Monday, February 28, 2011

'Art Goes to the Movies,' Part II

Denver Art Students League program continues to examine movies about artists.
Artist Sandra Kaplan and I have been team teaching a course Thursday evenings at the Denver Art Students League, 200 Grant St. In its first month, Art Goes to the Movies focused on documentaries that explored the artistic process, examining how various painters and sculptors approach their work.

Sandra and I introduce film showings, which are followed by post-film discussions geared toward both artists and non-artists. You don't have to be able to draw to participate. If you do, the films we've chosen -- aside from being interesting in their own right -- help identify important issues that all artists eventually confront.

At 6:30 p.m. Thursday March 3. we'll be showing Chihwaseon (Painted Fire) from the great Korean filmmaker Im Kwan-taek. In this 2002 film, Korean master Im examines the life of 19th century artist Jang Seung-up. Im’s stirring and evocative drama takes place against a backdrop of political turmoil; Im’s cinematic artistry and Jang’s vivid paintings make for a potent exploration of the ways in which artists learn to speak with original voices.

You'll find a full listing of March programs at Sandra's blog. You can sign up for the series or attend individual sessions.

Teaching this course has been one of the most enjoyable things I do; I encourage you to join us.

A gifted Korean actress makes her mark

An opportunity to discover the work of Jeon Do-yeon.

My response to a reader who suggested that I forget Oscar and turn my attention to two Korean films that opened in Denver last week, both featuring the same brilliant actress, Jeon Do-yeon: You're absolutely right. I probably should have commented about The Housemaid and Secret Sunshine last week, but -- as the old rationalization goes -- better late than never. The Housemaid opened at the Chez Artiste Friday, and Secret Sunshine is playing at the FilmCenter/Colfax. Both are scheduled to end Friday March 4, so you may have to catch them on DVD.

In The Housemaid (from director Sang-soo Im), Jeon plays a maid who has an affair with her wealthy but careless boss. Secret Sunshine (from director Lee Chang-dong*) takes a strange and absorbing look at a woman dealing with the kind of madness that can be induced by unbearable grief.

Jeon, who's 38, is one of Korea's top actress, and it's both interesting and relevant to talk about her on the day after the Oscars. She's every bit as good as any of this year's nominated actresses, which is not to slight any of those women, but to emphasize Jeon's abilities.

Jeon is one of those actresses who seems to have the uncanny capacity to alter her appearance in the same movie, sometimes in the same scene. She can look girlish or sensual (The Housemaid). In Secret Sunshine, she appears beautiful one minute and ordinary the next. It's almost impossible to get a fix on her, which is part of what's so intriguing about her. She also imbues her characters with a quality of independence bordering on defiance.

Jeon isn't exactly an unknown quantity: She won the best actress award at Cannes for Secret Sunshine, which played the festival circuit in 2007. She's highly regarded in Korea, one of the current bastions of interesting filmmaking.

In Secret Sunshine, Jeon portrays Shin-ae, a piano teacher who moves with her young son (Seon Jung-yeop) to her late husband's provincial hometown. The movie provides Jeon with an opportunity to draw us closer and hold us at arm's length. Sin-ae is a confounding woman, who resists many well-meaning attempts to help her through her despair. At one point, she turns to Christianity, but we know that something explosive and unresolved simmers beneath an apparently settled surface.

The plots of both The Housemaid (erotic and ultimately startling) and Secret Sunshine (mysterious and unsettling) are best discovered in theaters, but know that Secret Sunshine raises important questions about faith, fate, sanity and how one goes about facing the unthinkable. I should emphasize that although both movies deal with matters that shouldn't be revealed in reviews, both can be quite disturbing.

It's probably shallow of me to frame comments about Jeon against last evening's Oscars, but I'll do it anyway. Denverites will see more of Natalie Portman, Annette Bening, Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Lawrence, and Michelle Williams, actresses who are capable of real brilliance. Jeon, it should be said, is no less talented, and if you haven't discovered her yet, you should do so ASP.

Mea culpa for not getting to these movies sooner.

*Lee's latest movie -- the well-received Poetry -- opens at the Mayan March 4.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Notes from a forgettable Oscar night

Well, it's over. Oscar night proceeded pretty much as expected, which is not necessarily a good thing. In its 83rd year, Oscar came close to outdoing itself for sheer boredom and predictability. The whole show felt canned, and I'm glad to be done with it. The nominated actors and movies -- actually a strong and estimable group -- deserved better.

As hosts, James Franco and Anne Hathaway displayed little wit and even less facility for working the audience. Was Franco trying to act cool or was he just bored? You know something's amiss when one of the show's liveliest moments comes from a dead guy: The late Bob Hope, a former host, appeared in a black-and-white clip introduced by Billy Crystal.

After a couple of years, it doesn't seem as if the 10-picture format has added anything to the broadcast by way of suspense or increased interest, and Oscar's attempts to reel in younger viewers seemed a bust, unless, of course, young people are starved for tedium. I'm betting most younger viewers spent more time texting than watching the show.

