Tuesday, July 31, 2007

He made us laugh -- and shudder

Summary: Michel Serrault probably is best known for his audacious, flaming performance as Albin Mougeotte/'Zaza Napoli' in 1978's "La Cage Aux Folles," but Serrault, who died Sunday at the age of 79, could do more than mince.

I know. The Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni ("L'Avventura," "Blowup" and "Zabriskie Point") died Tuesday at the age of 94. Antonioni's career will receive a fair amount of attention, even though news of his death appeared a day after Ingmar Bergman's passing. The analysis, commentary and appreciation makes perfect sense. Though not of Bergman's stature, Antonioni earned his place in cinema history.

Still, I didn't want Serrault's death, which I didn't read about until Tuesday, to get lost in the shuffle. Serrault not only appeared in Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1954 thriller "Les Diaboliques" and in the enormously popular "La Cage," he made one of the most chilling and horrific films I've seen.

In 1990, Serrault played the title role in director Christian de Chalong's "Docteur Petiot," a film that tells the story of a ghoulish French physician who became a serial killer. If it's possible to be something worse than a serial killer, Petiot managed the trick. He promised to help Jews who were eager to escape from France to Argentina during the Nazi occupation. Instead of facilitating their flight, he murdered them, and took their money.

"Dr. Petiot," which is based on a true story, may not be a masterpiece, but, if memory serves, it's s disturbingly vivid slice of 20th century horror.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The dying of a serious, somber light

Summary: Ingmar Bergman died Monday at the age of 89. It's not often that one can write words such as the following, but they certainly apply now: A genius has passed from the scene, having set a standard in both intention and achievement that movies seldom have matched.

I discovered Ingmar Bergman by accident when a theater near where I grew up in New Jersey converted from general to art-house fare. Proximity and a quirk of fate led me to movies I might otherwise have missed, and also began what became a life-long preoccupation.

In a very real sense, Bergman was the first director who convinced me that movies could be serious and go about it in ways that I'd never seen before. Movies could deal with the ways in which fear of death can induce moral paralysis or they could show how relationships can become breeding grounds for frustration, guilt and smoldering rage. And if all that weren't enough, Bergman had both distinctive style and versatility: He could hone in on near-suffocating intimacy or float toward Olympian detachment.

I wouldn't swear to it, but it's possible that the first Bergman movie I saw was 1960's "The Virgin Spring." This shocking story, set during the 14th century, told of a brutal rape, and it gave Bergman an opportunity to probe the depths of human degradation and fury.

I don't know if I could have articulated it at the time, but I'm sure it was clear to me that Bergman was more than a filmmaker. He was an artist, a man of stern vision and disquieting intelligence. He was also something else: fearless. Bergman never was one to embrace happy endings or facile consolations. Even a generously entertaining movie such as 1986's "Fanny and Alexander" contained its share of quiet torment.

In its Bergman obituary, The New York Times quoted the great French director Bertrand Tavernier, who's also a film enthusiast and scholar. Tavernier said Bergman was "the first to bring metaphysics -- religion, death, existentialism -- to the screen. But the best of Bergman is the way he speaks of women, of the relationship between men and women."

No doubt. "Scenes From a Marriage" (1974), which starred Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, stands as one of the most intricate and carefully observed portraits of a long-standing relationship in the history of cinema -- or any other medium for that matter.

Like many great directors, Bergman had actors with whom he seemed to have a special rapport: Max Von Sydow, Ullmann, Josephson and Bibi Andersson among them. The scene in which Von Sydow (as a knight) plays chess with the devil (from 1957's "The Seventh Seal") has become an emblem of somber, allegorical cinema in which the deepest questions are mercilessly probed.

Bergman made comedies such as 1955's "Smiles of a Summer Night," and his work wasn't without humor, but for me, Bergman's genius had to do with his ability to be both theatrical and philosophical at the same time. As a man of the theater as well as the camera, he understood the power of the stage and he wasn't afraid to use the screen as a new kind of stage. He could whisper in your ear or tower over you.

As for the rest: Bergman was Swedish. His father was a Lutheran preacher. His mother was emotionally unstable. He had multiple marriages. He made 10 films with Ullmann and had a child with her. He directed well into his 80s.

Bergman was a bona fide master. That means he will be written about, discussed and considered as long as there are movies and people who take them seriously.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Twenty two years and counting

Summary: This Sunday's New York Times carried a story about director Leon Ichaso in its Arts & Leisure section. Though far from being a household name, Ichaso may gain increased recognition when his new movie, "El Cantante," opens Friday. Even so, the promise filmmakers such as Ichaso once represented remains largely unfulfilled. Blame Hollywood.

"El Cantante" stars Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez in a music-filled dramatization of the short, ruined life of singer Hector Lavoe. The Puerto Rican-born Lavoe died in 1993, a victim of AIDS contracted through the needles he used to feed a massive drug habit. Anthony plays Lavoe, and Lopez portrays his wife, Puchi.

Despite its obvious star power, I'd be surprised if "El Cantante," which got some play at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, causes much of a stir. A tired conceit frames the story: A documentary crew interviews Puchi for a film about her late husband. The movie's mixture of overheated drama and hot music may not be enough to propel it to the upper registers of box-office performance.

