Friday, December 28, 2007

My 10 best movies of the year

You'll find one instance of doubling up here, but in a good year, why be stingy? I saw some truly memorable films toward the end of 2007, and had a stimulating enough time at the movies to make me forget the year's plentiful supply of junk.

My Ten:

1. "No Country For Old Men." Try as I might I can't make a case for any other movie. Spare and beautifully made, Joel and Ethan Coen's movie delivers a mythic dose of the American dark side. Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem all excelled.

2. "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." Julian Schnabel takes us inside the mind of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former editor of Elle magazine who at age 45 suffered a massive stroke and was "locked" inside his paralyzed body. The filmmaking ranges from realistic to lyrical, and Schanbel achieves the near-impossible: He's made a movie about a man who can't move.

3. "Persepolis." Yes, it's animated, but director Marjane Satrapi's big-screen adaptation of her graphic novel tells an unforgettable autobiographical story about the way in which the director grew up in Iran and ultimately fled the country that bridled her spirit.

4. "There Will Be Blood." Paul Thomas Anderson's latest -- with a bravura performance by Daniel Day-Lewis -- is too strange and haunting to ignore, a sparse diatribe about the perils of capitalistic greed and religious hypocrisy. In short, another movie about the American dark side.

5. "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days." Cristian Mungiu's look at the plight of a young woman trying to obtain an abortion in Romania during the 1980s is harrowing and revealing. Mungiu's movie probably won't open in most of the country until 2008.

6. "Michael Clayton." Of all the mainstream movies I saw in 2007, I enjoyed none more than "Michael Clayton," a thriller starring George Clooney as a lawyer who cleans up other people's messes.

7. "Zodiac." David Fincher's recounting of the story of the Zodiac killings was meticulously detailed and ultimately compelling, a great depiction of the way cops and the media work."

8. "Away From Her" and "The Savages." Two movies that deal with dementia. In "Away From Her," Julie Christie plays a woman inflicted with Alzheimer's. In "The Savages," Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney turn into the Spencer Tracy and Kathrine Hepburn of the extended adolescent set. They play siblings who put their aging father (Philip Bosco) in a nursing home.

9. "This is England." Director Shane Meadows tells a hard-boiled story about growing up Punk in England during the 1980s. It didn't spend much time in theaters, so look for it on DVD.

10. "Juno." Teen movies don't get much better, and this one featured a terrific performance from Ellen Page as the title character in a comedy about teen pregnancy. Sharply written by newcomer Diablo Cody, the movie has wit, heart and a welcome willingness to shatter stereotypes.

Honorable mentions, "Once," "Eastern Promises" and "Charlie Wilson's War."

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A movie about a man who cannot move

Summary: Julian Schnabel remains an outsized cultural figure who has dominated the art world and who sometimes has found himself at the center of arguments about the importance of his painting and the size of his ego. I'm not qualified to comment on Schnabel's painting, but after three movies, I feel comfortable saying that he's one hell of a filmmaker. In addition to having an apparently natural talent for the art of film, he's been smart about casting and story selection in three successive movies: "Basquiat," "Before Night Falls" and now "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." Visually creative and thematically daring, "Diving Bell" earns its place as one of the best movies of the year.

Jean-Dominique Bauby led a seemingly charmed life as a Parisian man-about-town and editor of Elle magazine. But at age 45, Bauby's luck ran out. A massive stroke left him with what the doctors called "locked-in syndrome." Aside from being able to blink with his left eye, Bauby was totally paralyzed. But Bauby also was mentally alert; his lively consciousness was trapped in a near-lifeless body.

The movie has been taken from a memoir that Bauby was able to create with effort that only can be described as gargantuan. Bauby dictated by blinking his eye as an attendant read him the alphabet; a blink signaled when the reader had reached the right letter. Think about that for a second; even writing a small book under such circumstances qualifies as an extraordinary act of will. Bauby died several weeks after the book was published.

Just as Bauby's condition was rare, little about the movie's visual expressions can be called matter-of-fact. Schnabel allows Bauby's alarmingly limited point of view to dominate the picture. We see as Bauby sees, following his thoughts as he awakens from a coma and perceives Dr. Lepage (Patrick Chesnais) standing over him. Lepage has been charged with explaining Bauby's condition, and he does so in a frank but perhaps overly chipper way that annoys Bauby.

Bauby's thoughts, as spoken by Mathieu Amalric, the fine actor who plays the fallen editor, serve as a kind of narration for the movie, immediately letting us know that an immobilized body does not mean loss of the ability to detect nonsense and pap. These early scenes are so compelling that we feel every ripple of Bauby's anxiety, as he slowly grasps what has happened to him.

The movie, exquisitely shot by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, doesn't stay with this perspective. We eventually move in and out of it, as "Diving Bell" expands. But the core of "Diving Bell" involves the brilliant depiction of a journey into the fields of Bauby's memory and imagination. By masterfully immersing us in Bauby's point of view, Schnabel shows us that it's possible to make a truly cinematic movie about a man who cannot move.

Schnabel's film also is a mini-character study. Bauby's no disease-of-the-week foil for an inspirational message. He's rueful enough to grasp and express the ironies that have befallen him. A prime example: He's surrounded by beautiful women, and unable to act on what remains of his sybaritic impulses. Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze) helps him learn how to communicate by teaching him to blink to the alphabet. Emmanuelle Seigner portrays the mother of Bauby's children. He pointedly tells us that she's not his wife. He also thinks about the mistress (Julia Hands) who won't visit him.

Although Schnabel sometimes takes us on Bauby's flights of fancy and makes generous use of a subjective camera, he never loses touch with a sense of authenticity. "Diving Bell" was filmed at the hospital where Bauby was treated, and when Schnabel's viewing things from Bauby's point-of-view, the film maintains strict visual discipline.

An additional performance deserves mention: Veteran actor Max von Sydow -- with very little screen time -- creates a rigorous and hauntingly vivid portrait of an aging man in decline. Von Sydow plays Bauby's father, a mini-masterpiece of acting that tells us a lot about what it means to grow old. To make matters more poignant, a father's frailty -- the result of a natural progression of time -- contrasts with the sudden debilitation experienced by his son.

"Diving Bell" gains in stature because it offers us more than an opportunity to experience life from a harrowing perspective. It reminds us that physical trauma does not cause a loss of humanity. Bauby's body may be paralyzed, but his mind? No, that works just fine. He's rueful, caustic, funny and sorrowful -- immobilized but still shockingly human. When the wind flutters the skirt of an attractive visitor, Bauby's eye is drawn to her legs. We do not know whether he watches with the joy of remembered pleasure or with the pain of current deprivation, but he watches right up until the end -- one eye wide open.

When father is away with dementia

Summary: "The Savages," from director Tamara Jenkins, is one of the most amusing and knowing movies ever made about the problems of dealing with an aging parent. What makes the movie so credible? Its two main characters -- a brother and sister played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney -- have no idea what to do when dad begins to disappear inside his own dementia.

