Thursday, October 28, 2010

'Kicking the Hornet's Nest' to a conclusion

That tattooed girl is back for a final chapter.

At first, I had difficulty becoming involved with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest -- the final chapter in Swedish author Stieg Larsson's phenomenally popular Millennium Trilogy. Characters were coming and going at a rapid clip, and I had to (pardon the expression) kick myself to keep up with a movie that's long on talk and even longer on complicated conspiratorial thinking. * Then a funny thing happened: Either director Daniel Alfredson settled down or I did. Whichever it was, this final chapter began to draw me into its complicated and often perverse web. * Trimming away much of the novel's social commentary -- particularly Larsson's observations about the media -- Alfredson and screenwriter Jonas Fryberg maintain the kind of thickly ominous atmosphere that adds both welcome intrigue and unfortunate complexity to the proceedings. * Michael Nyqvist (as journalist Mikael Blomkvist) and Noomi Repace (as the punkish Lisbeth Salander) hold their own as the story weaves its way through a plot that begins when Lisbeth is airlifted to a hospital, having suffered a major beating at the end of the last movie. * Plagued with injuries, Lisbeth undergoes surgery and spends a good portion of the movie's 2 1/2 hours recuperating in a hospital bed. When she finally emerges, she does so with a renewed ferocity that gives the movie some much-needed kick. * Meanwhile, Blomkvist works to clear Lisbeth of murder charges stemming from the incendiary events of the last movie. As he proceeds, the story branches out to include the police, secret agents and a cadre of older spies. * Most of the plot reverberations from the second movie pertain to Lisbeth's father (Gerogi Staykov) and her half-brother (Micke Spreitz), a blond giant of a man who looks like a refugee from a '60s Bond movie. * Aksel Morissey has a nice turn as Libseth's doctor, a physician who's intrigued by her and who really has her best interests at heart. Lena Endre returns as magazine editor Erika Berger, and Annika Hallin portrays Blomkvist's sister. * Far too complex to summarize here, the plot will make no sense to those who haven't seen the first two movies or read all three books. But an awful lot of folks have, and most of them should be satisfied with this final installment, the last we'll see of Lisbeth on screen until the American version hits theaters next year.*

 *For those who don't know, the American remake of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the first book in the series will be released in Dec. 2011; it's being directed by David Fincher (Social Network) who cast actress Rooney Mara in the pivotal role of Lisbeth.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The inside job that wrecked the economy

Inside Job -- a powerful documentary about how the country wound up flirting with financial ruin -- may leave you wondering why citizens of the U.S. haven't taken to the streets to protest against the conniving financial types and willing government officials who brought about this man-made catastrophe. Unlike global warming, there's no debating the fact that the economic crisis results from human activity. Couple avaricious behavior with a lack of government regulation, and you land the economy in a hell stoked by the fires of derivatives, credit default swaps, subprime loans and other financial sleights of hand. Director Charles Ferguson, who examined how we got into the Iraq war in (No End in Sight), does an admirable job of clarifying complex financial matters. He works hard to make the whole business understandable to those of us who have difficulty balancing a checkbook. He also brings an appropriately aggressive style to interviews. Inside Job is tough, but it's no cheap shot. I won't name all the villains in this well-crafted piece, but you'll probably recognize many of the players. Inside Job demonstrates that, at root, a wanton disregard for the common good saddled us with the current troubles. To further stoke the fires of outrage, the movie also reminds us that those who benefited most from all the shenanigans seem to have suffered the least -- at least as far as their pocketbooks are concerned. Disgusting.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

More about the "here" than the "after"

A moment from one a most remarkable sequence.

It's nothing if not daring to begin a movie with its most remarkable sequence. In fact, the opening of Hereafter -a vivid depiction of the tsunami that struck Thailand in 2004 - is one of the most amazing sequences of the year, a gripping combination of special effects and speeding camera work that hits the screen with tidal force.

