Tuesday, November 24, 2009

'Mr. Fox' really is fantastic

The Fantastic Mr. Fox can't suppress his inner wild.

I have no idea whether children will enjoy Wes Anderson's stop-action animated feature Fantastic Mr. Fox. And you know what? I don't particularly care. All I know is that I was totally entertained by this witty and beautifully detailed adaptation of a Roald Dahl story. For me, the mixture of sly humor, talking animals and terrific voice work resulted in one of the year's more amusing movie experiences.

Let me emphasize the point about voice work. Mr. Fox contains some of the best voices to grace an animated feature in this or any other year. George Clooney is perfectly cast as Mr. Fox, a married fox who writes a newspaper column, but can't quite suppress his inner wildness. Far fetched? Not really: I've known columnists like that.

Meryl Streep provides the voice of Mrs. Fox; she understands her husband's adventurous streak, but hopes he'll keep it in check. Jason Schwartzman gives voice to Ash, their son, and Eric Anderson helps bring Kristofferson to life; he's a visiting cousin who happens to excel at all the activities Ash has trouble mastering, most notably athletics.

Meticulously constructed backgrounds add to a story in which Mr. Fox decides it's time to move his family out of a hole in the ground and into a tree house, a real estate deal that his attorney Badger (Bill Murray) advises against. But Mr. Fox wants to move on up, and he's not in an advice-taking mood.

Once ensconced in his new home, Mr. Fox is tempted by the livestock and produce of three farmers -- Boggis, Bunce and Bean. With an assist from Kylie the opossum (Wallace Wolodarsky), Mr. Fox raids the farms in search of delectable treats. The farmers retaliate, organizing under the leadership of Mr. Bean (Michael Gambon). This trio of ill-tempered humans tries all manner of tricks to exterminate the Fox -- and most of the rest of the animal population in the area.

We root for the animals at the same time as we enjoy Clooney's witty delivery and the humor served up by the rest of the cast. You should know, though, that Anderson's sympathy for animals doesn't extend to some of their prey -- chickens, for example. Despite Clooney's breezy delivery, Fox's instructions on chicken killing are brutally blunt.

Though he has inspired a near cultish following, Anderson (Rushmore, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited) isn't one my favorite directors. But I enjoyed Fantastic Mr. Fox more than anything Anderson has done to date. Its anarchic spirit and earthy humor make for a fine time at the movies. Eat your hearts out, kids.

This 'Road' leads to depression

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee on a harrowing journey.

Bleak seldom has looked bleaker than in The Road, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 2006, Pulitzer Prize winning novel. A serious post-apocalyptic meditation, the big-screen version of The Road has everything it needs, save for McCarthy's prose, and its absence proves a liability.

No Country For Old Men notwithstanding, McCarthy's novels aren't exactly a screenwriter's dream. To deprive a McCarthy novel of its prose stands as a misguided form of reductionism and helps to prove a shopworn adage: Fine novels don't necessarily translate into equally fine movies.

I guess director John Hillcoat deserves credit for trying, but sans the disturbing grandeur of McCarthy's voice, Hillcoat's carefully conceived and drastically somber adaptation tends to shroud itself in the tedium of dead-end gloom.

The movie's ravished landscapes gradually drain the spirit, which I suppose is appropriate, but the novel had a poetic sense of loss that brought us face-to-face with extinction -- not just of ourselves but of everything we take for granted. The movie, though grimly accomplished, can't scale those kind of heights or perhaps I should say, it can't plumb the horrible depths of life -- all life -- on the precipice.

The Road focuses on the relationship between a father and his young son, a relationship honed by the sorrow of a world bereft of all but the smallest hopes: finding something edible, for example.

As is the case with the novel, a character called The Man (Viggo Mortensen) tries his to protect his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). In flashbacks, we learn that The Woman (Charlize Theron) -- the boy's mother -- refused to face an intolerable future and committed suicide. This left The Man and his son to wander the ruined landscape, searching for food and trying to avoid the Bad Guys, survivors who have resorted to murder and cannibalism.

Though the movie never explains the cataclysm that befell the world, it hardly matters. In this rubble of ruined dreams and scattered ash, the surviving residue of humanity has turned brutal.

If you scan the movie's credits, you'll note that the presence of a variety of actors, but only two -- other than Mortensen and Smit-McPhee -- receive any real showcase. Michael Kenneth Williams plays a wanderer who attempts to steal from The Man and his son, who push their belongings around in a shopping cart. Robert Duvall appears as The Old Man, a survivor who arouses the boy's sympathy.

