Thursday, February 25, 2010

A comedy that cops out on laughs

Tracy Morgan and Bruce Willis are not funny together.

Before I persuaded myself - coerced might be a better word - to write about the new comedy Cop Out, I watched a bunch of Tracy Morgan clips on You Tube. I'd already heard Morgan being interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR, and I'd read an on-line excerpt from the comic's autobiography, I Am the New Black.

I do not consider myself an expert on all things Tracy Morgan, who stars with Bruce Willis in Cop Out. I'd seen only glimpses of Morgan during his stint on Saturday Night Live, a show I gave up on years ago, and I'm not a regular viewer of 30 Rock, either. But what interested me most about Morgan was his unpredictability.

In almost every televised interview, Morgan managed to catch the interviewer off guard, to twist a question to his advantage; i.e., to turn it into a potentially explosive piece of comedy. He'd strip off his shirt and show his generous belly while simultaneously presenting himself as a babe magnet, a Lothario from the hood. He seemed to suggest that something might go terribly wrong, and the interviewer would be unable to control it.

OK, by now you're wondering why I'm rattling on about Morgan and haven't said much about Cop Out, which was directed by Kevin Smith of Clerks, Clerks II, Mall Rats, Dogma, Zack and Miri Make a Porno and other comedies that have won their share of ardent supporters. I'm procrastinating because Cop Out is a colossal disappointment, a formulaic junk yard of a movie that may have been intended as a send-up of every comedy in which a serious white cop (that would be Willis) teams up with a funny black cop (that would be Morgan). Cop Out isn't 48 Hrs. Hell, it's not sharp enough to be called 48 Minutes.

This failure results, at least in part, from a misuse of Morgan. He plays a jealous Brooklyn-based detective who thinks his beautiful wife (Rashida Jones) is cheating on him. Morgan's Paul Hodges reenacts bits from movies, sometimes slobbers on himself and generally plays the oaf to Willis' Jimmy Monroe. By way of contrast, Monroe is a hard-edged cop who's divorced and worrying about how he's going to pay for his daughter's upcoming wedding, a lavish affair with a whopping $48,000 price tag.

Here's where the plot enters, and it's anything but a welcome arrival. In order to pay for the wedding, Willis decides to sell his mint condition Andy Pafko baseball card. Pafko played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951 and 1952. He was in left field when Bobby Thomson's famous home run sailed into the stands, sending the Giants to the World Series and returning the Dodgers to bumhood.

Through a series of awkward contrivances, the baseball card winds up in the hands of a brutal Mexican drug lord named Poh Boy (Guillermo Diaz). Po Boy also happens to collect his own memorabilia, much of it from Mexican baseball. I wish the movie had stopped in its tracks to talk about Poh Boy's collection, but Smith - who's working form a script credited to Mark and Robb Cullin - chooses to insert action into the proceedings.

This leads to another miscalculation. The action - gunplay, car chases, etc. - doesn't mesh well with the comedy, a common problem in this sort of effort. Smith also messes up some of the sight gags. In an intentionally ridiculous attempt to disguise himself, Morgan's character appears in a cell phone costume. You've probably seen it in the movie's trailer, where it wasn't all that funny. On screen, the joke may be even less amusing, extending far beyond its breaking point.

To spice things up, Smith introduces a character played by Seann William Scott, still best known for his work as Stifler in the American Pie movies. Scott plays a thief whose real job is to push the plot along and provide repetitive gags in which he displays a couple of unashamedly juvenile ploys. Say this, though, Scott brings a bit of life to proceedings that sometimes feel weighed down by the deadening shtick that dominates the relationship between Willis and Morgan.

Safe to say that Willis breaks no new ground in Cop Out. I'm no Willis basher. I believe that the guy has real acting chops. Here, though, he relies on the ease with which he commands the camera and a reputation built in a vast library of action movies that saw him tempering violence with irony. The action hero as hipster.

There's more profanity than imagination on display in Cop Out, which doesn't maximize the talents of anyone involved. If this is supposed to be an affectionate, gory and amusing tribute to similar movies, it doesn't work. That would have been a job for a genre freak such as Quentin Tarantino or possibly for Keenen Ivory Wayans (Scary Movie and I'm Gonna Git You Sucka), a comedian who knows something about straight-ahead movie parody.

In Smith's hands, Cop Out resembles a song sung by someone who's tone deaf. The result: More pain than pleasure.

Tough teen times, 'Fish Tank' reviewed

Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender in a moment of normalcy.

Fish Tank -- which tells the story of a hostile 15-year-old who lives in a decaying London suburb -- strikes a perfect balance between distressing content and unobtrusive style. As a result, the movie earns its place as a gritty coming-of-age story about a character thrown into situations that require resources she has yet to develop, perhaps never will.

Director Andrea Arnold draws us inside the world of Mia (Katie Jarvis), a young woman who tries to master hip-hop dancing, sneers at her abusive mother (Kiersten Wareing) and the rest of the world and eventually develops an inappropriate, borderline incestuous relationship with her mom's new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender).

Nuanced where it could have been stark, Fish Tank doesn't so much create a world as explore one that already seems to exist, and it does so without giving Mia any ingratiating tendencies, aside from the fact that she occasionally tries to free an old horse that's tethered to cement block outside a trailer.

