Thursday, October 29, 2009

There's no messing with Bronson

Tom Hardy as Bronson, a performance you won't soon forget.

Bronson is not the story of Charles Bronson, the tough guy actor who starred in Death Wish and who died in 2003. No, Bronson is a souped-up portrait of a man who acquired the reputation of being the most violent prisoner in Great Britain.

Michael Peterson, the man in question, was given the name Charles Bronson while working as a bare-knuckle fighter in British clubs and back alleys. But Bronson isn't known for his employment record. He's known, the movie informs us, for having spent 34 years in the slammer; 30 of them in solitary confinement.

If Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's film has it right -- and it feels as if it does -- Bronson's proclivities go beyond those of ordinary criminals. He's depicted as an uncontrollable force of nature, a man who takes his violence seriously.

Refn seems to regard Bronson as a theatrical presence in a mundane world; perhaps that's why he interrupts the film with sequences in which Bronson appears on a stage, addressing an audience. For his part, Bronson tells us he always wanted to be famous. The real Bronson has written books and shown works of art, but on screen, he remains a kind of unredeemed savage. You get the feeling that if you met him, you'd be afraid. Very afraid.

Sometimes, an actor will do things that go well beyond easy comprehension. In playing Bronson, actor Tom Hardy gives just such a tour de force performance: It's a feat of extreme physicality and unremitting will. As portrayed by Hardy, Bronson seems resistant to any kind of help. This is a man whose DNA seems coded for anti-authoritarianism.

To support his actor, Refn puts other skills on display. Cinematographer -- Larry Smith -- knows how to compose an interesting shot, and accepts Refn's challenge of mixing the brutal naturalism of prison scenes and the stagey artifice of theater scenes that sometimes have Bronson talking directly to the camera; i.e., to us. He also uses music that often goes against the grain of his images -- from Verdi to Wagner to Puccini and the Pet Shop Boys.

Bronson's life plays out in vivid bursts. At one point, he returns to the civilian population, having served a stint in an institution for the criminally insane. He quickly falls in love with a woman (Juliete Oldfield) who's engaged to someone else. He begins his fighting career.

But Bronson soon returns home; i.e., he's back in jail. Bronson seems poised for redemption -- and the movie seems headed for cliche -- when an art teacher (James Lance) notices his talent. Even the justly skeptical warden -- a cerebral Jonathan Phillips -- begins to buy into the idea that Bronson may have the right stuff for reclamation. But Bronson remains true to his idea of himself, and the movie retains its integrity. Here's a man who never met an opportunity he wouldn't willfully screw up.

Bronson isn't for everyone. It's not for those who require psychological explanations of behavior. It's not for the squeamish. And at times, the picture comes on like a flurry of Bronson's punches. Bam! A little biographical information. Bop! Some prison mayhem. Bam again! Bronson on stage trying to turn himself into a form of primal entertainment.

However Bronson ultimately defines itself, it's anything but dull. Refn makes the most of Hardy's performance. And when the movie's finally done, you may feel as if you've been in the ring with a heavyweight who has gotten the best of you. I'm not entirely sure what you'll learn from the experience, but you won't soon forget it.

Bronson opens in Denver on Oct. 30.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Michael Jackson in concert -- almost

Judging by his reputation, Michael Jackson had many personalities. We got a glimpse of one of them when we learned about Jackson's personal Xanadu, Neverland Ranch. We saw another when Jackson was forced to drag himself into a Los Angeles courtroom as the cable TV cameras rolled. Over the years, we watched Jackson grow up or maybe we watched him not grow up, but in the broadest sense, two Jacksons seem indelibly sketched on a pop canvas that spread over four decades: Michael Jackson, freak and Michael Jackson, entertainer.

It's the latter Michael Jackson who's on view in This Is It, an exciting concert film assembled from more than 100 hours of video footage shot during rehearsals for Jackson's London show, the one he was on the verge of opening when he died last June at the age of 50.

Shot in high definition and equipped with a masterfully recorded soundtrack, This Is It reveals little about Jackson, the man. It's not so much a backstage documentary as an on-stage documentary, a series of performances, many of which seem fairly polished. It makes you wonder. Maybe for Jackson, there were no off-stage moments.

Of course, there are rehearsal-level compromises. The dancers and Jackson mostly aren't wearing the costumes that were being prepared for the show, and at various times, Jackson sings softly to preserve his voice. He also gives instructions to his keyboardist and musical director, telling him to play a lick as if it were dragging itself out of bed. At another point, he asks for more funk from a bassist, but there are few unguarded Michael moments on view.

Expect no diva-like tantrums or major revelations. What you get is music and a taste of how lavish the show might have been.

Late in the proceedings, Jackson introduces an environmental theme: He expresses a love for trees that would have made Joyce Kilmer blush. This environmental rap sounds as if it had been recorded elsewhere and slipped into the film to allow for a transition to a performance of Jackson's Earth Song.

Still, it's almost as if director Kenny Oretega -- who also directed the stage production -- knew that a documentary eventually would emerge from all the video footage, which we're told at the outset originally was intended for Jackson's personal use.

Skillfully combining footage from various rehearsals, Ortega gives us relatively seamless numbers, where none may have existed. And Jackson fans will take a musical journey that includes favorites such as Thriller, Billie Jean, Man in the Mirror and even a splashy tribute to the Jackson Five.

Those unfamiliar with Jackson's concerts may be surprised by the scale and apparent expense of productions that become inseparable from the music. Thriller, for example, mixes live performance and 3-D horror footage shot for the occasion. Smooth Criminal makes use of Rita Hayworth's sultry performance of Put the Blame on Mame in Gilda.

There's also lots of dancing -- from Jackson, as well as from dancers who seemed thrilled to have the opportunity to perform with the King of Pop and who serve as a kind of impromptu claque when Jackson performs alone.

