Friday, January 25, 2008

Grown up animation about an Iranian girl

Summary: Beautifully animated in black-and-white and never less than involving, Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis" tells the compelling story of a young woman growing up in (and outside of) Iran.

In adapting a series of autobiographical graphic novels for the screen, Satrapi shows how historical events can impact an individual life. "Persepolis'' -- which Satrapi directed with Vincent Parannaud -- is a work of high spirits and refreshing skepticism: It reassures us that there always will be people who refuse to capitulate to their society's worst impulses. And in the case of Iran, this is a very good thing. If you believe that Iran is a country populated solely by shrieking extremists, this movie may force you to rethink your view.

If you also want an idea of what it might have been like to grow up in Iran in the 1970s and 1980s, "Persepolis" will provide it. The movie's main character -- based on the director -- was raised in a liberal, sophisticated Iranian home in which the downfall of the Shah was welcomed. The celebration, however, was short-lived; the family's hopes for a freer society were dashed by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. When the mullahs took charge, the girl began an odyssey of estrangement that took her to Vienna, then back to Iran and finally to Paris.

"Persepolis" succeeds for three reasons: Its exceptionally creative, two-dimensional animation style lends itself to expressive storytelling, its story is totally absorbing and Satrapi has a capacity for independent observation that shatters stereotypes. These factors enable Satrapi to deliver a work of unusual honesty and idiosyncratic fervor.

As a girl, the movie's main character already distinguishes herself from the pack. She buys Iron Maiden CDs on the black market and luxuriates in the chop-and-kick violence of Bruce Lee movies. We see the liberating qualities of popular culture, the same popular culture that's so often derided by religious fanatics -- and not only in Iran.

Don't let references on the lighter side mislead you: Satrapi's story does not neglect the harrowing impact of tyranny. The young Marjane becomes a displaced and alienated young woman, but her politically active uncle suffers a worse fate: He's murdered.

If there's a character who best embodies the history and wisdom of Persian culture its Marjane's grandmother, a woman who both encourages her granddaughter and attempts to keep her life on track. Grandma also resists stereotyping: She likes to put jasmine flowers in her bra. She's a wonderful character -- warm, strong and smart.

Marjane experiences a variety of changes as the movie develops, but whatever may be happening, Satrapi refuses to turn herself into either a saint or a martyr. She's a flawed young woman who fights to maintain her individuality and humanity -- and "Persepolis" does the same: The movie tells a story that keeps us from succumbing to easy moralizing, as well as to the kind of self-betraying hypocrisy Satrapi probably would deplore.

For that reason alone, "Persepolis" can't be viewed as just another animated movie; it's work of deep personal expression and great artistry. Like its demonstrative main character, it demands not to be ignored. So don't.

Dance, torture and beheadings -- or another weekend of big-screen entertainment

Summary: Three new movies open today, one is small and worthy, another other small and close to worthless. We're talking about "How She Move" (a derivative but entertaining dance movie) and "Untraceable" (a derivative and increasingly sleazy thriller). I'm not going to belabor either movie. See one. Avoid the other.

"Rambo?" Sylvester Stallone's latest attempt to revive his iconic image falls into in a class by itself. It's the kind of movie that makes you laugh at its violent excess while leaving you feeling slightly appalled.

How She Move. Rutina Wesley brings equal amounts of rue and energy to the role of a high-school student who turns to competitive step dancing as a means of earning money for a scholarship to a tony prep school. Bursting with determination and talent, Wesley anchors a movie that has a minimal but serviceable plot, sketchily drawn characters and lots of dancing. Step dancing -- depicted as a substitute for competitive encounters of a more dangerous kind -- has a stark, riveting quality that grabs attention. Hardly a cinematic triumph, "How She Move" nonetheless gets the job done.

