Friday, October 31, 2008

Mike Leigh gets happy, but why?

Mike Leigh's movies include such darkly hued works as "Vera Drake" (2004) and "Naked" (1993), but he also has made films that don't necessarily leave us distressed and depressed; i.e., "Topsy-Turvy (1999), "Secrets & Lies" (1996), "Life is Sweet" (1991) and "High Hopes" (1988). That's not to say that the movies in the latter group are all sweetness and light, but they've all benefited from Leigh's ability to mix comedy and drama.

Now comes "Happy Go Lucky," a film that's been hailed by many critics because it focuses on a person who moves through life with a giddy sense of joy. What are we supposed to think? Mike Leigh's gotten happy.

Maybe, but for me, "Happy Go Lucky" seemed less a sleight of hand than just plain slight, a small movie that never bursts its episodic, slice-of-life boundaries. I chuckled. I laughed. I wondered what all the fuss was about.

What happens? Giddy Poppy (Sally Hawkins) takes driving lessons from a whacked out instructor (Eddie Marsan). Poppy's big on lessons. She also studies flamenco with a ridiculously strong-willed teacher, a very funny Karina Fernandez. Poppy herself is a teacher; she works at an elementary school, lives with a flatmate (Alexis Zegerman) and has encounters of a small kind as she moves around London, a meeting with a mumbling homeless man (Stanley Townsend), for example.

"Happy Go Lucky" provides a platform for this sampling of London-based characters with Poppy -- whose giddy, giggling ways can be as annoying as they are engaging -- and her overly intense driving instructor occupying center stage. Leigh has hold of a nice comic idea - taking driving lessons from a man who barely can control his rage. Credit Marsan with allowing us to see the pathetic bitterness that informs this fury. Similarly, Poppy eventually breaks a one-dimensional surface with small, but surprising shows of wisdom and strength. But this is the stuff of a great sketch, not a full-bodied movie.

Are these characters meant to be emblematic of anything? Are they supposed to tell us something about life in London at it's being lived now? Do they have something important to say to us? Will folks 100 years from now look at "Happy Go Lucky" and say, "Yes, Mabel, this is the way it was?" Maybe because I'd been reading about the movie since it popped up on the festival circuit, I expected too much. Could I be looking Leigh's delightful gift horse in the mouth?

Decide for yourself, but at a time when the world sinks deeper into chaos and global brows continue to furrow, I expected something more than a bauble that amuses when it catches the light. If you ask me, this is no time to be happy.


I know. Putting even a brief comment about a Kevin Smith movie after a review of a Mike Leigh movie is a form of sacrilege. But I do it because I'm treating Smith's "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" as an afterthought -- if the word "thought" isn't a bit of a misrepresentation. I was never a great fan of Smith's breakthrough movie, "Clerks," and of all the rest of Smith's movies, only "Chasing Amy" struck me as worth watching. Although it has received some enthusiastic reviews, Smith's new comedy, "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" seems another waste. Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) are friends and roommates who need money. They decide to make a porn film to help boost their sagging finances. The movie contains plenty of smutty attempts at humor, and, I suppose, some of them will hit the spot with Smith's fans. But the film tries to redeem itself with a burst of sentiment that begs for acceptance. Rogen, usually part of Judd Apatow's comic repertory company, probably will help sell the movie, but this is not his finest -- nor funniest -- hour, make that hour and 42 minutes.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Another shot at Hollywood hypocrisy

It's not difficult to skewer movie-biz hypocrisies, which means that Barry Levinson's "What Just Happened" doesn't exactly earn points for gumption as it fires more shots across Hollywood's already battered bow. Robert De Niro plays a beleaguered producer who's having a run of bad luck. Preview audiences hated his latest picture, a movie called "Fiercely, and the star of his next film (Bruce Willis) refuses to shave a beard that threatens to make him unrecognizable. Working from a script by Art Linson, who also wrote a book by the same name, Levinson occasionally overplays his hand. Still, the movie proves intermittently amusing, largely because of some nice side-dish performances. John Turturro has a funny turn as a chronically nervous agent; Catherine Keener shows up well as a studio head with an assassin's demeanor, and Stanley Tucci proves convincing as a screenwriter looking to play as many angles as possible. De Niro keeps a lid on his angst while serving as ringmaster of this crazed Hollywood circus. Critiques of Hollywood are always welcome, but let's face it, economic distress poses a greater threat to the movie business than any comic expose. Besides, Hollywood already takes its lumps on HBO's "Entourage" and was hit harder by Robert Altman in "The Player." "What Just Happened" has its moments, but an unshakable case of been-there-done-that makes it feel negligible.

