Thursday, January 28, 2010

He's back -- and out for vengeance

Mel Gibson aims for revenge in Edge of Darkness.

Mel Gibson hasn't starred in a movie since 2002 when both Signs and We Were Soldiers hit the nation's screens. Gibson's back with a vengeance -- literally -- in Edge of Darkness, a movie with a trailer that makes it look like another heir to the Death Wish revenge fortune that Hollywood has been spending for years.

The good news: Instead of being a simple revenge saga, Edge of Darkness is a complicated one. That's also the bad news because a strong performance by Gibson and lots of tasty bits don't always fuse into a propulsive whole.

This being January, however, we'll take what we can get and be content that Edge of Darkness isn't as blatantly derivative as expected. Partly this stems from the movie's origins, a 1985 six-part BBC miniseries that, by all accounts, was more sophisticated and psychologically nuanced than its big-screen successor.

Condensed to movie length -- a touch under two hours -- Edge of Darkness starts beautifully but piles up plot twists as quickly as cars in a chain reaction crash. Even worse, it casts a broad web of suspicion, swiping at both big business and government, but never with a sense of real conviction.

What does ring true is the grief and rage Gibson's character experiences when his daughter is murdered in front of him. Gibson plays a solid guy with working-class values, a Boston detective who feels compelled to learn the truth about his daughter (Bojana Novakovic). Gibson's Thomas Craven is accustomed to holding his feelings in check, but his daughter's murder shatters his life beyond repair.

No mention is made of what happened to Craven's wife. We assume she died because Craven isn't the type to have gotten a divorce. He raised his daughter alone, and she has grown up to be an MIT grad who works as a research scientist for a large company. She visits Craven in the movie's crisply edited opening, but is shot down before she can tell him what's really on her mind.

Director Martin Campbell (best known for the Bond movie, Casino Royale), makes resonably good use of some small performances, most notably from Ray Winstone, who plays a mysterious guy who specializes in cleaning up messes for the government. Winstone finds the perfect pitch for a character who operates so far outside the law he's unbothered by anything resembling conventional morality. There's nothing much that Winstone's character hasn't seen -- or done. We believe that.

No fair telling more, but know that the movie spins a thick web of corruption and deceit -- too thick, I think. And considering that Gibson directed Passion of the Christ, a movie that still provokes arguments, I wondered whether it was advisable to give him a line in which his character confronts a Republican senator from Massachusetts by asking whether the senator's hanging on the cross or banging in the nails? Nice dialogue, but how can we watch Gibson deliver such a line without remembering who he is and some of the things he's said during his worst moments? And, no, I'd rather not think about the real Mel Gibson.

Additional problems crop up, as well: Craven sometimes talks to his deceased daughter – and we occasionally see her ghostly presence, an overused ploy that adds unnecessary sentiment. Some parts of the movie (I can't say which without adding spoilers) require an awfully generous suspension of disbelief.

But, hey, Edge of Darkness held my interest as it built toward the kind of overstated, vengeful finale that's both too emphatic and shamefully satisfying. Edge of Darkness expresses trendy cynicism about the establishment world, but owes its real credibility to Gibson, who remains convincing even when the script no longer is.

Evil: It, too, takes a village

The white ribbon is meant to keep the boy pure.

Director Michael Haneke -- never one to dabble in nostalgia or romanticism -- uses a village setting in pre-World War I Germany as a laboratory in which his characters are tested, and almost always fall short. Haneke jettisons the fondness and affection that some artists bring to such retrospective endeavors, replacing them with something akin to cinematic Calvinism -- only with no hope of salvation to temper the pervasive sense of sin.

World War I, we're forced to conclude, didn't bring an end to global innocence, as is sometimes argued. How could it? There was no innocence to begin with.

In The White Ribbon, the festering brutalities of rural life become palpable and the feeling of oppression can be close to unbearable. Haneke's movie is narrated by the town's only teacher (Christian Friedel) who's speaking from the vantage point of his old age. He's looking back on his life as a young man, and if his memory is good, it wasn't a pretty time. (The voice of the older teacher belongs to Ernst Jacobi.)

Early on, the narrator tells us that his recollections may explain something about later events. Because the movie is set in Germany, it's impossible not to think that these "later events" have something to do with Germany's turn toward Nazism, which raised brutality from an individual trait to a national destiny.

If the movie does explain history, it's probably because Haneke shows us the delusions that keep these characters in a perpetual state of denial. Despite obvious violence, child abuse, sexual repression, feudal cruelty and religious hypocrisy, the townsfolk seem unaware of how their behavior might appear to an outsider. The thick fog of repression that characterizes their lives seems to have been normalized.

No one is spared the harsh light of Haneke's penetrating gaze. Not the town doctor (Rainer Bock), who probably represents rationalism or the town pastor (Burghart Klaussner), who clearly embodies religious repression.

Played with calm severity by Klaussner, the pastor tells his children that he's trying to keep them on a straight-and-narrow path as he applies a variety of abusive punishments. Surely these wayward savages understand that their father has no choice but to mete out punishment. It's the-suffer-now-to-avoid-suffering-in-the-hereafter approach to religion, and there doesn't seem to be a drop of solace in it.

Those familiar with Haneke's previous work (movies such as Funny Games and Cache) know that he's not afraid to dramatize wanton forms of cruelty and that he insists on depriving his audience of anything as satisfying as narrative closure. The movie raises questions about who might be performing a series of malicious acts that plague the town, and becomes all the more horrifying by not providing definitive answers.

A series of violent incidents begin when someone stretches a wire across a village road, tripping the doctor's horse. The doctor's misfortune, which lands him in the hospital, is followed by a succession of additional horrors: the abuse of a child, the death of a farmer's wife and the burning of a barn.

