Wednesday, June 30, 2010

As passion grows, so does the melodrama

All is not rosy for mother and son in I Am Love.

The enthusiastic reviews for I Am Love, a movie from director Luca Guadagnino, left me scratching me head. Where some saw a seductive drama about burgeoning passion -- augmented by an impressively high-strung performance from Tilda Swinton – I saw a movie that couldn’t seem to make up its mind whether to embrace the provocative ambiguities of art or the emotional oompah-pahs of melodrama.

Guadagnino has a strong visual sense and he knows how to create visual flourishes, but at its core, I Am Love seems a slightly loopy foray into one woman's sensual and sexual awakening.

Swinton’s Emma is a Russian-born woman who married a Milanese factory owner and art collector. Emma moved to Milan with her new husband, jettisoned her Russian identity and spent most of her time playing the role of wealthy matriarch to her well-situated husband and their two children.

The movie begins interestingly enough. The patriarch of the Recchi family (Gabriele Ferzetti) decides to retire, announcing his decision at a birthday dinner.

Instead of turning the family textile business over to his son (Pippo Delbono), the old man makes a split decision. He declares that both his son and his grandson Edo (Flavio Parenti) will share leadership of the company, a move that puts Emma in the somewhat awkward position of needing to support both her husband and her son. She’s also trying to be supportive of her daughter Elizabetta (Alba Rohrwacher), a young woman who recently has fallen in love with another woman and has begun to pursue a gay life.

Enter the twist on which the movie turns. Edo introduces his mother to Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a gifted chef but not a member of the social elite. Edo and Antonio plan to open a restaurant.

When mom samples one of Edo’s dishes, her senses awaken. It doesn’t take long before Emma wants more than a good meal. Antonio learns that the way to Emma’s heart is through her taste buds, and the movie becomes a wild ride in which Emma gives birth to the desires she’s evidently suppressed for most of her adult life.

On a recent Charlie Rose show, Rose suggested that Swinton – with a punkish haircut that looked like the work of a drunken barber – might be able to play David Bowie. Swinton said she was playing Bowie at that very moment. The playful exchange between Rose and Swinton suggests the slightly androgynous edge that Swinton sometimes gives her characters, an ability accentuated by a face that makes no secret of its bone structure.

Here, she plays her cards close to the vest. She’s portraying a woman who’s discovering herself, and taking the discovery quite seriously.

Guadagnino – who developed the screenplay with Swinton – jams the movie with currents and crosscurrent. I Am Love can’t really accommodate all the bourgeoning passion, some of which is presented with too much art-house pretension for my taste.
The melodrama mounts, Emma warms to the point overheating, and the movie proceeds on a journey that has taken some critics’ breath away and made the eyes of others roll. I leaned rather heavily, I'm afraid, in the direction of eye rolling.

I Am Love opens in Denver July 2, and currently is making its way around the country.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A talky 'Twilight' misses the mark

Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart. Is it really true love?

There are two possible audiences for the Twilight movies: the unsuspecting and the legion of fans who are intensely devoted to the books by Stephenie Meyer. Fans of the books bring their own judgments to the theater, and if the response of the teen and tween audience at a preview screening means anything, Eclipse - the third of the Twilight movies - contains enough oohs, aahs and applause points to keep the faithful happy.

The third installment tells the story of young Bella's choice: Should she stick with hunky vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) or acknowledge her feelings for Jacob (Taylor Lautner), a muscular classmate who likes to run around shirtless and who also happens to be a werewolf.

Like the young vampires in the series, the Twilight movies have no real fangs. A brigade of newborn vamps may march; werewolves may leap on their prey; and Edward, who seems to be brooding less these days, may face off against his nemesis, but Eclipse has the kind of dry spaces that may challenge those who thus far have managed to restrain any impulse to climb aboard the Twilight train.

In essence, the story pits hot against cold blood. As those who follow the series know, Lautner's Jacob changes into a wolf the size of a Smart Car. He's hot blooded. By contrast, Edward's blood runs cold, as a vampire's should. He is, after all, no longer living.

Bella, a phlegmatic Kristen Stewart, is devoted mostly to Edward, who proposes to her at the outset. Edward won't sleep with her until they're married, and part of the marriage deal involves Bella becoming a vampire. Will she? Should she? Does anyone beside the already converted members of the audience have a rooting interest in the outcome? As directed by David Slade, The Eclipse also dredges up a revenge plot left over from the last installment. In their desire to protect Bella, Jacob and Edward form an uneasy alliance. During a blizzard atop a mountain, Edward - gentleman that he is - agrees to allow Jacob to warm the freezing Bella. Seldom has love known such sacrifice. Mostly, Eclipse is a two-hour talkfest that makes room for whispers of doubt: Is it selfish of Edward to want Bella to die so that they can spend eternity together? For his part, Jacob is sure Bella loves him - if only she'd admit it to herself. Does Bella really want to become a vampire? Does she understand that she'll be frozen in time with Edward, which - among other things - means the series could go on forever?

But here's the bottom line for me: I didn't care whether Bella chose Jacob or Edward. The idea of marrying either a dead person or a werewolf struck me as equally creepy. If my mother were around, she might wonder why Bella couldn't meet a nice human boy. What's wrong with humans? Not good enough for you?