Jarvis, who plays Mia, is not a professional actress. What she lacks in technique, she makes up for with a face that's etched in defiance. The jerky, angular movements of Mia's hip-hop dancing suggest the jerky, angular movements of a life that never runs smoothly. At 15, Mia's all anger with a measure of adolescent curiosity thrown in.

The story – also by Arnold – finds its catalyst when Fassbender's Connor shows up. Conner is a hunky, working-class party guy who sometimes acts like a father to Mia and her kid sister (Charlotte Collins). At one point, he takes the family fishing, suggesting a relationship that almost approaches normality. Connor provides a key to Arnold's approach. We know from the outset that he's probably up to no good, but he's not all ogre either. And he clearly doesn't understand how to draw the line between tenderness and desire. Like everyone else in the movie, he's damaged goods.

Some of the plot developments regarding Connor are predictable, and Arnold doesn't seem to know what to do with a kid's anger any more than Mia does. But we certainly begin to understand the perils of living in a small house where mom is usually drunk and where two girls are left to fend for themselves. If the movie's resolution isn't entirely convincing, the chaos of a tough, impoverished environment feels shockingly authentic and tragically real.

Fish Tank isn't an indictment of society nor is it a trumped-up ode to teen redemption; it is, however, a tribute to Arnold's apparent belief that full immersion in a world is worth more than any message. Like Mia, we're left to fend for ourselves.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Scorsese's way creepy 'Shutter Island'

There's no shortage of gloom on Shutter Island.

The quickest way to sum up Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island is with a mild distortion of a cliché every writer is encouraged to avoid: It's one hell of a dark and stormy movie. Drenched in weirdness and flooded with water (in the form of hurricane-driven rains and bobbing seas), Shutter Island makes you feel as if reality is receding as steadily as an outgoing tide.

I can't say I totally believed what was happening in Shutter Island, but that may be part of Scorsese's strategy. In its own creepy way, the movie delves into the elusive nature of reality. It also finds an impressively strange setting in which to conduct its inquiries: A prison and mental hospital for the criminally insane located on a lonely island off the coast of Massachusetts.

Working from an adaptation of a Dennis Lahane novel, Scorsese has devoted his obviously substantial talents to creating an encompassing world of entrapment and dread. True to its name and location, Shutter Island definitely floats away from the mainland. It's always dangerous to speculate about a filmmaker's motivations, but I'm guessing Scorsese wants us to lose our grip.

In his fourth major collaboration with Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio plays U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels. It's 1954, and Daniels and his new partner (Mark Ruffalo) have been summoned to Shutter Island to investigate the mysterious disappearance of Rachel Soldano, a woman who murdered her three children, but who has insisted throughout her incarceration that her kids are still alive.

As they investigate, DiCaprio and his partner are met with a series of confounding revelations. First off, the island seems escape proof. Soldano vanished while locked in her room. Orderlies she would have had to pass on her way to any exit claim they never saw her leave. So where the hell did she go?

The always crisp Ben Kingsley plays Dr. Joseph Cawley, the shrink in charge, and Max von Sydow, as severe as ever, portrays another psychiatrist. Von Sydow's Dr. Naehring seems to wield ultimate authority on Shutter Island, a place where prisoners are referred to as “patients” and where lobotomy looms for the most intractable of the island's residents. Cawley insists that he's more interested in helping his patients find a measure of peace than in turning them into harmless, post-lobotomy blobs. Could he be up to something more nefarious?

It should come as no surprise that Scorsese whips up a fair measure of bravura filmmaking. In a brilliant opening, a seasick Daniels and his partner approach the island on a ferry. What we first take as the ferry's fog horn morphs into the musical score in brilliant, ominous fashion. A hurricane that strikes the island is presented with palpable force, and even scenes in which Daniels thinks he's seeing his late wife (Michelle Williams) have an eerie imbalance. The same goes for flashbacks to Daniels' war-time service in which he helped liberate Dachau, the German concentration camp.

It's difficult to think of a recent movie that has made such distinctive use of music. I was conscious of the music – normally not a good thing – but it began to feel like one more element in the environment of dislocation that Scorsese successfully creates. With a potent assist from musical director Robbie Robertson, Scorsese makes use of lots of contemporary classical works from notables such as Krzysztof Penderecki, whose music (The Dream of Jacob, I think) will give you a major case of the willies.

If you're looking for some previous movie references you'll find evocations of Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock. And Dante Ferretti's production design – particularly for the hospital's dreaded Ward C – virtually defines the world “dank.”
Although the filmmaking in Shutter Island, which is based on a novel by Dennis Lahane, is as good as you'd expect and DiCaprio offers Scorsese an able assist, the movie suggests more than it's ultimately able to deliver. The payoff doesn't match the promise, and the story – which occasionally seems to be stumbling in the island's wilderness – begins to feel as if it's taking too long to find its way to a conclusion you may at least have glimpsed before it actually arrives. The ending? Well, we'll talk later.

Shutter Island poses a question that's wedded to the surface of things: Is seeing really believing? Scorsese makes us wonder, and keep on wondering after we've left the theater, but he doesn't dig deeply into the most perilous corners of the human heart nor does shake us to the core.

Think of how you felt after watching Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, and you'll know exactly what I mean.