For all that, the doctor presides over what might be the movie's most brutal scene. Having recently returned from his brief hospitalization, the doctor tells his assistant that he's done having sex with her. In rejecting this poor woman, the doctor unleashes one of the most astonishing expressions of contempt I've ever seen in a movie -- or anywhere else for that matter.

Haneke makes it clear that the ways of the adults have infected the children. I won't list all the depravities here, but know that they are plentiful -- from tying the hands of an adolescent boy to his bed so that he can't masturbate to tormenting and humiliating the baron's young son to the sexual molestation of his teen-age daughter by the doctor. No wonder these kids seem so damn creepy, youthful creatures adrift in the world's harsh light.

The movie's title, by the way, refers to the white ribbon that the pastor makes two of his children wear, a reminder that they always should strive for purity.

Glimmers of hope do emerge. The teacher falls in love with a young woman (Leonie Benesch) who's hired as nanny by the baron (Ulrich Tukur). Additional grace notes appear: the pastor's angelic youngest son nursing a sick bird back to health, for example. The baron's wife (Ursina Lardi) so detests this loveless world, she threatens to bolt.

Small moments of sanity aside, The White Ribbon has an austere quality that penetrates our defenses and leaves us feeling vulnerable to its cruelties. Arresting black-and-white images by cinematographer Christian Berger are almost perversely restrained, and Haneke misses few chances to lock us into an environment that's devoid of spiritual nourishment. There's no music. The movie's silences can be crushing. Footfalls on wooden floors sound eerie and alienating.

You get the idea. The White Ribbon is terrifically made, but Haneke's eye seldom finds pleasure in the physical world his wretched characters inhabit. Maybe that's why watching this strange and chastening movie -- clearly the work of a superior talent -- often feels like a form of penance.

The White Ribbon opens in Denver Friday, Jan. 22.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Condoleezza Rice and the price of power

After the Bush crowd departed Washington, I thought that I might be able to get through the rest of life without ever having to spell Condoleezza again. But as with many hopes, that one has been dashed, this time by a documentary called American Faust: From Condi to Neo- Condi. As the title suggests, the movie operates within the parameters of a clearly defined thesis: Rice is portrayed as a brilliant woman who eventually sold her soul in order to enter the upper echelons of the U.S. power structure.

Using a variety of interviews to help make the case, director Sebastian Doggart shows both the promise and disappointment that define Rice's public life. American Faust probably emerges as another preach-to-the-choir helping of political cinema, but even if you reject the movie's argument, it certainly tells you plenty about the woman who once, in a slip of the tongue, started to refer to George W. Bush as her husband.

The movie begins with Rice's early life in Birmingham, Ala. She was there when four girls died in the church bombing of 1963. Four years later, Rice's family moved to Denver. Rice attended DU, where she was influenced by professor Josef Korbel, who also happened to be Madeleine Albright's father. Rice began her political life as a Democrat, but eventually strolled over to the neo-con corridors of power.

To me, the most interesting segment in American Faust doesn't involve politics, at least not directly. At one time, Rice dated Denver Bronco Rick Upchurch, who's interviewed in the film. Rice, a rabid football fan, and Upchurch were engaged, but Rice broke off the engagement to pursue an opportunity in the Carter Administration. She may have chosen Washington over love.

Doggart's movie suggests that Rice's many career moves had less to do with conviction than with her desire to find her way into the centers of power. But it wasn't until George W. Bush that she attained her greatest triumphs -- first as National Security Advisor and then as Secretary of State.

The film's experts slam Rice's performance as National Security Advisor and as Secretary of State, citing dereliction in her failure to give sufficient weight to intelligence reports that preceded 9/11 and variety of other lapses in competence and, some would argue, moral judgment.

Whether you buy Doggart's view or not, American Faust offers lots of provocative interviews, and Rice's career certainly merits evaluation. Those who disagree with Doggart should start their own cameras rolling. I'd love to hear the counter-argument. A little more of it might have made American Faust even stronger.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Great story, but the movie's not terrific

Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford battle a disease.

No, I never heard of it before either. I'm talking about Pompe disease, a genetic disorder that occurs in something like one out of every 40,000 births. The disease, which is related to muscular dystrophy, attacks muscles, most importantly, the heart. Though not widely known, Pompe disease resulted in an amazing story of enterprise, perseverance and passion. That story is told in gripping fashion in Geeta Anand's book, The Cure, and in less compelling ways in the new movie, Extraordinary Measures.

Extraordinary Measures is being billed as an inspirational story about a father's battle to save the lives of two of his children. The description isn't entirely unfair, but for me, the most intriguing part of the movie involved the strange and sometimes awkward dance that occurs when science tires to waltz with business.

Because large sums of money are required to conduct the kind of research that results in new drugs, the scientific/entrepreneurial complex offers both opportunities and frustrations. Extraordinary Measures hints at all of this, but tries to hook us with a story about two very different men: a businessman father (Brendan Fraser), who wants to save his children, and a genius scientist (Harrison Ford), who conducts high-level research.

I have to admit that I was disappointed to learn that the character Ford's playing is a composite of four or five different researchers. That may explain why the movie strains to give Ford's Dr. Stonehill a ton of idiosyncrasies. He's irascible, blunt and indifferent to social niceties, a beer-drinking loner with the personality of a thistle. Dr. Stonehill is the kind of artificial creation that's cooked up in a screenwriter's test tube. Ford, who served as one of the movie's executive producers, almost seems too big for a movie that can't entirely escape movie-of-the week limitations.

Still, Crowley's story remains of interest. Once he learned that his kids had Pompe, Crowley quit his job, raised money and formed a company to look for a drug that would prolong his kids' lives. While his wife (Keri Russell) tended the home fires, Crowley set out to ally himself with the best scientific minds. (In the movie, Megan is nine and Patrick is seven; in real life, they were 15 months and five months of age when diagnosed with Pompe. The family's oldest child, John, did not have the disease.)