The evening, of course, was capped by the widely predicted triumph of The King's Speech, a movie that restored middle-brow primacy to Oscar, and proved that English accents trump even all-mighty Facebook, which seems to have played a role in inciting revolutions, but couldn't push Social Network into the year's top spot.

Oh well, Hathaway changed clothes as many times as I was tempted to change channels, and I did learn one thing: I now know why people go to Oscar parties -- so they can drink their way through the torment.

Here are a few discombobulated notes I wrote to myself during the course of an evening devoted to glazed over eyes:

-- Colin Firth (The King's Speech) shows a bit of welcome wit in his acceptance speech for best actor, another of the evening's many non-surprises.

-- Natalie Portman (Black Swan) wins the best actress Oscar. Her victory also was totally expected, but Portman seemed poised and classy. Guess a Harvard education is worth something after all.

-- David Fincher (Social Network) is robbed by Tom Hooper (The King's Speech), who wins best director. To be fair, Hooper gave what might have been the night's best acceptance speech. He thanked his mom, who discovered the material on which The King's Speech was based. The moral, he said: Always listen to your mother. Good advice, unless your mother happens to be someone like the character supporting-actress nominee Jacki Weaver played in Animal Kingdom. And, hey, Portman's mother in Black Swan (played by Barbara Hershey) was no prize, either.

-- Celine Dion sings a dirge-like version of Smile while we review the list of those who died last year. Schmaltz for some gifted people who passed on.

-- Thank goodness the underexposed Oprah finally found a platform. She presented the Oscar for best documentary, which was won by Inside Job. Charles Ferguson, one of that film's co-directors, made a point of saying that three years after the financial meltdown, none of the responsible parties had yet been punished. Am I wrong or was that the first topical reference of the night? Where was Jon Stewart when we needed him?

-- Bad judgment, Mr. President. With a tip of the hat to Bill Maher, a new rule: Presidents shouldn't appear on the Oscar program unless it's to announce that they've made a terrible miscalculation and (guess what?) those dreaded budget cuts won't be necessary after all. Mr. Obama showed up in the intro to the best-song segment.

-- Alice in Wonderland wins best costume design. Aside from Helena Bonham Carter (as the Red Queen), the costumes were the best thing about the movie.

-- Everyone who wins for Inception makes sure to thank Christopher Nolan, who was snubbed for best director.

-- I look at my watch. It's 7:39 p.m., and wonder whether this is the dullest Oscar show yet?

-- The band tries hard to play Social Network's Aaron Sorkin (winner for best adapted screenplay) off the stage. I hate that. Let the guy have his freakin' moment.

-- Melissa Leo (The Fighter) wins for best supporting actress. She can act, but she sure as hell can't give an acceptance speech. She rambles and gets bleeped for using the F-word, an Oscar first and, if we're lucky, a last.

-- Franco and Hathaway (as hosts). Attractive and unimpressive. And, no, I never want to see Franco in drag again. He did a Marilyn Monroe bit.

And, finally, a few asides from the red carpet...

-- Tom Hanks, interviewed by red-carpet host Robin Roberts, always seems like a guy you'd like to know.

-- Justin Timberlake, interviewed on the red carpet, easily could have been nominated for best supporting actor for his work in The Social Network.

-- Ben Mankiewicz, a host on Turner Classic Movies, actually sounded intelligent on the red carpet. If you can sound smart in that setting, you are smart.

-- There should be a limit on how many times red carpet hosts are allowed to use the word "amazing."

-- Fantasy wish for the Oscars. Ricky Gervais shows up on the Fashion Skyway above the red carpet. You fill in the rest.

-- Has Oscar become like the Super Bowl? Coverage starts three hours before the Awards ceremony? Why am I watching? Come to think of it, I was asking myself the same question at the end of the show.

If you're looking for a complete list of winners, The Hollywood Reporter has one.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Farrelly bros. strike (out) again

Hall Pass has the expected gross-out humor, but the movie's mostly drab and distasteful.
The Farrelly brothers (Peter and Bobby) never have really matched the comic success they achieved with the legendary There's Something About Mary (1998). The brothers -- also known for Dumb & Dumber (1994) and Kingpin (1996) -- currently are preparing to shoot a movie about The Three Stooges, a subject that should be right up their alley. That's not a slam, but an expression of hope that they'll do the Stooges justice.

Throughout most of their career, the Farrellys have invented new ways to gross us out and make us laugh, usually at the same time. They're at it again with Hall Pass, a typically raunchy (but not particularly funny) effort about a couple of husbands (Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis) whose wives grant them hall passes; i.e., each gets a week off from marriage. And, no, I never heard the term used this way before, either.

If you know the Farrellys work, you know they're eventually going to pull the plug on the off-color stuff in favor of a traditional message about appreciating one's spouse. But the real point of most Farrelly movies can be found in jokes. In this somewhat sparkless outing, you'll find gags about excrement, pot-laced brownies, penises, vomit and various sexual practices. Yeah, I know. For some audiences, a list like that amounts to an endorsement.

