Thursday, September 27, 2007

Power of "The Kingdom" lies in action

Summary: "The Kingdom" is a butt-kicking hunk of action, but does it make a major statement about terrorism, the Mideast or anything else? The answer: Not really.

"The Kingdom" opens with a suicide bombing at an American installation inside Saudi Arabia. Director Peter Berg ("Friday Night Lights") depicts this catastrophe in such alarming detail that you may wonder whether the film really qualifies as entertainment. But even in this riveting prologue, suggestions of intent creep in. We know, for example, that the attack takes aim at cherished American values. Some the folks were playing softball when the bombs went off. In additon, women and children were not exempted from the carnage. Safe to assume that Berg wants us to experience the revulsion that stems from wanton, indiscriminate destruction. (Like we haven't seen enough of that in real life?)

Still, it's quite a start. But the longer "The Kingdom" goes on, the more it seems like one more amped-up addition to the on-going action festival that constitutes a large share of American moviemaking. And, no, I couldn't help myself. From time-to-time, I got caught up in this camera-crazed fantasy that stars Jamie Foxx as a tough FBI agent and tender-hearted father.

Acting isn't exactly the strong suit here. Foxx's closed-off performance is aced by Chris Cooper's turn as an eccentric munitions expert. Perhaps to reach the female part of the audience and to provide eye candy for the men, Jennifer Garner has been recruited as a forensics specialist. Jason Bateman signs on as the team member who's snared in a life-threatening trap.

Look for Jeremy Piven, who plays Hollywood agent Ari Gold on HBO's "Entourage," to bring his aggressively nasty style to the role of a diplomat who wants the FBI guys to go through the motions and head for home. Ashraf Barhom plays a Saudi officer who's assigned to help the Americans and probably to keep on an eye on them, too. The Saudis regard this FBI mission as an intrusion and an affront.

To be fair, Berg has attempted a near-impossible task; he's trying to balance the need for explosive action with the desire to say something relevant about the way in which terror effectively can be battled. Moreover, Berg certainly won't be winning any awards from the Saudi government, which can't be happy about seeing its country portrayed as a haven for terrorists.

But let's be real here: Action trumps any real consideration of politics; the movie's gaze seems to be more fixed on box-office demands than on deeply troubling policy issues. Maybe that's why Berg shoots in the ultra-quick, faux documentary style that seems to be emerging whenever filnmakers want to persuade us that their task is fraught with urgency. The technique, particularly during fighting sequences, seems to be a cross between "The Bourne Ultimatum" and "Blackhawk Down."

If you leave after the movie's prologue -- a brief history of Saudi Arabia in news clips -- you might be able to say you learned something. Otherwise, you'll be sitting on the edge of your seat, trying to follow the tipsy, hand-held camera work, bracing for the next burst of action and marveling at Hollywood's ability to turn tragedy into white-knuckle thrills with occasional displays of emotion, of course. These, too, go off with bomb-like subtlety, showering the movie's calmer moments with the shrapnel of father/son sentiment both in Saudi Arabia and in the U.S.

ALSO ON SCREEN: A grim expose about the sex trade and two forgettable movies.

Based on a New York Times magazine article on the sex slave trade, "Trade" is somber, shocking and purposefully drab. It's definitely ambitious, but the movie pulls you down in the same way that an exploitation picture might. Put another way, it draws attention to a horrible problem, but doesn't tell a story that matches its aspirations.

Cesar Ramos portrays a young Mexican hustler whose young sister (Paulina Gaitan) is abducted and sent to the U.S. where she'll be sold over the Internet. Virgins bring a high price. Ramos' character tracks his sister all the way to New Jersey with help from an American insurance fraud investigator (Kevin Kline). The two make an unlikely duo, and an unusually dour Kline trudges through the movie like a man carrying the weight of many personal defeats.

The movie shows plenty of graphic abuse of young women, with particular emphasis on a Polish woman (Alicja Bachleda-Curus) who traveled to Mexico in pursuit of a better life. Director Marco Kreuzpaintner keeps the atmosphere grim, but the mixture of odd couple cliches (between Kline's character and his Mexican companion), road-movie adventure and expose´ sensationalism doesn't cohere into a work of agonized social conscience.

