Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The advantages of being organized

A dual blast of conscience -- feminism and unionism -- in a feel-good movie from Britain.
Made in Dagenham is an easy movie to knock. Predictably designed to create feel-good vibes in its intended audience, the movie stands as a prime example of the kind of British cinema that wears its social conscience on its sleeve. * I hadn't thought of myself as belonging to the group that cherishes such movies, but I must admit that Made in Dagenham's pro-labor stance gave me a lift in these days of high unemployment and rampant corporate profit. * Director Nigel Cole (Calendar Girls) may not be the most nuanced of filmmakers, but he employs a strong cast and benefits from the easy union of dual causes: unionism and feminism. * Focusing on a 1966 strike at a Ford plant in Dagenham, England, the movie tells the story of women who demanded the same pay scale as the plant's male work force. * Sally Hawkins, familiar from Mike Leigh's Happy Go Lucky, plays Rita O'Grady, the leader of the strike who must battle the male hierarchy of her union, as well as a recalcitrant Ford management.* Bob Hoskins portrays a union official who encourages the women, and Daniel Mays appears as Rita's mostly supportive husband. * Perhaps to show that feminist causes cross class lines, the script introduces us to Lisa (Rosamund Pike), the wife of a plant manager who sides with the workers. * Hawkins ably holds the movie together. Look, too, for a nice turn from Miranda Richardson as Barbara Castle, a government official who meets her match in Rita. * Yes, Rita has the entirely expected assortment of colorful co-workers, and, yes, the story isn't exactly loaded with surprises, but Made in Dagenham harkens back to a moment when we could derive good feelings from expressions of solidarity, as opposed to overwrought individual triumphs.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

My 10 favorite movies of 2010

Even in the worst of years -- and 2010 certainly doesn't rank as one of the best -- it can be difficult to winnow out the 10 best movies.

David Fincher’s The Social Network seems to be running at the top of most critics' association lists, and has emerged as the early frontrunner for this year’s best-picture Oscar.

That’s fine with me. Now that Time magazine has anointed Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook co-founder and the subject of Social Network, as the person of the year, the movie looks even more like the major winner of 2010.

So, without further ado, my list, tilted – as always – to the peculiarities of my taste and to whatever adjustments my mind has made since said movies were first released:

1. The Red Riding Trilogy. It was made for British TV, and involved a total of three movies, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more shocking look at the way corruption can invade every corner of a society. The Yorkshire accents were challenging to say the least, but the Trilogy snared me in its web of dread and deceit as it revealed the appalling face of a community that seemed to have lost all moral bearing. (Released in the U.S. in most cities in 2010.)

2. Carlos. Director Olivier Assayas’ portrayal of a terrorist boasts an amazing performance by Edgar Ramirez as Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, better known as Carlos, the Jackal. The 5 1/2-hour movie takes us deep inside the world of a self-aggrandizing and violent man who claimed that he was challenging the established order. Assayas' movie stands as a brilliant character study of a man whose politics didn’t seem to rest on a bedrock of conviction, but on the shifting sands of anti-authoritarian attitudes that prevailed during the 1970s and beyond.

3. The Social Network. Working from a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, director David Fincher showed how phenomenal success can arise when technical innovation coincides with an astute reading of social trends. Jesse Eisenberg's portrait of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg may not be a precise representation of the real person, but it stands as a richly realized portrayal of the kind of intelligence that seems to be dominating the entrepreneurial moment: quick, capable and perhaps unaware of its effect on others.

4. Animal Kingdom. Director David Michod’s look at an Australian crime family featured two of the year’s most chilling performances – from Jackie Weaver, as the matriarch of a clan of small-time Melbourne felons, and from Ben Mendelsohn, as the most dangerous of a band of criminal brothers. If there was a false note here, I missed it.

5. Winter’s Bone. Director Debra Granik’s sobering movie examined the emotionally deprived life of an Ozark teen-ager (the brilliant Jennifer Lawrence) who’s saddled with the task of caring for her family after her father disappears and her mother retreats into the mists of mental illness. One of the least stereotypical portrayals of Ozark life yet, chastening in its authenticity.

6. Toy Story 3. I expected nothing from this 3-D farewell to a bunch of toys. But saying goodbye to Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and, of course, Mr. Potato Head put a lump in my throat. Any creative group that can make three movies and give each one a distinct identity while ensuring that they’re all of a piece deserves high praise. Great work, Pixar.

7. Please Give. Nicole Holofcener’s look at a group of New Yorker’s may not have been profound, but it felt real to me and offered memorable performances from Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Amanda Peet and Ann Guilbert, as a woman of astonishingly foul disposition. Holofcener's carefully assembled ensemble of actors made us realize the lengths to which people will go to control space in cramped Manhattan.

8. The Ghost Writer. Roman Polanski’s thriller focuses on a writer (Ewan McGregor) who agrees to ghost write the autobiography of a former British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan). Of course, McGregor's character gets a lot more than he bargained for. If you want to watch a movie made by a director who's in complete control of his material, look no further.

9. Last Train Home. Director Lixin Fan's extraordinary documentary about the toll a burgeoning Chinese economy takes on one family. Last Train reveals character and situation in the way of a great novel.

10. Another Year. Mike Leigh's latest movie won't reach most of the nation's theaters until 2011, but this wonderfully played ensemble piece captures something important about the need for connection bred by loneliness. A terrific cast -- led by Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen and Lesley Manville -- rises to the occasion, and Lee's final scenes are as illuminating as they are painful.

Honorable mentions. Black Swan, Marwencol, Kick-Ass, Inside Job, 127 Hours, True Grit, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, and A Film Unfinished.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

'The King's Speech' delivers fine acting*

If you're looking for entertainment that bolsters the hope that the British aristocracy, given sufficient prodding and pressure, is capable of real nobility, The King's Speech might be just your cup of tea.

If you're a movie fan, the best reasons to see The King's Speech -- aside from the heavy Oscar push that surrounds it -- are the performances of Colin Firth, as stammering King George VI, and Geoffrey Rush, as Lionel Logue, the self-proclaimed speech therapist who helped the king overcome his stutter.

As directed by Tom Hooper, the movie strives to show how national symbols -- a monarch, for example -- can provide rallying points during times of severe crisis, in this case the approaching ravages of World War II. King's Speech also offers a fair measure of humor as it pits George's patrician personality against the brash methods of a commoner (and an Australian at that) who comes off as part therapist, part self-help guru and part provocateur.

George's story takes place against a backdrop of once-scandalous drama. George, known as Bertie to members of his family, did not aspire to rule. He took the throne reluctantly in 1936 when his older brother, King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), abdicated so that he could spend his life with a twice-divorced American woman, Wallis Simpson (Eve Best).

Firth conveys all of George's difficulties of speech, but supplement them with wit, insecurity and, most importantly, intelligence and judgment that emerge even when the words don't. Evidently, George was teased by his siblings and bullied by this father, King George V (Michael Gambon).

Childhood traumas aside, the future king had a heightened sense of duty and an understanding of royal responsibility that may have eluded his brother. The final scene in which tutor helps student give a famous war-time speech stands as a moment of tastefully orchestrated, crowd-pleasing inspiration.

Tellingly, George's big speech seems almost quaint when compared to the way in which information spreads around the globe today. In the late 1930s, people huddled around their radios to listen to speeches that united them in moments of fearful expectation. And no group of gabbers appeared immediately afterward to dissect every word.

Working from a script by David Seidler, Hooper creates the right blend of palace ambience and ordinary life, and the scenes between Firth and Rush -- the real heart of the movie -- are carried out with wit and barb.

As Queen Elizabeth -- the mother of the current queen -- Helena Bonham Carter conveys a mixture of pragmatism, common sense and wifely devotion that's bracing in its let's-get-on-with-it spirit.

