Friday, April 30, 2010

A tasty bit of neo-noir from Australia

One of Ray's many bad moments in The Square, another helping of neo-noir.

If you spend a lot of time watching so-called indies, you may be close to the saturation point with neo-noir thrillers in which an ordinarily judicious sap is drawn into a world of trouble because he can't keep his fly zipped. I almost skipped the Australian movie The Square because I'd had my fill of the kind of James M. Cain wannabes that regularly unreel at local art houses. That would have been a mistake, if a minor one. I'm glad I made time for The Square, director Nash Edgerton's movie about a construction supervisor who's complicit in his own seedy downfall. Ray (David Roberts) wants to leave his wife and run off with Carla (Claire van der Boom. In order for that to happen, Carla must split from her husband (Anthony Hayes), a boor, jerk and petty criminal. Flight looks more likely when Carla discovers that her husband has stashed a bag full of money in the ceiling of the laundry room. Ray and Carla will take the money, skip town and live happily ever after. Familiarity with both life and movies, promptly inspires us to say, "Fat chance." To be sure, nothing works out for Ray and Carla, but Edgerton the script by Edgerton and Matthew Dabner proves perversely clever. And don't arrive late or you'll miss Spider, the nasty but inspired short that precedes The Square.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Straight from the streets, art!

Street artists at work in an elusive documentary.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is a difficult movie to review. It's a documentary, but isn't distinguished by style, insight or even scrupulous attention to detail. On top of that, the movie changes its focus about half way through. As a result, you may leave the theater unsure whether you should believe all of what you've seen and even half of what you've heard in this amusing look at the anarchic world of street art.

Such misgivings aside, it's difficult to dismiss this happily ambiguous piece of work. In being so elusive, Exit Through the Gift Shop may have captured something essential about its subject: I came away thinking that street artists are seriously unserious, and that work can be taken as a kind of running assault on the sometimes impregnable world of galleries, museums and other “official” venues. It's even possible that street art movement – if it's not to grand to call it a "movement" – reflects a culture that already has shifted its priorities from high art to popular production. The in-your-face audacity of the best street art gives Gift Shop much of its kick.

I suppose the movie is a bit of a cinematic Rorschach. Because of its ambiguity, it's possible to see Gift Shop as a goof on art-world pretensions, as a goof on itself, and even as a goof on the purported veracity of documentaries. At its best, Gift Shop offers an intriguing display of street art from a variety of its best practitioners.

If you've been yearning to know what an artist called Space Invader has been up to, here's your chance. You'll also learn about the work of Shepard Fairey, who became famous for a series of Andre the Giant posters and for creating a trademark Barack Obama campaign poster that eventually resulted in a lawsuit. The Associated Press sued Fairey for appropriating one of its images and turning it into an icon and collector's item.

All well and good – and even fun – but Gift Shop remains alarmingly mum on nagging questions involving its subject. Does street art enhance or deface the public environment? Shouldn't those who are exposed to it have a choice about whether they want to look at it? You'll have to decide for yourself because the rebelliousness and physical daring of the street artists is presented without much examination, even when that same rebelliousness becomes marketable. Some of these art guerrillas have pretty fat bankbooks.

So who actually made Gift Shop? Internet Movie Data Base lists Banksy as its director. Banksy – for the uninitiated – is a British street artist with an outsized reputation and a penchant for anonymity. He's interviewed in the film, but his face is obscured by shadows and his head is covered with a hoodie. The movie begins with Banksy telling us about the somewhat dubious exploits of a compulsive, amateur videographer named Thierry Guetta. The French-born Guetta, who lives in Los Angeles, photographed a variety of street artists at work, but desperately wanted to meet Banksy, whose high-priced work seems to have plenty of appeal for collectors. Eventually, Guetta got his wish.

When Banksy suggests that Guetta actually put a film together, the photographer stumbles. He has tons of footage, but no idea about how to assemble a film. The resultant production – called Life: Remote Control -- proves unwatchable.

With a bit of prodding from Banksy, Guetta decides to become a street artist himself, shifting his attentions to a Los Angeles-based show that he hopes will rival an exhibition Banksy staged in the same city. Outdoing Banksy was no easy task; Banksy procured (and painted) a live elephant for his show.
Exit Through the Gift Shop, which caused quite a stir at January's Sundance Film Festival, has no startling news for us. Street artists talk about the kick derived from the danger of expressing oneself illegally, and the relationship between Guetta to his subjects – from documentarian to accomplice – contains few shocks. Some of the artists are happy to have Guetta around because, like them, he's willing to scale walls and climb billboards. Besides, he often serves as a lookout for the cops.

Actor Rhys Ifans narrates the movie in stentorian tones that make you wonder if the whole thing might be intended as a put-on. At times, it's difficult to believe that you're not watching a mutation of the mockumentary, only with real people playing some version of themselves.
The movie eventually holds Guetta up as an ambitious poseur. Fake or not, Mr. Brainwash -- Guetta's nom de artiste -- must be laughing all the way to the bank; he sold a lot of work at his show. Whatever else Exit Through the Gift Shop might be, it manages to provide chuckles, and, in its way, it reveals plenty about those who make street art, often stenciling it on the side of buildings or billboards.

If we lived in a totalitarian society, much street art would be viewed as protest against the prevailing power structure. In an open society, the art seems apolitical and prankish, and -- much like this movie -- riven with contradiction: It's both subversive in spirit and eager to please.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

'The Losers.' Do you really need to ask?

The Losers on parade in the latest comic-book movie.

