Thursday, November 25, 2010

A quick look at an art-house weekend

Here's one dog story you haven't seen before.
Here's a truth that's not generally discussed. The owners of dogs spend more time than they'd like to admit pondering their pets bodily functions. Now comes a dog movie that not only acknowledges this hidden truth but takes it to a strangely idiosyncratic extreme. My Dog Tulip is a creatively animated version of a 1956 memoir by J. R. Ackerley, who served as arts editor for the BBC magazine, The Listener. Beautifully drawn and boasting excellent voice work (notably from Christopher Plummer) as Ackerley), the movie is so unlike most animal movies that it can be as disconcerting as it is cozy. Not only is Ackerley obsessive about Tulip's bowel movements, he also devotes considerable time to finding the proper mate for the Alsatian he rescued from a neglectful family. Directors Paul and Sandra Fierlinger have made a one-of-a-kind dog story that boasts a literate narration and an intriguing view of a man who spent 15 years with a creature that came closest to fulfilling his notion of the ideal companion.

Think 'My Big Fat Indian Restaurant'

Less quriky by far is the comedy, Today's Special, a look at the relationship between an Indian-American son and his family in Queens, N.Y. Generally, I'm a sucker for food movies, particularly those that spend lots of time in restaurant kitchens. Although this one traffics in some heavily sketched cliches -- think My Big Fat Indian Restaurant -- it nonetheless benefits from the aromas we imagine in the food we watch being prepared and from its very particular New York City setting. The story begins when Samir (Aasif Mandvi) quits his job as a sous chef to travel to Paris. His plans are thwarted when his father becomes ill; Samir reluctantly fills in for Dad at his restaurant, a once prosperous Indian joint that's fallen on hard times. To save the restaurant, Samir hires Akbar (Naseeruddin Shah), a cab driver who understands the mysteries of Indian cooking, knowledge that somehow eluded Samir. Samir learns to put passion in his cooking as the movie moves to resolve his relationship with a difficult-to-please father. Alternately corny and warm, Today's Special holds few surprises, but the food and Shah's sonorous voice add welcome seasoning.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A 'Rock' by any other name ...

He's out for blood and nothing will stop him. Faster is full of nasty, B-movie violence, but Dwayne Johnson may not be the right man for the job.

I was going to skip Faster, the new thriller starring Dwayne Johnson, the actor formerly known as The Rock. But when I saw that George Tillman, Jr had directed the movie, I changed my mind. Tillman, I remembered, had directed Notorious (2009), one of the better movies about a rapper's life. I figured Tillman could handle the down-and-dirty action that would be required if Faster were going to get its engine cranking. * A little better than you might expect (providing you have a taste for this sort of thing) and not as good as you might hope: That's the verdict on Faster, which minimizes Johnson's dialogue and pours on the hard-boiled, B-movie violence. * Watching Johnson in this kind of role makes you realize his limitations. It also encourages appreciation for what guys like Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood were able to accomplish with revenge sagas. Those guys could look at you in ways that would cut you to pieces. * Johnson does the best he can as Driver, a newly released convict who's seeking revenge on the guys who killed his brother. Physically imposing as he is, Johnson seems to be stuck with a nice guy's face. * Billy Bob Thornton slips into fully ruined mode to play a heroin-addicted cop who tries to stop Johnson's character in mid-rampage. * Oliver Jackson-Cohen portrays a pretty boy British hit man who's been hired to take out the Driver. * If you're looking for point-blank violence, you won't have to wait long, but the movie tries to take the sting off its more exploitative aspects by adding a religious gloss, a mini-semon on forgiveness. * Enough. If you're looking for nasty B-movie thrills, Faster has some, although it also can test your patience for cliche and bad writing. * One more thing: If you can't see the final twist coming, you may want to have your movie vision checked.

Love, sex, drugs and too much else

It starts as if it's going to satirize the highly commercial world of Big Pharma. In the shift to romcom something is lost."
It's got drugs, love and sex, but these obviously volatile ingredients don't mesh especially well in Love & Other Drugs, a romantic comedy starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, both of whom sometimes bare as much body as they do soul. And, by the way, before you call the DEA, we're talking primarily about licit drugs of the prescription variety.

