Friday, June 27, 2008

Robots with heart and a movie with none

SUMMARY: "Wanted" is a movie that richly deserves to have what's known in the trade as a "target" audience. That's because the movie scores many hits, executing its mission so quickly and skillfully that some are bound to view this super-violent speedfest as entertainment. I did - but only up to a point."WALL-E," the latest animated film from Pixar, deserves cheers for tugging at the heartstrings rather than splattering blood.


It came down to this: I didn't want to die during a preview screening of "Wanted," a viscerally charged movie from director Timur Bekmambetov, who holds the distinction of having directed the highest grossing films in Russian history: "Night Watch" and "Day Watch," pulsating affairs that were longer on action than coherence.

Here's what happened. About ten minutes before "Wanted" ended, Bekmambetov's first Hollywood outing was interrupted by a fire alarm. Along with everyone else, I trudged out of the theater. It was a false alarm, but I didn't return for two reasons: I already had a pretty good idea about the movie's virtues. It's a fast-paced mixture of hyperactivity, violence and breathless narrative. I thought the movie was technically interesting, but, frankly, I couldn't have cared less about how it was going to conclude. I never really bought into either the characters or the story.

I've since been filled in on the movie's ending, but encourage you not to take this as a definitive review. Know, too, that a number of estimable critics enjoyed the ride. (As of this writing, "Wanted" had earned a rating of 64 at Metacritic, an aggregate review site.)

The movie, which stars James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman, deals with a secret group of assassins that descends from an organization founded during the Middle Ages. Presumably, these assassins take out only those who deserve to die. Kill now, save lives later: That could be their motto. To figure out who's next on the hit list, the assassins consult something called "The Loom of Fate."

Based on graphic novels by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones, "Wanted" defines its characters with a familiar array of superhero ploys: A nerdy guy (McAvoy) acquires master-level powers; a cool and apparently unattainable woman (Jolie) sports multiple tattoos; and a sagacious old dude (Freeman) runs the show. Freeman's Sloan evidently is the only one who can read "The Loom of Fate," not to be confused with Fruit of the Loom, which suggests an entirely different direction.

Early on, McAvoy's Wesley Gibson -- a guy so lame his best friend has no compunction about stealing his girlfriend -- is recruited by an organization called "The Fraternity." The Fraternity wants Wesley to avenge the death of his long-lost father. In preparation for fulfilling this new-found destiny, Wesley is beaten to a pulp by those who train him. If he survives this massive application of sadism, he'll have learned a variety of violent techniques. Included among them: The ability to fire a bullet in a curved trajectory.

Say what? Bullets that don't travel in a straight line? It's all in the mind. Say your target is holding someone in front of him. That's no excuse for not completing your mission: You concentrate; you exercise your intuition; you fire the bullet and it curves around the hapless patsy and hits the bad guy.

"Wanted," which evokes memories of "The Matrix," comes equipped with a high "wow" factor, and if a big bloodshed quotient and Jolie's cool sexuality count for anything, it's likely to score at the box office. And, yes, I enjoyed some of it: There's some early-picture kick, for example, in watching McAvoy make the transition from dweeb to highly trained killer, a guy who stops taking guff from his boss, a portly woman who gets what she so richly deserves. He also has enough comeuppance left to take care of his supposed best friend.

The plot veers away from totally predictable scenarios, but the movie isn't really telling a story; it's jetting from one set piece to the next, kicking your teeth in as it goes. I'd already had enough of a pounding when the fire alarm sounded. I kept going. I followed the movie's advice. I used my intuition. I knew that what was pending: more blood, more speed, more bullets bending around more curves, all of it inching me one step closer to a migraine -- but a skillfully induced migraine to be sure.


Here's what WALL-E stands for: Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class. Knowing that, you can understand why Pixar chose to use the acronym, which if you stretch the point, sounds a lot like Wally -- friendly, approachable and unthreatening.

As it turns out, WALL-E is a pint-sized robot that functions as a mobile garbage compactor, collecting refuse on Earth. The movie's earliest and best scenes tell us that Earth has been abandoned by humans who basically turned the planet into a giant dump. The humans have departed on a massive spaceship; they won't return until signs of life appear.

Meanwhile, WALL-E dutifully beeps and putters through mountains of debris, a kind of downgraded take on R2D2. As if to emphasize the kinship, director Andrew Stanton ("Finding Nemo") has hired Ben Burt, who created R2D2's sound effects, to do the same job for WALL-E, who has big eyes and metal hands that fold one into the other. He's cute, has a personality and may be a trifle lonely. After a hard day's work, WALL-E relaxes by popping a video tape into a player and watching "Hello Dolly!," perhaps a sign that he misses humanity. WALL-E's only friend: an equally indestructible cockroach.