Crimes on both sides of the legal fence

Some movies are worth seeing because because they tell a story that's beyond belief. And when that story happens to be true, the appeal becomes even greater. That's pretty much the way I felt about "The Changeling," the latest movie from Clint Eastwood. It rescues the lost history of sensational crimes of the 1920s -- committed by an unhinged serial killer and a corrupt Los Angeles Police Department.

It no longer should surprise anyone that Eastwood is a capable and sometimes inspired director, and it shouldn't be taken as a hard knock that "Changeling," driven by one woman's determination, probably doesn't rank among Eastwood's best work. It's not on a level with "Unforgiven," "Mystic River" or "Letters from Iwo Jima."

The story -- probably a footnote in the great scheme of things -- centers on Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a telephone operator whose 10-year-old son disappears while she's at work. At one point, a boy is returned to Collins. She insists the kid isn't her son. The rest of the story should be discovered in a theater, where you'll also see a nicely restrained performance from John Malkovich as Gustav Briegleb, a radio preacher who crusades against corruption in the LAPD. You'll also see some very creepy moments that revolve around a smiling killer (Jason Butler Harner).

The cop to watch is the villainous Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), a police officer more concerned with protecting a corrupt department than with discovering the truth.

I couldn't entirely decide about Jolie's performance, which never begs for sympathy, but which may be overly guarded. With her bright red lipstick and 1920s wardrobe, Jolie makes Collins into an icon of strength and commitment, but it can seem as if she's stuck behind a virtuous mask. Collins isn't an easy character to know. She's lost a child. She's adamant about wanting him back. Maybe that's enough.

Working with cinematographer Tom Stern, Eastwood gives "Changeling" an almost antique look that sometimes makes the drama feel a bit musty, but the real problem with the movie is structural, which I presume is the responsibility of a script by J. Michael Straczynski. The story peaks about three quarters of the way through, but the script sticks around, showing us lots of aftermath. "The Changeling" winds up ticking off events until there's nothing left. Eastwood meticulously recounts the tale of Christine Collins, but a meticulous approach doesn't always make for the most exciting movie. Eastwood, who does nothing to diminish his status as a fine director, bravely ventures into tabloid turf, but instead of furious drama, we get somber reflection, noble sorrow and a plea to retain hope.

Friday, October 24, 2008

No glory is this cop drama

Mr. Intensity, Edward Norton, is back. He's starring in "Pride and Glory," a drama about corrupt New York City cops. Joining Norton in the intensity parade are Colin Farrell, John Voight and Noah Emmerich. They're all playing characters who belong to a family of Irish-American cops, the kind of guys for whom police work has become a family business that passes from generation-to-generation.

If you're familiar with Norton, Voight and Emmerich, you'll wonder at the casting decision that made them part of the same blood family, Voight as dad, and Norton and Emmerich as brothers. Farrell looks nothing like any of them, but at least he's only a brother-in-law. He's also the bad apple in the group.

I'm not giving away anything here because the script by Joe Carnahan and Gavin O'Connor lets us know right away that Farrell is part of a contingent of cops on the take -- and worse. An opening-picture cop killing brings the reluctant Norton onto center stage; he's asked to investigate, which puts him on a road that leads to his brother-in-law and may even implicate his brother. Will Norton's Ray Tierney do the right thing? What is the right thing anyway? And why is everything so damn dark in New York?

I can't fault the acting, although Farrell's ferocity is a bit much, even for this kind of picture. His New York accent? Not flawless.

It takes a reel or two to get all the relationships straight, but we eventually find ourselves in the middle of a drab thriller that breaks little new ground. It's not just that we've been down this road before, either. If this were the first movie about corrupt New York City cops, it might be a while before we got around to the second.