But you can almost hear the script meetings at which one or the other of the Farrellys wondered about how far they could go this time. They go pretty far, but they also serve up a movie that tends to be more distasteful than funny.

The general arc of the movie allows for few real surprises. At first, the newly liberated husbands are overjoyed with their freedom. But they're not exactly chick magnets, and they're unable to capitalize on the opportunity to return to the swinging days of bachelorhood. Meanwhile, their wives (Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate) fare better. They leave their husbands in Providence, R.I., and head for Cape Cod, where they become involved with a group of amateur baseball players.

The actors seem to have been (if I can invent a word) drabbed down. Wilson adopts what I guess is supposed to pass as a nerdy suburban look. Sudeikis plays the more audacious of the two pals, another grown man stuck in adolescence -- or maybe sub-adolescence. Put another way, these guys aren't much fun to hang around with, a big problem for any buddy-oriented movie.

Richard Jenkins shows up late in the proceedings as Coakley, a man who has maintained his swinging-single status well past the point of attractiveness. Coakley decides to help our hapless heroes find sexual partners. Australian actress Nicky Whelan portrays a sexy barista and possible source of diversion for Wilson's character.

At their best, the Farrellys have turned gross-out humor into a kind of art form; it's just that Hall Pass seldom shows them at their best.

Also opening....


Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton, John Leguizamo and Jacob Latimore join director Brad Anderson in pursuit of B-movie pleasures. Set in Detroit, Vanishing on 7th Street follows four survivors of an unexplained cataclysm that has left the city in total darkness. The encroaching darkness seems to have swallowed folks whole, and threatens our quartet of frightened survivors. Working from a script by Andrew Jaswinski, Anderson conjures up creepy thrills, and probably was right not to explain how this particular apocalypse got started. An ensemble cast gives performances of varying effectiveness as Vanishing on 7th Street takes what I deemed a reasonably efficient stab at attaining cult status.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

It definitely will be good to be 'The King'

Here's a bit of heresy from a film critic: I've never cared much about the Academy Awards. Over the span of a 30-year career writing about movies, I've rattled on about Oscar, but seldom with a major rooting interest.

Why is that, you ask?

Glad you brought it up. The Academy Awards basically are a way for Hollywood to assure the public that it's doing exceptional work. To which I (and you) should say, "We'll be the judges of that."

Besides, we've already had a slew of critics' association awards, the Golden Globes and the various guild awards (directors, writers, cinematographers, etc.). By the time Oscar rolls around, it can feel as if we're walking through an orchard where all the apples have been picked.

OK, so the biggest apples still hang from the tree, but you know what I'm saying: Amid so much TV coverage, journalism and end-of-the-year hype, Oscar can feel almost anti-climactic.

Nonetheless, critics face an annual ritual in which they dutifully predict the winners in major categories, so I'll oblige by following suit, mostly as a way of reminding you that the Oscar ceremonies are coming up this Sunday. And let me add one note about predictions: I sincerely hope I'm wrong in several categories; I'd rather be surprised than right as Hollywood plods through what sometimes feels like an interminable orgy of self-congratulation.


Will win: The King's Speech

Should win: The Social Network

The King's Speech tells the story of how George VI overcame his stutter to give a speech that rallied a nation on the eve of World War II. Although Social Network started as the frontrunner and walked away with top honors from most critics' associations, it seems to have faded in favor of a more traditional choice.

The travails of a monarch and the man who helped him overcome his speech impediment probably will triumph over the entrepreneurial exploits of Mark Zuckerberg, one of the inventors of Facebook.

And why not? Shouldn't a story that amounts to little more than a footnote in history trump a picture about a phenomenon that has altered human behavior and may have provided a platform for upsetting power balances in North Africa and the Middle East?

I'm sure you can tell how I feel about it, but instead of a vote, my only recourse is facetiousness and a bit of sarcasm. I enjoyed The King's Speech. But best picture? Not in my world.


Will win: Colin Firth, The King's Speech

Should win: Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network

The other nominees in this category -- Javier Bardem , Biutiful; Jeff Bridges, True Grit; and James Franco, 127 Hours - don't really stand a chance. Firth, nominated previously for his work in A Single Man, seems to have been leading this race from the outset, and won't likely relinquish the No. 1 spot.

There's no denying the power of Firth's achievement as the stammering King George. But consider what Eisenberg accomplished: He made an unlikeable character into someone we couldn't take our eyes off. In playing Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, Eisenberg created an indelible portrait of what happens when a nerd (and maybe the smartest guy in the room) winds up making billions.

And don't overlook Franco, either. He gave what amounted to a solo performance as Aron Ralston, a young man who amputated his own arm in order to survive entrapment in a Utah canyon.