Let's see. I've made tea. I've thumbed through the newly arrived New Yorker. I've read a few Facebook posts and skimmed Twitter. I even forced myself to plow through a Christopher Hitchens' article about the dark side of Dickens in the May issue of the Atlantic. I've been doing all this by way of procrastinating, delaying the moment when I must write the following sentence: To my mind, The Losers is a major waste of time.

Now, I know, most movies offer at least a modicum of pleasure, if only at the fringes: a chuckle here or there, a tasty small performance, a toe-tapping soundtrack, maybe even a tricky camera move. And, yes, I also know someone immediately will argue the other side of The Losers' case. Fanboys may well ask how it's possible to reject a movie that offers a view of Zoe Saldana in her underwear? It's an argument, I suppose, but even the presence of the beautiful Saldana (of Avatar, Death at a Funeral and Star Trek fame) did nothing to alter my opinion about the latest movie to roll off Hollywood's comic-book assembly line.

Look, I'm not a comic-book movie bigot. I'm an ardent supporter of Kick-Ass, which had the right boisterous spirit, the right approach to violence and the right director, Matthew Vaughn. It also had an unexpectedly outre sense of humor about itself. Maybe the source material was better, too. For the record: The Losers comic books -- written by Andy Diggle - revolve around a group of renegade soldiers who battle the CIA because the agency had the gall to attempt to assassinate them. (Or so I learned from Wikipedia.)

In this moment of extreme paranoia about government, the idea of a full-scale revolt against the CIA has some promise, although government haters seem far less likely to take aim at the CIA and FBI than at the IRS. For all its attempted muscularity, The Losers seems uninterested in dabbling in the darker side of its noisy preoccupations, something you'd think might have come more easily for a movie that begins with a scene in Bolivia that includes the death of 25 children.

The group known as The Losers, born out of that terrible Bolivian moment, has a distressingly generic feel. Clay (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) leads the team with what only can be described as an alarming lack of charisma. I'm not going to name the rest of the characters except to note that they are defined more by function than personality: The guy who drives; the guy who understands all matters technical; the guy who handles the explosives and the expert marksman.

At one point, I wondered if the movie would have been more interesting had Idris Elba, who plays an explosives expert named Roque, been cast as the group's leader. The guy has no-nonsense appeal. And I would like to have seen a bit more of Columbus Short, who plays a Loser who can drive any vehicle. (Poor Short, Hollywood owes him something; he's also featured in the dismal Death at a Funeral.)

Saldana signs on to play Aisha, a woman who enters the picture claiming that she can help Clay and his cohorts exact revenge on Max (Jason Patric), the rogue CIA guy who set them up and who's involved in a plot to set off a weapon called a Snuke or, if you prefer the technical term, "a sonic dematerializer." A negligible attempt at storytelling serves as little more than an excuse for explosions, fights and comic-book style mayhem, little of it presented with aplomb.

The Losers (certainly a brave name for any movie) takes occasional stabs at seriousness. Think Walter Hill for gamers. (Hill? Check out early work such as Warriors or Extreme Prejudice.) Real comic book movies - especially those that derive from what seems a second tier of comic-book life - should be fearless. I refer you again to last week's Kick-Ass, a movie that has the courage of its hard-boiled convictions. I can't say the same for The Losers. <>p> Director Sylvain White (Stomp the Yard) seems to subscribe the Cuisinart school of camera work and editing. He makes a few attempts at acknowledging the comic-book origins of the material, but even as it hopscotches around the globe, The Losers feels cheesy and second-rate.

Without galvanizing star turns or any real wit, The Losers plays like an alternate universe version of an action movie that splatters upon arrival. So, yes, I call it a waste, but suggest an alternative: Multiple viewings of Kick-Ass.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

No peace, lots of war in this epic

Jet Li fights to the finish in Warlords.

The Warlords should appeal to those who loved John Woo's Red Cliff, although it's not quite up to Woo's standards. In Warlords, director Peter Ho-Sun Chan orchestrates an epic story about the Taiping Rebellion, which began in 1850 and spread across 14 years of bloody Chinese history. Warlords features a strong performance by Jet Li as General Pang Qingyun. General Pang, the sole survivor of a horrific opening-film battle, winds up leading a band of former bandits into a war he hopes will end oppression of the downtrodden masses. Pang's a pro-freedom guy, which means that he wants to free ordinary people from the ravages of war. Along the way, General Pang makes a variety of challenging battle-related decisions, not the least of which involves the slaughter 4,000 rival soldiers who already have surrendered. With starvation a constant threat, Pang believes that he can't deplete the food supply for his own troops by feeding prisoners. The relationship between General Pang and two men (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau) provide the movie with a narrative backbone. The three warriors swear a blood oath that unites them forever. This pact immediately tips us that the story will examine the role of loyalty and betrayal in a society ruled by treacherous rival factions. A love triangle introduces a character played by Xu Jinglei, who lights some sparks with Li in the early going but who's only intermittently involved in the rest of the movie. No problem. Love is a bit beside the point in a movie such as Warlords, which keeps busy by putting the ideals of its warriors to the test. Li's martial arts prowess turns up only toward the end. That also makes sense: The story is about massive battles, not individual combat. Battlefield spectacles and bracingly composed shots add to the interest, and when Warlords finally turns tragic, it mines emotional pay dirt.

Warlords opens in Denver Friday; it's worth catching on DVD when it has its U.S. release.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

She's a real mother; so's the movie

Kim Hye-ja, motherhood and madness make a toxic mix.