Untraceable. Diane Lane moves into Jodie Foster territory as an FBI agent who works to stop computer fraud. Lane's Jennifer is pulled out of her element when she discovers a Web site called Kill With Creepy for at least an act-and-a-half -- director Gregory Hoblit makes Portland look menacing enough to require a quarantine -- the movie eventually runs out of credible plot. Colin Hanks (as one of Lane's techie associates), Billy Burke (as a hard-nosed Portland cop) and Joseph Cross (as a serial killer in the twitchy Anthony Perkins "Psycho" mode) offer support. The movie purports to be a critique of those who take a voyeuristic interest in torture, but isn't "Untraceable" asking its audience to do pretty much the same thing?

Rambo. Sylvester Stallone tries to do for "Rambo" what he did for "Rocky" last year, breathe life into a long-dormant franchise. Say this for the 61-year-old Stallone: He has no interest in acting his age. As the laconic and brutal-when-necessary John Rambo, Stallone kicks butt -- blowing people to smithereens or reducing them to insignificance with that piercing Rambo stare. Full of flying flesh and severed body parts, "Rambo" sends Stallone up river from Thailand to Burma. He initially escorts a group of religious do-gooders into the thick of brutal ethnic cleansing and then returns to save the woman in the group. Stallone still can do Rambo, and as the movie's director, he works hard to make sure that his movie becomes a veritable orgy of violence. The series began in 1982 with the lean/mean "First Blood." If nothing else, "Rambo" proves that more than 25 years later, there's still plenty of blood to be shed and that Stallone is deadly serious about paying homage to his own past. Rambo made some sort of sense when he embodied the residue of anger over Vietnam; now, he's a character who gives Stallone an opportunity to sell a movie built around minimal plot and maximum plasma. A stony faced Stallone captures snakes, fires bullets and rips a man's throat apart, as "Rambo" pits him against legions of bad guys -- soldiers conducting genocide. But the violence has the kind of indiscriminate feel that makes you feel Stallone subscribes to a credo that says once aroused, John Rambo must kill anything that moves. In a hopelessly brutal world, he's supposed to be the only effective antidote. Talk about macho fantasy.

A dark comedy with too much bite

Summary: Building his story around the vagina dentata myth -- that's a vagina with teeth for those unschooled in the classics -- director Mitchell Lichtenstein (son of artist Roy Lichtenstein) generates some laughs. But in the end, his mixture of black comedy, feminist fable and shock cinema seems too intent on pushing the cinematic envelope. For most men, the movie will result in a one-word review, "Ouch!"

Dawn (the sweet-faced Jane Weixler) lives in a suburban home that's not too far from a couple of nuclear reactors we see huffing and puffing in the background of several shots. Dawn shares her home with her mother and stepfather (Vivienne Benesch and Lenny von Dohlen) and her punked-out stepbrother (John Hensley). I guess we're supposed to think that Dawn's problem -- a toothy vagina that bites the unwary -- resulted from a mutation caused by excessive exposure to radiation.

In this trip to suburbia, Hensley's Brad stands as the clearest example of a jerk -- not only in this film but in any you happen to stumble upon. He's a study in misogyny, a crude lout who seldom leaves the room where he keeps a vicious dog in a cage and occasionally lures a woman for bruising sexual encounters.

Lichtenstein controls the film's tone, but probably takes aim at too many targets. He begins with satirical look at the kind of young people who are pushed into taking vows of chastity, flirts with horror-movie tropes and then goes for shock, mostly in the form of shots of spurting blood and severed ... well... you know.

Weixlers, who's pretty much in every scene, is a real find, a young woman with a face Boticelli might have painted and a sense of growing alarm about her own brutal capacities.

The movie eventually struggles to become a contemporary fable about a woman who learns to accept and even embrace her sexual powers, but it's held back by what I view as eagerness to distinguish itself from the rest of the indie pack. "Teeth" boasts its share of mordant humor, but it's not quite able to disguise its true identity: It's a gimmick movie for people who wouldn't ordinarily go to see one.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Bleary-eyed, I ramble on about the Oscars

Summary: My former employer requested a quick-hit piece from me about the Oscar nominations. Quaking at the thought of once again facing a particularly vicious deadline, I nonetheless ventured into newspaper waters.