Think about it. Romance trumps sanity if Bella becomes a vampire. Could there be a love so compelling that it's worth spending eternity as a high school senior? Exactly how many times can one take the SATs anyway? The movie flirts with some of these questions but can't quite give them the emotional poignancy they deserve.

Before seeing Eclipse, I'd heard rumblings that it was the best Twilight movie yet. The overall quality may be better here, but I enjoyed the lesser movies more because they gave the audience more opportunities to stomp and gasp. For me, the real fun of this somewhat tepid series comes from the crowd. The more the audience is into it, the more fun you have.

As for the uninitiated, all they need to know is this:

Forget the days of Bela Lugosi. In a time when terrorists have day jobs and live quietly among us, we no longer want to drive stakes through vampire hearts. We want to hold our monsters close. We want to co-exist with them, marry them, and, in the case of HBO's True Blood, have sex with them. We even imagine -- perhaps as a form of unacknowledged wish fulfillment -- that vamps have ethical standards and take them seriously. Because we seem to have so little control over real demons, we're doing our best to tame old fictional ones. It may not help with our real-life problems, but it provides a couple of hours of relief.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Adam Sandler and pals deliver a bomb

They've all had better moments, except maybe Rob Schneider.

The comedy Grown Ups wasn’t shown in Denver until the night before the movie’s release, seldom a good sign. After about 10 minutes, it became apparent why Grown Ups hadn’t been screened earlier. It's painfully bad.

Starring Adam Sandler and pals (Chris Rock, David Spade, Kevin James and Rob Schneider), the movie tells the story – if you can credit this ragtag collection of gags with anything resembling a plot – of five grown men who won a junior high basketball championship. Thirty years later, they reunite for their beloved coach’s funeral, and promptly resurrect their pre-teen selves.

More painful than humorous, Grown Ups relies on slapstick and crude shtick: A mother (Maria Bello) still nurses her four-year-old child, for example. Yes, some of the jokes involve breast pumps and squirting milk.

Grown Ups left me wondering whether the movie was made so that Sandler could show that he still can shoot a basketball, a sight saved for the inevitable game at the end of the movie. I could see no other reason for this fiasco of a comedy, aside from the fact that five comic actors got to hang out together and look as if they’re having a good time doing material that should have been shot -- basketball style -- into the nearest wastebasket.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The harsh realities of 'Winter's Bone'

Jennifer Lawrence does great work in Winter's Bone.

“Damn, these are some hard folks.”

At some point during Winter’s Bone – a movie set deep in the Ozarks – those words came out of my mouth, spoken aloud to no one in particular.

It was an expression of awe and appreciation, as well as a comment on the characters in director Debra Granik’s unadorned foray into life at a cruel extreme.

Set in rural Missouri, Winter’s Bone takes us into an environment of degrading poverty, dangerous meth labs, frightening patriarchy, demanding codes of silence and deadly feuds. I wouldn’t say that the movie is about being poor in America, though: It's about being isolated outside the mainstream in an area where blood too easily can be spilled and sympathy is hard to come by.

Down to the Bone, Granik's first feature, focused on a supermarket cashier (Vera Farmiga) who struggled with drug addiction. That movie bypassed social criticism as it attempted to get at something primal and raw, an ambition more fully achieved in Winter's Bone. (And, yes, it's time Granik opted for a feature with a title that makes no reference to any calcified body part.)

For all its grim realism, Winter’s Bone leaves you awestruck, mostly because it contains one of the finest and least ingratiating performances of the year.

Jennifer Lawrence, a 19-year-old actress, portrays Rees Dolly, a 17-year-old whose father may have skipped out on bail after being arrested for “cooking” meth. Forfeiture of bond might mean losing the family house, one of the few anchors in Rees’ turbulent life.

Rees is one of those kids who've been asked to do too much. She takes care of her two younger siblings and a mother who’s suffering from mental damage so severe, she’s practically comatose. Rees constantly works at the outer limit of her resources.

Much of the movie centers on Rees’ efforts to locate her father. If he turns up, the bail bondsman won't seize the family home. As Rees moves through her story, Lawrence takes her way beyond hardscrabble clichés. Here’s a character of astonishing determination, a young woman who can’t afford to let her guard down. Lawrence brings her to life with terrifying verisimilitude.

I say “terrifying” not because Rees is scary, but because Lawrence’s portrayal feels so right and true, it’s almost frightening.

Beautifully cast and tightly directed, Winter’s Bone takes a number of surprising turns, some of them in the way it portrays its characters. As Rees’ Uncle Teardrop, John Hawkes exposes more depth and complexity than we initially could have imagined.

Working from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, Granik finds defiance and fiber in characters who presumably have endured years of getting by and living on the fringe. These are insular people who make their own rules and don’t give much of a damn what anyone else thinks.

All of this leads to scenes of amazing power – Rees confronting a local powerbroker in hopes of getting help in saving her home or speaking with an Army recruiter and revealing how little she really understands about the world beyond her immediate environment. That environment presents too many urgent problems to allow for much by the way of education. The advice Rees receives from a well-meaning recruiter is so out of touch with her circumstances that it's almost laughable.