Jenkins hasn't made a feature since 1998's "The Slums of Beverly Hills." Now that she's back with "The Savages," we only can hope that she doesn't wait another 9 years before deciding to move behind the camera again. Frank and often funny, "The Savages" shows us what happens when two grown (though not necessarily mature) siblings are asked to deal with a father who no longer can live on his own. Dad (Philip Bosco) loses his companion, his house and his mind -- all in the movie's opening scenes. It then falls to two ill-prepared children to figure out what to do.

Hoffman's Jon -- an academic who specializes in the plays of Brecht -- suggests that dad be transported from a retirement heaven in Arizona to a nursing home in Buffalo. That's where Jon Lives. From the sunny climes of Arizona to the frozen streets of Buffalo in the middle of a bad winter (and there aren't many other kinds in Buffalo) is journey enough to discourage even the most persistent of optimists and it throws the movie into the icy shadows of despair.

Under the best of circumstances, putting a parent in a nursing home is difficult, and "The Savages" hardly presents us with the best of circumstances. Both Jon and his sister Wendy have been living on their own -- he in Buffalo; she in Manhattan. They're not close to each other or to their father. Both have difficulty with relationships -- Jon with a Polish girlfriend whose visa has expired and Wendy with her married lover (Peter Friedman). Friedman's character stops by Wendy's apartment for quickies when he's supposed to be out walking his dog. So much for relationships.

Anyone who's ever dealt with an aging parent will find plenty that's familiar in Jenkins' trenchant little movie. Guilt. Worry. Anger. All of these emotions surface as Jon and Wendy -- even their names sound childish -- suddenly are forced to deal with a problem they can't ignore. Jon may try to lose himself in the books that are scattered around his apartment and Wendy may aspire to become a great playwright, but no amount of busy work or artistic aspiration can disguise what looms. In an odd way, "The Savages" is the first real coming-of-age picture that we've seen in some time, and if the characters are maturing late, well, maybe that's the cultural moment in which we find ourselves.

Watching Hoffman and Linney proves one of the movie's great pleasures. They're the Tracy and Hepburn of extended adolescence, and their interactions can be both touching and amusing. These are two of the finest actors working today, and if you want to see two flawless performances by one actor, you'd do well to catch Hoffman in both "The Savages" and "Charlie Wilson's War." You can't say the same about Linney, but only because she has only one movie in release this season.

For the most part, "The Savages" is a two-hander. Wendy temporarily moves to Buffalo to be near her father, taking up residence on Jon's couch. Life seems to contract for both of them, but in one particularly tender scene, Wendy has a late-night talk with a Nigerian hospital worker (Gbenga Akinnagbe), sharing the kind of intimacies that are possible when at least one participant in the conversation is under great stress.

When "The Savages" showed as the opening-night film of the Starz Denver Film Festival, I heard grumbling. "Too much a downer for opening night." "I lived through something like that and don't want to see it at the movies." I should point out that I did not regard "The Savages" as a downer. Honesty on film is too rare a commodity not to be celebrated when we find it. I also think that those of us who have lived through situations that resemble the one in the movie (and I have) should be applauding loudest.

So if you want "inspiration," go see "The Great Debaters." It's a good little movie, but if you want a slice of life that may strike close to home, "The Savages" awaits.


On the way out of a screening of Denzel Washington's "The Great Debaters," someone pointed out the obvious: This is a formula movie. But the strange thing about formula movies is that they often work. Hence, the formula.

If we've seen any number of movies about underdogs who wind up defeating supposedly superior powers, we haven't seen a story about a small black college in Texas where the debate team eventually takes on mighty on Harvard. Washington, who directed, plays debate coach Marvin B. Tolson, a professor who runs a tight ship at Wiley College. Tolson selects the members of the debate team and treats them with a mixture of respect and tough love.

James Farmer Jr., who eventually helped found the Congress of Racial Equality and who became a leading spokesman for Civil Rights, portrays the team's youngest member in a story that's loosely based on fact. Farmer's played with innocence and charm by Denzel Whitaker, no relation to either Washington or to Forest Whitaker, who appears as James Farmer Sr., a reverend and a man of keen intellect.

Washington obtains fine performances all around, and manages to offer a schematic but nonetheless telling portrait of the Jim Crow South. Harvard's debaters didn't have to push aside images of lynchings before focusing their powers of concentration. The Wiley debaters did.

Washington, who also directed "Antwone Fisher," seems to know that this kind of exercise doesn't allow for much digression. Still, Tolson's interest in organizing poor Texas sharecroppers (both black and white) probably doesn't receive as much attention as it should, maybe because Washington never tries to divert attention from the movie's young cast.

"The Great Debaters" ends with a predictable contest, but at least the participants are called upon to exercise wit, courage and intellect rather than the athletic prowess so many similar movies glorify. It's a nice way to freshen a formula.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Afghanistan -- from far and near

Summary: If you're of a certain age and view the '80s as a time of hard, unapologetic partying, you may relate to "Charlie Wilson's War," a movie devoted to proving that a good time need not be incompatible with a good conscience.

"Charlie Wilson's War" mixes political savvy with satirical observations about life in the '80s. This little-known story about the ways in which power can be wielded in Washington makes for one of the brightest, most entertaining movies of the season. And if director Mike Nichols can't quite give the movie the butt-kicking finale it deserves, he still manages to make points that have plenty of stinging relevance.

Although Nichols, working from a smart script by Aaron Sorkin, doesn't stop to deliver foreign-policy lectures, he reminds us that meddling in the world can be a risky business. Doing the right thing doesn't always produce the hoped-for results.

Aside from any moral you may wish to take from the story, you'll find a movie that's entertaining because it focuses on at least three outsized and mostly fascinating personalities. The first is the title character, Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), a Democrat and fun-loving bachelor who makes little attempt to conceal his taste for adult amusement -- that means women and Scotch.

During his Congressional tenure, Wilson received support and affection from a wealthy Houston conservative (Julia Roberts), who latched onto Afghanistan, partly because of her rabid anti-Communist leanings. The Congressman also managed to form an uneasy alliance with a shambling CIA agent (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

This odd mingling of interests resulted in an amazing increase in financial support and armaments for the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan, helping to hasten the expulsion of the Soviet Union from that rocky, forbidding corner of the world. Afghanistan benefited from the fact that Wilson was a member of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

"Charlie Wilson's War" tells its story in straight-ahead fashion. No stylistic flourishes are needed for a Scotch-soaked yarn about a congressman who enjoys a dip in a hot tub with naked women as much as he relishes a good debate. And Hanks ably conveys a key ingredient of Wilson's personality: The man isn't ashamed of enjoying himself; in the movie, he seldom appears at a social gathering without a drink in hand.

Although both Hanks and Roberts do fine work, Hoffman gives the most engaging performance as CIA agent Gust Avrakotos. On the outs with the power brokers at the CIA, Avrakotos is a witty, irreverent and wary man. If you're not entertained during every scene in which Hoffman appears, you may have a fatal resistance to being entertained. Avrakotos is both appalling and admirable, and you can't help rooting for a guy who isn't afraid to speak his mind and let jaws drop where they may.