If you love the movies of director Robert Benton -- who co-wrote "Bonnie and Clyde" and who has made such recent favorites as "Nobody's Fool" and the underrated "Billy Bathgate" -- you may want to avoid "Feast of Love,'' a thoroughly mediocre movie about the love lives of various characters in Portland, Ore. Greg Kinnear plays the clueless owner of a coffee shop who can't hang onto his wife's affection. How could he? His wife (Selma Blair) has fallen for another woman. Kinnear's Bradley later hooks up with a real-estate agent (Radha Mitchell), who can't quite give him her heart, either. Morgan Freeman arrives to play ringmaster and guru to the bed-hopping Oregonians as they make their various ways through infidelities and sincere quests for relationships. Benton is one of the nicest people I've met in movies, but he struck out with "The Human Stain" and sinks further with this lame concoction. "Feast of Love" casts its own heartfelt pall. And while we're on the subject of lame -- or at least lukewarm -- movies, don't expect much from "King of California," which features Michael Douglas as a bearded eccentric who moves in with his teen-age daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) after he's released from a mental institution. Perhaps intended as a bittersweet celebration of eccentricity, "King of California" comes off as bland, a fitfully amusing but generally uninspired attempt at using quirky characters to provide us with uplift. And you thought those troubled folks in mental institutions really were sick? Shame on you.

The whole world was moonstruck

Summary: The stirring new documentary "In the Shadow of the Moon" takes us back to the days of the Apollo moon shots, reminding us that it's possible for the whole planet to be united in around a triumphal experience. If this is nostalgia, bring it on. We could use more of it.

It falls to British director David Sington to jog memories of a time when nearly all of us managed to feel good about something. Stirring footage from various Apollo missions and interviews with the men who flew them make "In the Shadow of the Moon" a must-see for those who wish to recharge the batteries of shared purpose and humility.

Neil Armstrong, the first man to talk on the moon, wouldn't participate, but even his absence becomes a kind of eloquent statement about the way individuals can conquer egotism for the sake of larger goals -- and this one was fraught with danger and uncertainty. The lunar landing exacted a high toll: Three astronauts were killed during a 1967 test run for one of the missions.

Of all the images that movies routinely provide, some wear out their welcome. That can't be said about the sight of our tiny planet from space. That humbling picture reminds us of our shared earthly fate. Consider it an axiom: When the view becomes Olympian, our many struggles seem to shrink in size.

And that's about all that needs to be said about "In the Shadow of the Moon," except for three additional words, "Go see it."

Friday, September 21, 2007

What I've been watching at home

Lately, I've been leaping all over the place when it comes to DVDs. Here's a sampling:

Ace in the Hole. I finally caught up with Billy Wilder's 1951 box-office "catastrophe." A bomb with audiences in the '50s, Wilder's dark and unsparing look at the ravenous appetites of the media centers on an unscrupulous reporter played by Kirk Douglas. Those who know Wilder's work won't be surprised to learn that the movie contains a veritable cesspool of characters, almost all of them eager to exploit the fact that a man (Richard Benedict) has been trapped in an abandoned mine. Douglas' Charles Tatum is a talented but egotistical reporter who has lost a variety of jobs before landing in Albuquerque, a place he regards as the Siberia of journalism. Just about everyone in the movie gets skewered by Wilder, particularly the trapped man's wife, a greedy piece of work played by Jan Sterling. Douglas' over-the-top posturing takes some getting used to, as does Wilder's insatiable appetite for melodrama, but the movie remains worth seeing because when it's finished, you realize that Wilder -- unlike so many directors of his or any other time -- wasn't afraid to shine some light on the darkest corners of American experience.