Love & Other Drugs starts out as if it's going to be a lively expose of the ways in which the pharmaceutical industry pressures and coaxes doctors into prescribing one drug over another.

But Big Pharma probably needn't fret. Love & Other Drugs proves too scatter shot to hit any target for long: In addition to romping through the highly commercialized fields of the drug industry, the movie also attempts to refresh a romcom formula, examine self-imposed emotional barriers and toss in a few crass jokes for good measure.

The surprising thing - at least to me - about Love & Other Drugs is that it was directed and co-written by Edward Zwick, who has made fine movies, but who also helped create the landmark TV show thirtysomething, which had plenty to say about relationships, work and young families. It's interesting that this time out, Zwick - whose best big-screen work includes movies such as Glory and Blood Diamond - can't quite find a pulse on which to put his finger.

For all its ambition, Love & Other Drugs may be remembered for a variety of nude scenes between Gyllenhaal and Hathaway, who now officially closes the cover on her Princess Diary days.

Gyllenhaal and Hathaway worked together in Brokeback Mountain, only in that movie his character was a married gay man. This time, Gyllenhaal goes hetero with a vengeance, playing Jamie Randall, a womanizing drug salesman who bribes receptionists and sometimes helps doctors with their ... ahem ... social lives.

The only physician given much attention in the film - an internist portrayed by Hank Azaria - seems a bit of a sleazebag himself. During one telling moment, Azaria's Dr. Knight laments the state of contemporary medicine. We might be have been more sympathetic had he not delivered his analysis at a pajama party that morphs into an upscale orgy.

By now, you're probably wondering what happened to the romantic comedy part of the movie. Let me get you up to speed on that.

During the course of his work, Gyllenhaal's Jamie meets Hathaway's Maggie Murdock, a young woman who has Parkinson's disease. She's interested in sex, not long-term relationships. She's also angry and emotionally defended, not a surprising combination for someone with an incurable disease.

The next two words tell you something very significant about the movie.... They're "of course."

Of course, Jamie and Maggie fall for each other, even though she's ill and he's a committed womanizer who heretofore has shown no interest in stable relationships. And, of course, they get close and then pull apart and then....

Well, you know the drill.

Gyllenhaal's running at high speed here, playing a whip-smart underachiever who dropped out of college. Hathaway's Maggie is an artist, who's brash in ways that emphasize her cleverness and her desire to hold the world at arm's length.

Zwick sets the movie in the 90s, a decade when the economy was on the rise and so were other things. The story takes place during the dawning of the age of Viagra, the drug that catapults Jamie into the financial stratosphere. Oliver Platt appears as Jamie's drug-company mentor.

The movie can be smart, but it's also marred by an unfortunate tendency to dip into Judd Apatow territory. Jamie's brother (Josh Gad), is a dweeby entrepreneur who adds unnecessary gross-out jokes to the proceedings. And there's joke about a drug-induced erection that won't subside; it sticks out like a .... Let's just say it's too cheap for a movie that seems intent on finding some real emotion.

Those emotions can seem genuine, although I sometimes found myself watching performances by Gyllenhaal and Hathaway rather than becoming involved with their characters, young people who were being forced -- albeit kicking and screaming -- into accepting love.

It would be remiss to conclude a review of Love & Other Drugs without mentioning that Jill Clayburgh, who died earlier this month after a prolonged battled with leukemia. She appears briefly as Jamie's mother. She's also slated to appear in a 2011 movie. RIP to a fine actress.

As a thirtysomething fan, I was eager to see Love & Other Drugs, hoping it would successfully take Zwick away from the historical and topical subjects that seem to have dominated his movie career. But Love & Other Drugs wanders all over the place, touching down at a variety of entertaining and successful points without delivering on the high hopes the assembled talent engenders.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Guns, money and maybe politics

Director Olivier Assayas' 5 1/2-hour Carlos proves totally absorbing, an inside view of a terrorist's world.
Quick tell me, who is Ilich Ramírez Sánchez?

I'm betting you don't remember that the man with this Russian-influenced name became known as Carlos, the Jackal, the Venezuelan-born terrorist who is now serving a life sentence in France for a triple murder. Carlos' violent accomplishments supposedly extended to 80 or so deaths during a 25-year span that found him working in Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

Before watching the movie, I took a quick refresher course on Carlos via some Internet browsing. Early on, Carlos plied his violent trade for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). He led a 1975 raid on the Vienna headquarters of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Three people were killed during that operation.

