Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Armed to the teeth, daddy's out for blood

Summary: Although director James Wan ("Saw") does some eye-popping work in this souped-up heir to the "Death Wish" movies of the 70s, "Death Sentence" eventually hits bottom. Blame a mixture of improbability, over-the-top emotion, sicko violence and unconvincing attempts to extract meaning from rivers of already spilled blood. "Death Sentence," by the way, was adapted from a novel by Brian Garfield, who also wrote the novel "Death Wish," on which the Charles Bronson movie was based.

I went to see "Death Sentence" for two reasons: a long-standing interest in Kevin Bacon's work and an awareness that a mini-revenge trend has swung into action with Jodie Foster's "The Brave One" set for September release. Like "Brave One," "Death Sentence" centers on an individual who seeks revenge when violence disrupts an otherwise happy life. "Brave One" probably qualifies as the class of a small field, although "Death Sentence" can't be beat if you're looking for gritty, ultra-violence from a director who knows how to dish it out.

Bacon plays Nick Hume, a dad who's living a middle-class dream life with his wife and two sons. When anyone's living a dream in a movie called "Death Sentence," you can bet that trouble can't be more than a reel away. It arrives when oldest son Brendan (Stuart Lafferty) is killed with a machete, a random act of violence that takes place during a gang initiation at a gas station in a bad part of town. A punk needs to make his lethal bones. Brendan happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Of course, Brendan wasn't just another kid. He was a superstar teen-ager who was beginning to plan a future based on his abilities as a high-school hockey star. He probably would have been a great collegiate athlete, maybe even a pro. But this isn't a movie about the glories of teen achievement. It's a movie about the ways in which retaliation breeds chaos.

The perpetrator is caught by the police, but receives a plea-bargain deal for a lightweight three-to-five year sentence. The aggrieved Nick then refuses to identify the killer, even though he knows precisely who he is. Nick wants to kid to go free so he can kill him. In preparation, Nick winds up rattling around his tool shed looking for sharp objects. Let's see. Hedge clippers. Phillips screwdriver. Knife. Knife is good.

This being the 21st century, Nick's violence must be touched by minimal amounts of sensitivity. The granddaddy of these movies -- Charles Bronson's 1974 "Death Wish" -- showed Bronson's Paul Kersey losing lunch after his first foray into violence. But Kersey warmed to the task pretty quickly, even seeking out opportunities to unleash his vengeance on punks that roamed the streets of New York. Here, it takes nearly the entire picture for Nick totally to embrace his vengeance. Until then, each new act of violence sends him into a panic.

Toward the very end of the movie, Nick finds the resolve that goes along with a fairly standard NOW-HE'S-REALLY-PISSED moment. You know the drill. The NOW-HE'S-REALLY-PISSED moment happens when a guy who's taken all manner of abuse finally goes completely over the edge. Nick's newfound fury sends the movie way over the top, squandering whatever small amount of credibility remained. And believe me, it wasn't much. Nick shaves his head and goes Travis Bickle; the cracked main character of Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" is recast in B-movie garb.

The supporting characters mostly indulge in thug-chic stylin'. The gang members are bald and tattooed. They're a gruesome band of brothers who are supplied with arms by a mega-sleaze gun dealer played by John Goodman, who looks like a guy who'd just as soon shoot his grandmother as pick his teeth.

All of this is not say that there's no impressive work in "Death Sentence." Wan stages a truly pulse-pounding chase sequence in which everyone's on foot. The action culminates in a parking garage where Wan demonstrates that he can wield a camera with a lot more skill than his characters wield their weapons. If these bits of action hadn't been trapped by foul gasses of exploitative fury, they might have been more memorable.

The script by Ian Jeffers takes a late-picture stab at meaning, and maybe even wants to make metaphoric references to the current state in which the U.S. finds itself. Bacon's character learns that what he calls "the justice equation" never can be balanced. Even righteously motivated violence can result in nihilistic blood baths. The movie also points out that in combating the violent thugs, Nick ultimately proves that he's not all that different from them. How many times do we need to hear that one?