In a strange way, "Charlie Wilson's War" overcomes its own cynicism, restoring faith in the human capacity for attainment. Maybe that's because the movie happily mixes absurdity, intelligence with trace elements of conscience. To make the picture even better, Nichols wisely fills the minor roles with strong performers: Amy Adams, as one of Wilson's pretty young assistants; Ned Beatty as a bloviating old pol; and the great Om Puri as President Zia of Pakistan.

Put it all together, and you have a movie that winks its way to success while sounding the most appropriate of cautionary notes: Absent a major helping of reconstruction, the U.S.'s covert victories in Afghanistan went sour. We're still paying the price.

The most exceptional thing about "The Kite Runner," director Marc Forster's adaptation of Kahled Hosseini's bestselling novel, arrives in the form of a performance from a young non-professional, the wondrous Ahmad Khan Mahmoodza. Mahmoozada portrays Hassan, a boy who lives as a servant in the home of a Pashtun aristocrat (Homayoun Ershadi) and his son Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi), the movie's main character.

For those few who haven't read the novel, I won't give away the plot development that sets off a story loaded with guilt, recrimination and last-minute attempts at redemption. What we on screen amounts to a truncated, illustrated version of Hosseini's novel, and that's not an entirely bad thing.

Best in its beginning sections, the movie loses steam when the grown Amir and his father emigrate to the U.S. The adult Amir (Khalid Abdalla) isn't all that interesting and neither is Abdalla's performance.

Though it has been trimmed, the essentials of Hosseini's novel remain, and the story should prove interesting to those who read it, as well as to those who haven't. Forster's direction never quite feels rich enough, though, and reaction to "The Kite Runner" remains admiration and interest mixed with the faint aroma of disappointment.

Stroll, don't run to "Walk Hard"

Summary: "Walk Hard, the Dewey Cox Story" goofs on musical bio pics, notably "Ray" and even more prominently "Walk the Line." Although director Jake Kasdan - with help from comedy whiz Judd Apatow -- understands the genre well enough to deliver a spot-on parody, his movie isn't as laugh-packed as you might expect.

John C. Reilly stars as Dewey Cox, a young man suffering from guilt acquired when, as a child, he accidentally cut his older brother in half with a machete. Hey, accidents happen. From that point on, Dewey's story follows the arc we've seen in what seems like a zillion biopics. Poor boy leaves home, marries young, makes it big, succumbs to the temptations of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, loses his marriage and finally hooks up with the love of his life (Jenna Fischer), a backup singer. He also constantly changes musical styles as he seeks ways to pander... I mean adapt... to shifting tastes.

As is the case with most broadly conceived parodies, "Walk Hard" runs the risk of giving offense. The song "Mama You Got to Love Your Negro Man'' -- sung by Dewey when he substitutes for a black blues singer who has taken ill -- may cause as much wincing as chuckling, and the movie doesn't hesitate to serve up tasteless jokes based on the bigoted belief that Jews run all of show business.

Still, Walk Hard" is not a movie to belabor: There's an amusing sendup of the Beatles during their LSD, Transcendental Meditation period. Paul Rudd, Jack Black, Jason Schwartzman and Justin Long play the Beatles. And you should find just enough laughs to keep you from turning against a comedy that grows repetitive as it mocks every genre cliche it can find, throwing in a few shockers to boot. Most notable among these: some full-frontal male nudity.

Those who know Reilly's work won't be surprised to learn that he's pitch perfect as the increasingly ravaged Dewey, but I was expecting Kasdan and company to hit the comedy bull's eye. Instead, they've managed nicely to survive the perils of what amounts to a one-joke comedy.


It's not a comedy, but "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" is a joke, a preposterous movie that follows 2004's "National Treasure." Nicolas Cage returns to show that he can still overact. More trash than treasure, this one seemed to prove only one thing: Ed Harris and Helen Mirren can appear in bad movies and survive with their dignity in tact. That's saying something, particularly when we're talking about a movie that expects us to believe that there's a golden city located beneath Mount Rushmore. The plot: Cage tries to clear the name of an ancestor who recently has been implicated by a theorists who say he was part of a conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. If there's any real fun here, it's as hidden as the silly book of secrets that gives the movie its title.

"Sweeney Todd" is dark and razor sharp

Summary: Tim Burton's big-screen adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" may not be a musical triumph, but Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are fine actors, acceptable singers and gutsy artists. Moreover, the entire production has a dark and vicious gleam that seems entirely right.

On the way out of a preview screening of Tim Burton's big-screen adaptation of the musical "Sweeney Todd," I heard someone mutter, "What garbage!" This quick condemnation made me think that this sometimes gruesome movie might be in for a rough ride at the box office, particularly among those who don't understand that they've purchased a ticket for a musical about an aggrieved and apparently remorseless serial killer.

Depp, who in addition to being a fine actor seems to specialize in weird hairdos, sinks deeply into the role of the notorious Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and Burton -- no slouch when it comes to darkly hued material -- makes the movie his own while still honoring Sondheim's intent.

Not surprisingly, Burton also refuses to shortchange those who expect gore in a story about a man who kills with a razor. Be forewarned: You can feel the repulsive gushing of blood as Sweeney plies his unholy trade in a quest for the vengeance to which he sees himself as richly entitled. I don't know what it means, but Depp ("Edward Scissorhands") again joins forces with Burton in a story involving sharp objects. (In fairness, the two have worked together in other capacities. Witness "Corpse Bride," "Sleepy Hollow" and "Ed Wood.")

Sweeney is cold-blooded and dead-eyed, but Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovett is no prize either. Mrs. Lovett delights in making meat pies out of the remains of Sweeney's victims, corpses that are unceremoniously dumped into the basement of her pie shop. As interpreted by Bonham Carter, an actress who also seems to have a knack for hairdos that obey no rules, Lovett is both conniving and loving. She's devoted to Sweeney in ways that make her both lover and accomplice.

Alan Rickman, whose voice can be smooth as a flat prong on the devil's pitchfork, plays Judge Turpin, the man who wrongly sentenced Sweeney -- then known as Benjamin Barker -- to a 15-year term in prison. Worse yet, the judge raised Benjamin's daughter (Jayne Wisener) and now keeps her as a prisoner. He hopes to use her to satisfy his most lascivious cravings.

Just when you thought the movie was weird enough, up pops Sacha Baron Cohen in a cameo as Signor Adolfo Pirelli, a barber who dares to challenge Sweeney's tonsorial skills.

Despite the presence of such goodies, fans of the musical should know that Burton has cut the story from three hours to two and you won't hear every tune that graced the Broadway and touring productions.

"Sweeney Todd" may not be the kind of musical that leaves you humming to yourself on the way out theater. The movie has (as it should) a truly ghastly quality. Don't be surprised, though, if "Sweeney Todd" garners Oscar attention for cinematographer Dariusz Volski and production designer Dante Ferretti. That's as it should be. "Sweeney Todd" is a dark beauty of a film that alters Sondheim's musical for the screen without cutting its cold heart to pieces.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Teen pregnancy -- for laughs and for real

Summary: Most teen-agers don't talk like Juno, the pregnant heroine of Jason Reitman's new comedy, but then most movies about teen-agers don't credit young people with having much depth or intelligence. Written by newcomer Diablo Cody, "Juno" manages a neat trick: it's breezy and human at the same time.