Fair to say that little following in the wake of this re-created natural disaster has similar power, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the rest of Hereafter - a movie that marks a great leap for director Clint Eastwood --- boasts some of the year's gentlest filmmaking. Still surprising at 80, Eastwood hits some of the loveliest notes in what's become an astonishingly varied directorial career.

Hereafter may posit the existence of some sort of after-death experience, but it's no tricky supernatural thriller. Rather, it's a movie about the ways in which two characters cope with death in their lives and the way in which another tries to come to terms with his troublesome psychic abilities.

Eastwood, wisely I think, understands that the important hereafter is not the one that follows death, but the one these characters will pursue once they've found their share of peace and resolution.

It's not uncommon for movies that attempt to tell three distinct stories - which Hereafter does - to stumble as they switch inelegantly between various plot threads. Eastwood manages the transitions smoothly, uniting the three strands only at the movie's end. He also keeps the movie's rhythms subdued, a directorial choice that stops Hereafter from feeling exploitative or sensationalized.

To the extent that Eastwood shows the afterlife, it looks dull enough to make you wonder whether you'd really like to wind up there. But supernatural kicks aren't what Eastwood's after. I have no idea what Eastwood believes about death and the hereafter, but he's respectful of the journey on which his characters have embarked, which is precisely what the job requires.

As for those three stories...

One involves a San Francisco psychic (Matt Damon) who views his abilities as more curse than gift. Damon's George Lonegan wants to live a normal life, but his brother (Jay Mohr) hopes that he'll use his powers to turn a profit. Grief-torn customers will pay for the comfort of receiving a message from a lost love one. Wanting no part of the commercial psychic's life, George works in a factory and lives in relative isolation.

Scenes between Bryce Dallas Howard and Damon, who meet in an Italian cooking class, are built around a quietly evolving but palpable sexual chemistry. But George knows that his exceptional abilities can sabotage relationships and return him to isolation.

Then there's the eminently successful French TV journalist Marie LeLay (Cecile De France), enmeshed in an affair and caught in the tsunami that opens the picture.
Finally, we meet twins Marcus and Jason (played by real-life twins Frankie and George McLaren). They're conspiring allies in an on-going battle to keep London social workers from taking them from their drug-addicted mother.

The McLaren twins give the movie's best and most moving performances. I wasn't entirely sure how to take Damon's deeply wary portrayal of George, and there's unfortunate redundancy in George's constant insistence that he's done with the psychic life.

Screenwriter Patrick Morgan's script avoids sentimentality, but hardly qualifies as a treasure trove of psychological subtext. It's content to tell a story that's less interested in convincing us that there's an afterlife than in exploring something that turns out be more credible: what might happen to characters who hold such beliefs. It's hardly surprising that Eastwood - as down-to-earth a director as there is -- ultimately casts his lot more with the "here" than with the "after." Hereafter could be the most determinedly grounded "supernatural" movie yet.

There's plenty of 'Conviction' in this one

Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell have convictions.

Some levels of persistence defy explanation.

That’s pretty much what I concluded after watching Conviction, the story of Betty Anne Waters, a Massachusetts woman who worked to save her brother from a life in prison. Blessed with a first-rate cast led by Hilary Swank, director Tony Goldwyn takes a stirring look at a case that would have flown under the radar had it not been for Waters' heroic efforts.

A waitress by trade, Waters put herself through college and then law school just so she could appeal her brother’s murder conviction. Ultimately, she brought her brother’s case to the attention of Barry Scheck’s Innocence Project, a group that specializes in fighting for the release of prisoners through the use of DNA evidence, a technique that didn’t exist when Kenny Waters was found guilty.

Swank’s performance, aided by a pitch perfect Massachusetts accent, captures the determination it took for Waters to stay a course that lasted 18 years, and she receives able assistance from a strong supporting cast. Sam Rockwell portrays Waters' brother Kenny, a Massachusetts guy who had plenty of rumbles with local police before he found himself on trial for a brutal murder. Rockwell conveys both Kenny’s volatility and his charm. Kenny appalled those around him with sudden displays of temper, but quickly appeased them with bursts of goofy humor.