After that, Carlos became a free-lance revolutionary, working for various governments who were interested in the kind of services that he provided. He viewed himself as a revolutionary; his employers may have seen him as a political hit man.

According to Carlos -- the absorbing 5 1/2-hour film by French director Olivier Assayas -- Carlos wasn't easy to know. Rendered in a truly extraordinary performance by the Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez, Carlos seems a man of great carnal appetites. He smoked and drank too much, and learned how to kill without disturbing his conscience.

He was a barrel-chested man who saw himself as a military leader, but seemed to make little separation between the causes that he served and his own out-sized ego. Late in the film, thinking that he's gotten too fat, Carlos has unwanted love handles removed with liposuction surgery. A vane revolutionary indeed.

Carlos, originally made for French television and shown in the U.S. on the Sundance Channel, is now making its way to specialized theatrical venues around the country. (In Denver, it can be see at the newly inaugurated Starz Denver FilmCenter, located at 2150 E. Colfax Ave. in the same complex as The Tattered Cover and Twist & Shout.) Eventually, it will be released on DVD, where you can watch it in more leisurely fashion.

Assayas, a director who seems to march to no predictable beat, has made telling family dramas (The Summer Hours), agitated oddball movies (Irma Vep) and global thrillers (Boarding Gate). Without doubt, Carlos stands as Assayas' most ambitious movie to date. The sheer number of locations, languages, and violent set pieces would be daunting for any director. Carlos' mini-sreies length, which allows for deep immersion in this foreign and often-frightening world, must have been a challenge, as well.

Densely populated by the shifting cast of characters in Carlos' life, the movie makes little attempt to explain Carlos, who seemed to be the kind of revolutionary who had no trouble enjoying luxury when it was available to him. Assayas, who admits to some fictionalization, gives us a portrait of Carlos in action, following his stormy career and allowing us to draw our own conclusions about it.

We certainly don't root for Carlos, but once we're inside his circle, we begin to see the ways in which violence became the norm for Carlos and those around him. While watching the movie, I was reminded of gangster films that bore deeply into criminal lives. Ramirez makes no effort to hide Carlos' brutal side, but we couldn't bear to watch if that were all of it: Ramirez also understands the way Carlos learned to attract others with charm, personal magnetism and even an unexpected capacity for courtesy.

In the early stages of his career, Carlos worked for and then found himself at odds with PFLP leader Wadie Haddad (Ahmad Kaabour). Haddad knew that Carlos could be a loose cannon and that he wouldn't easily submit to revolutionary discipline -- unless, of course, he happened to be enforcing it on others.

Carlos claims that he's fighting imperialism on behalf of the oppressed, but he seems to be most fulfilled when he's being treated like a celebrity of some revolution that most of the world failed to acknowledge. Could it be that Carlos simply craved notoriety and reveled in the power it gave him?

I'm not sure I know. I'm not even sure what conclusions can be drawn from entering the violent, murky world that Assayas so creates with so much immediacy. I do know that Carlos qualifies as an extraordinary filmmaking feat, a fascinating chronicle of the rise and fall of a man who seemed avid about devouring life while fully capable of destroying it.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Harry Potter's long march toward a finale

If you're a fan, you probably think 2 hours and 26 minutes of Deathly Hallows is just right. The rest of us would have preferred a little pruning.

The curtain finally has begun to fall on the Harry Potter series, drawing a dark veil over the story of the young wizard. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 has a forbidding feel that settles over the story like an ominous fog.

But (with me there's usually a but) there's only so much time one productively can wander in a fog. The next-to-the-last Potter movie - J. K. Rowling's final Potter book has been broken into two parts for the screen -- amounts to an awfully long build-up to a finale that's bound to surpass it, if only because it will once and for all settle the battle between Harry and the evil Lord Voldemort.

This 2-hour and 26 minute helping of Harry interruptus features action, dry stretches and nuances that probably will elude those who haven't immersed themselves in the books. Of course, Potter enthusiasts are so many in number, they have made the series the most financially lucrative in movie history, and probably don't give a hoot what the rest of us think.