The jazz that I most closely associate with the 1950s and '60s had a spirit of defiance, a capacity for lyricism and a taste for experimentation. The musicians were pushing boundaries, and if they sometimes lost their way, they were forgiven. There's really no precise equivalent in film, but watching Korean director Bong Joon-ho's Mother, I wondered whether something close to the probing, sometimes playful quality of jazz hasn't distinguished Bong's work. Like a jazz musician, Bong searches for novelty within familiar frames.

In The Host -- a movie about a monster that threatened Seoul -- Bong found ways to unify a variety of disparate genre elements, riffing on them while at the same time respecting their potency. In Mother, Bong does much the same thing, only the movie is far more unsettling than The Host, which I never took all that seriously. Both movies are deeply strange, but Mother has more haunting power.

The story Mother tells is nothing if not weird. Twenty-seven-year-old Do-joon (Won Bin) lives with his mother (Kim Hye-ja). Kim's character is both solicitous and possessive of her grown son, a young man who seems to be mentally impaired, although it's not clear how much debilitation he suffers. He and his mother sleep in the same bed, but their relationship doesn't seem to have become overtly incestuous.

The movie's lack of clarity may be intentional on Bong's part: He creates an atmosphere in which lines blur and the purest emotions can become hopelessly twisted; i.e., a mother's love for her son can become so overpowering that it leads her into territory that borders on perversity – and, no, we're not talking about sex.

Notably, we never hear a word about a father in Do-joon's story, which eventually turns into a murder mystery. Do-joon is arrested for the murder of a young woman (Moon Hee-ra) whose body is found draped over a wall on the roof of a building. Lacking other suspects and possessing one piece of incriminating evidence, the police conclude their investigation. For the cops, it's an open-and-shut case.

Believing that her son is incapable of murder, Kim's character begins to investigate. She eventually involves one of Da-joon's pals, a slick, knowing fellow named Jin-tae (Jin Goo). Jin-tae also may be a suspect in the crime.

The murder of a schoolgirl does not conclude the film's cycle of violence or bring any sense of closure to an open-ended plot. The key to appreciating Bong's work involves deriving pleasure from watching loose ends dance in winds generated by characters who are ill equipped to understand their own motivations. We don't always know precisely what's happening, but Bong's visual skills and Kim's performance keep the movie from falling apart.

Kim's performance is a powerhouse of mixed messages. She plays Mother with a mixture of quiet endearments, ferocious determination and extreme vulnerability. Kim is one of those actresses who can appear attractive and welcoming one second and appalling the next. Kim's character is a kind of uncontrollable force – a mixture of healing urges and undisguised ferocity, most of it expressed in attempts to protect her son.

Do-joon isn't easy to understand, either. He can be as defiant as a balky adolescent or as naïve as a toddler. Usually, his face reveals little. He's a mama's boy with all the baggage that brings. He rubs his temples when he's trying to remember something. As it turns out, he has plenty to remember.

Mother works on a variety of levels; it's a powerful expression of realities that seem ungraspable, a twisted murder mystery, a dark comedy and a bizarre character study that puts any number of conflicting psychological forces in play. Bong's particular brand of genius allows this quietly crazy movie to be all of a piece, even as it pushes toward the most terrible extremes.

It's rude! It's crude! It's a real kick!

You better like Kick-Ass - or else.

En route to the preview screening of Kick-Ass, my wife asked me what movie we were about to see. I'm sometimes deceitfully vague about such things, and this was one of those occasions. When I'm not sure that a movie will appeal to her - or when I'm pretty certain it won't - I usually mumble something like "movie tonight."

Of course, after many years of movie companionship, my wife knows my duplicitous ways. She either agrees to keep me company - a form of marital pity, I suppose - or cooks up an excuse for staying home. "So much to do." "So tired." "So not as crazy as you."

I've always felt sorry for critics whose spouses are less adventurous than mine. My wife has seen many awful movies, but look at it his way: The junk makes the good ones seem even better.

Anyway, we're already too close to the theater to turn around when I tell her the night's movie is called Kick-Ass. She groans, but I try to reassure her.

"Look, you never know," I say, pumping a bit of uncustomary optimism into my voice.

All this by way of telling you that Kick-Ass does everything that its title promises and perhaps a little more. And, yes, my wife enjoyed it as much as I did, and was totally taken with Chloe Moretz, who plays an 11-year-old character named Hit Girl. Hit Girl packs a wallop, knows her way around weapons and has an R-rated mouth that provides the movie with a running (and alarmingly funny) joke: Her behavior is so stunningly inappropriate for her age that you either shudder or laugh. I laughed. Besides, how can you not admire an 11-year-old girl who sounds as if she'd like to kick Hannah Montana in the teeth and curse a blue streak while doing it?

Kick-Ass is one of those movies that has the potential to divide audiences. If the idea of watching an 11-year-old kill, curse and maim offends you, stay home. In fact, stop reading now. I recently saw a report that James Ivory (of Merchant/Ivory fame) is working on a new movie. Be patient. Your day will come.

But it you're in the other group - that would be those of us who like cheap thrills and unabashed genre kicks - pull up a chair and let me tell you about a movie that's fun and (ready for this?) even includes a Nicolas Cage performance that won't make you want to rip your eyes out.

Oops. I just realized I haven't even mentioned what this wildly insane movie is all about. Adapted from a comic by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., Kick-Ass tells the story of Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) a horny high-school kid (is there any other kind in movies?) who believes that every self-respecting human longs to be a superhero. What better way to help your fellow man than to trample a few villains?

