Wednesday, October 31, 2007

To 'Bee' or not to 'Bee?' I say Bee

Summary: It can be talky, but "Bee Movie" boasts stunning animation, and its script sustains an amusing enough buzz.

Jerry Seinfeld seems to have devoted lots energy to bringing "Bee Movie" to the screen, and the gamble mostly pays off. Seinfeld gives voice to Barry B. Benson, a bee that graduates from college only to discover that he faces a life of drudgery in a massive honey factory run by the Honex Corporation.

What's this? Social satire in an animated feature? Yeah, it surprised me, too, but there it was with Seinfeld turning out a tale of a bee who yearns for adventure outside his Central Park hive. In pursuit of his dream, Barry joins with a robust squad of Pollen Jocks, and heads into the streets of New York City for a sequence that constitutes one of the best animated bits of the year, a dizzying flight through Manhattan.

The script wisely avoids a glut of secondary characters. En route to the rest the story, Barry meets the savvy Mooseblood (Chris Rock), a mosquito who understands the perils of a bug's life. But rather than dwelling on Rock's character, the script pushes Barry into the human world where he meets and develops a mild crush on Vanessa Bloome (Renee Zellweger). Why not? She's a florist.

This being a Seinfeld creation, ethnic humor inevitably works its way into the mix. Back at the hive, Barry's parents fret that Vanessa's not "Bee-ish," but are relieved to learn she's not a WASP.

Barry eventually joins forces with Vanessa to sue major honey producers for failing to compensate bees for their hard work, and the plot -- concocted by Seinfeld and several co-writers -- attempts to teach a loopy lesson in ecology.

"Bee Movie" doesn't always make sense, and its story tends to be skimpy, but the movie manages to prove diverting anyway. And if Seinfeld can't always keep the proceedings fall-down funny, he has been smart enough to team with animators who ensure that "Bee Movie" maintains its visual pop.

No point bee-laboring. "Bee Movie" may be satirical and it may have a message, but it's packaged in a mild style that's never less than palatable. Despite its title, "Bee Movie" is more inclined to float like a butterfly than sting like a know what.

Friday, October 26, 2007

One that's ultra-serious; another that's not

Summary: In "Reservation Road," Mark Ruffalo and Joaquin Phoenix travel a road marked by grief, rage and failure. In the end, they don't really get anywhere. In "Dan In Real Life," Steve Carell travels another road, one that's being billed as "real life," a description that fits only if you believe real life resembles a sitcom.


Coincidence builds upon contrivance in ways that finally crush credibility in "Reservation Road," an overstuffed drama that proves beyond salvage, even with help from two fine actors, Mark Ruffalo and Joaquin Phoenix. Ruffalo plays Dwight Arno, an attorney who kills a 10-year-old boy in a hit-and-run accident. Through a series of plot twists, Arno, who's also a dad, becomes involved with the dead boy's father (Phoenix). Mired in grief and brooding with rage, "Reservation Road" explores issues of responsibility and fatherhood, and if it the script hadn't relied on an extraordinary coincidence, it might have done better at putting us through a wringer of escalating moral choices. As it stands, director Terry George ("Hotel Rawanda") builds toward an overwrought finale in which Phoenix's character, believing he has been denied justice, takes the well-traveled road toward revenge.


"Dan In Real Life" has just about everything needed to make it a general-audience hit: a big and mostly happy family, a chaste romance (between Steve Carell and French actress Juliette Binoche), a few earned laughs and an implausibly happy ending. In short, hardly a minute of it feels believable.

Director Peter Hedges ("Pieces of April") telegraphs almost all his moves as he tells the story of Dan Burns, a widower (Carell) who travels with his three daughters to a family reunion in Rhode Island. Dan's daughters are having sitcom-style problems, and he's lonely after four years of widowhood. On a trip to a local bookstore, he meets Binoche's character, and instantly falls for her.