Say this, the Potter movies have provided a well-deserved payday for some brilliant actors. The opening scenes of this edition benefit from the presence of Bill Nighy (as Rufus Scrimgeour, Minister of Magic) and Brendan Gleeson (as Alastor Mad-Eye Moody), two actors who can't be overwhelmed by the abundant if slightly repetitive special effects that director David Yates applies to the proceedings.

Is it me or did the numerous wand fights in this edition bear an unfortunate resemblance to old-fashioned gunfights?

The movie opens in a climate of fear and apprehension. Dealing from a position of strength, Lord Voldemort and his army of Death Eaters are on the verge of triumph. Can they be stopped? Will Harry find the Horcruxes? Has anyone got a glossary?

Yes, there are amazing scenes. An early-picture meeting at Voldemort's retreat plays like a board meeting presided over by an abusive chairman, and gives Ralph Fiennes, as Voldemort, a little noseless face time. A late-picture bit of animation - the crucial Tale of the Three Brothers - ranks among the finest set pieces of the entire series. The use of Nick Cave's song, O Children, allows Harry and Hermione to share a moment of dance.

The trio that has carried the series deserves our appreciation. Daniel Radcliffe makes a convincing Harry even now that he's beginning to show traces of five o'clock shadow. Rupert Grint retains the spark that makes Ron Weasley appealling, although his character has begun to vent jealousies about what he perceives as a developing romance between Harry and Hermione. And Emma Watson has grown into a Hermione whose girlish steadfastness has begun to show signs of womanly assertiveness.

Relations among the trio hit a rough patch in an overly long segment in which Harry, Hermione and Ron wander through dense forests or camp on a rocky cliff in a tent that looks small from the outside, but expands once its inhabitants have entered. Why not? This is, after all, a J.K. Rowling universe. Magic rules.

Reaction to Hallows may boil down to whether one is a zealous fan who regards Rowling's work as holy writ. If you are one of those, you may lament some of screenwriter Steven Kloves' excisions. Kloves does, however, weave in emotionally charged plot business involving two elves, Kreacher and Dobby, as well as enough plot currents to breed exhaustion in readers were I to make an attempt to recount them. All I'll say is that I would have welcomed more pruning.

My wife told me she overhead a telling comment in the women's restroom after the preview screening. "At the rate this was going, I thought we'd be here until midnight," said a woman who evidently knew precisely how much of the story was still to come and who must have momentarily forgotten that Warner Bros. had opted to split Rowling's final Potter book in two.
Another friend said he found this edition to be action-packed, a description that did not jibe with my impression.I felt the gathering of forces that should lead to a smashing finale, but too often thought the movie was dragging its feet.

For that finale, we must wait until next summer, when - as another fan assured me - we'll see the payoff of much of what transpired in Part 1. I hope she's right. Although it's well crafted, I couldn't shake the sense that Hallows, Part I is -- at least a little -- the cinematic equivalent of spending 40 years in the desert without reaching the Promised Land.

I left the theater trying to sort out some of the movie' s many details, cataloging the parts of the movie I found impressive and harboring one overriding thought, "For heaven's sake, let's get on with it."

Staging a jailbreak for love

A husband wants to help his wife escape from prison, but director Paul Haggis can't quite give the movie the credibility and obsessive drive it needs.

An air of unbelievability hangs over The Next Three Days, a thriller that focuses on a community-college professor who attempts to free his wife from prison, where she's serving a life sentence for murder. Having exhausted all legal remedies, Russell Crowe’s John Brennan does what red-blooded American men are expected to do, at least in movies: He takes matters into his own hands. John tries to devise an escape plan for his wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks).

Written and directed by Paul Haggis (Crash and Valley of Elah), The Next Three Days is a loose remake of the 2008 French thriller Anything For Her. The story's origins may explain why so much of this Pittsburgh-based drama feels slightly off, as if something has been lost in translation.

The Next Three Days charts John’s progression from amateur to professional. As an English teacher, he knows virtually nothing about jailbreaks or the criminal world. Much of the movie’s 133-minute running time must, therefore, be devoted to John’s education. He slowly learns how to conduct himself in a seamy new world, no easy task for a teacher who also must take care of his six-year-old son.