Zubeidaa. Director Shayam Benegal received a tribute at the recently concluded Telluride Film Festival. The 72-year-old Benegal has been directing since the early 1960s, but his work remained unknown to me. For no particular reason, I started with "Zubeidaa," a story based on the life of writer Khalid Mohamed's mother. In "Zubeidaa" (2002), Mohamed creates a surrogate writer (Rajit Kapoor) who appears from time-to-time as he tries to learn about the title character (Karisma Kapoor), the mother who abandoned him when he was a boy in the 1950s. The daughter of a Muslim entrepreneur (Amrish Puri), the willful Zubeidaa can't quite find her place in a world that hasn't quite shaken loose from the strictures of tradition. Her domineering father forces her to abandon a budding career as an actress. She's pressured into a marriage that crumbles when the groom's family decides to move to Pakistan to escape Hindi prejudice against Muslims. Eventually, she meets a maharaja (Manoj Bajpai) who makes her his second wife. Before her life can go any further, Zubeidaa dies in a plane crash. Interesting for its social observations, as well as for its blend of styles, "Zubeidaa" stands as a strange concoction, a mixture of Douglas Sirk-style melodrama, Bollywood musical numbers and socially trenchant detail. For Western eyes, Benegal's game of stylistic hopscotch takes more than a little adjustment, and if "Zubeidaa" doesn't rank as a masterpiece, its rewards definitely build as it goes along.

Without A Trace (Sin dejar huella). Maria Navaro's road movie, which made the festival rounds in 2000, provides an interesting example of the way cultural vibes travel the world, mutating as they make their way into new locations. Often described as a Mexican "Thelma and Louise," "Without A Trace" tells the story of two women (Tiare Scanda and Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) who are headed toward Cancun, each for different reasons. It takes a bit of contriving to bring the women together, although they share common problems: Each is trying to escape the clutches of a man. Scanda's Aurelia needs to outrun the boyfriend from whom she took some money. Sanchez-Gijon's Ana, who traffics in fake art objects, must evade a sleazy cop whose interest in her extends beyond law enforcement. Not without its holes, the plot can become too tangled for its own good. Moreover, the relationship between the two women sometimes switches gears (from friendly to antagonistic) for no apparent reason other than to offer a bit of spice. Still, the undeniable appeal of the actresses and a journey through the exotic Yucatan give the movie a flavor that's far less formulaic than its premise suggests. I wasn't sure I got every nuance in "Without a Trace," but I liked the movie anyway. "Without a Trace" doesn't so much end, as relax its characters (and us) into increasingly less stressful states.

Two big fall movies hit the screen

Summary: Two of the season's most anticipated movies open around the nation today, David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises" and Paul Haggis's "In the Valley of Elah." Both have Oscar implications -- certainly for Viggo Mortensen and Tommy Lee Jones in the best-actor category -- and both likely will generate lots of talk. And by the way, both have been slightly overrated in cities where they've already bowed.

In "Eastern Promises," director David Cronenberg reunites with Viggo Mortensen with whom he made 2005's "A History of Violence." Working in a minor key, director and actor explore the Russian immigrant subculture of London, with emphasis on the insularity and violence of gangster life.

In other hands, "Eastern Promises" -- from a script by Steve Knight ("Dirty Pretty Things") -- might have been a hard-boiled genre piece, a crime story about power and betrayal. But with Cronenberg at the helm, the movie becomes something more, a disorienting and moody journey through a strange world where rules have been bent beyond the breaking point.

London's Russian mobsters live apart from the mainstream, pursuing their interests with single-minded intent. No mere geographic dislocation can nudge them from the lives they've transported to London, and they're capable of violence so extreme, it practically redefines brutality.

Mortensen plays Nikolai, a gangster who works as a chauffeur to the mob, a branch of the Vory V Zakone crime family. Nikolai is known as "the undertaker" because he specializes in disposing of dead bodies. In an early scene, Nikolai makes quick work of a corpse that has been stored in a freezer. After thawing it with a hair dryer, he proceeds to use a pair of sheers to clip off the fingers. No point making the body easy to identify.

As you probably can tell, "Eastern Promises" includes scenes that probably will cause some viewers to cringe and avert their eyes. It's easy to argue that Cronenberg overdoes the violence -- and, at times, I felt as if he pushed the envelope needlessly far. Whether such images force us to weigh our response to violence or desensitize us to its horrors remains an open question with good arguments to be made on either side of the bloody fence.