But that's not where I'm going with this. The Times' story caught my eye because of a small, on-set photograph of Ichaso looking into a camera. Thicker of girth and considerably more leonine than I remembered, Ichaso now has something of the air of an old warrior about him -- or so it seemed to me. I first encountered Ichaso in 1985 when his brash new movie, "Crossover Dreams," emerged as one of the hottest films in that year's New Directors/New Films Series from Lincoln Center. He's now 58.

In '85, Ichaso traveled to Denver, where I live, to talk about his movie. I remember him as a lean, energized guy who dreamed of opening the movies to new voices. Specifically, he talked about wanting to make a movie out of "Carlito's Way," a gritty novel by Edwin Torres, who at the time was a judge in New York. (A decade later, "Carlito's Way" hit the screen, only directed by Brian DePalma and starring Al Pacino.)

Fittingly, "Crossover Dreams" dealt with rising and dashed hopes: It told the story of a salsa singer played by Panamanian star Reuben Blades, who at the time was not a high-profile singer/actor in the U.S. Blades established himself as a big-screen personality playing Rudy Veloz in Icahso's film, which was set in Spanish Harlem.

Since then, the Times' story pointed out, the Cuban-born Ichaso has worked a bunch (TV and movies) and been married twice. He also has hung onto the hope that something might break big for him, although he's been through enough to know that such expectations easily can be reduced to a smoldering pile of ashes.

I don't think I would have recognized Ichaso had I run into him on the street. More than 20 years have passed since I met him, and if his promise has not entirely been fulfilled, neither has the promise that movies would learn to accommodate new voices, bringing the creative energy of true diversity to Hollywood.

It's not that there's been no movement; it's that there hasn't been nearly enough. The moment still remains ripe for Hollywood to do the right thing -- and, in so doing, breathe a little life into its withering limbs.

If Anthony and Lopez, who'll be touring together beginning in September, don't set the world on fire with this film, I can't say I really care. I do, however, hope that 22 years from now, some journalist doesn't see a picture made by some hot new Hispanic director and wonder whether he or she will be able to blow open industry doors that too often seem to be made of lead.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Simpsons try to nail a big-screen hit

Summary: It may be heresy, but I'm not beaming about "The Simpsons Movie." It's good enough and smart enough and most people probably will like it, but I certainly wasn't rolling in the aisles, a good thing, too, because the theater had stadium seating. Still, I laughed and smiled throughout.

I traveled a long way to see "The Simpsons Movie,'' which was previewed at a Denver theater located far enough from where I live that I was sorry I hadn't packed a lunch. The kid in me kept screaming, "Are we there yet?" The adult in me said, "Shut up and count the big box stores."

You really don't need to know about the plot of "The Simpsons Movie," which builds toward an environmentally acceptable message, and you certainly don't need to know about the characters, all of whom have become familiar even to those who don't watch the series. And you certainly don't need to be instructed that lots of little gags pop around the movie's fringes. Some 11 writers were summoned to create the movie, and I could almost see them dividing up the frame to see who could stuff in the most jokes.

Because studios always are screaming that comedies should be seen with audiences, I'll give you my reading on the 600 or so people with whom I got Simpsoned. I'd say there was steady laughter, but few moments when the audience responded en masse to the mixture of purposefully dopey humor, clever upholstery and easy-going irreverence. And the presence of a strong representation of younger children -- always suckers for slapstick -- seemed to confirm a sad truth: "The Siimpsons" are still willing (even eager) to take on targets such as religion and government, but they've slid pretty far off the cutting edge.

Still, if you know and love the long-running TV show -- 18 years and 400 episodes -- you'll certainly get plenty of what you came for, and I suppose there's something to be said for a movie in which Homer adopts a pig, thinks about kissing it on the mouth only to be interrupted when Marge, his gargle-voiced wife, breaks in on him.

And, yes, despite a PG-13 rating, you will get to see full-frontal Bart nudity. To borrow Bart's very own word, his "doodle" is briefly on display.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Let the sunshine! Let the sunshine!

Summary: What happens when a movie insists on breaking the spell it has created? If you want to know, buy a ticket to "Sunshine."

Man, I was right there. For the first couple of reels, I was thinking that director Danny Boyle's "Sunshine" was a rarity, an intelligent sci-fi movie intent on creating tension while confronting an escalating series of agonizing moral problems. Set mostly on a convincingly created spacecraft, "Sunshine" might appear derivative, but at least it's aping good movies: "Alien," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and maybe "Solaris" among them.

With a movie such as this, the ship's a major deal. Tell me you can resist a spaceship that comes equipped with an oxygen garden, a great, elongated room devoted to maintaining the plant life that enables the crew to breath. Floating through space like dark a metallic version of a Tinkertoy, the Icarus II hurtles toward the sun in an effort to accomplish the task all sci-fi seems destined to address: saving humanity.

Boyle, whose filmography includes "Millions," "28 Days Later" and "Trainspotting," works as both storyteller and orchestra leader, conducting a grand symphonic movie about an effort to ensure the survival of the Earth. Think Al Gore with the soul of a poet.

"Sunshine" dances along the fine edge between masterwork and folly, refusing fully to declare itself in either category. It sweeps you away with its grandeur and then knocks you down with a cliche. The longer it goes on, the more it feels like a workout.

Amid all the special effects, we find another noteworthy sight, the mysterious face of Cillian Murphy. Murphy's portrayal of a transvestite in 2006's "Breakfast on Pluto" probably should have won him an Oscar nomination, but didn't. In "Sunshine," Murphy plays an astronaut physicist whose face embodies as much mind-blown wonder as anything else in a movie that mixes gritty space operatics, cosmic warbling, white-knuckle tension and visual fireworks. Murphy's face becomes a kind of mini-replica of the sun, shown in luminous close-ups that encourage us to stare into his pale blue eyes.