An all-too-brief encounter between John and a savvy ex-con (Liam Neeson)adds zest. I found myself wishing that Neeson’s appearance, as an expert on escapes, had amounted to more than a cameo. Extending his role might have given Crowe someone to play off, liberating him from having to carry the picture by himself.

The script makes some effort to test John’s commitment to his wife. At one point, he meets an attractive young mother (Olivia Wilde) at a local playground. Will John yield to temptation and develop a relationship with her?

Haggis tries to maintain a mild air of uncertainty about Lara’s guilt, but John never wavers in his belief. He insists that he knows his wife well enough to be sure that she’s incapable of murder. Sure she’s prone to sudden flashes of anger, but who isn’t?

When the movie's third act rolls around, Haggis generates tension and excitement, and he makes us wonder about the propriety of rooting for someone who's breaking lots of laws -- albeit in an effort to right what he perceives as a monstrous wrong.

But the combination of Crowe and Haggis creates expectations for something more than old-pro efficiency and gloomy drive. Like Crowe's character, the movie feels entirely too dutiful in its execution.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A movie that's on track for tension

Unstoppable may not change your life, but it provides a solid 98-minutes of white-knuckle escapism.
Chris Pine and Denzel Washington as men at work.

Tony Scott's Unstoppable barrels its way onto a large number of screens this weekend. In some parts of the country, Unstoppable opens against 127 Hours, director Danny Boyle's hyper-kinetic look at the harrowing, real-life experience of Aron Ralston, a young Coloradan who liberated himself from a Utah canyon by cutting off the lower part of his right arm.

I normally avoid reviewing one movie in terms of another, but I mention Unstoppable and 127 Hours together because both are designed for visceral charge and both are worth seeing. When it comes to end-of-the-year honors, though, it's a good bet that Boyle's festival-launched movie will fare better than Unstoppable.

Too bad. Unstoppable may not win many awards, but it does offer 98 minutes of heart-stopping escape. And unlike, 127 Hours, Unstoppable isn't burdened by even the slightest hint of pretension. Scott's movie clearly intends to provide a solid hunk of white-knuckle escapism -- and does.

Unstoppable reunites Scott with Denzel Washington, an actor he directed in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009), Deja Vu (2006), and Man on Fire (2004). Unstoppable - a movie about a runaway train - marks the best of the Scott/Washington collaborations, a high-speed hunk of action that builds furious momentum.

Washington plays Frank, an engineer who has made a living hauling freight around the Pennsylvania countryside. A 28-year railroad vet, Frank is teamed with a newcomer to railroading (Chris Pine of Star Trek fame). A cost-conscious company has been pushing its older workers into early retirement, so the grizzled pros tend to resent novices such as Pine's Will.

Looking a little portly, Washington proves entirely convincing as an engineer who has lived a reasonably successful blue-collar life, raising two daughters as a solo dad. This being a Tony Scott movie, it should come as no surprise that Frank's daughters are hot young women with jobs at a local Hooters. They provide a modest splash of eye candy.

Will is married, but his marriage has hit a rough patch, the kind of troubled stretch that leads to restraining orders.

Blue-collar romanticism chugs through the movie. When the chips are down, Frank's hands-on experience trumps management's preoccupation with the bottom line. Frank ultimately devises the best plan for stopping a train that's racing toward catastrophe with no driver, no brakes and an engine that's fully powered.

And did I mention that the runaway train is carrying a highly toxic and combustible chemical that's used in the manufacture of glue? The runaway train becomes a monster unleashed on a rural landscape that's dotted with small and medium sized towns. The train's "a missile the size of the Chrysler Building,'' as one character puts it.

Unstoppable was inspired by a real 2001 incident, but a faithful rendering of events is not the point here. Scott knows that his job is to create high tension, and he never lets up.

He also augments the proceedings with tasty small performances. Ethan Suplee plays the engineer who stupidly jumped off his train to reset a switch, thus causing the runaway. Rosario Dawson portrays a railroad traffic manager who tries to prevent disaster, and Kevin Dunn appears as a railroad boss, an executive motivated by dual concerns: safety and profit. Well, maybe more profit than safety. Lew Temple plays another railroad employee, a guy who chases after the runaway train in his pick-up.