Juno (Ellen Page) begins the movie of which she's the title character by discovering that she's pregnant. It may sound strange to say that teen-pregnancy marks the beginning of a comedy, but it's probably fitting. Before it's done, "Juno" manages to shatter more than a few stereotypes. Director Jason Reitman brings snappy pacing to his second movie, following on the heels of "Thank Your For Smoking," and Page's performance already is being pushed for an Oscar nomination. She deserves one.

Awards aside, credit Page, who starred in the little-seen "Hard Candy," with creating a character who responds to her situation as a child of the new century. She might as well be a reacting to a movie. She's smart, funny and critical about what's happening to her, and she probably doesn't fully grasp the difficulty she's created for herself.

Those who find "Juno" off-putting because teen-agers don't usually come wrapped in so much glib banter may be selling Page's performance short. She makes the character into a believable young eccentric, and the times when the eccentricities seem a trifle forced are overcome by stretches in which you forget about Cody's writing (she was discovered turning out a blog) and begin to take Juno for what she is: a plucky kid who pushes past resistance -- in her brief and slightly absurd life and in the hearts of audiences unaccustomed to kids who give as good as they get.

After flirting with abortion, Juno decides to have the baby but to give it up for adoption. Enter a suburban couple (Jason Batement and Jennifer Garner) so typical they look as if they've been torn from the pages of a catalog. Don't let appearances fool you. As the movie progresses, Bateman's character becomes more shallow, and Garner's deepens, and before you know it, "Juno" begins to dig deeper than its breezy opening may have led you to believe possible.

Even Juno's parents -- dad (J.K. Simmons) and step-mom (Allison Janey) -- are allowed to blossom as characters. When they first hear about Juno's pregnancy, they acknowledge that they'd hoped her "confession" could have been about drug use or a DUI. Anything, but a pregnancy. But guess what? Turns out they'd rather support their kid than humiliate her.

Reitman further adds to the movie's appeal by casting Michael Cera ("Superbad") as Juno's more-or-less love interest and the father of her child. For every moment that threatens to shatter credibility, Cera serves as an odd antidote. His expressions of mild confusion say a lot, as do the times when he (as you would expect from a kid in his position) says nothing. Dumbstruck by the situation, he doesn't try to express more than he's capable of understanding. His personality may not be fully formed, but he, too, is bowled over by Juno.

"I Am Legend." "I Am Also Noisy"

Summary: Hollywood finally has its holiday moneymaker, a big-screen adaptation of Richard Matheson's futuristic novel about the sole survivor of a biological apocalypse. Set in the deserted streets of New York City, the movie has a powerful look, a strong performance by Will Smith and (alas) vampiric zombies whose body-smashing, ear-splitting attacks arrive with increasing regularity.

Will Smith seems to be the only star left who can open a movie, and he's bound to score again with "I Am Legend," the story of a scientist who finds himself living alone in New York City after the population has been decimated by a plague-like virus. Smart in its development, the movie quickly gives way to the customary horror shocks. And I have to admit that my heart sank when I realized that "I Am Legend" was going to spend time pitting Smith's Robert Neville against flesh-eating former humans who've been turned into sun-fearing cannibals by a virus to which Neville (for some reason) is immune.

The picture begins to slip once Neville's German Shepherd Sam (short for Samantha) meets her sorry fate. And I'm tired of creatures whose greatest strength seems to involve a willingness to crash into walls - again and again. But that won't stop audiences from gobbling this one up the way that the zombies devour the living. Enough said.

Oh, one more thing: Director Francis Lawrence does a fine job handling large-scale scenes such as the evacuation of Manhattan, staged at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. And, yes, I spent a lot of time wondering how the effects wizards managed to make New York City look deserted. Glutted with abandoned cars, vacant buildings and overgrown weeds, the Big Apple definitely appeared to be rotting. Oh well, it's amazing what computers and a little cooperation from a city's bureaucracy can accomplish.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

"No Country For Old Men," the ending's right

Summary: In response to those who quarrel with the ending of "No Country For Old Men," all I can tell you is that I had no problems with it. Here's why.

When people complain about the ending of "No Country For Old Men," as some have, I'm not entirely sure whether they're upset about what the Coen brothers show or what they don't. Perhaps it's the abruptness of the cut after Tommy Lee Jones, as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, finishes the movie's final bit of dialogue that spooks people. Bell tells his wife (Tess Harper) about a dream he's had. The screen goes black as death before the credits roll. Maybe we feel uneasy because we can't help but yearn for a little reassurance after watching a movie that has spent the better part of two hours demonstrating that none shall be forthcoming.

It's also worth remembering that the movie began with Sheriff Bell talking about where he thought he'd been and where he found himself at the moment the film starts. Evidently Bell believes that, in the not-too-distant past, criminal activity was connected to motives. A lawman who fought crime eventually might get around to understanding what he was up against. In any case, Bell's two monologues -- one off-camera and one on -- serve as battered old bookends, leaning against all the sorrow and horror the movie has to offer.

In the opening monologue -- delivered while the Coens' camera reveals a desolate Western landscape -- Bell recounts the story of a 14-year-old boy who not only committed a senseless murder, but made no attempt to hide a matter-of-fact attitude toward the evil he had wrought. Bell made the arrest. The kid went to the chair.

What a waste. It wasn't even a crime of passion. Crimes of passion can't be justified, but they can be understood.

"No Country For Old Men" deals with incomprehensible violence, incomprehensible to everyone except Chigurh, the character played by Javier Bardem. Chigurh, whose first name is Anton, operates on a different plane than those he pursues. Although he's versatile when it comes to killing, Chigurh's preferred method involves use of an instrument normally employed to kill cattle in slaughterhouses. People. Cattle. It's all the same to him.

Chigurh has principles of some sort, although we're not entirely sure what they might be. Whatever they are, they're not the same as whatever motivates folks in the ordinary world -- greed, lust or a desire simply to get away with something. No, Chigurh brings a purer kind of menace to the proceedings, and maybe he stands for just about everything that's driving Bell toward defeat, the horror he (and we) can't see coming.

But back to that final scene. The newly retired Bell sits across the breakfast table from his wife. He's just hung up his badge, which we take as less of an act of satisfaction than an abandonment of hope. We may fairly conclude that Bell's twilight years will be tinged with puzzlement and sorrow. In his troubled leisure, he'll probably dream the same dream again and again, the one he describes to his wife, the one in which his lawman father rides ahead of him, negotiating a dark mountain pass to make a safe place for his son. Each time Bell dreams about the father who silently rides ahead, he'll awaken to a defenseless world in which there are no safe places.

We're chastened at the severity of the movie's view. To build that feeling into something even more powerful, the Coens don't bother to show us the biggest murders in the movie. They offer no climactic satisfaction in the bloodshed and no solace for those who hope for even the mildest expression of optimism. As Bell says about Chigurh -- whom he never lays eyes on -- the man's got some hard bark on him.

So does the movie. So does the ending. I have no complaints about it. Not one.