Credit the movie with attempting to detail the complex relationship between science and business. Bottom line concerns can dominate biotech research, which means that Crowley had to display a wide array of diplomatic skills to help create a life-saving drug and to ensure that his children would be part of the various clinical trials in which it was tested.

The movie's director and screenwriter, Tom Vaughn, doesn't seem to have the chops (or maybe the budget) to bring off a richly realized dramatization. Extraordinary Measures is better than I expected, but it falls short of the kind of drama it could have been. And in movie terms, we've been down this road before with the better and more involving Lorenzo's Oil, the story of a couple whose son also contracted a rare disorder.

Pull 'The Tooth Fairy,' please

Perhaps there should be laws against this kind of display.

Among the many movie sights I'd hoped never to see, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in a tutu probably tops my list. I hadn't known how much I didn't want to see The Rock in a tutu until the screening of The Tooth Fairy, a family-oriented comedy that places too many of its comic eggs in one basket: Lame sight gags in which the buffed-up Johnson dons a variety of fairy outfits.

Johnson plays Derek Thompson, a minor league hockey player known as The Tooth Fairy; he acquired this very un-hockeyesque nickname because he enjoys knocking the teeth out of the mouths of opposing players. When he's not creating business for dentists, Thompson spends time with his girlfriend (Ashley Judd) and her two kids: Destiny Whitlock (the cute one) and Chase Ellison (the recalcitrant one).

Here's the thing: Thompson considers himself a hard-bitten realist. He doesn't believe in encouraging kids to follow their dreams. Derek's on the verge of telling cute little Whitlock that there's no tooth fairy, when Judd stops him in mid-sentence. Thompson's punishment for this heartless transgression: He's summoned to fairyland and told by his case worker (British comic Stephen Merchant) that he must serve two weeks as a tooth fairy. He tries to talk the head of fairyland (Julie Andrews) out of his sentence, but she's adamant.

So Thompson, who sprouts wings when he does fairy duty, begins receiving cell phone calls summoning him to his tooth fairy duties, usually at awkward or inconvenient moments.

Billy Crystal, who like Andrews has seen better days in better movies, appears as a fairyland version of the Q character in the Bond movies. He's the guy who dispenses the tools of the fairy trade. These include a spray that makes tooth fairies invisible and a paste that shrinks them to clothespin size. These gimmicks prompt a variety of predictable comic set pieces.

So long as we're on the subject of teeth, it should be noted that Johnson has a nice set of choppers. He tries to use to them as much as possible. OK, so the guy has a nice smile, but his biceps seem to be bigger than his repertoire of comic tricks.

Andrews leaves fairyland unscathed, but The Tooth Fairy, which sets out to defend dreams, misses even as feel-good comedy fluff. I suppose the whole business is good-natured enough, but funny would have been nice, too.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The awful insanity of the race game

Sophie Okonedo as a woman grappling with apartheid.

Some stories are so interesting they demand that someone try to tell them. That's certainly the case with the life of Sandra Laing, a South African woman who was born to white parents during apartheid, but was treated as "colored," the now discarded South African designation for people of mixed race.

This particular bit of apartheid madness evidently resulted from the fact that one or both of Laing's parents had some black blood in their backgrounds -- and of course from blatant racism and stupidity. (During apartheid days, South Africa officially categorized people according to skin color.)

Both in and out of South Africa, skin color determines much about social interaction, but in the crucible of bigotry that became the basis for South Africa's apartheid laws, Sandra Laing's life was turned upside down. The madness of apartheid forced Laing to face questions of identity and eventually to come to grips with the racism of the white society to which she thought she belonged.

Sandra -- who had some black features -- couldn't live the life of a white Afrikaner. She was ostracized from white schools and ultimately rejected by her own father.

Director Anthony Fabian tells Laing's story with a major assist from the gifted British actress Sophie Okonedo, familiar to U.S. audiences from Hotel Rwanda and The Secret Life of Bees.. Okonedo embodies the confusion, searching and pain that constituted Sandra's remarkable and often confounding journey.

The story begins with Sandra at age 10, played by young Ella Ramangwane. Sandra's parents (Sam Neill and Alice Krige) are rural shopkeepers who have kept their daughter reasonably isolated, part of their strategy for avoiding trouble. As a result of her early upbringing, Sandra regarded herself as white, a perception that's challenged when she encounters bigotry and cruelty at a white boarding school.

Neill's Abraham Laing eventually begins a complicated legal battle to have Sandra declared white. The case goes all the way to South Africa's Supreme Court. Abraham isn't rejecting apartheid or racism; he wants his daughter to enjoy the privileges he believes are rightfully hers as an Afrikaner.

Abraham fails to realize that the legal decision won't much matter. For most Afrikaners, Sandra's skin color trumped legal rulings: Sandra remained "colored" in the eyes of her fellow citizens. When Sandra begins to accept herself as "black," she inevitably alienates her father. Abraham is particularly appalled when Sandra starts a relationship with a black South African (Tony Kgoroge).

Fabian tries not to paint a portrait in which the lines are too clearly drawn. At times, Sandra's parents act out of what they perceive as the best of intentions. Initially, her older brother tries to be protective. Her mother is torn between love for her daughter and the demands of a staunch, unforgiving husband.

Skin reveals the persistent insanity of the race game. Race can divide not only whole peoples but individuals within a single family. Sandra, of course, is one person with one story. But her life stands as a reminder of the pernicious effects of racism: The happy girl we meet in the movie's early scenes should have been able to pursue, with no more than ordinary effort, a happy life as an adult. Sandra lived in a society that denied her that right.

That was not only Sandra's tragedy, but her country's, as well. Skin opens in Denver Jan. 22

Brendan Fraser plays a driven dad

Harrison Ford and Brendan Fraser, sometimes at odds.

Judging by his movies, there are at least two Brendan Frasers: The first is a goofy George of Jungle sort of guy or maybe a Mummy kind of hero, an actor who stars in unabashed popcorn movies that sometimes create sequels and often generate megabucks at the box office.

