Sunday, September 28, 2008

The public swallows "Eagle Eye"

According to Box Office Mojo, "Eagle Eye" topped the weekend's movies, raking in a respectable $29.2 million. But before anyone breaks out the champagne, it should be remembered that "Eagle Eye" didn't exactly face stiff competition among the week's general interest movies. It also didn't score especially well with critics, who pretty much gave it the evil eye. The movie earned an unimpressive 43 out of 100 from critics surveyed on an aggregate review site.

A brief reaction from me: "Eagle Eye" reunited actor Shia LaBeouf and director D.J. Caruso, who worked together on 2007's "Disturbia," a juvenile version of a Hitchcock-like thriller. That movie was moderately entertaining, so I hoped their second collaboration might mark a real leap forward. It didn't. If anything LaBeouf and Caruso seem to be going in the opposite direction of improvement with a movie that purports to be about the dangers of ubiquitous surveillance, but is little more than another lame thriller that tries to speed by its imperfections with lots of frantic action. Michelle Monaghan, as a mother trying to save her son's life, accompanies LaBeouf on this dizzying escapade of a movie. LaBeouf plays an underachiever forced toward heroism when he's wrongly suspected of planning a terrorist act.

You'd think people would have had their fill of crazy action as they watched the economy crumble and Congress scramble to fashion a $700 billion bailout plan for the beleaguered financial industry. Apparently not.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman dies at age 83

I went on line this morning to check email and discovered that Paul Newman had died at the age of 83. I'd read that Newman was ill with cancer, so the news wasn't a shock, but it still brought a full measure of sadness. (You can find a complete obituary on The New York Times web site.) I met Newman once. He was doing publicity for "The Verdict," a 1982 movie in which he played an alcoholic lawyer. It was one of those rare times when I was more fan than journalist. I grew up watching Newman, and, in many ways, he was my idea of a movie star. He was handsome, of course, but he also had enough cynicism and rue around the edges to make make his work crackle. Here's what I concluded from meeting Newman: He wasn't self-impressed, and he probably wasn't entirely comfortable being a movie star. He also had a moment's indigestion as he struggled with a hamburger that someone had brought him so that he could eat during a stream of interviews in a Boston hotel room. What does that mean? Not much. Just a memory of a star being human. There'll be plenty of time to assess Newman's career, but for now, sufficient to say: He did much fine work. He left us with many big-screen memories; and he never seemed to feel that he needed to protect an image. I wish I'd really known him, but then maybe, like so many moviegoers who watched him for so many years, I did.

I wrote a longer appreciation for The Rocky Mountain News, which published it on its Web site.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The then and now of war


I read James McBride's "Miracle at St. Anna" last summer while traveling in Tuscany. Someone had suggested to my wife that she read the book on our trip because it dealt with black American soldiers who were fighting in many of the same areas we were visiting. I picked up McBride's novel after she'd finished.

I love Tuscany, but wasn't all that impressed with McBride's book. That surprised me because I greatly admired McBride's autobiography, "The Color of Water," which dealt with his interracial upbringing as the child of a black father and a white mother. I may not have been swept away by "Miracle," but I did learn something about the wartime contribution of black soldiers in the 92nd Division, a.k.a., the Buffalo Soldiers.

Like McBride's novel, the movie version also benefits from its brush with history. Working from a script by McBride, director Spike Lee closely follows the novel, which tells the story of four members of the 92nd who find themselves stranded in Colognora, a village in the Tuscan hills. Unlike their compatriots, they've managed to survive a devastating German ambush.

Once the soldiers settle into the village, the story evolves in ways that touch on tensions among the men, the relationship between a hulking soldier and a 7-year-old boy he rescues and the simmering conflicts among the Italians about whether one of their number has betrayed a partisan. Any one of these might have made for a strong movie, but their combination tends to mute the picture's overall power, at least until the third act when the various plot currents converge.

For those unfamiliar with a period in which U.S. armed forces were still segregated by race, "Miracle" may prove a bit of a revelation. Through flashbacks and through some of the soldier's dialogue, Lee brings out the worst aspects of a period in which black soldiers were fighting and dying for a country that didn't accord them their full measure of rights. At one point, one of the soldiers -- a sergeant played by Derek Luke -- says that he feels a greater sense of freedom in this war-ravaged Italian village than he ever did at home. The irony is powerful. The white Italian villagers more readily accept their black visitors than the owner of a southern U.S. diner, who tries to bully them in an incident shown in flashback.

Lee's movie played at the Toronto Film Festival, where it received a mostly lukewarm reception. I can see why. I found myself bored by parts of it, intrigued by other sections and only occasionally moved by any of it. It's possible that Lee stuck too closely to the novel, a decision that results in the picture's two-hour and 40-minute running time, too much for a film that's hardly epic in scope. "Miracle" plays like a collection of small, related movies that don't always cohere in the most forceful ways.