Enter the BIG COMPLICATION: Binoche's Marie is dating Dan's brother (Dane Cook). She's about to arrive at the home of Dan's parents, where she's supposed to meet the family. Dan only learns of this when his new dream girl shows up and is introduced as his brother's potential fiancee. After that, Dan and Marie try to avoid one another, and Hedges blends equal amounts of comedy and drama into a genre that might be well be dubbed "unromantic uncomedy," neither funny nor romantic enough.

Carell and Binoche do well, although they don't really generate much chemistry, and the supporting cast does its best to make the movie feel populated. Dianne Wiest and John Mahoney do nice work as Dan's parents, and Emily Brunt plays a woman who goes on an arranged date with Dan, mostly so that she can round out the plot when called upon.

Truth is, I closed my notebook about three-quarters of the way through "Dan in Real Life" because I got tired of tracking the number of times I winced or groaned. And, no, I'm not a hater. I liked Peter Hedges' "Pieces of April," a movie in which he perfectly balanced comedy, depth and (heaven help us) quirkiness. This time, Hedges swings and misses.

I saw "Dan In Real Life" at a paid sneak on a Saturday night, and, aside from a few laughs, found myself wishing I'd stayed home to watch the Red Sox beat the Cleveland Indians en route to the American League pennant.

His love is real, but she's not

Summary: "Lars and the Real Girl" is a cockeyed coming-of-age fable involving a young man's delusions about a sex doll. The movie has its moments, but a bit of thought can turn its sweetness sour.

Ryan Gosling, an actor of undeniable skill, tones down his act to play Lars, a small-town misfit who treats a life-sized sex doll as if it were real. The movie's clever twist: Lars regards "Bianca" as a normal young woman with whom he has developed a relationship, something like a long-cherished pen pal whom he's finally met. Because Lars imagines that Bianca is chaste and religious, he has her "sleep" in a spare bedroom in his brother's house. The reclusive Lars lives in the converted garage behind the house he and his brother inherited from their dad.

Lars' brother (Paul Schneider) and his sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer) constantly attempt to draw the quiet recluse out of his shell, but he resists, probably because he's a quirky loner in a movie about a quirky loner. Lars doesn't begin acting "normal" until he acquires the doll, which arrives in a coffin-sized box that's deposited on his doorstep.

Perhaps to provide some psychological background, Nancy Oliver's screenplay tells us that Lars' mom died in childbirth. "Abandonment" issues have backed Lars into a corner; he barely can tolerate being touched. I'm no shrink, and I don't play one on TV, but none of that seemed sufficient to explain why Lars falls for his plastic princess.

Do the townsfolk deride Lars or suggest that he needs big-time help? Not really. Even a local physician (Patricia Clarkson) suggests that Lars' brother and sister-in-law (along with the rest of the town) indulge the young man's fantasy and treat Bianca as if she were real. The town gives Lars and his delusions a great big hug.

Credibility issues aside, there are some laughs here with director Craig Gillespie quietly dropping a few sight gags into the proceedings: Bianca accompanying Lars to church is one of the better examples.

Irrevocably "indie" in its tone, "Lars and the Real Girl" has what every good indie film needs: an oddball hook. The sex doll isn't used for sex, but becomes a vivid and unifying figure in the life of the entire town. Even one of Lars' co-workers and potential love interests (Keli Garner) refuses to burst Lars' bubble.

Although Gosling ("Half Nelson") sometimes allows a real reaction to peek through Lars' puffy, inexpressive face, the gifted actor has had better days and better roles. Say this: Gosling ("Half Nelson") totally commits himself to Lars' muted, non-personality, which I suppose qualifies as an achievement.