Then, there's the other Fraser, the guy who acts in serious movies such as The Quiet American or Gods and Monsters. In the new movie, Extraordinary Measures, Fraser tips toward the serious side of his spectrum, playing John Crowley, a father and businessman who worked tirelessly to discover a drug that would save his children from the ravages of Pompe disease. (Pompe is a rare neuromuscular disorder that prior to Crowley's efforts almost always had proved fatal in children.)

The movie, which teams the 41-year-old Fraser with Harrison Ford, opens Jan. 22, and is based on a book by journalist Geeta Anand. Anand's The Cure told the story of how Crowley founded a company and sold it to a larger company, but never abandoned his goal: To find a drug that would save the lives of two of his children. At the time of diagnosis, Megan was 15-months-old and Patrick was five-months-old.

Fraser, traveling with the real Crowley (see yesterday's post) recently visited Denver.

Q. How did you approach playing a real person?

A. I saw the screenplay that was developed from the story in the book. It impressed me. Look, I’m the father of three: a seven, a five and a three year old. Their bodies perfectly healthy, but the thought that something could go wrong ...

It’s my job to embody the spirit of John Crowley rather than put quotation marks around who he is as an individual. I met with the producers and talked about it. I met with Harrison. (Ford also served as the movie's executive producer.) I read some pages for Harrison. He said, ‘I hope this works out.’ I got the job.

Q. What was your contact with Crowley?

A. We talked on the phone a couple of times. I watched a lot of interviews he had done on various morning shows; his story absolutely is newsworthy.

Q. The interesting thing to me about Crowley is that he had to play many roles: He was a father, a businessman and, also a diplomat. It took a lot of tact and restraint on Crowley's part to work with scientists and business guys who sometimes were coming from different places than he was.

A. Absolutely. The experience he confronted is a bit like David and Goliath, except he had to go to Goliath and say, ‘Hey, can we talk?’ And Goliath listened. There’s a scene in which John and Dr. Stonehill (Ford's character) are in dire need of funding, otherwise they’ll lose the whole line of research they’ve been toiling on for months. They both need to swallow any bile they may have for what they’re about to do (sell their company to a larger outfit to ensure a new infusion of capital)...

Q. And there are tough economic questions that Crowley had to deal with. Businesses don't always operate on humanitarian motivations. A. What is acceptable loss? What is the bottom line? What, in terms of dollars and cents, is the worth of a human life for a so-called ‘orphan drug,' a drug that’s not very popular because the disease is so rare.

Q. Harrison Ford, at least on screen, can be imposing. What was it like working with him?

A. Well, he screamed in my face. I screamed back. (Confrontational scenes between their two characters.) It's just a movie and then the day’s work is over, and you try to find some place to get dinner. He’s a good guy. He’s a highly researched actor. There isn’t a false note with this guy. All the science had to be right, not just gobbledygook. Everything that’s written on the chalkboards you see in the movie is accurate. That was very important to him.

Q. So, what about the schizophrenic nature of your career -- from silliness to sober drama? How do you strike a balance?

A. If I had an easy an answer, I’d give it to you. The brief answer is that I really like to work. I don’t know an actor who doesn’t. That’s why Harrison found this interesting material and executive produced it; he was looking for a way to find characters to play. Harrison's character is a composite of four or five people. He provides a counterpoint in the story. The two of them (Stonehill and Crowley) are heading in the same direction, but they don’t see eye-to-eye all the time, which is interesting from a screenwriter’s point of view, from a dramatic point of view. Q. Such is the nature of translating a real story for the screen? A. Sure. This is a film; it’s inspired by a true story, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t entertaining.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A father's fight to save his kids

Movies and biochemistry aren't words that usually turn up in the same sentence. That makes Extraordinary Measures, which opens nationwide Jan. 22, a rarity: Among other things, the movie deals with the gains that can occur when science, business and academia join forces to conduct research.

Hollywood being Hollywood, Extraordinary Measures is being billed as an inspirational story about one man's fight to save his children. Fair enough, I suppose: After all, the story focuses on John Crowley, a father who learned that his two children had Pompe disease, a rare neuromuscular disorder that's considered a form of muscular dystrophy. Crowley quit a good marketing job and set out on his own, forming a company dedicated to finding a drug that could save his children's lives. For Crowley, business literally became a matter of life and death.

Crowley's story initially was told by Geeta Anand in a Wall Street Journal article which the author later expanded into a book called The Cure: How a Father Raised $100 Million -- and Bucked the Medical Establishment -- in a Quest to Save His Children."

Inspired by Anand's book, Extraordinary Measures joins Crowley's story to the efforts of an ornery research scientist played by Harrison Ford. Ford's Dr. Stonehill is a composite character who represents a variety of researchers with whom Crowley, played by Brendan Fraser, worked over the course of three years.

Today, the 42-year-old Crowley runs Amicus Therapeutics Inc., a company that seeks cures for rare genetic diseases. He recently visited Denver to talk about the movie:

Q. Are you satisfied with the way the movie condensed real events?

A. They did a beautiful job of telling the story in a dramatic fashion, holding true to many of the events in life and holding 100 percent true to our family life and spirit.
Q. I don't think it's giving anything away to say that you succeed in finding a drug that has kept your kids alive. Megan was 15 months old when diagnosed and Patrick was five months old when you learned he had Pompe disease. How are the kids today?

A. Megan just turned 13. Patrick will be 12. They’re 15 months apart. Our oldest son, John, is 15. (John does not have the disease). They're in sixth, seventh and eighth grades in Princeton public schools in New Jersey. The disease never affects the mind. They’re incredibly smart, precocious little kids. Megan’s a straight-A student.