I'm not sure how This Is It would have stacked up against other Jackson tours, but the movie is entertaining, and it does justice to Jackson, the entertainer.

Is there something exploitative about a film that follows quickly on the heels of Jackson's death? Probably. But This Is It serves as a reminder that whatever else Jackson may have been, he was one hell of a performer. His fans will turn out, and I doubt that they'll be disappointed. I wasn't.

Friday, October 23, 2009

A hairy funny movie with Chris Rock

Chris Rock watches as a girl gets "good " hair.

It's hardly a secret that women will go to great lengths and incur great debt in their quest for beauty. In the case of many black women -- or so we're reminded in Chris Rock's funny and insightful Good Hair -- hair straightening is a major expenditure within the black community. Rock, who can be sharply funny, says he got the inspiration for his documentary when one of his daughter's asked why she didn't have good hair.

Motivated by the knowledge that "good" hair too often means straight or fine hair, Rock decided to take a camera and look into the issue. His effort results in lively conversations with a wide range of folks -- from Maya Angelou and Al Sharpton to actresses Nia Long and Kerry Washington. Rock also introduces a variety of processes and products -- from hair straightening to hair extensions, and he wryly points out the expense involved. At one point, Rock learns that a teacher -- not among the highest paid of professionals -- is willing to spend $1,000 for hair extensions. Hey, she got off cheap; some women reportedly shell out as much as $4,000.

Rock clearly thinks that devotion to what might be deemed mainstream -- make that white" standards of beauty is crazy, but he finds plenty of humor in his hair affair. He also does a bit of traveling, visiting Dudley Products in Greensboro, N.C. and the Bonner Bros. International Hair Show in Atlanta, a convention-like affair that boasts a contest in which hairdressers compete to see who can whip up the most creative hairdo. Rock even travels to India where human hair is collected for use in weaves.

It's difficult to listen to a researcher talk about the potency of hair straightening products without wondering why women would put themselves through the torture of using a substance that has industrial strength potency, but the movie understands that when "beauty" is involved, no amount of suffering is too extreme -- at least for some women. Besides, attempts to alter a look can be addictive; one woman refers to her hair-straightening products as "creamy crack."

Good Hair has two impressive things going for it: Rock, who's one of the funniest comics in the business and a subject that proves both fascinating and revealing. Good Hair leaves us marveling at how crazy things can get when it comes to what grows on women's heads, and it encourages us to think about the values inside those heads -- and how they may have gotten there in the first place.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

'Amelia' doesn't soar high enough

Virginia Madsen, Hilary Swank, Richard Gere play dress-up.

In 1928, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, a feat she accomplished as a passenger in a plane flown by a man. But in 1932, Earhart made the trip alone, and it cemented her status as an international star. Earhart became renowned for going against the conventional grain, but she also capitalized on her fame, selling clothes, endorsing products and collecting fees for public appearances. In short, she was a celebrity, and probably would have remained one had she not vanished over the Pacific in 1937.

Amelia -- the fittingly named movie about this bold woman -- doesn't amount to much more than a series of episodic flashbacks built around Earhart's last flight, which was supposed to take her around the world. Maybe because Amelia covers only nine years, it lacks the sweeping arc we expect from better bio-pics.

So thin, she looks as if she might become airborne in a windstorm, Hilary Swank plays Earhart or at least dresses up as the famed woman flyer. Earhart was fiercely independent in her preoccupations and in her love life. She married publisher and PR man George Putnam (Richard Gere), but had an affair with Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), and helped him land an important government job dealing with aviation. And, yes, Gene was the father of author Gore Vidal.

The movie depicts Putnam as a man who knew how to make the most of Earhart's achievements, and Gere portrays him with an unidentifiable upper-crust accent and a large helping of persistence. Putnam was jealous of Earhart's interest in Vidal, but won her back. He both supported and merchandised her passion.

Director Mira Nair (The Namesake) can't seem to find a rhythm for the picture, which doesn't acquire much by way of momentum until the final sequence in which Earhart tires to locate a small island in the Pacific -- with help from her navigator Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston). We obviously know that Earhart and Noonan won't make it, but Nair builds some real tension anyway.

Amelia impresses as a big-screen catalog of pretty pictures and period detail, but the movie neither breaks our hearts nor elevates them. We can't help but learn something about Earhart and her times, but we don't feel as if we're living through them with her.

Freaks, vampires and tweens. Oh my!

Chris Massoglia and John C. Reilly get freaky.

Say what? You're telling me that a typical high school kid can become a half vampire, a condition that gives him access to some vampire powers, but still allows him to venture out during daylight? You're also telling me that our hero falls for a girl with a monkey tail, and that there are good vampires -- they sip a bit of blood and move on -- and bad vampires -- they go for the jugular?

Of course, you're not telling me any of this, but the new movie Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant did exactly that and more. Much more. Glutted with freaks and geeks, Cirque du Freak tells part of the story that derives from a series by author Darren Shan. And if all this sounds like one of the worst movies you've ever seen, you're a little off base. Cirque du Freak starts well enough, but eventually wears out its welcome, resorting to violent clashes that dump the movie into a creatively exhausted heap.

The story centers on Darren (Massoglia), a straight-arrow high school student. Darren's best friend (Josh Hutcherson) is more rebellious and angry, but it's Darren who's turned into a half vampire, a transformation that has something to do with his destiny. That's with a capital "D."

John C. Reilly appears as Larten Crepsley, a vampire who takes Darren under wing -- or is it under fang. I guess it's under wing because these vampires don't seem to have fangs.

If all this weren't enough, the script sets up a murky conflict. The evil Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris) and has pal Murlaugh (Ray Stevenson) try to goad Crepsley into a war between the good and bad vampires. The bad vampires are known as the Vampanese, a name I rather like. Fun to say, isn't it?