Screenwriter Mark Bomback doesn't seem to have spent much time fretting over the dialog, but he sustains a nearly unbearable sense of peril by presenting us with an escalating series of potential disasters.

Unlike an awful lot of contemporary movies, Unstoppable makes good on its promise. And happily, it doesn't depend on gunplay or explosions. Scott finds danger, excitement and heroism in a movie that knows precisely where it's headed, and takes us along for one of the season's most nerve-rattling rides.

A intense, harrowing '127 Hours'

Director Danny Boyle turns a young man's ordeal into high-energy cinema, but the experience isn't without artistic pretension.

127 Hours seems headed for a bright, awards-laden future. It’s possible that this highly praised movie will win an Oscar nomination for best picture. It’s an equally good bet that the movie’s director, Danny Boyle, will be nominated for best director.

And while we're on the subject of awards: It’s reasonable to speculate that James Franco, the movie’s star, will find himself on Oscar’s short list for best performance by an actor in a lead role, and it wouldn't be shocking if cinematographers Enrique Chediak and Anthony Dod Mantle receive Oscar nominations, as well.

You get the idea. 127 Hours already has struck gold with critics and industry insiders.

All of this is fairly amazing considering that Boyle’s tense and involving movie is a bit of stunt, a celebration of the will to survive and of the stunning, high-definition clarity of its own imagery.

For those who don’t know. a recap is in order: 127 Hours tells the real-life story of Aron Ralston (Franco), a brash young Coloradan who got his arm pinned by a boulder while taking a solo hike in Utah. Isolated in a narrow canyon and facing death, Ralston -- who wrote a 2004 autobiography called Between A Rock and Hard Place -- struggled to find ways to free himself.

Ralston’s story owes its prominence – then and now – to the radical way in which he saved his life. When all else failed, Ralston freed himself by cutting off his lower right arm with a dull knife.

No question a movie such as 127 Hours poses extreme technical challenges for a filmmaker. How do you dramatize a story involving only one location, a spot from which the main character can’t move?

Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) solves the problem with a facile camera, bravura editing, fast-paced depictions of Ralston’s delirious fantasies, split-screen images, occasional flashbacks and dizzying shots of the canyon in which Ralston is trapped. Boyle also provides just enough backstory to establish Ralston as a young man whose journey involves an arc of sorts: Ralston makes the transition from arrogant self-assurance to humbled acknowledgement of his need for others.

Ralston underwent an awful ordeal. He tried to drink water that trickled down to him from a thunderstorm. In desperation, he drank his own urine. He talked to a video camera, sometimes addressing his mother in an attempt to assuage the guilt he felt about not having bothered to return her call before leaving on his ill-fated excursion.

Of course, Boyle makes you squirm when the BIG MOMENT arrives. At some festival screenings a few people reportedly passed out. That strikes me as a bit of an over-reaction, but it is difficult to watch someone cut off an arm. I never approached loss of consciousness, but I did wince.

After some heady opening sequences, Ralston leaves the rest of humanity behind. Before striking out by himself, though, he meets two young women who also are hiking. Ralston takes them to a place where they can suspend themselves between two high rock walls before dropping into a pool of blue water.

It’s a key sequence because it tells us that Aron, played by Franco with giddy but eroding confidence, regards the natural world as a kind of personal playground; it's this view that ultimately betrays him.

Boyle takes us through what feels like the quickest 127 hours in movie history. He’s never boring, but he also never lets us forget that there’s a creative talent working (and sometime overworking) this material. That's why 127 Hours represents an intriguing but strange sort of achievement: Although it's set in the middle of nowhere, Boyle's movie can seem like one of the busiest, most charged-up dramas of the year.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