If you're interested, you can check out the results at the Rocky Mountain News' Web site.

A capsule review of my comments: A lot of very good work was recognized, there were some surprises and those who care about Oscar wonder whether the writers strike will derail any chance for a traditional ceremony.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Romance/ horror -- no, they're not the same

Summary: A look at two new films, one formulaic, the other trying to break the mold. "27 Dresses" proves negligible. "Cloverfield" tries hard not to be defeated by the demands of its genre.


In the routine and mildly engaging "27 Dresses," Katherine Heigl ("Knocked Up") seems to be working way too hard for light comedy, maybe because she's been asked to carry a predictable romance on her shoulders. Heigl plays Jane Nichols, a woman who gives new meaning to the phrase "always a bridesmaid." Jane's eagerness to serve as a bridesmaid supports the movie's title. She has accumulated 27 dresses at the various weddings in which she has participated.

The plot: Jane's love for her boss (Ed Burns) is frustrated when her younger sister (Malin Akerman) shows up for a visit and knocks Burns' character off his feet. Meanwhile, a society writer (James Marsden) takes an interest in Jane. In hopes of advancing a stalled career, he begins research on an embarrassing article about Jane's obsessive dedication to weddings. But guess what? If you said he overcomes his cynicism and falls for her, congratulations: You've seen a movie before. Here's another shock, Jane has an acerbic best friend (Judy Greer) who adds tart flavor to the mix. Strictly a formula job, "27 Dresses" hardly qualifies as memorable, in other words, a typical January release.


The sci-fi horror movie "Cloverfield" is less typical and far more interesting. If it weren't for the fact that "Cloverfield" rips a page from the "Blair Witch Project" book, it might have looked like a true original. But the movie's central conceit clearly has its roots in the tipsy camera work that defined "Blair Witch." As was the case with "Blair Witch,'' we're supposed to be watching an amateur video found after a terrible calamity. Manhattan -- always a target of choice when it comes to big-screen devastation -- takes another beating in a movie that occasionally recalls the horror of 9/11. This time, though, it's not terrorists who take a bite out of the Big Apple, but a giant, building-crushing monster. Director Matt Reeves' gimmick forces him to maintain a tight focus. If you don't like whiplash photography, stay home or, at minimum, bring an airsick bag. Every shot in "Cloverfield" is hand-held, creating the impression that the movie isn't a movie at all, but a tape made by someone in the midst of a terrible panic.

We never know more about what's happening than the characters, several of whom try to escape Manhattan. Perhaps to enhance the climate of anxiety, we don't see much of the monster, which has a giant torso and flailing arms (tentacles?). We're also never told what the creature is or how it got to New York. This lack of explanation may frustrate some viewers, but it's part of the reason "Cloverfield" becomes eerily efficient: It's disciplined enough to maintain a consistent point of view.

We don't know all that much about the characters, either. Rob (Michael Sthal-David) is leaving for Japan (home of the Godzilla franchise) to assume a new job. The movie kicks off at the surprise farewell party that has been arranged for Rob. His pal Hud (T.J. Miller) collects video good wishes for Rob and later becomes the videographer who photographs the chaos resulting from the monster attack.

For once, a group of insulated 20somethings can't fall back on their media-honed wits. A tipsy immersion in rampant destruction, "Cloverfield" -- which clocks in at a fleet 84 minutes -- has its share of improbabilities, but still makes for a smarter-than-average monster mash. Among the delectations: The Statue of Liberty is beheaded and the Brooklyn Bridge is ripped from its moorings. Did I mention that brigades of terrified rats stream through subway tunnels? Did I have to?