Joe Penhall's script eventually reveals an essential conflict. The Boy hasn't lost the impulses that lead toward decency, compassion and trust: The Man regards such virtues as stumbling blocks on the littered road to survival. Additional tension arises as The Man contemplates whether he'll have the will to kill his son should they confront an inescapable threat.

Although The Road ends on a slightly hopeful note, the movie tends to leave you bobbing on gray seas of depression. Perhaps it has been weighed down by all the post-apocalyptic debris. To the extent that the movie works, credit must be given to Javier Aguirresarobe's unforgiving cinematography and to Mortensen's performance, all dirt and emaciation.

Hillcoat remains faithful to the novel, so much so that movie can be viewed as act of respect for McCarthy. Keep in mind, though, that the biggest event in the novel may not have been the apocalypse, but McCarthy's language. Hillcoat has found no real equivalent for that. I'm not sure anyone could.

Ninjas out for blood and revenge

When Rain's around, it tends to pour blood.

Silly as it may sound, that statement could serve as a credo for Ninja Assassin, a movie whose title promises more than director James McTeigue (V For Vendetta) is able to deliver.

Rain, a Korean singer with an international profile, stars as Raizo, a young man who flees his ninja master and spends the rest of the movie running from the Ozunu Clan. That's not a bad idea because the Ozunus tend to hold grudges. They view any deviation from the assassin's life as a major form of betrayal.

Messy and lacking in distinction, this martial arts extravaganza doesn't measure up to its genre challenge. Blame an overly convoluted plot that experiences continental drift, wandering from Asia to Berlin as Rain's Raizo tries to escape the wrath of his former mentor, the vicious Lord Ozunu (Sho Kosugi). Ozunu once considered the exceptionally skilled Raizo as a son and possible successor.

In Berlin, a Europol agent (Naomie Harris) joins with Rain's Raizo in trying to fend off a ceaseless string of assassination attempts. Raizo and his new sidekick are constantly on the run.

Look I know great writing has little (maybe nothing) to do with the success of a ninja movies, and we should credit McTiegue with getting some things right: The mysterious ninja clan system proves intriguing, as does the stark simplicity of Lord Ozunu's mountain retreat, sort of a monastery of murder. Flashback scenes in which Lord Ozunu trains his youthful charges are tense, eerie and appropriately sadistic. And, yes, there's a thrill in watching black-clad ninjas slipping unnoticed into rooms.

But these hardly compensate for the movie's rampant chaos. Much of the action take place in the dark of night, and it's fair to say that you may not be able to tell what's happening. Sure, everything moves quickly, but it would have been nice to have some idea where things were headed.

Too bad. What could make for a more bracing Thanksgiving than watching ninja warriors carve one another up? Now, all that's left to do with our carefully sharpened knives is aim them at the nearest turkey. Have at it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Young men who make the girls scream

In Edward's absence, Bella looks to Jacob for protection.

For me, the most entertaining thing about The Twilight Saga: New Moon -- aside from a lot of inadvertent humor -- was the audience. At a preview screening, hordes of tweens -- some accompanied by their mothers -- screamed each time one of the major male characters appeared sans shirt. The audience's amusing hyperventilation kept my bad will at bay -- and allowed me to enjoy this amazingly silly movie for what it is, a pre-teen phenomenon. That's good because as a movie, New Moon hardly merits a mention, particularly for those of us who prefer the grown-up vampires on HBO's True Blood.

In this chapter, Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) spends most of the movie pining for Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), the vampire who leaves her because he fears he'll be unable to protect her from all manner of supernatural dangers. In Edward's absence, Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) becomes Bella's protector: He's a werewolf -- or at least he's able to turn himself into a CGI version of a giant, snarling beast.

Director Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass) takes over where director Catherine Hardwicke left off with the first installment. He keeps things moody, as if the entire movie has sprung from the depths of Bella's adolescent funk.

Edward's departure leaves Bella feeling as if she has a hole in her chest. Unless you're 12 or 13, the movie may leave you feeling as if you've got a hole in your head. Bella's dad (Billy Burke) seems a little bewildered, too; he races into her room to offer comfort when Bella wakes up screaming. Nothing seems to help.

Much of New Moon takes place in the northwestern forests of the United States, but this edition stretches its budget to travel to Italy where Edward appears before the Volturi, a trio of vampires who seem to be more powerful than ordinary vamps.

Based on a popular series of books by Stephanie Meyer, the Twilight movies arrive on screen with a built-in audience that seems to have enlarged because of the popularity of the first film. And I guess there's something to be said for a movie that poses an unusual question for a teen-age girl: Would a vampire or a werewolf make the better lover?

Not being one who cares much about the answer, I found myself wondering whether Bella wouldn't be better off putting some effort into her SATs. But, hey, that's just me.

She helps him reach NFL glory

Good mom Bullock reads to Quinton Aaron and Jae Head.