Many will find "Lars and the Real Girl" to be a sweet and touching lesson in acceptance and love. Because its sweetness isn't cloying, the movie proves tolerable, and its emotional life isn't deep enough to be troubling. But the longer it went on, the more difficulty I had buying into "Lars and The Real Girl." Questions began to nag. Would a whole town react this way to one of its more peculiar residents? Is encouraging delusion really an act of kindness? And could this situation exist anywhere but in an indepedent-minded movie that's trying to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Did she or didn't she?

Summary: Can a four-year-old paint a masterpiece? A fascinating new documentary will have you wondering.

When I saw “My Kid Could Paint That” at January’s Sundance Film Festival, I kept hoping I’d run into someone else who’d seen the movie. I really wanted to talk about a documentary that, quite frankly, left me unsure what to conclude. As it turned out, vagaries of scheduling kept anyone in my immediate crowd from getting to Amir Bar-Lev’s film about a 4-year-old Marla Olmstead, who attracted tons of media attention when she was proclaimed an art genius. That's right. She was four.

Olmstead, whose story has been well chronicled elsewhere, was first hailed as a prodigy, and many of those who wrote about her did so in the kind of glowing terms usually reserved for the world of once-in-a-lifetime and too-good-to-be true. Then, as its wont to do, the media tide shifted. A skeptical “60 Minutes” piece created doubt. Had Marla really done those paintings without help? Maybe her father had guided her hand.

Whatever the truth of the situation, Olmstead’s story remains amazing, not only for what it says about her family, but for what it says about the art world and about the inexplicable nature of talent. At four years of age, Marla was selling paintings for as much as $25,000. And many of those paintings were quite good. Those who reflexively dismiss modern art might not see the merit in Olmstead’s work, but her paintings exhibit raw vitality and an explosive color sense that seems way beyond the average kid’s capabilities.

"My Kid Could Paint That" is also one of those films in which the filmmaker becomes part of the film. Bar-Lev was smack in the middle of telling Olmstead’s story when the focus of his film changed. Suggestions that Marla might not have been able to make her paintings without help began to dominate Bar-Lev’s inquiry, creating extraordinary tensions between the director and his subjects, most notably with Marla’s mother, Laura, who seems a likable and conscientious mom.

On top of that our perception of some of the film’s characters changes, as well. We learn that Anthony Brunelli, who owns the gallery where much of Olmstead’s work has been displayed, is a realistic painter of painstaking exactitude and without much respect for abstract art. Could he have had some involvement in perpetuating an elaborate goof on the art world?

Although the film arrives at no hard conclusions, it raises fascinating questions about talent, the public's perception of artists and the role of intention in making art. So, see this highly involving documentary, but go with someone. “My Kid Could Paint That” is a film you’ll want to talk about.

If you're interested in seeing more of Marla's work, you can check out her heavy -duty web site. The kid may be the real deal, and so evidently are the people who market her.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution" dares to be dull

Summary: There are two levels of daring in Ang Lee's NC-17 rated "Lust, Caution." The first involves explicit sex scenes that earned the movie an NC-17 rating. The second involves the way Lee allows the story slowly to evolve, sometimes to the point where the filmmaking borders on the inert. That part of the bet never really pays off.

The best moments in Lee's long and drearily sober adaptation of a short story by Eileen Chang revolve around sex and violence. The sex scenes -- between Chinese actors Tang Wei and Tony Leung -- are supercharged in ways that elude the rest of the movie. When Leung and Tang get it on, the movie springs to vibrant life. These scenes mix tenderness, violence, anger and a lust for power in ways that fascinate, and also express the movie's complex tangle of themes. Same goes for a harrowing knife murder which, in its way, may be as disturbing as the steam-bath scene in David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises."

Following in the wake of Lee's "Brokeback Mountain," which had its own sense of daring, the sex scenes in "Lust, Caution" certainly push the hetero envelope -- at least for mainstream movies. But Lee's exploration of the duplicities and betrayals prompted by the Japanese occupation of Shanghai doesn't begin to command attention until the final act. By then, Lee has taxed an awful lot of patience.