'Morning Glory' tries for comic sunshine

Harrison Ford gives a grumpy, one-note performance. Rachel McAdams works hard at looking like a TV producer who's working hard, and Patrick Wilson finds himself in a badly undernourished romance. All of these statements help define Morning Glory, a mild comedy about television that lacks either the character development or satirical bite of Broadcast News, a 23-year-old movie that touched on many of the same issues. * As Morning Glory unfolds, it becomes clear -- at least it did to me -- that the comedy has been misconceived. * Diane Keaton is a comic standout as an egotistical co-anchor of a once-prominent morning television show on an all-news cable station. Had the movie revolved around Keaton and McAdams, as a young executive producer who's hired to boost the show's dreadful ratings, it might have been a true delight. * But Morning Glory opts to focus on the troubled relationship between McAdams and Ford, who plays a once formidable TV newsman who has been shelved in an era when the line between news and entertainment has blurred. * Thanks to a mildly convincing plot contrivance, Ford's Mike Pomeroy is assigned to co-anchor Daybreak, a show he views with the kind of contempt one might reserve for ... well ... a crappy morning TV show. * Director Roger Michell finds a few laughs here -- most centered on broad comedy involving the show's weatherman, and Jeff Goldblum scores as the network's acerbic top dog, but the movie can't overcome a script that seems unclear about what it's after. Satire? Romance? Laughs? Social commentary? Whatever the movie's searching for, it doesn't find enough of it to lift Morning Glory into the upper echelon of fall releases.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Road trip or road kill? A bit of both

Some laughs, but on a road trip from hell.

They say if you can survive a long car trip with someone, you're probably well suited to have that person as a real friend. The new comedy Due Date asks us to take a cross-country drive with two actors who should have been great comic company: Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis.

But after awhile, it's clear that a road trip augmented by gags, gross-outs, drugs and overproduced car carnage can wear you down. I kept wishing that Downey and Galifianakis could dig themselves out from under the movie's mountain of humor - much of it built around wildly inappropriate behavior - and find a rest stop.

Although there are chuckles along the way, this highly anticipated road-trip comedy proves a hit-and-miss affair, probably as the result of second-rate material that goes for easy laughs and exaggerated weirdness. To those who love director Todd Phillips' work -- namely The Hangover - some of the movie's odd- couple pairing may hit the spot, particular if you like masturbation jokes and other behavior that's supposed to be funny because it's so obviously beyond the pale: Downey's character punching a kid in the stomach, for example.

Say this: Phillips gets the contrivances out of the way quickly, pushing Downey's Peter Highman, an architect, into a cross-country car trip with a total stranger, Galifianakis' Ethan Tremblay. Ethan, an aspiring actor who shows no evidence of talent, is headed for Hollywood. Peter's eager to arrive in Los Angeles where his wife (Michelle Monaghan) is about to give birth to their first child.

It's supposed to be a classic pairing of opposites. Peter is quick to lose patience with Ethan, who's transporting his father's ashes in a coffee can and whose marijuana habit forces him to stop at the out-of-the-way home of a dope dealer (Juliette Lewis). Circumstances also prompt a visit with a guy who once dated Peter's wife, an underutilized Jamie Foxx

Downey, whose character takes a pretty bad beating during the course of the film, can't always save this material, nor can Galifianakis, who sports a perm and who - as he usually does - appears frighteningly sincere and totally off-the-wall at the same time. Galifianakis gives his character a strangely effeminate walk, and seldom is seen without his pet bulldog, a critter that provides the filmmakers with a reliable laugh prop. Ethan isn't just an oddball character, he seems to be in need of institutionalization.

There's only so much you can do with an odd-couple formula. Maybe that's why Phillips attempts to pump up the proceedings with car crashes and chases involving Mexican border patrolmen, portrayed in annoyingly stereotypical fashion.

And how clichéd is this? At one point, Galifianakis' character says, "I'm not an accountant. I'm not even Jewish."

Not exactly inspired writing.

It's a safe bet that most comedy fans will note that Due Date sometimes plays like an updated version of Planes, Trains & Automobiles, but it's a misshapen offspring that doesn't always do the lineage proud. Considering the combined talents of the movie's principal actors, Due Date should have delivered a whole lot more than it does. I got a few laughs to be sure, but I was ready to shed these two sorry travel companions long before the movie ended.

A thriller built from real events

A family under duress in Fair Game.

In July of 2003, CIA agent Valerie Plame had her cover blown because of a complicated revenge plot hatched inside the Bush White House. Plame was outed in a column by the late Robert Novak, who said that he’d received his information from a couple of senior officials in the Bush administration.

Plame’s exposure – which endangered her and her contacts -- also happened to be against the law. It became a hot story for a time, and now has become the basis for Fair Game, a jittery Doug Limon thriller that casts Naomi Watts as Plame and Sean Penn as her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson.