True to his dorky nature, Dave sends away for a wet suit. It's green with yellow piping and comes with a mask. He names his newly minted Superhero "Kick-Ass," which shows that he's got a sense of daring and (let's face it) a poorly developed imagination. Delusional Dave, who has absolutely no superpowers, believes that the superhero costume somehow will make him invulnerable.

Looking for logic in a movie such as Kick-Ass is a bit like trying to locate a burger at a vegan convention. You just don't do it. The movie doesn't so much unfold as pop from one set-piece to another, introducing a host of amusingly preposterous characters along the way. Dave has long had a crush on high-school hottie Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca). Because of a bizarre twist, she believes he's gay, and reaches out to him. She's always wanted a gay friend. You know those gays. So sensitive.

To stay in touch with Katie, Dave sustains the ruse.

The other characters will be familiar to aficionados of the comic. Cage plays Big Daddy, a former cop who seeks revenge against Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong), one of the city's crime bosses. Hit Girl is Big Daddy's daughter, the sweet little girl that he's turned into a lethal weapon.

As it turns out, D'Amico's son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse; a.k.a. Superbad's McLovin) wants to follow in his father's footsteps. To aid his father, he sets a trap for Kick-Ass, posing as a superhero named Red Mist. It's difficult to imagine two dorkier superheroes than Kick-Ass and Red Mist, but then you don't have to: The movie gets a lot of mileage out of these two wannabe heroes.

As you may already have guessed, Moretz and Mintz-Plasse steal the show. As the title character, Johnson doesn't register quite as strongly, perhaps because he spends an awful lot of time behind his goofy mask. And Moretz? Well, it's possible that in her Hit Girl outfit and purple wig, you won't recognize her from her turn in 500 Days of Summer.

Director Matthew Vaughn, best known for Layer Cake, an entertaining but derivative British crime drama of the kind that was in vogue after the success of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, in no way shrinks from insanity. Rather he revels in it, propelling his movie across the screen with real comic-book zest. He occasionally presents us with comic-book-style drawings, perhaps to remind those who aren't prepared for so much rabid violence that they are indeed watching a movie.

Now, usually I might be offended by an 11-year-old girl who spouts profanity, and when Kick-Ass threatened (only for a hot minute) to get a little serious, I fretted. But the frenzied action, cartoonish gangsters and dark humor - not to mention Kick-Ass' voice-over narration - proves as funny as it is far-fetched. Check your inhibitions at the door and you may have a good time. I can't predict how audiences will react to Kick-Ass. Detractors surely will see it as the equivalent of pulling another brick out of an already crumbling cultural wall. But I'm voting enthusiastically in favor of this bit of cinematic mayhem. Vaughn manages to ape and poke fun at as many genres as he can find. A rude-ass popcorn movie with a foul mouth and taste for exaggerated violence, Kick-Ass is a blast.

Don't believe me? Ask my wife.

Kells (yes); the Joneses & a new doc (no)

As most filmgoers by now know, The Secret of Kells became a surprise Oscar nominee for best animated feature. At the time, the movie hadn't been widely seen in the United States, and no one gave it much of a chance to defeat Up, the obvious frontrunner and ultimate winner. But for my money – what little there is of it – Kells qualifies as one of the most enchanting animated films of 2009 or of any other year for that matter. And guess what? Kells involves no 3-D, no puppetry and no computer-dominated trickery. The movie tells the simple story of a young monk who has a variety of adventures as he strives to complete an illustrated book. A serviceable tale plays second fiddle to the beautifully realized visual environment that co-directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey create. The movie boasts drawing that's purposefully two-dimensional, but still entirely encompassing, somewhere between an illustrated storybook and a stained glass window. The tale focuses on preparations at a medieval abbey for a Viking invasion. That invasion is depicted in ways that may unsettle the youngest children, so it's possible that adults may become the movie's most vocal supporters. The voice work – by Brendan Gleeson (as the abbot); Mick Lally (as Brother Aidan); and Evan McGuire (as the young monk) is first rate and never cutesy. Still, the artists win the day, giving Kells the wonder that an illustrated book must once have had for those lucky enough to encounter them. Secret of Kells is a stirring and entirely gratifying piece of work that takes us into a world of fairies, forbidding forests and even monsters, reminding us that sometimes we must go deep into the woods to revive weary imaginations.


I debated about how much to reveal about The Joneses, a satirical comedy about the wanton consumption habits of folks who live in affluent suburbs. After a few minutes of hand-wringing, I opted for saying little about the Joneses, except to note that director Derrick Borte has made a movie that's obvious, a trifle distasteful and too eager to cop out in the final going. David Duchovny and Demi Moore play a perfectly matched husband and wife who, in the picture's opening moments, move into a perfect new neighborhood with their two high-school age kids (Amber Heard and Ben Hollingsworth). When the Joneses open the door to greet their next door neighbors (Glenne Headly and Gary Cole), Duchovny and Moore are smiling so broadly, we immediately suspect that something untoward must be lurking beneath the movie's surface. We soon learn the family secret (no, I'm not telling), and the movie turns into an assault on blind consumerism of the kind suggested by the title; i.e., the push to keep up with the Joneses. How this story plays in an improving but still distressed economy is anyone's guess, but The Joneses tempers its satirical bite by delivering a finger-wagging message. Duchovny acquits himself well. Moore, of course, looks fit, but it doesn't take long for the movie to be weighed down by the behavior of its characters. I wouldn't want them for neighbors, and I was sorry to have spent a couple of hours with them.