Friday, December 7, 2007

A literary "Atonement" reaches the screen

Summary: "Atonement" is well crafted in the way that a thoughtful literary adaptation should be, yet the movie lags from time-to-time and ultimately suffers from a feeling of over-construction, the self-conscious air that sometimes arises from arty aspiration. Beautifully shot and slavishly respectful of its source -- Ian McEwan's much-admired 2002 novel -- "Atonement" proves impressive, but fails to deliver a knockout blow.

Director Joe Wright received mixed reviews for his adaptation of Jane Austen's "Pride & Prejudice," but he did manage to infuse Austen with a welcome sense of buoyancy and youth. In turning his hand to another novel -- Ian McEwan's "Atonement" -- Wright appears committed to doing justice to a second obviously literary book. He and writer Christopher Hampton create a movie in which the polish and refinement of craft often outstrips the vivifying tumult of art. The longer the movie goes on, the more constructed and the less organic it feels.

The story centers on Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring young writer who -- at the age of 13 -- commits a crime that haunts her for the rest of her life. The adolescent Briony's uneasy about sex and mistrustful of her older sister (Keira Knightley). She also adopts a rather cavalier attitude toward the upwardly mobile son (James McAvoy) of the family housekeeper. Spurred by a pungent adolescent imagination, Briony proves that what one sees isn't always what it seems.

"Atonement" takes us from 1935 through World War II and beyond for the movie's surprising and poignant epilogue. About a quarter of the way through, Romola Garai takes over as the adult Briony, a woman who serves as a nurse during the War, as does her estranged sister.

Along the way, Wright finds time to put his virtuosity on display. A five-minute shot on the beach at Dunkirk seems like a bit of a stunt, a burst of show-off surrealism. But you can't fault the music and art direction, and screenwriter Hampton certainly seems to have grasped the themes of McEwan's novel, the deceptions involved in storytelling and the ways in which a single event can reverberate throughout an entire life. Wright also makes careful use of sound, sometimes treating it as if it were a thematic talking point. Pay attention to the clickety-clack of typewriter keys.

The acting all seems top drawer, with Knightley speaking in the kind of clipped British accent that gives words the ping and velocity of marbles hitting a highly polished tile floor.

More commendable than gripping, "Atonement" begins to look like a prestige item before it's done. In other words, prepare for Oscar nominations for a work that's not such much covered with the dust of literary pretension but shackled by a lack of passion. Too often, it's not the heart that beats loudest here, but the mildly intrusive tap of those all-too-present typewriter keys.

Questions about "The Golden Compass"

Summary: "The Golden Compass," based on one part of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, is the latest entry into a teeming fantasy field that remains dominated by "The Lord of the Rings" movies. Pitched at younger audiences, this one seems a slightly generic helping of fantasy that includes a supposedly controversial anti-church spin. The Magisterium, an organization that wants to control everything, seems an obvious reference to the Catholic Church. Those who want an anti-religion message may be disappointed by the movie's lack of bite, and those who take offense probably won't be mollified. Most audiences probably will be too busy watching the movie's CGI-created animals to care. Meanwhile, "The Golden Compass" left me with many questions:

1. The movie suggests that the characters who occupy its alternate universe all have souls that manifest as animals. Are these so-called "daemons" housebroken? Are we to believe that people have to clean up after their own souls? Does one paper train one's "daemon" before letting it run loose in the house?

2. Why does a fighting polar bear with the consonant-heavy name of Iorek Byrnison (voice by Ian McKellen) need to wear armor? But, hey, who's complaining? Watching ice bears snarl and grapple proves one of the movie's more involving diversions.

3. Is the apparently evil Mrs. Coulter (a beautifully blonde Nicole Kidman) related to that other Coulter woman? Kidman's character's soul manifests as a monkey. Draw whatever conclusions you wish.

4. What led the money to director Chris Weitz, whose previous credits include "American Pie" and "About a Boy?" For the record, Weitz does a decent job, but the movie concludes in unsatisfying fashion, leaving loose ends dangling shamelessly in hopes that audience response will justify a sequel.

5. The movie's heroine is a 12-year-old girl named Lyra Belaqua. Don't you think the actress who gamely plays Lyra -- Dakota Blue Richards -- has a better name? Lyra's shape-shifting "daemon" is called Pantalaimon.

6. I know it's a bit off the subject, but maybe not. Would the "Wizard of Oz" have been a better movie with CGI-created flying monkeys?

7. OK, so "Golden Compass" passes muster as this season's helping of computer-generated fantasy, but how many more of these movies do we need? Let me venture an answer: As many as it takes to bolster Ian McKellen's bank account.

Friday, November 30, 2007

De Palma goes to war and it's hell

Summary: I've been putting off writing about Brian De Palma's "Redacted" for a couple of weeks. A faux documentary -- or rather a combination of faux documentaries -- "Redacted" looks better than it should and plays worse than it should.

So far "Redacted" seems to be a box-office dud, but it tries to buck the odds in Denver beginning today (Friday). Based on a true story that has been altered to avoid lawsuits, "Redacted" shows how two soldiers led an assault on a Samarra home. The incident, if that's not an overly neutral word, resulted in the murder of an innocent family, the rape of a 15-year-old girl and the destruction of the house.

De Palma takes a gamble for a major filmmaker, relying on moves you might expect to see in an under-financed indie production. He assembles his horrific tale from video purportedly shot by a GI with film school aspirations, from footage lifted from a supposed French documentary about life at a checkpoint and from clips provided by a fictionalized Arab news network. The resultant film -- only still photos shown at the end are real -- coheres as an anti-war statement not unlike the one that De Palma delivered in his 1989 Vietnam film, "Casualties of War."

Redacted means edited -- as in partially censored. That may be the key to understanding De Palma's movie. Perhaps he wants to tell us that if Americans saw the full horror of the Iraq war, they would storm Washington's barricades in protest. Or maybe he's attempting to give us a telling look at the ironies of a moment that has produced a massive amount of visual information, much of it undigested. Without a video-obsessed soldier attempting to record the 24/7 of the war, maybe we wouldn't believe that the depicted crimes occurred. Truth -- if that's what it is -- by accident?

Filmed quickly -- possibly to enhance its sense of urgency -- "Redacted" might have worked had it felt less self-conscious and canned. De Palma mixes the boredom of the GIs with deeply disturbing instances of American and insurgent brutality, but movie's faux realism feels as faux as it does real. We seldom forget that what we're watching involves reenactments, actors and a director's calculated touch.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Gyllenhaal as Joe Willie?

Summary: Variety reports that Jake Gyllenhaal will play flamboyant quarterback Joe Namath in an upcoming biopic. I lived in New York City when "Broadway Joe" was king -- and Gyllenhaal certainly isn't the first guy I'd think of to play the brash quarterback who beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. Maybe Gyllenhaal can pull it off, but it's difficult for me to picture the "Brokeback Mountain" star lacing up Namath's shoes and going long to a fleet Don Maynard. If I think about it (and I there's no reason I should) it seems as if someone such as Matthew McConaughey might have been a better choice.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Celebrating a new cinema voice

Summary: New voices qualify as one of our most valuable cinematic possessions. I'm not talking about the kind of hip new voices one typically -- and sometimes wrongly -- associates with American independent filmmaking, but about the kind of voices that bring us into contact with those who generally are disenfranchised from contemporary cinema culture. That's why the new movie, "Vanaja," deserves to be seen and celebrated.