Come to think of it, we do lot of staring at this movie, as Boyle tells the story of a moment when life on Earth is jeopardized. The sun is dying. After an initial failure, a second space ship -- Icarus II -- has been assigned the vital task of recharging the sun, a gargantuan mission that involves dropping a nuclear bomb the size of Manhattan into the sun. This will create what the movie calls "a star within a star" and bring light to a world shuddering on the brink of frozen darkness.

A ragtag, multi-ethnic crew of eight has set out on this vital mission, which seems to be going smoothly until Icarus II picks up a distress signal from Icarus I, a vessel that was presumed totally destroyed. Should the crew make a detour or proceed straight to the sun, drop its payload and start back to earth? Could any crew drop a nuclear device into the sun and have even a remote shot at a round trip?

Even as you watch the crew make for Mercury, where Icarus 1 has been hiding, you may be thinking that this hardly seems the right time for a change in course. Leave the discovery of long-lost vessels to "Star Trek," you may be tempted to yell. "Make for the sun."

"Sunshine" is a strange contraption of a movie: Alternately cliched and cosmic, not to mention a little confusing in the final act, which pays homage to "2001: A Space Odyssey," the movie that turned cryptic finales into fabulous art. But Boyle doesn't have Stanley Kubrick's galactic-sized ego, which may explain why "Sunshine" never quite expands into full mind-warp territory, that and possible budgetary constraints.

What to make of this whacked-out wonder of a movie? I was glad to have seen it, but I wish that Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland had kept their mission on course, avoiding squabbles among the crew and other tired genre ploys. "Sunshine" thus amazes and frustrates. It has moments of greatness and moments that feel ripped from a standard movie playbook.

I was in and out of the movie, either wondering why Boyle had veered into spaced-out hysterics or gaping at the roiling surface of the sun as I entertained the kind of elusively "profound" thoughts that might have occurred to me during the '60s.

Nothing wrong with that, but I'm thinking that a movie that begins so smartly should leave you with more to say than "Oh wow!"

Monday, July 23, 2007

But wait...When we're talking movies, appreciation has limits

Summary: I'm not taking back anything I said in my last post about Roger Ebert's approach to criticism, but it's worth pointing out that some movies actually surrender their right to sensitive appreciation. I'm talking about hyped-up commercial vehicles that exist for one and only one reason -- to take your money and run.

Evidently, a lot of people have decided to send some of their hard-earned cash Adam Sandler's way: Sandler's "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" -- a lame comedy about two straight firemen who pretend to be a gay couple -- took in more than $34 million, topping box-office receipts for the July 20th weekend.

Now with a crude and cloying comedy such as "Chuck and Larry," I see no necessary reason that a critic must engage in an act of sympathetic imagination. (See last post.) Faced with tripe, the critic ought to pull up his or her shields and attempt to deflect the corrosive glare of exploitation. Such movies -- many of which are far worse offenders than "Chuck and Larry" -- aspire to nothing more than slipping a grubby hand in your pocket.

Don't get me wrong: Not all such films are awful, but there's a difference between reviewing commodities and commenting on movies that pander to the baser instincts of the rude and scoffing multitudes.

And, yes, I'm aware that many movies manage to straddle both sides of the fence and might even be better off for it.

To take a somewhat recent example, Steven Spielberg's "Munich" was both entertaining and meaningful. I'm hoping the same will be true of the upcoming "The Bourne Ultimatum," though probably on a lesser scale. Don Cheadle's "Talk to Me" has elements of both art and entertainment. So do the "Harry Potter" movies, particularly the most recent installment.

The profit-motive remains inseparable from most movies. Aside from those who regard "The Producers" as a how-to manual, no one sets out to make a movie with hopes of losing money. Nothing wrong with the marriage of art and commerce.

But when a movie's cravenly, even crassly commercial, critics are allowed -- maybe even obligated -- to take a different approach. To me such blatantly commercial movies are a bit like dates who push for sex but refuse to spring for a dinner. We all deserve to be seduced a little when it comes to movies.

Part of a critic's responsibility is to know and point out the difference between popcorn pablum and food that nourishes the heart and mind -- not to mention out-and-out garbage.

When a movie emits the fetid stink of garbage, the critic has but one job: Put on rubber gloves, pick it up as if holding a three-day-old dead rat by the tail and carry it quickly to the trash.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Roger Ebert and the art of appreciation

Summary: Film critic Roger Ebert sometimes is knocked for being too generous toward too many movies. Maybe. But his review of Milos Foreman's "Goya's Ghosts" -- a movie that hasn't won much praise in other quarters -- tells us something about why his thumb often points up.

First here are some quotes from reviewers who didn't share Ebert's view of the movie, a majority I'd say.

"Ambitious script is stranded between entertainment and intellectualism, leaving us with a magnificent folly, thoroughly watchable for its visuals but ultimately hollow." -- Joanthan Holland, Variety.

"Lavish production and wardrobe design, as well as beautiful cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe make "Goya's Ghosts" lovely to look at, but as a portrait of the artist, the movie is a letdown." -- Carina Chocano, The Los Angeles Times

"A messy, horse-drawn load." -- Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly.