The documentary Dancing Across Borders has an interesting story to tell. Too bad it doesn't tell it in particularly well. Director Anne Bass visited Cambodia in 2000 and was taken by the prowess and charms of a 16-year-old dancer named Sovkannara. Bass decided to make a film and to bring Sovkannara to the United States where he could study ballet. Scenes of Sokvannara's arduous training quickly become monotonous. Although he's clearly a gifted dancer, it takes time for Sokvannara – known as Sy in New York -- to adjust to the toe-dancing rigors of ballet. Eventually Sokvannara's life turns into a heartening success story, but a lack of depth (and finesse) confines the movie to the realm of anecdote.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Life is Tweet: Odds & ends from Twitter

I'm inaugurating a new feature in which I provide a summary of some of my recent Tweets. If you can't wait for these occasional aggregations of digitally provoked flotsam, you can follow me on Twitter. Look me up by name. If not, this short feature will supply clues about how I use the Web to fill those vacant hours in my otherwise rich life. Not everything is movie-related and most of these "observations" are not linked to one another by either logic or common sense. But, then, what is?

He told us the Wicked Witch of the West was dead.

April 10. Population of Munchkin Land continues to shrink.

 April 9. ... After a phone call to Qwest: Tech support can be helpful, providing you can get past the automated system that's designed to make it difficult to talk to a human. ... Wish I could say I love the newspaper business as much as I love movies about newspapers. ... Sorry I can't see the Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit in NYC.  Photo taken in Shanghai in 1948 is magnificent.  ...  After seeing The Runaways, I feel better about Kristen Stewart. Nice to see the Twilight actress do something besides moon over vampires. She  makes a great Joan Jett.  (See my recent review of The Runaways.) .... Jeffrey Katzenberg talks to Variety about the future of 3-D. Don't know about you, but I'm already sick of it. Another excuse for Hollywood to ignore good writing.

April 8. For a recent look at the real Cheri Currie of Runaways fame, try this.  ... And just in case you want to see Currie (not Dakota Fanning) sing her signature song, Cherry Bomb, click away. ........ I still think Ajami -- a kick-ass Israeli movie -- is the best film I've seen in the last two weeks. ... Steve Carell (The Office) and Tina Fey (30 Rock) are funny on TV. Their combined efforts in the movie Date Night? Not so much.  ... Fearful that Versailles will be seen only by tourists, the French are pimping its palatial splendor to Hollywood. The French say, 'Let them shoot Bond.' ...  It has nothing to do with movies, but here's a fine New York Times story about the return trip (from the slammer) of a former Newark, N.J. mayor. ... Jim Carrey tweets us to news about his break-up with actress Jenny McCarthy, delivering another blow to privacy.

April 6. Just finished Yu Hua's novel Brothers, an unusual book that seems to be hanging around in my mind.

Must You Tube viewing: Francis Ford Coppola talks about how he adapted Mario Puzo's novel, The Godfather, for the screen.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

'The Runaways' serves up 'jailbait rock'

Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart as hard rockers.

There's something disturbing and even a little unseemly about The Runaways, a hard-eyed look at the teen-girl band that launched Joan Jett's career in the mid-1970s. Watching Kristen Stewart (as guitarist Jett) and Dakota Fanning (as lead singer Cherie Currie) makes you wonder whether the movie's main characters aren't awfully young to be on a collision course with fame and ruin.

Members of The Runaways fell into the usual traps during the band's two-year existence. Sex and drugs became synonymous with rock 'n' roll. Currie inspired jealousy among her band mates when she began to grab too much of the limelight. As depicted in the movie, the group's manager seemed to be part genius and part pig. I'm not sure why, but watching these kids go through their triumphs and catastrophes put me in mind of the title of Nicholas Von Hoffman's seminal book about the '60s, We Are the People Our Parents Our Parents Warned Us Against. Currie seemed to be the most self-destructive of the bunch.

Directed by first-timer Floria Sigismondi, the movie presents The Runways as the first all-girl entry into the testosterone-fueled madness of hard rock. The Runaways specialized in what Currie, in a recent interview, called “teen-age jailbait rock.” And although those unfamiliar with the real story may have difficulty buying into the movie's downward teen spiral, I've read that some of the toughest episodes – a rape and an abortion, for example – have been excised.

Sigismondi -- who hails from the world of music videos – does a capable job of telling an old story with new faces. You know the drill: Rebellious girls form a band. Things begin to click. The girls – particularly Currie – hit the skids. We're made to understand that the environment surrounding The Runaways – who toured in both the United States and Japan -- was totally chaotic.

Best known for her work in the Twilight movies, Stewart captures the sullen seriousness of Jett, a teen-ager who opens the movie by buying a leather jacket that might as well have "Don't mess with me" printed across the back. Put another way, Jett wasn't the kind of musical kid likely to have shown up at band camp. If Fanning in any way shrank from the more difficult parts of her role, I didn't notice -- although you sense she may be working a little too hard. But here's the deal on the movie's seamy side: If there's something distasteful about watching Fanning play an overtly sexualized teen-ager, maybe that's how it was supposed to be. Currie was 15 when she joined The Runaways. Her breakthrough song was entitled “Cherry Bomb.” She was asked to flaunt a defiant brand of teen sexuality.

Fanning, who's now 16, has some quieter scenes with Currie's twin sister, nicely played by Riley Keough. But the spotlight falls on Currie and Jett, one wild, the other more disciplined – at least as far as music is concerned. At one point, the two young women share a kiss that goes beyond friendship. Just part of the scene, the movie seems to say.