Minnie Driver plays Betty Anne’s supportive best friend, a fellow lawyer. She's good, too, but Juliette Lewis has an eye-opening turn as a woman whose testimony helped convict Kenny. Toward the end of the movie, Lewis has a scene that may well catapult her into Oscar consideration in the supporting actress category.

No faulting the rest of the cast, either. Melissa Leo hits all the right notes as the police officer who pushed for Kenny’s arrest, and Peter Gallagher handles the role of DNA maven Barry Scheck with the easy pragmatism of an attorney who's been around the legal block more than a few times.
Conviction mostly focuses on Waters' legal struggles, but it does attempt to deal with the domestic turmoil that resulted from her commitment to her brother. Waters' marriage deteriorated, and, at one point, her two sons chose to live with their father.
For all its acting prowess and the presence of an undeniably strong story, Conviction isn't flawless. The movie ultimately is built for inspiration, and Goldwyn has said that Conviction can be viewed as a love story between brother and sister. He’s certainly not wrong, but his movie might have benefited from a little more outrage at the injustices experienced by those whose lack of resources binds them to a legal system that too easily can ignore them.

I guess the rest of this review contains SPOILERS, so read on at your peril.
Goldwyn, who visited Denver along with Waters, defends a decision that he made regarding Kenny's fate. The movie ends without telling us that six months after his release from prison, Kenny died as a result of injuries sustained during a fall. Test audiences evidently felt that such knowledge deflated the movie, and Goldwyn ultimately concluded that the story's major themes had little to do with Kenny's death.
It seems to me, though, that acknowledgement of Kenny's fate could have strengthened the case for making prompt use of DNA evidence. The innocent should not be languishing in our prisons, especially when the technology exists to exonerate them. Kenny was robbed of 18 years of his life. His death only magnifies the injustice he suffered.

Waters is too strong a woman to allow the cruel irony of her brother's demise to tie her in knots. “The last six months were the happiest in Kenny’s life,” she says.

Spend five minutes with Waters and you'll know that she's the real deal. She still works at the bar depicted in the movie; she’s not full of herself, and she's instantly likable, an ordinary woman who accomplished something extraordinary.
If you want to know the definition of the phrase “I’ve got your back,” you need look no further than Waters and the movie that introduces her to the world at large.
Sure I've got my quibbles with Conviction, but it's well worth seeing.

'Stone' sinks under weight of its pretensions

Say this: Stone showed me something I haven’t seen before, a movie that's gritty and labored at the same time. With Christian radio frequently droning in the background, Edward Norton and Robert De Niro play a film noir duet as convict and prison case worker. Sporting cornrows, Norton looks and sounds like a wannabe rapper who thinks he has a shot at toppling Eminem from his perch. De Niro – all impacted rage and middle-age bulk – portrays the caseworker who must decide whether Norton’s character – he calls himself Stone – will be paroled from the Michigan prison where he’s spent the last 9 years. Trips to mass don’t seem to have helped DeNiro’s Jack find his spiritual bearings. His downtrodden wife (Frances Conroy) reads the bible and drinks heavily, a coping strategy composed of equal parts alcohol and Catholicism. True to noir demands, Jack is ripe for a fall. Along comes Stone’s sexy wife Lucetta (Mila Jovovich) to provide all the temptation any man (God-fearing or otherwise) needs. For a while, it looks as if director John Curran may pull something powerful together, but the longer Stone goes on, the less credible it becomes. And for all their obvious skills, DeNiro and Norton are bested by the women. Both Jovovich (impossibly sultry) and Conroy (weathered by years of emotional deprivation) are more intriguing than their men, a convict and a prison worker who may be headed in opposite directions. It’s nice to see De Niro try something heavy, but his choice of material leaves something to be desired. Stone ultimately sinks under the weight of philosophical pretensions that don't seem to have been thoroughly worked out.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Pushing the new education orthodoxy

Geoffrey Canada at work in Harlem.