The opening scenes of "WALL-E" are beautifully conceived by Stanton and his team. These scenes have a wistful -- even mournful -- quality that reminded me a bit of Steven Spielberg's unfairly derided "A.I." The feeling of isolation is further accentuated by an absence of dialog in an environment in which the trash piles as high as the vacant skyscrapers. How does WALL-E keep on ticking? His battery is solar charged. Each morning, he awakens and allows himself to be renewed in the sunlight.

I wish, in a way, that the whole film had been silent -- or at least devoid of human speech. I think kids might be the perfect audience for "silent" movies, and it would have been ingenious of Pixar -- not to mention super-courageous -- to expose them to a contemporary version of "pure" cinema. As it stands, the movie may represent a challenge for little ones and may not make a powerful connection with the massive and eagerly sought teen audience either.

If the movie deserves any criticism, it's for a plot that could have used a little more battery power. Look, you can't spend an hour and 45 minutes watching a robot collect trash, which presents a mild script problem: The movie -- which brims with Pixar creativity -- eventually must get around to telling a story. Enter EVE, which stands for Extra-Terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator and all the additional metaphoric weight you want to add. EVE's a sleek robot, sort of a cross between Casper the Friendly Ghost and a portable swamp cooler. She has been dispatched by the mother ship on a mission of discovery. She's supposed to determine whether the Earth can support new plant life.

The courtship between WALL-E and EVE is uneasy at first, but the movie eventually unites them in a common purposes, which they discover when the plot transports them onto the spaceship where Earthlings (grown fat and useless) are amusing themselves to death. They float around in big chairs, slurping down drinks and gobbling up snacks, sort of like...well... the average movie audience. Humankind evidently has spent thousands of years allowing muscles and will power to atrophy.

If Stanton has satire in mind, it's satire with the edges filed down. The movie doesn't drub you with its eco-message. Besides, the scenes on board the spaceship allow for amusing references to previous sci-fi movies, as well as for some faster-paced action.

The story runs a bit longer than it should, but there's no point knocking Pixar's work, which maintains an extraordinarily high standard, boasting a preference for unusual concepts (the rat chef of "Ratatouille," for example) and demonstrating admirably high levels of execution.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

An indispensable contemporary voice

What makes a filmmaker important? Is it the ability to work with established stars and generate heaps of box-office revenue? Is it the skill required to employ an increasingly complicated arsenal of computer-generated effects? Is it the way a director sometimes connects with the urgency of a cultural moment, capturing the national mood as Steven Spielberg sometimes has done? Is it consistency over a long career?

I suppose the answer could be all of the above, but none of those seems entirely sufficient to me. Also to be considered: The ability of a director, particularly one who writes his or her own screenplays, to say something powerful and pertinent based on his or her own experience. A combination of exceptional skill and a strong subject can make for important filmmaking. Fatih Akin has both.

It took me a while to catch up with Akin's "The Edge of Heaven," but the director's new movie confirmed something I'd begun to suspect when I saw Akin's "Head On," one of the best movies of 2004. Akin is the real deal, a contemporary filmmaker whose work must not be ignored.

The 35-year-old Akin was born in Hamburg. His parents are Turkish. As a result, he's well-positioned to observe the kind of sweeping cultural changes that have seized much of Europe. Waves of immigration have forced country after country -- often with great reluctance -- to redefine national identity. But Akin's genius extends beyond the borders of his native Germany. He also knows that the great flow of immigrants has brought changes to the home countries of those who have landed in places such as Germany. He understands the amazing fluidity of the moment as its reflected in the increasingly elusive nature of social boundaries that long have been taken for granted. He locates his films -- particularly "The Edge of Heaven" -- on the fault lines that develop when cultures mingle, clash and, yes, sometimes, embrace.

Of course, Akin is neither a sociologist nor an historian. He's an artist, and, as such, he's especially skilled at creating characters, catapulting them into demanding situations and watching them react as history works on them and as they work on history. His films are both personal and expansive. He successfully accomplishes something that has eluded filmmakers such as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Paul Haggis who also have steeped their films in the fractious, sometimes explosive ways that cultures intersect.