O'Connor, who directed, goes for maximum urban grit. This is tough stuff, but --- with the exception of a family holiday celebration -- everything feels recycled, a pale imitation in a long chain of cop movies. In that chain, "Serpico" remains the undisputed champ when it comes to exposing corruption. "Pride and Glory" falters on many counts, and because it isn't really focusing on one character's story, it winds up making moral complexity feel depthless and diffuse. For a supposedly butt-kicking drama, this one's too easy to shrug off.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Rachel gets married and you're invited

You may have read that In his new movie, "Rachel Getting Married," director Jonathan Demme channels two cinematic currents, the first from the jittery, hand-held world of Dogme 95 and the second from the alluring jumble of the best Robert Altman movies. When coupled with the post-racial ease of Jenny Lumet's script, the result is an engaging entertainment that may make you wonder whether Demme's mix of light comedy, lightening-bolt drama and social mingling represents a new kind of fantasy in which, yes, we finally all do get along.

Here are some of the things other critics have said about the movie's post-racial attitudes:

Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun Times: "I'm not going to identify characters by race, because such a census would offend the whole spirit of the film. These characters love one another, and that's it."

David Ansen, Newsweek: "But race is a non-issue in the movie—it's never even mentioned, which is probably an accurate reflection of the artistic world Lumet grew up in: her father is director Sidney Lumet; her mother, Gail, is the daughter of Lena Horne."

David Edelstein, New York Magazine: "This bleak family drama unfolds in a larger, extended family in which barriers have dissolved. Especially racial barriers..."

Anthony Scott, The New York Times: "These facts (the races of key characters) are never mentioned by anyone in the movie, which gathers races, traditions and generations in a pleasing display of genteel multiculturalism."

I also remember reading somewhere that older critics -- that would be me -- found it mildly unbelievable that the guests at the wedding that occasions the story never would mention race, this despite the fact that the bride is white and the groom, black.

This accusation struck me as naive and possibly even a misreading when it comes to the blessings of diversity, which -- it seems to me -- have less to do with ignoring differences than with exploring, respecting, enjoying and benefiting from them. I thought about this while watching the movie, which is laced with family dynamics that didn't always seem all that compelling to me.

And, now, for a short comment about a real post-racial figure: Barak Obama, who thus far has been particularly astute in his attempts to win the presidency, has presented himself as a racial and cultural centrist. A Christian. A product of the American dream. A flowering of seeds planted in the white world of his mother and grandparents and the black world of his Kenyan father. His most telling refrain throughout the campaign has been directed at the American middle class, and that's good politics.

But I don't want to ignore Obama's racial history anymore than I want to ignore the personal stories of McCain or Palin. These stories -- if you'll accept the term -- the identity of each character. Obama's genetics and his daily experience give him a telling perspective from which to address the country. His racial background informs his vision, and that vision can -- and should -- inform us, bringing new relevancies to the national conversation. Put another way, our best route to "getting along" may well involve acknowledging who we are and understanding the implications of those varied identities. Think of it this way: What good is adding spice to a dish if you can't taste it?

Now, on with the movie.

The title derives from the pending wedding of Rachel (Rosemary DeWitt) to Sidney a young black man played by Tunde Adebimpe of the band TV on the Radio. But the real dramatic action involves Rachel's sister Kym (Anne Hathaway), a recovering junkie with a terrible secret in her past. Kym's a real piece of work, an angry, cigarette-smoking misfit who could rain on even the sunniest of parades. Looking appropriately rumpled, Hathaway not only plays against her "Princess Diaries" image, she tramples it to death. Yes, the woman can act. Kym, whose personality ranges from defiant to annoying, becomes the main attraction in a movie, which, in part, deals with the bottomless selfishness of addicts and the damage they inflict on their families.

Leaning heavily on fine work from cinematographer Declan Quinn, Demme tosses us into the pre-wedding gathering at a large Connecticut home. As Altman often did, Demme allows us to feel our way around. We meet the bride's father (Bill Irwin), her stepmother (Anna Deavere Smith), her biological mom (Debra Winger) and many of the guests, but it's Hathaway's Kym who dominates; she's the proverbial thorn in everyone's side.

