Tuesday, June 30, 2009

An ace bad man almost gets his due

When John Dillinger was shot outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago on a July night in 1934, Jack Lait of the International News service reported the event in the kind of pulpy prose that defined some of the day's best journalism: "John Dillinger, ace bad man of the world, got his last night -- two slugs through his heart and one through his head," wrote Lait.

Lait went on to report an astonishing array of details surrounding Dillinger's death. Souvenir hunters raced to the scene to dip newspapers and handkerchiefs in the bloody spot where Dillinger's body had fallen. Dillinger, who robbed banks of thousands of dollars, had $7.70 in his pocket when he was shot. Dillinger's fingertips had been dipped in acid so that he might elude identification. He'd also had a facelift, presumably for similar reasons.

I thought about Lait's description of Dillinger -- ace bad man of the world -- while I watched "Public Enemies, " director Michael Mann's carefully crafted, richly designed look at Dillinger's criminal career, beginning with his release from jail in 1933 and extending through that fateful night when Dillinger spent his final hours in the Biograph watching Clark Gable in "Manhattan Melodrama." Gable played gangster Edward J. 'Blackie' Gallagher in a story about a couple of kids who found their destinies on separate paths. Gallagher led a life of crime. The other kid -- William Powell's James W. 'Jim' Wade -- grew up to be a DA. It was a classic story: Two men from the same side of the tracks wound up on opposite sides of the legal fence.

In its own subdued way, Mann's movie also follows two men: Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and the man charged with bringing him to justice, the FBI's Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). But this time the waters are muddied by ambiguity. Dillinger is as brutal as he is attractive, a man committed to living in the moment. And Purvis is too one-dimensional to be admirable.

Bale, an actor of scowling intensity, portrays Purvis as a man of keen focus. By way of contrast, Depp's Dillinger sometimes allows his mind to wander, particularly when it comes to women. According to the movie, Dillinger fell head over heels for Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). He kept her picture in his pocket watch. It wasn't Billie who betrayed Dillinger, tipping the cops as to his whereabouts, but another woman (Branka Katic).

The movie's meaning probably can be found in an anti-organizational tilt that haunts -- and perhaps diminishes -- this eagerly awaited edition to the gangster genre. Dillinger killed and robbed banks, but he worked as an independent. The FBI and organized crime -- represented by Purvis and gangster Frank Nitti (Bill Camp) -- couldn't tolerate lone actors. Both criminal and legal institutions relied on muscle and organizational heft, eschewing Dillinger's improvisational bravado. Both the FBI, which sought to arrest him, and the Mafia, which stopped laundering Dillinger's money, ultimately turned against the notorious thief. Meanwhile, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) seemed as interested in building the FBI's power base as he was in catching murderous crooks.

Based on a 2004 book by Bryan Burroughs, "Public Enemies" may be a little too eager to toe the historical line, sketching out details such as the one described above, often at the expense of characterization. It's difficult to know much about Dillinger's cohorts from watching this picture, and the romance between Cotillard -- who won an Oscar for portraying Edith Piaf in "La vie en rose" -- isn't well-enough developed. Oddly, Cottilard has her best and most furious moments when she's not on screen with Depp, but when the police capture her and try to beat her into submission. They try -- in vain as it turns out -- to get Billie to tell them where to find Dillinger.

Of course, there's explosive gunplay. The night the FBI tries to capture Dillinger at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Wisconsin features a hail of bullets flashing vividly out of the darkness.

Depp, an actor geared more toward off-kilter charm than snarling bombast, tones down the gangster cliches. It's an original performance, if not always a commanding one. And in the end, I wasn't entirely sure that Mann had found a thematic statement that transcended all the period details. His observations about crime and law enforcement are not entirely fresh, and too many characters come and go without giving the actors a chance to develop them. Included in this list are some pretty good actors, Giovanni Ribisi and Lily Taylor, for example.

Mann, a director of obvious talent and fierce interests, has entered revered genre territory. In trying to avoid convention -- he may have thrown out a few bullets of excitement along with the smoking gun of cliche. There's no giddy pleasure in the movie's robberies (as in, say, "Bonnie and Clyde") and not much sense of a tragic fall, either. Artful detailing doesn't necessarily make for a great movie. Maybe the ace bad man of the world deserved some of the pulp sensibility that made Jack Lait's story leap off the page with the spark of an exploding flash bulb.

Here's the way Lait ended his lead paragraph: "It took 27 of them (FBI agents) to end Dillinger's career, and their strength came out of his weakness -- a woman."

There's more pure melodrama in that sentence than in a lot of "Public Enemies." And when it comes to gangster movies, melodrama isn't always a bad thing.

Friday, June 26, 2009

'Cheri' misses an urgent edge

A variety of failures -- all of them mild -- turn "Cheri," an adaptation of two of Colette's Parisian novels, into a surprisingly bloodless costume drama, a movie full of love and sex that never generates enough heat.