Michael Oher plays tackle for the Baltimore Ravens. If you happen to see a close-up of Oher on the sidelines, it might be difficult to distinguish him from the other behemoths who populate NFL lines. The dude is 6'5" tall and weighs 310 pounds. How exactly anyone can move these kinds of players off the line of scrimmage is beyond me, but that's a story for another day.

The story for today involves a movie called The Blind Side, which stars Sandra Bullock as the white mother who took the dispossessed Oher under wing and Quinton Aaron as Oher during his high school years.

If you've seen the trailer, you already have a pretty good idea about the movie: In other words, it's predictable in ways that are calculated to satisfy, and Oher's story does hold our interest. Oher managed to be admitted to a Memphis private school, mostly because the school's football coach (Ray McKinnon) hated to see his bulk go to waste. On the verge of homelessness, Oher attracted the attention of Bullock's Leigh Anne Tuohy, a no-nonsense woman who opened the family home to the kid everyone called "Big Mike."

The Tuohy family -- husband Sean (Tim McGraw), teen-age daughter Collins (Lily Collins) and younger brother SJ (Jae Head) -- all welcomed Michael. Eventually, the Tuohys adopted Michael and hired a tutor (Kathy Bates) to help boost his grade point average and make him scholarship eligible for college.

The movie also chronicles an NCAA investigation of Michael. Did Leigh Anne Tuohy push Michael toward Ole Miss, the school she and her husband attended? Did the Tuohys adopt Michael just to beef up Ole Miss' offensive line? Seems like a silly question, but it evidently was asked in real life.

In the movie version of the story -- based on The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, a book by Michael Lewis -- Bullock transforms Michael from a gentle kid into a ferocious lineman. She arouses his protective instincts, telling him to imagine that the quarterback is like his brother and sister. He must do what's necessary to keep the QB from harm.

Perhaps to keep things real, Michael occasionally visits his old neighborhood. And there's an affecting scene in which Bullock -- all snap, crackle and southern pop -- visits Michael's mother (Adriane Lenox), a defeated woman whose life has been ruined by an addiction to crack cocaine.

In a way, the movie is less about Michael Oher -- who pretty much goes along with the program -- than it is about Leigh Ann Tuohy, which is not surprising since Bullock -- and the promise of wholesome entertainment -- constitutes the draw here. Aside from the wisecracking SJ, who offers comic relief, most of the Tuohy family gets short shrift.

Director John Lee Hancock hits all the right marks for a movie that's meant to keep audiences involved and happy, and, yes, The Blind Side easily could have been more challenging. For me, the words "crowd pleasing" aren't an inducement, so I'll just say that Blind Side will achieve its success without me doing any over-the-top cheerleading.

And one final question: I'm glad Oher found a way out of poverty, but who exactly reaches out to the young men who can't block and tackle? Where's their movie?

The bold, powerful push of 'Precious'

Gabourey Sidibe on the streets of Harlem as Precious.

The people who've been promoting Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire acknowledge that they've made a disturbing movie, but insist that it's also uplifting. I certainly agree with the first part of their statement: Precious is extremely disturbing, a movie that sounds even grimmer than it plays when reduced to the kind of one-paragraph description that must be included in any review.

Precious tells the story of Claireece "Precious" Jones, a 300-pound black teenager who has given birth to a baby with Down Syndrome and is pregnant for the second time. Both kids were the consequence of rape, and to make matters worse, Precious' father did the raping.

Don't look to Mom for relief. Precious' abusive mother can't seem to pass five minutes without undermining her daughter's sense of self-worth. It's no surprise, then, that Precious barely can read or that she fantasizes that her white math teacher plans to whisk her off to the suburbs for a shot at happily-ever-after.

Director Lee Daniels, who directed Shadowboxer and who produced Monster's Ball (about interracial sex and love) and The Woodsman (about a pedophile) fills the screen with inescapably vivid close-ups. Precious is drama in all caps, and it can leave you feeling battered.

Still, the movie isn't without genuine power, much of it stemming from its performances. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe bravely portrays Precious. With her hair pulled back in ways that emphasize the thickness of her face, Sidibe's Precious seems immobile. She's 16, and her life already has plummeted into a downward spiral. Precious' weight and her demeanor are like fortresses. And believe me, Precious needs emotional protection. She escapes into fantasy when she's being raped or during other times of stress or humiliation.

Two additionally fine performances come from equally surprising sources. The comedian Mo'Nique portrays Mary, Precious' mom. Mary is the mother of all abusive mothers. Violent and vituperative, she has learned to turn her demeanor on a dime, pulling on a wig and trying to act properly when the Welfare people arrive and reverting to the role of monster as soon as they leave. Mary smokes, watches TV and treats Precious like a slave.