Will win: Natalie Portman, Black Swan

Should win: Natalie Portman, Black Swan

Portman will beat her competitors: Annette Bening , The Kids Are All Right; Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole; Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone; and Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine.

Portman gave everything she had to play a disturbed ballerina in Darren Aronofsky's mesmerizing Black Swan. If Portman loses, it probably will be to Bening, who has plenty of old-pro cred. Bening played one half of a lesbian couple in The Kids Are All Right, a movie that - at least in my view - has been vastly overrated, but voters may be included to reward her for an impressive career.


Will win: Christian Bale, The Town

Should win: Jeremy Renner, The Town

I like all the nominees in this category, but Bale's performance as a meth-addicted former boxer from Lowell, Mass., will carry the day. It's the showiest performance in a strong field that includes: John Hawkes, Winter's Bone; Renner, The Town, Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right and Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech.

John Hawkes (Winter's Bone) played a meth-dealing Ozark man who could be both scary and sympathetic. Many jaws will drop if Hawkes were to win, but I'm thinking that voters will consider his dark-horse nomination sufficient reward.

And, yes, Rush remains a distinct possibility, particular if The King's Speech has coattails.

Why do I cast my vote for Renner? The guy scared the daylights out of me as an unrepentant thug in The Town.


Will win: Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

Should win: Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom

Young actresses sometimes beat vets in this category. A Steinfeld victory supposedly became more likely when voters expressed displeasure over the fact that Melissa Leo of The Fighter reportedly campaigned for votes. Moreover, some observers think that Amy Adams and Leo, both nominated for the same movie, will split the voters.

Other nominees:; Helena Bonham Carter, The King's Speech and Weaver, Animal Kingdom.

I'd vote for Weaver who played the mother of a Melbourne crime family in Animal Kingdom. She gave a memorable performance, embodying equal amounts of motherly love and evil.


Will win: Tom Hooper, The King's Speech

Should win: David Fincher, The Social Network

Hooper won the Director's Guild of America's top award, which almost always goes to the same director who winds up winning the Oscar. Hooper's competition: Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan; Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, True Grit; and David O. Russell, The Fighter.

I don't know how the tide turned on The Social Network, but if Fincher loses, he'll have been robbed. He made what could have been a dry story fascinating, and his task was much more difficult than Hooper's; Hooper directed what sometimes feels like a play on film.


Will win: Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network

Should win: Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network

Sorkin did a masterful job with a literate and entertaining script. He'll beat, Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, 127 Hours; Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich, Toy Story 3; Joel & Ethan Coen, True Grit; and Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, Winter's Bone.

But a word must be said about 127 Hours. Boyle and Beaufoy made something riveting out of a story about a guy stuck in a hole in the ground in the middle of nowhere. Quite an achievement.


Will win: David Seidler, The King's Speech

Should win: Mike Leigh, Another Year

Inception was nominated for best picture, and lots of folks thought its director - Christopher Nolan - should have found his way onto the best-director's list. The Academy could use this category to make up for a snub, a possibility that became more likely after The Writers Guild of America gave Nolan its top honor. Still, it's even more likely that Seidler will be swept to victory as part of the rising King's Speech tide. Other nominees: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, The Fighter; Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, The Kids Are All Right.

Another Year is the most adult movie in the bunch, but I don't think Leigh has much of a chance.


Will win: Inside Job

Should win: Restrepo

The other nominees are Exit Through the Gift Shop; Gasland; and Waste Land.

I can't get past the fact that directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger risked life and limb to make Restrepo, a deeply moving and sometimes frightening look at soldiers fighting in Afghanistan; I'm thinking (maybe "hoping" is a better word) that the Academy will recognize the power and importance of their achievement, even though most prognosticators seem to favor Inside Job, a terrific look at the recent financial meltdown.

Odds and ends. Toy Story 3 will win best-animated feature. Incendies (from Canada) seems the best bet in the foreign-language film category.

Best song? Do you care? I can't say that I do. So I'm going to stop right here and invite you to make your own picks. But I need to amend something I said earlier: I do have a rooting interest. I root for Oscar to be over so we can get back to going to the movies instead of wondering who's going to bore us with an interminable list of people who must be thanked.

Put another way: I love watching movies. Award shows? Not so much.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Another thriller with tension and plot holes

The build-up beats the resolution in a sometimes tense thriller.

Walking out of a preview screening of Unknown – a new thriller starring Liam Neeson – I turned to my wife and said, “If that hadn’t been based on a true story, I don’t think I would have believed a minute of it.”

I was being facetious, of course. Unknown is not based on a true story, and it’s not particularly believable, although much of the time I’m not sure its credibility really matters.

More to the point: If Unknown had had half a brain, it might have been an exceptional thriller. But wait. It does have half a brain – the half that can concoct an intriguing premise, create real tension and spice things up with decently mounted action sequences.

The other half? The half that knows how to bring a thriller to a satisfying conclusion? That half never seems to have developed.