"Goya's Ghosts" tries to recreate the pressure-filled horrors of a time when the Inquisition still was going strong in Spain. People's lives became hopelessly twisted or were completely destroyed by Church zealotry, much of it defended by what the Inquisitors viewed as high principle and moral certainty.

I thought "Goya's Ghost" did little more than provide an often-graphic picture of a harsh time. For me, some of the movie's problems involve what appeared to be major lapses in judgment. Stelan Skarskard proves miscast as Goya; Javier Bardem (one of my favorite actors) never really catches fire as Brother Lorenzo; and Natalie Portman is outright bad as Ines, a woman Goya used as a model and who later was tortured by Inquisitors for being sympathetic to the "blemish" of Jewishness in her family's past. She's thrown in jail, emerging 15 years later as a mad woman with a face that has been ruined by jail rot, torture and prosthetics.

On top of that the story can become annoyingly melodramatic, and it frequently loses Goya as a key figure in a plot that plays like low-rent Dickens.

No need to belabor these points: Foreman, who hasn't made a movie since his big-screen biography of comic Andy Kaufman -- 1999's "Man on the Moon" -- fails to create much excitement, aside from the opening credits, which are displayed over sketches by Goya that are shown to the accompaniment of a score that promises danger and high tension.

But Ebert took a different tack. Ebert has something that critics (myself included) might benefit from observing carefully -- a willingness to try to understand the objectives of a filmmaker, particularly a serious one.

Ebert mentions flaws in the movie, but his three-star review also includes the following observation: "I doubt that Forman and the legendary screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere lacked the ability to tell a conventional story. I think the clue to their purpose is right there in the opening scene of the Goya drawings. Look carefully, and you may find something in the film to remind you of most of them. 'Goya's Ghosts' is like the sketchbook Goya might have made with a camera."

I'm not sure I can make that kind of leap, and I wasn't entirely convinced by Ebert's review, but I admired his ability to set aside expectation and come to grips with what he sees as the filmmaker's aspirations, as he reads them in the film. Criticism becomes an act of the empathic imagination, which is what it should be.

Though I can't say I enjoyed "Goya's Ghosts" or that I thought the picture succeeded on most levels, it did teach me something about the tumultuous period in which Goya worked. And I also learned something from Ebert's review, something about an approach to criticism that gives Ebert a reviewing personality that often sets him apart from the rest of the critical pack.

So why complain? Rather than arguing about Ebert's approach," a lot of us would do well to appreciate his work in something of the same spirit with which he's been able to appreciate the work of others.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Adam Sandler rides the "dude train"

Summary: Adam Sandler tries to learn the gay way

Take away the uninspired slapstick, the predictable off-color jokes, the obvious late-picture attempts at political correctness and maybe even Adam Sandler and “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” might have amounted to something. Getting two straight men must pretend to be gay -- the movie's premise -- requires a major helping of contrivance, but the idea has genuine satirical potential. Too bad this Sandler-backed comedy has more interest in showing that its heart is in the right place than in using recognizable emotional realities as a springboard for humor. Kevin James (“The King of Queens”) switches boroughs to play Sandler’s buddy, a fellow Brooklyn fireman who fakes a domestic partnership with Sandler’s character in order to protect his pension benefits. Like many other Sandler films, this one proves an indigestible mix of crude humor and Capraesque sentiment. By the time the movie makes its plea for tolerance, you may have forgotten the early-picture fart jokes or the dropped-soap-in-the-shower gags. Then again, maybe not.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

He's got that "Vitus" touch

Summary: The German film "Vitus" mixes psychological realism and crowd-pleasing fantasy in ways that don't always make sense, but still go down smoothly.

On its surface, "Vitus" is pleasant enough, a fanciful and satisfying story about a piano prodigy who wants to escape the burdens of his very substantial genius. I have no first-hand knowledge about the isolation caused by extraordinary brilliance, but I still found the subject intriguing.

For a while, it seems as if director Fredi M. Murer will stick to a tried-and-true formula, realistically exploring the pressures the boy faces and the responsibility his parents feel about nurturing his talent.

Vitus' mother (Julika Jenkins) doesn't quite know where to draw the line when it comes to her son's talent; she's not a full-blown zealot, but she goes beyond ordinary devotion. She decides to make a career out of the boy's development. She pushes Vitus to practice piano, and begins to treat his high-grade intelligence as a statement about herself. The boy's father (Urs Jucker) displays a more laissez-faire attitude toward his son. He's busy inventing a new kind of hearing aid and trying to rise to the top of his company.

In any case, both parents clearly love Vitus, even if they don't always know how to express it, and that's one of the movie's many virtues. Problems don't destroy love; they just make it more difficult.

Two actors play the movie's title character. Fabrizio Borsani portrays the boy at age six, and Teo Gheorghiu, a real piano prodigy, takes over when Vitus turns 12. The movie's first act ends with the six-year-old Vitus locking his parents out of their apartment while he plays the piano, an act of rebellion that reverberates throughout the movie's second half.

It probably should come as no surprise that "Vitus" makes room for a kindly grandfather, played in engaging fashion by an aging Bruno Ganz, who makes a major shift after appearing as Hitler in the gripping "Downfall" of a couple of seasons back. Grandpa adores the boy and insists on treating him as if he were normal. Vitus later obliges by faking an accident and pretending that his IQ has dropped. No longer amazingly precocious, he's just another kid.