As portrayed by a group of non-professionals, the characters who populate "Vanaja" are ordinary people leading the kind of lives movies mostly overlook: a poor village girl who wants nothing more than to learn to the art of Kuchipudi dance, her stumbling, drunken father, the girl's best friend, the woman who becomes the girl's mentor and the mentor's handsome but callous son.

Mamatha Bhukya, a girl of irrepressible spirit and flinty character, plays the title character of director Rajnesh Domalpalli's captivating new movie. The moment we meet the playful Vanaja -- at a dance performance she's watching -- we realize that we're in vibrant company.

As is the case with many fine movies, the plot of "Vanaja" follows a simple arc: Vanaja's father pushes the girl to leave school and find work. Vanaja says she's willing, but only if she can land employment at the house of the village's upper-crust patroness, a woman known as the Landlady.

You don't need to know much about either life or Indian film to know that such dreams do not necessarily come true.

Although far from an impassioned screed, "Vanaja" manages to expose the continuing tyrannies of India's class and caste divisions, and there's one more surprising that about it. This lively, colorful movie was made as a master's of fine arts thesis at Columbia University. I haven't seen may student films like "Domalpalli's. "Vanaja" may not be seamless, but it has enough heart to make up for whatever gaps a miniscule budget couldn't fill.

If you're in Denver, "Vanaja'' can seen at The Starz FilmCenter.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Afterthoughts in the time of leftovers

Summary: On the day when the country begins eating leftovers, it seemed appropriate to offer a few of my own:

-- Is it just me or does anyone else wish that director Robert Zemeckis ("Beowulf") would stop with the performance-capture animation and make a real movie?

-- I can't help wondering what movies would look like (and how our perception of certain actors might change) if every movie ended with the kind of dance sequence you'll find at the end of "This is Christmas." And, yes, that includes "Lions for Lambs." What? You wouldn't want to see Robert Redford line dance?

-- Amy Adams did a wonderful job as an animated character come to life in "Enchanted," but what's with the talk of an Oscar nomination? Please.

-- Question: Is it possible for Charlie Rose to do an interesting show about a movie?

-- If seeing Robin Williams in the trailer for "August Rush" weren't enough to put you off the movie, you'd do well not to share that information with anyone.

-- The reviews for "Love in the Time of Cholera" were appropriately negative, but came on way too strong.

-- The animated film, "Persopolis," which opens in December and which deals with coming-of-age inside and outside Iran, proves once and for all that an animated films really can be made for adults.

__ At the recently concluded Starz Denver Film Festival someone who should know better told me he thought the Coen brothers were over after "Miller's Crossing."

-- And speaking of the Starz Denver Film Festival, which paid me to moderate three panels, what was with all the grousing about the opening-night film, "The Savages?" "Too much of a downer." "Not what I go to the movies for." "Set the wrong tone for the festival." Come on, people. It's a film festival, not a pep rally. "Savages" is an intelligent film about coming to grips with dementia and death of parent. It's also seasoned with humor.

-- Could Jacques Rivette's "The Duchess of Langeais," an adaptation of a Balzac novella I saw at the festival, be the most boring film of the year? I know it's early, but make that the century.

-- During a festival interview, Norman Jewison -- who received a lifetime achievement award -- told me that he thought all movie stars have big heads. He was speaking literally not metaphorically.

-- While we're on the subject of heads: The appearance of Timothy Olyphant in the abysmal, incoherent "Hitman," a movie with enough gall to take itself seriously, proves once and for all that most white guys have no business shaving their heads.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

'I'm Not There;' neither is the movie

Summary: In “I’m Not There,” director Todd Haynes takes on the multi-faceted mythology that surrounds Bob Dylan, an artist whose career has been through enough incarnations to fuel six biopics. Maybe that's why six actors play Dylan-like characters in this adventurous but flawed endeavor.

I expected more dizzying, fractured spirit from a movie that tells six different stories with six different actors, all by way of demonstrating (I think) that attempting to capture Dylan amounts to an exercise in futility.

The movie begins by introducing us to a black youth (Marcus Carl Franklin) who tells us he’s Woody Guthrie. This spunky version of Guthrie leads the movie's parade of personae, each presumably representing aspects of Dylan’s personality and art. In service to this concept, Haynes employs Christian Bale, Ben Whishaw, Heath Ledger, Cate Blanchett and Richard Gere. No, I'm not kidding, Richard Gere.

Blanchett, who does a nifty Dylan impersonation, portrays the singer during the disillusioning years in which he approached rock stardom. Blanchett's spot-on interpretation makes for the film’s best and most enjoyable segments. I can’t say I thought much of the other "Dylans," although Gere’s performance scores lowest. He's doing a Billy the Kid riff, which apparently has something to do with Dylan's appearance in Sam Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid." Other "Dylans" include a poet, a movie star and a character who seems to embody the traits of the early Dylan.

Despite what you might think, the various stories intersect and overlap in ways that aren't all that difficult to follow, and Haynes makes strong points about the ways in which a phenomenally successful artist must wrestle with fame. He also shows that the constant demands of fans -- who expect perpetual profundity from their idol -- can be more than a little debilitating. At other points, we see the religious Dylan, the folk-hero Dylan or the Dylan who's busy trying not to live up (or down) to anyone's expectations.

In the end, "I'm Not There" comes off as a stylish, ambitious and uninvolving in the distanced way that a fractured narrative can be. A friend who knows far more about Dylan than I tells me that he admires the movie. Maybe you need to be steeped in Dylan fact and lore to arrive at such higher levels of appreciation. For me, "I'm Not There" seemed a movie composed mainly of side trips, some diverting, some illuminating, some beyond repair.

I've liked Haynes' work in the past -- from "Velvet Goldmine" to "Far From Heaven" -- but I couldn't help wondering what a director such as Julian Schnabel, who understands the artist as outsider and who can be stylistically looser than Haynes, might have done with Dylan as a subject. Oh well, we've had two Capote movies; maybe it's time someone took another run at Dylan.

Horror and enchantment mark the holiday


Director Frank Darabont ("The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile") again adapts a Stephen King story, this time for a minor helping of horror about a small Maine town that must fight off giant insects and other monstrous creatures resulting from'll have to see the picture to find out what brought about this hellish scenario.

A second-tier cast led by Thomas Jane lends its skills to the story of a group of townsfolk trapped in the local supermarket after a hazardous mist arrives. Jane plays David Drayton, who's caught with his young son in the supermarket. As tensions mount, Drayton winds up sparring with a Manhattan lawyer (Andre Braugher) who insists on leaving the market. Marcia Gay Harden shows up as a religious nut who, of course, endangers everyone in between Bible-crazed rants. Perhaps trying to shake off his turn as Capote in "Infamous," British actor Toby Jones shows up as the man who runs the supermarket.

"The Mist" delivers the requisite jolts, as Darabont sets out to show us how people behave under extreme pressure. That would have been easier had the movie been populated by people instead of a series of characters who sometimes seem like comic-book creations.