Sometimes both kinds of vampires meet at the campsite of a traveling freak show, where Crepsely and his charge seek refuge. The carnival has been declared neutral territory by its ringmaster Mr. Tall (Ken Watanabe.)

I can't imagine that anyone has been longing to see what Salma Hayek looks like with a beard, but the movie affords the curious just such opportunity. She plays a hormonally challenged freak who also happens to be Crepsley's love interest. Willem Dafoe appears briefly and superfluously. The only truly interesting performance is given by O'Reilly. His Crespley is too world weary to be especially menacing but not too tired to be arch.

I'm betting that the 200-year-old Crespley, if given a half a chance, might have nasty things to say about this strangely excessive contraption, which -- by the end -- seems to exist mostly to set up a series of sequels. I may pass. I didn't hate watching Cirque du Freak, but it certainly didn't make me hungry for more.

Note: I've read that Shan's books are aimed squarely at tweens, but I noticed lots of younger children at a preview screening. The level of violence and profanity may be mild by R-rated standards, but this one seems questionable for little ones. The movie is rated PG-13.

When education leaves the classroom

Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard at their best.

An Education, a beautifully acted coming-of-age story, has been receiving rave reviews ever since it graced the festival circuit, first at Sundance, then at Telluride and Toronto. Some of the adulation has been in response to an exceptionally smart performance from actress Carey Mulligan, a 24-year-old who plays 16-year-old Jenny, a schoolgirl whose life thus far has been devoted to getting into Oxford. Jenny, who studies and plays the cello, has been forced into the adolescent equivalent of resume building.

But Jenny isn't entirely at ease with the plan for her future. She loves French music and culture, and would like to veer off a path that, in her view, leads to some sort of spiritual suffocation: teaching in a girls' school, a dead-end civil service job, maybe a joyless marriage. The movie takes place in 1961, a time when options for women were more limited and the counterculture hadn't begun to burst the bubbles of tradition.

As played by Mulligan, Jenny is like a flower that's ready to bloom, but can't find the right soil in which to take root. Her mother (Cara Seymour) is a suburban housewife who hasn't entirely lost her spark, and her father (Alfred Molina) is money-conscious and fearful, a man who insists on his daughter's conformity. He doesn't want her to be educated in any meaningful way; he wants her middle-class ticket punched.

Jenny's life changes when she meets David, an older man played by Peter Sarsgaard, an actor of who knows how to create appealing characters with hints of moral turpitude around the edges. Is David kind and cultured or is he a 30something guy on the prowl for young flesh? Could he be both? Jewish and worldly, David introduces Jenny to the kinds of activities about which she previously only dreamed. He takes her to classical concerts and to nightclubs. He charms her and her parents, too. He even arranges for Jenny to accompany him on a trip to Paris.

David starts slowly, even innocently, but eventually he carries on a totally inappropriate romantic relationship with a young woman who's impressionable, yes, but also eager to enjoy what David offers. Jenny likes watching David dupe her parents with a variety of stories that make two otherwise sensible people abandon sound judgment -- Mom because she wants Jenny to experience things she never could and Dad because David seems to offer financial security and maybe even a way out of spending a fortune on Jenny's education.

David also introduces Jenny to his friends, the equally worldly Danny (Dominic Cooper) and the beautiful but happily ignorant Helen (Rosamund Pike). We also meet one of Jenny's teachers (Olivia Williams), as well as the headmistress of her school (Emma Thompson), a woman so proper she seems to have turned brittle. She's also anti-Semitic.

The movie's director, Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners and Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself) is a refugee from the Dogme 95 movement that was in vogue a few years back. She and screenwriter Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) succeed in keeping the movie entertaining and breezy, despite the obvious impropriety of David's behavior. But I think they copped-out with an ending -- more of an epilogue really -- that's way too pat.

No one would (or should) endorse David's predatory behavior, but did my mind deceive me? At the end were Scherfig and Hornby waving a banner for the good old British status quo? Only the strength and ingenuity of Mulligan's performance gave me hope that Jenny had a chance of being as interesting at 28 as she was at 16.

Isn't The Grand Canyon thrilling enough?

Is this any way to spend a honeymoon?

When you set a movie against a backdrop of the Grand Canyon, it's difficult to imagine that an any actor would attempt to compete with the scenery, but Will Patton tries in Canyon, a thriller that offers some fine views of the canyon while building toward what amounts to a kind of dramatic punchline. Patton, by the way, plays a grimy old guy who's as comfortable with mules as he is with people. Patton's Henry offers to take a newly wed couple (Eion Bailey and Yvonne Strahovski) into the canyon despite the fact that they haven't bothered to apply for a permit. We know there'll be trouble, and there is, some of it involving a rattlesnake that changes the course of the story. Canyon has a few bits that aren't for the squeamish, but overall, the movie seems like it's more interested in finding a few gimmicks than in developing either character or story. The filmmakers don't seem to realize that the Grand Canyon is thrilling enough all by itself.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The echoes of Irish violence

Powerful work from Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt.

If it weren't so contrived Five Minutes of Heaven -- another look at conflict in Ireland -- might have been a powerhouse of a movie. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel obtains strong performances from Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt, but can't keep the movie's seams from showing.

In pitting a Protestant murderer against his victim's surviving Catholic brother, the movie all-too-obviously raises issues about the price of violence. Instead of being a drama of surprising revelation, Five Minutes of Heaven feels as if it had been written by someone working from a well-prepared checklist.

The movie alternates between the murder -- which took place in 1975 -- and subsequent efforts by a TV producer to bring the two antagonists together for a moment of truth and reconciliation. The murder committed by teen-ager Alistair Little, played as an adult by Neeson, was witnessed by the victim's 11-year-old brother, Joe. The kid happened to be kicking a soccer ball around the street at the time.