Waiting for Superman, the new and much-discussed education documentary, makes a highly emotional case for the current wave of school reform. Oddly, though, the movie is at its best (which can be very good) when its commitment to storytelling subdues its more zealous aspirations. Director Davis Guggenheim, acclaimed for his work on the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, focuses on five kids and their parents, and the closer he stays to them, the more impressive and, yes, heartbreaking his movie can be.

Watching a young girl's dejection at not hearing her name called for admission to an acclaimed New York City charter school couldn't be more wrenching. The youngster is ill-equipped to accept the cruel outcome of a lottery, the mechanism for deciding which students will get into charter schools when the number of applicants exceeds the number of open slots.

Guggenheim tells us that his documentary was born out of discomfort. Although he previously had made a documentary about public schools, Guggenheim wound up sending his own kids to private school. He wondered about parents who didn't have his resources, but also wanted the best for their children. What could they do?

Waiting for Superman has not suffered for a lack of attention. The movie already has been the subject of countless op-ed pieces and magazine stories. It has prompted television programs, and has become a focal point for the discussion of educational issues. But make no mistake: This is advocacy filmmaking. Title cards at the end encourage viewer involvement in the battle to reform U.S. schools.

Excuse me, if I don't climb aboard the reform express -- at least not based on what I saw in Waiting for Superman, which won't tell careful readers of any newspaper with good education coverage much that they don't already know. Waiting for Superman is not a balanced movie, and it helps glorify the dynamism of a small group of educators -- Geoffrey Canada in New York and Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., for example. Not that either Canada or Rhee -- both of whom have had national media attention -- need more time in the spotlight.

The movie follows the reformist script in blaming teachers' unions for the lack of progress in our schools. It avidly supports the charter-school movement. It argues against tenure. It parrots the current belief in test scores as the major ingredient in educational assessment. It's mostly in line with a long list of prescriptive measures that have come to define an education reform movement embraced by the Obama administration and its Education Secretary, Arne Duncan.

I'm not equipped to refute Guggenheim's arguments, and I don't for a minute doubt the sincerity of the reformers. I also have no interest discouraging anyone from seeing Waiting for Superman; it can be a valuable experience, providing it's taken as the beginning of the discussion, not the end.

If you want to round out your knowledge about education reform, you may want to check out a few of the following links, and, no, I'm not suggesting that there's anything comprehensive about the articles I'm referencing. I offer them only to demonstrate that there's more to the story, shadings you won't find in Waiting For Superman.

I don't think it was intended, but Waiting for Superman also illustrates another point: We seem incapable of discussing any problem without taking sides: Reformers vs. unions; dedicated teachers vs. educational slugs; innovative charter schools vs. failure factories; and on and on.

At heart, the reformers blame ineffective teachers for the failure of children to learn. They also see systemic inertia as a major obstacle to change. But I wonder how long it will take for the reformist banner to fly over a new orthodoxy that's as deeply entrenched and unyielding as the old one. Perhaps this already has occurred.

And I also wonder whether -- during a time of diminishing resources -- education hasn't been asked to carry the burden of deciding who'll get society's goodies and who won't. The whole business leaves me with a question: Just where exactly is the top to which teachers and students are supposed to be racing?

Lauded Harlem Schools Have Their Own Problems, New York Times, Oct. 12, 2010

D.C. School Chief's Rhee's next move probably toward the door. Washington Post, September 17, 2010. (Rhee has since resigned.)

Despite push, success at charter schools is mixed. New York Times, May 1, 2010.

Grading Waiting for Superman, The Nation, Oct. 11, 2010

Stop Trashing Teachers, by Diane Ravitch, The Daily Beast.

Waiting for Superman Won't Fly With Some Audiences, NBC News, Sept. 27, 2010.

John Lennon, the early years

A portrait of mother and son.