Short takes on the weekend's movies

The Oscar shorts program that unspools at the Chez Artiste this weekend is a typically mixed bag in which the animated features surpass the live-action shorts in interest and creativity. Of the live-action selections, the two most powerful are Kavi, a story of a boy whose father's debts force him into a life of servitude, and The Door, a short about the human repercussions of Chernobyl. If I had to vote for a short in the animated category, I'd be a bit of a loss, but I'd probably settle on Logorama, a zany send-up of corporate ties in Hollywood, action movies and product placement. The shorts program is a worthy endeavor for two reasons. It will give you a solid basis on which to make Oscar picks. Second – and more important – it reminds you of how much can be accomplished within a relatively short amount of screen time. In Kavi, which lasts 19 minutes, at least three characters are clearly defined and an entire world of impoverishment and suffering is depicted. I'm not sure it wouldn't be beneficial for some established directors to make short films once in a while; it might help them remember important things about the economy of expression.


No cheers for Parker Posey, Elen Barkin and Demi Moore.
Mitchell Lichtenstein's first movie, Teeth, was a cult hit that launched at a Sundance Film Festival of several years back. In dealing with the vagina dentata myth, Lichtenstein – son of painter Roy Lichtenstein – served up a mixture of gore and satire that proved funny in a wincing sort of way. Lichtenstein returns to the screen with Happy Tears, a movie about two sisters (Parker Posey and Demi Moore) attempting to cope with their increasingly demented father (Rip Torn). Complicating matters is Dad's crackhead girlfriend, a deglamorized Ellen Barkin. Dad tries to pass Barkin's character off as his nurse, but the ruse doesn't work any more than the movie. Moore – also deglamorized for the occasion -- portrays the more level-headed of the two sisters, and Posey does an all-too-typical Posey turn: She's the snide, out-of-touch sister. Happy Tears' mixes bizarre comedy and serious drama proves mostly indigestible.


I'd been looking forward to director Jon Amiel's Creation, the story of the torments undergone by Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) as he struggled to finish On the Origin of the Species. Had Amiel done nothing other than direct the British TV version of Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective, it would have secured him a place in my pantheon of favorites. Generosity leads me to consider Creation a forgivable misstep that suffers focuses on Darwin's domestic life. Based on a biography by Randal Keynes, the movie follows Darwin's emotional progress as he attempts to come to grips with the death of his oldest daughter Annie (Martha West). He's also dealing with the staunch faith of his wife (Jennifer Connelly), a woman whose God-centered world will be shaken to the core by the theory of evolution. Bettany gives a touching performance, showing Darwin to be a tender if troubled father, but expected something more rigorous. Amiel bravely tries to turn an intellectual story into an emotional one, but the attempt proves only partially successful.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The world -- as we know it -- is doomed

I first read about Collapse during last year's Toronto International Film Festival, so I knew the film had a reputation for knocking folks off center, but who'd have thought that a single talking head could instill so much gloom and doom?

Chris Smith's documentary introduces us to Michael Ruppert, a guy who doesn't need special effects to scare the daylights out of you. He's got peak oil.

Ruppert, a former Los Angeles cop who worked to expose drug-smuggling by the CIA, had his intellectual and emotional epiphany when he discovered the idea of peak oil, the notion that global oil production already has peaked and that we're on the inevitable down slide. For Ruppert, peak oil stands as the most salient fact about contemporary life. Everything else ranks a distant second or third.

I'll give you the condensed version of Ruppert's argument: Just about everything we consume is oil based -- plastics, paints, the tires on our cars, etc. Virtually nothing totally can replace oil as the grease of our economic engine -- not cars powered by electricity, not solar or wind power and not coal.

Because the economies we've built (and which we falsely believe are indestructible) revolve around oil, they're ultimately doomed, and we may already be in the end of days, at least as far as any sustained growth is concerned.

According to Ruppert, a new paradigm must emerge. Our job: to learn how to survive during the transitional period between the steady collapse of the old economic order and the emergence of something more geared to survival on a planet with finite resources. This transition period could take between 20 and 50 years, and it won't be pleasant.

That's a mouthful, and so is the movie. If you expect to see a full-blown nutjob when you watch Collapse, you'll be surprised. Aside from the fact that he chain smokes, Ruppert looks like a guy who might show up at your door to sell you insurance, and his tone never approaches hysteria. He says he's not a conspiracy theorist, but that his "conspiracy" ideas are based on facts, many of them offered in Smith's gripping documentary.

I'm not going to tell you that Ruppert doesn't have critics because that would be untrue. You can look them up. And as many who've written about this movie have remarked, it's not easy for most of us to prove that everything Ruppert says is right. But there's something entirely compelling about listening to this guy, and there's no denying that we've either reached or eventually will reach a point of peak oil production.

Like most prophets who run through the streets shouting warnings of doom, Ruppert does a better job of describing the problem than of offering solutions, but Collapse demands to be seen. These days, it's not difficult to look at the daily run of news (pick your favorite paper, presuming there's still one left near you) and you'll see signs that suggest Ruppert may be right.

And even if he's not: It never hurts to see the world through a different prism, particularly one that challenges us to demonstrate that much of what preoccupies us might be a waste of valuable time -- not just for us but for the whole species. Here's the thing: If the economic sky really is falling, it's going to land on all of us.

Collapse can be seen at the Starz Film Center beginning Friday, Feb. 19. If you don't catch it there, watch for the movie's DVD release.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Why another 'Wolfman?' Beats me

I am Wolfman, Hear me Roar!