A framing device about a murder and a missing Florentine artifact don't help either. The movie begins in the 1980s when a New York postal clerk shoots and kills a man who approaches his window. The rest of the story explains why this apparently solid citizen drew a German Luger in what looks like a senseless murder.

Lee can be forgiven for not doing much to develop the individual characters. The soldiers are in the midst of a war, and don't necessarily have time to dot every ''i'' and cross every "t" of their backgrounds. Luke plays Sergeant Aubrey Stamps, a noncom who's trying to do take command of a deteriorating situation; Michael Ealy appears as Sergeant Bishop Cummings, a soldier who has difficulty identifying with the loftier sentiments of what he views as the white man's war; Laz Alonso portrays Hector Negron, the Puerto Rican member of the group and its only Italian speaker; and Omar Benson Miller, appears as the baby-faced Sam Train, a mentally challenged private with a huge frame and a heart to match. Train's relationship with the boy he rescues (Matteo Sciabordi) gives the movie its emotional center.

The story's Italian component (with subtitles) revolves around Renata (Valentina Cerri), a young woman whose father (Omero Antonutti) supported the Fascists.

I can't say that Lee proves himself a master of combat footage, and it may be a matter of taste, but Lee's tendency to fill every scene with Terence Blanchard's musical score annoyed me; I felt as though I were reading a book that someone already had underlined.

By the time its implausible coda arrives, "Miracle at St. Anna" has covered lots of ground, but maybe not deeply enough. At the Cannes Film Festival, Lee criticized Clint Eastwood ("Flags of Our Fathers") for neglecting the contribution of black soldiers during WW II. Fair enough, but it's at least questionable whether the overly fragmented "Miracle at St. Anna" goes far enough in making up for the deficiency.


"The Lucky Ones" inevitably (and to its detriment) will be compared to William Wyler's "The Best Years of Our Lives," a landmark movie about about problems faced by veterans returning from WW II. The two movies are comparable only because each deals with post-combat adjustments by veterans. I keep waiting for a really great feature about Iraq and its impact; a half hour into "The Lucky Ones," I scribbled in my notebook: "This isn't it."

Rather than giving us a memorable portrait of adjustment to civilian life, director Neil Burger ("The Illusionist") turns "The Lucky Ones'' into a road movie dotted with hardships and humor and centered on three vets: Cheever (Tim Robbins) is an older man who had be called up for the Iraq war; Rachel McAdams portrays a young fighting woman; and Michael Pena plays a soldier who was wounded in Iraq and who worries about a pending reunion with his girlfriend.

To me, the most telling thing about "The Lucky Ones" can be found in a crucial difference between Wyler's movie and its weaker contemporary counterpart. Wyler's veterans came home for good; two of Burger's vets are on leave before they're scheduled to recycle back to Iraq.

The movie captures some of the disconnect between those who fight wars and those who stay at home. Burger also is aided by the three fine actors he has at his disposal, but the script by Burger and Dirk Wittenburn, lets them down. "The Lucky Ones'' is episodic and not keenly realized.

At one point, the three soldiers encounter a tornado. If the filmmakers couldn't afford a better special effect, they should have dreamed up something else. I don't want to make too much of this low-rent looking tornado, but it struck me as emblematic of a movie that never really does what it should have.

A well-dressed "Duchess"

Keira Knightley plays the duchess. Ralph Fiennes portrays the duke. Haley Atwell appears as the woman who wins the duke's heart -- in so much as he has one. That's "The Duchess" in a nutshell, but it's a very lavish-looking nutshell. Cinematographer Gyula Pados captures all the refined 18th century beauty you might want, and director Saul Dibb keeps the proceedings moving. The result: a movie that reminded me of a good (not great) exam written by a student whose intelligence was bolstered by fine penmanship. Knightley may not break new ground as an actress, but she continues to impress, and Fiennes does a terrific job of displaying the duke's unquestioned sense of privilege, a feeling of entitlement that stems from his vast power and years of being an idle aristocrat. Based on the life of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the story has been compared to that of Princess Di, who participated in a loveless royal marriage and who was driven to seek love elsewhere. The screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen offers just enough shading to keep from turning into another rote exercise in period moviemaking. At heart, "The Duchess" may be a glorified costume drama, but, hey, the costumes are something to see. Like the duke, the movie seems to understand the importance of keeping up appearances.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Chabrol and the unanswered question

What's my motivation?

So goes the question actors supposedly ask when they're unsure about how to make a scene work. They want to know what internal force pushes them to walk across a crowded room or open a door that should have remained locked. Yes, I'm being glib, but motivation can be a vital gateway to understanding character -- most of the time.