W Timothy Spall appears as Winston Churchill; Derek Jacobi has a nice turn as the Archbishop of Canterbury; and Claire Bloom appears briefly but effectively as Queen Mary, wife of George V.

The King's Speech may be kept from greatness by something we might call a misproportioned sense of history. As Hitler prepared his malicious assault on civilization. it's necessary to remember that the world faced far more important and profoundly unsettling issues than one man's struggle with a speech impediment.

So for all is Oscar-wrothy cache and its heavyweight cast, The King's Speech remains something of a footnote to history -- nicely rendered, but a footnote nonetheless.

*The King's Speech opens in Denver Christmas Day and is now working its way around the country.

The rise and fall of a super-lobbyist

If you've seen Casino Jack and the United States of Money, director Alex Gibney's detailed look at the rise and fall of super lobbyist Jack Abramoff, you probably have no compelling reason to follow up with the late George Hickenlooper's dramatized take on the same basic story. * Still, Hickenlooper, who died in Denver just prior to the start of the 33rd Starz Denver Film Festival, may have made his best non-documentary feature with Casino Jack, a boldly conceived look at the ways in which Abramoff and his cohorts played the legislative system to great monetary advantage. * As Abramoff, Kevin Spacey dominates the proceedings with slippery ease, sometimes breaking into pitch-perfect imitations of various movie stars. Hickenlooper treats Abramoff's mimicry as part of his charismatic arsenal, one weapon in his defense against scrutiny. * I won't recount the entire Ambramoff story here, but you'll get a reasonable gloss on it from Casino Jack. * Interesting work can be found around the movie's fringes from Barry Pepper, as the avidly amoral Michael Scanlon; Jon Lovitz, as Adam Kidan, a small-time businessman with mob connections, and the late Maury Chaykin as a gluttonous mobster, Jabba the racketeer. * A near-cartoonish buoyancy keeps the movie entertaining, but if you've seen the real Jack Abramoff, you may have difficulty accepting Spacey as a combination political operative, hustler and Orthodox Jew. I did. * But even if you don't totally buy Spacey as Abramoff, Casino Jack remains watchable, and stands as one of Hickenlooper's most engaging works. How sad that his journey ended so soon. He was 46.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

An even truer helping of 'Grit'

It's not the tale; it's the telling.

Keep that in mind as you watch True Grit, the Joel & Ethan Coen remake of the 1969 western that won John Wayne his only Academy Award. The original was directed by Henry Hathaway - no slouch when it came to westerns - but the Coens have surpassed him in every way that counts: artistry, humor and a feeling for the sorrowful landscapes of the west.

The movie introduces us to 14-year-old Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld), a teen-ager who hires a drunken marshal named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to hunt down her father's killer (Josh Brolin), a wastrel who has hooked up with a thieving gang led by Lucky Ned (Barry Pepper). Cogburn's joined in his search by Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, Matt Damon in the role Glen Campbell played in the original.

In adapting (maybe "re-adapting: is a better word) Charles Portis' 1968 novel for the screen, the Coens create an odd mixture of authenticity and exaggeration that's evident in the nooks and crannies of nearly every face in the movie. When the characters speak it's as if their florid declamations offer compensation for the lonely stretches of country captured in muted colors by cinematographer Roger Deakins.

Speaking in a voice that sounds as if it's being filtered through gravel, Bridges freshens the portrayal of one-eyed Rooster Cogburn, who -- in an iconic image created by Hathaway and repeated with slight revision by the Coens -- rides into a gunfight with his horse's reins stuck between his teeth.

Bridges emphasizes Cogburn's matter-of-fact approach to killing, an activity the movie regards with casual ease, perhaps because it's rooted in an environment where justice sometimes takes on an improvisational flavor. Cogburn's bouts of drunken sloth are interrupted by occasional forays into law enforcement. He's serious when he needs to be.

The language in the Coens' script exudes the kind of self-consciousness that demands to be noticed. That works in strange and not always beneficial ways: It makes the movie enjoyable even as it distances us from the characters and turns them into bizarre curiosities.

"Goodbye, Reuben, the love of decency does not abide in you."

So says Rooster, when disclosing his ex-wife's parting words to him.

In an oddly random aside, Cogburn offers this gem: "I'd give $3 right now for a pickled buffalo tongue."

Once he gets going, Rooster tends to rattle on in ways that almost qualify as annoying. Steinfeld's portrayal of a determined teen-ager serves as a counterweight to Rooster's rambling. She's as direct as a dart in a bull's-eye, and will not be deterred from a mission she regards as righteously just.

Because True Grit might be one of the least typical Coen brothers' movies yet, it's tempting to think that if you didn't know the movie was made by the team that brought us No Country For Old Men, The Big Lebowski, Fargo, Miller's Crossing and more, you might not guess that the brothers were involved.

Still, you can feel their presence in the movie's fascination with the oddly turned phrase, in the austerity of its look, and in the way its characters tend to accept eccentricity as commonplace. Case in point: Ed Corbin's Bear Man. I'll say no more lest I ruin a sight that should be discovered in a theater.

I admired and enjoyed True Grit, but a slight, nagging doubt kept pulling at the coattails of my appreciation. Exactly why did the Coens want to remake a movie like this? Even in improved form, True Grit probably didn't need revisiting, but maybe that adds something, as well - a noble sense of futilely pursued goals that might have roused even Rooster from one of his legendary stupors.

Get the 'Fockers' out of here

It's difficult to imagine anyone approaching Little Fockers with anything but the lowest expectations. This latest edition to the series that kicked off in 2000 with Meet the Parents meets those low expectations -- and then some. * Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro reprise their roles as antagonistic in-laws in a story that begins when De Niro and Blythe Danner (as the Byrneses) visit their twin grandchildren for a fifth birthday celebration. * Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand (as the parents of Stiller's character) turn up to repeat old jokes; so does Owen Wilson, who plays one of Polo's former suitors. * Jessica Alba signs on as a flirtatious drug rep who asks Stiller's Greg to help sell Sustengo, a Viagra-like drug that leads to the expected (and predictably lame) joke about a long-lasting erection. * Harvey Keitel, who long ago starred with De Niro in Mean Streets, has a cameo role as a contractor who's working on a house that the Fockers are renovating. His presence serves only to remind us that just about everyone involved with this Focking mess might have made better use of their talents. * Whether little or big, the Fockers have worn out their welcome.

Friday, December 17, 2010

'TRON: Legacy:' a mixed second helping

28 years after the original, Disney's back with a sequel to Tron. Wish I could say that TRON:Legacy was worth the wait.

TRON: Legacy offers a decidedly mixed inheritance as far as sequels go, demonstrating once again that visual pyrotechnics can’t entirely substitute for an involving story. As if we needed reminding.

I say this as one who had been looking forward to TRON: Legacy, mostly because of undeniable advances in computer-generated imagery, technology that was in its infancy when TRON – regarded as a technical groundbreaker -- first hit the nation’s screens in 1982.

For the first 30 or so minutes, I felt as if my anticipation had been rewarded. Director Joseph Kosinski, who has made a major splash in the advertising world, tops the digital environment of the original, particularly for those who see the movie in IMAX 3-D.

But Legacy’s intricately imagined visual world eventually falls prey to the truth of a cliché: Familiarity breeds a bit of contempt as Kosinski’s color palette – heavy on blacks with orange piping -- succumbs to monotony. The world of TRON, which must have been intended to evoke a bedazzled succession of “wows,” begins to resemble the inside of a giant toaster oven, coils aglow.

The screenplay for TRON: Legacy hosts a mash-up of familiar themes: the search for an absent father, the desire of artificially created creatures to enter the real world and the guilt of a genius creator who hasn’t anticipated all the consequences of his well-intended invention.