Toward the end of the picture, Mo'Nique has a soul-shattering monologue in which Mary's desperation is laid bare. It's one of the most effective bits of acting I've seen in some time, and also one of the most difficult to watch.

The movie's other notable performance comes from Mariah Carey, who plays a no-nonsense social worker. It wasn't until the film had concluded that I remembered the severely deglamorized Carey was in it. I talked to a former social worker after the movie. Her mini-reivew: Carey nailed it.

Despite its unusual title character, the plot of Precious is more conventional than it might initially seem. Asked to leave school, the pregnant Precious is guided toward a program that will help her learn to read. Each One Teach One is presided over by a caring teacher, played by Paula Patton, an actress whose exquisite good looks may be a bit much for a movie this gritty.

Patton's Ms. Rain is gay. She and her lover (Kimberly Russell) eventually reach out to Precious. Rain's determination helps turn Precoious' life around. Granted, it's not a big turn, but considering where Precious begins, any improvement becomes significant.

Precious also develops bonds with the other students at Each One Teach One, which is located in Harlem's Hotel Theresa, famed for having hosted a variety of black celebrities, as well as Fidel Castro on a New York visit made by the recently victorious Cuban in 1960. The interaction among these young women feels as authentic as anything in the movie, loose and full of street-wise posturing.

Set in 1987, the "uplift" of Precious diminishes if you allow the movie's ending to sink in. It's impossible to go further without introducing spoilers, so I'll just say that the movie is a picture of a life that the filmmakers must believe is being lived again and again by young women who are invisible to the larger society and scorned by those who do take the time to look.

Now what about the film as film? Powerful without being great, Precious is no kitchen-sink masterpiece. Daniels' may have wanted us to feel trapped inside Precious' world, but at times it feels as if he's wagging a finger at us. And with the exception of a nurse played by Lenny Kravitz, the movie doesn't do much for the already battered image of black men.

So I guess I haven't totally settled my own conflicts about Precious. Part of me says, "Too much." And another part of me says that if Precious seems to be speaking louder and more melodramatically than necessary maybe it's because Daniels feels nobody would otherwise listen.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A slowly revealed look at lonely lives

Mati Diop and Alex Descas portray father and daughter in 35 Shots of Rum.

French director Claire Denis understands the benefits of slowly disclosing information, the sort of things other directors often rush to provide. In her latest movie -- 35 Shots of Rum -- Denis takes us into the lives of a handsome father (Alex Descas) and his gorgeous daughter (Mati Diop).

The virtues of 35 Shots of Rum -- and there are many -- revolve around Denis' exquisite patience: She allows her characters room to breath, and extends the same courtesy to us. Minute by minute, it's not always easy to read the intentions of Denis' characters, but by the movie's end, we've gained an understanding of lives that are at once radically isolated and deeply connected. And, yes, the contradiction makes perfect sense.

Descas' Lionel works as a motorman on the Paris Metro; Diop's Josephine studies social sciences at a university. Father and daughter share an apartment outside Paris. It takes a moment or two before we even realize that Lionel and Josephine are father and daughter. It takes even longer to learn something about Josephine's late mother and about why Josephine and Lionel seem to have fallen into a pattern in which their roles aren't always clear.

Strong and imbued with a deep sense of solitude, Lionel knows that his grown daughter eventually must get on with her life; the bond between father and daughter needs to be stretched, though not broken.

Two additional characters fill out the movie. Nicole Dogue plays Gabrielle, a cab driver who lives in the same apartment building as Lionel and Josephine. Slowly, we learn that Gabrielle often took care of Josephine as a child. Somewhere along the line, Gabrielle and Lionel became lovers. For him, it may have been a matter of convenience; for her, it seems to have been an affair of the heart.

Noe (Gregoire Colin) also lives in the same building. He inherited his apartment from his late parents. He has his eye on Josephine, and they seem interested in each other in ways neither of them has fully understood.

I have yet to mention that all of the characters -- with the exception of Noe -- are black. Lionel is a first generation African transplant to France, as are many of his colleagues at work. This may account for some of Lionel's sense of isolation, but to overplay that hand would amount to a socio-political affront to the inner lives of Denis' characters.

Everything that happens in 35 Shots of Rum -- named for a feat of drinking that Lionel performs on special occasions -- serves to illuminate these inner lives, even when Denis shines her light indirectly. I can't think of a recent movie that so perfectly captures feelings of loneliness and relatedness in characters whose lives never steer a ruinous course.

What's at stake for Lionel and Josephine? Only the shape of the rest of their lives. We know that each of them will find a future in which a bit of the past insists on remaining present.