"The Killing of John Lennon"is as weird and disturbing as anything I've seen in quite a while. Using entries from Mark David Chapman's diary and filming in real locations, director Andrew Piddington takes us inside the world of the man who shot John Lennon. Visually charged and full of creepy narration, the movie chronicles Chapman's obsession with Holden Caufield, the hero of "Catcher in the Rye." In the capable hands of actor Jonas Ball, Chapman also is revealed as a notoriety-craving nonentity with little ability to understand his own behavior. I'm not sure we'll ever find explanations for people such as Chapman, and that's what troubled me about "The Killing of John Lennon." The movie is riveting in its way, but in the end, it's difficult to say what we've gained by entering Chapman's twisted psyche. As a result, this extremely well-made film makes us wonder exactly why it exists. We'll have plenty of time to think about the question: A second film about Chapman ("Chapter 27") is due later this year.

Allen tackles big themes with little picture

Summary: Few things are as tiresome for a film critic as bashing Woody Allen, a pastime that in recent years seems to have become almost routine. But with each new Allen disappointment, one is again forced to take up the cudgels. "Cassandra's Dream" trots out themes Allen explored 19 years ago in "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and more recently in "Match Point," as it follows the tribulations of two brothers who commit a terrible crime for a wealthy uncle in need of a favor. Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor star in Allen's latest, and although Farrell impresses as a guilt-ridden gambler, the movie proves another tired attempt to explore big themes at the expense of convincing character development.

In "Cassandra's Dream," Farrell and McGregor play the brothers Blaine, Terry and Ian. Early on, the brothers overreach by purchasing a sailboat, which they name "Cassandra's Dream.'' Not content with what they've acquired, they allow their ambitions to lure them into treacherous moral waters.

A refusal to accept one's station in life becomes a motivating factor for the working-class characters Allen creates. McGregor's Ian seems especially eager to advance his fortunes. He wants to hang onto his beautiful and refined actress girlfriend (Hayley Atwell) and invest in a Los Angels-based hotel deal. If he doesn't act immediately -- or so he thinks -- he may be forced to spend his entire life running the marginal restaurant his father (John Benfield) owns. Terry's dreams are less grandiose; he works as a mechanic, but hopes to open a sporting-goods store and marry his cheerfully devoted girlfriend (Sally Hawkins).

Enter phenomenally wealthy Uncle Howard, played by the always-credible Tom Wilkinson. Howard promises to help Terry free himself from a whopping gambling debt and jump start Ian's business. Of course, he wants something in return. It seems that an associate (Phil Davis) is about to expose illegal activities at one of Howard's foundations. The pesky colleague, says Uncle Howard, must be made to disappear.

The story's moral dilemmas are clearly stated by the characters, who may be entirely too self-aware to be credible, but Allen marches on anyway, building toward an ironic conclusion and again showing (as he did in "Match Point") that he can handle suspense.

"Cassandra's Dream" isn't awful, but it's not especially compelling either. It's a medium-grade Allen effort, the third Allen film set in Great Britain. I'd rank it beneath "Match Point' and above "Scoop," Allen's two previous London-based films. Intermittently involving, "Cassandra's Dream" is marred by an inescapable feeling that Allen is trying to pour old thematic wine into new bottles. The movie fails to excite.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Quiet horror at the "Orphanage"

Summary: In "The Orphanage, " director Antonio Bayona avoids the shock and shlock of contemporary horror, but he hasn't quite made the scary movie some have hailed. Working with producer Guillermo del Torro -- whose "Pan's Labyrinth" was a far more original mixture of psychology, fantasy and horror -- Bayona whips up a well-made but slightly predictable addition to the quiet-horror genre.

"The Orphanage" centers on Laura (Belen Rueda), a woman who has moved into the orphanage where she spent her first seven years. Not surprisingly, the orphanage is a dark and rambling old mansion in a secluded part of the Spanish countryside. In what amounts to a return trip to her past, Laura's accompanied by her spouse (Fernando Cayo) and her son Simon (Roger Princep). Laura and her physician husband plan to renovate the now-abandoned manse and turn it into a home for children with disabilities.

Things begin to get creepy when a severe-looking social worker (Montserrat Carulla) shows up offering assistance. At that point, we learn that Simon has been adopted and also is HIV positive. But that’s not the creepy part. The creepy meter begins to run in earnest when Simon -- a child with imaginary friends -- disappears.