Stephen Frears, who directed "Dangerous Liaisons" from a script by playwright Christopher Hampton, would seem an ideal choice to direct this Hampton-written screenplay about the doomed romance between an aging courtesan (Michelle Pfeiffer, another "Dangerous Liaisons" alum) and her 19-year-old lover (Rupert Friend).

As is often the case, what seems ideal falls short of perfection. An English-speaking cast can't find the fire that could have liberated "Cheri" from its period trappings. Friend's character -- affectionately called Cheri by Pfeiffer's Lea -- comes off like a world-class mope, and Pfeiffer can't quite master Lea's alternating moods of desolation and calculation. Lea suffers deeply when Cheri abandons her, but Pfeiffer's performance doesn't suggest enough of Lea's strength.

Felicity Jones signs on as Edmee, the woman who Cheri's mother (Kathy Bates) chooses for him. Bates finds the requisite vitality for her role; she's playing a woman who knows how to kill with a compliment.

Burdened by a narration which Frears himself delivers, the movie tries for a last-minute helping of shock, but Frears never succeeds in giving the material the agonized life it demands. Beautifully conceived by production designer Alan MacDonald, "Cheri" can feel more designed than lived in.

"Cheri" probably doesn't deserve to be tarnished with a "middle brow'' label, but it comes uncomfortably close, something that you don't really expect from Frears, whose movies -- from "My Beautiful Laudrette" to "Dirty Pretty Things" -- usually have been put a skillful finger on the nearest cutting edge.

A law suit, leukemia and lots of tears

"My Sister's Keeper" raises a powerful question but cops out before providing an answer. Although parts of this weepie -- those dealing with a young woman dying of cancer -- put a lump in my throat, the movie proved intellectually unsatisfying. This is not a small matter because the best movies allow the head and heart to work in tandem.

Director Nick Cassavetes, adapting a 2004 bestseller by Jodi Picoult and working from a script he co-wrote with Jeremy Leven, tries to tell too many stories when one would have sufficed. Cassavetes' soft-focus approach to narrative echoes throughout, as the movie offers shifting points of view. At various times, each member of the Fitzgerald family offers voice-over guidance.

For me, the most intriguing part of the story involves a suit brought by 11-year-old Anna Fitzgerald (Abigail Breslin) against her parents. Anna contacts a lawyer (Alec Baldwin) she's seen on TV: She wants "medical emancipation" from her parents. Breslin's Anna is a donor child, a kid conceived so that her parents might find a way to help keep her older sister Kate (Sofia Vassileva) alive. For years, Anna's body has been supplying Kate with organic material vital to her survival.

When the movie opens, Kate -- now a teen-ager -- needs a kidney transplant, but Anna finally has decided to draw a line in the sand. She's tired of being subjected to painful medical procedures that may threaten the quality of her future.

In some ways, the movie's most interesting character is Sara Fitzgerald (Cameron Diaz), a stubborn mother who presides over her oldest daughter's illness with the ferocity of a warrior. It's not that Sara doesn't love Anna; it's just that she can't let go of Kate. Diaz gives her best performance in some time; she's playing a mom who has allowed tunnel vision to blind her to what may be inevitable, and Diaz seems to understand that Sara's determination teeters on -- and perhaps falls over -- the edge of selfishness.

The rest of the cast can't be faulted, either. Although he doesn't have enough to do, Jason Patric does fine as the father of the family Fitzgerald; Evan Ellingson proves convincing as the teen-age boy in the family, a kid whose problems have been lost in the frenzy that has developed around Kate.

For me, the movie's problems stem mostly from Cassavetes' treatment of the material. He uses flashbacks, which can be confusing until you realize that he's backtracking to fill in details about the story. He also relies on music-covered montages to do work that dramatization would have better accomplished, and he allows a piano-driven score to do too much of the movie's emotional heavy lifting.

I couldn't always buy the way the family acts in face of Anna's suit. Of course, there's bickering and argument, but Cassavetes doesn't show us the kind of deep-rooted tensions that would seem inevitable in such a situation.

Tastefully shot by master cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, "My Sister's Keeper" has the look and feel of a serious movie. But as the script's intentions became more apparent, I began to feel cheated. So, yes, I had a lump in my throat, but I also felt as if I'd been watching a movie that betrayed its own potential.

Three reviews of this week's art house fare

We all probably should be hungry for the kind of information dispensed in "Food, Inc.," a documentary that takes us inside corporate agriculture and provides enough information to feed your worst nightmares about the lack of nutritional value in the food we eat.

Director Robert Kenner, working with authors Michael Pollan ("In Defense of Food" and "The Omnivore's Dilemma") and Eric Schlosser ("Fast Food Nation"), reminds us that small farmers are practically extinct, that big-business bullies "independent" farmers into submission and that the result of all this corporate bludgeoning is a food supply of dubious quality. You will not leave feeling any fondness for Monsanto. The same goes for corn and corn syrup, which threaten our health and which find their way into much of our food.