The adult Little (Neeson) blames himself for being a cocky teen-ager who craved a bit of celebrity. He's gone beyond guilt and shame into deep resignation. He long ago abandoned the idea that he might be forgiven.

Still suffering from the trauma of the shooting and from the rebuke of a mother who blamed him for not stopping his brother's murder, Joe (Nesbitt) has become a wreck of a man. He chain smokes and seems unable to corral the torrents of nervous energy that often leave him talking to himself. He believes he can relieve his guilt and anxiety only by exacting revenge on Little.

The movie also introduces a variety of flashbacks that feature well-chosen young actors playing Little and Joe as youngsters. These flashbacks take us through the fateful day on which Joe's brother was shot while sitting in his living room watching TV.

Playwright Guy Hibbert reportedly wrote the screenplay after meeting with two men who lived through a similar story. Despite being grounded in reality, the movie never feels entirely credible, perhaps because it strains to deliver its message, namely that acts of violence reverberate long after the bullets stop flying. It's a truth that didn't need to be uttered. The point, apparent from the outset, can be seen in Little's fatigued expression and in Joe's tormented gaze.

Five Minutes of Heaven opens in Denver on Nov. 23rd..

Friday, October 16, 2009

Suffering we'll never understand

Sometimes if feels as if there's just no solace.

If we take A Serious Man as a guide, we can speculate that Joel and Ethan Coen view the universe in one of several ways: It is either godless, presided over by a deity who's entirely indifferent to the plight of humanity, or, more probably, the work of a God who treats humans as if they were lab rats in an experiment that simultaneously serves as a cosmic joke.

Darkly funny and even gloomy, A Serious Man might be the most peculiar and least expected Coen brothers' movie yet, a rueful meditation on the ways in which Jews suffer without benefit of consoling answers to angst-filled questions. The movie takes place during the '60s in a midwestern suburb that supposedly resembles the Minnesota town in which the Coens were raised. In this case, the past becomes a hotbed of discontent.

Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnick, a physics professor whose life is unraveling. Larry's sweating out a decision by the tenure committee at his college. His wife (Sari Lennick) says she's running off with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). His son (Aaron Wolff) listens to Jefferson Airplane and smokes pot. His daughter (Jessica McManus) is a typically clueless teen-ager. And those are just clips from the highlight reel.

Before the Coens arrive in this midwestern hell, they treat us to a prologue set in an Eastern European shtetl where the characters speak Yiddish. This mini-story (about the way in which a dybbuk or malicious spirit invades the lives of a hapless couple) sets the tone and allows us to toy with a frighteningly amusing idea: Woe can be transmitted through time. It can become an inheritance.

Larry's story has been compared to that of Job, but it hardly seems to have the epic quality of Job's travails. It's Job in a shoebox. Besides, Job received a bit of divinely initiated solace at the end of his ordeal. No such comfort awaits Larry Gopnick for whom life has become a kind of loaded revolver, ready to go off at the slightest bump.

Troubled by his eroding sense of security, Larry seeks counsel from various rabbis. These encounters make for some of the movie's funniest scenes, notably an interview in which one of the rabbis suggests that Larry look through the window of the rabbi's study and find wonder in the parking lot. Of course, there's wonder in all creation, but a parking lot?

Then there's the story of the dentist who finds Hebrew letters on the back of a gentile's teeth. Inexplicably, the letters spell out the words, "Help me." It's almost as if the Coens are standing outside each frame saying, "You know how absurd the world is, and you're asking us for meaning?" In that sense, the picture is both a courageous comedy and sober rebuke.

Larry's confrontation with suffering has a uniquely Jewish flavor. Why else contrast the man's plight with the lives of his gentile neighbor, a scowling father who takes his son hunting or plays endless games of catch in the backyard? Larry looks at these "goyish" activities with the puzzlement of a space alien who's unable to decipher the customs of Earthlings.

The laughter generated by A Serious Man can leave a bitter aftertaste, and some of the movie's references may elude those who are unfamiliar with Jewish culture.

But the point remains clear: Much of what happens we'll never figure out, although we know it has the power to torment us. The Coens are well attuned to the joke potential in such a statement. The audience for A Serious Man probably needs to share some of the Coens' world view. And why not? After all, a joke without pain is a joke without bite and hardly worthy of the telling.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Spike Jonze visits a fantasy island

The loneliness of a boy and a very strange creature.

Director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) may not be the most prolific of directors, but he's certainly among the more adventurous members of the breed. This time out, Jonze tackles a 1963 book by Maurice Sendak. In making a live-action version of Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, Jonze either sags or soars, but he deserves major credit for hitting notes that are unusual for a children's film.

As sad as it is silly, Where the Wild Things Are tells the story of a boy's adventures in a fantasy land occupied by creatures who are large, furry and who look a lot like they're being played by actors weighed down by suffocating suits.

I've read that the wide range of facial expressions displayed by these beastly wild things was achieved with computer-generated help. Whatever made their mouths move, these hulking creatures tend to grow on you. We accept them as living, breathing characters who don't always get along and who are looking for someone to save them from the plague of existential loneliness. I know. This is a kid's movie, but that didn't stop Jonze from trying to infuse it with the kind of thematic depth that crops up in Sendak's work.

That's where the boy -- Max by name -- comes in. As played by Max Records, Max can be both annoying and cute. He moves quickly and sometimes heedlessly. He can veer out-of-control in the way that kids sometimes do, a pivotal point in development of the plot.

Jonze sets up the movie by showing Max's ordinary life. He lives in a suburb with his working mom (Catherine Keener). Early on we learn that Max has a mischievous streak, that he's capable of being hurt and that he acts out as a way to gain his mother's attention. When Mom (divorced, we presume) shares a glass of wine with a boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), Max flies into a rage, runs out of the house and heads for the woods. There, he discovers a boat that takes him across a vast sea to the fantasyland where he encounters the creatures whose voices are supplied by a stellar cast: Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker and Paul Dano.