The movie's major set piece involves a couple of knife-wielding Chechans who attack Nikolai, a stark naked Mortensen, in a steam bath. Nikolai, whose tattoos serve as an illustrated and coded history of his life, fights back. The editing involves cuts as quick as knife slashes, and you may swear you feel the pain as blades rip through Nikolai's flesh. That the violence tends to be more physically than emotionally felt speaks to Cronenberg's habit of focusing on the torments of the body, the vulnerability of flesh in a predatory environment.

As played by Mortensen, Nikolai remains a mystery. He reveals next to nothing. The upward sweep of his hair exaggerates the sharper angles of an impassive face. Nikolai, of course, is a gangster in a crime drama, but if he's also Cronenberg's on-screen surrogate, he stands for a director who can't quite be reached. Nikolai's smile is more like a memory of smile than a full-fledged grin. Does that smile contain trace elements of warmth or is it more of a condescending smirk?

The story revolves around a baby. Early on, a teen-age Russian girl who was forced into prostitution dies during childbirth. A midwife (Naomi Watts) who works at a North London hospital worries about this orphaned child. Watt's Anna is a second generation Londoner whose father was Russian. She lives with her mother (Sinead Cusack) and her embittered uncle (Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski). Her efforts to locate the baby's family bring her into contact with the mob, led by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his wacked-out son (Vincent Cassel). Cassel, as it turns out, makes one of the more memorable, big-screen psychotics yet.

Mueller-Stahl may not have mastered a Russian accent -- he's a German working in English -- but he nails everything else about Semyon. Like many mobsters, Semyon operates a legitimate front, a restaurant that caters to the immigrant crowd. He's soft-spoken, but his rumpled old-world charm can't conceal the viciousness apparent in his gaze. Mueller-Stahl can make his eyes say one thing when the rest of his face is saying another.

The plot, a collection of increasing complexities, sometimes produces predictable results, but it's not the plot that remains with you: It's a feeling for the dimly lit and dangerous world that Cronenberg so ably creates, a sense that its jagged edges might someday reach out and slice into you.

If so, pray that there's a Nikolai nearby, and that, above all, he's on your side.

Director Paul Haggis (the overbearing "Crash") lowers his directorial voice to make "In the Valley of Elah," one of several fall movies dealing with the Iraq War.

Muted and purposefully drab, "Valley" reflects the dispirited mood of a country in which new realities constantly put old bromides to the test. Nowhere are these contractions more apparent than in the character of Hank Deerfield, a former MP and Vietnam War vet played by Tommy Lee Jones. A spit-and-polish guy even in retirement -- he still shines his shoes daily -- Hank travels from Tennessee to New Mexico to investigate the disappearance of a son who just returned from Iraq.

From that point on, the movie becomes a twofold exercise, a character study rooted in the toughness of Jones' performance and a mystery about what happened to Hank's son. Jones doesn't flinch from Hank's ugly side. At one point, Hank's prejudices break through his composed facade, revealing the rage that simmers beneath an ironclad surface. There's something truly frightening about Jones' performance. Although Hank's all-business attitude may have resulted from years of military police work, it doesn't make him any more agreeable. As an actor, Jones does nothing to ingratiate himself with the audience.

In New Mexico, Hank seeks help from a local cop -- a novice investigator played by Charlize Theron. The military wants to conduct its own investigation, making Theron's job all the more difficult.

Susan Sarandon seems largely wasted as Hank's wife, although without her, the movie might have had no emotional weight. She may not be on screen much, but when she is, Sarandon scores big time.

"In the Valley of Elah" can't totally disguise the fact that it's a fairly routine detective procedural -- only with a topical twist. You needn't be a cinema genius to know that the disappearance of Hank's son has something to do with events in Iraq. It's just here that the film may divide pro- and anti-war factions. In this regard, the movie doesn't so much feel like it's revealing truth as taking a ritualized march toward an obligatory conclusion: The hell of war continues even after soldiers return home, only twisted into dangerous new forms.