Skill doesn't always overpower the stench of lurid material, and the movie's strongly mounted action can't redeem its blood lusting impulses. Moreover, the sight of Nick sobbing in a shower after he exacts his first vengeance makes you wonder why the filmmakers wanted to take up the vengeance cudgel in the first place. Put another way: Displays of conscience seem a little out of place in a movie that ultimately rolls out its share of butt-kicking violence.

It takes something tantamount to gall to ask us to view "Death Sentence" as a cautionary tale. Let's face it. Audiences tend to seek out movies such as "Death Sentence" to watch the blood flow, not to contemplate the impact of violence on the human personality.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

A critic busts a movie for fudging the facts

Summary: "Resurrecting the Champ" provides a platform for discussing just how much a critic should reveal about a movie, and raises interesting questions about the uneasy relationship between fact and drama.

Nothing seems to annoy readers more than a reviewer who gives away major plot twists, and, for the most part, readers are right to take offense when they feel their pleasures have been spoiled. But some movies are difficult to write about without revealing a crucial turn of plot. I thought about this while reading Jack Matthews' review of "Resurrecting the Champ" in Friday's New York Daily News. Matthews wrote directly about something most reviewers didn't bother to point out: "Resurrecting the Champ," which is loosely based on a real story, does some damage to the truth.

From here on, you'll find spoilers, and, of course, spoilers also can be found in Matthews' review. If you'd rather see the movie before reading further, by all means stop now. Be advised, though, we're not talking "The Crying Game" here, and you may not be all that surprised even if you don't know where the movie's headed. Personally, I've never felt that knowing about a movie in advance ruins the viewing experience, particularly if the movie is any good. I don't know how many times I've seen "Psycho," and it still never fails to rattle me.

But back to the point...

In "Resurrecting the Champ," Josh Hartnett plays a sportswriter for the fictional Denver Times. During the course of covering the boxing beat, Hartnett's Erik stumbles on what he believes to be a major story. A former contending middleweight -- Battlin' Bob Satterfield (Samuel L. Jackson) -- is living homeless on the streets of Denver. The catch that ultimately gives the movie its spin: The ex-fighter isn't "Battlin' Bob," but one of his former opponents. By the time the movie begins, Battlin' Bob has been dead for several years.

Because he's hungry to advance his career, Erik doesn't dig deep enough. He writes a story for his paper's Sunday magazine, receives lots of accolades and then discovers that he's been had. The movie suddenly becomes a study in journalistic ethics. Should Erik reveal his colossal mistake or should he try and cruise past any consequences?

It didn't happen this way. J.R. Moehringer wrote the story for the Los Angeles Times. Before he finished, Moehringer figured out that the fighter was not telling the truth. He wrote an article, but quite a different one than the movie suggests.

"Resurrecting the Champ'' -- which was directed by Rod Lurie -- manipulates the plot so that the "revelation" about the man who claims to be Satterfield comes as a shock. And if you don't already know the story, it may work that way. Also true, a story about a writer who discovers a more complex truth might have been considerably less dramatic.

The point: Movies "based on" or "inspired" by real events can be problematic. The dramatist's instincts are often at odds with those of a journalist. Most such movies at least try to get close, and I suppose that a "ballpark" standard should be applied. Is the movie "in the ballpark" when it comes to the actual story?

By that measure, "Resurrecting the Champ" fouls one out of the park when its most surprising development comes to light. Erik's newspaper is badly embarrassed. He faces personal disgrace. Even his relationship with his young son might have been jeopardized by his carelessness. Matthews rightly points out that the facts don't support this narrative tack: The real story, he says, provides a nice example of a newspaper doing its job correctly.

I found "Resurrecting the Champ" to be reasonably entertaining in the way that phony, romanticized movies sometimes are, and I admired Jackson's performance. But I may have given short shrift to the movie's ethical problems, perhaps because "Resurrecting the Champ" isn't all that important -- at least not with a capital "I." Let's face it; a story about an ex-pug claiming to be someone else doesn't exactly reach Watergate proportions.

Still, hats off to Matthews for pointing out a disturbing truth about "Resurrecting the Champ." Even if it takes a little sting out of the movie's punch, it's important that audiences know, and it demonstrates a telling point: If filmmakers believe they must choose between factual accuracy and perceived dramatic impact, they'll usually forget the facts. In such a conflict, drama almost always becomes the heavy favorite.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Scarlett Johansson plays "Who's Your Nanny?"