35 Shots of Rum opens in Denver Friday, Nov. 20.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The ship that rocked a nation

Philip Seymour Hoffman and friends defend rock 'n' roll.

Nostalgia is a cheap enough trick, but it works especially well when it's connected to a time that seemed to brim with counter-cultural impetuosity.

And what better place to express such longing than Britain during the uproarious '60s? In those days, rebellion may have been as easy as turning the radio dial: Rock 'n' roll, you see, was banned from mainstream broadcasting; i.e., the BBC. To combat this censorial outrage, a variety of broadcasters established stations on ships that floated in the North Sea off the British coast. The ships hosted DJs who played rock and who lived rockin' lives, meaning they indulged in sex, pot and music, while cultivating an Animal House-like fraternal atmosphere.

Pirate Radio is the story of Radio Rock, one such ship; it is also an ensemble comedy that boasts a fair measure of rag-tag charm and an ample helping of period music.

Pirate Radio also has a fine cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman signs on as The Count, an American DJ working in Britain. Bill Nighy -- brilliant at playing characters whose witty abilities match their capacity for debauchery -- plays the owner of Radio Rock, and Tom Sturridge) portrays Carl, a young man whose mother (Emma Thompson) suggests that Nighy's character take her son under wing. Nighy's Quentin instantly recognizes the request as a grave error in judgment on Mom's part. Still, he does his best to ensure that the young man enjoys himself.

There are sexual high jinx on board the ship, lots of camaraderie and a budding rivalry between the Count and Gavin (Rhys Ifans), a DJ who fancies himself the sexiest man on the airways.

Of course, every group of rebels needs opposition. Enter Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), a minister who oversees broadcasting and who works tirelessly to get Radio Rock off the air. His assistant (Jack Davenport) tries equally hard to please his boss. This may be the weakest element in the movie, mostly because the stuffed-shirt British officials make too easy a target, cardboard cutouts ready to blow over with the first rebellious wind.

Pirate Radio was directed by Richard Curtis, who wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill and who wrote and directed Love Actually. Here, Curtis makes little attempt to conceal the movies episodic nature.

Few difficult truths are allowed to interfere with the '60s nostalgia. But if one is going to be overwhelmed by fondness for the past, it might as well be for the days of sex, drugs and rock n' roll rather than for some equally mythic time when all virtue coalesced on neatly kept, middle class front porches.

Taken as an ode to youth and unruly spirits, Pirate Radio signals fun.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Special effects devour the world

John Cusack carries the weight of a crumbling world.

It's getting more difficult to enjoy the end of the world -- at least at the movies. I really wanted to like 2012, the latest orgy of destruction from director Roland Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow and Independence Day). I'm shamelessly partial to disaster movies and have a strong tolerance for the melodramatic plotting and portentous dialogue that usually keeps them from greatness.

As a disaster enthusiast, I had big expectations for 2012 and for Emmerich, a proven master of the destructive cinematic art. Emmerich kept me happy enough, but not without making it impossible for me to suspend even the tiny amount of disbelief needed to carry his demolition derby across the finish line. 2012, I'm afraid, is another case of multi-million dollar effects and a two-bit script.

This time out, Emmerich takes his cue from the Mayan calendar, creating a "story" based on the notion that the world will endure a horrible cataclysm in 2012. Never mind that many scholars say the Mayans predicted no such thing; it's a fine premise for a movie that wants to rip the guts out of the Earth and leave us trembling. Remember the quaint old days when destroying a ship (The Poseidon Adventure) or a skyscraper (The Towering Inferno) were enough to keep us riveted?

When it comes to global mayhem, Emmerich doesn't disappoint. Great explosions erupt on the surface of the sun. The Earth's core heats up. Neutrinos go wild. The crust of the Earth shifts, and before you can say "apocalypse for fun and profit," the globe descends into unprecedented turmoil.

Against this backdrop of doom, Emmerich attempts to weave a variety of stories. This means he employs actors, many of whom are required to spout some of the year's most banal dialogue. They're also asked to gape in faux astonishment at the effects or scream like kids on a particularly precarious amusement park ride.

The movie's main character is author Jackson Curtis (John Cusack). On a camping trip to Yellowstone, Curtis meets Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson). Harrelson plays a longhaired, hippie prophet who broadcasts his warnings over his personal radio station and who knows the world is coming to an end. He warns Jackson to gather his two children (Liam James and Morgan Lily) and flee Yellowstone.

For his part, Harrelson seems to be doing an impression of Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. If there's a piece of scenery he leaves unchewed, I didn't see it. Thankfully, Harrelson redeems himself in The Messenger, an upcoming drama about ramifications of the war in Iraq.