A story recap seems almost superfluous in a movie that invests most of its capital in action and visual effects. Suffice it to say that young Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) enters the world of Tron to search for the father (Jeff Bridges) who vanished when Sam was still a boy. Once inside this digital world, Sam faces a series of stern tests as he tries to return to “reality” through a fast-closing portal.

Sam’s attempts to exit from The Grid, as its inhabitants refer to the expansive, artificial world, brings him into conflict with Clu, a digitally created tyrant who looks like a younger version of Bridges’ character. Why not? Bridges’ Kevin Flynn created Clu, who has turned into his evil alter ego.

Sam’s assisted in his struggle by Quorra (Olivia Wilde), a digital creation with a pageboy haircut, a sleek punk look and a fashionably pallid complexion. Quorra holds the key to both mankind’s advancement and to fan boy libidos.

At one point, Michael Sheen shows up as a Grid resident with vaudevillian flare and a haircut that makes him look like a cut-rate David Bowie. He carries a cane, and prances about like someone who’s hell bent on providing arch comic relief. But to what purpose?

Like lots of other things in Disney’s somewhat juvenile helping of sci-fi, Sheen’s Zeus seems more adornment than anything else.

Kosinski does some of his best work when re-imagining the Light Cycles that became familiar in the first installment, and he deserves credit for creating a sense of dark spaciousness within the world of The Grid. But as Legacy wears on, its imagery seems to disconnect from the story, turning into more stuff to stare at, either approvingly or with disinterest depending on one's bent.

Those who go along for the Legacy ride probably won’t care that the movie boasts some of the worst dialog of the year, so lame that even Bridges (who’s likely to earn a best-actor nomination for his work in the upcoming True Grit) is forced to deadpan his way through nearly every scene. His character tries to ignite the occasional countercultural spark, but the lingo seems more dated than funny.

I wonder. Is it possible that the whole idea of TRON – penetrating a digital world – is passé? These days, such a premise seems less like sci-fi than a description of the average teen-ager’s life.

TRON: Legacy may appeal to fans of the original, as well as to those for whom visual kicks are sufficient reason to see a movie. I might have been able to join the latter group had Kosinksi done more to mix his visual pitches instead of tending toward repetition.

Like Bridge’s character, I began to feel trapped in a digital world. I don’t know how you’ll feel, but somewhere around the half way mark I started wondering where I might find the nearest exit portal.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A comic gurgle from James L. Brooks

This one's pretty much inert from from the jump.
It's difficult to watch How Do You Know, the latest comic effort from director James L. Brooks, without thinking about the ways in which the mighty have fallen. Brooks, who hails from the world of television, made major big-screen marks in the '80s with Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News. He hasn't done much since -- and what he has done hasn't been terrific. (Brooks enjoyed a mild success in 1997 with As Good As It Gets, but faltered with Spanglish in 2004.) This time, Brooks tells the story of a female jock (Reese Witherspoon) who starts an affair with a professional baseball player (Owen Wilson) after she fails to make the U.S. Olympic softball team. A love triangle takes shape when Witherspoon's Lisa meets a troubled executive (Paul Rudd) who's on the verge of being indicted for ill-defined shenanigans wrought by a company headed by his father (Jack Nicholson). Inert from its earliest scenes, How Do You Know never really finds its rhythm. An occasional line of amusing dialog falls from Brooks' script like a scrap toppling from a wobbly table, but there's not much else to commend How Do You Know. Witherspoon shows some spark; Wilson tries his best to breathe comic life into the role of an insensitive jock; and Rudd works at being likable. Nicholson? For once, there's hardly anything to say. More predictable than punchy, How Do You Know looks to do a fast fade during a holiday season with bigger and better attractions.

Supporting actors give 'Fighter' its punch

The Fighter may not be a boxing classic, but it's got loads of spit-in-your-eye spirit.
The Fighter may be the first boxing movie in which the women look as if they could out-punch the men. The true-life story of welterweight Micky Ward introduces us to two of the year’s toughest big-screen women, Ward’s mom (a brilliant Melissa Leo) and his girlfriend (an unexpectedly gritty Amy Adams).

As directed by David O. Russell (I Heart Huckabees and Three Kings), the setting of The Fighter – Lowell, Mass. – proves as important as the movie’s characters. A breeding ground for toughness, blue-collar Lowell comes off as the sort of place where the weak easily can be eaten alive and the streets are a place to strut.

Mark Wahlberg, who also served as one of the movie’s producers, plays Micky, an aspiring welterweight who’s managed by his mom and trained by his brother Dicky (Christian Bale). In the movie’s least showy performance (OK, it's a little dull), Wahlberg makes Micky a bit of a cipher, a guy on whom others easily can project their hopes and ambitions.

Bale’s Dicky Edlund (he’s a half brother to Micky) is among those invested in Micky’s career. Dicky, who has fallen into reprobate territory by the time the movie opens, was a talented young boxer whose claim to flame centered on the fact that he once knocked Sugar Ray Leonard on his butt. Dicky went on to lose the fight, but he had his moment of glory.

Formerly known as “The Pride of Lowell,” Dicky’s now a nerve-jangled crack addict with rotting teeth, a thick accent, a backward baseball cap and a body that seems to be on a collision course with itself. Bale somehow masters the art of moving in several different directions simultaneously. Dicky tends to speak with his body before any words come out. Speech almost seems an afterthought.

Early on, we learn that HBO is making a documentary about Dicky. Poor deluded Dicky thinks the movie will focus on a potential comeback: HBO has a different idea; i.e., a documentary about crack addiction.

In outline, The Fighter tells a classic story about an unlikely kid who fights his way toward a championship bout. But the real pleasures of the movie lie outside the ring as Micky’s family – which includes chorus of seven vocal sisters – horns in on the action, sometimes in ways that threaten to put Micky in a stranglehold.

When Micky hooks up with Charlene (Adams), he finds a new kind of support, someone who’s interested only in him and not the welfare of his family. Charlene gives Micky the courage to strike out on his own, shedding his mom as a manager and finding someone other than his brother to train him. After retreating to a construction job, Micky decides to give boxing one more try.

Micky’s bid for independence puts Charlene into direct conflict with Leo’s mother, a woman with the kind of blonde hair that looks as if it's been sculpted rather than combed. Leo’s Alice is a belligerent old bird who’s not afraid to throw her weight around. She indulges Dicky in the way parents sometimes treat a lovable but troubled kid. Micky, who never causes problems, tends to get short shrift.

Russell handles the fight scenes in ways that highlight Micky’s approach, which involves a style that’s stronger on guts than skill. Micky tends to take brutal beatings while waiting for the other guy to punch himself out. He then moves in for the kill. Micky’s punching mantra: “Head, body. Head, body.”

The best boxing movies have the kind of social and thematic reach that eludes The Fighter, which is content to slug it out on a fairly realistic plane. If I had a complaint about the movie it involves the way Russell treats Micky and his family as a source of sustained low-life comedy, sharply drawn caricatures that inhabit a shot-with-a-beer-back world where boxing is pronounced “bawx-ing.”

But the performances – Adams, Leo and Bale all probably will earn Oscar nominations – are too lively to be pinned to the wall of stereotype, and the movie has a spit-in-your-eye spirit that I liked.

The Fighter is less about one man’s redemption (either in or out of the ring) than about the hardscrabble attitudes that are necessary for survival in a scrappy, disorganized family.

In a limo on the way back from a losing fight, Micky’s mother asks him a pointed question, “What are you gonna do without your family?”

For Micky, it’s the question of a lifetime. To the movie’s and to Micky’s credit, he works hard trying to answer it.

Jim Carrey compelling as a con man

Jim Carrey brings dynamo force to the story of a brilliant con man and the guy he loved.
Jim Carrey might be the closest we’ll ever get to a perpetual motion machine in movies. Carrey's irrepressible will seems to drive everything he does, but his high-beam energy and toothy smile serve seldom have served him better than in I Love You Phillip Morris, a movie based on the true story of con man Steven Russell.