The movie is divided into chapters, but at 94 minutes, it can only scratch the surface of a large and complex subject. Still, even this quick look is enough to put you off your feed.

Perhaps so that we don't totally loose hope -- or lunch -- Kenner provides a few optimistic touches. Joel Salatin, a Virginia farmer, kills animals outdoors and without the cruelty of factory operations. Additional examples of good farming practices are provided.

I can't say that "Food, Inc." is one of the best-made documentaries I've seen, but the information is both useful and appalling. So what can we do? The filmmakers make some end-of-picture suggestions, but I left feeling more informed than optimistic.

"Unmistaken Child' takes us inside the often-mysterious world of Tibetan Buddhism. The journey, though fascinating, may be difficult for Westerners entirely to understand. We're talking about the part of Buddhism that deals with the reincarnation of a Tibetan master in the person of a one-year-old child living in a Nepalese backwater. Israeli director Nati Baratz approaches the subject as a neutral outsider, following developments in a carefully presented and illuminating way. Whatever you think about reincarnation, the movie proves a fascinating look at a venerable culture. It also demonstrates the remarkable devotion of a monk to his beloved teacher, a teacher he believes he has served during the course of two lives. "Unmistaken Child" is showing as part of Landmark's calendar program and is slated to run for one week at the Esquire.


With a movie entitled "The Stoning of Soraya M.," a plot summary is almost superfluous. This stark and unremitting movie is based on a book by Friedoune Sahebjam, which told the true story a murder that took place shortly after the establishment of the Islamic republic in Iran. Working in broad, often obvious strokes, director Cyrus Nowrastehtells the story of Soraya (Mozhan Marno), a woman who refuses to divorce her boorish husband (Navid Negahban). He wants to abandon her and her two sons financially so that he can marry a younger woman. In a male-dominated society, Soraya doesn't stand much of a chance. She has few allies in her village, aside from a sympathetic and outspoken aunt (Shohreh Aghdashloo). Looking for a way out of his marriage, Nagahban's character falsely accuses Soraya of adultery, an offense punishable by death. Hence, the movie's title.

The story's moral lines are clearly drawn, but the movie's willingness to go the distance -- showing the stoning -- makes it difficult to watch and raises a troubling question: Would we have been less inclined to see this injustice without an explicit look at the stoning or is seeing this bit of barbarism essential to our understanding? It's impossible not to feel for Soraya, but I think the movie stirred up enough justifiable outrage about the oppressive treatment of women long before the stoning arrives. Meanwhile, A framing device involving a French journalist (James Caviezel) who listens to the story as told by Aghdashloo's character doesn't add enough to justify its inclusion.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

And the losers were.....

What do the following movies have in common?

I'll answer the question before I give you the list, which is presented in alphabetical order. Not one of these highly regarded films was nominated for a best-picture Oscar. A reader suggested that it might be instructive to compile a list of such overlooked movies, perhaps to make the case for Wednesday's announcement that The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will increase the number of movies nominated for best picture from five to 10 for its 82nd edition.

So here goes:

Body and Soul
Bringing Up Baby
City Lights
Rear Window
Red River
The Searchers
Singin' in the Rain
Some Like It Hot
Sullivan's Travels
2001: A Space Odyssey
White Heat
The Wild Bunch

If you want a comprehensive list of pictures that were not nominated for best picture, check out amc's filmsite, and feel free to add your own favorite non-nominated pictures to this list.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ten movies will vie for best-picture Oscar

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Wednesday announced that it will double the number of best-picture nominees from five to 10, starting with Oscar's 82nd edition. For more than 60 years, the Academy has been following the five-picture format. Increasing the number of best-picture nominees probably will make fans of certain films happy, and the move may even make room for comedies, action-oriented films and box-office smashes. The expansion to 10 films also may push the Academy away from a trend -- with exceptions, of course -- that has tended toward recognition of independent and smaller pictures that don't always have wide audience appeal. But if 2009 keeps moving in ts current direction, I wonder where the Academy will find 10 worthy films of any kind. The next round of Oscar nominees will be unveiled on Feb. 2 of 2010.

The best-picture winners of the last 10 years:
2008, "Slumdog Millionaire"
2007, "No Country For Old Men"
2006, "The Departed"
2005, "Crash"
2004, "Million Dollar Baby"
2003, "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"
2002, "Chicago"
2001, "A Beautiful Mind"
2000, "Gladiator"
1999, "American Beauty"

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

'Transformers:' revenge on the ear drums

If you can't make it better, make it so overwhelmingly chaotic, it will leave audiences speechless.

That seems to be the credo followed by director Michael Bay, who assembled "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," a sense-shattering sequel to the 2007 original. Less a movie than a clangorous mixture of heavy-metal sound and frantic visual effects, "Revenge" spans an agonizing two hours and 29 minutes. But, hey, there's a plus side of the ledger: The CIA finally may have found a replacement for the now-discredited practice of water boarding. Show this movie -- particularly its endless finale -- to suspected terrorists, and they're bound to reveal their deepest secrets. Anything to stop the noise.