Considering that he's making a gigantic B-movie, Emmerich populates his film with a competent and even impressive group of actors. Amanda Peet signs on as Cusack's former wife, and Danny Glover plays the president of the United States, a job that he must have wrestled away from Morgan Freeman, who until 2012 seemed to have a lock on such roles.

Three cheers for British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who appears as a geologist and who succeeds in making the movie's tripe-laden dialogue almost believable. Oliver Platt, another gifted actor, portrays the president's cruelly pragmatic chief of staff, and George Segal signs on as musician traveling on a cruise ship that eventually will be consumed by the giant tsunami that engulfs the world.

At two hours and 38 minutes, 2012 is way too long. But the first hour provides the grim pleasures we expect from this kind of entertainment. Los Angeles falls into the sea; Las Vegas is destroyed. Ditto for Yellowstone National Park, Washington, D.C., Rome and Rio. These expensively mounted cheap thrills include great chunks of heaving earth, flying fireballs, crumbling skyscrapers and spewed volcanic ash. To add to the excitement, a small plane flies through storm-tossed skies carrying Cusack's character, his former wife, his children and his wife's new husband (Thomas McCarthy).

Never mind more details. Know, though, that if you expect anything in this mega-movie to make sense, you've taken leave of your own.

But wait. Maybe one thing about 2012 makes perfect sense: This destruction festival is designed to create a great rumble at the box office. Know what? It probably will. Devastation sells, and, I'll admit it: Up to a point, I'm a willing buyer.

'Damned United' is in no way cursed

Michael Sheen coaches with style in The Damned United.

Years ago, I read a story about golf. The only reason I remember this particular article is that I eventually found myself at the end of it, a surprise because my interest in golf is roughly the same as my interest in illustrated medieval manuscripts. I can see why other people are intrigued, but I have no desire to follow suit. The story -- by gifted Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell -- made something interesting out of something that fails to make my meter race.

I felt the same way about The Damned United, a movie that takes place in the rough-and-tumble world of British football, known to us Yanks as soccer. I have no pressing interest in soccer, but found myself caught up in a story that uses professional soccer as an arena in which to examine what happens when a rising star overestimates his abilities.

The resultant kick toward reality may be predictable, but the way in which its developed proves entertaining and revealing, thanks in part to some wonderful British actors and to a script that reflects a deep understanding of the human capacity for hubris. I don't know whether Peter Morgan's screenplay -- based on a novel by David Peace -- is entirely accurate, but the movie's take on the combustible combination of ego and big-time sports certainly rings true.

Damned United focuses on real-life coach Brian Clough (Michael Sheen), who became a British media star, so much so that he audaciously compared himself to Muhammad Ali. Clough, who died in 2004, saw himself as a man who could do no wrong when it came to soccer, and -- for a time -- he justified every bit of his brazen self-regard. In short, he won soccer matches.

It's no surprise that Sheen proves perfectly matched with the role of a smooth operator who's forced to learn the limits of his talent. The actor did equally strong work in The Queen and Frost/Nixon, movies Morgan also wrote.

Director Tom Hooper, who mostly has plied his trade in television, follows a career in which the youthful Clough is taken down a peg or two. In what I'd deem a brilliant move, Hooper concludes before Coach Clough earns his reputation as one of the greatest managers in British football history. Hooper must have understood the time-tested axiom: Failure generally proves a better teacher than triumph.

The story begins in familiar fashion. Clough kicks off his career by making a name for himself in the British backwaters. Jim Broadbent -- does this guy ever hit a false note? -- portrays the owner of Derby County, the team with which Clough's rise to stardom begins. Broadbent plays a puffed-up managerial type, which means he doesn't like to spend money. He's ultimately bested by Clough, who insists on doing things his way.

Based on his success with Derby County, Clough was hired in 1974 to coach Leeds United, a glamor team with a phenomenal record. Former Leeds coach Don Revie (Colm Meaney) had moved on, taking command of the British national team.

Clough lived to surpass Revie, whom he regarded as a man who encouraged the kind of dirty play that undermined the game's elegance. Clough might have fared better had he not moved to Leeds without the help of assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall). Taylor, we learn, played a major role in Clough's success. Taylor lacked the flash that turned Clough into a celebrity, but he had an unfailing eye for talent. Left to his own devices, Clough never was able to take control of the Leeds team. His career sputtered.

Damned United is as involving a sports movie as I've seen in a long time, not because it shows us great soccer footage, but because it helps us understand the intricacies of character that drive men who try to prosper in the pressure-cooker environment of professional sports. This is one sports movie in which most of the sweating occurs off the field.

Damned United opens in Denver on Nov. 13.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Not quite "bah, humbug," but....

Jim Carrey helps turn Scrooge into a classic sourpuss.