Wilson had traveled to Niger on assignment for the CIA: He was asked to look for information about Iraq’s attempt to acquire materials used in making nuclear weapons. Wilson found no such evidence, but that didn’t stop certain factions within the Bush White House from pushing forward with a plan to invade Iraq, partly based on the assumption that Saddam Hussein possessed the now infamous weapons of mass destruction.

No need to reiterate the entire story, but some background is necessary before plunging into a review of Limon’s attempt to use Palme’s story as the basis for a movie that’s part thriller, part portrait of a strained marriage and part condemnation of the political maneuvering that allowed intelligence to be compromised for political purposes.

There’s no faulting Watts’ portrayal, which may constitute the best reason for seeing the movie. Watts’ plays a typical boomer mom. She’s overwhelmed by the demands of work, kids and marriage. The only difference between Plame and other suburban working wives is that she often leaves the country on sensitive and sometimes dangerous CIA missions in the Middle East.

Penn’s portrayal of Wilson proves slightly less successful, a portrait built on Wilson’s sense of self-importance and his justifiable outrage over what happened to his wife. Wilson seems the kind of guy you might not like, even if you thought he happened to be right.

When Plame and Wilson found themselves at the center of a turbulent news story, their marriage suffered. According to the movie, which is based on separate books written by Plame and Wilson, Plame was inclined to fly beneath the radar, even after her exposure. For his part, Wilson insisted on loud public protest at every turn.

Neither husband nor wife were entirely right. Limon (The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith) wisely acknowledges the complexity of their situation, and his stylistic choices – frenetic hand-held camera work, for example – create the sense of anxiety that arises when people try to cope with fast-moving events over which they have little control.

Fast-paced and far from boring, Fair Game is nonetheless a bit unsatisfying, like being thrown into a whirling story that has difficulty settling down and which seems to end as quickly as it started. We’re left with the impression that we’ve watched a slick and avid gloss on events that had profound consequences for the nation and the world.

I felt that something more was needed, although I’m not entirely sure what.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

An extraordinary look at the Warsaw Ghetto

Unlike many monstrous movements throughout history, the Nazi assault on Jews was scrupulously codified by its German perpetrators. The Nazis liked to keep careful track of their atrocities, and specialized in creating propaganda about them. * So it’s hardly surprising that an unfinished propaganda film entitled Das Ghetto turned up in East Germany after the war. * In 1998, an additional 30 minutes of Das Ghetto -- filmed in 1942 over the course of a month in the Warsaw Ghetto -- was discovered. * The Nazis may have had a couple of things in mind: They seemed determined to show widespread misery, which they’d blame on Jews, and they attempted to demonstrate, in scenes that they staged, that insensitive rich Jews ignored the plight of their more beleaguered brothers. * Because the film never was finished, the precise intent of the Nazi filmmakers remains unknown. But A Film Unfinished -- a documentary about Das Ghetto -- does two things exceptionally well: It shows the obscenely crowded conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto and the wanton Nazi disregard for Jewish life. It also proves that the Nazis were determined to make something cinematic out of the ghetto experience, something that presumably would bolster the party’s twisted rationale for its monumental crimes. * Israeli director Yael Hersonski assembles the film with snippets of commentary from ghetto survivors, some of the few who escaped the Nazi murderers. * Much of the footage is set against readings from the diaries of Adam Cherniakov, the head of the Jewish Council who attempted to appease the Nazis while ameliorating Jewish suffering, as futile an endeavor as ever there was. Cherniakov committed suicide in the ghetto in 1942. * The impact of a movie such as An Unfinished Film is difficult to describe. It left me speechless, haunted by its images. An addled man dancing in the streets. Dead bodies on sidewalks, a sight that became so commonplace passersby hardly noticed. Carefully staged humiliations. * Hersonski adds fragments of sound to some of the silent footage and the result gives a staggering immediacy to the film. A sense of doom hangs over every frame, knowledge of how the story ends for so many of the faces captured in Warsaw's congested streets. Hersonski liberates these ordinary faces from the vaults of history, enabling them to walk straight into our consciousness. THe result is as moving as it is essential.