The Wolfman, a remake of the 1941 horror classic that starred the estimable Lon Chaney, puts some fury on display - mostly as result of violence that's introduced with all the subtlety of a sonic boom. But what's the point? Visually overstimulated and thematically hollow, this edition of Wolfman brings better technology to an old tale, but still finds itself hampered by ridiculously ominous dialogue, grandly inflated conflicts and a tendency to turn its wolfman attacks into slashing arias of what one character describes as brains, guts and God knows what.

Wasting little time on anything as trivial as character development, director Joe Johnston barrels through the story without leaving much breathing room. Despite a prestigious cast -- led by Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins -- the movie too often loses itself in dark, gloom-shrouded forests where misguided "B" movies search for A-list stature.

"Sometimes, the way of fate is a cruel one,'' says a gypsy woman played by a shriveled-looking Geraldine Chaplin.

Yeah, and sometimes, it's not easy to figure out precisely why a movie has been made.

The tale begins when Del Toro's Lawrence Talbot visits Blackmoor. He's an actor who has been playing Hamlet in London. Talbot returns to the shabby estate that's presided over by his imposing father (Hopkins), a man who seems to have a hired a decorator from the cobweb-and-candle school of interior design.

The impetus for the visit: Talbot's brother has gone missing. The poor fellow's body, we later learn, has been savagely ripped apart. Talbot vows to find his brother's killer. He also meets his brother's fiancee (Emily Blunt). She hangs around for most of the movie, often looking deeply pained. Maybe she's read the script.

Wandering gypsies, enraged villagers, a scolding clergyman and a persistent Scotland Yard inspector (Hugo Weaving) serve as a kind of chorus for the main drama, but add little by way of interest.

If the script - just as it is - had been turned over to Mel Brooks, it might have yielded to the kind of comic impulses that could have saved it from its faux grandiosity, a posture that isn't helped by a Del Toro performance that tends to fade into the Blackmoor mists.

Even Hopkins, no slouch when it comes to stealing a scene, can't tower over the material which plays around with father/son conflicts and the tendency for reason to give way to the beastly side of things, particularly when there's a full moon. Be assured, there's no shortage of full moons in The Wolfman.

All of this has been set to a Danny Elfman score that calls as much attention to itself as the wolfman's howls. Maybe Elfman was trying to match the super strength of werewolves, who are able to knock heads off bodies with a single swipe of the arm and who can't be outrun by mere mortals.

Of course, there's gore aplenty, including severed limbs and bodies that have been chewed to the bone. At times, the movie looks as if the sets had been decorated by someone who had been assigned to prowl through dumpsters outside London's butcher shops.

Full moons, silver bullets and gloomy landscapes not withstanding, Johnston's "I-am-beast, hear-me-roar" approach to drama too often generates more snickering than bone-chilling terror. Johnston (Jurassic Park III and Hidalgo) creates a dour mood, but you'll pretty much be ahead of the plot at every turn.

At the conclusion of a preview screening, a variety of audience members got into the spirit of things by howling like wounded animals. Oh well, maybe The Wolfman has some camp value, after all.

'Valentine's Day' wins no critical love

Ashton Kutcher delivers flowers to Jennifer Garner.

Not content with one romantic comedy, the sappy and conspicuously cute Valentine's Day serves up dozens of them. But by the time this Garry Marshall-directed bouquet is fully delivered, the flowers of romance have wilted amid a sitcom level treatment of love that has been fertilized with a few moments of awkwardly expressed seriousness.

The principal draw here is a large cast that includes Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel, Patrick Dempsey, Shirley MacLaine, Julia Roberts, Queen Latifah, Anne Hathaway, Jamie Foxx and Ashton Kutcher. I'm sure I've omitted someone terribly important to you, but you can check the ads to see which of the movie's 20 or so actors have enough appeal to make you take the plunge.

Marshall directed 1984's The Flamingo Kid and 1990s overrated Pretty Woman, but in pictures such as Georgia Rule and Runaway Bride, he has developed a shtick that mixes dated humor with the lard of high-calorie sentiment.

In Valentine's Day, the formula feels more warmed over than warm -- the difference, say, between a meal prepared in a microwave and one whipped up by a master chef. Valentine's Day is not so much a movie as a display of formulaic elements embedded in a fantasy version of Los Angeles. Maybe you can amuse yourself by bringing a scorecard on which you can keep track of the many stars who overpopulate this supposed confection.

As interrelated mini-stories revolve around a florist shop run by Kutcher's Reed Bennett, the movie attempts to impress us with a teeming cornucopia of love-struck types: There's a cad, a woman who hates Valentine's Day, a guy who suffers through a broken engagement, a squeaky clean-looking woman who supplements her income by working at phone sex, a powerhouse agent, a professional quarterback, a newscaster and an elementary-school kid who desperately wants to send flowers to the love of his life.

Marshall tosses in a few surprises, but they can't compensate for the fact that the movie is so scattered, it's impossible to care about its horde of characters, most of whom who are pushed through one contrived situation after another en route to the inevitable outtakes.

At one point, youngsters in a classroom are asked if they know the origins of Valentine's Day. One kid responds by citing the massacre that took place in Chicago in 1929. We've had a variety of movies dealing with that epic moment in mob history, but midway through Valentine's Day -- which may be too innocuous to raise any real ire -- I found myself longing for the rat-a-tat of Capone's sub-machine guns. Too much cuteness will do that.