These creatures anoint Max, clad in an increasingly dirty cat's costume, as their king. In turn, Max receives a lesson about the abuse of power and the inchoate yearning for family structure. Initially, Max seems to have found a paradise that allows him to vent his wildest urges, but when he instigates a war -- fought with flying dirt clods -- he begins to see that his newfound liberation has an ugly downside.

No need saying more. Unlike its source, Where the Wild Things Are may not be destined to attain classic status. But it's a freewheeling children's picture that tries to honor the delightfully idiosyncratic nature of Sendak's tale while breaking out of an overly cute conventional mold. It may not be totally Sendak, but it's close enough.

There's just no justice -- or is there?

Jamie Foxx questions Gerard Butler. About the script?

Forget murder and other heinous crimes, the misdeeds in Law Abiding Citizen involve extreme violations of logic and credibility. Far-fetched and grim, this Philadelphia-based thriller becomes increasingly less believable with each passing frame.

Starring Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler, Law Abiding Citizen tries to take the edge off its exploitative urges by posing lukewarm ethical questions about the nature of guilt and justice. But subtlety is not the strong suit here; director F. Gary Gray makes clear his intentions at the outset when two bat-wielding thugs force their way into the home of an apparently normal family. After he's clubbed and hog-tied, Dad is forced to watch as these miscreants defile everything he holds dear; they rape and kill his wife and then murder his young daughter. Want nuance? Look elsewhere.

If you've seen the trailer for Law Abiding Citizen, you know that Dad will go on a killing rampage. His anger -- which he sees as righteous -- stems from the fact that Nick Rice (Foxx), the assistant district attorney who handled his case, made a deal that sent one of the thugs to the gas chamber but allowed the other to go free after a measly three-year sentence.

Ten years later, Dad -- an engineer by trade -- begins to apply his own brand of justice, a pursuit that includes murder, torture and the use of high explosives. There's no mystery about who's wreaking all this havoc. Almost immediately after his first murder, Butler's Clyde Shelton is arrested and jailed. No, the real mystery revolves around how the imprisoned Clyde orchestrates his reign of terror.

So who's at fault here? The compromising prosecutor who cares at least as much about winning as he does about justice? Or should we blame the husband and father who goes rogue after deciding that the legal system has betrayed him?

For me, the real culprit is a script that's busy stretching plausibility, but still makes time for stomach-turning violence and ginned-up tension. In an abandoned warehouse, Clyde dismembers one of his enemies with a buzz saw, thereby demonstrating that he either knows no mercy or has watched too many horror movies. The script by Kurt Wimmer supplies a half-baked explanation for Clyde's malicious prowess, but like just about everything else in Law Abiding Citizen, it fails to convince.

Foxx, who won an Oscar for playing singer Ray Charles in Ray, scowls a lot, but can't do much with the role. Making use of a twisted smile, Butler puts leering energy into the role of a man intent on exposing the inadequacies of the judicial system. The supporting cast -- Bruce McGill (as the Philadelphia DA); Regina Hall (as Nick's wife); and Colm Meaney (as a detective) -- doesn't have much to do.

Here's the deal: Hannibal Lecter, still the reigning king of movie evil geniuses, relied on sophisticated wit and biting intelligence to unsettle law enforcement. You won't find much of either quality in Law Abiding Citizen. Moreover, the original Death Wish -- another movie that Law Abiding Citizen calls to mind -- exploited rampant fear about urban crime. Law Abiding Citizen connects to nothing except its own pulsating gimmickry.

Oh well, Clyde would have done well to remember a saying I've heard attributed to Lenny Bruce, "In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls." A Bruce-style reality check might have saved him -- and us -- a whole lot of trouble.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

For Chanel, it wasn't all perfume

Audrey Tautou makes a mark as Coco Chanel.

For me, watching Coco Before Chanel was a major learning experience. Anyone who has seen me out and about knows I'm hardly a paragon of fashion. I figure if my shoes are tied, I'm ahead of the game. So, I can't say I knew much about Coco Chanel, a woman who rose from humble beginnings in a French orphanage to an enthroned position as head of one of the world's most important fashion empires. In the hands of director Anne Fontaine, the story of Coco Chanel unfolds in ways that prove intriguing, particularly as more is revealed about Chanel's character and the society in which she operated.

The usually impish Audrey Tautou, still best known for Amelie, embodies Coco's move toward power in a strong performance. Thankfully, Tautou doesn't play the gamin card or at least she doesn't slam it on the table. That's because she's portraying a willful woman who gets as much as she gives, particularly in her relationships with men. (The movie, most of it set in the 1920s, stops before World War II, a period when Chanel -- so I"ve read -- had an affair with a Nazi officer during the German occupation of France.)

In her early years, the man from whom Chanel gains the most is Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), a well-heeled socialite who initially treats her as a kind of valued servant. She's obstinate enough to hang around the baron's estate -- even as an uninvited guest. Gradually, she uses the baron as a springboard to make business contacts and even to meet a new lover (Alessandro Nivola).

Colorful without being ostentatious, Fontaine's portrait of Coco en route to becoming a fashion czarina deftly captures the interplay between an ambitious woman and a society that's not entirely ready for her kind of drive. Ready or not, Chanel evidently didn't give a damn. She knew where she wanted to go.

Coco Before Chanel opens in Denver Oct. 9.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Vaughn, Favreau on vacation from laughter

Not folks with whom I'd want to be stranded on an island.