During a criminal career that was most active during the ‘90s, Russell posed as an attorney and as a chief financial officer. He was caught a variety of times, and staged several escapes from prison. He evidently excelled at being a criminal and at sidestepping the consequences of his actions -- at least for a while.

Directors Glen Ficarra  and John Requa treat Russell’s story as a platform for energetic comedy, moving from scene-to-scene with hells-a-poppin’ fury. They give the movie a near-antic quality that both complements Carrey’s performance and obliterates thinking time for the audience. It’s almost as if Ficarra and Requa decided that Russell’s story was so intriguing, they had no reason to tack on thematic exclamation points.

Still, I Love You Phillip Morris is more than a con-man caper movie. It’s also a gay love story that blossoms during one of Steven’s prison sentences. In a Texas penitentiary, Steven meets Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a sensitive southerner who looks to Steven for both love and protection.

Carrey and McGregor play a convincing duet. Phillip falls under Steven's spell, devoting most of his attention to his lover. Steven, on the other hand, juggles a cornucopia of activities – his life with Phillip, his various scams and lots of wanton spending.

None of this has anything to do with how the movie starts. When the movie opens, Steven -- working as a police officer at the time -- is living what appears to be a conventional life. He's married to a religious woman (Leslie Mann) with whom he has a daughter.

When Steven tells us about his gayness – in a narration that runs throughout the movie – he does so with zesty relish. He treats his gayness in breezy, by-the-way fashion. Like just about everything else in Steven’s life, his sexual orientation is presented as an in-your-face fact, not as an issue for judgment.

Steven either doesn’t see (or refuses to acknowledge that he sees) anything strained about announcing his gayness while he’s still married. And although, Steven often experiences bouts of panic when the police are closing in, he appears to be immune to either guilt or remorse – except perhaps in matters concerning Phillip.

A sense of infectious wildness pervades the material, which requires a generous appreciation of absurdity. If the movie had a mantra, it might go something like this: The world is loopy. Don't try to make sense of it.

I don’t know exactly what we learn from Steven’s story, but I do know that I Love You Phillip Morris moves in lively fashion and that Carrey has delivered a performance that amounts to a sustained act of daring. Not because he's playing a gay man, but because he's playing a character who does despicable things -- but usually without shame. It’s almost as if Steven’s so damn confident about his dynamism that he believes no one possibly could hold his criminality against him.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Broadcast Film Critics release nominations

Black Swan received a record-breaking 12 nominations from the Broadcast Film Critics Association.
The Broadcast Film Critics Association, a group to which I belong, has issued the results of its first round of year-end voting. The group's awards ceremony -- to be broadcast live on VH1 on Jan. 14 -- has often served as a bellwether for the Academy Awards. Oscar hopefuls take note: Black Swan led the BFCA field with 12 nominations. Director Darren Aronofsky's movie was followed by The King's Speech and True Grit, each of which garnered 11 nominations.

Here's the BFCA list:


127 Hours
Black Swan
The Fighter
The King’s Speech
The Social Network
The Town
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter’s Bone
Jeff Bridges – True Grit
Robert Duvall – Get Low
Jesse Eisenberg – The Social Network
Colin Firth – The King’s Speech
James Franco – 127 Hours
Ryan Gosling – Blue Valentine
Annette Bening – The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman – Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence – Winter’s Bone
Natalie Portman – Black Swan
Noomi Rapace – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Michelle Williams – Blue Valentine
Christian Bale – The Fighter
Andrew Garfield – The Social Network
Jeremy Renner – The Town
Sam Rockwell – Conviction
Mark Ruffalo – The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush – The King’s Speech
Amy Adams – The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter – The King’s Speech
Mila Kunis – Black Swan
Melissa Leo – The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld – True Grit
Jacki Weaver – Animal Kingdom
Elle Fanning – Somewhere
Jennifer Lawrence – Winter’s Bone
Chloe Grace Moretz – Let Me In
Chloe Grace Moretz – Kick-Ass
Kodi Smit-McPhee – Let Me In
Hailee Steinfeld – True Grit
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King’s Speech
The Social Network
The Town
Darren Aronofsky – Black Swan
Danny Boyle – 127 Hours
Joel Coen & Ethan Coen – True Grit
David Fincher – The Social Network
Tom Hooper – The King’s Speech
Christopher Nolan – Inception
Another Year – Mike Leigh
Black Swan – Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin
The Fighter – Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson (Story by Keith Dorrington & Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson)
Inception – Christopher Nolan
The Kids Are All Right – Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg
The King’s Speech – David Seidler
127 Hours – Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle
The Social Network – Aaron Sorkin
The Town – Ben Affleck, Peter Craig and Sheldon Turner
Toy Story 3 – Michael Arndt (Story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich) True Grit – Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Winter’s Bone – Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini
127 Hours – Anthony Dod Mantle
Black Swan – Matthew Libatique
Inception – Wally Pfister
The King’s Speech – Danny Cohen
True Grit – Roger Deakins
Alice in Wonderland – Stefan Dechant
Black Swan – Therese DePrez and Tora Peterson
Inception – Guy Hendrix Dyas
The King’s Speech – Netty Chapman
True Grit – Jess Gonchor and Nancy Haigh
127 Hours – Jon Harris
Black Swan – Andrew Weisblum
Inception – Lee Smith
The Social Network – Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter
Alice in Wonderland – Colleen Atwood
Black Swan – Amy Westcott
The King’s Speech – Jenny Beavan
True Grit – Mary Zophres
Alice in Wonderland
Black Swan
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
True Grit
Alice in Wonderland
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part
Tron: Legacy
127 Hours
Black Swan
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
Despicable Me
How to Train Your Dragon
The Illusionist
Toy Story 3
The Town
Date Night
Easy A
Get Him to the Greek
I Love You Phillip Morris
The Other Guys
The Pacific
Temple Grandin
You Don’t Know Jack
I Am Love
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURe Exit Through the Gift Shop Inside Job Restrepo Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work The Tillman Story Waiting for Superman
BEST SONG I See the Light – performed by Mandy Moore & Zachary Levi/written by Alan Menken & Glenn Slater – Tangled If I Rise – performed by Dido and A.R. Rahman/music by A.R. Rahman/lyrics by Dido Armstrong and Rollo Armstrong – 127 Hours Shine – performed and written by John Legend – Waiting for Superman We Belong Together – performed and written by Randy Newman – Toy Story 3 You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me Yet – performed by Cher/written by Diane Warren – Burlesque
BEST SCORE Black Swan – Clint Mansell Inception – Hans Zimmer The King’s Speech – Alexandre Desplat The Social Network – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross True Grit – Carter Burwell

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Portman spreads her wings in 'Black Swan'

Director Darren Aronofsky's latest is at its best when its wild, furious and flirting with incoherence.
Black Swan begins with Natalie Portman - as ballerina Nina Sayers - dancing in a dream. It doesn't take long for an ominous-looking figure to invade Nina's sleep, thereby establishing the strategy that increasingly will dominate director Darren Aronofsky's arty thrill ride of a movie: Sensation will trump sense, and the movie's commitment to overstatement will be frenzied and brazen -- even intrusive.

Say this: Black Swan has a pulse, a feeling of agitated, intoxicating brilliance. Part thriller, part horror movie and part trippy exploration of the clash between reality and mad vision, Black Swan nonetheless is all of a piece.

In the world of ballet, Aronofsky has found an environment that allows him to move beyond the muddled excesses of The Fountain and the sweat-stained realism of The Wrestler. Black Swan is a movie about performance: Portman's, the main character's and, ultimately, Aronofsky's. It's almost as if the movie wants to merge all three in an act of furious consummation.

