Thursday, July 29, 2010

Chuckles minus a full course of laughs

Steve Carell proves endlessly perplexing to Paul Rudd.

For a country that routinely mocks all things French, it's ironic that the U.S. can't seem to get its fill of recycled French comedies. Dinner for Schmucks, which stars Steve Carell and Paul Rudd, supplies us with another instance in which Hollywood has sought inspiration from the country of liberty, equality and fraternity. This Americanized remake of Francis Veber's 1998's Dinner Game -- or Le Diner de Cons, if you must -- has its share of laughs, although it doesn't always serve them up by the forkful.

One way to judge a movie such as Dinner for Schmucks is by assessing how well it turns a crisp - though overrated -- French farce into an American comedy. How well does Dinner For Schmucks mix imagination, humor and slapstick before arriving at its inevitably sentimental conclusion?

As directed by Jay Roach (Meet the Parents and the Austin Powers movies), Dinner For Schmucks works well enough to deem the enterprise a modest success.

Rudd plays an aspiring executive who can land a much-desired promotion only by indulging his boss' wishes. The boss (Bruce Greenwood) hosts a monthly dinner to which his closest associates must bring a "schmuck," a hopelessly dorky and inept person whom the assembled execs can ridicule.

Carell plays the schmuck who holds the key to Rudd's success. Carell's Barry is an IRS worker and amateur taxidermist who, among other things, reconstructs great scenes from art using stuffed dead mice. One of his masterpieces: A precise replica of Da Vinci's The Last Supper.

The script contrives to have Barry meet Rudd's Tim in a way that sets up a dynamic of guilt. Tim runs Barry over with his car. Poor Barry. He's both hopeless and hapless, but a total lack of self-awareness makes him a good foil for Tim. Barry has no idea what an idiot he is.

The movie adds a variety of minor characters. Zach Galifianakis plays Barry's boss at the IRS, an eerily intense fellow who believes he can control the minds of others. Jermaine Clement has a truly funny turn as a self-involved artist and unashamed sex machine. Stephanie Szostak signs on as Tim's fiancee and conscience. Lucy Punch plays a libidinous woman who dated Tim once, but won't let go.

Carell's comic chops already have been established: He does as well as he can with a character who tends to be as annoying as he is funny. Rudd has the more difficult job of playing straight man; he handles it with reasonable aplomb.

The big dinner scene boasts bits that may be not be quite as funny in the execution as they were in the planning, but the characters we meet at this bizarre repast qualify as abundantly strange. Witness the ventriloquist who introduces his dummy (a blonde doll with exposed cleavage) as his wife.

I could have done without much of the slapstick, but I suppose that's a matter of taste. Considering that Dinner for Schmucks is a remake, I arrived at a preview screening with low expectations. I was pleased to find a few laughs and some strangely imaginative bits, and I suppose it takes a certain amount of admirable gall to include dead mice jokes in a comedy that's aiming at big-time summer success.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Counting down to nuclear disaster

After a preview screening of the new documentary Countdown to Zero, someone staggered out of the theater wondering whether it might be better to commit suicide than to face the terrible likelihood of a nuclear devastation. Should we find ourselves in a world where someone drops a bomb,unspeakable consequences surely would follow: The planet probably would be plunged into nuclear war, thereby paving the way for centuries of dystopia marked by strife, barbarism and unfathomable grief.
Obviously, Countdown to Zero -- which reminds us of the urgent need to rid the planet of the 23,000 or so nuclear bombs that languish in various parts of the globe -- is not (I repeat "not") the feel-good movie of summer, and it definitely encourages us to think about the dangers associated with the world's lingering nuclear arsenal.

The documentary alerts us to a variety of potential triggers for nuclear destruction: Terrorists commandeer a nuclear weapon; a nuclear power mistakenly begin a nuclear encounter; an accident sets off a nuclear holocaust. And we thought the end of Cold War hostilities had put some distance between us and the nuclear threat. Not so, says Countdown, taking great pains to show us why danger persists.

Written and directed by Lucy Walker and produced by Lawrence Bender -- who also produced Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth -- Countdown to Zero points to two possible paths, both suggested by its title: Either we countdown to a moment of unparalleled catastrophe or to the moment when we inhabit a nuke-free planet.

Let it be said: The filmmakers do a fine job of scaring us into attention with news footage and interviews (Tony Blair, Mikhail Gorbachev, Robert McNamara and more), as well as with the reactions of ordinary people. It's hardly surprising that most of us would prefer that humanity does not go out with a nuclear-driven bang, but it doesn't hurt to hear the position affirmed.

The most gripping part of a generally gripping movie centers on its most devastating sequence; the filmmakers show us what could happen if nuclear bombs were dropped on major cities in a sequence that's beyond sobering.