Last Saturday, John Lennon would have turned 70. Gives you pause, doesn’t it? It’s equally sobering to realize that in December, Lennon will have been dead for 30 years. His assassin, Mark David Chapman, is now 55.

The passage of time doesn’t seem to have dulled interest in Lennon, perhaps because he so deftly presented a variety of faces to the public, many of them driven by irrepressible wit and sustained artistic rebelliousness. And unlike many other pop-world phenoms, Lennon’s musical talents seem to have expanded and deepened as he grew older.

Nowhere Boy, a look at Lennon’s pre-Beatle years in Liverpool, is a welcome but slightly odd addition to Lennon lore. Welcome because it tells one of the less familiar parts of the Lennon story. Odd because it mixes giddy rock energies with serious family drama as it introduces us to a pitched psychological battle between the two most important women in young Lennon’s life. Lennon (Aaron Johnson) lived with his aunt Mimi (Kristen Scott Thomas), but frequently visited his mother (Anne-Marie Duff).

Lennon often found himself at odds with his straitlaced aunt Mimi, particularly after the death of her husband (David Threlfall), an uncle who liked to tipple and who seemed a little too eager to share in Lennon's adolescence. Unlike her sister, Lennon's mother encouraged her son's rebelliousness, and, at least according to this movie, sparked Lennon’s interest in rock. Lennon’s mother, we’re told, first told him that at heart, rock ‘n roll is about sex.

Nowhere Boy is a complicated family story with nuances best discovered in a theater. Know, though, that director Sam Taylor-Wood, working from a script by Matt Greenhalgh, touches the significant points of Lennon’s musical development even as we're immersed in the young man’s fragmented family torments.

I won’t say that Taylor-Wood has solved the problem of how to introduce Lennon landmarks, but they are introduced. We’re witness to Lennon’s introduction to rock ‘n roll; his discovery of Elvis; his acquisition of a first guitar; his early gigs with the “skiffle” group, The Quarrymen; and his eventual departure for the clubs of Hamburg, the cradle where the Beatles really were formed.

Based on a memoir written by Julia Baird, one of Lennon’s half sisters, the gist of the movie presumably rings true, and both Scott Thomas and Duff give fine performances in roles that gradually veer away from the outlines of caricature. Scott Thomas’ Mimi was ferociously responsible; Duff’s Julia was flighty and flirtatious, hovering on the border of inappropriateness, even with the son she obviously adored. It’s as if it took both sisters to make a whole woman.

Johnson manages a neat trick. At times, he looks a bit like Lennon; other times, not so much. But he captures Lennon’s engaging impertinence and budding talent. Equally good is Thomas Brodie Sangster, who plays the young Paul McCartney and in whom we see traces of the soon-to-be-born Beatle.

Of course, the movie is informed by everything that followed in the wake of Lennon’s adolescence, namely the phenomenal rise of the Beatles, but a variety of family photographs – real ones shown with the end credits – are as poignant as anything in the movie. They made me wish that a 70-year-old Lennon were still around to tell us what he thought of those formative Liverpool years.

It’s not only the ascendance of the Beatles, but the loss of Lennon that echoes throughout this small and sometimes telling movie. Maybe that’s why Nowhere Boy's frequent attempts at buoyancy can't entirely mask its deep and underlying sadness.

Supporting players give 'Red' a boost

Bruce Willis with one of his friends.

The idea behind Red - another movie derived from a graphic novel - is intriguing enough. Suppose a group of aging spies were called back into action. How would they handle the strains and stresses that result from fighting off younger foes?

In order to explore this question - or maybe just to make another action movie with a fair allotment of humor -- director Robert Schwentke has been given an A-list cast: Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Brian Cox and Helen Mirren. There's more weight in those marquee names than in anything else in this sometimes amusing, but ultimately overwrought action yarn. Like so many movies, this one eventually degenerates into the usual cacophony of gunfire and explosions.