It's technically impressive, full of fine voice work and early-picture magic. But Disney's A Christmas Carol (sorry Charles Dickens, you've been squeezed out of the title) ultimately substitutes action for the heartbreaking emotion and giddy uplift of Dickens' classic holiday tale.

How technically impressive? If you see A Christmas Carol in 3D, you may be wowed by the ability of director Robert Zemeckis and his legion of artists to create depth in ways that enhance the viewing experience for those not content with standard-issue illusion.

But Zemeckis' performance-capture technique (also employed in The Polar Express and Beowolf) isn't enough to make A Christmas Carol better than any of the many versions that already crowded television screens and theaters. Beyond that, there's something creepy and unreal about the results of performance-capture that makes it impossible -- at least for me -- to forget that I'm watching an elaborate bit of cinematic gimmickry.

The movement of characters often seems a shade too slow, and I keep asking myself, "Why not animate the entire movie or do a live-action version?" (I'm partial to the British feature that starred Alastair Sim as Scrooge, but believe Jim Carrey, whose voice talents are on display in this project, would have done a masterful job with the part.)

The Scrooge on view in Zemeckis' holiday bauble is a stooped old man with a hooked nose and pointy chin. He sometimes looks vaguely like Carrey. Gary Oldman (as Bob Cratchit, Marley and Tiny Tim) does equally well with the movie's voice work. Colin Firth (as Scrooge's nephew) and Bob Hoskins (as Scrooge's first boss, Mr. Fezziwig) also are up to the story's voice demands.

Zemeckis moves his camera with agility and does plenty to justify the use of CGI and 3D, but for me, the movie -- engaging at first -- inspired increasing resistance. Sure, this approach lends itself to booming sound effects and various action set pieces, but the movie proves more eye-popping than enthralling.

As for those ghosts who visit Scrooge on Christmas Eve: They're more like fun house effects than the voices of admonition that have populated better versions of this venerable and much-told Dickens' tale. Is it possible to be overwhelmed by technique and underwhelmed by storytelling at the same time? It was for me.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

How crazy can the Army be? Very

Yes, it's a man staring at a goat.

According to The Men Who Stare at Goats, the U.S. Army at one point began an operation known as The New Earth Army. Led by a drugged-out, hippie officer named Bill Django, the warriors of this disheveled group tried to develop psychic powers, including the ability to make themselves invisible.

Generally, these warriors of the mind sought to use brainpower to avert the worst violence. The title of the movie -- and the Jon Ronson book on which it's based -- derives from another trick that these "hippie" warriors attempted to master: the ability to stop a goat's heart simply by staring at it with death-ray intensity.

I'd warn against trying such experiments at home, but I'm fairly certain few of you have goats on which to practice. And I'd certainly advise against it the next time you take the kids to a petting zoo.

The Men Who Stare at Goats stands as a loopy indictment of the insanity of a military that's always looking for a competitive edge -- no matter how absurd. In pursuit of this goal, director Grant Heslov -- working from a script by Peter Straughan -- introduces us to a small-town journalist (Ewan McGregor) who loses his wife to his editor and decides that he needs a testosterone affirming adventure.

McGregor's Bob Wilton heads for Iraq in hopes that a stint of combat coverage will restore his credentials as a man. After arriving in Kuwait City, Wilton finds himself thwarted. He's stranded in a hotel, where all he can do is look enviously at the big-time journalists who have been embedded with troops, men and women with real stories to tell.

But Bob's fortunes change when he meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a guy who claims that he's headed to Iraq on business, but who once belonged to the New Earth Army. As it turns out, Cassady was a premier psychic and devotee of Django (Jeff Bridges), the drugged-out warrior who founded this whacky battalion and who believed that soldiers could be trained to walk through walls, providing they had enough psychic juice.

Unlike Bob, the movie isn't content simply to make it into Iraq. As Cassady and Wilton travel through Iraq, we're offered flashbacks showing how these psychic warriors were selected and trained. We also learn that Django's command was undermined by a jealous sergeant (Kevin Spacey), the kind of insufferable guy who always needed to be at the head of any class.

Cassady isn't a guy who believes in chance. He thinks he has hooked up with Bob for a reason, namely that Bob, too, is a Jedi Warrior. The journalist remains skeptical.

Maybe that's more plot than you need, but the most interesting parts of the movie involve its bizarre -- and possibly true -- events. At the outset, a title card informs us that more of the movie is true than we might imagine.

Clooney can play this kind of comic part in his sleep. I'm not suggesting that he sleepwalks through the movie, only that the role probably fits him a little too perfectly. McGregor spends much of the movie looking flabbergasted, and Bridges seems to have channeled a bit of his shambling, dissolute Big Lebowski character into a military setting.