At that point, "The Orphanage" turns into a mystery fueled by Larua's guilt and anxiety and by the bond she has established with her son. Such emotional underpinnings allow Bayona to toy with our perceptions, raising doubts about whether Laura is losing her grip.

Too well-crafted to ignore, "The Orphanage" marks a promising debut for Bayona, and one presumes that the gifted del Torro wouldn't have served as the film's producer had he not believed in Bayona's talent. But the "Orphanage" doesn't quite match the strangeness of the better Japanese and Korean horror, and it lacks the dynamism that marks del Torro's best work. There are some shocks, of course, but mostly "The Orphanage" is a horror movie for those who prefer a soft-sell approach and don't mind vague, movie-inspired feelings of familiarity about what transpires.

Heavyweight actors, lightweight movie

Summary: Two fine actors don’t necessarily add up to one good movie. Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman prove the point when they join forces in "The Bucket List," a sentimental geezer comedy that seldom bypasses contrivance.

Nicholson’s character made his fortune operating hospitals; Freeman plays a guy who has spent his life repairing automobiles. Both are dying of cancer. As luck -- and a manipulative screenplay -- would have it, they wind up sharing the same hospital room.

Nicholson's Edward Cole has a Scrooge-like personality and a taste for exotic coffee. Freeman's Carter Chambers prides himself on being knowledgeable and well read. They're an odd couple united around an idea that leads them to jump out of airplanes, travel to Europe, drive fast cars and act out their fantasies.

They're living through a bucket-list scenario. Here's how it works: Cole dares Chambers to make a list of all the things he wants to accomplish before he dies. He also offers to finance Chambers in his pursuit of 11th-hour thrills. After 45 years of marriage, Chambers is ready for adventure. His wife (Beverly Todd) would like him to stay home, but he's committed to doing something for himself.

Nicholson tries to be impish and provocative; Freeman adds weight to this Rob Reiner-directed slice of sentiment, and the two of them find a couple of moments that aren’t entirely artificial. Think of it this way: "The Bucket List" is a one-star idea that's elevated into a two-star effort from Nicholson and Freeman. That's an accomplishment, I guess, but not much of one.

Lightning strikes, but there's little electricity

Writing about Francis Ford Coppola's "Youth Without Youth'' -- the director's first movie in 10 years -- I'm tempted to follow the grandmotherly advice that tells us that it's best to say nothing if one can't say anything nice. As one of Coppola's long-time admirers, I find it depressing to say that the director's romanticism and grandiosity have been squeezed into a failed and cryptic little movie that derives from an unlikely source, a novella by Romanian philosopher/writer Mircea Eliade.

I haven't seen the trailer for "Youth Without Youth," but it's probably stunning. Working with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., Coppola provides a feast for the eyes. Too bad his long-awaited movie winds up playing like a parody of a zillion arty foreign films as it grapples with a variety of heavy themes: from the origin of consciousness to the possibility of reincarnation.

The movie is built around a gimmicky central conceit. Tim Roth plays Dominic Matei, an academic who reverts to his youth when he's struck by lightning. The 70-year-old Dominic then wakes up to discover that he's reverted to the age of 40. A kindly doctor (Bruno Ganz) tries to protect Dominic from the Nazis, who are eager to discover the secret of his newly acquired youth. A fantasy in a minor key, "Youth Without You" proceeds to indulge in lots of muzzy philosophical discourse.

Sorely lacking in narrative drive, the movie turns to romance when Matei meets Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara). Time again for another plot-driving gimmick, the same one used in the movie's first half. Veronica’s also struck by a lightning, but -- unlike Matei -- she begins to age rapidly. She also starts speaking an ancient language and seems to hold the key to cosmic secrets.

None of this makes a great deal of sense, and I found myself watching the succession of carefully composed images with more sadness than confusion, mostly because I'm among those who root for Coppola to return to the form that made him such an important part of our youths.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Blood, oil and the brutality of madness

Summary: It may confound or astonish you. Either way, director Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" should get under your skin. Like many great filmmakers, Anderson has created his own world, full of iconic characters and bold statements. Built around a towering performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, the movie explores the underside of American myths about ambition and self-made men. It is at once a work of uncompromising vision and brutal assertion. Anderson's self-contained epic occupies its own world and dares you not to believe in it.