Still, Unknown keeps you involved, in no small part because its story takes place Berlin during a chilly November weekend; the movie has enough frosty atmosphere to slide past some of its rough spots.

Neeson plays Martin Harris, a botanist who flies to Berlin with his wife (January Jones) for a biotech convention. When he arrives at his hotel, Harris realizes that he’s left his briefcase at the airport. He grabs a cab, and races back to the airport. En route, the cab gets into a horrific accident. Harris winds up in a four-day coma.

When he awakens and tries to resume his life, he’s greeted with alarming news. His wife no longer recognizes him. Worse yet, another man is claiming to be Martin Harris. This impostor seems to be living Harris’ life.

This leads to the obvious questions: Has Harris gone crazy? Is there a scandalous plot afoot? For reasons neither Harris nor we know, is someone trying to push the real Harris aside? It’s either the world’s greatest case of identity theft or Harris has fallen prey to paranoid delusions, a distinct possibility because he hit his head during the vividly presented crash.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan) has skills. He knows how to create suspense, put an action sequence in motion and keep us wondering just when Unknown’s going to get around to making sense of a plot that’s better in the build-up than in its resolution.

Neeson (Clash of the Titans and Taken) seems to be making a habit of finding scripts that emphasize action, although this one does on occasion flirt with intelligence. Look, I like Neeson's work, but worry that his most interesting recent role took the form of a near-cameo in Paul Haggis’ forgettable The Next Three Days. He played an expert on jailbreaks.

The rest of the cast proves variable. Jones, best known for her work in Mad Men, seems a one-dimensional actress in a role that required at least two. Veteran German actor Bruno Ganz may be looking a bit decrepit, but still can steal a scene. Ganz plays a private investigator and former Stasi officer who tries to help Martin figure out what’s happening to him.

And Diane Kruger (of Inglourious Basterds) does a decent enough job as an illegal Bosnian immigrant who drives the cab that plunges Martin into a river. Kruger’s Gina may be able to help Martin straighten out the mess in which he finds himself.

The movie never really untangles all of its own messes, but it has some thrills and tension. In the end, you don’t need to believe its story to get something out of it. I hate to keep repeating this February mantra, but: Lower your expectations and proceed accordingly.

'Barney's Version' needed more bite

Giamatti's in peak form, but he can't bring this adaptation of a Mordecai Richler novel fully to life. fully to life.

Barney's Version, the late Mordecai Richler's final novel, has been brought to the screen with Paul Giamatti in the title role, a seemingly perfect match between player and character. Avid and hungry, Barney travels from the faux Bohemianism of youth to the well-established affluence of middle age, supporting his excesses from success as a producer of a crappy but popular sitcom in Montreal.

Giamatti does Barney justice. He captures Barney's boundless skepticism, filtering it through the dawning realizations of a man who thinks he may have wasted his life. Giamatti understands Barney’s competitiveness, as well as his capacity for vindictive sarcasm. Barney is a man who can turn an inadvertent slight into a grudge match.

Of course, Barney drinks too much. Of course, he spends too many evenings planted on bar stools watching his beloved Montreal Canadians. Of course, he’s perpetually resentful.

Unfortunately, Giamatti’s performance can’t quite keep the movie from looking like an imitation of Richler’s novel rather than a full-bodied drama. On screen, Barney’s Version feels sketchy and episodic, a story in search of something to say.

The movie's title suggests a problem that surely would have confronted any filmmaker trying to adapt Richler's acerbic and very funny novel. Barney's Version was written in the first person. Mired in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, the always cynical Barney Panofsky reviews a life in which he made bundles of money, married three women, and, at one point, was suspected of murdering his best and most admired friend.

All of that worked well in a novel of caustic density. But director Richard J. Lewis can’t find a dramatic equivalent for the tug and bite of Richler's prose, which gave full vent to Barney’s every prejudice. What we get here is not Barney's version of events, but an outsider's view of Barney.

Barney, as someone in the novel says of him, is a collector of grievances. He also treats his impulses as if they were virtues. What else can be said of a guy who decides to fall in love with a stranger during his own wedding reception? Clearly, Barney is not afraid to court disaster. Maybe he even craves it.

Like Philip Roth, Richler, who died in 2001, sometimes found himself at odds with the Jewish community, perhaps because he seldom saw his characters through veils of sentimentality. He had a feeling for rough-and-tumble Jews who weren’t afraid of a fight, smart guys who didn’t always know how to get out of their own way.

On screen, though, some of Richler’s characters come off as caricatures. Barney's second wife (Minnie Driver), for example, is too much a spoiled brat of Montreal’s Jewish upper crust.

The pragmatic Panofsky men – particularly Barney’s father --stand in opposition to the privileged Jewish world that gave birth to Driver’s character. Dustin Hoffman, who's becoming a master of small roles, plays Izzy Panofsky, a retired Montreal detective of happily crude temperament. (A familial note: Hoffman's son Jake turns up late in the movie; he plays Barney's son.) Izzy may not be the world’s most self-aware person, but that’s precisely what makes him tolerable. He’s unashamed.