The medicine we discovered and helped to make fixed their hearts, which is the most life threatening aspect of the disease. That saved their lives. Now, the work that I do – and that many other companies and universities do – is geared toward pushing innovation and finding the next best treatment to continue, extend and improve their lives -- to make them as strong and healthy as possible.

Q. I've read that Pompe shows up in something like one out of 40,000 births. How do we justify costly research into this and other equally rare diseases?

A. Research into rare disease is incredibly important for a lot of reasons. First, you have to remember that there are 7,000 rare diseases. Taken together, they affect more than 30 million people in the United States.

Second, these are such debilitating and often-fatal disorders. If there were a 1,000 kids stuck in a bus hanging off a cliff, we would move heaven and earth to save them. We have to think about what it means in terms of people, most of whom are the weakest and most vulnerable in society. I think we -- as a society -- have and will continue to make choices on the side of helping people who fall into those categories.

But also, by understanding and treating these diseases, we’re opening up new ways of understanding much more prevalent disorders. (He talks about how his company invested $75 million in trying to develop a drug to treat Gaucher disease, which has stricken perhaps 5,000 people in the entire world. Thus far, the effort has failed, but it turned up important links between those who carry the gene for Gaucher, a genetic disorder, and those who contract Parkinson's disease.

Q. Science is painstaking and often slow moving, and it's certainly not easy to raise large sums of money. There must have been times when you were tempted to throw in the towel.

A. There were many, many times – after traveling the country and the world and after being away for five or 10 days – when I got tired and frustrated. Science isn’t easy, and a lot of times, I thought I didn’t want to be away from home. If the kids weren’t going to live a long time, I didn’t want to miss all that.

Q. But you kept going.

A. I wasn’t the best CEO. There were better, smarter people who could do that. But what I lacked in experience and money, we made up for in determination and passion. If I did nothing else I tried to hire the very best people and tried to get them the resources they needed.

Q. How do you see the relationship between science and business?

A. What happened in this case is something very uniquely American. You had private industries – small companies, start-ups, Big Pharma, biotech companies, university researchers, government researchers, government regulators, patient groups and philanthropists coming together. Without any one of those, this may not have happened or certainly wouldn’t have happened as quickly as it did. That’s very uniquely American. You don’t see that anywhere else in the world. Academic research is a great strategic advantage for us. We wouldn’t have drug development today without it. But at the end of the day, it’s private and public companies in the bio-tech and pharmaceutical industry that translate ideas into medicine.

Tomorrow: Brendan Fraser talks about playing John Crowley.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

'Hurt Locker' takes Critics' top honor

The Broadcast Film Critics Association Friday (Jan. 15) gave out its Critics' Choice awards. Hurt Locker, which snagged best picture, began what may be an unstoppable drive toward Oscar glory in the same category. Avatar dominated the technical awards, and a tie between Meryl Streep and Sandra Bullock in the best-actress category suggests a tight race when Oscar gets around to naming its best actress.

Kathryn Bigelow's Hurt Locker may prove explosive come Oscar time.


Best Picture, The Hurt Locker
Best Animated Movie, Up
Best Comedy Movie, The Hangover
Best Action Movie, Avatar
Best Director, Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Best Original Screenplay, Inglourious Basterds
Best Adapted Screenplay, Up in the Air
Best Acting Ensemble, Inglourious Basterds
Best Actor, Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Best Actress (tie), Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia and Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Best Supporting Actor, Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Best Supporting Actress, Mo’Nique, Precious
Best Young Actress, Saoirse Ronan, The Lovely Bones
Best Documentary, The Cove
Best Foreign Language Film, Broken Embraces
Best Score, Up
Best Song, The Weary Kind, Crazy Heart
Best Costume Design, The Young Victoria
Best Make-Up, District 9
Best Cinematography, Avatar
Best Visual Effects, Avatar
Best Art Direction, Avatar
Best Editing, Avatar
Best Sound, Avatar

Thursday, January 14, 2010

More post-apocalyptic butt kicking

Denzel Washington is Eli, a man on a mission.

If you're a moviegoing regular, you've seen the world end so many times that you've probably learned to take post-apocalyptic devastation in stride. In the last several months alone, we've had 2012 (an attempt at a mainstream apocalypse) and The Road (a serious look at a fragile fight for survival). Now comes The Book of Eli, perhaps the wackiest post-apocalyptic movie yet. Starring Denzel Washington and directed by Allen and Albert Hughes, The Book of Eli carries eclecticism to its wildest extreme.

Ludicrous and gripping by turns, The Book of Eli can be described as a spaghetti western, a samurai movie, a sci-fi fantasy and a slice of religious inspiration, providing you like you're religious inspiration served with a razor-sharp machete. Washington plays a kick-ass survivor of a nuclear blast.

Washington's Eli is the proverbial man with a mission. He possesses the last remaining copy of the King James Bible. One day, a voice inside his head tells him to head west. He does, which means the man with the Good Book must confront a whole lot of bad people en route to the Pacific.

The Hughes brothers (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents and American Pimp) haven't made a feature since 2001's From Hell. Here, they shoot with desaturated colors and lots of CGI-boosted desolation. The movie takes place after something called "the flash,'' presumably a nuclear blast that took out most of the world. Some survivors were left maimed, others were blinded and many turned ruthless.

In this kind of unhinged world, mercy is short supply. So we regard it as a generally good thing that Washington's Eli wields a mean machete, and knows how to use the small arsenal of firearms he carries. But he's clearly a man who kills only when there's no other alternative.

Eli performs miraculous feats of survival -- mostly killing groups of adversaries who severely outnumber him. How does he do this? I think it's because he has divine protection. Watching Eli at work, you more or less believe he has some form of preternatural help. That's probably the only explanation for the surprise twist that marks the movie's ending.

In this depleted world, the Bible has taken on new importance. Eli wants to get the book into the hands of people who need it, the generation that has been born since the apocalypse. They don't know about human history and have no knowledge of the saving power of the word. Not surprisingly, Eli's path is paved with human obstacles, the most formidable being a dictatorial thug named Carnegie (Gary Oldman).