Even if you don't agree with the movie's overview -- expressed bluntly in Haggis' final shot -- you may find that Haggis has infused a strain of national gloom deep into the movie's bones. "In the Valley of Elah" -- named for the place where David fought Goliath -- seems burdened by a world-weariness it seldom shakes. It's more likely to bring you down than stir you up. I suppose it's a judgment call, but a little more of the latter and a little less of the former might have made for an even worthier effort.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Jodie gets her gun

Summary: Don't let the pedigree fool you. "The Brave One" stars Oscar-winner Jodie Foster and features direction by the very accomplished Neil Jordan ("The Crying Game"), but that doesn't mean the movie's anything more than an upgraded "Death Wish" wannabe, a vigilante saga that puts a feminist spin onto a decrepit revenge formula. It's all very strange and, I think, unsatisfying: "The Brave One" has elements of an exploitation movie without really being one, and elements of a serious movie without being one of those either.

Jodie Foster kicks plenty of butt in "The Brave One," but her new thriller doesn't really advance the big-screen discussion about violence or vengeance. It's one more B-movie dressed up in A-movie garb, a definite seasonal trend. (I know. I've been on this B-movie kick for a couple of weeks now, but, hey, I don't make the movies.)

If you're looking for better cheap thrills, search out Abel Ferrara's 1981 "Ms. 45." In fact, the thrills in "Brave One" aren't all that cheap. Working with cinematographer Philippe Rouselot, Jordan keeps the proceedings dark, alluring and visually cramped. He nimbly mixes high-impact violence and a sustained sense of dread, and, yes, "Brave One" reaches for more than vigilantism: It screams out with post 9/11 implications, posing a question that's probably meant to speak to us all: What happens when the security of our world shatters beyond repair? How far would we be willing to go to make ourselves secure again?

I had trouble buying the movie as a statement of post 9/11 mood, if that was part of the intention. Using street punks -- a major Hollywood target of the '70s -- to represent the lurking violence that haunts our cities doesn't work. It's old wine in new bottles, yesterday's villains used to evoke today's fears.

Even if you accept them, the movie's ambitions can seem awfully pretentious. Foster's character, Erica Bain, works as a radio personality who tells stories about the city on a program called "Street Walk." Erica's occupation leads to some overly literary mid-picture narration in which she talks about the ways in which violence has turned her into a stranger to herself. It's almost as if the movie tries to pass Foster's character off as a female cross between Albert Camus and Charles Bronson, a mix that's weird, unsettling and unreal.

How does all this happen? Erica's poised for a happily-ever-after life with her finance, a physician played by Naveen Andrews. But Bain's dream shatters when she and her hubby-to-be are mugged and mercilessly beaten while walking their German Shepherd in Central Park. He dies; she spends three weeks in a coma, but lives.

Frightened by the city she once adored, Erica buys a gun (illegally) and proceeds to use it in vigilante fashion. Of course, the script contrives to bring Erica into contact with a variety of miscreants who seem to deserve killing -- or at least a severe thrashing. Where else would she do her first killing but in a convenience store? There, a brutal jerk terrorizes and shoots his estranged wife at pointblank range. Erica, who happens to be in the store, kills in self-defense. Later, though, she saves a teen-ager (Zoe Kravitz) from a seedy pimp, a scene that evokes memories of "Taxi Driver," but not in resonant ways. (Foster played a teen-age prostitute who became the subject of Travis Bickle's delusions in "Taxi Driver.")

Terrence Howard signs on as a detective who listens to Erica's broadcasts. Initially, he -- like everyone else in the movie -- assumes that only a man would go on the kind of killing rampage that occupies Erica's time. Had the movie really developed this idea, it might have been more interesting, but it's tossed in with lots of other ingredients, perhaps to add intellectual weight. The script also tries to create a bond between Foster's Erica and Howard's character; he's a cop who respects the law but gradually learns that it doesn't always lead to justice. Erica's beyond the law, isolated in a world of grief, shock and fear. Early on, she figures out that the law will fail her.

"Brave One" serves up a major helping of Foster, who builds her performance on intense expressions of grief, rage and anxiety. Foster helps paper over some of the script's flaws, but this is the third time in a row that she's gone ferocious in a thriller, having covered similar ground in "Panic Room" and "Flightplan."