Barney's life revolves around three women: his first wife (Rachelle Lefevre) is a sexually advanced, free wheeling painter Barney meets as a young man during a period when he’s hanging around with artist and writer friends in Rome. (In the novel, this interlude takes place in Paris). Barney’s second wife (Driver) represents the life Barney’s supposed to lead. Lower middle class kid marries money, does all right for himself, improves his standing.

The love of Barney’s life, played by the beautiful and sophisticated British actress Rosamund Pike, seems detached from the class distinctions that ripple through Montreal’s Jewish community. Like most of the women in the movie, Pike’s Miriam never seems fully realized. She becomes Barney’s third wife.

Throughout the story, Barney tries to maintain his friendship with his dissolute but brilliant pal Boogie Moscovitch (Scott Speedman), a promising young writer whose life increasingly is dominated by drugs and alcohol. Even at his worst, Boogie never entirely surrenders the air of superiority that both attracts and repels Barney.

During the course of the movie, Barney's youth gives way to age. His life is tarnished by error, the onset of Alzheimer's, and the dissolution of his marriage to Miriam, thanks to a night of infidelity.

Marital disaster probably loomed anyway; Miriam already had begun to express a desire for self-realization, seeking to return to her pre-marital career as an NPR-style radio interviewer. She's supported in this ambition by a vegan producer (Bruce Greenwood), a man Barney immediately and thoroughly detests. And, yes, this part of the movie feels clichéd, a gesture toward passing time and trends, not unlike the long hair the characters sport in the movie’s Rome segments.

Some of Lewis’ scenes are vibrant and alive, and his movie stands as an often-interesting look at a man with enough appreciation of irony to name his production company, Totally Unnecessary Productions.

For all it gets right, Barney’s Version misses much of Richler's invaluable raucousness and rancor. It’s Barney’s story, but with a little too much of the bite removed from the incessant musings of an old dog who probably thinks he never really had his day.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

'Eagle' doesn't soar, but eventually flies

Mid-February isn't exactly an exciting time for new releases; The Eagle may be as good as we're likely to get.

If nothing else, The Eagle exposes us to a little Roman history. Based on the popular British novel by Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle builds its story around a lost Roman legion. In 120 AD, a 5,000-man legion - the Ninth -- vanished in Caledonia, an area now known as the Scottish highlands. The Legion's symbol - a golden eagle - was lost along with a fair amount of Roman honor.

Believing the empire disgraced, the emperor Hadrian built a wall (immodestly known as Hadrian's Wall) to separate areas controlled by Rome from the uncivilized wilds that he and his generals had failed to subdue.

I'm not sure that historians would agree with my description, but this is history as culled from The Eagle, which stars Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell, the former as a Roman commander, the latter as a Scottish slave. Together our bickering heroes set out to recover the lost eagle and return it to Rome, fighting off foes and building a sword-and-sandals bromance.

Tatum's Marcus Aquila, who speaks a very contemporary sounding English, wants to restore his family's honor. It seems his father commanded the lost legion, and took most of the blame for the Caledonia debacle.

I know. By now, you're thinking I should get on with it already. Is The Eagle any good or not?

To this question, I must apply the assessment that seems most fitting for these sluggish months between the dawn of the New Year and arrival of the Oscar ceremonies: The Eagle strikes me as another movie that may be not be great, but proves acceptable for the moment.

The movie owes much of its interest to a well-worn tactic: Marcus and his slave - Bell's Esca - embark on an adventure, which takes them beyond Hadrian's Wall into exotic turf, a kind of no-man 's-land that brims with peril. Wild-looking Caledonian tribesmen - the warriors sport Mohawks and painted faces and are called the Seal People - inhabit the movie's eerie landscapes.

This part of the story is preceded by a lengthy prologue in which Marcus lands in Britain, where he initially meets with resentment from hardened veterans who view his arrival as a bad omen.

Marcus wins the men over in an early battle in which he's badly wounded. This leads to a period of recuperation with his uncle (a bearded Donald Sutherland). While staying with his uncle, he meets Esca, a slave who comes owes Marcus allegiance for saving his life.

Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) includes a fair measure of action, much of it shot in disorienting close-ups, over-edited sequences that simulate the frenzied feeling of battle. This is the current vogue, and provides me with an opportunity to throw another log on the fires of my dissatisfaction: Damn few filmmakers know how to direct a coherent fight sequence anymore.

Tatum maintains a stern attitude throughout; he looks the part of a young Roman officer, even if he sometimes comes off as a junior grade Russell Crowe. Bell handles his slave duties well, particularly after a mid-picture plot twist. Esca and Marcus are captured; to save his master, Esca - a Caledonian by birth -- tells the Seal People that he has taken the Roman commander as his slave.

Macdonald and screenwriter Jeremy Brock, who worked together on The Last King of Scotland, build toward a finale that involves a desperate battle, lots of corny dialog and the sort of faux inspiration that we've seen a thousand times before, the usual bromides about fighting for brotherhood, honor and country.