The story revolves around Tang's character, a young woman who escapes to Hong Kong after the Japanese invade Shanghai. As a student actress, she's recruited by a group of fellow actors to return to Shanghai. They believe that theater can play a role in encouraging the Chinese people to revolt against their Japanese tormentors. Eventually, these same arty rebels decide that assassination might be a more effective form of protest than three-act melodrama. They conceive a plot in which Tang's character will seduce a Chinese diplomat (Leung) who has been collaborating with the Japanese. Once she has him under her spell, he'll be killed.

Screenwriters Wang Hui Ling and James Shamus succeed in bringing Tang's character to life. She's an innocent who learns how to act her way through seismic historical upheavals. In a sense, the entire movie can be viewed as a treatise about the art of performance -- on and off-stage. "Lust, Caution" blurs the distinction between on- and off-stage acting, turning into a lengthy study of the dangerous art of role playing. Credit the gifted Tang with plumbing the depths of a character whose ability to perform takes her to unexpected places.

Despite the presence of many tantalizing ingredients, Lee's movie, which clocks in at two hours and 28 minutes, too often suffers from narrative torpor. "Lust, Caution" takes too long to grip the screen. If only Lee's long-simmering buildup had half the fire of the sex scenes.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

More to see -- or to avoid

Summary: Ben Affleck proves himself an able director with "Gone Baby Gone," and Halle Berry grieves in "The Things We Lost in the Fire." "Rendition?" It's a drama with a conscience, but no strong central character.


"Gone Baby Gone" is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote "Mystic River." Ben Affleck, who grew up in Boston, knows his way around the city's turf, and it shows in the way he brings Lehane's novel to the screen, with a sense of authenticity that's as thick as a Boston accent. The crowded neighborhoods and dim bars are convincingly captured, so much so that you can almost smell the stale beer every time the picture hits a saloon.

The story revolves around Helene McCready (Amy Ryan), a hard-boiled mom whose four-year-old daughter disappears at the movie's outset. When the cops fail to solve the crime, a couple of private detectives (Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) are brought into the mix. The movie quickly becomes an escalating series of moral crises, which tighten noose-like around Affleck's neck.

Affleck holds the movie together, but his directing brother does justice to the other actors, as well: The supporting cast -- Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman, Amy Madigan and Titus Welliver -- registers strongly.

I saw the end coming, but that didn't stop me from enjoying a movie that understands its characters and milieu. Boston may be the home of Harvard, but the city's best movies live a long way from the Ivy League.


In "Things We Lost in the Fire?" Benicio Del Toro can't seem to stop making faces. Del Toro's malleable kisser calls attention to itself as the actor portrays a drug-addicted, defrocked attorney who comes to the aid of his best friend's widow (Halle Berry). Berry gets serious in a drama that kicks off when her husband (David Duchovny) is shot and killed while trying to stop a stranger from beating his wife to a pulp. Danish director Susanne Bier can't get much out of a movie that, like a bad essayist, tends to write its concerns in large capital letters. Del Toro's character works to kick his habit; Berry's character works to recover a shattered life; and I worked to stay involved with a movie that wears its "real-world" problems like a badge of honor.


"Rendition" should have been a great movie. After all, it deals with a volatile and important subject, the disappearance of suspected terrorists who are sent to other countries where they can be tortured with impunity. The tactic -- called "extraordinary rendition" -- allows the U.S. to maintain its innocence. We don't torture. We leave that to other guys. The door is open for a powerhouse movie, but director Gavin Hood ("Tsotsi") can't quite walk through it.

The story kicks off when Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is captured and shipped to an unnamed Middle Eastern country, where he's subjected to torture in the form of water boarding, beatings and electric shocks. Why? His cell phone showed that he received calls from a known terrorist, something he says he knows nothing about.