Crime may not matter in this police yarn

Dragos Bucur plays a waiting game in Police, Adjective.

The Romanian import Police, Adjective begins with a man following a teen-ager who seems to be on his way to school. We don't know anything about the man or the kid he's tailing. Eventually, we learn that the man -- clad in jeans and a rumpled jacket -- is a detective and that he's following a young man suspected of drug use, namely hashish.

We also learn that we're in a small Romanian city that seems to be totally lacking in lively urban pleasures. The atmosphere is one of overcast skies and economic depravation.

Director Corneliu Porumboiu constructs an entire movie around a police investigation into the smoking of a couple of joints, a preposterous endeavor in any culture. But Porumboiu, who works at a maddeningly slow pace and who tramples normal cop-movie conventions, obviously has something besides crime and punishment in mind.

Precisely what he has in mind remains another matter, and invites a slew of interpretation on the part of those with sufficient patience to sit through Police, Adjective, a movie that found its way onto some year-end best lists and which has garnered general critical favor.

Scenes leading to the movie's finale -- which take place in a police inspector's office and involve extensive and improbable use of a dictionary -- provide clues about what Porumboiu is up to with this strange, frustrating and sometimes amusing movie.

Cristi (Dragos Bucur) -- the detective from the movie's opening scene -- confronts a variety of obstacles, some stemming from the pettiness that flourishes inside deeply entrenched bureaucracies. At one point, Cristi argues with a busy clerk about how quickly a report can be prepared. Behind the clerk's recalcitrance, a refusal to accept the idea that Cristi has any authority over him.

An atmosphere of rife futility prevails: When Cristi's encounter with a young snitch comes to end because the kid has to finish his homework, we realize that Police, Adjective bears about as much resemblance to hard-boiled crime drama as miniature golf does to smash-mouth football.

For all of this, Cristi's motivations remain clear. He doesn't want to ruin a young man's life because of one or two joints. On their recent honeymoon, Cristi and his wife visited Prague. Cristi noticed that young people in Prague tended to smoke joints openly. No big deal. Surely, Romania soon will catch up with the rest of Europe and stop fretting about small-time use of innocuous drugs -- or so Cristi thinks. Cristi's conscience becomes a focal point in the story.

In addition to investigating the case, which involves lots of tedious surveillance, Cristi also spends a lot of time avoiding his boss (Vlad Ivanov). Cristi knows that the chief inspector will insist that he set up an elaborate sting operation and make arrests.

Cristi's meeting with Ivanonv's character constitutes the movie's peculiar finale, a deadpan piece of absurdist comedy. It's as if we've been immersed in a universe in which every transaction hinges on discussions that resemble President Clinton's parsing of the word “is.” Language becomes a tool of manipulation and a cause for subtle confusion. The dictionary stands as a weapon to be wielded against the relevance of personal experience.

Police, Adjective isn't likely to appear in any dictionary under the word "entertainment." Porumboiu likes to employ extended shots in which little happens. When Cristi returns home for lunch, we spend what seems an eternity watching him eat a bowl of soup. Conversations are not broken into over-the-shoulder close-ups, but are presented without benefit of editing. Both participants appear in a single shot. Sometimes, we don't even hear what's being said in a conversation. Like Cristi, we observe from a distance, watching intently but discovering little.

To be honest, there were only so many times I could watch Cristi walk down a corridor in police headquarters without wanting to scream. Porumboiu sometimes makes us wonder whether we're seeing the same scene again and again. These atmospheric helpings of deja vu put us into the same frustrating situation as Cristi, but they also turn the movie into a bit of an endurance test.

In its way, though, Police, Adjective begins to work on your head. Here's a police movie without guns, car chases or tough talk, a film that demands to be understood for what it isn't as much as for what it is.

Toward the end of the movie, Cristi and three fellow cops engage in a game of foot tennis. (No, I never had heard of it, either.) The game is played with a net and a soccer ball, and to my eyes, there seemed to something crazy about it, mayhem within a narrowly defined field of play.

But, then, we all accept a lot of craziness in our daily lives. If nothing else, Police, Adjective provides us with ample proof that sanity is usually in rare supply. Viewed this way, Police, Adjective becomes one of cinema's more rueful jokes, a police movie that doesn't really care about crime.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Romance, violence: same old, same old

Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried in a borefest.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers, John Travolta try to kick butt.

Without romance and action, we probably could reduce the size of every 25-screen multiplex by at least two thirds. So it's hardly surprising that we move into February with examples from each of these venerable genres leading the way. Sadly, neither Dear John nor From Paris With Love serves as a role models for their respective genres. It's also possible to argue that these two movies - though radically different - teach us virtually nothing about their subjects, assuming you can say that the dizzying, dippy From Paris With Love even has a subject.

Dear John, adapted from a Nicholas Sparks' novel of the same name, tells the story of a soldier who falls for a college student. Their romance is put through a wringer of obstacles - many arriving on screen as if they were little more than afterthoughts. This is especially surprising because we're talking about issues as potentially volatile as wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, terminal cancer and autism.

That's an awfully full plate for a romance that feels drastically undernourished and which offers - near as I could determine - only one pleasure, the balm to the senses that comes from beach settings in South Carolina, where much of the story takes place.