You get the idea: The Eagle probably won't find a home among the great historical epics of cinema, but for February 2011, it might be as good as it gets.

Insurance -- but just for laughs

Cedar Rapids has John C. Reilly, Anne Heche and Ed Helms. There are laughs, too, but perhaps not as many as you might expect.
If there's a less promising setting for a comedy than a convention of midwestern insurance agents, I'm not sure what it would be. A gathering of morticians? Amazingly, director Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt) manages to pry some laughs out of a totally banal situation. At Arteta's disposal: a barrel full of gross humor, several interesting performances and a topical twist. * About that twist? It seems the insurance agents increasingly are being overtaken by a God squad mentality. John C. Reilly plays a crass agent whose boisterous behavior stands in opposition to all the faux Christian piety; Anne Heche, in what might be her best screen performance yet, portrays an agent of similar temperament. These two understand what conventions are really about: binge drinking, random sex and hard partying. * The movie centers on Tim Lippe (Ed Helms of The Hangover), a straight-shooting agent who's attending his first convention. Tim leaves home reluctantly: He's having an affair with his former seventh-grade teacher (Sigourney Weaver), and mistakenly thinks of her as his girlfriend. She's just in it for the sex. * When Tim arrives at the convention, his solidly square views are put to the test. * The movie, which also features the calming influences of Isiah Whitlock Jr. (as another agent), seems intent on affirming free-spirited raunchy behavior, friendship and loyalty, but its humor tends toward one-note expressions and it often falls face forward into piles of its own bad taste. * Somehow, though, Helms (a convincing idiot), O'Reilly and Heche keep the thing going. Too bad Cedar Rapids isn't nearly as funny or as sharp as must have been intended.
Also opening in Denver today are the Academy Award nominees for best live-action feature short films and best animated short films. Both programs offer a high degree of creativity. If I had to choose one over the other (separate admissions are being charged at Landmark's Mayan Theatre), I'd pick the live-action shorts. * But wait, then I'd miss the brilliant and funny Let's Pollute, an animated film from director Geefee Boedoe. Bodoe displays considerable wit in presenting what seems to an alternate-universe educational film, one that encourages viewers to make sure to their bit to despoil the world. We're talking satire, of course. * And I'd also miss, The Lost Thing. A lovely bit of animation from Australia, Lost Thing tells the story of a boy who finds a ... well ... lost thing, an improbable cross between a deep-sea creature and a machine. The boy tries to find the thing a home. * Among the live-action shorts, I'm partial to The Confession, a dark look at English boys on the verge of their first communions, and The Crush, a surprising Irish entry about a schoolboy's infatuation with his teacher. Wish 143, about a cancer-stricken teen-ager who'd like to have sex before he expires, is equally worthy.

Oh hell, go see both programs. A healthy dose of short films has the kind of restorative power movie fans may need to keep themselves going during a dry stretch at the movies.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

An underground quest for survival

Sanctum has decent action and 3D depth, but the script ... er ... what script?

When James Cameron, executive producer of the new movie Sanctum, gets involved with an "underground movie," he seems to take the phrase literally. Set in what's billed as the world's largest cave, Sanctum burrows deep into the Earth, dragging Cameron's highly developed 3D cameras along with it.

Promotional materials for Sanctum make prominent use of Cameron's name, but Sanctum arrives on screen without the gargantuan - or maybe Titanic - appeal of a James Cameron "event" movie. In the hierarchy of releases, Sanctum earns B-movie status. Put another way: It's no king of the movie world.

That's not to say that this underground adventure, executive produced by Cameron, has nothing going for it. Images of divers floating in lonely underground pools or squeezing through impossibly narrow spaces or scaling slippery cave walls can be both mysterious and intense. Hell, if you don't care about trivial matters such as plot, acting and dialog, you may even have a good time.

Sanctum takes us to Papua New Guinea where a group of cavers is in the midst of a major exploration. Indistinguishable at first, the movie's characters eventually blossom, but only into clichés: the tough expedition leader, his son, a young man who thinks his father is an unfeeling jerk, the brash expedition sponsor, the sponsor's girlfriend, etc.

A title card at the beginning tells us that Sanctum was inspired by a true story. Pay attention to the word "inspired." I've read that in 1988, Andrew Wight, a caver and documentary filmmaker who receives a co-screenwriting credit here, led an expedition into an Australian cave. A party of 15 explorers was stranded. All eventually were rescued.

You can rest assured that's not the case with Sanctum. If caving isn't your thing, you can occupy idle moments by guessing who's likely to expire as the cavers desperately seek an escape route. A cyclone has cut them off from the cave's entrance, a giant hole in the ground that allows for some dizzying, early-picture images.