Perhaps because Akin's focus is narrower and more closely aligned with his own experience than some of his contemporaries, his films seem more credible. He deals mostly with Turks living in Germany. His movies are rooted in cultural specificity, but they also have a universal pull, an emotional quality that derives -- in the case, of "Edge of Heaven" -- from the devastations of a son who can't accept the brutish behavior of his father, from a mother who loses a daughter in a senseless bit of street violence and from the mixture of strength and desperation displayed by a Turkish woman working as a prostitute in the port city of Bremen.

If I ran a film festival, which of course I don't, I'd want to give a tribute to Akin. Although his filmography is not extensive, his interests are, and I would hope such an award would recognize the importance of his work and encourage him to stay on track.

Of course, any tribute would acknowledge and celebrate Akin's abilities as a director as well as his ability to explore fascinating, highly relevant subjects. "Edge of Heaven" puts a wide range of directorial skills on display. The acting in "Edge of Heaven," for example, is uniformly strong with standout work from Nurgul Yesilcay, as a rebellious young Turkish woman who travels from Istanbul to Bemen in search of her mother, and from Hanna Schygulla, once closely associated with the movies of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. At 65, Schygulla's impish looks have mellowed into something calmer and more powerful, a woman who has attained certainty in her convictions but remains vulnerable to the life's cruel vicissitudes.

Early on, Akin's story focuses on a Turkish/German professor (Baki Davrak) whose widowed father (Tuncel Kurtiz) invites a Turkish prostitute (Nursel Kose) to live with him. The plot then creates a complicated network in which apparently disparate lives become linked. When Kose's daughter (Ysicay) arrives in Bremen from Istanbul, she meets Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska), a young German student with whom she begins an affair. There's no need to reveal more about the plot, although it's helpful to know that Akin introduces sections with title cards that reveal significant developments and that the action alternates between Bremen, Hamburg, Istanbul and a smaller Turkish city.

Akin's screenplay, which insists on the power of coincidence, seldom feels contrived, mostly because Akin doesn't allow plot points to dominate characters. Nearly everything feels organic.

None of this is to suggest that Akin neglects the cinematic aspects of storytelling. An unhurried style, the real-world
gristle created by a broad range of intriguing locations and a terrific score give the proceedings sustained vitality.

So, yes, I'd say that Akin qualifies as an important filmmaker. As summer bombards us with one wannabe blockbuster after another, it's more than refreshing to see a movie such as "Edge of Heaven;" it's transformative. Akin presents life as its lived, and that may be the greatest and most deeply human art of all.

If you miss "The Edge of Heaven," which is being released this summer and which now is playing in Denver at the Starz Film Center, don't forget about it when it reaches DVD.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Rumbling with the great Genghis Khan

Summary: "Mongol" has the look -- if not the narrative polish -- of a major epic. Flawed, yes, but director Sergei Bodrov's dramatization of the early years of Genghis Khan's life has enough bloody action to keep even those who hate subtitles from slipping into coma.

"Mongol" basically covers Genghis Khan's rise, focusing on early tribulations: the murder of his father by rival clansman, separation from his family and the slow climb to power that led to Mongol unity. Bodrov also gives the Khan -- known as Temudgin and played as an adult by Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano -- a sustained romantic interest. Temudgin falls for and remains devoted to the bride (Khulan Chuluun) he selected when he was a mere boy of nine. The story also deals with the Khan's relationship with his blood brother Jamukha (Amarbold Tuvinbayar), at first a fierce ally and later a reluctant enemy.

Bodrov, who reportedly wants to expand the Genghis Khan story into a trilogy, mixes standard movie ploys with ethnographic filmmaking about Mongol life in the 12th century: The result is a historical saga as it might have been imagined by an anthropologist.

The movie doesn't stint on battles -- some of which allow their digital seams to show -- but it does shortchange dramatic development, occasionally leaping from one event to another without bothering to tell us how the jump was made. Such a schematic approach often hobbles the narrative, which doesn't quite achieve the greatness an epic of this magnitude seems to require.

Still, the broad expanses of the steppes, as well as a sustained sense of exoticism, make for an intriguing enough time at the movies. "Mongol" is a big movie that sprawls across the screen and seldom fails to take us with it.

I didn't get smart, and I'm not really sorry

Summary: Medical adventures kept me from preview screenings of Mike Myers' "The Love Guru" and Steve Carell's "Get Smart." I will report, though, that The Hollywood Reporter (and apparently most others) slammed "Love Guru," and "Get Smart" didn't fare particularly well in either Newsweek, Variety. or The Hollywood Reporter. The movie did, however, win praise from Roger Ebert. Critics aside, it's probably a safe bet that "Get Smart" will preoccupy most moviegoers this weekend.