The story is relatively simple. Portman's Nina dreams of dancing the lead role in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, a ballet that tells the story of a princess trapped in the body of a swan. To achieve liberation, the princess must win the heart of a prince. But a black swan also vies for the prince's affections. The same dancer typically dances the roles of the black and white swans.

Portman's Nina has dancing chops, but her repressed sexuality keeps her from fully emerging as the Black Swan. A tyrannical ballet master (Vincent Cassel) goads and bullies Nina toward sexual liberation, telling her that she must "let go'' in order to achieve total command of the role.

This is no easy task. Nina can't quite cross the threshold into womanhood. She shares an apartment with her domineering and sometimes resentful mother (Barbara Hershey) and sleeps in a room full of stuffed animals, not the most subtle of clues but still weirdly effective.

More than a gloss on Freudian themes, Black Swan is a balls-to-the-wall display of cinematic showmanship. Nervous to the point of impatience, Aronofsky's hand-held cameras move toward a finale in which the director searches for a dark and beautiful triumph. Does he find it? You'll have to judge for yourself.

Despite obvious differences, Black Swan covers some of the same ground as The Wrestler. Aronofsky's interested in the merging of personality and role in fulfilling acts of sacrifice. And just as The Wrestler introduces us to the grubby, locker rooms and physical torments of second-tier wrestling, Black Swan exposes us to the pain involved in preparing to dance.

Similarities, yes, but Black Swan plays to Aronofsky's strengths in ways that prove more invigorating than anything in The Wrestler. Aronofsky gives full vent to Nina's stark hallucinations, sexual fantasies, looming fears and acts of self-mutilation. He also uses the world of ballet to create an atmosphere in which technique ultimately means nothing without risk.

Portman reportedly did a lot of her own dancing, but it doesn't take long to notice that a fair amount of Black Swan's dance sequences have been shot from the waist up. This is not to say that Portman's performance is in any way a cheat. She's entirely convincing as a ballerina who's being buffeted by forces she believes to be beyond her control. She's an Alice in a frightening ballet Wonderland.

Some of the images created by cinematographer Matthew Libatique are truly amazing. The sight of Portman dressed as the Black Swan and strutting imperiously across the stage evokes memories of Norma Desmond, the character Gloria Swanson played in Sunset Boulevard. It's a hyper-theatrical immersion in character that celebrates both daring and delusion.

Aronofsky's additional casting is quite good. Hershey makes a convincing monster mom, a woman who sacrificed her own ballet career to raise her daughter. Cassel nicely fills the outlines of a role that's geared toward arrogance and intimidation.

Mila Kunis manages to present the most recognizably human face in a drama in which nearly everyone seems to be wearing a mask of some sort. As Lily, a rival ballerina, Kunis is able almost to sound natural in an environment dominated by artifice.

Winona Ryder, shows up as a fading ballet star who falls into a suicidal depression when she's no longer fit to dance the great roles; she's an inspiration for Nina, as well as a warning.

My reaction to Black Swan varied as the movie danced its way through multiple genres. At times, I found it dizzying and compelling. At other times, I thought it was much ado about far too little. Some of the movie's "horror" ploys struck me as embarrassingly garish. But even when Black Swan flirted with incoherence, I admired its dark showmanship.

Aronofsky isn't telling a great or even novel story, and he certainly owes a major debt to Tchaikovsky, whose music helps establish an air of fretful anticipation. But like a dancer looking for perfect synchronization with a great piece of music, Aronofsky's clearly attempting to fly. When he does, Black Swan soars.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

She's stuck in a post-collegiate limbo

Had the late Eric Rohmer been born a woman in contemporary America, he might have made a movie as self-consciously small as Tiny Furniture, a quietly engaging portrait of life in TriBeCa as lived by a recent college grad. * After returning home from college, Aura (Lena Dunham) moves in with her mom (Laurie Simmons) and her younger sister (Grace Dunham). Blood relations dominate both on and off screen: Simmons is the real mother of Lena Dunham, who also directed Tiny Furniture. Grace is her real sister. * Casual, funny and observant, Tiny Furniture may feel slight compared to more robust comedies, but its narrowness fits the sliver of life Dunham is intent on observing. Tiny Furniture is a low-consequence movie that perfectly captures a transitional moment. * The movie brings a variety of characters into Aura's narrowly defined world. It doesn't take long for Aura to hook up with a childhood friend played by the hilariously overdramatic Jemima Kirke. She also tries to establish relationships with a young You Tube sensation (David Call) and a chef (Alex Karpovsky) who works at the restaurant where Aura lands a job as a hostess. * In Tiny Furniture, Dunham distinguishes herself with intelligence and humor, not to mention a great ear for the kind of dialogue spoken by people who are well practiced in cleverness. In fact, Aura might be a prime example of a generation whose cleverness constitutes its greatest accomplishment. * Don't take that as a knock. Dunham shows little inclination to paper over the pretensions, shallowness and self-absorption of lives as yet unsullied by significant events. * True to its title, Tiny Furniture is a small curiosity, a movie made by someone who clearly knows the scene in which she skillfully immerses us. * Put another way, Tiny Furniture answers a question I hadn't really thought about before: What happens when smart people have nothing much to be smart about?

A town where it's always World War II

A documentary helps us think about what it means to create an artificial reality -- and live in it..
Dolls at war in Marwencol.

When the year's top documentaries are announced, it's unlikely that Marwencol will appear on many short lists. That may have something to do with the fact that Marwencol shares no kinship with the kind of socio-political documentaries (Waiting for Superman and Inside Job) that currently dominate the non-fiction scene. Working against the trendy grain, director Jeff Malmberg has made a character study -- and an odd one at that.

Malmberg takes an immersive look at the strange life of Mark Hogancamp, a man of stunning peculiarity. The movie also examines how an obsessive hobby can morph into highly praised outsider art, and poses an additionally fascinating question: Can something be deemed art if its creator had no artistic intentions in mind?

Marwencol, which played at the recently concluded Starz Denver Film Festival and which may find most of its audience on DVD, tells the story of Hogancamp, an alcoholic veteran who was severely beaten outside a bar in 2000.

Having "recovered," Hogancamp devotes most of his time to building and maintaining a miniature World War II village in his backyard. The town -- Marwencol by name -- is populated by Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls that Hogancamp painstakingly outfits in tiny costumes. But that's only half of the story. Thanks to Hogancamp's active imagination, the residents of Marwencol are involved in an on-going soap opera that dabbles in love, heroism, Nazi cruelty and occasional moments of rapprochement. Fair to say that Hogancamp lives inside a pulpy narrative that springs from a mind that treats its creations as if they were real.

Hogancamp photographs scenes in his mock village as he dreams up various story lines. His photographs of Marwencol have been shown in an upscale New York gallery, but -- or so it seems to me -- it's not so much the photographs that prove interesting, but a process that has come to consume Hogancamp's life.

I seem to have forgotten to mention that Hogancamp is also a cross-dresser who has struggled to express that part of himself in public.

Hogancamp's predilection for women's clothing aside, Marwencol is more than a freak show; it's a serious look at the ways in which alternate realities function. They can help us work through terrors too frightening for real life, but they also pose a danger, particularly when artistic sublimation borders on evasion.

Whatever you conclude about Hogancamp, you'll find him difficult to dismiss. After suffering a debilitating beating, he created a world for himself, and he's as committed to it as you might be to yours.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

On the road and fleeing aliens

A savvy, low-budget indie that takes you by surprise.
With Monsters, British director Gareth Edwards has made the kind of movie that every aspiring indie filmmaker should see -- at least those who are interested in catching the eye of Hollywood's big boys.

At nearly every turn, Edwards maximizes the advantages and downplays the drawbacks of low-budget filmmaking, a reported $15,000. Of course, none of this would matter if Edwards didn't have a story to tell. He does, and it's an eerie and affecting one: Alien creatures are proliferating on Earth.