Hood dilutes a strong subject by depriving the movie of a solid center. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a CIA guy who's ordered to witness the torture. That's subject enough for any movie, but the story adds more strands as it shifts from Washington to the Middle East to Chicago, where El-Ibrahimi's wife (Reese Witherspoon) lives with their young son.

The strongest performances are given by the actors playing Washington pols and bureaucrats -- Meryl Streep, Alan Arkin and Peter Sarsgaard. As a man whose conscience begins to bother him, Gyllenhaal seems muted and inexpressive, and Witherspoon doesn't have much to do aside from being the wife of a man who has been terribly wronged. Witherspoon's character begs stonewalling politicians to tell her where her husband is.

The movie eventually begins to spark, but the script has too much on its plate, most notably a section in which the chief torturer (Igal Naor) deals with family problems. His daughter (Zineb Oukach) has fallen for a Jihadist (Moa Khouas).

Hood finds powerful moments, but the story remains too diffuse. "Rendition" isn't bad, but it definitely leaves you thinking about the movie that might have been.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

'Jesse James' rides slowly into town

Summary: "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" finally creeps into Denver after a trot across the fall festival circuit and openings on both coasts. The movie, which features fine acting from Brad Pitt (as Jesse) and Casey Affleck (as Robert Ford) proves a mixed bag of lyrical gestures and droning narrative. The result -- unlike the vicious and deadly Jesse -- can be hit and miss.

This big-screen adaptation of Ron Hansen's much-admired 1983 historical novel has been hailed in some quarters as a masterpiece and booed in others as an insufferable bore. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere between the two extremes. The movie centers on the twisted relationship between James, played with quiet charm and quicksilver ferocity by Pitt, and his eventual assassin (Affleck), a man whose hero worship curdles as the movie progresses.

After James' death, Ford became a celebrity, which is what he wanted, but he couldn't enjoy his fame. Ford, who shot Jesse in the back, became known as the man who murdered a folk hero. The movie nicely demonstrates how quickly American culture turns action into unseemly expressions of kitsch. Ford tried to cash in on his on notoriety by reenacting the assassination on the New York stage.

Director Andrew Dominik ("Chopper") clearly -- but often tediously -- explores the strange relationship between an idol and the man who worshiped at his feet. Dominik may have been trying for leisurely immersion, but at two hours and 40 minutes, the movie begins to play like a series of beautifully crafted longueurs.

Still, it would be a mistake entirely to dismiss the movie. "The Assassination of Jesse James" doesn't make its home inside cold reality anymore than "The Godfather" takes root in the real-life world of gangsters. Dominik's movie springs from an imaginative zone informed by other movies. Many reviewers have pointed out resemblances to the work of Terrence Malick or Robert Altman, notably in "McCabe and Mrs. Miller." They're right to do so. The winds of '70s filmmaking do blow through the movie.

Maybe that's why "The Assassination of Jesse James" seems more like a dream about a fabled outlaw than a movie about him. The movie can feel as distant as the sight of a lone rider on a far horizon. By the time it gets close enough for involvement, you may already have lost interest.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The broken life of a born fixer

Summary: "Michael Clayton" is the kind of mainstream movie that Hollywood should be turning out by the carload. It's smart, involving, well acted and meaningful enough to knock the story off its surface. But these days, movies such as "Michael Clayton" are the exception rather than the rule. More's the pity.

Begin with George Clooney, who's perfectly cast as Michael Clayton, a lawyer for a major New York firm. Michael's a fixer, the kind of guy who cleans up other people's messes. He's a no-frills realist who has little tolerance for fancy talk. Michael brings a lower-middle-class pedigree into the world of high-powered corporate law, where most of the attorneys probably attended Ivy League law schools. Michael graduated from St. John's and then attended Fordham Law. His colleagues have become excessively dependent on him. He does the dirty work that allows others to imagine that their hands are clean.