A big-shock ending, perhaps intended to dislodge the movie from its horror roots and give it an existential kick in the pants, didn't help -- at least not for me.


I'm not sure that I'd recommend "Enchanted" to most of the people I know. I'm not saying the movie is bad -- far from it -- but most of my pals prefer alienation to enchantment. Mention the words "fairy tale," and they're likely to start lobbing verbal grenades at the screen. But you know what? "Enchanted" manages to be a pretty successful slice of romance, and it's creative to boot.

Deftly mixing animation and live action, the movie tells the story of Giselle (Amy Adams), a young woman who travels from the animated world to upscale Manhattan, emerging in Times Square through a manhole. Once in New York, Giselle meets Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey), a divorce lawyer who can't quite believe he's run into this too-good-to-be-true princess. Robert's daughter (Rachel Covey) has less trouble believing in magic: She becomes the first real-world character to be enchanted by this visitor from a pastel-colored Disney paradise that practically reeks of happily-ever-afters.

Meanwhile, Giselle's dream prince (James Marsden) follows his love to New York in hopes of rescuing her. He's got a mommy problem, though. His mother, Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon) wants to derail his pending marriage -- with help from some poison apples and a lackey played by Timothy Spall, who's at his sniveling, rodent-like best. The humor has a slight edge to it, and that makes the movie palatable for adults; the musical numbers are agreeable (if not classic); and Adams' golly-gee sincerity proves funny and winning, particularly when played against Dempsey's more sober turn.

The end-of-movie special effects may be a bit bombastic, but overall "Enchanted" accomplishes its mission: reaffirming romance while goofing -- ever so mildly -- on its own starry-eyed pretensions.

As for the other supposedly enchanted movie of the weekend -- "August Rush" -- let's just say that director Kirsten Sheridan has concocted a movie that tries to sketch its story in the broadest possible strokes. "August Rush" introduces us to an 11-year-old boy (Freddie Highmore) who runs away from an orphanage to search for his parents in Manhattan. The entire picture, which plays like updated Dickens filtered through an overly emphatic "Flashdance" sensibility, builds toward the boy's meeting with his parents (Keri Russell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Mostly preposterous, this contemporary fairy tale features Robin Williams as Wizard, a Fagin-like character who makes his living sending children into the streets to play music for money. Sporting a soul patch and "Midnight Cowboy" garb, Williams hits a lower bottom than the rest of a movie that risks exhaustion by strenuously attempting to tug at the heartstrings.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

When in doubt, opt for depression

Summary: I vacillated for a minute about how I should spend closing night of the Starz Denver Film Festival. Should I see "August Rush," an inspirational movie whose ads describe it as "a captivating fantasy?" Or should I head straight for "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," the devastatingly bleak Romanian movie that won the Palm d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival? If you guessed "August Rush," I refer you to a line from a song by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. "If you don't know me by now, you will never never know me."

I went Romanian and wasn't sorry. Director Cristian Mungiu's movie has been picking up raves at festivals ever since its triumph at Cannes. Turns out the Cannes' jurors were right. Gripping as it is grim, "4 Months'' might be the year's least compromised movie.

"4 Months" deals with a university student (Anamaria Marinca) who's trying to help a friend arrange an abortion in 1987 Romania. At the time, abortion was illegal and carried stiff penalties -- as much as 10 years in prison. To make matters even more precarious, the woman who wants the abortion (Laura Vasiliu) has tarried. She's in the fifth month of her pregnancy.

Mingiu establishes a climate of economic desperation so severe, it's hardly surprising that the abortionist (Vlad Ivanov) proves even more predatory than expected.

Mungiu's lengthy takes allow the story to unfold with an agonizing sense of realism. (It almost seems as if events are taking place in real time.) But he also builds tension, as he paints a telling picture of the meanness of life in Caucescue's Romania. Be warned: A couple of the movie's images could prompt walkouts. This is tough stuff.

To its credit, "4 Months" can be read either as pro or anti-abortion, but the movie's real achievement revolves around the ways in which Mingiu toys with our perceptions. He primes us to anticipate conventional moves, but outsmarts us at every turn, ultimately reminding us that we sometimes allow our expectations to blind us to horrors that are right in front of our eyes.

Look for a review when the picture opens.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Listen to Norman Jewison discuss his career

Director Norman Jewison received the Mayor's Lifetime Achievement Award at the recently concluded Starz Denver Film Festival. Jewison's "In the Heat of the Night" won the Oscar for best picture in 1967. His filmographry includes movies such "Moonstruck," "A Soldier’s Story," "Fiddler on the Roof," "The Thomas Crown Affair," "The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming" and "The Cincinnati Kid." A pristine new print of "In the Heat of the Night," which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, showed at the festival.

When I sat down for a festival podcast with Jewison, he proved an amiable and interesting conversationalist who offered a guided tour through a career that has found him directing an array of actors that includes Sydney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Steve McQueen, Denzel Washington and Cher, who initially resisted the idea of making "Moonstruck," a picture that won her a best-actress Oscar. Hear the podcast.

At the same site, you can also hear interviews with director Jason Reitman, whose new movie "Juno" opens soon, as well as with underground director Ron Bronstein, whose "Frownland" received attention at SXSW and in Denver, and with veteran cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, who did the cinematography on the upcoming "Charlie Wilson's War," which was directed by Mike Nichols.

A dark masterpiece from the Coen brothers

Summary: "No Country for Old Men'' ranks as one of the strongest films of the year. In adapting a Cormac McCarthy novel for the screen, the Coen brothers serve up nearly unbearable amounts of tension, and their picture becomes a gritty meditation on the power of fate and the implacability of evil.

Tommy Lee Jones' face can look as worn-out as an old sofa and as tough as a steel-toed boot. In "No Country For Old Men," that face serves Jones well, standing as kind of craggy metaphor for West Texas land that's been weathered by blood. Jones plays Ed Tom Bell, a West Texas lawman who soldiers on despite the fact that he knows he can't win. It's not that Sheriff Bell never catches bad guys; it's that he understands that the battle between good and evil has gotten lopsided. Evil has the advantage because it has neither conscience nor memory. It simply does what it does.

If Jones' performance embodies the sense of defeat that stems from fighting a long and losing battle, Javier Bardem perfectly embodies the relentless march of evil. As Anton Chigurh, a man with a pageboy haircut and a heart of stone, Bardem stalks his prey with the kind of air-compression stun gun that's used to kill cattle in slaughterhouses. Chigurh's a matter-of-fact killer. In one scene, he asks a gas-station attendant to flip a coin. We know that the confused man's life depends on the call, and we watch with equal amounts of fascination and dread as the poor sap tries to figure what the hell's going on.

"No Country For Old Men'' pulls its story out of ill-gotten gains. Early on, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles onto the scene of a killing, surveying carnage that resulted from a drug deal gone bad. Moss also finds $2 million in cash, and fatefully decides to keep it. Bardem's Chigurh also wants the money. Naively, we think Moss may be able to take the money and slip into some vaguely defined happily-ever-after moment. To do that, he must outsmart or kill Chigurh, a definite long shot. Still, we hope for Moss. He's not much of a guy, either, but in this world gone sour, he's the closest we're going to get to a rooting interest.