The girls are helped in their rise by Kim Fowley, the promoter who teaches the band to regard rock 'n' roll as a “blood sport.” As played by the mesmerizing Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road), Fowley is a wild-eyed creep who understands how to push The Runaways toward fame. He gives them outlandish advice, and encourages them to commercializes their adolescence.

Jett, for whom rock 'n' roll became a kind of religion, went on to have a career with a band called The Blackhearts. At the end of the picture, we're told via title cards that Currie, now clean and sober, has become a chainsaw artist. Make your own jokes if you feel the need. The movie's script – also by Sigismondi – is based on Currie's book, Neon Angel: The Cherie Currie Story.

Stewart and Fanning do their own singing, and their on-stage presence proves convincing. This may have had something to do with the fact that Jett was one of the movie's producers. Rock 'n' roll stagecraft isn't the only thing that seems authentic. From the grubby trailer in which the girls rehearse to the trashed-out hotel rooms of their various tours, the movie feels as if it has been steeped in genuine grunge.

The Runaways isn't one of the great rock 'n' roll movies, but it offers plenty of grit, providing you don't mind watching a group of 15 and 17-year-olds wallow in the kind of dissolution that at least should await the arrival one one's 21st birthday. Or maybe I'm just being old fashioned.

'Date Night?' Wish I'd been stood up

Maybe Steve Carell and Tina Fey shouldn't date.

-- The maitre'd at Claw, a trendy Manhattan seafood restaurant, seems dismissive of anyone who appears not to be wearing eau du A-List. Want to venture a guess about our host's sexual orientation?

-- A mob boss chomps away at his dinner in the back of Manhattan bar. His ethnicity?

-- During a perilous car chase, drivers and passengers open their mouths and do what?

If you require them - and I doubt that you do - the answers to these questions are a) gay b) Italian-American and c) scream.

Granted, I've cast my net far from the center of Date Night, a marriage comedy starring Steve Carell and Tina Fey. But it's at the periphery of this second-rate effort where you may first begin to notice that the filmmakers seem a little too eager to sacrifice their smarts on an altar piled high with everything from cartoonish gangsters to corrupt cops.

Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) and screenwriter Josh Klausner seem to be betting - or so it seemed to me - that watching two supposedly "normal" people react to one extreme situation after another is justification enough for the movie's slapdash enthusiasms. If you're looking for insight into why marriages often slip into the doldrums, you might as well turn to Dr. Phil. Date Night doesn't have much to say about the subject, other than to point out that those who hop off the suburban treadmill, do so at their peril.

Look, Carell and Fey are too capable not to wring some laughs out of even second-rate material. But the movie's overall approach -- following one extreme situation with another -- results in a comedy of contrivances. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, but in this case, it puts Carell and Fey into a tough spot: They must pit their comic instincts against an overpowering and not especially funny scenario in which anything that can go wrong does.

Like most comedies, Date Night would be lost without cliches. Carell's Phil works as an accountant. Fey's Claire sells real estate. They live in new Jersey with their two kids. Their lives consist of work, domestic chores, outings with the kids and the occasional book-club meeting. Even their weekly date nights have gone stale, carving yet another groove in the endless rut of their suburban lives.

One night Phil and Claire yield to something that seems to have become entirely foreign to them: impulse. The couple travels to a fancy Manhattan restaurant, the kind that has become so trendy most people make reservations six months in advance. With their romantic evening on the verge of collapse, Phil and Claire languish at the bar.

But wait.

An idea - not to mention the major plot twist - dawns. Phil and Claire commandeer the reservation of a couple that hasn't shown up. As those who've seen the trailer know, the couple Phil and Claire are impersonating has gotten crosswise with the mob, a situation that kicks our couple and the rest of the movie into a higher but far less savvy gear.

If you're old enough to remember The Out of Towners, a 1970 comedy starring Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis, you may want to think of Date Night as The Out of Towers with heavy artillery and an ear-splitting chase sequence. Phil and Claire face one potential catastrophe after another as they're dragged through the urban mud.

Sans shirt and looking buffed to the max, Mark Wahlberg turns up as a kind of private investigator who owns his own security company. The movie uses Wahlberg as a running, though increasingly tired, joke. Phil and Claire keep visiting the sleek bachelor pad where Wahlberg's character keeps his buxom girlfriend purring. He offers help in their night of desperation.

Date Night does an admirable job of disguising James Franco, who appears with Mila Kunis, as one member of the dopey duo who originally made the reservation at Claw. Ray Liotta plays a grim-faced mob boss, and Taraji P. Henson portrays a New York City detective who sides with our fleeing couple. Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig are entirely wasted in early scenes that cast them as a couple fighting the monotony of marriage. They've decided to split.

Date Night isn't the first movie to try to stretch a one-joke premise into a full-length feature, but even at a crisp 88 minutes, it seems to run out of creative steam. I don't know what kind of prospects Date Night faces at the box office, but I'd say Hollywood owes Carell and Fey another - and much smarter - comedy. Us, too.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Movies that take us off the beaten track

If you haven't seen the Israeli film Ajami, you should move to correct that situation as soon as possible. Co-directed by Scandar Copti (an Israeli Arab) and Yaron Shani (an Israeli Jew), the film has the kind of toughness and heart not encountered in most Israeli films. Set in Ajami, a neighborhood in the port city of Jaffa, the movie seasons its interlocking stories of Arabs and Israelis with genuine Mean Streets flavor. If you're like me, you're probably sick of gritty, interrelated stories in the Crash mode. But Ajami doesn't bog down in strained efforts to make big statements, and its tapestry of stories can be moving, probably because it jettisons all preaching about the need for Arab/Israeli rapprochement – or anything else for that matter. Employing a non-professional cast, the directors – Copti also appears in the movie – create an authentic-feeling portrait of an Arab community that's rife with tension, beginning with a killing in a cafe that ignites an intra-Arab feud and continuing through the wobbly relationship between a Muslim Arab young man and a young woman from a Christian Arab family. The byplay among the young Arab men seems entirely real, offering more proof that American urban culture has had a nearly ubiquitous influence. The Israeli side of the story centers on Dando, a cop who's seen bullying Arabs, looking for his missing brother or being a good father to his young children. Ajami was nominated for a foreign-language Oscar, but didn't win. No matter, it's one of the most interesting, relevant and gripping movies to come out of Israel in a very long time.