We might as well focus on the movie's main and most crippling liability, the lead actors and the characters they play, Savannah Curtis and John Tyree, portrayed by Amanda Seyfried and Channing Tatum. Seyfried, best known for her work on HBO's Big Love, looks so young that it's difficult to accept her in any romance that doesn't involve a corsage and a prom. Tatum, who plays a Special Forces soldier, seems to have been encouraged toward a stinginess of expression that suggests soul and suffering.

It's not exactly earthshaking to say that big-screen romances depend on the sparks that are ignited by the actors. I'm not sure you could start a campfire with the heat that Seyfried and Tatum generate as their characters are pushed through a variety of circumstances that inspire either yawning indifference or an unfortunate awareness that the screenwriters are straining to find ways to impinge on the romance. Savannah and John meet while John is on leave and living with his father (Richard Jenkins), a reclusive soul whose mental impairments have turned him into an obsessive coin collector. He also cooks a lot of lasagna.

Sparks' sentimental novels make easy targets for critics. So, too, the movie, which has been directed without distinction by Lasse Hallstrom, a Swedish-born director whose Hollywood record is spotty, including audience favorites such as What's Eating Gilbert Grape , Chocolat and The Cider House Rules, as well as missed opportunities such as The Shipping News.

Watching Dear John, I wondered what a master of melodrama such as Douglas Sirk (Imitation of Life) might have done with this material. Sirk would have exaggerated and pushed the emotional pedal to the metal. He would have given the movie operatic amplitude, instead of producing what amounts to romantic easy listening.

But Sirk is long gone, and Dear John stands as a bona fide yawner that probably will serve only one notable purpose; it will provide a place for Sparks' legion of fans to convene for popcorn and group sighs.

Now, onto the action.....

From Paris With Love boasts the kind of pedigree that's bound to tempt action junkies. It did me. The movie stars John Travolta in Pulp Fiction mode - only with a shaved head and goatee. It has been directed by Pierre Morel, who also directed the sneering revenge drama Taken, as well as District 13, an irresistible piece of French martial arts mayhem. If you need more by the way of credentials, know that the movie is based on a story by Luc Besson, the French writer/director with his own action track record and a flare for lavish overstatement. Witness The Fifth Element.

These filmmakers have a flare for preposterous action that's so overindulged in From Paris With Love that the movie threatens to collapse under tons of scattered impulses. Let's face it: The line between preposterous and dumb can be awfully thin, and From Paris With Love crosses it early and often.

The movie teams Travolta with Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Meyers portrays James Reese, an embassy assistant who aspires to become a full-fledged CIA operative. Early on Reese hooks up with Travolta's Charlie Wax, a blustering, high octane CIA nut job with method behind his obvious madness. Perhaps knowing that the movie would be rife with explosions, Travolta tries to compete with bursts of profanity and clownish exaggeration. It should be impossible to go over the top in a movie this wild, but I think Travolta managed to do it.

Morel adopts a cut-and-slash approach to editing that makes the action - everything from Uzi-sprayed ceilings to blurry car chases - frenetic without being entirely comprehensible. The story -- which peels back layers of plot to get at (what else?) a terrorist threat - - is little more than scaffolding on which to hang an extensive but meaningless body count.

Amid the chaos, Travolta and Meyers do their version of an odd-couple routine. At one point, Meyers' character carries a vase full of cocaine through a couple of shootouts, a ploy that's more confounding than funny. Amid the furor, he also tries to stay in touch with his fiance (Kasia Smutniak). He's being tested throughout, building toward the all-important question that every would-be CIA agent must answer: When it really matters, can he pull the trigger?

Here's the thing about movies such as From Paris With Love: They needn't make sense, but they do require that their rampant violence be accompanied by a subversive sense of fun, a delight in the intricacies that the filmmakers weave into their energetic set pieces. You can find an example in Morel's own work. Just rent District 13.

As for From Paris With Love. Lots of bullets fly, but too few hit any truly entertaining targets.

The ugly battle for Tolstoy's legacy

Mr. and Mrs. Tolstoy in a rare happy moment.

If you've ever wondered how George and Martha -- the battling couple from Edward Albee's “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf” -- might have looked had they lived in 19th Century Russia, you need look no further than director Michael Hoffman's The Last Station. Set in the waning days of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy's life, The Last Station revolves around an epic battle between Tolstoy and his wife, Sofya.

The two had plenty of reason to fight. Toward the end of his life, Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) attracted a large number of Tolstoyans to an expansive form of Christianity that focused on Christ as a beneficent soul who championed the cause of a benighted but essentially noble peasantry.

To underscore his beliefs, Tolstoy wore peasant clothes and expressed withering disdain for his aristocratic heritage. None of this could have been easy for Tolstoy, who was both wealthy and a celebrity. And it was even more difficult for his wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren), who fought to keep her husband's wealth from supporting a movement she grew to detest.

Tolstoy was encouraged in building his prototypical social movement by Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), who apparently attempted to appropriate Tolstoy's fame and fortune for the benefit of a movement that had established communes where participants chopped a lot of wood and refrained from sexual relations. (Tolstoy himself evidently hadn't shown such restraint during the lustful days of a wanton youth.) As played by Giamatti, Chertkov comes across as the ultimate anti-party animal, an intractable ideologue capable of little compassion.

Plummer, nominated for an Oscar in the best supporting actor category, portrays Tolstoy as a man of large, embracing spirit, the papa bear of Russian literature and of a social movement that he doesn't seem to take quite as seriously as some of its adherents. Nominated for best actress, Mirren conveys Sofya's desperation as a wife who fears she has been supplanted in her husband's heart by the Tolstoyans who idealize him.