Carnegie, the vicious boss of a ravaged survivor town, has other ideas for the Bible. Like Eli, Carnegie remembers the "before time." He wants to use the Bible to control the rude and scoffing multitudes he currently brutalizes. This central conceit isn't quite as potent as the Hughes brothers may have hoped, but it serves to keep the movie moving over what seems an endless expanse of parched, devastated landscapes.

The movie's structure is relatively simple: Eli establishes his violent prowess; he arrives in Carnegie's town and then flees with Carnegie in hot pursuit. Reluctantly, he accepts a traveling companion, a young woman named Solara (Mila Kunis). She's fleeing Carnegie at the suggestion of her mother (Jennifer Beals), Carnegie's much-abused mistress.

The movie's violent set pieces are interrupted by a loony interlude in which Eli and Solara take refuge with an older couple (Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour) who live in a rundown house in the middle of nowhere. They occasionally amuse themselves by listening to Anita Ward's disco hit, Ring My Bell. They may have resorted to cannibalism. The Hughes brothers present this bit of insanity as comic relief, but its effect is short-lived. Carnegie and his men show up and continue their ultra-violent pursuit of the Bible.

A graying Washington convincingly portrays a violent man who's also capable of great humility. It's not easy to play a character who does much and says little, and Washington certainly is up to the task.

Now whether the Lord would speak to a man who must use a machete to carry out his mission is a question the movie mostly avoids. But the Hughes brothers' single-minded direction matches Eli's single-minded sense of purpose as Book of Eli marches toward a finale that evokes Ray Bradbury and raises the kind of questions that could make the movie evaporate upon reflection.

Although a book serves to drive the plot, Ely seldom seems as if it was meant for people who spend most of their time reading. Eli wants to save the Word, but the movie's at its best when Eli does what he does best: He showers trouble on those who insist on opposing him --always with maximum efficiency. Eli may be a lean, mean, fighting machine, but the Lord is with him.

To which I say, "Amen, and pass the popcorn."

'Lovely Bones:' hypnotic, but remote

Saoirse Ronan's line readings can be truly lovely.

The Lovely Bones director Peter Jackson's long-awaited adaptation of Alice Sebold's well-received bestseller, provides an example of what happens when a movie overpowers its characters. A showcase for both realistic and fantasy filmmaking, The Lovely Bones tells the story of a murdered Pennsylvania teen-ager who narrates what happens to her family while she occupies a limbo between death and a presumably blissful heaven.

As such a story suggests, adapting Sebold's novel for the screen posed many challenges, not the least of which was depicting this in-between state. Famous for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson creates a limbo full of CGI wonders that are composed of familiar and frightening elements from the dead girl's world. A little of this goes a long way.

But Jackson, whose Heavenly Creatures dealt with two real-life teen-ager murders, is no slouch when it comes to macabre moments. When he's dealing with the serial killer, played with creepy intensity by a nearly unrecognizable Stanley Tucci, Jackson gives his movie an eerie, sickening undertow. Tucci's George Harvey lives on the same block as the girl he murders (Saoirse Ronan). He's a loner, the psycho next door.

Jackson obtains a wonderful performance from Ronan as 14-year-old murder victim Susie Salmon. Ronan -- last seen in Atonement -- embodies the poetry for which Jackson seems to be striving. Her delivery of the narration qualifies as truly lovely. As the movie requires, she can seem both spectral and real.

The movie's casting proves first-rate in other ways. Mark Wahlberg plays Susie's father, a man who painstakingly places miniature ships in bottles. He becomes obsessed with finding Susie's killer. Rachel Weisz portrays Susie's mom, and Rose McIver and Christian Ashdale appear as Susie's younger sister and brother. McIver is at the center of one of the movie's most riveting scenes: She searches Harvey's home, hoping he won't return before she's finished.

The rest of the cast includes Michael Imperioli as a detective who investigates Susie's murder and Susan Sarandon, as the grandmother of the Salmon family -- one of the few characters whose feet never leave the ground. Grandma smokes, drinks and makes a happy mess of things when she comes to stay with the family. A comic montage involving failed attempts at watering plants and doing laundry allows Sarandon to make a big impression with a small role.

Full of signs and symbols, The Lovely Bones seems to be about letting go. Susie must resolve feelings about her shortened life, and her family must come to grips with loss. This is a strong subject, but the movie treats it somewhat abstractly as it darts between Susie's limbo and the world she has left behind.

In a way, Jackson puts us in limbo along with Susie. His movie has a feeling of suspended time. We're in a moment (actually several years) when the world of the Salmon family is as unsettled as Susie's tender soul. This is a portrait of life before the return of stability, which may explain why nothing feels entirely solid.

The trouble with creating this kind of hypnotic mood -- something at which Jackson excels -- is that it can anesthetize us instead of waking us up. Despite flashes of real sadness, Lovely Bones remains as remote as the penguin inside the snow globe that fascinated Susie when she was younger.

The snow globe crops up at the beginning and end of the story, serving as a kind of inadvertent metaphor for the movie itself. Yes, Tucci is terrifying. And, yes, the in-between world can be something to behold. And, yes, there are moments of genuine poetry here. But it's as if everything takes place within Jackson's cinematic snow globe. There, nothing and no one seems entirely reachable.

Jeff Bridges has those weary kind blues

Jeff Bridges, healthier here than in most of Crazy Heart.

When journalists write about Jeff Bridges, they often insist on telling us that he's underrated. Maybe, but I can tell you I've never underrated him. Bridges is a terrific actor with a standout resume. Sure, there are signature performances -- the Dude in The Big Lebowski or Duane Jackson in The Last Picture Show -- but if you're not up to speed on Bridges, you should rent Fearless, The Fabulous Baker Boys and Cutter's Way. Those aren't the only wonderful Bridges' performances, but they're good places to start.