The always-capable Jordan has explored violence in movies such as "The Butcher Boy" and has meditated on gender issues in "The Crying Game" and more recently in "Breakfast on Pluto." "The Brave One" struck me as an attempt by Jordan to make a commercial movie that appears to deal with some of the issues that recur in his work. Consider "appears" the operative word: This time, there's not much to be found beneath the movie's often lurid surfaces.

Some of the dialog at the end of the movie seems geared toward satisfying the raw-meat cravings of the exploitation crowd. A preview audience applauded at certain killings, expressing satisfaction with the movie's vengeful denouement. That wouldn't have happened at a better picture and would have happened more often at a worse one.

Here's the deal: I never really believed the movie's reading of the current reality, treating the city as a place of vanishing history and perpetually generated fears. Dramatically, I didn't buy the movie, either. Long ago, Don Corleone -- perhaps the greatest master of vengeance in movie history -- told us that revenge is a dish that's best served cold. That's probably true, and it may explain why calculated vengeance makes for better drama than blind rage from a character whose world turns upside down in an instant.

(For a look at the male side of the revenge equation in a movie that's far worse than "Brave One," see August 28 post, "Armed to the teeth, Daddy's out for blood," a review of "Death Sentence.")

A more convincing look at how people are drawn to violence. Director Shane Meadows travels back to Thatcher's England for a semi-autobiographical tale about a troubled 12-year-old boy, brilliantly played by Thomas Turgoose.
In "This is England," Turgoose's Shaun finds himself drawn into the world of skinheads when Woody (Joseph Gilgun) gives him his first taste of what it feels like to belong to something. Shaun's father was killed in the Falklands; his mother pays too little attention to him. He's alienated at school. Several equally alienated boys become Sean's surrogate family, and the arrangement works for a while because the gang led by Woody is less interested in punk politics than in punk styles. But when the bald-headed Combo (Stephen Graham) returns from a stint in prison, questions of race and chauvinism arise, as do threats of far more serious violence. Combo becomes a father figure to Shaun before a shocking dose of reality rocks the boy's world. Totally authentic in its feeling and scary in its implications, "This Is England" may overreach with its title, but not with its tough, powerfully built story.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

"3:10 to Yuma": The train still runs

Summary: Director James Magnold climbs aboard "3:10 to Yuma" carrying more psychological baggage than you'll find in the original and pumping up the action wherever possible. Bolder and more violent than the 1957 Glenn Ford Western, the 2007 edition stars Russell Crowe, as bad man Ben Wade, and Christian Bale as rancher Dan Evans, a Civil War veteran who wants to prove his courage to his teen-age son. I'm not sure that Mangold has much that's new to say, but he certainly says it emphatically.

Although many regard it as memorable, Delmer Daves' 1957 Western, which was based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, feels a bit static by today's juiced-up standards. Daves worked deliberately, staging one of the movie's most important scenes in a hotel room and not budging from that room until he thought the story was good and ready. Perhaps understanding that tastes and expectations have changed, Mangold ("Walk the Line"), doesn't so much rewrite the story as re-balance its ingredients and give the whole thing a swift kick in the pants.

Many of the classic Western elements survive: the rancher who struggles to secure a place for his family, the greedy railroad types who want to burn him out and an outlaw who doesn't fit into any part of society. But when Mangold puts a stage coach robbery on the screen, he makes it clear that he intends to ride the action hard. He seems less interested in the vast possibilities suggested by the open spaces of the West than in lighting a charge under the material. Maybe that's why the iron-plated stagecoach that's being robbed comes equipped with a Gatling gun.

In the original, Ford kept audiences guessing about how evil Ben Wade might be. Crowe follows a similar tack; his Ben Wade is a Bible-quoting, soft-spoken outlaw who eschews most of the familiar bad-man poses. He's wily and efficiently brutal without crossing the line into sadism. Theft and murder have become a part of him, the way suspicion might become second-nature to a cop. At every turn, he gives the impression that he understands how the world works.