Summary: "The Nanny Diaries" virtually defines middle-of-the-road moviemaking. It sinks to no depths, scales few heights and has the look and feel of an entertainment that's designed to do little more than pass a couple of hours.

Directors Shari Spring Berman and Robert Pulcini made a big splash in 2003 with "American Splendor," the story of Harvey Pekar, Cleveland comic-book author and massive malcontent. If you saw that movie, you won't be surprised to learn that Berman and Pulcini try to add some stylistic dash to a straightforward story about a confused Jersey girl who winds up taking a job as a nanny in hopes that she'll eventually discover her destiny. Faux dioramas and the occasional freeze frame can't, however, disguise the movie's middle-of-the-road sensibility.

Based on a satirical novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, "Nanny Diaries" tells the story of Annie (Scarlett Johansson), a recent college grad who's biding her time before plunging into the job market. She works as a nanny for a couple she refers to as Mr. and Mrs. X (Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti). Because Annie studied anthropology, she half convinces herself that she's doing field work on Manhattan's Upper East Side, a cloistered enclave where good parenting seems to consist of attending school meetings rather than spending time with one's child.

Linney knows how to do frosty, and she does it here with the expected success. If Giamatti, who played Pekar in "American Splendor," welcomed the opportunity to portray a bona fide heel, he should be delighted. Mr. X is a philandering businessman who specializes in scowls and mergers. He's also not much of a homebody.

The minor roles don't add a great deal. Alicia Keys appears as Annie's best friend, and Chris Evans portrays a Harvard grad who lives in the building where Annie takes care of the WASPishly named Grayer (Nicholas Reese Art).

Johannson dies her hair brown and generally finds ways to let us know that her character is subservient to Mrs. X. Don't feel bad for the generically named Mr. and Mrs. X; they refer to Annie only as "Nanny." Despite the intimacy of the living situation -- or maybe because of it -- the demanding Mrs. X maintains an impersonal quality in all her conversations with Annie.

Following suit, we'll refer to "The Nanny Diaries" as movie. Not good movie. Not bad movie. Just movie. You can take it from there.

By the way, if you want to read my review of "Resurrecting the Champ," you can find it at www.rockymountainnews.com. My former editor e-mailed and asked if I could review the movie. I did, although I'm not anxious to get back into the daily reviewing game as a matter of routine. Too crazy. Not enough time to think. Interferes with leisurely lunches and naps.

And a word or two about "Rocket Science." This small but generally intelligent charmer tells the story of a stuttering teen-ager (Reece Daniel Thompson) who improbably tries out for his high-school debate team. Thompson's Hal responds to a request from super-debater Ginny (Anna Kendrick), a girl who catches his shy eye and who won't take no for an answer. Some of the ingredients employed by Jeffrey Blitz, who directed the winning documentary "Spellbound," reach for quirky extremes -- Thompson's character's troubled family, for example. His older brother (Vincent Piazza) bullies him; his dad has left his mom; his mom takes up with a Korean judge who lives on her block. But most of the time, "Rocket Science" manages to be idiosyncratic without being off-putting, and it's one of the more enjoyable films to come out of last January's Sundance Film Festival. When the movie sticks with Hal's high-school adventures, it does fine. Better still, Blitz has the decency not to move the story toward the most predictable conclusion.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Sidney Lumet, Prince of the City

Summary: France's vaunted La Cinemateque Francais is in the midst of a Sidney Lumet retrospective. Lumet, who's 83 and still working, has had his share of misses, but when he hits, he tends to score big

Like many of directors of his day, Lumet honed his craft working on early television dramas. He broke into film in 1957 with "12 Angry Men," a magnificently acted -- if overly earnest -- drama set entirely in the jury room of a New York City courthouse. Lumet went on to direct such landmark films as "The Pawnbroker (1964) and "Network" (1975), but for me, his greatest achievement involves the way he captured the gritty essence of New York City, often focusing on the town's disposition toward institutional and personal corruption.