Country music reveals a tender side to some of the characters, but Winter's Bone is not a glorified portrait of rural life or a collection of museum-quality local color. It’s a staunch and sobering drama about lives that only can be called fierce.

When there’s forgiveness and compassion in this world – and there is -- it’s almost an exception to long-established rules, and it comes with a price. Among these rural people, no words seem to be more descriptive than those that have been widely used in another context: Don’t ask; don’t tell.

Don’t ask too many questions or tell too many tales. Just endure.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Star power, yes; good movie, no way

Cruise and Diaz are moving fast, but going nowhere.

Too much of a chaotic blur to be considered a stain on the cultural landscape, Knight and Day – the latest Tom Cruise vehicle – is a familiar-feeling action comedy that strains to add extra fillips to the glimmer of a story it bothers to tell.

But the real issue here isn’t another action movie that demands not to be taken seriously. No, the real issue is Cruise, an actor with distinctive presence and undeniable spark. Cruise lately seems to be doing acting stunts (his appearance as a bald and blatant movie mogul in Tropic Thunder) or indulging in misguided seriousness as was the case with Valkyrie in which he played a heroic Nazi determined to kill Hitler. And, yes, another Mission Impossible movie looms, the fourth.

Cruise is now 47, close to the limit for climbing onto motorcycles, executing death-defying leaps and conquering cardboard villains, activities required by Knight and Day. It’s also possible that Cruise – with his very public commitment to Scientology and his embarrassing effusions on the Oprah show – has become too much Cruise to be accepted as any fictional character. Just wondering.

So I watched Knight and Day puzzling over what Cruise might be doing when he’s not trying to gin up chemistry with Cameron Diaz, firing automatic weapons or making small talk. What is an off-screen Tom Cruise like, really? Whatever the answer to that question, I had difficulty believing in him either as a romantic lead or an action hero – at least in this movie. And unlike the Mission Impossible series, Knight and Day doesn’t have pop cultural history to lean on nor does it help that director James Mangold may be operating out of his comfort zone. This time, Mangold -- best known for Cop Land, Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma -- seems to have gone commercial with a vengeance.

With an eye every crowd-pleasing strategy it can lay hands on, Knight and Day is less a movie than a showcase for action set pieces that strain for novelty (witness a chase that takes place in a Spanish city and involves a herd of stampeding bulls) and banter between Cruise (as a secret agent) and Diaz (as a woman who’s inadvertently caught up in his espionage game).

That game: Protect a high-potency battery that has both civilian and military implications. The CIA – led by an agent played by Peter Sarsgaard -- wants this amazing power source, so does a Spanish arms dealer (Jordi Molla).

All of this sets off a frantic wave of globe hopping that speeds past credibility as if it were little more than a faded billboard on a deserted country road; i.e., no attention is paid. The assumption – or so one supposes – is that few will care so long as the screen is flooded with ceaseless action and mega-watt star power.

The temptation with a movie such as Knight and Day is to compare it to the James Bond movies, which also exaggerated to the point of preposterousness. But Bond was a more compelling central figure than Cruise’s Roy Miller, and he seldom neglected to take time to indulge his pleasures. Miller, by contrast, moves with Road Runner speed that leaves little room for the expression of idiosyncrasy or endearing personal tics.

Bond also played for global political stakes. Although the script for Knight and Day tries to raise the ante, it’s difficult for me to believe that anything other than box-office performance rests on the movie’s formula-driven shoulders.

Diaz, who previously worked with Cruise on Vanilla Sky and who’s pretty much playing second fiddle here, spends most of her time looking alarmed. We know she’ll fall for Cruise’s Miller. How can she resist? Cruise uses his magnetism as if it were a weapon.

Paul Dano, who could have added real flavor to the proceedings, is largely wasted as Simon Feck, the skittish young man who invented the battery everyone’s pursuing. Sarsgaard seems little more than replaceable part in an action machine of a movie. Even Molla, who plays the fiendish Spanish gun smuggler, doesn’t make for much of a villain. Viola Davis also is wasted as a CIA officer.

Look, I get it. Villainy isn’t the point here. Neither is the so-called battery everyone’s trying to find. The point is to create a summer movie that overdoses on the ingredients we’re supposed to crave as soon as temperatures begin to rise: bleary action, inconsequential violence, winking humor and blind speed. For the record: high points include a plane crash, the strafing of a tiny island where Miller frequently hides and lots of chases in lots of vehicles.

Consider this, though: The most surprising special effect that could have been employed in this mashed-up, messed-up hybrid would have been a pause to take a breath. Don’t hold yours waiting for it.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Three really is the charm for 'Toy Story'

The toys of Toy Story 3 face an uncertain future.

I don’t remember having a favorite toy as a kid. And by the time I was ready to head off to college, I certainly didn’t have a neglected toy chest languishing in a dusty corner of my room. But that’s not the case with Andy, the boy we met in the original Toy Story. Andy may be too old to play with his toys anymore, but he hasn’t had the heart to discard them either. And he definitely has favorites.