The big confrontation -- inevitable but still surprising --involves Kym and Winger's character. Winger's bracing, astringent performance cuts deep. When I saw her big scene, I scribbled in my notebook that "Rachel Getting Married" reminded me of Thomas Vinterberg's "The Celebration,"' only less mired in doom-struck Danish depression.

Maybe that's because Demme, who made the great concert film "Stop Making Sense," has a difficult time suppressing his celebratory instincts. It's possible that Demme wanted to sing an ode to diversity, and to that end, he gives the actual wedding an East Indian theme and offers plenty of varied music, much of it good. Demme's party spirit gave me something to savor about "Rachel Getting Married."

But there could be another point here: Perhaps Demme wants to suggest that our deepest and most volatile divisions have less to do with ethnic, cultural and racial divides than with the guilt and recrimination that can be found within a single family. Demme's enthusiastically received movie -- it scored 82 at with no less than seven critics giving it a rating of 100 -- might be the best reviewed indie movie of the year thus far. But as you may gather I think that might be overstating the case. I did feel as if I'd attended the wedding and enjoyed the reception immensely, but I wished I gotten to know some of the guests a little better, particularly those from the groom's side of the family. it's not only Rachel's wedding; it's Sidney's, too.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Why 'W.' and why now?

A couple of years ago, while waiting on line at the Sundance Film Festival, I struck up a conversation with a film buyer who was visiting from Germany. After the obligatory complaints about the inconveniences of Sundance, we began talking about the films we'd seen. The film buyer, who previously had worked as a film critic, told me that he had a new 10-minute test for movies. "If I can't tell why the movie was made within the first 10 minutes, I move on,'' he said. The rule covers a lot of ground. A film could be made for personal reasons, to tell a compelling story, to express a sense of outrage or to envelop an audience in fantasy. My line mate didn't seem to care what motivated the filmmaker, he just wanted to know the reason he was being asked to surrender a couple of hours of his time.

That conversation kept flashing through my mind as I watched "W.," director Oliver Stone's take on George W. Bush. Why would someone want to make such a film, particularly at the end of Bush's eight-year watch? And what was there to say about Bush, the younger, anyway? His approval ratings are disastrously low; the country is in terrible financial shape and the presidential candidate from Bush's own party seems intent on persuading voters that he bears no resemblance to the man he hopes to succeed. Going in, I figured Stone -- the great conspiratorial thinker of the movies -- must have something new and exciting to say about the man called "dubya."

Well, not really. Here's the skinny on W, according to Stone: Bush was a bourbon-swilling party animal who coasted through life until he had a religious conversion, depicted by Stone as a kind of Road to Damascus revelation experienced by a hungover Bush during an attempted three-mile run. The born-again Bush finds Jesus, stops drinking and develops some serious ambition.

But being reborn doesn't solve all Bush's problems; He still struggles with a daddy thing, a sense that he'll never do enough to impress his father, called Poppy in the movie and better known to us as the nation's 41st president. W.'s confidence and trust of his gut represent a reaction against his father's propensity for caution. And, in the end, Bush -- called "Jr." by his father -- seems a slightly pathetic, somewhat bewildered man who can't get a grip on his presidency or on his personal psychology.

As historical interpretations go, that's not exactly a groundbreaker.

Stone constructs his movie around a sometimes rollicking series of vignettes: Bush's party years at Yale; his floundering years in Texas; his unsuccessful run for Congress and more, all set against the backdrop of Bush's presidency, presented in the form of greatest hits. Surprisingly, 9/11 is excluded.

The movie requires a bravura turn from the actor playing Bush, and Josh Brolin delivers, even though he looks too old to be credible as a college-age Bush. Brolin captures Bush's voice and mannerisms and even manages to look a little like his subject, at least when the camera keeps a respectful distance. Brolin seems to understand Bush's bravado and self-doubt. In many of the scenes, Bush is photographed while eating, as if this most insecure of presidents can't fill himself up. There's a void in Bush's personality, the place that presumably should have been filled by his father's love. James Cromwell as Bush, the elder, avoids mimicry, but I couldn't really buy him as Bush 41.