Credit Mirren with also showing that Sofya – though often shrill – could seem a bastion of common sense. Sofya convincingly attacks the Tolstyans as peddlers of hooey, and Mirren makes it clear that Sofya's position is based on a finely honed and skeptical intelligence, as well as on fear of financial ruin.

Unfortunately for the movie, there's more to The Last Station than battles between Tolstoy and Sofya. The story also introduces us to an eager young writer (James McAvoy) who's hired by Chertkov to become Tolstoy's private secretary. McAvoy's Valentin Bulgakov lives on a commune near the Tolstoy estate, and is supposed to serve as a spy for Chertkov.

Instead of falling prey to Chertkov's agenda, Bulgakov begins to be swayed by Tolstoy's generosity and tolerance, so much so that he finds himself lured by the charms of a fellow Tolstoyan (Kerry Condon). Bulgakov also plays middleman between Tolstoy and Sofya, refusing to become a total pawn in Chertkov's game.

McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland) knows how to portray avid young men, but scenes involving Bulgakov's awakening can't hold a candle to those over which the great novelist or the ranting Sofya preside.

Based on a novel by Jay Parini, the movie occasionally sputters, but remains worthwhile for the performances of Plummer and Mirren, which tend toward impressive exaggeration. That makes sense. The movie reminds us that Tolstoy was a carefully watched celebrity. The Russian press took a keen interest in his sputtering marriage and declining health. If he were alive today, Tolstoy probably would have found himself a subject for TMZ, the Internet celebrity gossip hub.

I doubt whether either Plummer or Mirren will win Oscars, but they're the kind of accomplished pros who have the stature to give Tolstoy and Sofyo the vividly memorable screen life they deserve.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Two movies leave us out in the cold

If you need to be any colder this winter, two movies offer an excellent opportunity to feel the chill.


Climbing doesn't get more difficult than in North Face.

No denying there are thrills (and chills) in North Face, director Philipp Stölzl's movie about two German climbers who try to conquer the treacherous north face of the Eiger, a fabled mountain in Switzerland. Once you know that Eiger means Ogre, you pretty much get the idea. Reaching the top of sheer Eiger cliff walls is no easy task, and when the movie begins -- in 1936 -- no climbers have yet accomplished the task.

Benno Fürmann, as Toni Kurz, and Florian Lukas, as Andreas Hinterstoisser, play members of the Mountain Brigade of the German Army. An aspiring newspaper photographer (Johanna Wokalek) approaches this Bavarian-born duo at the suggestion of a reporter (Ulrich Tukar). Tukar's character is full of Nazi bluster, and thinks that the sight of two Germans conquering the Eiger would have enormous PR value. Germans, he argues, would be encouraged to believe they truly could scale any heights.

Stolzl faced a fairly large problem in making his movie. How could he glorify the heroism of two intrepid climbers if they were also part of the Third Reich propaganda machine? To take the political edge off his main characters, Stolzl uses the movie's reporter as a kind of foil. He also includes scenes in which an Austrian spectator of the climb -- folks watched from a hotel at the base of the mountain -- makes clear that he wants Hitler to stay out of his country.

Stolzl creates additional empathy for Kurz and Hinterstoisser by showing that they were apolitical outdoorsmen capable only of the most lackluster sig heils. An epilogue at the film's end boasts a shot that seems intended to demonstrate that one of the characters escaped the tarnish of Germany's racism.

Still, I couldn't help think that while I was white knuckling at the sight of two climbers engaging some very spectacular hazards, Jews were being persecuted in Germany's cities, and Hitler was cranking up his war machine. You'll have to decide for yourself how much such knowledge influences your viewing experience, how you feel about a movie that pushes history to its periphery.

Judging by the degree of difficulty, though, North Face is a superior example of the particularly German, mountain film genre. I can only imagine how hard it was to film scenes of Kurz and Hinterstoisser on the mountain, and once the action starts, the climbing segments keep us riveted.

Unfortunately, Stolzl waters down their impact by switching from the mountain to the posh hotel where the spectators have gathered. The hardship and heroism of the climbers contrasts with the comfort and safety of those who watch from a distance. The point is made early and often -- too often.

I don't know how much liberty Stolzl has taken with the facts. A love story between Kurz and Wokalek's Louise adds some poignancy, but what happens on the mountain keeps the movie percolating and us frozen with tension in our seats.


Three skiers have a very bad day.

Bring a sweater to Frozen, a thriller/horror movie that takes place almost entirely on the stalled chair lift of a New England ski resort. Having ridden lifts like the one in the movie – mostly at the end of summer at Telluride Film Festivals – I've felt what it's like to hope that you don't fall off or get stuck in mid-air. (The old Telluride lifts had straps that fit loosely across your lap.) The characters in Frozen, by director Adam Green, don't fair nearly as well as I did. I always arrived at the top. Decently acted by Emma Bell, Parker O'Neil and Joe Lynch , the movie strands three skiers in the middle of their ride. If Frozen, which played as a midnight movie at the recently concluded Sundance Film Festival, is a bit of a director's exercise, I'd give it a solid "B." Expect a few grisly sights and be prepared for a pack of hungry wolves, but know that Green and his cast make you feel both the cold and the sense of helplessness that confronts three skiers who face the prospect (never mind why) of spending a week suspended over a mountain with no help in sight. Of course, it takes a bit of contrivance to set the story in motion, but once he gets going, Green -- unlike his characters -- pretty much avoids getting stuck.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Can a legal system provide justice?