Daniel Day-Lewis is one of those actors who can't seem to do anything half way. As Daniel Plainview, a silver prospector turned oil man, Day-Lewis gives Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" a frightening and corrupted soul. Day-Lewis creates a character who runs through the movie like an artery hardened by greed. Like the late director and sometime actor John Huston, Day-Lewis speaks in a strangely measured way. As Plainview, he seems never to have met a syllable he won't pronounce.

Plainview isn't a representative of the capitalist order; he is the capitalist order, and Anderson ("Boogie Nights," "Magnolia" and "Punch Drunk Love") allows the movie to spring from Plainview's unforgiving assessment of humanity. Plainview makes his money buying oil-rich lands from naive farmers and ranchers, mostly in a California town called Little Boston. He promises meager benefits to his "victims" and then brings in drills to do a vampiric number on the earth. He's an exploiter with an undisguised distaste for people.

The movie sets up a conflict that probably needs to be read as symbolic. In one corner, we have Lewis' fierce capitalism. In the other, we find religious hypocrisy, represented by an ambitious preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). There are two major scenes involving instances of abject humiliation, one in which Sunday brings Plainview to his knees and the other -- the final scene -- in which Plainview exacts his brutal revenge. Day-Lewis' performance exudes arrogance and contempt, much of it aimed at what he sees as Sunday's faux spirituality. But Plainview isn't a social critic disguised as a predator; he's an unapologetic greed machine who rarely makes a move that isn't self-serving.

Early on, Plainview acquires (and when you see the movie, you'll understand why I chose that word) a son and heir. He takes charge of a toddler who's in the care of one of his workers. When the man is killed; Plainview assumes responsibility for the boy. Later, the boy (Dillon Freasier) accompanies Plainview on his land-buying expeditions. He's less a son than an apprentice to the devil. Plainview isn't anyone's idea of a great father.

Blood ties don't mean much to Plainview either. We learn something about this when a stranger (Kevin J. O'Connor) appears, claiming to be Plainview's half-brother. This relationship comes closest to bestowing a bit of humanity on Plainview. It's not giving away much to tell you that Plainview pushes away anything that threatens to make him vulnerable -- and that includes the past. In the movie's speechless opening sequence, a filthy Plainview emerges from the darkness of a mine; it's as if the dirt has given birth to him.

Anderson adapted his movie from Sinclair Lewis' 1927 novel "Oil." But "There Will Be Blood" seems less an adaptation than a work that stands on Lewis' shoulders in much the same way as the movie stands on Day-Lewis' shoulders. Day-Lewis makes you believe that Plainview is smarter than everyone he encounters, as well as more ruthless. By the end of the movie, Plainview has revealed the true extent of his madness, which runs as deep as any well he's ever dug.

Cinematographer Robert Elswit creates images that match the strength of Day-Lewis' performance. "There Will Be Blood" looks like it's composed of out-takes from the Bible. And its early scenes -- men drilling for oil -- offer a groaning cacophony of wheels, cranks and pulleys as Plainview mounts his crude assault on the earth.

Perhaps to add an extra touch of strangeness, "There Will Be Blood" has been brilliantly scored by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood. Greenwood's music pervades the movie like a swirling, agitated fog. Sometimes, it seems more like sound sculpture than actual music, but it has a way of augmenting the near perpetual sense of unease Anderson creates. This is one time when consciousness of a movie's musical score may be a virtue.

If you're not the sort of moviegoer who admires bold statement, you may find "There Will Be Blood" a bit overcooked, particularly at the end. Yet as I watched the movie's bizarre conclusion I thought of something that political commentator Michael Kinsley once said -- albeit in an entirely different context. Sometimes, those who don't go too far run the risk of not going far enough. No one will accuse Anderson of such timidity.