Couples Retreat seems to have been designed to send couples out of the theater holding hands, reassured that it's possible to rediscover the spark in marriages grown stale. I'm not knocking the message, but I do take issue with the messenger, a surprisingly toothless comedy starring Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau.

Couples Retreat isn't consistently funny, insightful or diverting, and it focuses on marriages that are of no special interest. There must be those among us who have been yearning to see frequent collaborators Vaughn and Favreau together again. Why not? They made what many regard as a landmark indie comedy, Swingers; they both can be funny, and both are talented. Together with Dana Fox, Vaughn and Favreau wrote the screenplay for Couples Retreat, which (as mentioned) isn't particularly funny, insightful or diverting. Have I said that enough?

And while we're on the subject of Favreau, it's worth noting that he spends most of the movie looking as if his head's about to explode. He's playing a man with a clenched-fist where his soul should be. Favreau's Joey has grown to hate his marriage to his high school sweetheart (Kristin Davis of Sex and the City.)

Joey's only one of the movie's miserable men. Jason Batemen plays another. Bateman's Jason claims the spark has gone out of his marriage to his lovely wife (Kristin Bell). These two also have turned their love life into a chore, vigorously trying (without success) to conceive a child.

Using a power point presentation, Jason introduces the idea of a group trip to Eden Resort, a Pacific getaway that looks as if it was designed to lull even the most disgruntled of us into balmy satisfaction. (The movie was shot in Bora Bora.) But Eden is no ordinary resort; it specializes in helping couples renew their ardor, and, in service of this goal, employs therapists and yoga instructors who work for a guru-like disciplinarian named Marcel (Jean Reno). Sleep in? Hell, no. Couples therapy begins at 6 a.m., says Marcel.

Traveling with Bateman's character are Vaughn's Dave and his wife Ronnie (Malin Akerman). They're happy and well adjusted -- albeit a bit harried. Also in tow, Shane (Faizon Love), a heavy-set, divorced fellow who brings a 20-year-old companion to the island, Kali Hawk's Trudy. She runs him ragged, embarrassing him by calling him "daddy."

There's something wrong with a comedy that casts Vaughn as the straight arrow in the group. It's left to Vaughn, whose presence often suggests relaxed disregard for convention, to extol the virtues of marriage and of acting one's age. Acting one's age is fine in real life, but in Hollywood comedies, it's tantamount to heresy. Maybe that's why Vaughn and Faverau include a couple of scenes -- one involves a guitar-playing video game -- in which Vaughn's character veers off his adult course.

Couples Retreat has been assembled by director Peter Billingsley, who works mostly as an actor and producer, and who, in this case, tries to make the most of the island scenery, giving the movie splashes of luxuriant gloss. Yes, it would be wonderful to stay in a hotel room that opens directly onto the ocean. Perhaps lulled by the tropical breezes of Bora Bora, the movie ultimately opts for happily-ever-after sentimentality.

A preview audience laughed at some of the bits, particularly a scene in which a yoga instructor (Carlos Ponce) twists the couples into quasi-compromising positions. I'm pretty sure I'd already seen that particular gag in the movie's trailer or in a promotional clip. By the time I saw it in the movie, its hilarity quotient had greatly diminished.

I suppose one could call Couples Retreat, a middling comedy, but if I had a vote, I'd throw all these folks off the island. Only one performance struck me as memorable: John Michael Higgins plays a marriage counselor who's annoying enough to be amusing. Otherwise, Couples Retreat manages a neat trick: It feels like a movie you've seen dozens of times before even though you haven't.

From the West Bank to White Castle

Nisareen Faour and Hiam Abbass play sisters in Amreeka.

I love movies about the changing face of the U.S. I'm particularly partial to stories about immigrants who live in identity-challenging twilight zones; they're not fully integrated into American society, and they may no longer fit into their countries of origin, either. For immigrants who arrive from the Middle East, problems are compounded by the hostility and prejudice they can face, particularly at times when anti-Arab feelings swell.

Amreeka tells the story of a move to the U.S. by a divorced Palestinian woman and her 16-year-old son. They're searching for safety and for new opportunities, and Amreeka deftly exposes issues they face as they try to adapt to a green-card lifestyle.

After arriving in the U.S., Mom (Nisreen Faour), skilled as a bank worker, can find employment only at a White Castle. Her son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) faces taunting by some of his more bigoted classmates. Faour's Muna and Muallem's Fadi land at O'Hare International Airport at about the time that the U.S. begins its invasion of Iraq, not the best moment for Arabs in America, even those, who like Amreeka's mother and son, are not Muslims.

In many ways, director Cherien Dabis' movie is a chronicle of woe, yet Dabis -- an Arab-American -- has no taste for over-amped drama or hand wringing. Muna moves into the home of her sister (Hiam Abbass) and her husband (Yussuf Abu-Warda), a doctor whose patients are deserting him because he's an Arab. The family faces a host of predictable problems: kids who are thoroughly Americanized and uninterested in tradition, bills that can't be paid because the doctor's income has declined, and growing marital tensions between the doctor and his wife.

Set in a suburb of Chicago, Amreeka follows Muna and Fadi as they navigate their way through a culture that doesn't always make sense to them. Muna can't quite penetrate the mysteries of White Castle, and Fadi's adjustment is neither stress nor bump free, a shock to him because he initially thought life would improve drastically once he arrived in the U.S. Muna and Fadi also deal with homesickness and uncertainty about whether they've made the right choice by moving into a society that's not eager to roll out the welcome mat for them.

Dabis, who's not afraid to inject humor into the proceedings, seems more interested in describing the immigrant experience than in offering any prescriptions for her characters. They stumble along, doing the best they can. That means they're a lot more like us than we initially might have imagined.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The lie that changed the world

Ricky Gervais and Jennifer Garner. One of them's lying.