Not that Michael lacks for problems of his own. Because his drug-addicted brother convinced him to invest in an upscale restaurant that went belly up, Michael now owes $75,000. He once gambled too much. He's divorced. To make matters worse, Michael is one of those characters who's cursed with self-awareness. He refers to himself as a "janitor," and he's sick of playing the role. Trouble is he's good at it, so good that his boss (Sydney Pollack) won't let him expand into other activities.

All of this provides the backdrop for a thriller about a corpora-tion that knowingly sold a cancer-causing pesticide. Michael's firm represents the company in a class action suit brought by the relatives of those who were harmed. And here's the twist: The firm's brilliant but mentally unstable lawyer has gone off his medication and decided that he no longer wants to carry the banner for the bad guys. Arthur Edens (a terrific Tom Wilkinson) has become a loose cannon. Arthur may even be aiding the plaintiffs that he's been fighting for six years.

Michael's job: get control of a situation that's rapidly turning chaotic.

As for the corporation, it's not without its own heavyweight players, notably a corporate counsel (Tilda Swinton) who rehearses her every move. In one of the movie's many nice touches, Swinton practices for an interview with a business journalist in front of a mirror. In a small performance, Swinton creates a woman whose toughness can't entirely mask ripples of insecurity.

Densely plotted without being confusing, "Michael Clayton" was written and directed by Tony Gilroy, whi also wrote the screenplays for three Bourne movies. Gilroy keeps the pacing brisk, and gives the film a suitably polished look. He also knows how to walk up to a big scene and grab it by the throat. When Michael confronts Arthur in a Manhattan alley, Clooney and Wilkinson go toe-to-toe. Michael tries to save a friend from ruin. Crazy as he may be, Arthur still makes it clear that he knows how to find an opponent's jugular.

Pollack also has been perfectly cast. No one's better at portraying one of the smartest guys in any room. Untroubled by ethical concerns, Pollack's Marty runs a law firm that bills big and doesn't particularly care whether it's pointed in a morally acceptable direction.

Interestingly, "Michael Clayton" opens (at least in Denver) in the same week as "Darjeeling Express," a movie that tries to turn lack of vigor into a virtue. It also goes up against "The Assassination of Jesse James," which surrounds violence with lyricism as it contemplates hero worship -- and then, at two hours and 40 minutes, contemplates it some more.

"Michael Clayton" is another kind of movie, a solid and savvy piece of entertainment. As I said at the outset, I wish there were more of them.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Bickering brothers on the road in India

Summary: Not entirely successful, "Darjeeling Limited" nonetheless qualifies as a revealing look at a generation that can maintain its self-absorption under almost any conditions.

Director Wes Anderson traveled to India to make "Darjeeling Limited," but, like the characters in his movie, he seems to have difficulty escaping himself. You'll recognize the style that manages to feel relaxed and rigid at the same time, and you'll notice that Anderson still tends to make us think that his eye has drifted off target. "Darjeeling Limited" also has a slightly insular feel with characters shielding themselves behind thick walls of neurosis and delusion.

The story, from a screenplay by Jason Schartzman and Roman Coppola, focuses on three brothers who reunite in India. The bossy older brother (Owen Wilson) constantly badgers his younger siblings (Adrien Brody and Schwartzman) into making agreements. It's like an older kid at an amusement park constantly telling his younger siblings, "Look, if anyone gets lost, we'll meet up at the Ferris wheel."

As it happens, Wilson's Francis has just been in a motorcycle accident. This means Wilson spends the entire movie with his head bandaged, almost in full mummy fashion. Brody's Peter, we learn, is married and about to become a father, which raises an obvious question: Why isn't he at home with his pregnant wife? Schwartzman's Jack evidently remains hung up on a woman.

If you want a little more background, head for your computer. Although it's not playing with the feature, the movie is best appreciated when preceded by a short called Hotel Chevalier, which provides some of Jack's backstory. The short, which you'll find on iTunes, involves a meeting between Jack and his former girlfriend (Natalie Portman) in a Paris hotel room.