The cast isn't brimming with marquee names, and the performances are adequate at best. Richard Roxburgh plays Frank McGuire, the tough-minded leader of the expedition. Rhys Wakefield portrays McGuire's son Josh, a young man who's highly critical of his father. Ioan Gruffudd appears as the expedition's sponsor.

But let me return to the beginning, to a script in which the only novel twist involves the way a couple of badly injured characters die.

Couldn't there have been a story meeting in which someone raised one or all of the following issues?

"Let's either strip this thing down to minimalist action or hire someone to tweak the dialog. And wouldn't it be less confusing if we spent more time introducing the characters? Wouldn't that make it easier for audiences to feel something when the characters start to fall victim to natural terrors? Is a contrived father/son conflict really enough to sustain interest? Are we being way too predictable? And what exactly are we trying to say anyway?"

You get the idea: Sanctum - directed without distinction by Alister Grierson -- is like half a movie; it has great locations, some interesting effects and a palpable desire to create the sensations associated with caving at its most dangerous: The rest seems to have been swept away by the same cyclonic currents that stranded our adventurers in the first place.

The 3-D? If you've read any of my reviews, you know I'm sick of it, and Sanctum did little to change my mind. Maybe that's just me. But just to set the record straight: I want to make it clear that I like B-movies, particularly if they show gritty intelligence and some no-holds-barred attitude. Too often, Sanctum feels as if has been made by people who leaped headlong into a cave without adequate preparation.

When things go from bad to worse

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's reach exceeds his grasp in Biutiful, but Javier Bardem's performance is nothing less than haunting.

Javier Bardem probably is best known to American audiences for winning a supporting-actor Oscar for his performance as the quietly ruthless Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men. The premier Spanish actor now has been nominated for another Oscar: He's up for best actor for his performance in Biutiful, the latest movie from Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Set entirely in the Spanish city of Barcelona, Biutiful also has been nominated for best foreign language film.

That's plenty of pedigree, but I'm not sure Biutiful lives up to it. I say this as an admirer of Inarritu's work in movies such as Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel. Inarritu's well-regarded trilogy tried to capture the tormented complexity of contemporary life. Collaborating with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, Inarritu attempted to devour what we might call "the whole contemporary ball of wax," a world shattered into into a zillion painful pieces.

In Biutiful, Inarritu, who has parted ways with Arriaga, has written his own script, concentrating a whole lot of woe in one character, Bardem’s Uxbal, a troubled and troubling man.

Bardem creates great sympathy for a man who’s engaged in illegal activities. But that's only one of Uxbal's many burdens: He's dying of a long-untended prostate cancer; he's separated from his drug-addicted, alcoholic wife, and he's attempting to raise two children -- a daughter and a son -- without much support. The gifted Bardem makes us share in the agonies that gather around Uxbal like angry furies. We feel for him, even when his torments are self-inflicted.

Bardem shows us that Uxbal is keenly aware of his shortcomings, burdened by guilt and sometimes unable to control his rage. And, yet, somewhere deep in the core of Uxbal’s being, Bardem finds traces of innocence, trust and tenderness. He gives a performance of amazing complexity.

But Biutiful strives to be more than a character study, which may be why it runs into trouble. Uxbal’s tumultuous life extends into Barcelona's lower depths where he works with Chinese businessmen who exploit immigrants in horrific sweatshops. He also manages the affairs of African illegals who operate as street peddlers, often running afoul of the police despite Uxbal’s dutiful payment of bribes.

If you’re familiar with Inarritu’s work, you will not be surprised to learn that Biutiful can be arrestingly – even beautifully – photographed. You’ll also know that Inarritu creates knockout sequences. But you may also remember that, like a hungry kid, Inarritu tends to pile too much on his plate and that not all of his attempts at metaphor are equally effective.

For reasons that never are fully explored, Uxbal is able to communicate with the dead. He has the power to slip into the next world and talk with the recently departed, a paranormal skill with which he evidently was born. Not everyone appreciates this talent. In an early scene, a distraught mother accuses Uxbal of lying about what her young, departed son has told him.

To further thicken an already thick stew, Uxbal and his brother are involved in exhuming the grave of their dead father, a man Uxbal never knew. At the age of 24, Uxbal’s father fled to Mexico to escape Franco’s fascist minions. He died shortly after leaving Spain, and his body was shipped home. Commercial developers now want to open the man's crypt and move his body.

If Biutiful has an emotional core, it revolves around issues of fatherhood. Uxbal wants to be a good father, but he’s fearful about what will happen to his kids when he’s gone. Will they remember him? What can he leave them? Will they even be safe? Their mother (Maricel Alvarez) has short-lived periods of sobriety, but seems unable to resist her worst impulses.

Inarritu isn't afraid of gloom, angst and desperation, but it's possible that, this time, he has confused depression with thematic seriousness. There’s no denying that Biutiful can be bit of an ordeal.

But it can't entirely be dismissed either. If Inarritu's reach exceeds his grasp, at least he’s reaching for something, and in Bardem he has found an actor who can plumb these kinds of depths with extraordinary compassion.