In a towering trio of movies, Lumet has shown the ways in which authority tends to bleed into its abuse. His characters often occupy worlds dominated by moral relativism and get-along, go-along pragmatism. In such a climate, the line between good and evil blurs and characters constantly face perilous losses of direction. None of Lumet's urban movies are particularly preachy, yet a strong ethical core resides at the heart of each, a call to the audience to acknowledge the conflicted horrors of systems that seem to be spinning wildly and perhaps irrevocably out of control.

Beyond that, Lumet qualifies as an actors' director, having obtained great and important performances from any number of actors, inlcuiding Peter Finch and Fay Dunaway in "Network" and Paul Newman in 1982's "The Verdict." The following examples serve to prove the rule: Lumet inspires actors. Here, I list three Lumet movies I very much admire. In order of preference, they are:

1. "Serpico" (1973). Al Pacino, in perhaps his third best performance after "The Godfather" and "The Godfather II," portrayed crusading New York City cop Frank Serpico. A searing portrait of police corruption in New York City, "Serpico" holds up to this day, partly because it teems with realistic portrayals of life for New York police officers during the tumultuous 1970s. Pacino, by the way, gave another memorable performance in Lumet's 1975's "Dog Day Afternoon," but in "Serpico," the then-rising star found a character whose obsessive idealism, social adaptability and mounting rage made for a perfect match between character and actor.

2. "Prince of the City." (1981). Another look at a cop (Treat Williams) under crushing pressure. Williams plays Daniel Ciello, a detective who's pressured into becoming an informant as part of a deal in which the Internal Affairs department agrees to overlook Ciello's own moral lapses. Set during the 1960s, "Prince of the City," like "Serpico," is based on a true story. The movie was adapted from a book by Robert Daley about Bob Leuci, a New York City cop. Long, sprawling and full of riveting scenes, "Prince of the City" never loses touch with the central drama that pushes Williams' character way out on a limb.

3. "Q & A" (1990) Nick Nolte gives one of his best performances as another corrupt detective, this one a murderer and hard-core racist. Nolte's Michael Brennan is a brutal, rule-bending cop who attracts the attention of a young assistant district attorney (Timothy Hutton). Largely overlooked when first released, "Q & A" stands as a solid entry into the turbulent urban arena where Lumet has done some of his most enduring work. And Nolte? He imbues Breenan with a raw and terrifying physicality, as if a side of beef had learned to walk and talk.

A final note: Some critics may view Lumet as a less distinctive stylist than a master filmmaker should be. It seems to me that this asks too much of a director who has managed to create comprehensive portraits of whole chunks of society. I don't know if Lumet will pass muster as a master when future film historians assess his work. But his movies should remain invaluable to those who want to see how characters react when their ideals confront the most brutal realities. There's also something to be said for a craftsman who knows how to create movies that feel as real as the characters who populate them.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Booze, babes and nerds in "Superbad"

Summary: It's always amusing to watch gray-bearded critics lose their composure over a teen comedy. It's happening again with "Superbad," which was produced by Judd Apatow, who directed "Knocked Up" and "The 40-year-old Virgin" and who seems to have taken on the role of Hollywood's latest comic genius. "Superbad,"which was co-written by Apatow regular Seth Rogen, mixes two familiar qualities: teen angst and raunchy humor. That makes it a deeply satisfying entertainment for bright, slightly nerdy teens who are college bound.

As a bright, slightly nerdy adult who hardly remembers college, I found "Superbad" funny and gave it credit for discovering one character who stands above the rest, a super-nerd named Fogell, played by newcomer Christopher Mintz-Plasse. Fogell's fake ID propels the movie's piffle of a plot. In order to buy booze for a major party, Fogell creates a faux identity, boldly calling himself McLovin, a name that seems to blend the worst aspects of fast-food marketing and '70s cool. Mintz-Plasse is a hoot.

The story takes place during a single day. Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) are nerds who normally aren't invited to the best parties -- or maybe to any parties at all. But on this wondrous day, they're not only asked to attend a party, but also presented with the prospect of losing their virginity. As you probably know, losing one's virginity stands as the most hallowed feat in Hollywood's catalog of adolescent achievement .