I know that sounds depressingly familiar, but by taking the burden off special effects, Edwards frees his powers of observation. He demonstrates a real feel for what it can be like to travel at a time when people are eager to cash in on catastrophe. He also makes terrific use of a variety of unfamiliar Central American locations, and builds his story around actors (Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy) who are good enough to keep us watching.

Able and McNairy play Sam and Andrew, characters who are trying to flee Mexico and return to the United States, where -- presumably -- they'll be safe from aliens that occupy a large "infected" zone south of the U.S.-Mexican border.

The relationship between Andrew and Sam doesn't exactly burn up the screen, but we get the idea. They're people who only could spend time together if forced into contact by an extreme circumstance -- in this case the threat of attack by alien creatures transported to Earth by a NASA probe. A photographer by trade, Andrew works for Sam's publisher father, an executive who sets the plot's road-movie elements in motion when he orders Andrew to escort his Mexico-based daughter home.

Perhaps to enhance the movie's allegorical aspirations, Edwards shows us a massive wall that the U.S. has built to keep the aliens out. If this sounds a little too evocative of current fears about so-called "illegals,'' you're on the right track. But Edwards compensates for this unfortunately obvious comparison by sustaining a simmering level of tension.

I mentioned a lack of emphasis on special effects, but that doesn't mean there are none. You can't have a monster movie without eventually showing the monster. To do this, Edwards created his own effects, blazing a path from his home computer to the big-screen.

When we finally see the creatures that give the movie its title, they look convinncing. Or convincing enough. Besides, Edward's sound design adds to the ominous atmosphere. Nothing like the bellowing groans of a "monster" to bristle the hair on the back of a neck.

Monsters may have a stronger life on DVD than it does in theaters, but Edwards' movie generates more involvement than lots of bigger productions, extravaganzas that squander fortunes and produce little more than scorn and boredom.

By taking his cameras to out-of-the-way places and knowing how to keep a story moving, Edwards creates a strange and ultimately haunting movie that catches us by surprise. He also reminds us that the most threatening "monster" stories may be those that are smart enough to keep their feet on the ground.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A quick look at an art-house weekend

Here's one dog story you haven't seen before.
Here's a truth that's not generally discussed. The owners of dogs spend more time than they'd like to admit pondering their pets bodily functions. Now comes a dog movie that not only acknowledges this hidden truth but takes it to a strangely idiosyncratic extreme. My Dog Tulip is a creatively animated version of a 1956 memoir by J. R. Ackerley, who served as arts editor for the BBC magazine, The Listener. Beautifully drawn and boasting excellent voice work (notably from Christopher Plummer) as Ackerley), the movie is so unlike most animal movies that it can be as disconcerting as it is cozy. Not only is Ackerley obsessive about Tulip's bowel movements, he also devotes considerable time to finding the proper mate for the Alsatian he rescued from a neglectful family. Directors Paul and Sandra Fierlinger have made a one-of-a-kind dog story that boasts a literate narration and an intriguing view of a man who spent 15 years with a creature that came closest to fulfilling his notion of the ideal companion.

Think 'My Big Fat Indian Restaurant'

Less quriky by far is the comedy, Today's Special, a look at the relationship between an Indian-American son and his family in Queens, N.Y. Generally, I'm a sucker for food movies, particularly those that spend lots of time in restaurant kitchens. Although this one traffics in some heavily sketched cliches -- think My Big Fat Indian Restaurant -- it nonetheless benefits from the aromas we imagine in the food we watch being prepared and from its very particular New York City setting. The story begins when Samir (Aasif Mandvi) quits his job as a sous chef to travel to Paris. His plans are thwarted when his father becomes ill; Samir reluctantly fills in for Dad at his restaurant, a once prosperous Indian joint that's fallen on hard times. To save the restaurant, Samir hires Akbar (Naseeruddin Shah), a cab driver who understands the mysteries of Indian cooking, knowledge that somehow eluded Samir. Samir learns to put passion in his cooking as the movie moves to resolve his relationship with a difficult-to-please father. Alternately corny and warm, Today's Special holds few surprises, but the food and Shah's sonorous voice add welcome seasoning.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A 'Rock' by any other name ...

He's out for blood and nothing will stop him. Faster is full of nasty, B-movie violence, but Dwayne Johnson may not be the right man for the job.

I was going to skip Faster, the new thriller starring Dwayne Johnson, the actor formerly known as The Rock. But when I saw that George Tillman, Jr had directed the movie, I changed my mind. Tillman, I remembered, had directed Notorious (2009), one of the better movies about a rapper's life. I figured Tillman could handle the down-and-dirty action that would be required if Faster were going to get its engine cranking. * A little better than you might expect (providing you have a taste for this sort of thing) and not as good as you might hope: That's the verdict on Faster, which minimizes Johnson's dialogue and pours on the hard-boiled, B-movie violence. * Watching Johnson in this kind of role makes you realize his limitations. It also encourages appreciation for what guys like Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood were able to accomplish with revenge sagas. Those guys could look at you in ways that would cut you to pieces. * Johnson does the best he can as Driver, a newly released convict who's seeking revenge on the guys who killed his brother. Physically imposing as he is, Johnson seems to be stuck with a nice guy's face. * Billy Bob Thornton slips into fully ruined mode to play a heroin-addicted cop who tries to stop Johnson's character in mid-rampage. * Oliver Jackson-Cohen portrays a pretty boy British hit man who's been hired to take out the Driver. * If you're looking for point-blank violence, you won't have to wait long, but the movie tries to take the sting off its more exploitative aspects by adding a religious gloss, a mini-semon on forgiveness. * Enough. If you're looking for nasty B-movie thrills, Faster has some, although it also can test your patience for cliche and bad writing. * One more thing: If you can't see the final twist coming, you may want to have your movie vision checked.

Love, sex, drugs and too much else

It starts as if it's going to satirize the highly commercial world of Big Pharma. In the shift to romcom something is lost."
It's got drugs, love and sex, but these obviously volatile ingredients don't mesh especially well in Love & Other Drugs, a romantic comedy starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, both of whom sometimes bare as much body as they do soul. And, by the way, before you call the DEA, we're talking primarily about licit drugs of the prescription variety.

Love & Other Drugs starts out as if it's going to be a lively expose of the ways in which the pharmaceutical industry pressures and coaxes doctors into prescribing one drug over another.

But Big Pharma probably needn't fret. Love & Other Drugs proves too scatter shot to hit any target for long: In addition to romping through the highly commercialized fields of the drug industry, the movie also attempts to refresh a romcom formula, examine self-imposed emotional barriers and toss in a few crass jokes for good measure.

The surprising thing - at least to me - about Love & Other Drugs is that it was directed and co-written by Edward Zwick, who has made fine movies, but who also helped create the landmark TV show thirtysomething, which had plenty to say about relationships, work and young families. It's interesting that this time out, Zwick - whose best big-screen work includes movies such as Glory and Blood Diamond - can't quite find a pulse on which to put his finger.

For all its ambition, Love & Other Drugs may be remembered for a variety of nude scenes between Gyllenhaal and Hathaway, who now officially closes the cover on her Princess Diary days.

Gyllenhaal and Hathaway worked together in Brokeback Mountain, only in that movie his character was a married gay man. This time, Gyllenhaal goes hetero with a vengeance, playing Jamie Randall, a womanizing drug salesman who bribes receptionists and sometimes helps doctors with their ... ahem ... social lives.

The only physician given much attention in the film - an internist portrayed by Hank Azaria - seems a bit of a sleazebag himself. During one telling moment, Azaria's Dr. Knight laments the state of contemporary medicine. We might be have been more sympathetic had he not delivered his analysis at a pajama party that morphs into an upscale orgy.