I've been to City Island, an outpost in Long Island Sound off the Bronx mainland. People live on City Island, where the waters are dotted with small boats, but most New Yorkers visit the place to frequent the local restaurants. Director Raymond de Felitta has a different reason for traveling to the island: For him, it's a place to try his hand at ethnic comedy and outright farce. Andy Garcia portrays Vinnie Rizzo, a prison guard who aspires to be an actor, but is afraid to tell his wife (Julianna Margulies) about his artistic ambitions. Vinnie receives encouragement from a woman (Emily Mortimer) in his acting class, which is taught by an amusing – if too briefly seen – Alan Arkin. Additional plot twists involving Vinnie's family and their secrets aren't entirely inspired. Vinnie's daughter (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) has dropped out of college without telling her parents and his wiseacre son (Ezra Miller) has an unusual obsession. The incident that drives the plot isn't entirely compelling either: For reasons better left undiscovered here, Vinnie opens his home to a soon-to-be-paroled convict (Steven Strait). De Felitta, who previously directed a small independent movie called Two Family House, isn't the sharpest of farceurs, but the movie is pleasant enough and has a great scene in which Vinnie auditions for a Scorsese movie. Garcia, who seems thick in both girth and accent, doesn't oversell Vinnie's working-class charms; Marguilies never falters as Vinnie's shrewish wife; and the whole business provides a few laughs without pretending to be much more than an evening's entertainment.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A forgotten victim of Benito Mussolini

Filippo Timi and Giovanna Mezzogiorno bring history to life.

Watching Marco Bellochio's feverishly assembled Vincere, I realized that I'd almost forgotten the power of great cinematic imagery. Vincere -- the story of Ida Dalser, a woman Benito Mussolini evidently married but quickly discarded -- is a passionate account of a woman victimized by Mussolini and a reminder of the power of big-screen imagery. Bellochio's film is full of examples of people watching films – newsreels, a Charlie Chaplin movie and even a depiction of the crucifixion of a suffering, swooning Christ.

Each of these film fragments serves Bellochio's narrative in different ways, but the point that we take from all of them is that movies are as complex as the people who watch them: Some people are moved by the beauty and emotional power of what they see. Others are brought to tears by the simplicity and innocence of a character. And still others use images to advance their monstrous ambitions.

Now when I'm talking about imagery, a few clarifications must be made. Many people regard a movie such as Avatar as an example of heightened visual attainment. But Avatar, with its fluid use of 3-D and its creation of an entire extra-terrestrial world, has more to do with expanding the moviegoing experience than with creating imagery that carries the weight and meaning of a scene. It's a case of sensation over substance.

While I was thinking about the sometimes-overheated style that Bellochio employs throughout Vincere – which can be more operatic than most operas – I wondered if this veteran director wasn't trying to remind us of the primal power of cinema. In that sense, Vincere is both an urgent emotional drama and a vivid act of restoration, a manifesto about the power of the image.

Bellochio structures the movie in ways that underscore the ability of film to destroy the forward march of time. He leaps between years and locations, sometimes leaving us feeling slightly lost. He inserts newsreel footage into the proceedings, and uses a desaturated palette. He super-imposes one imagine over another. It may be a stretch, but I thought that the swell of Carlo Crivelli's score and the scale of the emotions evoked the emphatic brilliance of silent films, giddy days of cinematic discovery.

The story may be mostly unfamiliar to American audiences, and even Bellochio, who's now 70, didn't learn about it until late in his life. In his early days, Mussolini was a charismatic and ardent socialist. He met Ida Dalser during this tumultuous period; she became infatuated with him. She was attracted to Mussolin's audacity and to his sexually. She also believed in his ideals.

Dalser made a key mistake, though. She thought Mussolini shared her feelings. To Mussolini, Dalser became an increasing annoyance, particularly after she told him she was pregnant.

For public consumption, Mussolini married another woman, the nurse who tended to his health after he was severely wounded during World War I. That marriage better suited Mussolni's desire to sculpt a heroic image. At one point, Mussolini recognized the son he'd had with Dalser, but later denied any connection with the boy. Increasingly, he distanced himself from Dalser, who was imprisoned in an insane asylums because she insisted on telling the truth. She said she was Mrs. Mussolini.

For all of Bellochio's dazzling embellishments, Vincere would have foundered without two exceptional performances. Giovanna Mezzogiorno portrays Dalser, a woman who sold all her possessions to help finance Il Popolo d'Italia, the newspaper that the aspiring dictator used to launch his career. She gave up her life for Mussolini, expecting appreciation and loyalty in return. Instead, she became an emotionally wounded woman shunted aside by the storm of history. She died at the age of 57. Dalser's son, Benito, suffered a similar fate. He too was institutionalized. He died in 1942 at the age of 26.