En route to procuring alcohol and delivering it to the party -- the real reason they were invited -- Seth and Evan have what loosely might be termed "adventures," all built around two basic preoccupations: obtaining booze and lusting after babes. They become involved with a couple of goofball cops (Rogen and Bill Hader), wind up mingling with unsavory types at the wrong party and generally stumble their way toward the movie's conclusion.

Hill, who appeared in "Knocked Up," portrays the avid Seth, a young man with the simmering impatience of a kettle that's perpetually on the verge of boiling over. He's all steam and whistling hostility, perhaps bred by years of being the overweight kid who the cool kids shun. Cera, on the other hand, low-keys his way through a performance as Evan, taking full advantage of his Boy Scout's look.

In a way, the movie is one long bout of separation anxiety. Seth and Evan, who grew up together, face the daunting prospect of going their separate ways. Blame SAT scores. Cera's Evan has gotten into Dartmouth, as has Fogell. In fact, Evan and Fogell plan to room together, a prospect that Seth views as a particularly grievous form of betrayal. He's apparently going to college closer to home.

Some of the jokes -- notably Seth's childhood obsession with drawing penises -- italicize the film's ribald silliness while pointing toward the homoerotic qualities of teen male bonding, a topic that resurfaces in the movie's final act. After a night of uneasy debauchery, Seth and Evan confess their love for each other, while gingerly backing away from any sexual implications. They're buddies.

Rogen and partner Evan Goldberg -- the duo for whom the main characters are named -- reportedly wrote "Superbad" while they were still teen-agers. One imagines that they were the kind of kids who spent lots of time watching teen movies and pondering how they might outdo everyone by pushing the bad-taste envelope straight through the multiplex roof.

Director Greg Mottola, who also directed 1997's "Daytrippers," does his best with what looks to have been a decidedly low budget. The movie's a bit of an eyesore, not that its prime audience will care.

To enjoy a movie such as "Superbad," you must be able to tolerate humor that goes for gross and grosser. Here's the thing, though. In the end "Superbad" can't resist a bit of moralizing and you wonder whether for all their attempts at breaking out, Seth, Evan and Fogell aren't just three more Yuppies in training, the sort of kids who are destined to turn their teen anxieties into an equally distressed forms of adult striving. It's not hard to imagine Seth eventually morphing into a rabidly competitive MBA candidate.

But enough. Searching for deeper meaning in "Superbad" is about as productive as looking for erotic passages in a Jane Austen novel. Because of its unrestrained and even unrelenting vulgarity, "Superbad" never quite casts off the shackles of its own raunchy preoccupations. As a reuslt, the movie remains stuck in the teen ghetto, a limited if lucrative neighborhood.

Whatever else may be going on here, make no mistake: It's foul-mouthed humor that will turn "Superbad" into a hit. An impressive array of talking-point jokes (a gag involving menstrual blood, for example) will keep the target audience slapping its collective knee and screaming for more.

"Death at a Funeral," when laughter hurts

Summary: When we start listing the hardships of moviegoing, we generally wind up referring to such distractions as sticky theater floors, compulsive text messaging, and, of course, incessant talking. These are but a few of the things that can spoil an evening at the movies. Here, I call attention to one the most overlooked of the many irritations that result from going amongst the multitudes: the piercing laugh.

Not only did I see Frank Oz's "Death at a Funeral" in a theater at which the air conditioning was broken -- and on day when temperatures flirted with 100 degrees -- but I also sat within 10 feet of a woman whose laugh could penetrate the walls of a bunker. Her's was a high pitched, sharp spear of a laugh, and it made me wish that Oz's attempt at British comedy was less funny, although it's a good deal less uproarious than this woman's laughter might suggest.

Oz whips up a small story about a funeral that turns into a fiasco. When a family gathers to bury the patriarch of the clan, all manner of terrible misfortunes result -- from people mistakenly taking hallucinatory drugs to a gross-out moment involving human excrement.

You know a movie is flying under the radar when the most recognizable member of its cast is Peter Dinklage, the fine actor who became familiar to American audiences in "The Station Agent." Here, Dinklage portrays a mysterious stranger who shows up at the funeral in possession of secrets that potentially could throw the proceedings into further disarray.

The rest of this very British cast -- all game for Oz's mostly middling attempts at farce -- includes Matthew Macfadyen and Keeley Hawes as a grieving couple. Macfayden's character's dad occupies the coffin that becomes the centerpiece of one of the movie's best, though most predictable, jokes.