For Andy, toys are like friends he’s outgrown, and that idea provides Toy Story 3 with enough poignancy to suggest that we may have reached the end of the Toy Story road. Volume 3 – in 3-D, of course – preserves enough of what we loved about the original to keep fans happy. The voice work is first rate, the story, strong and at least one of the humorous touches proves a show stopper. Not surprisingly it involves the stouthearted Buzz Lightyear, voiced by Tim Allen.

Look, I could have done without the 3-D, and it’s certainly not what makes the biggest contribution to the success of Toy Story 3. Credit for that, I think, goes to the filmmakers' heightened awareness of passing time and changing circumstances. They don’t shrink from the sadness involved in letting go of childhood and moving on with one’s life. All of this, of course, invests the toys we’ve come to know with real emotional life: In this episode, our old friends must contemplate what happens when they’re no longer needed to offer comfort and support and, just as importantly, to stimulate young imaginations.

Oddly, and perhaps even daringly, this edition of Toy Story quickly evolves into the story of a jailbreak. Our favorite toys – Woody, Buzz, Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head, Jesse and others – wind up at a day care center where the younger children abuse them. Having yet to master the fine art of play, the littlest kids tend to use toys as battering rams.

Once the toys realize their predicament, they begin seeking an escape route. Even though Andy’s college-bound, the toys want to be there for him, nestled safely in the attic should he ever call. Never mind how the plot arranges all this; but know that it’s done with a reasonable amount of aplomb.

Going in, I thought I’d had enough of these characters, but they still inspire affection. Woody (Tom Hanks) seems his old true-blue self; Buzz (Allen) proves as earnest and funny as ever; and the rest of the cast is in fine form with Ned Beatty adding a new wrinkle, as Lotso. a cuddly bear who’s not quite as benign as he first appears. Lotso turns out to be the villain of the piece: The script wisely makes room for a backstory explaining how he got that way.

The script by Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich builds toward Perils of Pauline-style melodrama with a few flourishes that may unnerve smaller children. At one point, the assembled toys ride a conveyor belt to incineration at the city dump, a sight that gave me slight case of the creeps. The toys swallow hard and join hands, establishing a bond of affection, acceptance and resignation. They believe they’re facing certain death.

Although, at times, the movie proves a trifle short on snap and crackle, Unkrich -- who also directed --- keeps the story moving, introducing new characters with flare and humor, and making room for lots of amusing asides.

I particularly liked the way the story made use of Barbie (Jodi Benson), this time giving her a love interest, the unashamedly square Ken (Michael Keaton). Ken’s dream home includes a special room where Ken can change clothes. Ken, who’s very into clothes, seems to have only two qualities, neither of them endearing: egotism and narcissism. He's so vain, he probably thinks the movie's about him.

Any group that can make three movies, and give each one a distinct identity while ensuring that they’re all of a piece deserves high praise. Pixar -- the Disney-owned brand behind the Toy Story movies -- has done that with Toy Story 3, and the box office very likely will reward the company’s efforts. For once, a sequel that can’t be called a ripoff.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Hasidic Jews discover Ecstasy

Sam expands his world, but in a disastrous way.

The milieu of the new movie Holy Rollers – Brooklyn’s Hasidic Jewish community – may be unfamiliar, but its story of corrupted innocence breaks little new ground. Director Kevin Asch turns the story into one of betrayed values, the stringent yet holy ways of the Hasidim. Hasidic Jews aren’t necessarily idealized, but they're used to set a clear moral standard in a tale about young Hasids who are duped into smuggling drugs. Orthodox becomes the yardstick by which to measure some very precipitous falls. The movie follows Sam (Jesse Eisenberg), a young Hasid, through a series of misguided adventures, while providing mostly uncritical glimpses of Hasidic life. Eisenberg (Adventureland and The Squid and the Whale) gives a strong performance as a young man who gradually awakens to the world of vice into which he’s stumbled. Justin Bartha portrays Yusef, a cynical Hasid who involves Sam in a crime ring run by Jackie (Danny A. Abeckaser), a secular Jew who plies his tempting girlfriend (Ari Graynor) with ample helpings of the Ecstasy he imports. Telling in many of its details, Holy Rollers ultimately devolves into a disappointing morality tale that doesn't do enough to penetrate the troubled psyches of Sam and his cohorts.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Joan Rivers sure is a piece of work

Rivers has accumulated a staggering file of jokes.

I’ve known people who are aging but can’t seem to let go of the selves that they used to be. I’m thinking particularly of journalists who hang on to their jobs, not because they have anything compelling to say or because they love the “action,” although there is something obviously addictive about the day-to-day pulse of a newsroom. I’m talking about something else: Need. I’ve known older journalists who need to be in print, maybe as a way of affirming their existence. I have a byline, therefore I am. Something like that.

Obviously, that kind of need causes many to overstay their welcome. I thought about that while watching the new documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Rivers, captured for one year at the age of 75, hasn’t lost much off her fast ball, but that’s not the issue: She needs to perform. She needs it so much that she takes jobs she wouldn’t have touched during her prime-time days as a groundbreaking female comic.