Taking over the role that Van Heflin played in the original, Bale portrays Wade's intense opposite. Dan tests his mettle when he agrees to escort Wade to the appropriately named town of Contention, Ariz. There, the outlaw will be put on the train to Yuma. Once imprisoned, he'll be hanged. Forced into debt, Dan needs the $200 the railroad's paying to transport Wade. He also wants to prove that he's made of stern stuff, partly to his wife (Gretechen Mol) and to his oldest son (Logan Lerman), but maybe to himself, as well. Bale's Dan can be so determined and single-minded that he's actually scarier than Wade, who wears his amorality easily.

In the end, Crowe's Wade gives the movie its most interesting spin. He's a little like a surrogate for the audience. He may be a bad man and a killer, but he's so jaded, he doesn't seem to take the old Western rituals all that seriously. He's caught in a role that he knows how to play, but that long ago ceased to give him much pleasure.

On its most interesting level, the story exposes the conflict between a needy man and one who doesn't seem to need anything. As is the case with so many who traveled westward from the East, Dan's life badly needed remaking. Wade wants to remain free, but he's not driven. The contest between Dan and Wade isn't so much based on battling wills, but on entirely different approaches to the world. Dan's in the grip of tunnel vision; Wade has the widened gaze of a man who's seen it all.

Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), the most obviously evil man in Wade's gang, comes off as a crazed killer who seems to enjoy violence more than anyone in the film. Prince's devotion to Ben borders on idol worship. Peter Fonda signs on as a bounty hunter who's dogged and vicious in his own way, one of those Western characters who probably smells as bad as he looks.

As befits a Western, the story takes place beyond the reach of civilization in terrain where everyone ultimately fends for himself. At one point, the law shows up, but when the local marshal realizes that he's badly out-gunned, he quickly thinks better about lending a hand. He's not about to die so that the Southern Pacific Railroad can see a criminal brought to justice. Like Wade, he can't understand why Dan doesn't take the easy way out.

Mangold augments the original with scenes involving a foray into a mining outpost and a quick skirmish with Apaches. In the final showdown, Dan -- abandoned by everyone -- faces a barrage of angry guns as he tries to get Wade to the train station. Those familiar with the original may be surprised at the way Mangold brings the action to a close. As the screenplay searches for hard-core justice, Mangold's style reaches its exclamatory peak.

Well-made and entertaining, "3:10 to Yuma" never quite achieves perfection. The original qualified as a small, back-burner Western that gained in stature over the years. Mangold doesn't totally succeed in turning it into something bigger. "3:10 to Yuma" is a good movie, but you can't imagine it starting a stampede of saddle-sore imitators. The movie occupies an odd limbo -- somewhere between steely-eyed revisionism and blind genre love. I can't say I totally understood why Mangold wanted to remake this movie, why he thought it needed to be brought back into the pop-cultural conversation.

And as long as we're on the subject of guns....

"Shoot 'em Up" does everything in its power to let you know it's a movie short of taking you into the projection booth and letting you run the celluloid through your fingers. Over-the-top violence is tempered with campy, wise-ass dialog and overtly cartoonish antics; to prove the point, the hero's always taking Bugs Bunny-sized bites out of carrots, using them either as nourishment or turning them into weapons. Yes, carrots can kill.
A mixture of John Woo and Chuck Jones, "Shoot em up" is skillful and full of action that tries to outdo every other action movie. It's a study in cinematic escalation.

Clive Owen, at his most deadpan and deadly, plays a marksman who tries to save the life of a pregnant woman and runs afoul of a slimeball thug (Paul Giamatti). The woman dies, and Owen's character ends up with the newly born baby. Thus charged, the picture is off and running -- not to mention firing bullets in every conceivable direction and at every possible moment, including while Owen's character makes frantic love to a hooker played by Monica Bellucci. Bellucci's character signs on as wet nurse for the baby and as a love interest for Owen.

Woo's cinematographer Peter Pau shot the movie, which is inventively twisted. Note the early scene in which Owen's character severs the connection between mother and child by cutting the umbilical chord with a bullet fired from one of the movie's many large guns or maybe you prefer the scene in which Giamatti's character demonstrates his wanton depravity by placing his hand on the exposed breast of a dead woman.