Sometimes, though, a movie benefits from a certain kind of not knowing. A character's lack of awareness can give a movie a fresh meaning, suggesting the impossibility of pinning things down. In such cases, it becomes the audience's job to forget explanations and marvel at the more baffling aspects of human behavior, the way it can appear predictable and elusive at the same time. In "A Girl Cut in Two," director Claude Chabrol has made such a movie, one that insists on following its own rules.

Not that the movie's events are completely unfamiliar. Far from it. The story finds Charles Saint-Denis (Francois Berleand), a suave older novelist, seducing Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier), an alluring younger woman. It doesn't matter to Charles that he has an attractive and devoted wife and an exotic-looking publisher who dotes on him. It's possible that Charles, who creates fictional characters in his work, plots to seduce (and perhaps ruin) a young woman because he's trying to extend his authorial powers into the real world. Perhaps -- and I emphasize the word "perhaps" -- he wonders how much he can mold the young woman's fate. Or maybe it's just Charles' nature to tarnish what attracts him.

Chabrol doesn't really tell us why Gabrielle -- a self-possessed weather forecaster at a local TV station -- behaves as she does, either. As a result, the movie feels vaguely unsettling. A doomed love burns its way into Gabrielle's heart and remains there long after it should have begun to dissipate. To make matters more interesting, this young woman persists in her folly without judging herself. She's not asking the questions that taunt us. "Why?" "Why?" Perhaps it's her nature, as well. Better to have a doomed romantic destiny than none at all.

Meanwhile, a spoiled brat of a rich kid (Benoit Magimel) also vies for Gabrielle's affections. He stands to inherit the family fortune, and his personality embodies the kind of carelessness we might expect from someone who hasn't earned his wealth. Aggressive and boorish, Magimel's Paul Gaudens comes off as despicable.

But here's where things get tricky. Could Charles be capable of expressions of genuine concern? Does Guadens deserve a bit of our sympathy, as well? And what in the world compels Gabrielle to attempt a loveless resolution to a lover's problem?

Chabrol reportedly based his tantalizing tale on a real-life 19th century story involving Stanford White, a famed architect who became the centerpiece of a scandalous New York tale. Transferring the events to contemporary France gives the story new flavor, and all three principal actors (Sagnier, Berleand and the volatile Magimel) build memorable characters: Sagnier's Gabrielle submits to love and embraces her surrender; Berleand's Charles hides his cunning with world-weary sophistication; and Magimel's Paul freely indulges his taste for garish sport jackets, cavalier behavior and childish outbursts.

Chabrol's work often has been compared to Alfred Hitchcock's. Stylistically that may be true. But "A Girl Cut in Two" is its own movie, the creation of a director who at 78 has his own peculiar (and ultimately intriguing) disregard for reasonable answers to obvious questions. Chabrol provides hints, small asides that invite us beneath the surface of things and suggest motivation, but he also may be telling us not to look too hard.

So, back to where we started. An actor on Chabrol's set probably knows better than to ask about motivation. With Chabrol, a performance may have less to do with motivational clarity than with following a character's unarticulated imperatives to their most injurious conclusions.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Race and romance, the weekend's movies


I was one of those people who defended Neil LaBute's "In the Company of Men," a 1997 movie that came across as a taken-no-prisoners study of unchecked male aggression. But time hasn't been kind to LaBute, who now turns his attention (heaven help us) to racial tension.

Let's just say that the movie onto suburban "Lakeview Terrace" hasn't softened LaBute's touch. This overstated, hot-button thriller tells the story of a Los Angeles cop (Samuel L. Jackson) who terrorizes an interracial couple (Kerry Washington and Patrick Wilson) that moves next door to him.

Leave it to LaBute to tackle racism by turning a black male character into an irrational villain. It seems that Jackson's Abel Turner (no relation to Nat or even Ike) has a thing about white men and black women. He believes that white men see themselves as privileged enough to grab anything they want. See it. Take it. That's the white man's way, particularly if women are involved.

Working from a screenplay by David Loughery and Howard Korder, LaBute offers a late-picture explanation for Turner's bad behavior. It feels like an afterthought -- and a lame one at that.

No one's about to dispute Jackson's skills. He can smile in a way that barely masks a character's rage, and he's also able to change the emotional weather of a scene in an instant. But even Jackson can't redeem the formulaic thinking that leads to the screenplay's predictably explosive conclusion.

Bombastic and graceless, "Lakeview Terrace" seems less interested in exploring the realities of race than in amping up tension. The action, by the way, unfolds as wildfires rage in the background. Can you say "metaphor?"