Clearly, we're a long way from Randy Newman's satirical suggestion -- "Let's drop the big one and see what happens," but Countdown to Zero has a problem that's suggested by the response of that audience member I cited at the outset.
As is the case with many advocacy documentaries, Countdown may wind up preaching to the choir. Beyond that, there's the problem of ... well ... problems. We're so flooded with issues -- from the ruptured economy to steady global warming to a failing education system -- that we run the risk of being beaten into helpless and hopeless passivity. That's probably not the response the filmmakers are seeking. Odd isn't it. Documentaries that encourage us to engage sometimes have precisely the opposite effect.

Andre Dussollier stars in Resnais' Wild Grass.
That headline is enough to justify a visit to Wild Grass, director Alain Resnais' latest movie, which fills out dance cards for those who still harbor fond memories of movies such as Mon oncle d'Amérique, Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima mon amour. Wild Grass finds Resnais in a somewhat playful mood as he makes a movie that wants to celebrate the ways in which cinema has changed our ideas about what's possible. Movies, to take the simplest of examples, can move us from one location to another with no need to explain exactly how the transition occurred. If that kind of magic is possible, perhaps a whole new set of human relationships could follow? Resnais' story centers on a strange man (Andre Dussollier) who finds the wallet of a dentist (Sabine Azema) in the parking lot of a shopping center. Dussollier's character brings the wallet to a local police station, but still agonizes over whether to contact the woman. When he does, he acts as if this encounter might be the most significant of his life. Resnais' use of techniques that call attention to the fact that we're watching a movie -- from irises to shifting narrations to a title card that seems to pop out of nowhere -- can seem overly quaint, but the movie passes pleasantly, if at times incomprehensibly.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

'Salt' is peppered with non-stop action

Angelina Jolie is armed and dangerous in Salt.

Angelina Jolie kicks much butt in Salt, a thriller about a CIA agent who's accused of being a Russian spy, and, as a result, spends most of the movie on the run. If you like improbable action -- no, make that impossible - action, you'll get your fill and then some from a movie that moves with Road Runner speed.

At one point, Jolie's Evelyn Salt leaps off an overpass onto a speeding semi-truck, and that's just the beginning of the sequence. The movie features feats no mortal could accomplish without either winding up in a coffin or a full body cast.

Salt? She takes a licking and -- as an old Timex slogan put it -- keeps right on ticking.

You can't believe a minute of this action, but the exaggeration can be fun, and - for the most part - director Phillip Noyce handles the mayhem with the kind of old-pro efficiency you'd expect from the man who directed Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, but who most recently has taken a sabbatical from Hollywood with small movies such as Catch a Fire, The Quiet American and Rabbit-Proof Fence. This time, Noyce abandons the logic that rules the physical world, and allows the action to rip as Salt tries to evade capture by two CIA colleagues (Liev Schreiber and (Chiwetel Ejiofor), fine actors who do what's required of them; i.e., they add seriousness and tension to a script that's not afraid to go over the top.

The screenplay puts Salt in jeopardy when a Russian defector (Daniel Olbrychski) turns up in Washington, and names her as a sleeper agent, timely stuff given recent news stories about Russian spies in our suburban midst. Salt denies any involvement with the Russians, and takes off in hopes that she can clear her name and save her scientist husband, who has been snatched by the very same Russians.

For a while, it looks as if Noyce has pulled off a nearly impossible feat, dropping mega-tons of fantasy action into a realistically presented environment. Cinematographer Robert Elswit has decided to keep the images on the dark side, and the movie has a brooding quality that suggests more importance than the story ever really earns.

I read somewhere that Salt resembles a Bond movie. Maybe a little, but the best Bond movies had winking humor, something that's lacking in Salt, a thriller with conspiratorial flavor that includes a new theory about the assassination of President Kennedy.

The dour mood probably is understandable. Much of the Bond humor involved 007's taste for high living, martinis and women. Evelyn Salt has no time for pleasure. She's interesting because she's not like Bond. She operates in a universe that's morally ambiguous. She's also motivated by personal concerns the likes of which seldom troubled Bond.

For most of the movie's fast-paced 100 minutes, Jolie looks deadly and dangerous, and some of the action is exceptionally well done. I had a white-knuckle moment when the script called for Salt to climb from window ledge to window ledge as she tries to flee her pursuers.

I happened to see Salt at a preview screening at which the film broke. During the time it took to get the screening up and running again, I asked my wife where she thought the plot was headed. She guessed right, which suggests that some of the key developments are not rife with surprise.