The movie's third act centers on the quiet re-emergence of Vitus' genius, albeit in entirely unexpected ways that include illegal maneuvering on the stock market. Turns out the kid can turn a buck as easily as he can run off an arpeggio. I have no need of a personal pianist, but I'd sure as hell hire the boy as my broker.

At its core, the movie involves Vitus' struggle to control his own intelligence, and if it weren't for a mild overdose of whimsy (filmmakers definitely should declare a moratorium on the use of flying as a metaphor), "Vitus" might have acquired enough significance to match its easygoing charm.

The movie, by the way, unfolds in an unhurried fashion that surely will be sacrificed when some idea-starved studio remakes "Vitus" in English.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Werner Herzog's rumble in the jungle

Summary: German director Werner Herzog has made a movie in which yet another hero pits his will and cunning against history and nature.

I once rode on a ski lift with Werner Herzog, conducting an interview as our feet dangled perilously over the edge of an open chair on which we were secured by only a leather strap that lay loosely across our laps. It took about 20 minutes to reach the top of the mountain, so the ride presented an ideal opportunity for an interview. If Herzog didn't respond to my questions, he at least couldn't get up and leave.

This combination interview and adventure in vertigo took place in the waning days of the summer of 1982 -- Labor Day weekend to be precise -- at the Telluride Film Festival, where Herzog had become something of a regular.

Herzog had come to Telluride to screen "Fitzcarraldo," a movie that I'm not sure anyone watches much anymore. I don't remember much about the interview aside from the fact that Herzog described the jungles of Peru, where he shot his film, as "obscene." He seemed repelled by the overgrown jungle lushness which suggested life in some rampant, sickeningly effusive form. In the jungle, birds didn't croon, they shriek, perhaps echoing some natural state of horror.

"Fitzcarraldo" --the making of which was brilliantly chronicled in Les Blank's documentary "Burden of Dreams" -- tells the story of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, a man who attempted to build an opera house in the midst of the Peruvian jungle. Fitzgerald's epic scheme led him to employ Indian labor in an attempt to drag an enormous boat over a small mountain. This Herculean folly, reproduced in excruciating detail by Herzog, surely must have driven Herzog's "special" actor, Klaus Kinski, to near madness.

I've often wondered whether Herzog, a filmmaker for whom movies and physical risk seem inseparable, isn't happy unless he comes close to killing off his actors. That thought recurred, like a long harbored suspicion, as I watched "Rescue Dawn," an adventure that Herzog adapted from his 1997 documentary, "Little Dieter Needs to Fly."

Dieter Dengler (the main character in both the documentary and in "Rescue Dawn") was a German-born pilot who joined the U.S. Air Force and found himself shot down over Laos in the early days of the Vietnam War. Dengler was taken prisoner by the Pathet Lao, who held him in a small camp. An enterprising and irrepressible fellow, Dengler plotted his escape from the minute he arrived in a camp where he and his fellow prisoners (Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies) were tormented by cruel guards and taunted by a forbidding jungle that seemed to mock the very idea of escape.

But Dengler didn't give up. He pressed on with his plans, and eventually managed to break from the jungle prison to which he never submitted. The path to ultimate victory was marked by lots of smaller triumphs, many of which the movie details. Dengler discovered, for example, how to unlock the stocks in which he and his fellow prisoners were shackled at night. He emerged as a leader who never allowed the wheels of his cunning to stop turning.

"Rescue Dawn" provides Herzog with a chance to pay tribute to Dengler's ingenuity and once again to rumble in the jungle. On its surface, "Rescue Dawn" has the pulse -- and the screwy romanticism -- of a straightforward adventure story, and for some, it represents a sellout on Herzog's part: Detractors say Herzog's gone Hollywood by making a movie that should be right at home in any multiplex.

It's not an altogether spurious argument, but it's also not entirely fair. In addition to being a compelling story in traditional ways, "Rescue Dawn" is also an unusually harsh chronicle of man's battle against dual enemies: the cruelty of his fellows and the unruly forces of nature -- in the form of the Laotian jungle. (The movie actually was shot in Thailand.) Herzog's heroes may embrace the idea of adventure, but they're hardly at home in the world, and, like Dengler, they must use every ounce of their intelligence to survive. Their enthusiasms can border on madness, which (at least to Herzog) seems to be a good thing.

Bale, who lost ridiculous amounts of weight to play an insomniac metal worker in "The Machinist" and who went gleefully over the top as a smiling serial killer in "American Psycho," has become the screen's number one, all-immersion actor. With a trace of German accent, Bale creates an intrepid character, a sort of spiritual Energizer Bunny who won't quit, can't quit, must not quit.

Initially, I was surprised that Herzog had made a Vietnam movie sans a political point of view. I probably shouldn't have been. Herzog's evidently not interested in opining about the rightness or wrongness of the American cause in Southeast Asia. Maybe that's typical of him. If you were to judge by "Rescue Dawn," Herzog does not view history as something that affords men an opportunity to define themselves in moral terms. Like the jungle, it's one more "obscene" backdrop against which the courageous test themselves; it's something to be survived and perhaps outwitted, never tamed.

Thus, the nutty romanticism of Werner Herzog: The risk for the artist and pilot is the same or at least parallel. Each embarks on a journey and each might vanish in the jungle, never to return to tell their stories. Put another way, I suppose the worse thing you could say to someone such as Herzog, an artist who thrives on the exhilaration of hardship, would be, "Hey, man, it's only a movie."