Generically titled and proud of it, "Shoot 'em Up" asks us to admire its audacity: It's all audacity and mayhem, a movie that wants to have its blood and drink it, too. Part parody and part genre soup, "Shoot 'em Up" probably has a bigger body count than a bad day in Baghdad.

Yes, it's fast-paced. Yes, it's creatively violent. And, yes, the plot is preposterous with a capital "P." But it's also a little off-putting. Not just because the movie tries to make us squirm, but because it insists on pushing our once dark and guilt-ridden pleasures into the multiplex light. Remember when directors didn't set out to make cult movies, but stumbled into them? Remember when guilty pleasures didn't feature A-list actors? Remember when grindhouse movies played at grindhouses? Remember when a nasty little movie didn't have to refer to dozens of other nasty little movies to establish its street cred? Each one of these "hip" and stylish exercises further robs us of counter-cultural pleasures, creating the impression -- and perhaps even the reality -- that there is only one stream, the mainstream.

Monday, September 3, 2007

For me, Labor Day meant 'Halloween"

For the last 27 years, I've spent Labor Day evening squeezing one last movie out of the Telluride Film Festival. This year -- considering the prohibitively expensive Telluride tab -- I decided to stay home. Still, I felt as if I should be in a movie theater as the holiday weekend began to fade. In a bold attempt at counter-programming, I did an anti-festival thing. I went to see Rob Zombie's remake of "Halloween."

Zombie, a musician and director of such unashamedly sleazy fare as "House of 1000 Corpses" and "The Devil's Rejects," doesn't necessarily go over-the-top, but under the bottom -- way under. He finds the lowest, low-life characters imaginable and puts them through a meat grinder of a plot. But in the case of this remake, Zombie would have done equally well to find a momentum-building, three-act structure to house all the murder and mayhem.

Only the opening scene -- a veritable aria of brutal insult and foul vituperation -- really lives up (or is it down?) to the Zombie standard. The rest of the movie becomes a pallid exercise in horror that never really creates a feeling that trapdoors of terror might actually open beneath us.

On the other hand, I didn't have to wait in line for an hour to see it as I might have at Telluride, where one often staggers out of the hot sun into a darkened theater, scuffling to find a seat before collapsing into a dehydradated heap.

I suppose Zombie's contribution to the "Halloween" literature -- which began with John Carpenter's still-unsurpassed 1978 slasher hit -- involves developing a chapter that might be called "Michael Myers, The Early Years." Young Michael (Doug Faerch) lives with his mother (Sheri Moon-Zombie), his festering sore of a stepfather (William Forsythe) and two sisters, one a sexually active teen-ager, the other a bawling infant.

In other hands, this easily could have been the setup for an art movie, I tell myself: What could be better than family troubles as seen through the wounded eyes of 10-year-old Michael?

And it gets even better. Bullied at school and humiliated by his stepfather, Michael launches a homicidal rampage that lands him in a mental institution. There, a psychologist named Dr. Loomis (Michael McDowell) tries to reach him. Deep stuff, no? Besides, Zombie's camera work seems every bit as tipsy as Lars von Trier's.

But wait, there's more. Fifteen years pass, the adult Michael escapes from the institution, returns to his hometown and kills more teen-agers, some of whom are in the middle of having sex.

Maybe Zombie should have gone the art route. A few jolts can't substitute for a genuine feeling of dread, and as I watched, my increasing dismay led me to wonder which would seem longer, the final few reels of "Halloween" or one of those windy noon-time Telluride panels that are held in Elks Park.

No, I told myself, mustn't think of Telluride. This, too, is cinema, I quietly reminded myself, as Zombie's least interesting movie to date reeled its way toward an empty finale.

But who knows? Some day -- at a future festival in a small mountain town far, far away -- someone may see fit to give Zombie a tribute. By then, he'll be deep into his 80s, and as part of his "rediscovery," he'll be hailed as a previously unsung master of the much-studied "trailer-trash" genre. His movies will have made him an American original whose best work captured the alienation and shocking despair of lower-class life in the early 21st Century.

Dissertations anyone? Hey, it's never too early to beat the rush.