The acting is good and breezy, but the movie feels episodic and skimpy, and by the end, you may feel shortchanged. Could it be that the filmmakers were so impressed by the idea of psychic warriors that they forgot to develop a compelling plot? Whatever the case, The Men Who Stare at Goats serves up some tasty appetizers, but pretty much forgets to bring on the main course.

Danger lurks in the forest of 'Antichrist'

Charlotte Gainsbourgh consoled by Willem Dafoe.

The worst thing, I suppose, would be to make a cause celebre out of Lars von Trier's Antichrist, an increasingly repellent and often shocking portrait of a deteriorating marriage.

Most of Antichrist takes place in a forest cabin located in an area called Eden. Any evocation of that other famous garden must have been purely intentional on von Trier's part, but who knows precisely what von Trier had in mind with the rest of a moody, dream-like movie that's at its best when it's being most elusive.

After Breaking the Waves, Dogville and Dancer in the Dark, one is primed for the indigestible where von Trier is concerned. In that sense, Antichrist breaks no new ground for the director and only shores up his reputation as an artist who views the world as a cesspool in which humans can be counted on to behave abominably. Why lie? Some days, I think he has a point.

If you read about movies, you probably know that the movie isn't easy to take: It culminates in a lengthy helping of brutal violence involving castration and self-mutilation. Prior to the bloodshed, a talking fox (no, I'm not kidding) tells us "Chaos reigns." As if we didn't already know.

So what leads to all this cruelty and bloodshed? You might guess that things begin to go wrong because of sex. In the movie's opening scene, a husband, known as "He," is having sex with his wife, known as "She." They're too preoccupied with their ardor to notice that their young son has climbed onto the window sill in another room and is about to fall to his death, a tragedy presented by von Trier in reverential slow motion. The music may be Handel, but this black-and-white sequence plays like a twisted rock video for a group that might be called Falling Babies.

Once the toddler exits the scene, von Trier is stuck with two grieving parents about whom we know nothing other than that they're capable of entangling their body parts. To the extent that there's a plot, it can be summarized thusly: He and She head into the woods, presumably to be alone with their grief, fear and torment or something. He, a psychologist of some sort, treats She as if she were his patient, constantly encouraging her to face her fears. She evidently has a different coping mechanism, preferring to drown out life's sorrows with groping sexual encounters.

She's also an academic who has studied witchcraft, which adds another dimension of possible evil in a world that's fully corrupted and pushes the movie toward what turns out to be an ample helping of misogyny.

You can tell that Antichrist is seriously intended because it has ominous chapter headings: Grief, Despair, Gynocide and The Three Beggars being examples. You'll have to see learn about "gynocide," providing you're able to look at the screen throughout the carefully calibrated mayhem that von Trier orchestrates.

Gainsbourgh won an acting award at Cannes, but cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who also shot Slumdog Millionaire, may be the movie's real star. Mantle does some great work in the woods. The movie is supposed to take place in the American northwest, but actually was shot in Germany. Mantle is exceptionally skilled at forebodings, and for a while, the movie seems to be building toward something important: two bereft people adrift in an intolerable forest. He's annoyingly solicitous and She tries to accommodate him.

Von Trier also provides food for thought: Why does He (Willem Dafoe) treat his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourgh) as if she were a subject in a therapeutic experiment? Why does She stand for it? What sort of relationship do these people have? Are they meant to suggest a particular couple or are they some reincarnated version of Adam and Eve? And what about the movie's title, anyway?

Both Dafoe and Gainsbourgh give themselves over to the work, an act of submission that can be interpreted either as a demonstration of extreme courage or simple bad judgment, depending on how the movie strikes you.

Are the ideas expressed in Antichrist worth the ordeal? What exactly is von Trier trying to say? Those are questions you can debate after seeing the movie. I'd say, though, that the Antichrist suffers from a more rudimentary problem than arty obfuscation.

Von Trier reportedly set out to make his version of a horror movie. If he really wanted to play around with a conventional genre, he should have watched a few more horror movies. It seems to me that, among other things, von Trier forgot to include a second act, leaping from the build-up of act one to the insane violence of act three.

Even had it established a better rhythm, Antichrist might not have been able to live up to the promise of its artfully imagined early scenes, but it at least would have had dramatic coherence. This could be a case in which a director sabotaged what might have been a brooding, powerful movie by undermining its eerie, suggestive qualities with ghastly helpings of violence.

Late in the picture, She drills a hole in her husband's leg. We need this? It's as if the late Andrei Tarkovsky, the Russian director and proclaimed cinema poet to whom the movie is dedicated, got sick of digging deep and decided to make Saw IV.