All this by way of saying, it's hardly a surprise that Bridges has received tons of praise for his performance as country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart. After a recent screening of Crazy Heart, someone mentioned that no one could play an alcoholic better than Bridges. I'm not sure that's true, but Bridges does something really interesting with his portrayal of the dissolute Bad Blake. He makes him likable. He also gives Blake an incipient sense of self-awareness, the knowledge that his path of self-destruction has left plenty of human rubble in its wake.

When a reporter (Maggie Gyllenhaal) asks Blake where his songs come from, he replies, "Life, unfortunately." Roll that one around in your mind for a bit; it pretty much tells the story.

Scott Cooper makes his directorial debut with this country/western slice of life, a movie that begins with Blake scraping his feet against the barrel's bottom. He's reduced to singing at bowling alleys, the kind of joints where the owner tells him he can't run a bar tab but can have all the free bowling he wants, a ridiculous offer to a guy who subsists on cigarettes and whiskey. Blake's ride -- a rust-red 1978 Chevy Suburban -- isn't much to look at, and he's drinking himself sick.

As the story develops, Scott fills in Blake's background. He has a 28-year-old son he hasn't seen in years. He's been married a bunch. He was once had a big career. He's a gifted songwriter who can't write anymore. Want to request one of the old tunes? It might help if you bring a bottle of whiskey.

The story forces Blake to come to grips with his alcoholic behavior. He starts an affair with Gyllenhaal's Jean Craddock, a single mom with a four-year-old son named Buddy (Jack Nation). Blake likes Buddy, and we know that this cute kid offers Blake a shot at redemption -- both as a man and as a father. And we also know that as long as he's drinking, Blake will find a way to screw things up.

Crazy Heart belong to Bridges, but a couple of performances add nice support. I was happily surprised by Colin Farrell, who plays Tommy Sweet, a singer who's at the top of his game. Tommy regards Blake as a mentor and respects his talent. Farrell's playing a star, but he doesn't fall into the expected cliches. His appreciation of Blake seems sincere.

Robert Duvall -- who played a country singer in the more restrained Tender Mercies -- also makes his presence felt. Duvall portrays a reformed alcoholic bartender, one of Blake's few real friends. It's great to see Duvall in a strong -- if small -- role.

Crazy Heart virtually brims with music; the songs are the work of Stephen Bruton and T-Bone Burnett, and they're all good. Look for The Weary Kind -- written by Burnett and Ryan Bingham -- to make a strong bid for this year's Oscar for best song. And although Blake sometimes derides the pick-up musicians with whom he's forced to play, the backup bands all know how to cook. Look, I'm not a big fan of country music, but I enjoyed it in the dusty-boots context of Crazy Heart.

Scott, who wrote the script based on a novel by Thomas Cobb, doesn't bring matters to the harshest possible conclusion, but he doesn't follow a happily-ever-after formula either. Blake can't get off the hook for all that he's done -- and he's done a lot. You can see it Bridge's face, in the hair that looks as if it hasn't been washed in weeks, in the half-hobbled walk and in the eyes that are beginning go hollow.

I'd say that in the 57-year-old Bad Blake, Bridges has found a role that fits his talents and may put him on Oscar's pedestal, but every knowledgeable film fan and critic already knows that Bridges should have been there years ago. Crazy Heart may just seal the deal.*

* For those who care about such things, Bridges earned four previous Oscar nominations. Best Supporting Actor: The Contender (2000); Best Actor: Starman (1984); Best Supporting Actor: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) and Best Supporting Actor: The Last Picture Show (1971).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Awards season begins with critics' awards

If you're looking to get a jump on Oscar and the Golden Globes, try the Broadcast Film Critics Association awards program, which airs 9 p.m. this Friday (Jan. 15) on the VH1 Television Network. Singer/actress Kristen Chenoweth (right) hosts this year's program. Chenoweth, familiar from TV's The West Wing, will preside over the BFCA's 15th edition.

Obviously, you need to watch to find out who'll win, but if you tune in you'll see one honor go to Kevin Bacon. Meryl Streep will present Bacon with the third annual Joel Siegel Award, named for ABC film critic Joel Siegel, who died of cancer in 2007. Siegel plied his trade on Good Morning America for more than 25 years. I didn't know Siegel, but I know people who did; they both liked and respected him.

Will the BFCA awards help you handicap your Oscar picks? The BFCA says yes, pointing out that since its inception in 1995, the Critics' Choice Movie Awards has become a bellwether event. Of the 20 actors and actresses nominated for Oscars in 2009, for example, 19 were Critics' Choice Awards nominees.

The BFCA is the largest film critics association in the U.S. and Canada; it represents hundreds of TV, radio and online critics, and, yes, I'm a member.

If you're keeping track, the Golden Globes -- awarded by The Hollywood Foreign Press Association -- will be broadcast on NBC at 6 p.m. (MST) Sunday, Jan. 17, and will be hosted by Ricky Gervais. The Globes attract lots of attention, but the HFPA -- according to its web site -- has only 82 members. And, no, I've never understood why folks get pumped up for the Globes, unless you're a nominee or a publicist looking for ad material.

All of this by way of warm-up for this year's Oscars, which will be handed out Sunday, March 7. The 82nd Academy Awards nominations will be announced Tuesday, Feb. 2.

If you haven't had your fill of awards after all this ... well ... there's always next year.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Sex: One teen-ager's final frontier

Michael Cera is inspired to be bold by Portia Doubleday.

Michael Cera carries the burden of his familiar presence lightly enough to keep from wearing out his welcome. In Youth in Revolt, Cera (familiar from Juno and Superbad) again follows in his own footsteps, playing a baby-faced high-school kid who's afraid he'll die a virgin.