In India, the brothers bicker, take a variety of pain-killing narcotics and recreate childhood relationships that rely on secrets and barely suppressed hostilities. The cramped train compartment in which the brothers travel functions like a stage set for a drama about the impossibility of finding deep meaning. The movie might be called Pinteresque -- only it's filtered through a sensibility that doesn't seem alarmed by the absurdity of things.

So what happens? Schwarztman's Jack has an affair with a train stewardess (the lushly beautiful Amara Karan). The brothers visit a temple or two. Peter buys a cobra in a marketplace. The brothers get crosswise with the train's steward (Waris Ahluwalia). He eventually boots them off the train, and they're forced to confront Indian realities. During an attempt to rescue three drowning boys, one of the kids dies. Perhaps for the first time, the brothers see past their own myopia. It's a little obvious, but life (along with its inevitable consequence, death) intrudes upon them.

The brothers travel through India with 11 cumbersome pieces of Louis Vuitton luggage. We know they're also burdened by other kinds of baggage, including the recent death of their father and the disappearing act that their wandering mother has perfected throughout the years. As it turns out, their mother (Anjelica Huston) now lives as a Catholic nun in a convent at the foot of the Himalayas, the trip's real destination. Don't look for similarities to Mother Theresa. In a brief appearance, Huston makes it clear that she's playing a willful woman who probably wasn't a superior mother.

Anderson ("The Royal Tannenbaums") seems to love films with dog-eared looseness, and his films certainly don't look like anyone else's. But I've long wondered whether there isn't something missing from all of them. Like the characters in "Darjeeling," Anderson's movies can feel strangely disconnected. Maybe that's why I rode the train, got off and resumed my day, feeling neither ripped off nor totally rewarded.

Who Owns the Night? Why, director James Gray, of course.

In "We Own the Night," director James Gray demonstrates that he's capable of strong filmmaking. Gray stages an exciting car chase in the rain, and deftly captures the pulsating energy of the disco-dominated '80s. But Gray's schematic story about two brothers -- one a cop, the other an ally to drug dealers -- has a reach that well exceeds its grasp.

Despite fine work from Joaquin Phoenix (as the bad brother), Mark Wahlberg (as the cop brother) and Robert Duvall (as their police chief father), the movie -- another Brooklyn story populated by hard-boiled Russian gangsters -- can't convince us that its story chews on anything more substantial than "B" movie gristle.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

A worthy but long journey "into the Wild"

Summary: Sean Penn's "Into the Wild" tells an intriguing eough story, but the movie eventually wears out its welcome. The fault: Penn stretches an episodic tale to near-epic length, perhaps trying to scoop big helpings of meaning from a life that barely got started.

What does it mean to say a movie is too long? Were nine hours of "Shoah" too much for the Holocaust? Should 175 minutes of "The Godfather" been boiled to a crisp 90 minutes? And what of a movie such as "2001: A Space Odyssey?" Were its 141 minutes nothing more than a cosmic blast of Stanley Kubrick-style indulgence? Would "Gone With the Wind" have been more palatable as "Gone With the Breeze?"

Generally, I believe length should be treated as a non-issue -- until, of course, it becomes one.

And in the case of "Into the Wild," which I mostly enjoyed and which certainly is worth seeing, length becomes an issue, which is why I begin with it. The movie's slender story hardly demands 140 minutes.

Working on a bigger canvas than ever, Penn tells the story of Christopher McCandless, a young man who turned his back on an affluent future to bum around the country. McCandless (Emile Hirsch) rejected the life that seemed to spread nicely before him after he graduated from Emory College in Atlanta. Instead of hitting more books -- say in law school -- he hit the road.

Narrated in quasi-poetic fashion by McCandless' sister Carrie (Jena Malone), the picture provides enough backstory for us to peer into McCandless' psyche. He couldn't abide a father (William Hurt) who abused his mother, portrayed by Marcia Gay Harden, an actress who can look as if she was born to suffer. (Don't believe me; watch "Mystic River" again.)