Both Mussolini and Dalser's son as an adult are played by Filippo Timi, who embodies the brute force of Il Duce, a physical man with a sense of his own dynamism. Late in the movie, Timi has a chilling moment as Mussolini's unrecognized son. He gives his face a frozen, mask-like quality as he mimics a fist-pounding speech his father delivered in German. It's a moment full of rage, torment and mocking cynicism.

Bellochio chooses not to show the machinations that led to Dalser's banishment. We never see Mussolini orchestrating her fate. It's almost as if Mussolini is whisked out of the picture midway through; the character Timi plays increasingly gives way to shots of Mussolini in newsreel footage. The man who made the transition from socialist to fascist disappears inside his own image. Il Duce is born.

Bellochio doesn't need to tell us that Mussolini was a monster. Instead, he focuses on Dalser's plight, which – in its own way – shows the tragic price of yielding to charisma, of what can happen when passion overwhelms reason.

I wish I could say that Vincere is a perfect movie. Its fractured narrative can be off-putting, and it sometimes tries to sweep us along on a tidal wave of emotion that reaches bodice-ripping proportions. But Bellochio has told an intriguing story in a style that turns the movie into a fevered dream that's strewn with the wreckage of abused power and ruinous passion. Bellochio may be 70, but time has not dulled his cinematic vigor.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A gripping 'Girl With the Dragon Tattoo'

Mess with this girl at your peril.

Based on the best-selling novel by Steig Larsson, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo may be one of those rare films that topples art-house walls, mostly because the book has received such wide exposure. How wide? When I see a book for sale at Costco - as was the case with this one - I feel safe in concluding that it doesn't qualify as arcane.

This could be a case in which the movie appeals to both readers of the book and to those who are unfamiliar with its story, which -- at least come crunch time - isn't all that amazing. That's not to say that Girl With the Dragon Tattoo isn't finely wrought. Deft direction from Niels Arden Oplev gives the movie an eerie, suggestive flow, and Oplev immerses us in a world full of violence and sexual perversity. Add connections to a Nazi past that's on the verge of being forgotten, and we've got a full-blown case of moral rot.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo draws an interesting and often uneasy parallel between two characters, a persistent investigative journalist and a computer hacker who works for a firm that conducts sensitive investigations into people's personal lives. Both eventually are lured into taking a fresh look at a 40-year-old crime, the disappearance of a 16-year-old girl, a member of the wealthy but viperous Vanger family.

The journalist (Michael Nyqvist) and the researcher (Noomi Rapace) are victims, as well as seekers of truth. Nyqvist's Mikael Blomkvist has been wrongly convicted of libel and sentenced to six months in prison. His face has been splattered across Stockholm's tabloids. His reputation has been ruined. Because Rapace's Lisbeth has a criminal record, she's being exploited and abused by her probation officer (Peter Andersson), one of the more disgustingly creepy characters to hit the screen in some time.

Both journalist and researcher are drawn into the same sphere when retired businessman Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) decides to hire Blomkvist to investigate the disappearance of Harriet Vanger, the niece Henrik had come to regard as a daughter. Vanger believes that Harriet long ago was murdered, but he wants the journalist to take a fresh look at a crime the police have been unable to solve. Vanger originally hired Lisbeth to check out Blomkvist, but even after she delivers her report, she maintains an interest in the journalist's work.

Rapace's performance provides the movie with at least as much mysterious charge as the crime that's being investigated. Lisbeth can hack into any computer system, but she's no geeky patsy. With a severe punk haircut and a variety of body piercings, Lisbeth is clearly an outcast, and the movie quickly lets us know that she can give as good as she gets. Lisbeth has a gratifying taste for vengeance, revealed after a gruesome and graphic scene in which her probation officer rapes her. Let's just say that it doesn't take long for Lisbeth to express her rage.

Like us, Blomkvist can't quite get a handle on Lisbeth, who eventually joins with him to look for Harriet's killer. He's attracted to Lisbeth, wary of her and never fully able to understand a 24-year-old who reveals little about herself. How could he? Rapace hides her character's interior life behind an aggressively hostile facade: leather jackets, a stony affect and the fearsome tattoo that gives the movie its title. (In Sweden, both book and movie were titled Men Who Hate Women, which gives you some idea about what lurks beneath the movie's surface.)

Girl With the Dragon Tattoo introduces a female character who's considerably tougher than her male counterpart. Blomkvist has six months to kill before the start of his jail sentence, but he's also emotionally tapped out. He has nothing left to say as a journalist, which may be why he takes a job working for Vanger in the first place. Lisbeth tends to steer clear of the kind of rumination that burdens men such as Blomkvist. She's a creature of instinct, and her impulses operate almost as quickly as the computers she so adeptly uses. As played by Rapace, Lisbeth seems hard-wired for self-protection.

It's Lisbeth who figures out the most important clues about Harriet's disappearance. And it's Lisbeth, finally, who has the stomach to exact every ounce of justice from the villains in the piece. The woman does not play.

I only became aware of the movie's 2 1/2-hour length during the extended coda that follows the story's real climax. Oplev has lots of loose ends to tie up. Some are interesting, but by the time they roll around, the movie already has delivered its biggest kick.

Still, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - a surefire candidate for a Hollywood remake - has the kind of cool surfaces that brim with tension, and Oplev keeps us wondering precisely what will crawl from under the next overturned rock. Isn't that a goal to which almost every worthy thriller aspires? This one's also eager to expose the soul of a society where the predators often seem to outnumber the prey.