Willis portrays Frank Moses, a top CIA agent who's living in retirement when the movie begins. A loner, Frank tries to establish a phone romance with a woman (Mary Louise Parker) who works in Kansas City. He travels to Kansas City to meet her, but the relationship hardly begins auspiciously. Frank winds up kidnapping Parker's Sarah and dragging her into a plot that has made him the target of an assassination attempt.

Frank is being pursued by a no-nonsense CIA agent (Karl Urban) who's under the thumb of an agency bigwig (Rebecca Pidgeon). Richard Dreyfuss turns up as a powerful industrialist. We all know industrialists are evil. Same goes for politicians, in this case represented by a supposedly corrupt vice president (Julian McMahon).

Perhaps in respect to his aging cast, Schwentke keeps the pace reasonable, and, particularly in the early stages, he allows humor to emerge in a minor key that can make the movie seem almost offbeat. Humor alert: The movie isn't quite as funny as surely was inended.
There's no question that the polished chops of actors such as Freeman and Malkovich, much funnier and more convincingly colorful here than in Secretariat, enhance the proceedings. There's kick in watching Malkovich go off the rails in Dennis Hopper-like fashion. He's playing a paranoid CIA agent who never leaves home without a stuffed pink pig. Of course, he can be counted on when the chips are down.
Mirren brings welcome assurance to an assassin who retired but still likes to take the occasional assignment. I read in an interview that Mirren was thinking of Martha Stewart when she conceived the role; it makes sense. Imagine a woman who knows flower arranging but also can be tough as nails.
Brian Cox plays a former spy for the Soviet Union. He's had a long-term crush on Mirren's Victoria. Totally understandable. They make a nice couple.
At times, Parker has little to do but tag along, and Willis does the kind of serviceable work that holds the movie together. It says something about Willis' generosity that the supporting players essentially eclipse his performance.
It's possible to stay involved with Red, even as the plot begins to shred amid complications that are more ridiculous than funny. All in all, Red stands as a so-so effort - albeit one with tasty bits and an old-pro cast that would make any director drool.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Woody in rueful form. What else is new?

Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin, not so happy.

It seems like lifetimes ago since we eagerly looked forward to the next Woody Allen movie. By turning out a picture every year, Allen seems to have deflated our expectations. It also hasn’t helped that many of Allen’s recent movies have been less than wonderful. As a result, Allen finds himself in an odd position: His concerns as an artist are universal, but the movies seem to have left him behind.
Allen’s latest -- You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger -- arrives on screen without much feeling of urgency. Although it balances equal amounts of wit and rue, Allen’s new foray into the sea of emotional desperation we sometimes call “life” doesn’t cut very deeply, and, as you reflect on the movie, you may find yourself thinking, “Yeah, yeah, Woody. We know.”

Allen begins by applying Macbeth’s worldview to the proceedings: “It (life) is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Brilliant words, especially when you remember that Shakespeare didn't spend even one evening watching cable news.

After providing us with this incisive view of life’s meaning (or lack thereof), Allen traces a drama that more or less illustrates the point, catching a variety of characters in mid-flight as they flail against the inevitable letdown that's bred by self-serving ambition.

Filled with the usual infidelities, foolish decisions and personal disasters, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger falls somewhere between Allen’s comic and serious mode, which, I suppose, makes it a seriocomic exploration of the ways in which characters can betray themselves, sometimes with the help of unexpected twists of fate.

Tall Dark Stranger returns Allen to London where he introduces a variety of interrelated characters played by a large ensemble of capable actors.

I’ll give you a sampling: Josh Brolin portrays a novelist who’s unable to get his second book off the ground; his wife (Naomi Watts) works in art gallery. Her father (Anthony Hopkins) has left her mother (Gemma Jones) and has taken up with a younger woman (Lucy Punch) who boosts his libido while emptying his wallet.

For her part, Jones’ character seeks solace with a psychic (Pauline Collins), who pretty much tells her clients whatever they want to hear. For good measure, Allen casts Antonio Banderas as the owner of the art gallery where Watts’ character plies her trade.