And she did break ground. Comics such as Moms Mabley and Phyllis Diller preceded Rivers, but in the 1980s, when Rivers hit her stride, female comics were still something of a rarity. Beyond that, Rivers wasn’t afraid to use the F-word or to make jokes about sex. She was nobody’s idea of a happy homemaker. She’s still not.

At the age of 75, Rivers’ expansive repertoire includes a joke about anal sex. In another off-color bit, she talks about how her daughter turned down a $200,000 Playboy offer to show her breasts. Using a graphic expression, Rivers says she thought her daughter should have doubled the price and shown everything.

There’s something almost nymphomaniacal about River’s need to get laughs, which she admits springs from a mixture of insecurity and anger. The need to be noticed and the need to express mingle in a cocktail that results in an after-taste that’s both pathetic and admirable. When it comes to laughter, Rivers’ insatiability takes over. You admire her perseverance but feel a tinge of embarrassment about the way she continues to be obsessed with a career, which – in her case – has become inseparable from herself.

Like most comics, Rivers hardly serves as a model of contentment. She has had her share (maybe more) of plastic surgery; she’s lost a husband to suicide; she has a spiky but enduring relationship with her daughter, Melissa, She’s been hot and not. She’s sold jewelry on TV, and makes no bones about her need for money. If Rivers has a motto, it might be something like, “I’ll do anything. Just pay me.”

There always has been something garish and inappropriate about Rivers, like a dirty-mouthed Hadassah lady who has gone irredeemably rogue.

That kind of combativeness reeks of defiance, but there’s more to Rivers than earned outrage. Rivers is so driven to perform that she thinks of her entire life as a performance. She sees herself as more actress than comedian. No wonder her day (and the film) starts with a heavy application of make-up, shown by directors Riki Stern and Annie Sundberg in a series of shocking close-ups.

Then there’s River’s New York apartment, which is decorated in a style that might be called Jewish palatial “This,’’ Rivers informs us, “is how Marie Antoinette would have lived if she’d had money.”

Rivers is funny.

She’s also brave. At one point, Rivers allows the filmmakers to show her trying out a joke about Michelle Obama. She says Jacqueline Kennedy became Jackie “O.” Should we think of the equally elegant Michelle Obama as “Blakie-O?” Rivers’ staff rightly steers her away from a joke that’s both racially and comically off the mark.

On stage, Rivers rarely misses a beat. Her timing seems better now than it did in her early days, shown by Stern and Sundberg in a variety of clips from TV appearances with Johnny Carson and other TV hosts.

I don’t know if Rivers’ mind runs deep, but it’s difficult to take your eyes off her. She evokes mixed reactions, like riding to a train wreck in an elegant dining car. She’s unashamedly addicted to luxury. At a Thanksgiving dinner in her apartment, she tells the assembled guests that each time she gets into a limo, she thanks God for the privilege. She means it.

As revealed in the film, the thing that Rivers fears most is an empty date book. She’s not filling her later years with ladies luncheons and card games. For Rivers, a full date book means work. Gigs. The grind of travel. The backseat of another limo. A good day is a day without pause for reflection, say a morning and afternoon of promotional appearances topped by a stand-up gig, either on TV or in a club.

When many bullets are fired, not all of them hit the mark, and Rivers has had her share of disappointments. An autobiographical play receives unkind reviews in London after its debut at an Edinburgh theater festival in Scotland. It’s not clear whether anyone asked, but Rivers refuses to take the show to New York for fear of getting clobbered. Thick as Rivers skin is, she’s not prepared for a drubbing similar to one she took for a New York stage appearance earlier in her career.

She probably was right to worry about a New York critical reception. Writing in the Guardian, Brian Logan began a review of Rivers’ strangely titled Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress thusly:

“To accuse Joan Rivers of ego is like complaining that the Pope is Catholic. It comes with the territory. But even by her standards, this is a remarkable exercise in self-mythologising.” In the film, Rivers mixes ego with awareness. She knows, for example, that there will be endless plastic surgery jokes at a Comedy Central roast; she’s sick of them, but reassures herself about participation because the money is good.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work doesn’t qualify as a definitive piece of portraiture. You won’t learn that Rivers graduated from Barnard College, where she studied English literature and anthropology. (She’s often filmed in front of shelves lined with books, and you get the impression that she’s read them.) She doesn’t discuss things she’s previously written about, bulimia and attempted suicide. Her appearances as a Red Carpet commentator at awards shows gets short shrift.

I suppose that a documentary such as Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work can seem like one more expression of boundless vanity. “I’ll show you some unflattering moments, so long as you keep looking.” That sort of thing. But Stern and Sundberg get what they came for – a revealing portrait of a woman who has gone where few women before her attempted to go, and where few people of any gender have enjoyed real success.

Odd, too, because you’d hardly expect this directing team to be intrigued by a woman who believes a victory on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice might be just the thing to revive a fading career. In previous films, Stern and Sundberg dealt with genocide in Darfur (The Devil Came on Horseback) and a man who spent 20 years in jail for a rape and murder he didn’t commit (The Trails of Daryl Hunt).

But Stern and Sundberg are intrigued by Rivers, and so are we. Although it’s not the least of reasons to see this film, Rivers comedy prowess claims a surprising low position on the list of things that make A Piece of Work so damn compelling.