Another son (Rupert Graves) arrives from the U.S. He's a successful novelist. Alan Tudyk portrays a guest whose consumption of a hallucinogenic drug becomes a running joke. Tudyk's Simon is attending the funeral with his fiancee (Daisy Donovan). There's also a decrepit uncle (Peter Vaughan) who spews profanity from his wheelchair and who needs assistance from his nephew (Andy Nyman) in placing his bottom squarely on a toilet seat. That's a sampling of the personnel -- and the level of humor.

A movie such as "Death at a Funeral" requires only that a couple of major bits work. If they do, it's easier to overlook a noticeable lack of laughter in the setup, not to mention times when momentum flags. Several big moments can create the illusion of a much greater comic success. That pretty much happens here.

Oz hasn't created a seamless movie, but "Death at a Funeral" proves sufficiently funny, providing, of course, that you can find a theater where the air conditioning works and where you have the good fortune not to be seated near someone whose laugh adds a little pain to every joke.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Fantasy/schmantasy, tell me a good story

Summary: Another great weekend of cinema culture dawns today, and, yes, I'm being sarcastic. Why shouldn't I turn up my nose? This weekend, "Stardust" makes its whimsical debut, and Jackie Chan returns to the big screen. Although "Stardust" charmed lots of critics, it left me shaking my head at the idea that Robert De Niro would choose to play a cross-dressing pirate -- and do it badly.

If you want to read several positive reviews of "Stardust," click here. If not, join me in refusing to belabor any of this week's movies. While watching "Stardust," I found myself wishing that all the faux enchantment would end. Based on a much-admired graphic novel by Neil Gaiman, the movie occasionally puts its tongue in its cheek, but the whole business winds up feeling more intoxicated than intoxicating, a bit like a reeling drunk who's attempting to go in as many directions as possible -- all at the same time.

The "Monty Python" troupe often made scatter-shot magic, but director Matthew Vaughn (who previously directed the moderately intriguing British gangster movie "Layer Cake") can't.

Adhering to the theory that nothing succeeds like excess, Vaughn overloads the screen with bric-a-brac and special effects while wandering through a plot about a young man (Charlie Cox) who enters a magical kingdom in hopes of winning the heart of an earthly beauty (Sienna Miller). While traveling around the unappealingly named kingdom of Storm-hold, our hero falls for another woman. Yvaine (Claire Danes) is the living embodiment of a fallen star -- as in astronomy, not Hollywood.

Peter O'Toole creaks through another cameo as a dying king whose vicious sons want to take over Storm-hold. Say this for O'Toole: The man knows how to collect a check. He never gets out of bed for this one.

De Niro's attempts at comic relief probably will have some rolling in the aisles, but for me they felt about as enjoyable as listening to a rock dropping into the bottom of an empty garbage can. The major joke: De Niro's Captain Shakespeare delves into cross-dressing, thereby revealing that beneath the outlaw's macho pose, an inner woman lurks. Let me tell you, a mincing De Niro is not a sight to behold. De Niro's miscast in a movie that looks as if it resulted from a mid-air collision of "The Princess Bride" and "Baron Munchausen."

Michelle Pfeiffer, seen earlier this summer in "Hairspray," signs on as a witch who wants to remain young and beautiful forever. After this effects-laden extravaganza, Pfeiffer might want to consider returning to acting on a less-operatic scale, which she's always done quite well, thanks.

"Stardust" probably had potential, but it's a bit like a ballet staged by someone who hasn't totally mastered the art of dance. As a result, the movie tends to trip over its many plot elements, often at times when it should be moving gracefully forward. Vaughn's "fairy tale for adults" feels as if it's more in love with making magic than with keeping us (make that me) involved.

In the absence of enough suspended disbelief, I exercise what I regard as a sacred and inalienable right: the right not to be enchanted.

Meanwhile, Jackie Chan rejoins Chris Tucker for another helping of "Rush Hour." "Rush Hour 3" takes Tucker and Chan from Los Angeles to Paris, and demonstrate a sad truth. These two guys aren't all that funny together. Never were.