The sound of clanging metal drowns out a confusing plot that begins in prehistoric times and leaps to the present, a time when Autobots and Decepticons -- it's not always easy to tell one transformer from another -- battle it out. The Autobots are on the side of the Earthlings, but humans pretty much serve as bystanders in a movie that probably will rake in enough coin to match its ungodly decibel levels.

In this installment, Shia LeBeouf's Sam Witwicky has enrolled in college, where he spends what seems like two seconds in pursuit of knowledge. Forget school, the movie quickly turns into a race to save the Earth from a Decepticon that wants to destroy the sun. To avert tragedy, Sam must bring Optimus Prime -- the transformer as savior-- back to life. Sam's helped in his task by the loyal Bumblebee and by Megan Fox, who plays Sam's mechanically inclined girlfriend. She's introduced in short shorts with the camera indelicately pointed toward her posterior.

You'll have to see the movie to understand what it means if you see people running from the theater screaming, "The Decepticons are coming! The Decepticons are coming!" The Decepticons, as you may have gathered, are bad transformers.

The supporting cast includes Ramon Rodriquez as Leo, Sam's college roommate. John Turturro returns as a former government agent who helps Sam on his quest to save the Earth, a task that struck me as less important than finding a way to bring the movie to a halt.

But here's the deal. As much as the movie can drive adults crazy, it may turn kids into an appreciative horde.

Consider a youngster at a preview screening whose unrestrained cry sounded as the opening credits rolled, "I've been waiting a year for this" he yelled. At the end of the movie, the same kid (I think it was the same kid) screamed out, "Go to hell Decepticons."

All I can tell you is that his voice had yet to change.

For me, the only thing transformed by this second helping was my already diminished hearing. My ear drums took a beating I wouldn't wish on anyone -- not even Michael Bay.

Friday, June 19, 2009

'Year One:' a collection of hits and misses

"Year One," a new comedy starring Jack Black and Michael Cera, is a spectacular mess, which is another way of saying that the movie offers a variety of haphazard pleasures and silly asides. I arrived at "Year One" with low expectations and was surprised that I enjoyed any of its goofy humor.

Put another way, you can watch "Year One" without wanting to bolt into the lobby and smash your head against the concession stand. This may not sound like high praise, but if you've seen the movie's unimpressive trailer, you know what I mean. Prehistorical life may not be hysterical, but it does make room for some laughs.

Among the movie's better offerings: director Harold Ramis' total disregard for chronological credibility, Cera's guileless looks, which in this context, border on the preposterous, and Oliver Platt's gloriously bizarre turn as the High Priest of Sodom.

Ramis, who has directed such comedies as "Caddyshack," Groundhog Day," and "National Lampoon's Vacation," knows how to handle silly comedy, although he sometimes succumbs to the kind of gross-out demands that have become mandatory in most current comedies. To wit: I could have done without a scene in which Black, as the arrogant Zed, eats what he believes to be human excrement.

Zed's eating habits propel the movie from a prehistoric comedy to biblical spoof. Early on, Zed eats from the forbidden tree of knowledge, a transgression that leads to expulsion from his tribe. Zed and Oh -- Cera's character -- then embark on an adventure that inexplicably brings them into contact with bible stories: Cain and Abel and Abraham and Isaac, for example.

These episodes are followed by a trip to Sodom, where the movie settles for a mixed bag of comic chaos. At times, Black and Cera come on like a dumbed-down version Hope and Crosby in their road-movie period. But Black has his own style -- bombast mixed with stupidity -- and Cera remains the screen's most engaging nerd. At the outset of the picture, Oh defines himself as a gatherer as opposed to Zed, who's a hunter. Together, they're a ridiculous mix of passive and aggressive tendencies.

The supporting cast seems to have been inspired by Ramis' direction. Notable are Hank Azaria as Abraham, David Cross as Cain and, of course, Platt as the High Priest, a blubbery mass of sybaritic impulses and polymorphous perversity. Hey, what do you expect? He's a big shot in Sodom, not Salt Lake.

Ramis and his fellow screenwriters -- Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg -- seem to be operating without benefit of a game plan and spoofs about religion don't exactly break new ground, but there are enough good bits here to keep the comedy from sinking and rather than indulging himself in an orgy of special-effects, Ramis relies on the skills of some very capable comic actors. Smart choice, even when the comedy is at its dumbest.

Sandra Bullock's formula frolic

Sandra Bullock tries to make up for lost time (three years without a picture) in "The Proposal," a romantic comedy that follows the dictates of formula so closely you wonder whether the screenwriter wasn't forced to swear a blood oath to predictability. But here's where things get tricky. There's always some pleasure in watching actors adroitly handle the demands of formula, particularly in a comedy that doesn't offer many other satisfactions. Had "The Proposal" been content to tread a screwball path toward love, it might have achieved something better than pleasing mediocrity, but the movie ultimately drowns its small supply of intelligence in a bath of soggy sentiment.