The Invention of Lying is the most sweetly subversive movie I've seen in a long time, a sad-sack comedy that satirizes the mindset that's required for a literal belief in a deity that presides over the world with an inflexible set of rules. As co-written and co-directed by Matthew Robinson and Ricky Gervais, who also stars in the movie, this assault on simple-minded fundamentalism sneaks up on you, making itself known only after introducing its arch premise.

Gervais portrays Mark Bellison, a screenwriter who lives in a world in which no one ever lies. Far from being an idyllic paradise of shared truth, this world is marked by an endless stream of agitated or insulting exchanges.

An example: Mark arrives at the home of Anna (Jennifer Garner) for a date. She greets him in chipper fashion, informing him that she's sorry he's a few minutes early because she was upstairs masturbating and hasn't had time to finish. It doesn't take long for Anna to tell Mark he has no possible future with her. Honesty, as we soon learn, isn't always the best policy.

Not only is Mark unlucky in love; he's also failing at his job. He works for a company that produces movies in the form of lectures. Mark's specialty: the 13th century. He's about to lose his position because no one believes that his production of the Black Plague will sell.

To make matters worse, Mark's derided by his secretary (Tina Fey) and by a colleague (Rob Lowe) who regards him as a total loser.

The movie slips into its assault on mass gullibility when Mark discovers he's capable of lying, a talent that gives him an unexpected surge of power. I'll let you discover the consequences of Mark's lie in the theater, but know that it turns him into a celebrity and part-time prophet.

Although he's dealing with material that easily could have been overstated, Gervais maintains a disarmingly good-natured tone throughout. It was disrupted for me only by some obvious -- if jokey -- product placements.

The Invention of Lying is not geared to produce belly laughs, but Gervais compensates by putting some meat on its comic bones. You may leave the theater smiling before you realize exactly how far Gervais has been willing to go. How far? Let's just say that his movie will not become a Focus on the Family favorite.

Michael Moore weighs in on capitalism

Wall Street doesn't seem to be listening as Michael Moore calls it to task.

Here's a shocker. Michael Moore thinks capitalism is evil.

Look, can there be any remaining moviegoer who doesn't know what to expect from Michael Moore, the provocateur and self-annointed spokesman for the left? Moore's shtick has become so familiar that reviews of his movies -- his latest is Capitalism: A Love Story -- almost seem superfluous. Moore's supporters will laugh on cue; his detractors will comb the movie for factual inaccuracies, and another Moore "documentary'' will come and go, leaving little in its turbulent wake.

This time, Moore makes capitalism his target, proclaiming that our vaunted free enterprise system is morally bankrupt. Moore finds several Catholic clergymen to endorse his evaluation of our faltering economic system, including two bishops. As if trying to upstage faith-bassd critics on the right, he invokes the name of Jesus. Moore's Jesus loved the poor, warned the rich that they'd have a difficult time getting into heaven and never would have played the market.

Is our economy more complicated than Moore paints it? Of course. Are there brutal inequities that result from our economic system? Without doubt. Are there laughs in Capitalism: A Love Story? Yes. Among other things, Moore knows how to edit for yuks, and no one's better at finding footage that makes his point.

Moore also serves up sights and sounds that will put a lump to your throat, notably sequences in which poor and middle class people endure forfeiture of their homes. It's also instructive to listen to the surviving kin of workers whose employers swelled their coffers by taking out life insurance policies on the departed relatives. These policies have been dubbed "dead peasant'' insurance, a designation that should induce nausea in anyone who works for one of these companies or buys their products. An employee dies; the company collects. Can there be a more ghoulish way to pad revenue streams?

As befits a scattershot effort, plenty in Capitalism connects. Watching workers at Chicago's Republic Windows and Doors -- they occupied their shuttered plant until the company paid what it owned them -- is an inspiring example of what can happen when workers join forces.

I don't know if the movie's hits and misses are equal in number, but Capitalism: A Love Story fires off some awfully wobbly arrows. Perhaps to show how far removed from reality the current financial system has strayed, Moore introduces supposed experts who can't explain complex financial instruments such as derivatives. Maybe they should have headed for Wikipedia where they could have found a serviceable enough definition:

"A derivative is a financial instrument that is derived from some other asset, index, event, value or condition (known as the underlying asset). Rather than trade or exchange the underlying asset itself, derivative traders enter into an agreement to exchange cash or assets over time based on the underlying asset. A simple example is a futures contract: an agreement to exchange the underlying asset at a future date."

Moore evidently couldn't find anyone capable of saying that. I first learned what a derivative was from my wife, who gave me a succinct explanation.

You get the idea. Moore can seem more interested in scoring points than in offering cogent explanations, an approach that helps if you believe that the U.S. is in decline. Moore begins by comparing life in the U.S. to the final days of the Roman Empire. Is that where we are? Really? Or are we at a point where U.S. power in the world is being redefined?

Actually, Moore's politics -- if you take a step back from the rhetoric and jokes -- are pretty conventional. He's pro union. He's pro certain Democrats. He doesn't like big business and opposes the privatization of functions better served by government. As an example, he cites a privately run youth detention center where the quest for profit led to judicial corruption and the incarceration of harmless teenagers.

Does it mean anything when Moore, as he does at the end of the movie, rings the New York Stock Exchange building with crime-scene tape? Only if taken as a kind of live-action political cartoon. I don't know if Moore can draw, but he might have made a great political cartoonist because he knows how to make a point succinctly and visually.

Moore finishes with a call to action. He wants his audience to join him. But in what activity and for what purpose? Oh well, maybe it doesn't matter. Moore's always been better at stirring the pot than analyzing its ingredients. Unlike a lot of his contemporaries he's not afraid to bite down hard, but that doesn't mean he hasn't bitten off more than he or anyone else possibily could chew in a two-hour movie.