For the record: Those who thought Harmony Korine came on strong and repulsive with movies such as "Gummo" and "Julien-Donkey Boy" may be pleasantly surprised at the whimsical nature of Kornine's "Mr. Lonely," a movie that floats on a drifting tide of ...well...I'm not sure what. Korine introduces us to a bunch of impersonators who wind up inhabiting a commune-like estate in Scotland. Principal among them: a Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) and a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton). The movie also includes a segment about flying nuns (no, I'm not kiddding) doing relief work in a jungle. Korine's movie defies both genre classification and interpretation. I wasn't repelled, but I couldn't bring myself to care much, either.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

"The Sweet Smell of Success"

Every now and again, I take another look at British director Alexander McKendrick's "The Sweet Smell of Success." I was reintroduced to the movie in 1986 when McKendrick received a tribute at the Telluride Film Festival, where an immaculate print was shown in the cozy confines of the Sheridan Opera House.

Certain movies become part of one's vocabulary, working their way into one's consciousness with as much force as anything real. An example: I know a PR guy (the current term) who labored as a press agent (a now-outmoded label) in New York during the 1950s. He admires this 1957 McKendrick classic, perhaps because he recognizes harsh truths in the character of Sidney Falco, the grubby, ambitious publicist played by Tony Curtis in one of his finest performances. The mere mention of the name Sidney Falco makes my friend -- who has been around more than a few blocks -- smile. Talk about desperation. Even Falco's voice seemed to sweat.

The main tension in the movie is between Falco and J.J. Hunsecker, a powerful columnist whose favor Falco constantly courts. In the '50s -- the heyday of New York newspapering -- certain columnists wielded power in the manner of Hunsecker, a titan of a man portrayed by Burt Lancaster. Hunsecker was so dominating that even when seated, he seemed taller than anyone in the room. Walter Winchell most often has been mentioned as the inspiration for Hunsecker. British reviewer Peter Bradshaw goes a terrifying step further, calling Hunsecker a combination of Winchell and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover.

Given the current climate at most newspapers -- jitters about diminishing influence -- a look back at a time when mention in an important column could keep a career humming evokes a kind of twisted nostalgia in those of us who remain newspaper junkies.

So while browsing through Movie City News this morning, I was pleased to find a link to Film in Focus, which offers a revealing piece on the movie from McKendrick's "On Film-Making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director."

This particular bit describes how playwright Clifford Odets reworked a scene from the original screenplay by Ernie Lehman.

A sample: "It is not easy to explain Clifford's process. It took place mostly in story conferences, daily meetings between three people: Odets, producer Jim Hill and myself. Much of the discussion was lively, aggressive argument in which it seemed that we ripped every scene to shreds to the point where I was growing increasingly nervous that nothing would be left."

Something was left, of course: a great helping of film noir from a Brit who captured something essential about Manhattan in the 1950s.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Hulk will crush "The Happening"


Summary: The best and most economical storytelling in "The Incredible Hulk" -- the 2008 edition of a Marvel Comics franchise that Ang Lee first brought to the screen in 2003 -- arrives during the furiously paced opening credits. To set up his story, director Louis Leterier recaps the events that brought The Hulk into existence. The scenes that follow -- set in the teeming favellas of Rio and in a dilapidated soft-drink factory -- are equally good. But the aspiring blockbuster soon settles for standard-issue special effects that lead toward a predictable and extremely noisy finale. And guess what? An amusing end-of-picture cameo -- part of a brief epilogue -- may surprise no one: It's revealed in one of the movie's trailers.

Paying homage to the late Bill Bixby and to Lou Ferrigno -- stars of the fondly remembered television series -- Leterier tries to turn his version of "The Hulk" into a more spirited comic book than its 2003 predecessor.

I'm thinking Hulk fans will like this edition better, but when you get right down to it, the movie often becomes another crashing summer-movie bore. That's because the action is heavier on noise than involvement, and the story fails to attain the poignance that must have been intended.

That's a major problem because the movie's emotional life depends almost entirely on its romantic elements. Here's how it works: Doctor Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) -- the scientist who becomes The Hulk -- finds himself in a doomed romance with former colleague Betty Ross (Liv Tyler). Banner can't consummate his love lest he become overly excited, raise his pulse rate and turn into The Hulk, a massive green monster whose blind fury wreaks havoc on anything he touches. This thwarted romance should have been a little heartbreaking. It's not.