The rest of the cast comes off like talking statues in a wax museum. We're watching imitations, not performances. I can't really fault the actors because they're playing cardboard cutouts: Richard Dreyfuss as Vice President Dick Cheney; Thandie Newton as National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice; Toby Jones as Karl Rove; and Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell. The screenplay by Stanley Weiser, who previously wrote "Wall Street" for Stone, seems void of subtlety, so much so that "W." often plays like broad comedy rather than thought-provoking drama.

So why did Stone tackle George Bush? I'm not sure. Surely not to tell us that an appetite for oil made Cheney a fierce proponent of the Iraq War. Certainly not to suggest that Colin Powell was never really comfortable with his role in the Bush White House. Did we need to be told once again that evidence was distorted to convince a gullible American public that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction? Stone fires off these salvos in a swirl of scenes in which Bush meets with his cabinet, sometimes reminding them that he's in charge when it's obvious that he's not.

"W." exhibits some of the urgency we expect, but Stone's on a frantic dead-end journey in which tone varies wildly. He even includes fantasy sequences in which Bush, who owned the Texas Rangers for a time, imagines himself as a center fielder making spectacular catches. The longer the movie goes on, the more George Bush seems like a dangerous and none-too-bright Willy Loman of politics, manipulated by others, doomed to play second fiddle to Poppy and perhaps even harboring a few good intentions.

At the end of the movie, you may find yourself asking, "That's it?" This is one time when Stone (J.F.K. and Nixon) could have used a good conspiracy.


I'm not going to dwell on "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story," a riveting new documentary about the ambitious political operative who tutored Karl Rove and who gave new meaning to the word "unscrupulous." All I'll say is that director Stefan Forbes has created a documentary that's as absorbing as fiction. He charts Atwater's unlikely rise through the Republican Party and paints a chilling portrait of a man who seems hollow of just about everything except for a love of R&B (he played guitar) and blind ambition. I said Atwater's life plays like fiction. On second thought, maybe I'm wrong about that. If a novelist had invented Atwater, the character probably would have come off as too much of a striver to be believable. Want an epitaph for the political operator who used Willie Horton to sink Michael Dukakis' candidacy in 1988? Try this: Atwater did not seem to know any shame, unless, of course, he was attempting to heap it on others. Atwater died of a brain tumor in 1991. He was 40.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The buzz about "Bees"

In “The Secret Life of Bees,” an adaptation of a bestselling novel by Sue Monk Kidd, the side dishes are significantly better than the main course. The central story -- how a 14-year-old white girl (Dakota Fanning) escapes her abusive father and finds a place in the world -- can’t compare with the stories that are etched in the faces of the movie’s black characters, three sisters who offer shelter to Fanning’s Lily.

“The Secret Life of Bees” is one of those movies that will appeal to folks who like this sort of thing, a mixture of southern-based drama, feminist assertion and tender encounters. I had no strong reaction to the movie one way or another, although parts of it caught my eye.

Remember Sophie Okonedo? She was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar in 2004 after appearing as a Tutsi woman married to a Hutu in "Hotel Rwanda." Since then, Okonedo has worked mostly in television, but in "The Secret Life of Bees," she plays a sweet woman with a penchant for absorbing every drop of sadness in the world around her.

Okonedo's May is genuinely innocent; as such, she's the heart and soul of a story that lands Lily in a small South Carolina town where she looks for information about her late mother and finds refuge with the Boatrights: Okonedo's May; Alicia Keyes' June; and Queen Latifah's August. Lily's accompanied by her nanny (Jennifer Hudson), a woman victimized by racists in the town the two have fled. It doesn't take long to learn that the Boatright sisters are fiercely dedicated to their independence. June refuses to marry the man (Nate Parker) who pursues her, even though she loves him. And August tells us that she's been in love, but not enough to give up her freedom.

The Boatright women take in the movie's two strays, exposing them -- perhaps for the first time -- to kindness and love. August, who runs the family's bee keeping business, teaches young Lily the mysteries of bees, and the teen-ager begins to develop relationships with the people around the Boatrights, notably Zach (Tristan Wilds), a young black man to whom she's attracted.