Obviously, we've been down this road before, but director Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl and Chuck & Buck) works hard to provide some fresh views, an effort that probably leads to the movie's overly generous helping of eccentricity. It's possible to argue that Youth in Revolt is too quirky by half, but it does offer some real laughs with Cera doing double duty as Nick Twisp and Francois Dillinger. Nick is a high-school student with limited social skills; Francois is Nick's alter ego. A figment of Nick's imagination, Francois encourages Nick to assert his independence.

What motivates Nick to rebel in extreme fashion, practically burning down an entire Berkeley block? Nothing less than love -- with some lust thrown in for good measure. When Nick's divorced mother (Jean Smart) and her low-life boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis) drag him off to a trailer court for a vacation, Nick meets Sheeni (Portia Doubleday).

Suddenly, Nick's life turns around. He finds a potential love interest, although a variety of obstacles clutter Nick's path. Sheeni, a teen-age Francophile, has a preppy boyfriend (Jonathan B. Wright). Her parents (M. Emmet Walsh and Mary Kay Place) are born-again zealots.

The supporting cast proves more than equal to Arteta's off-kilter approach. Fred Willard has a nice turn as a naive political activist, and Steve Buscemi shows up as Nick's increasingly exasperated father. Adhir Kalyan does nice work as one of Nick's horny pals, a bright kid who speaks fluent French. Ray Liotta tilts nasty as a cop who starts an affair with Nick's mom and then tries to discipline Nick.

Arteta uses bouncy animated segments for scene-to-scene transitions, and keeps the movie moving. If the comic ideas don't always play out in hilarious fashion, you at least get to see what Willard might look like if he happened to eat one too many psychedelic mushrooms. I don't suppose I have to tell you that it's not a pretty sight. It is, however, a funny one.

The messy imagination of Terry Gilliam

Heath Ledger standing tall before the looking glass.

There's no shortage of imagination in Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, but when it comes to other matters -- a compelling story for example -- the movie is running on empty. Less a movie than a tribute to visual abundance, The Imaginarium can succeed only for those who find a portal into its dense and impacted world. Count me among those who couldn't.

Look, I've rooted for Terry Gilliam ever since 1981 when I interviewed him in connection with Time Bandits. In the middle of that interview, Gilliam, who was working on a room-service lunch at a Denver hotel, belched. He followed this untimely expulsion of gas with a mischievous giggle. As this otherwise insignificant episode suggests, Gilliam has an ability to turn odd moments into infectious comedy; he also fearlessly follows his many muses, sometimes driving his movies into muddy ditches of confusion. Such is the case with the exhaustingly muddled The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.

Watching The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus -- notable for being Heath Ledger's final movie -- is like being in a room with a brilliant conversationalist who delights in going off on endless tangents. You admire the skill and effort, but after awhile, you just wish he'd shut up. Many of Imaginarium's most severe critics have called the movie "indulgent." I'm not sure that goes far enough in capturing the spirit of Gilliam's visually dense cornucopia of chaos.

The movie's confusion also extends to its casting: Four different actors wind up playing the same character. Tony -- the character in question -- becomes a pawn in the efforts of Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) to win a bet with the devil (Tom Waits). That's a reasonably epic conflict, but amid the bric-a-brac of Gilliam's movie, Parnassus' bout with the devil seems more fussy than Faustian.

Gilliam didn't begin with a collaborative approach to casting. The use of multiple actors for a single role stems from the fact that Ledger died before the film was completed. In his stead -- Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell signed on to finish the work. Having others fill in for Ledger -- ghoulish guest shots -- isn't quite as disorienting as it sounds, but it doesn't quite do the trick, either.

The movie arrives marked by an unhappy coincidence that seems to have unsettled most critics. The first time we see Ledger, his character is suspended from a hangman's noose, a macabre reminder that the fine young actor no longer dwells among us. Saved from death, Ledger's Tony joins Dr. Parnassus' traveling troupe as it bounces around Gilliam's depressing cityscapes, contemporary London filtered through Gilliam's imagination.

When not rattling around London, the characters enter an overblown fantasy world that's reached via a portal located on the stage used by Dr. Parnassus to present his revue. No more need be said about the story; it didn't seem to matter all that much to Gilliam, and I certainly didn't give a hoot about it, either.

A friend who had seen Dr. Parnassus before I had a chance to preview the movie told me that it was bad, comparing it to Gilliam's woeful Brothers Grimm. I don't know if I'd go quite that far, but I had plenty of trouble finding a way into The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, a movie that's less an entertainment than a display of ... well .... er .... I'm not sure I know what.

Best to sigh, wish Gilliam well and move on.

'Leap Year' mired in bog of cliches

Amy Adams and Matthew Goode litter the Irish countryside with cliches.

The movie Leap Year -- a forgettable comedy built around a series of unpromising contrivances -- did little for me other than tarnish my hopes for romantic comedy in the new decade.

An over-amped Amy Adams plays Anna, a busy working New Yorker with an addiction to high heels and her smart phone. As is supposed to be the case with many modern women, Anna wants it all. She has a career, but she's waiting patiently for her physician boyfriend (Adam Scott) to propose. He drags his feet, and heads off to Ireland on to attend a convention. Anna decides to follow. There, she'll be the one to propose, a ploy that's injected into the movie via a brief appearance from John Lithgow, who plays Anna's father.

That's step one. Step two involves travel complications that strand Anna in a small Irish town, where she eventually coerces the owner of the local inn (Matthew Goode) to drive her to Dublin to meet her boyfriend. Goode's Declan is a free spirit; Adams' Anna is a control freak. Once they take to the road, the movie sinks into a bog of cliches and bickering with a few supposedly colorful Irish characters dragged into the dispiriting fray.

There's no point wasting words on a movie this negligible, and it's best to avoid such corny admonitions as "You'd be wise to leap over 'Leap Year.'" (Sorry.)

So, I'll move on, crossing my fingers in hopes that the movie is just one more January throwaway and not a harbinger of future rom-com hells.