Coming of age while skating

Juliette Lewis and Ellen Page are rivals in Whip It.

Drew Barrymore makes her directorial debut with Whip It, a film about roller derby and a young woman's (Juno's Ellen Page) arduous journey of self-discovery. The combination doesn't make for anything startling, but results in a colorfully entertaining movie in which Page once again puts her considerable talent on display.

Page plays Bliss Cavendar, a young Texas woman whose mom (Marcia Gay Harden) insists on entering her in an endless string of beauty pageants. Bliss reluctantly accedes to Mom's wishes, but only begins to find her place in life when she discovers roller derby during a night out in Austin. How anyone could be inspired by roller derby eludes me, but live and let skate, as the saying goes.

Bliss eventually finds her way onto a team, taking the name Babe Ruthless. Sure she's small, but she uses her diminutive size to advantage, sneaking past other skaters to score points for her team.

It doesn't require much savvy to know that Bliss will survive all the bumps and bruises. We also have a pretty good idea that Bliss' dad (Daniel Stern) eventually will throw his weight behind his daughter's choice. He's the kind of guy who likes to drink the occasional beer and watch football. Bliss' surrogate Roller Derby father appears in the guise of Coach Razor (Andrew Wilson): He's always fighting with his charges, trying to persuade them to abandon their freelance ways.

It's possible that the lives of the other derby women -- Kristen Wiig's Maggie Mayhem and Zoe Bell's Bloody Holly -- would have made for a more idiosyncratic movie, but Page's character helps keep things on a mainstream track. Barrymore also appears in the movie; she plays Smashley Simpson, a woman who likes to bump her opponents off the track.

In addition to the tension between Bliss and her mom, a rivalry between Babe Ruthless and an opposing skater (Juliette Lewis' Iron Maven) ups the dramatic ante. Bliss' best friend (Alia Shawkat) tags along for support until the two have a predictable falling out. Bliss even has a brief fling with a musician (Landon Pigg), an encounter that serves up another life lesson in a movie that's full of them.

Transparent as its intentions are, Whip It is mostly enjoyable. Barrymore deserves credit for pulling off her first behind-the-camera effort. I doubt whether she's a budding auteur, but she's chosen crowd-pleasing material and proved that she can handle it.

Zombies eat humans! Result: Laughs

It takes firepower to survive a zombie attack.

This is the way the world ends, not with a bang or a whimper, but with zombies slaughtering all of humanity. Apologies to T.S. Eliot, but in contemplating catastrophe Eliot didn't have the benefit of seeing Zombieland. He knew nothing of the virus that turned nearly all of humanity into flesh-eating, gore-gobbling, bile-spewing monsters.

Zombieland, which turns out to be better than its title might lead you to expect, mixes road-movie cliches and flesh-eating horror, and comes up with something that's funny in the bargain. Like Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland downplays fright-night horror, opting instead to make us laugh, even as it grosses us out. Warning: If the sight of blood-drooling zombies puts you off your popcorn, Zombieland may not be your cup of innards.

If, on the other hand, you're game for some gory genre fun, Zombieland may hit the spot. That's partly because of the pleasant misanthropy of its nerdy main character, played by Jesse Eisenberg. Eisenberg's low-key style keeps the movie from becoming overbearing, although it certainly isn't shy about going over-the-top.

The rest of the cast is equally good. In one of his most amusing turns in a while, Woody Harrelson shows up as Tallahassee, a zombie-hating cowboy who loves Twinkies. Harrelson's joined by Emma Stone as Wichita, a con artist who uses her skills to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Her younger sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) does her share of conning, too.

First-time director Ruben Fleischer does a decent job serving up comedy and action. I forgave the self-conscious use of rules that Eisenberg's character spouts and which are printed on the screen. An example: "Rule Four: Seatbelts." Rule Four warns survivors to buckle up so that they aren't hurled through windshields while running over zombies.

Zombieland isn't a movie you want to oversell, but if you're looking for something that's got some comic kick and doesn't feel the need to impress you with its hipness -- as was the case with the recent Jennifer's Body -- Zambieland should do the trick.

Know this, too: There's an explosively funny cameo in Zombieland. Nope, I'm not going to tell, and I'd advise you to avoid anyone who insists on trying to clue you in.

Two art-house offerings miss the mark


Clive Owen at loose ends in The Boys Are Back.
I'm told that Simon Carr's The Boys Are Back is an honest and affecting memoir about a father's attempt to come to grip with life after his wife died of cancer. Whatever it is on the page, the movie version -- directed by Scott Hicks (Shine) -- is hamstrung by predictability and padding. Still, some positives can be found: It's interesting, for example, to see Owen shed his brooding skin to play Joe Warr, a sportswriter who lives in the Australian outback where he cares for two sons. Young Artie (Nicholas McAnulty) fills the movie's heart quotient. George MacKay portrays Harry, a teen-age son from Joe's previous marriage. Harry travels from England to spend time with his dad. In one of the movie's least persuasive conceits, Joe's late wife appears to him, offering advice on child rearing. I credit the movie for trying to grapple with the crazy-quilt aspects of life in which families from different marriages try to blend, but the movie turns out to be more conventional and less convincing than one might have hoped.


When I heard that The Burning Plain was written and directed by Guillermo Arriaga, I was eager to see it. Arriaga, you'll probably recall, wrote the screenplays for movies such as The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Babel, 21 Grams and Amores perros. That's one hell of a resume, but movies aren't the sum of past credits, and Arriaga's directorial debut turns into a major disappointment. The presence of name actors such as Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger doesn't help, and, in typical Arriaga fashion, the story leaps around in time. Basically the drama stems from the consequences of an affair between a married woman (Basinger) and her Mexcican-American lover (Joaquim de Almeida). In trying for intense drama, Arriaga lights many fuses, but sets off few real emotional explosions.