If you're a stickler for credibility, you'll want to steer clear of Salt, which is geared for a season in which we're asked to suspend disbelief as freely as we sometimes offer gratuitous advice. And given its pedal-to-the-metal approach, it's hardly surprising that Salt leaves the door open for a sequel. The way Jolie handles the action, it's likely we'll see one.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Gay parents face an empty nest

One big, not-always-happy family.

Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right has been widely hailed as an important, absorbing and entertaining work. I mention the positive buzz -- complete with a fawning Charlie Rose love-in that lasted nearly an hour -- not to cavil and carp, but to clue you in. Lots of substantial voices rank Cholondenko's movie as one of the year's best.

I wish I could add mine to the rising chorus of acclaim, but I found the movie to be only mildly amusing, a work that lacks the richness that we expect from movies that approach any sort of greatness. If I had to classify Cholendenko's movie, I'd call it a reasonably typical indie effort built around a subject that deserves more attention, long-term gay relationships and the establishment of new kinds of families.

The movie focuses on a lesbian relationship in which each of the partners has had a child thanks to sperm from the same donor. When the movie opens, the kids are mired in adolescence, and one of them -- a 15-year-old boy -- decides that he'd like to meet his biological father. The other, an 18-year-old girl who's college bound, goes along with her brother's wishes.

The idea of exploring what might happen if a man suddenly emerged as an important figure in the lives of these kids is intriguing, but the resultant film doesn't live up to the promise, perhaps because it's a little too content to swim in the mainstream. Cholendko's humor isn't overly broad, but it's not full of subtlety or resonance, either.

I wish the movie had been more about the kids than the adults. I say this because the performances by Mia Wasikowska, familiar from Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland,* and Josh Hutcherson, who has less prominent big-screen exposure, perfectly capture the anger and confusion of adolescents who are on the brink of leaving home. Both Hutcherson's Laser (I'm not kidding about the name) and Wasikowska's Joan seem to have adopted patronizing but entirely credible attitudes toward their parents. When the women -- whom they call "the moms" -- tell the story of how they met for the gazillionth time, the kids react with eye-rolling disapproval.

The two main adult roles are played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. Bening's Nic, a physician by trade, is the alpha partner in a 20-year relationship that's lost some of its spark. Moore's Jules has focused on raising the kids, and is just beginning to think about returning to a career as a landscape designer, a task made more difficult by her lack of self-esteem.

Mark Ruffalo does some of his best work yet, as Paul, the sperm donor who suddenly finds himself involved in the lives of Nic, Jules and their two kids. Paul runs a restaurant that specializes in locally grown food; he's casually self-absorbed, which is more than you can say for either Jules or Nic; their self-asbsorption is pretty intense.

But here's the thing: Paul is an appealing and amusing character until the movie tries to turn the tables on him as the result of a plot twist that can't be revealed here. For the record, I didn't find that twist entirely credible.

Some critics have commented that The Kids Are All Right makes an important and timely point: Gay and straight marriages aren't all that different. Same problems. Same annoyances. Same possibilities for betrayal. Same opportunities for forgiveness. Fair enough, and Choldenko wisely refrains from pushing any agenda.

The movie's major lesbian sex scene is played for laughs, which -- or so it seems to me -- lets mainstream audiences off the hook. I'm not arguing for explicit sex, and I wouldn't even mention any of this if the movie didn't include heterosexual sex scenes that are more explicit, although they, too, have comic intentions.

So I leave it to you. Know that the positive reviews outweigh the negative and make your own judgments. I'll hang back here with the less enthusiastic crowd, continuing to wait for a movie that had a little more to say about a subject that deserves its own movie, hopefully more than one.

*Thanks to the reader who pointed out that I initially and incorrectly said that Mia Wasikowska had been in The Lovely Bones. No excuse, really. Just dumb on my part.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

'Breathless:' Always worth a look

Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless.

Jean Seburg and Jean-Paul Belmondo made cinema history in Breathless, the 1960 film that's associated with the early days of the French New Wave. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, Breathless remains a must-see for every would-be cinephile. If you've seen Breathless only on DVD, you now have a chance to catch it on the big screen with a 50th anniversary edition that opens in Denver Friday (July 16). A beautifully restored 35 mm print is reason enough to become reacquainted with Breathless, which the late Pauline Kael called "a witty, romantic, innovative chase picture." The calendar for the Mayan -- where the picture plays for a week -- quotes Martin Scorsese thusly, "As fresh and startling as it was 50 years ago." For once, a quote you can take to the bank. Without Breathless, so much about the subsequent evolution of cinema would have been impossible. So revisit a time when directors and audiences were seized by movie madness, and cinema seemed to be reinventing itself before our eyes.

'Inception' knocks us off our moorings

It's not easy trying to survive in a world of dreams.

A supremely talented thief gathers a crew and readies himself for one last job, the caper that finally will allow him to abandon life on the run.