The movie's major conceit seems to have rolled off a high-concept assembly line: As ruthless publishing executive Margaret Tate, Bullock gives Andrew (Ryan Reynolds), her assistant, a preposterous order: He must marry her. A Canadian citizen on the verge of being deported for a visa violation, Margaret needs to legitimize herself in order to keep her job.

As part of the ruse, Margaret and Andrew visit his parents in Alaska, where they announce their engagement and begin the awkward journey toward love, a trip made easier by the fact that Andrew's well-heeled family resides in a sprawling mansion.

The trip to Alaska allows director Anne Fletcher ("27 Dresses") to introduce the movie's secondary characters, Andrew's mom (Mary Steenburgen), his dad (Craig T. Nelson) and his feisty, foul-mouthed grandma (Betty White). These characters add a meet-the-in-laws twist to the already contrived proceedings, which include a scene in which a naked Andrew and Margaret bump into each other, causing much frantic hiding of body parts.

A small digression involves a conflict between Andrew and his dad. Dad wants Andrew to put aside his foolish publishing ambitions and take over the family business.

The script by Pete Chairelli eagerly sacrifices credibility in the service of fish-out-of-water comedy. Wouldn't a smart businesswoman know enough not wear stiletto heels on an Alaskan trip that's going to require her to climb down a ladder into the small boat that takes her to the island where Andrew's family lives?

Oh well, such are the exaggerations of entertainment. Bullock, one of the film's producers, knows how to play this kind of sour-to-sweet role. Reynolds gamely joins in. The two of them won't likely dislodge Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant from any romcom pantheon, but they're good enough to keep the movie humming. "The Proposal" probably will enjoy a brisk commercial life, but it should have done a better job hiding its contrivances, preferably under blankets of wit.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Bela plucks his way through Africa

At the outset of "Throw Down Your Heart,'' a documentary that chronicles banjo player Bela Fleck's journey across Africa, we're told that Africa too often is portrayed as a troubled continent. Fleck, who begins by reminding us that the banjo is an instrument with African roots, sets out to present a different view. To accomplish his mission, Fleck plays with a variety of musicians in both East and West Africa, making stops in Uganda, Tanzania, Mali and Gambia. If Fleck experienced any of the difficulties that sometimes confront travelers in the Third World, he doesn't discuss them. In fact, he doesn't discuss much of anything. Instead, he enjoys his time playing with guitarists, singers, marimba players and masters of the thumb piano. As much a tribute to African music as a documentary, "Throw Down Your Heart" should please both general audiences and musicologists. Director Sascha Paladino does an adequate job with the camera, but visual pyrotechnics are hardly the point. This is a movie that demands to be heard as much as seen.

"Throw Down Your Heart" opens Friday at the Starz FilmCenter.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Updating a wild subway ride

Credit screenwriter Brian Helgeland with a shrewd updating of 1974's "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3." Adding a variety of new intrigues and giving the movie's villainy a topical spin qualify as improvements over the version that starred Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw.

This time out, Denzel Washington and John Travolta square off, Washington as a subway dispatcher and Travolta as a ruthless criminal who hijacks a subway train, holding passengers hostage in hopes of obtaining a $10-million payoff. If you watch the 1974 movie again (or for the first time) you'll find some excitement in director Joseph Sargent's handling of the same basic scenario, but you'll also notice that lots of the move's attempts at humor have gone stale.

Director Tony Scott ("Man on Fire," "Crimson Tide" and "True Romance") can be accused of following a credo that insists that anything worth doing is worth overdoing. So it's no surprise that the car crashes are more spectacular and the action, stronger in this spiffed-up helping of high-speed tension.

Washington seems to have bulked up and de-glamorized himself for the role. He's playing a transit authority worker who calls himself a civil servant and regular guy. The script gives Washington's character wrinkles that the Matthau character didn't have, adding a welcome degree of complexity to the proceedings. Washington's not nearly as composed as Matthau, and Travolta makes it seem as if he might veer out of control at any moment, giving his character a loose-cannon quality that's weirder than anything Shaw suggested.

The movie lacks the satirical kick of the original, a slant that was embodied in what, at the time, seemed a truly whacky premise. Back in the 1970s when airline hijacking was more prominently featured in the news, the idea of hijacking a subway qualified as preposterous, a goof on the whole notion of where unexpected dangers might lurk. Lacking that kind of crazy punch, the remake tends to come off as slightly hollow, a summer movie built more around competence than conviction.

I'd hardly call the original a classic, and this one isn't either, but it's an entertaining enough thriller that updates the original in mostly interesting ways -- once you buy into the screenplay's more outlandish leaps. Scott makes sure that there are some brutal murders here, presumably to augment a sense of realism, but "Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" isn't about believability; it's about ... well... not much of anything. But then the first movie wasn't about much of anything either.

Laughs and insight slim in 'Away We Go'

Where to begin with "Away We Go," a movie that teams two television personalities for one very misanthropic road trip?