Set during the 1960s -- just after the passage of the Civil Rights Act -- "Secret Life" chronicles the racism of the day and contrasts it with the strength of the Boatright sisters, all of whom are part of a small religious group that worships Mary, whom they see as a powerful black woman. This seems more a literary conceit than anything else, and it's not the only time the movie allows its artifice to show. But the tenderness among the women feels real, even when director Gina Prince-Bythewood sacrifices dramatic credibility to deliver life lessons.

Like so many girls from so much fiction, Lily aspires to be a writer. This gives her license to narrate the story, a device that long ago wore out its welcome with me. Still, it's difficult to deny the appeal of the Boatrights, found so clearly in Latifah’s stability, Keyes’ reserve, and Okonedo’s guileless beauty. These qualities should help inoculate "Secret Life" against overly harsh criticism, especially with viewers who like this sort of thing to begin with.

Friday, October 10, 2008

A belated look at a football hero


I attended graduate school at Syracuse University, which is why I was interested in "The Express," the story of Ernie Davis, the first black football player to win the Heisman Trophy. With Rob Brown as Davis and Dennis Quaid as coach Ben Schwartzwalder, the movie serves as a kind of primer about racial attitudes in the late '50s and early '60s, as well as a look at Syracuse's football culture. Director Gary Fleder draws in bold, sports-film strokes, but he gets the job done, alerting young audiences to the problems Davis faced when he arrived at Syracuse. Although I hate to climb on a high horse and say that a movie might do some good, maybe this one will. It could help educate younger viewers unfamiliar with racial attitudes in the world in which Davis grew up. Reasonably entertaining and put together with sufficient displays of craft, "The Express" crosses the goal line as a winner.


"City of Ember", a big-screen adaptation of a 2003 novel by Jeanne Duprau, is a mishmash of a movie that seems aimed at younger audiences. After an apocalypse (what else?), Earth's human population moves into an underground city. People have been living underground for more than 200 years when the film opens. Despite the presence of Bill Murray (mostly negligible) and Tim Robbins (seemingly uninvolved), the movie feels as if it's aimed at the most gullible of younger audiences. The sets are elaborate, but depressing. An uninspired plot follows two teen-agers (Saoirse Ronan and Harry Treadaway) as they search for a way out of their failing underground city. After about 10 minutes, I wanted out, too.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

"Body of Lies" charts a world in motion

Director Ridley Scott's "Body of Lies' stars A-listers Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe. This thriller about the workings of the CIA in the Middle East may not entirely fuse drama and commentary on the current war against terror, but it has a pulse, and it's well made by Scott, who's working from plot-heavy script by William Monahan. DiCaprio plays a CIA field agent who gets his hands dirty, and Crowe portrays his desk-bound boss. The opposing styles of the two men create tension and Scott definitely knows how keep things intense. For a full review, click here. I wrote this one for The Rocky Mountain News.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Act 'em, cowboy! It's "Appaloosa"

At first, I wondered why Ed Harris, the actor who previously directed "Pollack," a movie about a famous artist whose life seemed to devoted equally to alcoholism and creativity, would want to make a Western. After the first scene of Harris' "Appaloosa," I thought I knew what had attracted the actor to this material. "Appaloosa" is an actors' movie, full of scenes that Harris' A-list cast plays with quiet relish. Hard as a dry bone, the dialogue allows a remarkably strong ensemble to savor every cowboy moment.

The movie, named for the town in which most of the story takes place and adapted from a Robert Parker novel, features many of the ingredients that define the Western genre -- gunfights and tough talk -- but it has its own idiosyncratic spirit and it tries for humor while simultaneously honoring Western tropes. That's a tough assignment, and if the movie doesn't always work, it does manage to amble its way toward semi-success. It can be fun.

Harris plays Virgil Cole, and Viggo Mortensen portrays his sidekick, Everett Hitch. The two travel the west, working as lawmen for anyone who agrees to pay their way. They're a compatible duo: Cole, who often fumbles for the right word, relies on Everett to help. Most often, he does. Everett proves a reliable and entirely trustworthy backup.