The plot finds the hapless Banner traveling to various locations in search of a cure. He doesn't want to be The Hulk. He longs for a normal life.

Norton brings the expected intensity to the role, but he's not particularly soulful. Maybe it doesn't matter. The movie's money scenes involve a computer-generated Hulk who tosses vehicles around as if they were beach balls.

The rest of the cast follows Norton's lead, delivering performances that are adequate without being notable. Tyler's Betty suffers with the man she loves; William Hurt brings maniacal ambition to the role of General Thunderbolt Ross, Betty's dad and the soldier who conspires to turn The Hulk into a weapon of mass destruction. Tim Roth signs on as a soldier who wants what The Hulk has. With help from the general, Roth's Emil Blonsky transforms himself into The Abomination, a monster rolled out for the grand finale, which takes place on Harlem's 125th Street. The Abomination is even bigger than The Hulk, who has the look of a snarling, mutant beach boy.

Norton and Roth don't seem to understand that they're starring in a comic-book movie. In fact, none of the performers bring much sense of fun to the proceedings. As Professor Samuel Sterns, a biologist who wants to help cure the Hulk, Tim Blake Nelson bucks the trend. He goes cartoon batty, but his performance seems out of synch with the rest of the movie's play-it-straight cast.

Does the CGI-created Hulk look real? No. Neither does The Abomination, but the final battles have the booming, bruising quality of a WWF smackdown, which probably is just what the audience wants. And a couple of scenes involving transformation from human to Hulk generate grimaces and tension. The most agonizing moment in the entire movie arrives when Roth's character is injected with huge needles, one of which goes crunching into his spine.

I'm betting that the audience won't care much that the movie has "King Kong"-like moments or that it flirts with Beauty and the Beast themes. So if you're a Hulk-o-maniac go and enjoy!

If you like inspired helpings of pulp fiction, you'll probably have to look elsewhere, though. For all its special effects and thunderous battles, "This Hulk" seldom qualifies as incredible -- unless you mean incredibly loud.

M. Night Shyamalan's "The Happening" is worse than "The Hulk" in nearly every way. Here's another helping of dread from the director who has been riding his "Sixth Sense" coattails for the last nine years.

Shyamalan, who has just about burned up all his good will, delivers an eco-thriller that pits man against ...well... see the movie to find out.

Or don't. Because if you do, you'll have to watch a toned-down Mark Wahlberg play a high school science teacher who's trying to outrun a deadly toxin. Whalberg's Elliot Moore races away from his Philadelphia home in the company of his wife (Zooey Deschanel) and the 8-year-old daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez) of his best friend (John Leguizamo).

The toxin blows across the landscape along with a morbid story: It seems the poison -- initially thought to be the work of terrorists -- causes people to freeze in their tracks for a few moments and then commit suicide. Like many Shyamalan movies, this one tries to sustain a mystery until the end, but all it really musters is a doom-laden atmosphere.

Eventually, Wahlberg and company wind up at a spooky farmhouse presided over by a reclusive woman (Betty Buckley) who's probably insane. All of this so that Shaymalan can warn us that our tendency to develop the countryside is ruining our planet. We'll eventually have to pay a price for rampant growth.

Really, there's not much to this movie, although a self-important tone would have you believe otherwise. And as I watched the characters wander in a state of horrified confusion, a refrain from a Dylan song kept running through my head. "There's something happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?" Only this time, I did know: It's a movie that sleep walks its way toward a point that might have been better made in a five-minute lecture.

Off the beaten track: Work and steroids

"The Promotion" has been drubbed by many critics, most of whom saw it as lifeless and laughless. Such appraisals aren't entirely without merit, but this comedy from Steven Conrad, who wrote the screenplay for Will Smith's "The Pursuit of Happyness," deserves credit for trying to be about something, namely the downside of competition in the workplace. Set mostly in a mid-sized supermarket, the movie puts one in mind of an old joke:

Question: "Why are the battles in academia so vicious?" Answer: "Because the stakes are so low."

In this deadpan comedy two schlubs vie for the position of general manager at a new supermarket. Seann William Scott tries to put Stifler (the unashamedly crude character from the "American Pie" movies) behind him. This time out, he's Doug, a nice guy who wants a promotion from the supermarket chain that employs him. Doug looks like a "shoo-in," but doubt arises when a Canadian (John C. Reilly) arrives to compete for the same job.