"Rescue Dawn,'' which had its premiere at last fall's Toronto International Film Festival, is now playing in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago and opens around the country beginning Friday.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Swimming in the mainstream

Summary: For most movie fans, summer means watching things blow up without having to turn on the news. This year's hot spell may not be a season for stellar accomplishments, but that doesn't mean there's nothing to see.

Still, a bit of perspective might be in order. Contrary to what the studios would have you believe, movie attendance is not compulsory, and I've certainly seen nothing this summer that I would classify as "life changing," excluding, of course, Larry King's revelatory interview with Al Pacino, who was out promoting his appearance in "Ocean's Thirteen" while simultaneously campaigning to win special-effect status for his studiously unruly crop of hair.

In more recent developments, I enjoyed "Live Free or Die Hard," but do not intend to press it into my book of movie memories.

"Transformers" can induce a state of drop-jawed wonder (the movie is ridiculously chaotic), but had I never seen it, my life would have remained unchanged -- as meaningless in its post-"Transformers" stage as it was before.

And if I hadn't been professionally bound to see all the previous "Harry Potter" movies, I probably would have passed on "The Order of the Phoenix." I tend to celebrate the Muggle in all of us: The only thing that could get me to believe in magic would be something on the order of a Power Ball win -- for me, of course.

So take the following brief reflections with the proverbial gain of salt, which you then can sprinkle on your wounded moviegoing hopes, and, while you're at it, you definitely should give thanks -- providing you're of reasonably sound mind and past the age of 14 -- that you went nowhere near "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer."

You didn't, did you? Please say you didn't.

Two that may deserve a look, providing you know what you're getting into:

Live Free or Die Hard. Bruce Willis is upstaged by a ton of action in director Len Wiseman's tech-oriented addition to a series that last exploded onto screens in 1995. The more preposterous this one gets (and it does get preposterous), the more fun it is.

If you can stand the noise generated by director Michael Bay ("Armageddon" and "Pearl Harbor"), you'll find one of the most whacked-out movies of summer. The talented Shia LaBeouf seems to be following Bay's overwrought lead in playing a teen-ager whose first car is...well...more than a set of wheels.

And be on the lookout for:
Hairspray. An infectiously upbeat adaptation of the Broadway musical based on John Waters' 1988 movie.

Talk to Me.
This adult drama stars Don Cheadle as legendary D.C. disc jockey Petey Greene.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A "Potter" with real emotional depth

Summary: "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" may not move as swiftly as some would like, but this "Potter" tops its predecessors when it comes to emotional resonance.

Many critics seem to think that the latest edition of "Potter" has lost some of its charm and magic. I wonder if that's because Harry and his pals finally are growing up. Smack in the middle of adolescence, Harry, Hermione and Ron are starting to learn some difficult lessons: trouble tends to repeat itself, happy endings are scarcer than Muggles at a Hogwarts reunion and the giddiest pleasures (even those produced by magic) sometimes wear thin.

As directed by David Yates, who's new to the series, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" spends most of its 138 minutes setting up what looms as Potter's final showdown with the evil Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). It takes almost 20 minutes for the movie to reach the hallowed halls of Hogwarts, and this time, Harry finds himself experiencing increasing amounts of anger and isolation. Harry's always been a bit alienated; in "Phoenix," he's practically overcome with angst.

The major addition to the series involves one Delores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), a teacher from hell. Umbridge -- a name Dickens would have envied -- is so staunch and officious she even manages to push the stately Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) aside. Staunton seems to be having a great time playing a woman who tries to reduce magic to a set of rules and procedures. She values administrative ability more than a good frolic. For Umbridge, it's order uber alles.

Although the movie brims with visual treats, Yates pretty plays things straight. He's turned out a "Potter" without the winking, playful spirit that sometimes defined the earlier movies. Some may find the often-somber tone objectionable, but in watching "Order of the Phoenix," I felt -- maybe for the first time -- that the Potter movies might deepen enough to become a true big-screen classic. In short, the dark side has gotten darker. We really feel the awful presence of evil as Harry begins to discover where it resides and how it manifests in the world. "Phoenix" may be a children's story, but it has real moral weight.

Don't take this "classic" business too seriously. I'm far from being a "Pottermaniac." I've read only the first book -- and that just to get a feel for author J.K. Rowling's style. I'm not eagerly awaiting publication of the final novel in the series, due in less than two weeks. My nightstand already is crowded with books that await attention. I'm sure someone will publish the spoilers. I'll learn who lives and who dies. That will just about do it for me.

No, I regard the Potter movies as something on the order of old Classic Comics that served a generation that was too lazy actually to read the classics; the Potter movies have allowed me to become familiar with a cultural phenomenon without having to be consumed by it.

"Phoenix" does have some problems, mostly because the story tends to stall now and again. Harry's much-anticipated first kiss -- with Cho Chang (Katie Leung) -- doesn't amount to much, and the movie's ending has a compressed quality in which finer points of plot tend to get lost. Still, I admired the way Yates refuses to celebrate these characters in indulgent ways. Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) play lesser roles. Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) shows up, but mostly in service of a plot point.

Do any of the movie's shortcomings matter? Probably not to avid fans. The latest Potter qualifies as must viewing for those who have followed the series. That's an awful lot of folks, and many of them will be delighted to learn that "Phoenix" stands as one of the more interesting looking of the Potter movies. Credit cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, who has done landmark work ("The Double Life of Veronique" and "Blue") with the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski.