By now, you're probably wondering what happened to the romantic comedy part of the movie. Let me get you up to speed on that.

During the course of his work, Gyllenhaal's Jamie meets Hathaway's Maggie Murdock, a young woman who has Parkinson's disease. She's interested in sex, not long-term relationships. She's also angry and emotionally defended, not a surprising combination for someone with an incurable disease.

The next two words tell you something very significant about the movie.... They're "of course."

Of course, Jamie and Maggie fall for each other, even though she's ill and he's a committed womanizer who heretofore has shown no interest in stable relationships. And, of course, they get close and then pull apart and then....

Well, you know the drill.

Gyllenhaal's running at high speed here, playing a whip-smart underachiever who dropped out of college. Hathaway's Maggie is an artist, who's brash in ways that emphasize her cleverness and her desire to hold the world at arm's length.

Zwick sets the movie in the 90s, a decade when the economy was on the rise and so were other things. The story takes place during the dawning of the age of Viagra, the drug that catapults Jamie into the financial stratosphere. Oliver Platt appears as Jamie's drug-company mentor.

The movie can be smart, but it's also marred by an unfortunate tendency to dip into Judd Apatow territory. Jamie's brother (Josh Gad), is a dweeby entrepreneur who adds unnecessary gross-out jokes to the proceedings. And there's joke about a drug-induced erection that won't subside; it sticks out like a .... Let's just say it's too cheap for a movie that seems intent on finding some real emotion.

Those emotions can seem genuine, although I sometimes found myself watching performances by Gyllenhaal and Hathaway rather than becoming involved with their characters, young people who were being forced -- albeit kicking and screaming -- into accepting love.

It would be remiss to conclude a review of Love & Other Drugs without mentioning that Jill Clayburgh, who died earlier this month after a prolonged battled with leukemia. She appears briefly as Jamie's mother. She's also slated to appear in a 2011 movie. RIP to a fine actress.

As a thirtysomething fan, I was eager to see Love & Other Drugs, hoping it would successfully take Zwick away from the historical and topical subjects that seem to have dominated his movie career. But Love & Other Drugs wanders all over the place, touching down at a variety of entertaining and successful points without delivering on the high hopes the assembled talent engenders.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Guns, money and maybe politics

Director Olivier Assayas' 5 1/2-hour Carlos proves totally absorbing, an inside view of a terrorist's world.
Quick tell me, who is Ilich Ramírez Sánchez?

I'm betting you don't remember that the man with this Russian-influenced name became known as Carlos, the Jackal, the Venezuelan-born terrorist who is now serving a life sentence in France for a triple murder. Carlos' violent accomplishments supposedly extended to 80 or so deaths during a 25-year span that found him working in Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

Before watching the movie, I took a quick refresher course on Carlos via some Internet browsing. Early on, Carlos plied his violent trade for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). He led a 1975 raid on the Vienna headquarters of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Three people were killed during that operation.

After that, Carlos became a free-lance revolutionary, working for various governments who were interested in the kind of services that he provided. He viewed himself as a revolutionary; his employers may have seen him as a political hit man.

According to Carlos -- the absorbing 5 1/2-hour film by French director Olivier Assayas -- Carlos wasn't easy to know. Rendered in a truly extraordinary performance by the Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez, Carlos seems a man of great carnal appetites. He smoked and drank too much, and learned how to kill without disturbing his conscience.

He was a barrel-chested man who saw himself as a military leader, but seemed to make little separation between the causes that he served and his own out-sized ego. Late in the film, thinking that he's gotten too fat, Carlos has unwanted love handles removed with liposuction surgery. A vane revolutionary indeed.

Carlos, originally made for French television and shown in the U.S. on the Sundance Channel, is now making its way to specialized theatrical venues around the country. (In Denver, it can be see at the newly inaugurated Starz Denver FilmCenter, located at 2150 E. Colfax Ave. in the same complex as The Tattered Cover and Twist & Shout.) Eventually, it will be released on DVD, where you can watch it in more leisurely fashion.

Assayas, a director who seems to march to no predictable beat, has made telling family dramas (The Summer Hours), agitated oddball movies (Irma Vep) and global thrillers (Boarding Gate). Without doubt, Carlos stands as Assayas' most ambitious movie to date. The sheer number of locations, languages, and violent set pieces would be daunting for any director. Carlos' mini-sreies length, which allows for deep immersion in this foreign and often-frightening world, must have been a challenge, as well.

Densely populated by the shifting cast of characters in Carlos' life, the movie makes little attempt to explain Carlos, who seemed to be the kind of revolutionary who had no trouble enjoying luxury when it was available to him. Assayas, who admits to some fictionalization, gives us a portrait of Carlos in action, following his stormy career and allowing us to draw our own conclusions about it.

We certainly don't root for Carlos, but once we're inside his circle, we begin to see the ways in which violence became the norm for Carlos and those around him. While watching the movie, I was reminded of gangster films that bore deeply into criminal lives. Ramirez makes no effort to hide Carlos' brutal side, but we couldn't bear to watch if that were all of it: Ramirez also understands the way Carlos learned to attract others with charm, personal magnetism and even an unexpected capacity for courtesy.

In the early stages of his career, Carlos worked for and then found himself at odds with PFLP leader Wadie Haddad (Ahmad Kaabour). Haddad knew that Carlos could be a loose cannon and that he wouldn't easily submit to revolutionary discipline -- unless, of course, he happened to be enforcing it on others.

Carlos claims that he's fighting imperialism on behalf of the oppressed, but he seems to be most fulfilled when he's being treated like a celebrity of some revolution that most of the world failed to acknowledge. Could it be that Carlos simply craved notoriety and reveled in the power it gave him?

I'm not sure I know. I'm not even sure what conclusions can be drawn from entering the violent, murky world that Assayas so creates with so much immediacy. I do know that Carlos qualifies as an extraordinary filmmaking feat, a fascinating chronicle of the rise and fall of a man who seemed avid about devouring life while fully capable of destroying it.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Harry Potter's long march toward a finale

If you're a fan, you probably think 2 hours and 26 minutes of Deathly Hallows is just right. The rest of us would have preferred a little pruning.

The curtain finally has begun to fall on the Harry Potter series, drawing a dark veil over the story of the young wizard. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 has a forbidding feel that settles over the story like an ominous fog.

But (with me there's usually a but) there's only so much time one productively can wander in a fog. The next-to-the-last Potter movie - J. K. Rowling's final Potter book has been broken into two parts for the screen -- amounts to an awfully long build-up to a finale that's bound to surpass it, if only because it will once and for all settle the battle between Harry and the evil Lord Voldemort.

This 2-hour and 26 minute helping of Harry interruptus features action, dry stretches and nuances that probably will elude those who haven't immersed themselves in the books. Of course, Potter enthusiasts are so many in number, they have made the series the most financially lucrative in movie history, and probably don't give a hoot what the rest of us think.

Say this, the Potter movies have provided a well-deserved payday for some brilliant actors. The opening scenes of this edition benefit from the presence of Bill Nighy (as Rufus Scrimgeour, Minister of Magic) and Brendan Gleeson (as Alastor Mad-Eye Moody), two actors who can't be overwhelmed by the abundant if slightly repetitive special effects that director David Yates applies to the proceedings.

Is it me or did the numerous wand fights in this edition bear an unfortunate resemblance to old-fashioned gunfights?

The movie opens in a climate of fear and apprehension. Dealing from a position of strength, Lord Voldemort and his army of Death Eaters are on the verge of triumph. Can they be stopped? Will Harry find the Horcruxes? Has anyone got a glossary?

Yes, there are amazing scenes. An early-picture meeting at Voldemort's retreat plays like a board meeting presided over by an abusive chairman, and gives Ralph Fiennes, as Voldemort, a little noseless face time. A late-picture bit of animation - the crucial Tale of the Three Brothers - ranks among the finest set pieces of the entire series. The use of Nick Cave's song, O Children, allows Harry and Hermione to share a moment of dance.