Also, Chan has gotten a little long in the tooth and his best physical work might be behind him. There's one amusing bit modeled on the Abbott and Costello's "Who's On First Routine?" And there's a musical number that's enjoyably silly. This often-showy third edition reaches its climax on the Eiffel Tower, but the big finish lacks the physical genius that marked much of Chan's dazzling Hong Kong work.
Note: Appearances by Max von Sydow (as the head of a world criminal court) and director Roman Polanski (as a cop) are noteworthy. Von Sydow maintains his dignity. Polanski? Don't ask.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Blink and the last big thing has vanished

Summary: Patti Thorn, The Rocky Mountain News' highly capable book editor, recently decided to share "one last thought about Harry Potter." Thorn enjoyed the way Pottermania seized the reading public. She also noted that this burst of collective enthusiasm lasted only "a few short weeks."

A few weeks? That's all we get for a book that has galvanized the attention of a couple of generations, spawned an enormously popular series of movies and been a crossover read for youngsters and adults. If so, it only serves to reinforce the notion that American pop culture -- as evidenced by reports of the weekly movie grosses -- has become a study in impermanence and shifting ground. Thanks in part to a ravenous media machine, our national attention span seems to shrivel with each passing week.

Did "The Bourne Ultimatum" score big on its opening weekend? Sure, but its $70.2 million haul -- a record for a movie released in August -- may seem like old news a week from now, particularly if another movie grabs the lead. And even if "Bourne" beats out "Rush Hour 3" on Aug. 10, what will it mean? One more week of market dominance before "Bourne" takes the first step toward the secondary markets?

It already seems as if "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" opened a century ago. "Ocean's Thirteen?" We're talking the Pleistocene epoch when it comes to movie culture. Each week's crop of new movies seems to obliterate memory of the previous week's fare, and, although in some cases, that's not a bad thing, it makes you wonder whether movie culture finally hasn't achieved its fondest wish: It's a lot like channel hopping with a remote control.

Thorn applauded publication of the final Potter book as "a bonding experience for readers of all types and ages." She's right to believe in the importance of shared stories, but when it comes to movies, the only shared story involves the dizzying merry-go-round of non-stop commerce.

That's why it's possible for a movie to make $70.2 million over a weekend and still be thought of as disposable. "Bourne?" Yeah, I remember him. He's the guy who was always running in a movie that, like the whole business of movies, can't quite be pinned down.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

He was "Bourne" to run

Summary: The story in "The Bourne Ultimatum" is relatively simple: Spy loses memory. Spy isn't sure who's using him and for what purposes. Spy tires to find out who he really is and why so many people want to kill him. But in the third installment, director Paul Greengrass destabilizes and complicates the narrative, pushing us into a topsy-turvy world where nothing seems to count as much the ability to speed through one perilous situation after another. The approach calls for equal amounts of popcorn and Dramamine.

"The Bourne Ultimatum" represents Greengrass' second run at the series, following in the wake of his slightly less frenetic "Bourne Supremacy." Employing the frenetic style that seems to mark most of his movies, Greengrass takes a host of action ingredients, tosses them into a bag and shakes the living daylights out of them -- and us.

At times, logic goes by the boards in favor of intense surges of action. Bourne, for example, is pursued by the C.I.A., which evidently can follow his movements by activating its nearly ubiquitous surveillance equipment. The C.I.A. can't take its electronic eyes off Bourne, which leads us to believe that it might have occurred to him (or more importantly to the screenwriters) to allow him a disguise or two.

Maybe the filmmakers wanted Matt Damon, who has turned Bourne into his franchise role, to provide the audience with an anchor in the midst of a tumultuous narrative sea. Damon, all squared-off corners and more business-like than an annual meeting, maintains a sense of purpose within the movie's convulsive movement. Bourne may not know his true identity, but we never doubt his determination to find out.

Despite the presence of a strong cast -- Joan Allen, David Straithairn, Paddy Considine and (briefly) Albert Finney -- "Bourne Ultimatum" hardly qualifies as an actor's movie. The actors fit into the swirling rhythms Greengrass so insistently creates and which sometimes obscure the moral questions at the heart of a story based on the work of novelist Robert Ludlum. What precisely are we entitled to do to protect American lives? How far should we go? And in a morally murky world, what exactly would victory look like anyway?