Aesthetic appreciation aside, here's the best endorsement I can give the movie: Despite its problems, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is the first of the Potter movies that left me really looking forward to the next installment. The stakes have gotten considerably higher, and we've good reason to be fearful.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Don Cheadle plays a D.C. hero

Summary: The late Petey Greene grew up on the mean streets of D.C. -- and we're not talking about the comic books. A self-made DJ who worked at Washington's legendary WOL during the 1960s, Greene became a hero known for speaking his mind and making hot-link connections with an avid and loyal audience.

Don Cheadle stars in "Talk to Me," a new bio-pic about Greene, a former convict who talked his talk on the radio, gaining special credibility with a bravura performance on the night that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. "Talk to Me," which opens later this month, faces big-time summer competition from movies such as the latest "Harry Potter," but the movie tells a peculiarly American story that deserves some play.

And, no, Greene didn't go to Hogwarts: He got his education in prison.

Cheadle stars with Chiwetel Ejiofor, as the initially reluctant radio exec who hires Petey and later becomes his manager. Cheadle and Ejiofor have some terrific scenes together, including a crackerjack bit in a pool hall when Ejiofor's college-educated exec squares off against a streetwise Greene.

Director Kasi Lemmons ("Eve's Bayou") hasn't made the best bio-pic ever, but Cheadle rules the picture as a man with mutton chops, a beach ball-sized Afro and a carefully selected period wardrobe that quotes the era of big collars, splashy colors and bell bottoms with almaring accuracy.

And if you don't know Ejiofor's work ("Dirty Pretty Things"), you should.

Lemmons deserves credit not only for telling Greene's story, but also for trying to examine two apparently different kinds of men, a proud denizen of the streets and an upwardly mobile guy who's trying to escape the confinements of his past.

This means that "Talk to Me" not only proves entertaining, but also qualifies as a rarely seen, if somewhat schematic, study of black manhood. Let's hope that "Talk to Me" isn't the last word on the subject, but the beginning of big-screen conversation that's long overdue.

Greene's rap was strong, but also impolite: That means the movie is rated R for language, alcohol consumption and brief nudity, and be advised, he was one guy who understood that the sweet smell of success easily could turn sour.

Want a look at the real guy, click here for Greene's classic, improbable and unapologetic rant on how to eat watermelon, a neat trick in which Greene manages to reject a stereotype by exploiting it to its fullest.

Friday, July 6, 2007

The journey from there to here

Summary: How I wound up blogging and living the simple life

On May 25, I retired from 30 years worth of work at The Rocky Mountain News, 27 of them as the paper's film critic. I hadn't planned on calling it quits, but a surprise buyout arrived with the suddenness of an ambush, thus forcing the issue.

I'm 64, and, and leaning toward the end of my career – if that’s what it was.

So I took the money, and walked. I sauntered away from The Rocky Mountain News, a Denver newspaper that’s part of a joint operating agreement with its arch rival, The Denver Post.

I won’t bore you with insider talk about the newspaper business. Business stinks. Uncertainty reigns. Many editors seem to be acting out of desperation and fear. The mantra: We can’t keep doing things in the old way. What’s the new way? No one’s entirely sure.

But enough about that. I’m more interested in talking to fellow and would-be retirees, those bold souls who have forsaken the comforting routines of work. If nothing else, most jobs keep you numb, which – all things considered - isn’t always a bad thing.

First things first: It’s vitally important to come up with an acceptable answer for the one question you'll be asked more than any other: “What are you going to do?”

No matter what happens, don’t tell the truth. No one wants to hear that you’ve traded the boredom and obscurity of working for the boredom and obscurity of not working. Generally, though, I prefer boredom without bosses. I have several projects in mind, and have begun a few, but I also believe work, even when self-generated, can become a crutch for those who don't know how to put indolence to proper use.

Still, I figured that I'd need some way of measuring my lack of accomplishment. How many of the great novels would I be willing to read or re-read? What about all the fabulous music I previously had no time to appreciate? Why not learn another language?

Thinking about all these enriching possibilities made me want to lie down, so I moved in a slightly different direction. I wouldn't measure my life in coffee spoons, but I'd find other ways to mark my newfound inertia. I vowed to think small.

I decided that my first goal would be one of economy. I’d use everything in my medicine chest before I bought anything else. This meant finishing every stick of deodorant (I had multiples), every can of shaving cream (more multiples) and all the over-the-counter drugs that I purchased to battle the cold and flu-like symptoms that had plagued me over the years. You say you’ve got congestion? See me. I definitely can hook you up.

As part of this on-going project, I was astonished to discover that I owned no less than eight hairbrushes, although my hair always has resisted the brisk encouragements of just about any bristle. I owned a small collection of tooth brushes that I hadn't used since I went electric. The dentist offered. I accepted. Who knows when a prolonged power failure might strike?

Enough about the bathroom.

I'm not compulsive enough to keep actuarial account of the products I'm using, but I'm making progress. I'm down to two sticks of deodorant, and if you don't mind my saying so, I think I smell great, every bit as good as when I was working.

Another way of marking time involves reading. I decided to make a separate pile of all the books I've read since leaving the News. I read Michael Chabon's, "The Yiddish Policeman's Union," Don DiLillo's "Falling Man" and Ian McEwan's "On Chesil Beach."

I expect the pile to grow substantially, but I promised myself that I wouldn't spend every waking moment reading. I would face the boredom head on, maybe even embrace it. What looks like a vacant stare to you might be a moment of meditative concentration for me.