The trio that has carried the series deserves our appreciation. Daniel Radcliffe makes a convincing Harry even now that he's beginning to show traces of five o'clock shadow. Rupert Grint retains the spark that makes Ron Weasley appealling, although his character has begun to vent jealousies about what he perceives as a developing romance between Harry and Hermione. And Emma Watson has grown into a Hermione whose girlish steadfastness has begun to show signs of womanly assertiveness.

Relations among the trio hit a rough patch in an overly long segment in which Harry, Hermione and Ron wander through dense forests or camp on a rocky cliff in a tent that looks small from the outside, but expands once its inhabitants have entered. Why not? This is, after all, a J.K. Rowling universe. Magic rules.

Reaction to Hallows may boil down to whether one is a zealous fan who regards Rowling's work as holy writ. If you are one of those, you may lament some of screenwriter Steven Kloves' excisions. Kloves does, however, weave in emotionally charged plot business involving two elves, Kreacher and Dobby, as well as enough plot currents to breed exhaustion in readers were I to make an attempt to recount them. All I'll say is that I would have welcomed more pruning.

My wife told me she overhead a telling comment in the women's restroom after the preview screening. "At the rate this was going, I thought we'd be here until midnight," said a woman who evidently knew precisely how much of the story was still to come and who must have momentarily forgotten that Warner Bros. had opted to split Rowling's final Potter book in two.
Another friend said he found this edition to be action-packed, a description that did not jibe with my impression.I felt the gathering of forces that should lead to a smashing finale, but too often thought the movie was dragging its feet.

For that finale, we must wait until next summer, when - as another fan assured me - we'll see the payoff of much of what transpired in Part 1. I hope she's right. Although it's well crafted, I couldn't shake the sense that Hallows, Part I is -- at least a little -- the cinematic equivalent of spending 40 years in the desert without reaching the Promised Land.

I left the theater trying to sort out some of the movie' s many details, cataloging the parts of the movie I found impressive and harboring one overriding thought, "For heaven's sake, let's get on with it."

Staging a jailbreak for love

A husband wants to help his wife escape from prison, but director Paul Haggis can't quite give the movie the credibility and obsessive drive it needs.

An air of unbelievability hangs over The Next Three Days, a thriller that focuses on a community-college professor who attempts to free his wife from prison, where she's serving a life sentence for murder. Having exhausted all legal remedies, Russell Crowe’s John Brennan does what red-blooded American men are expected to do, at least in movies: He takes matters into his own hands. John tries to devise an escape plan for his wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks).

Written and directed by Paul Haggis (Crash and Valley of Elah), The Next Three Days is a loose remake of the 2008 French thriller Anything For Her. The story's origins may explain why so much of this Pittsburgh-based drama feels slightly off, as if something has been lost in translation.

The Next Three Days charts John’s progression from amateur to professional. As an English teacher, he knows virtually nothing about jailbreaks or the criminal world. Much of the movie’s 133-minute running time must, therefore, be devoted to John’s education. He slowly learns how to conduct himself in a seamy new world, no easy task for a teacher who also must take care of his six-year-old son.

An all-too-brief encounter between John and a savvy ex-con (Liam Neeson)adds zest. I found myself wishing that Neeson’s appearance, as an expert on escapes, had amounted to more than a cameo. Extending his role might have given Crowe someone to play off, liberating him from having to carry the picture by himself.

The script makes some effort to test John’s commitment to his wife. At one point, he meets an attractive young mother (Olivia Wilde) at a local playground. Will John yield to temptation and develop a relationship with her?

Haggis tries to maintain a mild air of uncertainty about Lara’s guilt, but John never wavers in his belief. He insists that he knows his wife well enough to be sure that she’s incapable of murder. Sure she’s prone to sudden flashes of anger, but who isn’t?

When the movie's third act rolls around, Haggis generates tension and excitement, and he makes us wonder about the propriety of rooting for someone who's breaking lots of laws -- albeit in an effort to right what he perceives as a monstrous wrong.

But the combination of Crowe and Haggis creates expectations for something more than old-pro efficiency and gloomy drive. Like Crowe's character, the movie feels entirely too dutiful in its execution.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A movie that's on track for tension

Unstoppable may not change your life, but it provides a solid 98-minutes of white-knuckle escapism.
Chris Pine and Denzel Washington as men at work.

Tony Scott's Unstoppable barrels its way onto a large number of screens this weekend. In some parts of the country, Unstoppable opens against 127 Hours, director Danny Boyle's hyper-kinetic look at the harrowing, real-life experience of Aron Ralston, a young Coloradan who liberated himself from a Utah canyon by cutting off the lower part of his right arm.

I normally avoid reviewing one movie in terms of another, but I mention Unstoppable and 127 Hours together because both are designed for visceral charge and both are worth seeing. When it comes to end-of-the-year honors, though, it's a good bet that Boyle's festival-launched movie will fare better than Unstoppable.

Too bad. Unstoppable may not win many awards, but it does offer 98 minutes of heart-stopping escape. And unlike, 127 Hours, Unstoppable isn't burdened by even the slightest hint of pretension. Scott's movie clearly intends to provide a solid hunk of white-knuckle escapism -- and does.

Unstoppable reunites Scott with Denzel Washington, an actor he directed in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009), Deja Vu (2006), and Man on Fire (2004). Unstoppable - a movie about a runaway train - marks the best of the Scott/Washington collaborations, a high-speed hunk of action that builds furious momentum.

Washington plays Frank, an engineer who has made a living hauling freight around the Pennsylvania countryside. A 28-year railroad vet, Frank is teamed with a newcomer to railroading (Chris Pine of Star Trek fame). A cost-conscious company has been pushing its older workers into early retirement, so the grizzled pros tend to resent novices such as Pine's Will.

Looking a little portly, Washington proves entirely convincing as an engineer who has lived a reasonably successful blue-collar life, raising two daughters as a solo dad. This being a Tony Scott movie, it should come as no surprise that Frank's daughters are hot young women with jobs at a local Hooters. They provide a modest splash of eye candy.

Will is married, but his marriage has hit a rough patch, the kind of troubled stretch that leads to restraining orders.

Blue-collar romanticism chugs through the movie. When the chips are down, Frank's hands-on experience trumps management's preoccupation with the bottom line. Frank ultimately devises the best plan for stopping a train that's racing toward catastrophe with no driver, no brakes and an engine that's fully powered.

And did I mention that the runaway train is carrying a highly toxic and combustible chemical that's used in the manufacture of glue? The runaway train becomes a monster unleashed on a rural landscape that's dotted with small and medium sized towns. The train's "a missile the size of the Chrysler Building,'' as one character puts it.

Unstoppable was inspired by a real 2001 incident, but a faithful rendering of events is not the point here. Scott knows that his job is to create high tension, and he never lets up.

He also augments the proceedings with tasty small performances. Ethan Suplee plays the engineer who stupidly jumped off his train to reset a switch, thus causing the runaway. Rosario Dawson portrays a railroad traffic manager who tries to prevent disaster, and Kevin Dunn appears as a railroad boss, an executive motivated by dual concerns: safety and profit. Well, maybe more profit than safety. Lew Temple plays another railroad employee, a guy who chases after the runaway train in his pick-up.

Screenwriter Mark Bomback doesn't seem to have spent much time fretting over the dialog, but he sustains a nearly unbearable sense of peril by presenting us with an escalating series of potential disasters.

Unlike an awful lot of contemporary movies, Unstoppable makes good on its promise. And happily, it doesn't depend on gunplay or explosions. Scott finds danger, excitement and heroism in a movie that knows precisely where it's headed, and takes us along for one of the season's most nerve-rattling rides.