All of this takes place against sparse West Texas landscapes -- the picture was shot in New Mexico by cinematographer Roger Deakins -- that seem as forbidding as the characters. This is country in which the welcome mat long ago got rolled up.

If there's a false note in any of the performances, I didn't hear it. Jones perfectly delivers the movie's colorful language, some of it taken directly from McCarthy's book. When a sheriff's deputy sees the terrible crime scene that opens the movie, he asks whether Bell agrees that they've stumbled into one awful mess. "If it ain't, it'll do until the mess gets here,'' says Jones, whose sardonic wit blends perfectly with Bell's nearly ingrained battle fatigue.

Brolin steps up and more than meets the challenge of playing a man who hopes that he'll be able to pass go and collect his $200 (actually $2 million). He wants to take off with his wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) and live a better life.

Some of the scenes are deceptively simple. Moss sits in a hotel room waiting for Bardem's character to show. The tension becomes unbearable, like being in a room with a cocked and loaded revolver on the table. The Coens play this scene out several times, offering newly twisted variations on a terror-laden scenario. And, yes, there's plenty of the Coens' trademark blood and guts.

The movie, which takes place in 1980, has a strangely alarming feel. Throughout, there's a sense that something important has snapped, that the country's moral center has collapsed, so much so that even hardened lawmen can't quite comprehend the level of heartless brutality that has been unleashed.

The dialog isn't without humor, but the seriousness of "No Country" can't be denied. I left "No Country'' shaken by the unforgiving grimness of its vision. More mythic than real, "No Country For Old Men" sounds a death knell for decency, and you may hear it toll long after you've left the theater.

At the same time, you may also feel buoyed. After all, you will just have witnessed the best filmmaking of the year.

Sidney Lumet sidesteps the devil

Summary: "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is director Sidney Lumet's latest movie. Perhaps because most of us want the 83-year-old Lumet to keep making movies, "Devil" has been slightly overpraised. It's worth seeing, though, even if it doesn't earn a lasting place in your book of movie memories.

Lumet has a flair for mixing melodrama and realism, and he does it again in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," a small thriller that demonstrates the ways in which miscalculation -- driven by psychological frailty -- can produce tragic results. Although Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke and Albert Finney hardly look as if they sprang from the same gene pool, they're cast are two brothers and their father in a story centered on a botched jewelry store robbery. By the end, I thought Lumet had pushed the proceedings too far over the top, and I couldn't suppress a yearning for the gritty textural richness that characterized the director's best urban work -- movies such as "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Prince of the City" and "Q&A." Still, I went along for the ride with a movie that narrows its focus until its characters seem to scream with the kind of pain induced by lifetimes of mistakes.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Like many, Mailer came to Telluride

Talk about chutzpah. A friend of mine once asked Norman Mailer if he'd read several short stories my friend had written. The request was made at a long-ago Telluride Film Festival, where Mailer had come to be Mailer and to show portions of "Maidstone," a film he shot in the Hamptons in 1968.

When a section entitled "The Death of the Director," reached the screen, the audience in Telluride's Sheridan Opera House applauded, an act of critical cruelty about which Mailer grumbled. It seemed to Mailer -- and maybe he was right -- that a festival audience should be receptive to all kinds of work. Maybe he thought it inappropriate that a sophisticated group of cinema enthusiasts would resort to the kind of boisterous expression more typically associated with the boxing matches Mailer loved.

Anyway, Mailer gave my friend an address where he could send his scratchings, but also issued a warning. Mailer promised if he read the work, he'd tell my friend exactly what he thought. There'd be no holding back. That didn't sound good to me, but I guess it's how things should be. If you dare to ask the oracle a question, you probably ought to be man enough to handle the answer. I'm not sure that Mailer's response would have been kind, but it probably would have been right, maybe too right.

I don't think my friend ever heard back from Mailer, and if he didn't, he certainly won't now. Mailer died Saturday at the age of 84.

Over the next few days, you'll read plenty of commentary about Mailer: the writer, politician, journalist, boxer, mayoral candidate and provocateur. But unlike most who'll be assessing Mailer's legacy, I once sat next to him at a movie. It was during that same distantly remembered Telluride Film Festival. I can't recall the film.

Of course, I was awe struck. As a reader, I always relied on Mailer to say something that would eviscerate the cliches of the moment. I never read a more compelling writer about the art that can emerge when two men try to beat each other's brains out in a boxing ring. Mailer also wrote great non-fiction pieces that eclipsed anything that all but a few journalists have managed to write: “The Armies of the Night” (1968) and “The Executioner’s Song” (1979).

Beyond that, Mailer seemed to live a big life. No matter what he did, he usually loomed above his material. And I have to say that sitting next to him in the Sheridan Opera House made me nervous. I was a little intimidated to be sharing the same armrest with a writer who made no secret about the fact that he was physically and spiritually prepared to wrestle with greatness -- and who sometimes won.

A trivial bit of business to be sure, but I remember it clearly. Why not? Mailer didn't only write about momentous events, he seemed to be one.

Friday, November 9, 2007

A lame debate poses as a movie

Summary: "Lions for Lambs" is the first movie Robert Redford has directed in seven years. The layoff seems to have hurt. Redford, who has brought some fine movies to the screen, makes the kind of mistakes you'd expect from a rookie: "Lions for Lambs" is didactic, under-dramatized and lacking in emotional power.

Some critics may consider "Lions for Lambs" Redford's most overtly political movie yet. I don't buy it. "Lions for Lambs" could have benefited from being more of an impassioned screed and less of a thinly dramatized version of a debate that might be too balanced even for public TV. Redford employs some heavyweight actors (including himself), but they're pushing around a pipsqueak of a premise, parceled out in a script by Matthew Michael Carnahan, who also wrote "The Kingdom."

The presence of Redford -- as well as Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise -- does surprisingly little to charge a series of loosely connected vignettes, as the narrative hops from one situation to another in an attempt to send a wake-up call to a slumbering nation.

In one of these episodes, Redford plays Dr. Stephen Malley, a political science professor who's trying to convince a bright but disillusioned student (Todd Hayes) to turn onto politics. Malley wants his young protege to drop his cynicism before it becomes crippling. In another episode, two of Malley's former students (Michael Pena and Derek Luke) fight in Afghanistan. Malley opposed their joining the military, but acknowledges that at least they took some kind of action.

Finally, Streep plays television reporter Janine Roth. She's summoned to the office of Republican senator Jasper Irving (Cruise) for an exclusive interview. Irving tries to convince her that he's authored a new military plan to change the course of events in Afghanistan. In possession of a "big story," Roth wrestles with her conscience because there's a strong possibility that the senator may be asking her to carry his water in another pending fiasco.

The Cruise/Streep segment, set mostly in the senator's office, probably qualifies as the film's best, but who needs a movie composed of arguments rather than flesh-and-blood characters struggling to find the kind of deeply felt dramatic truth that eludes "Lions" during most its 90 minutes?