I've also developed an extreme (some would say "heightened") sensitivity to weather, as well as to the various smells that waft through open windows from the outdoors, the sweet aroma of foliage after a rain, for example. I’m also quite keen on the sudden arrival of cloud covers on otherwise sun-drenched days. Thunder? I love it when it thunders. You can spend hours listening to the sky rumbling overhead. I especially enjoy deep, throaty thunder that sounds like distant cannons firing on a nearby suburb.

My mother-in-law keeps asking me when I'm going to start looking for a job. I tell her that I don't think I could find a job even if I wanted one. Who hires 64-year-old guys who've spent the better part of their lives watching stupid movies for a living? Many “serious” people do not regard such an endeavor as an adult occupation. In the view of those who wield corporate power, I've probably squandered a life sitting at the children’s table. So what if I can name every movie Sylvester Stallone ever made? And I can’t imagine impressing the average biz-whiz by discoursing on spirituality in the work of the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski.

"So you've seen all 10 films in 'The Decalog?' Welcome aboard, Bob.”

No, I'm not fooling myself. The economy will have to march on without me and all the others who hope life will turn into a veritable smorgasbord of early-bird specials, senior discounts and buoyant equity markets. I’m sticking to my plan, which is to avoid making a plan, and I'd like to tell you more about it, but I think I hear the mailman at the door. What? You have something more valuable to do, like finish that report on market share?

You see, mine has become a life full of non-moves and small gestures. Each day I awaken eager to meet a new absence of challenges. I’d tell you to eat your heart out, but I’m sure you’re far too busy to make time for lunch.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

To review or not to review

Summary: In journalism, the pressure to be first can prove irresistible, but when it comes to movie reviews, does it really matter?

The Internet definitely has changed the reviewing game. Early reviews of movies are routinely posted on various movie Web sites. It won't be long before editors begin pressuring print critics to follow suit -- and some already have. For my money, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. I'd rather be right than first. Besides, readers are accustomed to looking to newspapers for reviews on the day a movie opens.

Still, the papers have a point: Why should print critics adhere to a different set of rules than those who ply their trade on the Internet? And besides, I know of no self-respecting journalist who likes to be pushed around by studios. Most of us got into this business not because we love studios, publicists and carefully honed marketing plans, but because we love movies.

Anyway, the whole business might make for increasingly strained relations between the press and the studios, not that things are all that rosy now. Want some insight into the shifting climate? Click here.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Lady Chatterley unabridged

SUMMARY: See it, but be patient. "Lady Chatterley" offers nearly three hours of sex, class and foliage.

"Lady Chatterley" has been adapted from a draft of the D.H. Lawrence novel that became the notorious "Lady Chatterley's Lover." On screen, this edition of "Lady Chatterley" doesn't skimp on sex or nudity, but instead of overwhelming us with raw passion, the movie surrounds us with the sounds of nature -- from babbling brooks to cooing birds to the crunch of leaves underfoot.

At times, the narrative advances so slowly, you may wonder whether you're able to hear grass grow. That's the gamble director Pascale Ferran takes: By setting the movie in the bosom of the natural world, she creates an unobtrusive naturalism that steers the material away from melodrama and convention.

This being an adaptation of Lawrence, you already know that sex isn't just hanky panky; it's a gateway to realization, and the story focuses on two characters who badly need to break out of their respective molds: an English wife and the gamekeeper with whom she has a long-standing affair.

Set just after World War I, "Lady Chatterley" fills the screen with sex, class and fallen leaves, not necessarily in that order. Still, the movie poses an interesting enough question: Can two lovers rise above their stations to find transcendent bliss and simultaneous orgasm? Intriguing? Yes, but don't expect a quick answer. The movie lasts for a patience-taxing two hours and 48 minutes, and it seems to relish every step that Lady Chatterley takes on the walk through the forest that separates her grand home from the wooden hut where she and the gamekeeper get it on with increasing regularity.

Ferran begins with a painstaking look at the situation. Lady Chatterley (Marina Hands) languishes in isolation on her estate. Her husband, a pinch-faced man played by Hippolyte Giardot, was wounded during the war. He has lost use of his legs and presumably another important appendage. Husband and wife sleep in separate bedrooms, and it's clear from the outset that Lady Chatterley yearns for something to happen, perhaps anything.

When she sees the gamekeeper (Jean-Louis Coullo'ch)washing in a basin outside his cabin, her upper-class Novocain begins to wear off. She's jolted alive by the sight of his exposed torso. To understand "Lady Chatterley," you need look no further than the radically different bodies of its principal actors. Coullo'ch has the kind of lumpen physique that makes it seem as if he were created in a compactor; by contrast, Hands seems reedy and elegant. The two become a very odd couple. Imagining them charting a future together is a bit like trying to picture an exquisite ring being slipped over a bumpy knuckle.

It takes most of the movie for the gamekeeper and Lady Chatterley to have a real conversation, just as it takes them forever to make love without their clothes. I suppose that's the point, to allow us to feel our way along the path charted by characters who are discovering themselves as creatures in nature. To assure us that they have arrived at a better place than the one at which they started, Ferran waits until near the end to show the naked lovers romping outdoors during a sun shower. Sopping wet and mud splattered, they finally are at home in the world.

If you're caught looking at your watch during this moment of uninhibited splendor, don't fret. You probably won't be alone. Ferran's onto something here, but she would have done well to let go of it sooner.