When the good townsfolk of Appaloosa hire Cole and Everett to protect them from lawlessness, the movie's wheels start turning. Cole and Everett square off against Randall Bratt, a brutal rancher played by Jeremy Irons. It's an old formula, but freshened by dialogue that Harris and his co-writer Robert Knott, skillfully appropriate from Parker's novel.

Harris, who allows a little humor to break through Cole's stoic facade, does fine work, as does Mortensen, who wears one of the largest cowboy hats I've seen in a while. And Irons seems to be having a fine time as the movie's most despicable character. Only Renee Zellweger seems to miss the point; she's miscast as Allison French, a woman who shows up looking like the local school marm, but who winds up being a whole lot more.

"Appaloosa" has a pleasing episodic lilt to it, and at times, and I enjoyed watching the movie's principal actors play cowboy. I figure they must have enjoyed the work, as well. Maybe that's why the pacing sometimes goes slack: I bet the cast didn't want to let go of characters who feel as if they've emerged fully drawn from the flat vistas of a lonely New Mexican landscape.

An auto part sparks a movie

Finally, the movie you've been waiting for -- a look at the discovery of the intermittent windshield wiper. I know, it sounds preposterous. Who in their right moviegoing mind would want to see a movie about an auto part?

Well, you might think more kindly of this subject if I told you that Frank Capra might have found it interesting. Here's why?
An obscure engineering professor, who'll ultimately battles corporate giants, makes a small but useful discovery. He figures out how to make intermittent windshield wipers work for cars. Giddy with the joy of invention, our hero takes his gadget to the Ford Motor Company. He hopes they'll commit to buying all the wipers he can manufacture.

Ford is impressed and agreeable, but just when prospects seem to be at their rosiest, Ford drops the deal. Some time later, Ford manufactures a car with -- you guessed it -- intermittent wipers. The little guy feels ripped off. His buoyancy turns to depression, and he begins the long, obsessive process of trying to prove that he -- not Ford's engineers -- fixed the problems that had prevented such wipers from working in the past. A host of patent infringement suits ensues.

I'm oversimplifying, but then so does "Flash of Genius,'' a movie that tells the story of Robert Kearns (Greg Kinnear), the Michigan engineer who spent the majority of his adult life trying to get recognition (and money) for his invention. Like the suits Kearns filed, the movie isn't always successful, but his story makes for an interesting aside in the ongoing, all-American entrepreneurial epic, and it reminds us that there was a time when people hoped to get rich by inventing something rather than by repackaging loans or by concocting other dubious financial sleights of hand.

For Kearns, the intermittent wiper went from being a fun idea to a life-threatening obsession. He eventually lost his marriage. His life was consumed by the desire to be proven right. He became a single-minded bore to just about everyone but himself, which doesn't always make for the most attractive movie character. But there were principles at stake: The movie argues that Kearns wanted credit more than money. He was like an artist who insisted that his work be signed. Kearns hoped to turn the intermittent wiper business into an activity that could engage and support his entire family.

Kinnear makes the most of Kearns' increasingly fractured personality, mixing gee-whiz enthusiasm with a growing dose of bitterness. Initially Kearns' wife (Lauren Graham) supports him, as does his business partner (Dermott Mulroney). Neither can stay onboard forever, though. Eventually, Kearn's maniacal focus on bringing Ford to justice drives almost everyone away.

Of all the performances, the best comes from Alan Alda in a small role as an attorney who eventually takes Kearns' case. Tempering commitment with pragmatism, Alda brings welcome life to all of his scenes.

I didn't believe that anyone could make an intriguing movie about a conflict over an auto part, and first-time director Marc Abraham, normally a producer, doesn't quite prove me wrong with this inspirationally oriented David-vs.-Goliath tale. But he does score a small victory by introducing us to a little known incident in American legal history. I don't know how many people will leave the theater cheering, but those who see "Flash of Genius," will add a fascinating footnote to a large body of big-screen stories about hope, betrayal and ultimate vindication.

Bill Maher finds religion ridiculous

Here's where I stand: I don't think it's possible to be too extreme when it comes to separation of church and state. I'll give you an example: If the government stayed open on Christmas and all Christians who wanted the day off had to take it as a religious holiday, pretty much the way Jews deal with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I wouldn't bat an eye. I don't need to hear invocations at government-related events, and I don't believe that someone necessarily will tell the truth because of an oath taken on a Bible.