Well, we could start (and perhaps finish) with the issue of miscasting. Director Sam Mendes ("American Beauty" and "Revolutionary Road") seems like the wrong guy for a loosey-goosey comedy that reaches for the occasional dramatic moment -- a dash of angst here, a dollop of despair there. Mendes, whose previous work has tended toward heavy, significance-laden drama, should be commended for branching out, but, in my view, he's grabbed the wrong branch, one that requires a wilder sensibility.

The material in question derives from a screenplay by author Dave Eggers and wife Vendela Vida. Best known for the brilliantly named "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," Eggers can write an amusing line, but he and his novelist spouse haven't figured out how to create characters that engage us as much as they seem to engage each other -- at least not on screen.

The principal casting revolves around John Krasinski, of "The Office," and Maya Rudolph, formerly of "Saturday Night Live." He's Burt; she's Verona, an unmarried couple living in a rundown, under-heated cabin without benefit of plans or careers. She's pregnant, the situation that gives birth to the rest of the movie.

For most of the movie, Burt and Verona travel around the U.S. -- with a brief foray into Canada. They're looking for a place to put down roots after Burt's parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara) announce that they're moving to Belgium and won't be around to play the grandparent role. Verona's parents are dead. Shorn of family ties, Burt and Verona are poised to begin a new life.

Stops include a visit with Verona's former boss (Allison Janney) who's now married with children and living in Phoenix. Turns out that Janney's Lily is crude and offensive, a woman who seems to view married life as an ongoing series of torments. Carmen Ejogo portrays Grace, Verona's sister. Burt and Verona visit Grace in Tucson. She quickly establishes herself as the film's most normal character, but the trip to Tucson seems contrived to allow Verona and her sister to talk -- however briefly -- about their departed parents.

A trip to Wisconsin follows. There, Burt catches up with LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an old friend and college professor who lives a free-form life with her common-law husband (Josh Hamilton). Gyllenhaal and Hamilton portray outlandish New Age types whose ideas about parenting are so ridiculous, they lose all credibility. (An example: They won't use a stroller lest it create the impression that they're pushing their child away from them.)

Next up, stops in Montreal, where Mendes tries to switch from comedy to drama. Burt and Verona visit old college chums (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey) who are now married with lots of adopted children. Life looks happy on the surface, but undercurrents of despair soon emerge. The feeling of gloom extends to Miami where Burt reunites with his brother (Paul Schneider), a dad who's fretting about how to raise his daughter now that his wife has left him.

Over-burdened by its attempts to be clever, the screenplay fires lots of blanks. I chuckled a bit and rooted for the movie to find its footing. But as Mendes painted his canvas of dysfunction, I mostly watched with dismay, wondering whether everyone involved in this downbeat affair shouldn't have invested his or her considerable talents elsewhere.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Eddie Murphy finds a mild success in Denver

Imagine a great movie. You'll have to do just that if you see "Imagine That" because this family-oriented Eddie Murphy comedy -- filmed in Denver --doesn't qualify as great by any standards I know. Still, it's easier to appreciate Murphy in this innocuous bit of fluff than in such crass noise machines as the woeful "Norbit."

Besides, "Imagine That" offers additional pleasures for those of us who live in the Mild (no typo intended) High City. I loved the shot in which the camera rose toward the top of Invesco Field and then rushed over the lip of the stadium. The westward view from City Park can be inspiring, the downtown skyline poised against a mountain backdrop. Yes, that's Union Station. Ditto the Millennium Bridge. Throw in a little Coors Field and you've got yourself a Denver-based movie with a middle-of-the-road flavor. If a brief scene involving Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson is outdated, so be it. "Imagine That" was shot in 2007, before anyone dreamed of Chauncey Billup's triumphant return to the Nuggets.

Yes, there's a movie that goes along with the Denver backdrop, and if I tell you that the city of Denver plays better than a predictable script by Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson, you'll know where I stand. Didn't hate it. Didn't love it.

"Imagine That" was directed by Karey Kirkpatrick, who has done lots of work in animation. He directed "Over the Hedge," and co-wrote several other animated movies, notably "Chicken Run" and "James and the Giant Peach." Here, Kirkpatrick avoids showy moves, allowing Murphy to carry the movie along with cute Yara Shahidi, who plays Olivia, his seven-year-old daughter.

As a workaholic dad who learns that his daughter's happiness is every bit as important as career advancement, Murphy only occasionally indulges his wild side. Mostly, he serves the material, which doesn't look as if it posed the greatest of creative challenges. Evan and his wife (Nicole Ari Parker) are separated. When Evan is forced to take care of his daughter for a week, his busy career as a financial advisor is disrupted.

The story's major conceit involves Olivia's security blanket. Olivia imagines that the blanket allows her to consult with a couple of magical princesses, who not only keep her company but also offer great advice on stock purchases. Trying to gain the upper hand on a business rival (Thomas Haden Church), Evan begins to take the blanket seriously. Amazingly, his already successful career gets even better.