Stern and Sundberg leave us with a telling portrait of a woman who absolutely refuses to go gently into any good night. Seen in that light, Rivers is fighting a battle she – like everyone else – can’t win.

Still, you get the idea that when Rivers does arrive on the other side, she’ll take a first-things-first approach to the transition. She’ll put on make-up, find the best plastic surgeons in the afterlife and look for an audience. On film, Rivers doesn’t talk much about her attitude toward death. I’m guessing, though, that nothing would appall her more than the idea of eternal rest.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

'Metropolis' again -- only more complete

C.A. Rotwang with his most famous creation.

Why watch Metropolis, the Frtiz Lang silent classic that debuted in Berlin in January of 1927? Yes, the film has historical importance vis-à-vis cinema in general and German Expressionism in particular. And, yes, Lang created a futuristic vision that impresses, even in a time when computer-generated imagery has become so common we hardly give it a second thought.

And, yes, buffs and general audiences alike can appreciate the operatic grandeur in Lang’s depiction of a society divided into two distinct classes: an uber-strata consisting of people who live in airy skyscrapers and enjoy the advantages of civilized pursuits and an underground class of workers, who spend the miserable currency of their lives keeping the engines of Metropolis running.

Several months ago, I was asked to write a piece about what it takes to criticize films. I plan to do that, but a newly minted reconstruction of Metropolis offers a starting point. Want to be a film critic? Learn as much as you can about film history by building up the catalog of films you carry around in your mind.

Metropolis is as good a place as any to start. Although the movie hardly qualifies as arcane, the new restoration – including 25 minutes of never-before-seen footage – marks a significant contribution to the archival endeavors of those who labor to ensure that future generations can encounter as much of their cinematic heritage as possible.

Fair to say that when it debuted, Metropolis probably felt as encompassing to bygone viewers as a movie such as Avatar felt to today's audiences. And Metropolis – coming earlier in history – is more of a groundbreaker in terms of set design, effects a-- nd lighting. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t look and feel a bit dated.

But that’s not really the point: The point is to try to see Metropolis as it might have appeared to people in 1927, to return to a time when cinema more readily inspired a sense of wonder, when movement could seem truly magical. Early on, it was clear that film not only could replicate reality, it could re-imagine and expand it.

This edition of Metropolis is more fleshed out than previous efforts, relying on use of a 16mm negative found in the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires in 2008. That negative yielded a longer version than previously had been available. The movie, which runs about two and a half hours, includes summations of material that still might be missing, conveyed with intertitles that fill in blanks in the narration. (The restoration was done in Germany by the Murnau Foundation.)

Lang’s story focuses on Freder (Gustav Frohlich), the son of Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), the man who runs the city of Metropolis with an arrogance and aloofness that might shame even the haughtiest of aristocrats.

One day, Freder – who initially seems little more than a happy fool – sees a beautiful woman (Brigette Helm). Stricken, he follows her into the underworld, where he’s appalled to learn how the other half lives. Helm’s Maria, a saintly figure, preaches to the downtrodden masses, offering them hope, and Freder comes to see himself in the role of The Mediator, someone who can bridge the gap between society’s brains and the brawn it takes to make things work.

Add to this, the evil C. A. Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), an inventor who creates a robot to service his sick, romantic dreams. He’s also seeking revenge on Joh Fredersen for taking the woman he loved. We also meet the sinister Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), a fixer type who does Joh Fredersen’s dirty work.

As critic David Thomson points out in his invaluable New Biographical Dictionary of Film, the most memorable aspect of Metropolis centers on Lang's frightening images of crowds. Early on, we see a shift change at an underworld factory. Masses of anonymous workers, all in uniform, lumber through the gates of the factory, marching slowly in step, an army of the living dead. It doesn't take much imagination to see this lockstep walk of doom as a foreboding of some of the worst moments of 20th Century history.

Individuality was not a God-given right or even a part of one’s genetic inheritance. It was something bestowed by economics, notably the privileges that accrued to those who lived in the above-ground splendor of this futuristic city, often indulging their taste for salacious pleasures and frivolous diversion.

Some of Metropolis’ images portray people in the underworld as if they were cells swarming madly through a body that cared nothing for their welfare. Lang captured the climate of dehumanization that became apparent during the First World War and which would be augmented as the century ripened.

So what am I saying here? I’m saying that a work such as Metropolis presents us with a splendid opportunity to discover the vision of a master filmmaker at a time when a total vision of society seemed more possible. Metropolis wasn’t just a city; it was the world as Lang saw it, complete with images that must have terrified its maker as much as they inspired him to look for ways to unshackle ordinary people from the oppressor’s yolk. Did he really understand how this might be accomplished? Probably not.

But we don’t look to Metropolis for answers to political questions. We look because we need to remind ourselves that filmmakers can be wild visionaries and that this is not a new phenomenon; it’s deeply embedded in the history of the medium. Consider Metropolis, which will be released on DVD later this year and which is working its way around the country in theatrical release, a preview of coming attractions for other visionary efforts in which directors reach for spectacle and meaning. Blade Runner often is mentioned as one of Metropolis’ many dystopian heirs.