"Lakeview Terrace" takes a few welcome swipes at yuppie pretensions, but it's really just another trashy thriller that apparently lacks the will and intelligence really to explore a difficult subject. If a movie such as this were going to work, it would have to create a nagging conflict within the audience about all of its characters -- not about the people who made it.


In the new romantic comedy "Ghost Town," Ricky Gervais plays a misanthropic dentist who sees dead people -- and they annoy the hell out of him. Known to TV viewers from the BBC series, "The Office," Gervais appears as Bertram Pincus, a loner who's brought back from the brink of death during a routine colonoscopy.

Bertram's brush with the reaper evidently results in a big change in his perception. Suddenly, he's able to see a variety of ghosts who populate Manhattan along with its living residents, as if the place weren't crowded enough already. One of these ghosts, a former womanizer played by Greg Kinnear needs help; his widow (Tea Leoni) is about to embark on a potentially disastrous second marriage. Kinnear's Frank Herlihy begs Bertram to caution her against impending nuptial doom.

Gervais, who looks like a cross between Jonathan Winters and the Gerber baby, travels a predictable route from misery to fulfillment as he falls for Leoni's Gwen, but the romance still manages to play against expectations, mostly because Gervais hardly qualifies as a typical romantic lead.

Director David Koepp, best known for having written screenplays for "Spider Man" and "Jurassic Park," minimizes the special effects, relying heavily on Gervais, whose brand of low-key comedy may be something of an acquired taste. If you have it or manage to acquire it during the movie, "Ghost Town" should prove sweet enough to overcome objections. As supernatural comedies go, it pretty much keeps its feet on the ground.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Together again -- but does it matter?

Yes, I've seen "Righteous Kill," a movie that in another time would have qualified as one of the year's most highly anticipated films. By all rights the first teaming of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino since 1995's "Heat" should have resulted in something exceptional. Instead, we get a poorly written thriller that has been directed by Jon Avnet in ways that create unwelcome distance between viewers and the story.

Avnet's fondness for disorienting close-ups isn't really the main problem here, though: The point is that De Niro and Pacino do little to remind us that they're great actors. Instead, they make us look back to the '70s when they were not only great actors but appeared in a lot of movies that mattered.

This time out, a negligible plot has De Niro and Pacino playing New York City cops who find themselves hunting a serial killer, a story that seems both tawdry and familiar. Forget the details; all I did during this grim and unrewarding thriller was watch De Niro try to turn himself into a clenched fist. And Pacino? Well, he's beginning to look like a permanently ruined version of his younger self.

Had "Righteous Kill" not starred De Niro and Pacino, it would have been one more failed thriller. But it does, and that makes it more than mediocre; it's a dispiriting lesson in dashed hopes. Let's hope De Niro and Pacino are able to take at least more shot shot at big-screen greatness. If they're able to do it together, so much the better.

From masterpiece to mediocrity

The Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan) have little to say with their new comedy, "Burn After Reading." An A-list cast struggles to bring a comic thriller to life, as the Coens unveil their first movie since last year's triumphant "No Country For Old Men." There are some chuckles to be sure, but overall the movie doesn't click. I was asked my former employer, The Rocky Mountain News, to review "Burn After Reading." For a full review, click away!

Chick flick or squandered opportunity?

"The Women," a painful remake of a 1939 George Cukor-directed movie, goes along way toward giving chick flicks a bad name. Updated for trendy 21st century consumption, "The Women" stars Meg Ryan, as a wife whose husband cheats on her, and Annette Bening, as the obligatory best friend. Ryan's Mary Haines is on the verge of losing her husband to a sexy bombshell who works at a department store (Eva Mendes). Will she? Do we care? To round out the all-female cast, Debra Messing signs on as a housewife with kids, and Jada Pinkett Smith turns up as a lesbian columnist. A few decent one-liners zing through the tepid air, but the best performances come from actresses on the movie's fringe: Bette Midler (in a cameo as an agent); Candice Bergen (as Mary's mother) and Cloris Leachman (as a housekeeper who wants to keep her distance from Mary, her employer). The novelty of an all-female cast may engage some viewers, but it's difficult to see "The Women" as anything more than a lost opportunity. A mediocre script and lackluster direction from Diane English make you want to run to the nearest video store and rent the original, which starred Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford. You could then go home and do a compare-and-contrast number or you could skip both movies and read a good book.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Great (and not so great) moments in art

A friend sent me this link, and it's too good not to share. A writer in the British newspaper, The Guardian, came up with 50 of the best art arts videos available on You Tube. They include Marlene Dietrich's 1929 screen test for "The Blue Angel" and Marlon Brando's 1947 screen test for "Rebel Without A Cause." No need rattling on: Just head for this site and enjoy.