Greengrass, whose agitated technique served him well in "United 93" and "Bloody Sunday," probably overplays his hand here. "The Bourne Ultimatum" makes your pulse race, although at some point, you may be tempted to ask exactly where you're headed. The mixture of action, electronics and intel jargon -- plenty smart in the early going -- energizes a globe-hopping plot that doesn't bother to dot every "i' or cross every "t." An example: We never learn how Bourne finances the kind of travel that might earn enough frequent-flyer miles to keep half of Europe airborne for a decade.

Tossed into a world he doesn't fully understand, Bourne taps the inner resources that percolate just beneath his stoic surface. And Greengrass tries to keep us at Bourne's level. I'm not sure what it means, but at the end of all this cascading barrage of action, I wasn't so much as identifying with Bourne as hoping he'd at least get a long weekend off.

I was confident that he -- like the rest of us -- had had enough running around in the movie's skillful, marathon-length set pieces, the prime (and best) example taking place at London's Waterloo Station.

Greengrass has made a mostly entertaining movie, but toward the end I had trouble giving myself over to it. Maybe that's because Greeengrass also has proven that it's possible for a movie to move so fast, it practically runs over its own intelligence.

See Jane fall in love; see Jane get ideas

Summary: "Becoming Jane," a speculative story about the real Jane Austen and a supposedly pivotal failed love affair, short changes the wit, irony and bite of an Austen novel.

Anne Hathaway (fair) plays Austen, and James McAvoy (charming) portrays Tom Lefroy, the Irishman with whom Austen supposedly fell madly in love. The movie takes liberties with history (no big deal) but lacks the keen sense of wit and social observation (a very big deal) that would have made it seem like more than a limp warm-up for "Pride & Prejudice."

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Snyder once helped fill a critic's late nights

Summary: Tom Snyder may not have been the best interviewer in television history or the greatest broadcaster, either, but before David Letterman began filling the late-night hours, Snyder gave semi-insomniacs something to watch.

Here's the deal: I used to stagger home from evening screenings, desperate for a little diversion before bed. As just about everyone who reviews movies knows, it's virtually impossible to arrive home from a multiplex promotional screening, hit the sack and immediately start the z-meter. Hey, you try to sleep after a couple of hours of Pauly Shore or Adam Sandler or the latest brainbuster from Michael Bay.

For a long time, Snyder was just about the only way (short of heavy drinking) to put some distance between a night of movie mayhem and the pillow. Snyder had decent guests, and a distinctive style, which meant he was easy to imitate. Dan Aykroyd did a good Snyder. I guess a lot of comics did.

I'm pretty sure I remember Snyder, who came out of local and then national news, smoking cigarettes on air (an absolute impossibility these days), and he often said things that amused himself -- if not the rest of the world. I read one obituary that said Snyder "chortled." I guess that's right.

Snyder, who had the quintessential '70s anchor man's haircut could get on your nerves, but he seemed to have fun interviewing guests, and when he liked someone, he wasn't afraid to show it. He also never felt the need to impress his audience with his erudition, unlike some Charlie Roses who shall go unnamed here.

These days I'll sometimes watch a little Letterman, who replaced Snyder's "Tomorrow Show" on NBC in 1982. I'll also drop in on Leno occasionally, usually with the enthusiasm I might have for paying an obligatory visit to a distant relative. I might stop for some Charlie Rose, but it depends on the guest. If Rose is doing a movie show, I almost always have to turn the show off within minutes. Too much fawning.

Snyder sometimes expressed his amusement at the ridiculousness of TV. He reportedly wasn't happy when he was asked to do his show in front of an audience, employing guest gossiper Rona Barrett as a regular. The show was pretty tame by today's standards.

Mostly, though, I remember Snyder sitting in an easy chair across from a guest, doing an interview, and not necessarily pumping up someone's latest book, movie or TV show.

Geez. I just realized that this is the third death story in a row.

Snyder died Monday of complications associated with leukemia, and although I hadn't really thought about him in years, news of his passing reminded me that there were nights when I'd arrive home too late to call anyone, too bleary-eyed to read and thankful that Snyder was there to ease the pain.