More interested in warming the heart than in stimulating the mind, the screenplay turns Church's character into a human cartoon, a broker who specializes in wowing prospective clients with a ludicrous combination of Native American and New Age blather.

"Imagine That" spouts its own brand of blather, warning dads against opting for career over kids. That's a nice sentiment, but the movie has the benefit of last-minute plot contrivances that are beyond the reach of most real fathers.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Caring for the dearly departed

Last February, the Japanese movie "Departures" shocked many moviegoers when it took home the Oscar for best foreign-language film. "Departures" beat out "The Class" (France) and "Waltz With Bashir" (Israel), both of which were considered better bets.* At the time, few reviewers had seen "Departures," and many observers wondered whether the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hadn't once again chosen sentiment over substance.Thankfully, that's not the case. At its best, "Departures" has the tender beauty of a labor of love.

This is not to say that I'd have picked "Departures" over either "The Class or "Waltz With Bashir." "The Class" dealt with the problems of urban schools better than any movie I've seen. It took an honest look at how a mostly white faculty coped with an influx of students from diverse ethnic backgrounds. My second choice would have been the animated "Waltz With Bashir," a powerful examination of Israeli guilt over the war in Lebanon.

By comparison, "Departures" is a more conservative movie that wants to extol the restorative powers of tradition. Director Yojiro Takita tells a story that leads us to believe that many people have forgotten the importance of rituals involving the dead. "Departures" suggests that bypassing such rituals devalues the life of the departed.

To make these points, "Takita" focuses on Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), a cellist whose orchestra disbands at the movie's outset. Realizing that his musical talents may be limited, Daigo decides to seek a new profession. In pursuit of this new life, he returns to his backwater hometown with his wife (Ryoko Hirosue).

Thinking he's applying for a job at a local travel agency, Daigo lands employment as an assistant to a man (Tsutomu Yamazaki ) who practices the ancient art of encoffination, preparing bodies for cremation. Yamazaki's character washes and dresses corpses, tasks he performs with great respect and with a ceremonial concern for detail. Apparently, this kind of work does not win much respect for its practitioners. Upset by her husband's declining social status, Daigo's wife returns to the city, leaving her husband to fend for himself.

Initially, Daigo himself is a bit revolted by his new occupation. Takita uses Daigo's reluctance to fuel some unfortunately broad comedy. I agree with those who found this comedic approach to be slightly at odds with what's best about the movie, the careful detailing of the way bodies are handled. I was absorbed watching Daigo and his boss elevate their occupation to the level of art, to see the quiet satisfaction that occurs when a thing is done correctly and with great care.

It should come as no surprise that Daigo finds his purpose in life under the initially gruff tutelage of Yamazaki's character. He not only learns how to handle bodies, but performs a service that bonds him to the community in which he spent his youth.

I found enough sad, lovely moments in "Departures" to offset any reservations. It also made me stop and think about what kinds of work we should value and why.

*The other nominated films were Germany's "The Baeder Meinhof Complex" and Austria's "Revanche." "Departures" is the first movie in Landmark's new calendar series. It opens Friday for a one-week at the Chez Artiste.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Three new comedies at the multiplex

This is a week, Hollywood hopes to keep you laughing. I'd say the industry is batting a dismal one for three.


Doug (Justin Bartha) is about to get married when his buddies take him to Vegas for a bachelor party. Who are these buddies? Well, there's Stu (Ed Helms), a dentist who's pushed around by his overbearing fiance. Then there's Phil (Bradley Cooper), a teacher and the self-appointed "cool" guy in the group. Rounding out this trio of buddies is Alan, played by comic Zack Galifianakis. Alan, we learn, is a bearded weirdo who grates on everyone's nerves but happens to be the groom's prospective brother-in-law. If you've seen the trailer for "The Hangover," you already have an idea about the movie, which includes a cameo from Mike Tyson and a late-picture appearance by Ken Jeong who plays a gay, Asian gangster. You also probably know that the plot is little more than an excuse for the jokes, some of which are funny and most of which tilt crude. Here's how it unfolds: The men arrive in Vegas. On their first night, they get so drunk they can't remember a thing. When they wake up in their hotel suite, they realize that Doug is missing. They also realize that their suite has been trashed. To make matters worse, a tiger has found its way into the bathroom, and there's a baby in one of the closets. The buddies seem to have had one hell of a riotous night. Most of the gags can't be described here, but if you know that "The Hangover" was directed by Todd Phillips, who also directed "Old School," you'll have a decent idea about the brand of humor. I enjoyed "Old School" more, but there are laughs here, many of them derived from situations in which humor and pain go hand-in-hand. An example: "The Hangover" includes a scene in which our heroes are tazed by a sadistic cop. Something in our makeup seems to enjoy movies that put characters into such painful situations. "The Hangover" is banking that we'll indulge that impulse. Enjoy.