In reporting about the restored Metropolis, The New York Times noted that the movie long had been treated as an early example of big-screen science fiction, but that the new edition feels different. To my eyes, it seems more interested in the mechanics of betrayal than other versions I’ve seen, notably the 1984 edition in which music producer Georgio Moroder tried to give the movie a contemporary music beat.

Lang, of course, had a long career. M (1931) – the director’s first talking picture – remains a harrowing and essential work of German and world cinema. In 1933, Lang fled the Nazis to work in America. He adapted to life in Hollywood with such wonderful movies as You Only Live Once (1937), The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). But Metropolis remains a motion-picture landmark and now it can be seen in a way that's probably closest to what the director intended.

Metropolis also embodies one of the contradictions that make cinema so vibrant: It sweeps us into an alternate universe, even as it reminds us that movies can redirect us back toward harsh realities.

For much of Metropolis, Lang put fantasy at the service of images that are both hellish and magnetic, which leads us to an uncomfortable conclusion about a work the late New Yorker critic Pauline Kael -- in a phrase that could be applied to life itself -- called “a wonderful, stupefying folly.”
At its best, Metropolis is a grandly mounted vision of utter despair.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Vulgar humor -- but with a bit of a twist

Jonah Hill meets a rocker played by Russell Brand.

Get Him to the Greek may be an anomaly among comedies. The movie might actually be better when it's at its most serious. This ragtag gagfest about a rock-loving schlemiel (Jonah Hill) who's sent to London to escort a fading rocker (Russell Brand) to a 10-year anniversary concert at Los Angeles' Greek Theater has some daring moments.

A semi-parody about the excessive rock lifestyle, the movie also makes room for a moment in which Brand's Aldous Snow confesses to the kind of bone deep loneliness for which there's no cure. The moment isn't played for laughs. In addition, the awkward moments when Snow convinces Hill's Aaron Green and his live-in girlfriend (Elizabeth Moss) to participate in a threesome look like ... well ... what they are, part of an incredibly uncomfortable experiment.

Director Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) makes Get Him to the Greek a richer dish than you'd normally expect from gross-out comedies, but doesn't neglect the kind of humor that's designed to draw a crowd. A running joke has Aaron repeatedly throwing up on himself. And there are other gags involving various body parts, including an airport scene in which Aaron is asked to stash drugs in a very uncomfortable place.

Oh well, you've seen these kinds of comedies before. You will see them again. The one thing Hollywood prizes as much as money might be vulgar humor.

Brand, who played a similar role in Forgetting Sarah Marshall -- the character even had the same name -- has the debauched rocker routine down cold. And Hill, who also appeared in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, does the job you'd expect from a chunky comic actor, who, in this case, plays an avid employee of a record company that's presided over by the maniacally dictatorial Sergio Roma (Sean Combs in a scowling one-note performance).
I don't know how he did it, but Stoller persuaded New York Times Nobel Prize winning columnist Paul Krugman to appear in a cameo, which becomes funny only if you realize how inappropriate Krugman's presence in such a movie is.
But ... and here's the key question ... is Get Him to the Greek uproariously funny7
Not entirely. It has laughs, of course, but I didn't find it fall-down funny, so I'd tag the movie as a medium-grade comedy with some unexpected flourishes and a willingness to shed comedy for moments that are more serious than sentimental.

As with many comedies, a bit of the movie's success depends on the audience with which you see it. I saw it at a preview screening where the audience laughed, but created little spark. Failure of the audience? Failure of the movie? A little of both?

If you really want to know how funny you think a movie is, see it by yourself or at a matinee when the auditorium is relatively empty. But that's not the way comedies are meant to be seen, you protest. You're right of course, but you'll get a purer idea of whether a movie makes you laugh when the guy in the next seat acting as a laugh track.

Those who pay attention to such things will be interested to see two TV performers in totally different lights. As mentioned, Moss -- who portrays an insecure creative type on Mad Men -- plays Aaron's girlfriend, a doctor who's in the middle of a grueling residency. Rose Byrne, who appears as Snow's ex-girlfriend, is familiar to those who've been following Damages. Of the two, Byrne shows the most range as the massively slutty but irresistible Jackie Q.

So apologies. Another mixed review, but at least this one is for a movie with a few interesting wrinkles, not the least of which is Aaron's dawning realization that the quickest way to challenge one's love for music is to land a job in the industry.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

'Splice,' the experiment fizzles

Is this what they mean by designer genes?

Say this about Splice; it's not your average evening at the multiplex. This biologically based thriller promotes a strange form of uneasiness, the kind of queasiness that results from watching the creation of life in all its slimy, uncontrollable splendor.

In the world of Splice, life becomes a lab creation. Thanks to gene splicing, the research team of Clive and Elsa (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley) invent a creature they later name Dren, which is nerd spelled backward.

Dren's creation follows on the heels of another startling invention. At the movie's outset, Clive and Elsa put a new form of life on display, naming their genetically engineered creatures Fred and Ginger, indistinct blobs that look nothing like their elegant namesakes.