The men don’t exactly come off as role models. Fearing the limiting encroachments of age, Hopkins' character makes an obvious fool of himself with a younger and entirely inappropriate woman. Fearful of failure, Brolin’s character becomes infatuated with a woman (Freida Pinto) he spies on while gazing across a courtyard into her conveniently open window.

Both Brolin and Hopkins give performances that exemplify a trait common to many Allen male characters, the assumption that a new romance (or maybe just a new bedmate) will provide the necessary courage to continue on life’s hopeless journey. They try to reinvigorate themselves through women.

Allen doesn’t take us anywhere we haven’t been with him before, a familiarity which may not breed contempt, but which may also account for the movie’s slightly washed-out feeling. Or maybe that’s the result of the existential exhaustion that pervades the movie, sort in the way humidity can take over a hot day in muggy climes.

So there you have it: another Allen movie, another case of the big-screen heebie-jeebies.

"Yeah, yeah. We know."


It probably doesn't hurt to hear it again.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

'Secretariat' gallops toward inspiration

Horse and owner on the verge of history.

"It's a very good Disney movie and I enjoyed it, but we know they have to convey certain values and photogenic moments." - Penny Chenery, the woman who helped bring Secretariat to racing's Triple Crown in 1973 and who's portrayed in the movie Secretariat by Diane Lane.

There's probably no better review you can read of Secretariat than Chenery's description of the movie that centers on her character, the driving force behind turning Secretariat into a Triple Crown winner at a time when there hadn't been one in 25 years. Chenery's words, spoken to John Anderson for a New York Times Sunday story, point toward the movie's goals, which seem to be divided between inspiration and fact.

As many have noted, Secretariat's race-track triumphs aren't exactly obscure, so the movie mingles the horse's amazing accomplishments with those of its owner, a determined Colorado woman who spent considerable time away from her family in an effort to save the Virginia stable her late father (Scott Glenn) left behind.

Secretariat runs his heart out, and Chenery displays the kind of single-minded focus that's needed to achieve greatness. When her dad dies, Chenery defies her brother (Dylan Baker), an academic who thinks the best move would be to sell the business. She also goes against her husband's wishes: Dylan Walsh's Jack Tweedy hopes his wife will come to her senses and remain at home with the family's four kids.

All Secretariat - a.k.a. "Big Red" - had to do was run; Chenery -- ably played by a determined Lane -- had to overcome long odds in a male-dominated world where few were prepared to take her seriously. But Chenery learned form her dad, a man who constantly encouraged her "to run her own race," a galloping variation of a standard Hollywood bromide: Follow your dream.

John Malkovich is allowed a few personality tics in an otherwise straight-ahead presentation; he portrays trainer Lucien Laurin, the French Canadian who emerged from an uneasy retirement to take over Secretariat's development and to display the worst taste in clothes this side of any stable. The man liked plaids.

Those unfamiliar with the story of Secretariat may not know that Chenery gained possession of the horse as the result of a complicated agreement by which a coin toss determined which of two owners would get first pick of one of two offspring of Bold Ruler, the great race horse that sired Secretariat. James Cromwell's Ogden Phipps won the toss, but picked the wrong horse.

In a movie such as this, the racing footage matters, and it definitely passes muster as Secretariat emerges victorious at the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and finally at the Belmont Stakes. Before any of this can happen, Tweedy must devise a novel way to finance her operation.

Director Randall Wallace, who among other achievements wrote the script for Braveheart, pretty much follows genre rules, orchestrating the story like a driver who obediently pays heed to his GPS. Surprise is less the point here than crowd-pleasing execution. But that also means Secretariat can have the pre-digested feel of a movie that's been carefully programmed to hit all the right notes.

Put another way, I'd say Secretariat's aimed more at folks who love big-screen inspiration than those who get their kicks hanging around race tracks. I'm assuming you know to which of these groups you feel more allegiance.

It's a mildly amusing kind of movie

Buddies in the mental ward.

Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have a small but impressive track record. In 2008, they released Sugar, a well-received movie about a Dominican pitcher trying to make it in the Big Leagues. Half Nelson, an equally lauded Brooklyn-based butt-kicker about a drug addicted junior high school teacher, hit theaters in 2006. It may seem more than little odd to claim that this talented duo has had to travel to a mental hospital to lighten up, but that's pretty much how it is.

Hey, everyone's entitled to the occasional change of pace, no?

Based on a novel by Ned Vizzini, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, tells the story of a high-school kid who’s admitted to a New York mental hospital when he threatens to kill himself. Once in the hospital, young Craig (an appealing Keir Gilchrist) recognizes that he may have gotten more than he bargained for. Turns out, Craig's not nearly as disturbed as some of his fellow patients.

During the course of his brief commitment, Craig meets a variety of characters who provide color and humor, most notably Noelle (Emma Roberts), an attractive teen-ager who takes an immediate liking to him, and Bobby (Zach Galifianakis), an adult patient who tries to boost Craig’s sagging moral.

Wisely, It’s Kind of a Funny Story doesn't try to turn mental illness into a metaphor for social imprisonment. Many of the people in this institution need to be treated, and the ward's psychiatrist is played by the gifted Viola Davis sans cliches. I'm not entirely sold on Galifianakis (The Hangover), but It’s Kind of a Funny Story occasionally allows him to veer away from the comic intensity that has marked much of his previous work.

It’s Kind of A Funny Story, has been made with a decidedly light touch, and should qualify as a passing amusement for those who can tolerate its off-kilter brand of humor. Just as impressive: It's sense of invention -- employing a bit of animation, for example -- isn't pushed down our throats.

Rigors of travel -- Chinese style

Next time you're tempted to complain about working too hard or are stuck in an airport waiting for what seems to be an interminable flight delay, you might want to recall Last Train Home, a documentary by Lixin Fan. A resident of Montreal, Fan tells the story of Chinese laborers who attempt to return home to celebrate the lunar New Year. For many of the workers -- there evidently are 130 million of them -- this holiday trip affords a once-a-year opportunity to see relatives, including children who frequently are left in the care of grandparents. Because workers are all trying to travel at the same time, the train system tends to be glutted and waiting for an arriving train produces an atmosphere rife with frustration that can approach near riot conditions. Fan's film focuses on a married couple trying to travel from Guangzhou to their village home. Not only does Last Train Home make clear the ordeals of travel, but it also shows the difficulties that can arise in a family that endures prolonged separations. In this case the couple's teen-age daughter (one of two children) winds up in a confrontation with her father. The parents endure their absentee roles because they believe that they're earning the money that will enable their kids to enjoy a better future. Although there are gaps in the three years the film covers, Last Train Home remains essential viewing for anyone interested a telling look at one aspect of life in contemporary China.

Friday, October 1, 2010

A modest movie about folks on the fringe

Philip Seymour Hoffman moves behind the camera for his first directorial effort, a big-screen adaptation of Bob Glaudini's play Jack Goes Boating. Hoffman also plays the movie's title character, a New York limo driver who's accustomed to steering toward the lonely side of life. This sometimes amusing helping of sad-sack cinema is best appreciated for its acting, not only from Hoffman but from Amy Ryan (as a possible love interest for Jack) and Daphne Rubin-Vega (as the girlfriend of his best friend and fellow limo driver (John Ortiz). The story follows Hoffman's Jack as he develops a relationship with Ryan's Connie, and also begins to illuminate the troubled relationship between Ortiz's Clyde and Rubin-Vega's Lucy. Set in Manhattan, Jack Goes Boating offers Hoffman an opportunity to try to liberate the material from the confines of the stage. Presumably that's why he adds underwater shots at a Harlem pool where Clyde tries to teach Jack how to swim. Such touches don't entirely do the job, and Jack Goes Boating becomes a modest exploration of the isolated worlds of fringe characters, all of whom need some love. We haven't seen this particular iteration before, but it sometimes feels as if we had.