Conrad, who also wrote the screenplay, keeps his movie on a narrow track. The characters engage in paltry acts of aggression, sometimes reversing course for moments of shared desperation. Both men have major emotional investments in landing a management job. Scott's Doug tells his wife (Jenna Fischer) that the promotion is a sure thing, and commits to buying a house. Reilly's Richard is a recovering alcoholic who wants to prove that he can handle maturity.

All of this points to a comedy that finds modest amounts of humor in a dreary work environment while also showing that there's dignity in being what Doug calls "a good grocer." It's nice to see Scott extend his reach, and Reilly always finds some depth in his characters, but two downtrodden men don't make for the liveliest of comedies. As a result, "The Promotion" comes close to defining what's meant by a minor movie. Very minor.

If you're looking for something a little different this weekend, you may want to try "Bigger, Stronger, Faster," a documentary about steroid use and the all-American desire to be...well...bigger, stronger and faster.

Body builder Christopher Bell -- who doesn't juice -- explores steroid use among competitive athletes, but his film lifts the most weight when it deals with Bell's family, a couple of brothers who use steroids to advance careers in power lifting and professional wrestling.

Despite some sad emotional moments and Bell's anti-drug tilt, the film isn't a total diatribe against steroids; it's a thorough look at a hot topic, and some of Bell's interviewees see nothing wrong with making drugs an acceptable part of sports.

Funny and personal, "Bigger, Stronger, Faster" entertains and informs. The movie may also leave you wondering what kinds of discussions went on among the somewhat conflicted members of the Bell family after they screened the film. But, hey, that might be another documentary.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

"Kung Fu Panda" kicks hard at box office

Summary: Po, the lumpy hero of "Kung Fu Panda," and his buddies have reason to celebrate. They're box-office champs.

Moviegoers this weekend showed welcome discernment, pumping more money into "Kung Fu Panda" ($60 million) than into Adam Sandler's "You Don't Mess With the Zohan" ($40 million). Meanwhile, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" ($22.8 million) crept back in front of "Sex and the City" ($21.3 million), last weekend's big winner.

Gas may be heading toward $5-a-gallon, home sales may be slumping and unemployment may have topped five percent, but Hollywood continues to rake in the bucks. Look for "The Incredible Hulk" to score big next weekend, continuing the trend and again proving that economic hardship can be a boon for industries specializing in escapism.

For this week's figures head to Boxoffice Mojo.

Friday, June 6, 2008

I will mess with the Zohan

Summary: I didn't get paid to see "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," but I went anyway. Why waste my time? It's a question you might well ask, assuming that you're of sound mind and well past adolescence. I went for two reasons: First, I'm teaching again in the fall, and "Zohan" is the kind of movie my students likely will have seen. Second, I'm on a mission: I'm trying to figure out exactly why Adam Sandler has such a successful movie a career. And, no, after more than 20 movies, I'm still not confident I have the answer.

"Zohan" seems to be getting what I would call "tolerant" reviews from critics, assessments that rank in the two to two-and-a-half star range. Roger Ebert, who awarded the movie three stars, says he found himself enjoying much of it, although not without feeling some shame. Writing in The New York Times, A.O. Scott finds that "a lot of the crude bodily-function jokes are actually pretty funny, not least because they are supplemented by more hummus-based humor than you might have thought possible." (Sandler even brushes his teeth with the stuff.) Claudia Puig, writing in USA TODAY, offers this: "If one-note jokes that drag on too long or are worked into the ground aren't enough to trigger comic nausea, then perhaps the myriad uses of hummus will do the trick in 'You Don't Mess With the Zohan.' The running hummus gags are an illustration of what is both right and wrong with this broad satire, which is sometimes funny, but ultimately disappointing."

OK, you get the idea about critical buzz -- not that it matters when it comes to Sandler, who's able to tap into his audience's loyalty with the directness of an addict finding a vein.

The idea (and, yes, I use the word loosely) behind "Zohan" -- that Palestinians and Israelis can get along if they unite against the real enemy, a capitalist who wants to build a mall in Brooklyn -- might be less sophisticated than any you'll find in "Kung Fu Panda," but the humor is considerably more gross, beginning with a scene in which Sandler -- as the fabled Israeli counterterrorist Zohan -- flips a fish in the air and catches it in his butt crack.

But here's the twist: Zohan is a lion that wants to lie down with the lambs. He's tired of killing, and wants to become (ready for this?) a hairdresser. That's the movie's take on an outrageous conceit, that an Israeli macho man might want to enter a line of work that's stereotypically associated with gay people. To achieve his dream, Zohan fakes his death, and heads for New York, where most of the story unfolds.