The more distance that's put between church and state, the better off we all are, including those of for whom religion is the most important part of life. Further, I've been deeply troubled by the increased intrusion of "faith" into public life, and alarmed by what appears to be rise in worldwide fundamentalism.

OK, that's where I stand. So why didn't I admire Bill Maher's "Religulous," a pseudo-documentary that takes on fundamentalist views, often with humor that wavers between biting and sophomoric? The reasons are at least threefold:

First, and of minor importance, "Religulous" isn't especially well made. Its comic use of footage from religious epics is ham-handed and obvious, and much of the time, the movie seems to be chasing after cheap laughs with cheap shots. I understand that Maher wants to offer a corrective, to call a halt to belief-prompted tyranny. And, yes, there's nothing wrong with those who stand up for their lack of belief: Witness Christopher Hitchens' "God Is Not Great" or Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion" or Sam Harris' "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason." Maher's rambling movie, directed by Larry Charles of "Borat" fame, arrives in the midst of an already-established trend and may, in fact, be bringing up the rear.

Second, looking at extreme examples and interviewing people who don't, on the whole, seem especially thoughtful produces a predictable result. It's like launching a critique of journalism by interviewing only the editors of supermarket tabloids. You'd probably want to find more worthy opponents. And it's not good enough to toss in a clip of the disgraced Ted Haggard or interview someone who believes that gays can be converted to heterosexuality. What does that tell us? That religion has led some toward wrong-headed conclusions or to expose themselves as hypocrites? What human activity hasn't?

But the third reason I couldn't get with Maher's program may be the strongest of all. He seems to take religion as literally as those with whom he differs. You mean someone really believes a man actually spent time in the belly of a whale? Crazy, no? It doesn't seem to have occurred to Maher that these stories can be viewed metaphorically and that the fact that they may not be literally true might make them even more instructive. I'm not saying that all religious people regard the great spiritual stories as metaphors, but some find truth in stories that can't be reduced to a single point.

For the record, I don't believe it's possible for a man to live for three days in the belly of a big fish or that Moses raised his staff and parted the Red Sea, a la Cecil B. DeMille. But I do think it's worth wondering why such stories have endured and what they may have to tell us about the human condition.

Did I laugh during the film? Several times. Did I marvel at some of the stranger bits? Yes. I'd never heard of Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, a man who believes that he's the Second Coming of Christ. Miranda thinks Jesus married and had children, and that he's one of Christ's heirs. I chuckled at the intricate efforts of a Jewish man who runs a company that specializes in devices that allow Orthodox Jews to carry out certain activities (talking on the phone) without violating Sabbath prohibitions.

I also shudder when I hear people talking seriously about the End of Days -- not because I'm fearful, but because they seem to yearn for it. Maher, by the way, also fears the End of Days. He warns us that conflicting religious ideologies could lead us to nuclear Armageddon if we don't come to our senses.

It should be clear by now that "Religulous" is both screed and provocation. Maher doesn't really interview people: He badgers them. He asks questions. but doesn't give anyone time to answer. He makes fun of people -- although he's definitely gutsy; he often mocks them to their faces. In that sense, the film becomes an act of defiance that might have been prompted by a question: Aren't you tired of watching the culture get pushed around by people who think like the folks we see in the film? And if you share Maher's views, you'll probably think most of the people in "Religulous" do enough to make themselves appear ridiculous without any help from Maher.

But here's a question: Is there anything anyone could have said to Maher that would have slowed his anti-religious roll. He's out to point out the ways in which religion is ludicrous, and he's certainly entitled to make the effort. But for the amount of effort and travel "Religulous" involves -- Maher visits Rome, Israel, Florida, Missouri, Utah and London -- the movie comes up short on thought-provoking substance. Some of its specifics are fresh, but there's not much that "Religulous" has to say that I haven't heard before -- and often said better.

Also for the record: I enjoy Maher's "Real Time," often find it stimulating and take no pleasure in disliking his movie.