Perhaps taking its cue from its artificially bred creatures, Splice feels fresh and unfamiliar - at least in the early going. But director Vincenzo Natali provides some early clues that his creation might not be able to sustain its novelty.

At one point, Clive - tormented by ethical issues and fearful that things are veering out of control -- suggests that maybe the best thing to do is put an end to Dren, who in her early stages looks reptilian and ... well ... flat out ugly, a little bundle of slime, bone and ligature. Don't fret; she becomes more exotically beautiful as the movie progresses.

"Wait,'' says Elsa, "There's still a lot we can learn."

Yeah, like how to come up with a better line of dialog.

Faulty dialog or no, Polley's Elsa stands as the movie's most interesting character. She pushes Clive to intensify their research. She urges him to forget company rules. (Of course they work for a corporation with an eye on the bottom line.) Elsa wants Clive to defy conventional morality, and she begins to treat the fast-maturing Dren as if she were her child. When Brody and Polley relate to the problems caused by having a new species around the house ... er ... lab, the movie plays like a whacked-out take on bringing up baby.

Had Natali pushed a little harder in this direction, he might have made the hippest, funniest movie of the year, a biological comedy that in itself could have qualified as a new species of movie.

Tonally, though, Splice veers all over the place, verging from funny to tense to a little scary. And as much as the movie seems to want to step onto the cutting edge, it gets mired in concerns that border on sci-fi generic: What are the moral obligations of scientists when it comes to genetic research? How far should men and women go in tampering with life? Are Clive and Elsa just plain loco?

Mixed as its achievement s are, Splice keeps us off balance, looking a little ludicrous here, a little eerie there, a little serious on a third glance. Natali probably could have stabilized things had he given his characters more background. As it stands, Clive is just an ordinary dude who happens to know a lot about genetics. Elsa has a more intriguing past. Turns out her mother was insane and abusive.

Brody does as much as he can with an underdeveloped character with a fondness for plaids; Polley manages the movie's most suggestive performance, and three cheers (or maybe two-and-half) for the designers of the creature that grows into Dren, played as a big-eyed adult by Delphine Chaneac.

At its best, Splice mixes creepiness and craziness in its big-screen Petri dish, but its best doesn't go quite far enough. In the end, Natali abandons psychology, inquiry and weird trickery for a more conventional series of "thrills," most of which are telegraphed by the time they roll around. Too bad.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A small, but telling slice of New York life

$200 jeans? Not for this kid.

I know the character Catherine Keener plays in director Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give, a New York based drama that revolves around an apartment occupied by a sour old woman. I’ve met Keener's character in real life – and if not her, a damn close facsimile.

Keener’s Kate is a conscience-stricken New York woman who’s overwhelmed by a mixture of guilt and compassion. She’s uncomfortable giving her teen-age daughter $200 for designer jeans as long as homeless people wander the streets. She feels guilty about the way she earns her living, which involves buying furniture for the mid-century modern shop she and her husband own. She buys cheap and sells dear. That bothers her. So does the fact that she shows up at a time when bereaved people are trying to unload the stuff their recently departed parents held dear.

Kate lives in a world of pain, but an element of selfishness infuses her agony. She uses pain to wall herself off from others and to deny life’s simpler pleasures. She suffers from a kind of middle-class paralysis in which nothing satisfies -- and nothing changes.

To make matters worse, Kate and her husband Alex (Oliver Platt) are waiting for the woman next door (Ann Marie Guilbert) to die so that they can acquire her apartment, breakdown a wall and buy themselves more breathing room.

Of course, both Kate and Alex know that there’s something unforgivably ghoulish about pinning their hopes for expanded comfort on the death of a neighbor, even one who’s so foul tempered, it’s possible that no one will mourn her passing.

I’m not a died-in-the-wool Holofcener fan. I didn’t go wild over Friends with Money or Lovely and Amazing, but Please Give doesn’t seem to be trying so hard for relevance. A relaxed, life-sized strategy allows Holofcener to hold up a mirror to lives that may be nothing like our own, yet remain entirely recognizable.

The movie mingles the story of two families. Kate, Alex and their perpetually irritated teen-age daughter (Sarah Steele) are brought into contact with Mary (Amanda Peet) and Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), the granddaughters of the embittered woman next door.

The woman’s granddaughters react to her in different ways, Mary with undisguised contempt; Rebecca with dutiful concern. Holofcener, who also wrote the script, eventually reveals the motivation behind the behavior of each of the granddaughters, who – in lesser hands – might have seemed like refugees from a sitcom.

Here, all the characters are fleshed out in ways that make them funny, alarming and human. Peet’s Mary gives facials at a spa and catches Alex’s roving eye. Rebecca ‘s a tech who administers mammograms. Holofcener opens the movie with shots of a variety of breasts being measured and analyzed. Possible bad news lurks ominously in the background.

Despite its bland and forgettable title, Please Give stands as a wonderfully acted slice of life among people whose problems may not be quite as momentous as they think. Funny as it can be, Please Give also is laced with the sadness of characters whose lives never feel quite complete. Most of them know little comfort in their own skins.

Sound familiar? I don't mean you, of course. I'm just saying.

Please give opens in Denver Friday.