Part of Zohan's machismo involves his very large genital package, which protrudes through Sandler's costumes throughout the movie, a softball sized bulge. Can you imagine if the joke were reversed? That would be true daring, a comedy about a man whose equipment screamed out for enlargement. But that's not the Sandler way, so when Zohan lands a hairdressing job -- in a salon owned by a Palestinian woman (Emmanuelle Chriqui)-- he begins servicing the salon's aging clientele. He becomes a stylist and a sex machine for seniors.

Maybe part of Sandler's popularity has to do with the fact that the audience senses he's a good guy. In any case, he's nothing if not loyal, and this time, he renews his working relationship with director Dennis Dugan, who took charge of such Sandler comedies as "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry," "Big Daddy" and "Happy Gilmore." He also makes room for old pal Rob Schneider, who plays a Palestinian cab driver. He also teams with Hollywood hotshot Judd Apatow ("Knocked Up" and "The 40 Year Old Virgin"), who's listed as one of the movie's co-writers and who reportedly made uncredited contributions to the script of "The Wedding Singer."

I've often been put off by Sandler's approach, in which a late-picture show of decency serves as an apology for all the proceeding vulgarity, and I laughed exactly twice during this overly long comedy. The crowd at a preview screening, which laughed more, provided me with at least one heartening thought: Sandler's audience probably qualifies as the ultimate "Sex and the City" antidote, a group that revels in a movie's lack of style and sophistication, greeting each new gross-out as if it were the answer to a prayer.

Which leads me to something I'd pay to see: Zohan burying a pair of Carrie Bradshaw's Manolo Blahniks in a great big mound of hummus. Hey, even I can dream.

"Kung Fu'' pandering -- to the kids

Summary: What is it about little kids and slapstick? The most fun I had at "Kung Fu Panda" involved listening to little ones enjoy themselves as the Panda character -- voiced by Jack Black -- tripped over his own feet or got smacked around by others. Although "Kung Fu Panda" hardly qualifies as a classic slice of animation, it's likely to hit (no pun intended) the spot with youngsters who are susceptible to broad humor -- and, you know what, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Dreamworks has put together a stellar voice cast to launch its foray into this summer's animation sweepstakes. In addition to Black, you'll hear Dustin Hoffman, as the sagacious Master Shifu, a diminutive creature who's assigned the task of training Black's character, the bumbling Po, a panda whose father expects him to enter the family's noodle business. The movie makes fun of the fact that Po's dad is a goose, but, like much about this movie, silliness trumps sense.

Genetic challenges aside, Po has bigger dreams than those of his father. As a major kung fu fan, he hopes that the can join the ranks of the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie); Viper (Lucy Liu); Crane (David Cross); Mantis (Seth Rogen) and Monkey (Jackie Chan).

The plot is just what you'd expect. Po learns that he must fulfill his destiny by becoming the long-awaited Dragon Warrior, a journey that leads to a face-off with the evil Tai Lung (Ian McShane). We know Tai Lung is no good because he speaks in precisely the kind of booming, amplified voice that's required of all animated bad guys, evil in an echo chamber.

Mixing bromides, cartoon antics and nicely drawn backdrops, "Kung Fun Panda" should score with kids who, unlike many of their adult caretakers, probably care more about pratfalls than plot.

Maybe it's all part of the training that kids receive for what's generally known as " later life." At some point, the battering ceases to be cartoonish, taking on more tortuous mental and emotional dimensions. Hopefully, today's little ones -- who by then will have grown -- still will be able to laugh.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

An Israeli movie that eschews politics

Summary: Finally, an Israeli movie that isn't preoccupied with tensions in the Middle East. In "Jellyfish," directors Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen present a small, emotionally elusive movie that follows its characters through a variety of life-altering situations. Keret and Geffen are to be congratulated for not allowing the movie's more fanciful elements to undermine its quiet intelligence.

It's telling that Keret and Geffen, who are married, have said that they view their movie -- developed by Geffen from one of her short stories -- more in terms of poetry than plot. (Read an interview with them in "Filmmaker.")

Here's a quote from that interview in which Keret explains why the couple initially had difficulty finding a director for Geffen's script: "Traditionally, Israeli films are hyper-realistic, they almost always deal with an important issue, which could be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the memory of the Holocaust, the kibbutz and its success or failure. This is the way that you make a film in Israel, and anything that is metaphorical [is not understood]," said Keret.