McCandless' journey moves toward increasing isolation, but during his travels, he meets the people who help give the movie its spark: the manager of a group of farm workers (Vince Vaughn), a hippy couple (Katherine Keener and Brian Dierker) and a lonely old gent (Hal Holbrook) who takes a liking to the young man, pretty much as everyone does.

For a time, you, too, may fall under McCandless' spell. It's not difficult to understand why. McCandless' wanderings rekindle a spirit of romance that has called to nearly every generation, the naive but often-irresistible yearning for the freedom of the road. I admit it. I'm still juvenile enough to admire someone who dares to say, "Take this life and shove it." "Into the Wild" should appeal to everyone who objects to following a pre-determined path. You know the drill: College, grad school, marriage, kids in high-priced pre-schools.

As document-ed in Jon Krakauer's 1996 nonfiction account -- Penn's source material -- McCandless' journey ended in the Alaskan wilderness. He went off by himself, and lived in an abandoned bus in the middle of nowhere. In the grip of ferocious hunger and unable to ford the raging stream that separated him from safety, McCandless ate a certain kind of berry that destroyed his powers of digestion. He subsequently starved to death, a fate that made a mockery of his insistence on self-reliance and living off the land.

At times, I couldn't help feeling that someone (I was ready to volunteer) ought to have given McCandless a swift kick in the pants, begging him to get over himself. Call home. Get an apartment. Find a job. It's possible to view McCandless' romanticism and rebellion as a mask for massive amounts of whining. Moreover, McCandless isn't the first young man to aspire to a freewheeling existence, although he may be the first to rename himself Alexander Supertramp.

"Into the Wild" relies on the magnetism and charm in Hirsch's performance, as well as on the inchoate yearning landscapes can evoke in us. For a long time, I bought into the poetry of "Into the Wild," but by the movie's end, I'd begun to wonder whether Penn's narrative wouldn't have benefited from a dash of irony, particularly as McCandless' adventure begins to turn into a journey of self-destruction.

Either that or shorten the movie. Think of it this way: It took Stanley Kubrick one minute longer to cover the entire history and evolution of mankind in "2001" than it takes Penn to deal with two years in McCandless' tragically abbreviated life.

The Heartbreak Kid. If nothing else, Peter and Bobby Farrelly have a fan base. Even though their recent "Stuck on You" failed to impress, the Farrelleys still deserve to be called kings of the increasingly popular relationship/gross-out genre. And let's face it: The guys who made "There's Something About Mary" aren't likely to wear out their welcome with comedy-hungry audiences.

This time out, the brothers offer a loose remake of Elaine May's small but classic 1972 comedy, which starred Charles Grodin, Cybill Shepherd and Jeannie Berlin. The Farrellys drop the ethnic impertinence of the original, move the story from the East to the West Coast and scrap the desperate striving that marked Grodin's performance, derived from a Neil Simon script based on a short story by Bruce Jay Friedman. Ben Stiller, who worked with the Farrellys on "Something About Mary," plays the owner of a San Francisco sporting goods store who's pressured into marrying a woman (Malin Akerman) who seems an ideal match. On a honeymoon to Cabo San Lucas, Akerman's character reveals an apparently endless stream of annoying personality traits. Stiller's Eddie Cantrow falls out of love as quickly as he fell into it.

He spends most of his honeymoon chasing a live-wire dreamgirl (Michelle Monaghan) who's in Cabo for a family reunion. The Farrellys find some laughs (a deviated-septum joke is crudely funny), but they haven't assembled a pleasing comedy. The brothers know how to drop gags into a story, and when it comes to pushing the taste envelope, they can be peerless. (Beware the donkey sex scene.) Still, in tackling "The Heartbreak Kid," the Farrellys probably should have shown they can do more.