Dinosaurs, strange reptilian creatures called Sleestaks and an ape man who represents an early stage of evolution do little to bring laughter to a notably unfunny Will Ferrell comedy that attempts to reprise the '70s TV show on which it's based. A ton of money seems to have been spent on some not-so-special effects. The filmmakers should have hired a script doctor, preferably one who could infuse real mirth into this spoof-deprived effort. Ferrell plays Dr. Rick Marshall, a failed genius who believes he can transport himself into a dimension where past, future and present exist simultaneously. Accompanying Ferrell on his time-warped journey are a scientist with a crush on him (Anna Friel) and a redneck sidekick (Danny McBride). Having arrived in an alternate reality, the trio quickly meets up with ape man Chaka (Jorma Taccone). Director Bard Siberling tries to spice things up with action sequences involving an angry T-Rex, but like an unearthed fossil, the movie is pretty much DOA. "Land of the Lost" can look impressively tacky, but Ferrell has had better moments, and the rest the cast can't do much to salvage what amounts to a depressingly meager slice of big-screen comedy. The Today Show's Matt Lauer isn't bad in a cameo, but he has the misfortune of appearing as himself. At least the rest of the actors got to hide behind characters.

Nia Vardalos tries to reprise her success with "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" with another comedy that traffics in stereotypes. The difference between the overrated "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and "My Life In Ruins" is that "My Life" is considerably worse. Vardalos again looks for love -- only this time in Greece where her character works as a tour guide for a second-rate company. If you're looking to visit major tourist spots and can ignore the foreground of plot, character and lame comedy, you may get something out of this misbegotten travelogue. Vardalos portrays a self-confessed horny woman who's fed up with escorting reluctant tourists around cultural landmarks. Richard Dreyfuss portrays a widower who cracks bad jokes. As a member of a tour group led by Vardalos' Georgia, he winds up urging her to take a chance on love. With whom? Well with hunky bus driver Poupi (Alexis Georgoulis). Georgia also tries to outdo a rival tour guide (Alistair McGowan), who seems to understand that tourists couldn't care less about Greece' s cultural glories. They only want to buy souvenirs. That's just one of the many ways in which "My Life" turns its characters into caricatures. Attempts at bawdy humor fall flat, and the whole project winds up inducing more cringes than laughs.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Notes on two new documentaries


A couple of worthy documentaries open this weekend, and they couldn't be more different.

"Anvil! The Story of Anvil" chronicles the 30-year history of a heavy metal band called (you guessed it) Anvil. It seems that Anvil enjoyed its 15 minutes of fame during the 1980s. The group flashed hot for a moment, but somehow never made it into the upper echelons where bands such as Metallica live. The same probably could be said for lots of groups, but Anvil is a band with difference. The band's founders -- Steve "Lips" Kudlow (vocals) and Robb Reiner (drums) -- are still at it. These guys still harbor rock 'n roll dreams, and during the film, they pursue them on an ill-fated European tour that's bound -- as has been pointed out in nearly every review of the movie -- to remind audiences of "This Is Spinal Tap." We're talking under-populated venues, crummy travel arrangements, a clueless booker and a mood that tends to reinforce the band's general sense of failure. But even the problems of the tour can't deter Anvil. When the band arrives back in Canada, Lips raises enough money to cut a record with a former producer who still believes Anvil may be able to catapult to the top of the charts. The efforts of Anvil seem both heroic and pathetic at the same time. You half wish these steadfast Canadians would abandon their youthful dream and you half admire their refusal to surrender their ambitions. Directed by Sacha Gervasi, a screenwriter who once worked with the band as a roadie, the movie captures Lips dedication (madness?). His drive may be at the heart of what has sustained Anvil over so many years. It also helps keep the wheels of this oddball documentary turning.

"Outrage,'' by director Kirby Dick, is a whole different story. Best known for the documentary "This Film Is Not Yet Rated," Dick turns from the hypocrisies of the movie rating system to the hypocrisies of politics, focusing on gay politicians who consistently vote against gay rights. Outing politicians isn't the point, the film insists, and to some measure it's not. The film talks about the torment of people who live in the closet, and tries to describe the pressures that encourage certain legislators to vote against issues beneficial to gays. Barney Frank, the gay Massachusetts congressman puts the issue squarely: "There's a right to privacy, but there's no right to hypocrisy." The trouble: It's impossible to talk about such hypocrisy without violating privacy, particularly in the case of politicians who insist that they're not gay. Florida's governor, Charlie Crist is one such. James McGreevey, the former governor of New Jersey, becomes a kind of spokesman for opening the closet door. McGreevey speaks eloquently about the double life he once led. Is Idaho's Larry Craig, the former Senator from Idaho gay? The film thinks he definitely is. Craig, you'll recall, was arrested in 2007 at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, accused of playing footsie with someone in an airport men's room. There's much more to "Outrage" than sensationalism; the film criticizes the mainstream media for ignoring the gay lives of politicians, particularly those who make a point of espousing a family-values agenda, and it does make you wonder how these same folks might fare if they acknowledged the truth the film insists it knows.

"Anvil! The Story of Anvil" and "Outrage" open in Denver Friday.