believe me), but she seems intent on sticking herself in a comic rut, trying to expand her repertoire of characters with each new picture. She's good at a comedy, but not so great at picking material.

This may come as a shock, but Bullock hasn't asked for my advice: If she did, I'd tell her it's time she started taking herself more seriously.


Mike Judge has a twisted sensibility, and he looks for comedy in places that are decidedly void of glamor. This time, Judge brings us a movie about a factory owner (Jason Bates) who's fed up with his life.

Bates' Joel seems to have two goals: He wants to sell his extract-making business and have more sex with his wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig). When Suzie makes it difficult for Joel to achieve his second goal, his eye begins to wander.

In order to ease his guilt about any possible philandering, a buddy (a heavily bearded Ben Affleck) suggests that Joel hire a male prostitute (Dustin Milligan) to seduce Suzie. If Suzie falls for the guy, Joel will be justified in pursuing his own extramarital activities.

In all, Extract is a sour comedy that that produces too few sweet laughs, although it does give us one of the most memorably annoying characters I've ever seen, a slow-talking but insistent neighbor (David Koechner) of Joel's who should earn a spot on any list of movie characters you'd most like to throttle.

There's no faulting Judge's cast, but the movie -- though full of Judge's bleak and sometimes knowing humor -- never quite engages. Mila Kunis has a nice turn as Cindy, a con artist who knows how to turn men's heads.

So two more comedies bite the dust, although Bullock's movie bites a whole lot more dust than Extract, which at least seems as if it was written by an individual rather than designed by a committee. Besides, in times of economic duress, it takes a certain amount of courage to set a comedy set in the workplace, in this case a factory that bottles extract flavors for use in cooking.