Despite its title, director Hans-Christian Schmid hasn't ginned up Storm for visceral excitement. Instead, Schmid immerses us in a tangle of problems surrounding the prosecution of a Bosnian Serb general for crimes against humanity. Kerry Fox plays a prosecutor who has been asked to try the case in The Hague, and the movie takes a variety of twists that call the motivations of nearly everyone into question. Far from undermining the movie, Schmid's even-handed strategy turns Storm into a fascinating look at morally complex issues that resist easy answers. Although the movie makes clear the kind of atrocities that the general perpetrated -- most notably against Muslim women -- it also shows how justice can be compromised in the name of accepting so-called “adult” solutions. Anamaria Marinca, pictured above with Fox, portrays a woman who – at great personal risk – is asked to testify by those who risk little more than finding themselves on the losing side of a legal battle. Thought-provoking and intelligent, Storm presents a remarkably clear-eyed view of how legal systems work – or don't. The movie leaves us thinking that something's terribly wrong when justice can be bartered away.

(Storm opens in Denver Friday.)

10 pictures, but not many real surprises

Both Avatar and The Hurt Locker are aiming for Oscar gold.

If you care, you already know this year's Oscar nominations in every category. You also may be a little worn out on statues, having endured what seems an endless parade of critics' awards and the always over-hyped Golden Globes. Still, nothing trumps Oscar for prestige, and no matter how little the pompously named Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences surprises us, we're always forced to glance in Oscar's direction.

OK, you know that Avatar and The Hurt Locker tied for the lead in nominations with nine each. You also know that Oscar's expanded 10-picture list includes The Blind Side, a decent enough movie but one that probably would have caused little Oscar stir in years gone by. And without the 10-picture approach it's inconceivable that District 9 would have found its way onto a best-picture list. Oscar has never been partial to sci-fit, but this year's best picture list not only includes District 9 (about aliens stranded on Earth) but also Avatar (about aliens as holy primitives.)

The 10-picture news, of course, isn't all bad. I'd rather see A Serious Man on a best picture list -- which it is -- than wonder why Star Trek, though entertaining and zesty, deserved to be ranked among the year's elite. It wasn't.

For all the hoopla, it already seems clear that Avatar and The Hurt Locker will duke it out for best picture. But with 10 movies, it's just possible that The Blind Side could surprise everyone, even though neither its screenplay nor its director received Oscar attention.

Quick. Who directed The Blind Side? Did you see John Lee Hancock's name on anyone's awards list? Neither did I. The Blind Side has become Bullock's picture. No one else need apply for ownership.

For the record, the 10-picture format strikes me as little more than a PR stunt, a sop to popular taste that gives the category the faint aroma of The People's Choice Awards. Of course, if the people really did have an Oscar choice, The Hangover would have made the best picture list. Even with 10 movies, Oscar remains comedy shy.

And for all its attempts at a new populism -- a.k.a., the search for higher TV ratings -- Oscar still found plenty of room for movies that first made their bones at film festivals: The Hurt Locker, An Education, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, and Up in the Air.

I was hearted to see Oren Moverman's The Messenger -- and important and deeply moving movie about the impact of war on soldiers who survive it -- earn Oscar nominations in the best supporting actor category (for Woody Harrelson) and for best original screenplay. If you haven't seen it, make an effort.

It was equally heartening to see that In the Loop was nominated in the best adapted screenplay category. It won't win, but the Academy seems to have recognized that the movie was witty, incisive and delicious satirical. And while we're on the subject, I would love to have seen Peter Capaldi (of the same movie) on the list of best supporting actor nominees. He was brilliant as a vicious PR-conscious British government advisor and could have replaced Matt Damon, who played a rugby star in Invictus, a movie that was snubbed for best picture. Damon, by the way, was outstanding as a whistleblower in Steven Soderbergh's The Informant!

Still, it's difficult to carp about the best actor category. Even though Jeff Bridges has become a runaway favorite for his work as an alcoholic singer in Crazy Heart, there's no one on the list I'd want to see knocked off. The Academy did the right thing by including Jeremy Renner, who played the wild man leader of a bomb squad in The Hurt Locker. Colin Firth's nomination in the same category proved that Oscar can recognize quiet work. Firth played a bereaved gay English professor in A Single Man.

Maggie Gyllenhaal as best supporting actress for her portrayal of a single mom in Crazy Heart? Not in my world. I'd rather have seen Julianne Moore honored for her work in A Single Man. Maybe it doesn't matter. Does anyone believe that Mo'Nique can be beaten in this category? She played the world's most abusive mother in Precious.

Like everyone else, I was surprised to see The Secret of Kells on the best animated feature list and a little dismayed that The Princess and the Frog -- lesser Disney -- made the cut. Still, I wouldn't bet the rent against Up, the favorite in this category.

But you know what? This should be your day to applaud your favorites and scream about what you regard as the Academy's sins of omission. Want to know what makes me truly happy? An interminable awards season finally is drawing to a close -- even if we still have to wait until figure skaters collect Olympic gold before we learn who'll win Oscar gold.

The awards will be handed out on March 7.