"Jellyfish," which demands to be taken metaphorically, revolves around three stories: A bride and her new husband (Noa Knoller and Gera Sandler) are forced to alter their honeymoon plans when she breaks her leg at the wedding reception. Instead of lolling on a gorgeous Jamaican beach, they're stuck at a two-star Tel Aviv hotel. In another of the movie's stories, a waitress (Sarah Adler) loses her job and finds herself in charge of a mysterious girl who emerges from the ocean. Additionally, a Filipina immigrant (Ma-nenita De Latorre) takes care of a disagreeable elderly woman and dreams of rejoining her young son at home.

"Jellyfish" is the kind of small movie that catches you unaware. At first, I thought it might be a trifle precious, a movie steeped in the doldrums of arty passivity, but I got caught up in its odd rhythms, and began to see that Keret and Geffen -- whose film won the Camera d'Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival -- were interested in running their fingers across the texture of lives that seem disassociated from the ordinary stream of things.

For the record, Keret's novella, "Kneller's Happy Campers," became the basis for director Goran Dukic's "Wristcutters: A Love Story," which was released in 2006. "Jellyfish" is, I think, a better and more deeply felt film.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Carrie Bradshaw kicks sand in Indy's face

Summary: What's the world coming to anyway? Samantha Jones put a whoopin' on Indiana Jones this weekend, thus knows what? According to Boxoffice Mojo, a Web site devoted to tracking the numbers, "Sex and the City" slipped $55.7 million into its Louis Vuitton purse, beating "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," which added only $46 million to its coffers.

This weekend's chick-flick triumph will surprise no one who attended a showing of the movie on Friday. If you did, you would have seen an outpouring of 20something women so large its latte consumption could induce a global coffee drought. Many dressed for the occasion, donning their idea of Carrie Bradshaw-like frocks and turning opening day into a national event, a party for the show's eager legion of fans.

The day prompted questions: When's the last time you saw a woman wearing a cocktail dress at a movie? When precisely did Carrie Bradshaw become a role model? How did all these women get the afternoon off from work?

Turns out "Sex and the City," a big-screen continuation of the popular HBO series, is more than a movie; it's a phenomenon. I left a 2 p.m. Friday showing at a downtown Denver theater only to find a long line of women waiting for the 5:30 p.m. show. They were lining up about an hour ahead of time. The atmosphere outside the theater was giddy and a little strange, as if the world suddenly had sprouted hundreds of Carrie Bradshaw wannabes, women who had joined forces to celebrate a show that had given them six years worth of heated water-cooler conversation. All the evening shows already had been sold out.

The movie? It was like watching a full season of the show compacted into a sometimes numbing two and half hours, a protracted bore that rehashed a question I thought the TV show already had answered: Will Carrie find lasting happiness with Mr. Big (Chris Noth)?

No matter. For all its apparent savvy and ground-breaking sexuality, "Sex and the City" remains a contemporary reworking of a standard fairy tale, a Cinderella story about a writer who hopes to find happiness with a Wall Street prince charming. Of course in this case, the glass slipper is very self-consciously replaced by Manolo Blahnik.

It's not exactly a guy thing, and the guys who attended may have felt a little left out, as if they'd won a date with Sarah Jessica Parker -- the actress who helped turn Carrie into a brand -- but were cropped out of all ensuing pictures. (Photos of the theater crowd courtesy of my wife, Sandra Kaplan; and, no, she didn't like the movie, either.)

I'm thinking there might not be much difference between the folks who wear Spock ears to "Star Trek" movies and the women who did Carrie numbers for "Sex and the City." I wondered whether at some not-too-distant point in the future, "Sex and the City" conventions might dot the American landscape. Enthusiasts could again dress the part and meet such stars as Kristin Davis, who plays Charlotte York, or Kim Cattrall, who portrays the massively horny Samantha Jones. These roles may turn into unexpected careers.

I confess: I watched the TV show, but I thought most seasons were better than the movie, which didn't have to be especially good. It just had to be, an excuse for pent-up, Cosmopolitan-fueled love to burst into the marketplace over a warm weekend in late May -- just like that, as Carrie might say.

Whatever it all means, "Sex and the City" did, of course, beat "Indiana Jones" at the box office, leaving us to speculate that the only use the "Sex and the City" crowd might have for Indy's patented bullwhip would be as a present for Samantha. I'm sure she'd figure out something creative to do with it.