Sure you've heard it before, but Christopher Nolan, who directed the mega-hit The Dark Knight and who made a splash on the filmmaking scene in 2000 with Memento, energizes familiar cinematic ploys by putting them in a fresh context: Almost all of his new movie, Inception, takes place in dreams.

Already hailed as a masterpiece in some quarters, Inception arrives in theaters with high expectations in tow, and it would be dishonest of me not to begin by saying that the movie - which boasts some of the more impressive visuals of the year - does not require us to hoist flags and proclaim a national holiday.

Inception, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio, provokes plenty of thought, but operating in the world of dreams seems to have given Nolan license to confound, as well as to illuminate. He does equal amounts of both in a movie that contains a fair measure of visual wit and lots of ferocious energy.

Nolan employs a terrific cast as he develops the ideas in Inception - and, yes, we're talking about the ideas in the movie, not the ideas behind it. Tricky as it tries to be, Inception hardly misses a chance to tell us what it's up to, not that you'll get it all.

Because Nolan, who also wrote the script, is creating an entire universe, he needs to supply lots of rules-of-the-game dialog. In speedy fashion that virtually dares you to keep up, Nolan has DiCaprio's Dom Cobb explaining the ground rules. What happens if someone dies in a dream? Is it possible to get lost in dreams and never re-emerge? Where in the hell do all those projections inside our dreams originate? Is time in a dream the same as time in an awakened state?

Cobb, we soon learn, is an extractor by trade and training. He's able to invade dreams and come away with secrets buried in a dreamer's subconscious, a skill that he's evidently employed mostly to conduct industrial espionage. (And, no, that wouldn't be my first choice if I had a similar ability.)

Contacted by a Japanese entrepreneur (Ken Watanabe), Cobb is asked to conduct a perilous mission. He must invade the subconscious of the son (Cillian Murphy) of a recently deceased industrialist and plant an idea in the young man's head. It's an idea that will change the course of the future.

Nolan definitely is attuned to something intriguing, notably a view of dreaming as one of the strangest of human activities, the state in which we escape the rules that bind us throughout our waking moments. Working with his usual cinematographer, the gifted Wally Pfister, Nolan pulls out all the stops, and if you're able to give yourself over to the imagery, you'll definitely find yourself tripping right along with the filmmakers.

As is the case with more conventional "caper" movies, characterization is kept to a minimum. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, sporting a slicked back, bullet-head look, signs on as one of Cobb's assistants. Ellen Page, the gifted young actress who wowed the world in Juno, plays an architect who's engaged by Cobb to design dreamscapes.

Oops, I forgot to mention, the movie also introduces us to the concept of shared dreaming, the possibility that a variety of skilled folks can enter the same dream, each assuming responsibility for a different task.

Every dream needs to feel a little haunted. In this case, the talented Marion Cotillard adds spectral presence. She plays Cobb's wife, a woman from whom he has become estranged for reasons that can't be revealed in a review.

It's just here that Nolan should be credited for his most inspired casting. There's something ethereal, dreamy and dangerous about Cotillard's Mal, and she contrasts nicely with Page's Ariadne, a down-to-earth, practical woman who always seems to have one foot in reality.

And, yes, the images can be mind bending. At one point, Ariadne learns to manipulate dream realities, bending a cityscape in an effect that you may have seen in the movie's trailer, but which still manages to be breathtaking in the context of the movie. How long has it been since you've said, "Oh, wow?"

So what's Nolan up to, really? On one level, he's making a thriller. On another, he's trying to knock us off our moorings, and because movies often are compared to dreams - they can have the same sort of reality-defying fluidity - he may be commenting on the way we allow ourselves to be sucked in by filmmakers.

Novel as Inception can seem, it does evoke memories of other films. You may find yourself thinking about The Matrix, for example. I wouldn't have been at all surprised if Laurence Fishburne had wandered in for a quick scene. It would have made as much sense as anything else in Inception.

DiCaprio holds the screen throughout all of this planned chaos. He's playing a man who makes his living entering other people's subconscious minds, but who can't entirely control his own. That's another issue with which the movie toys: The idea of control. Who's the author of our dreams anyway? And on and on and on - for a not-quite-justifiable two and a half hours.

Now, it's my belief that Nolan could have accomplished all this with a little more narrative clarity. At various times, I found myself talking to myself, "OK, this is a dream. Now, we're in the dream within the dream. This seems to be the waking state."Am I watching a movie or am I experiencing short-term memory loss?"

A little such disorientation goes a long way, and Hans Zimmer's ubiquitous score doesn't provide a moment's respite, either. (Last time I checked, my dreams didn't have musical scores. Maybe that's just me.)

For my money, David Lynch is far better at showing the elasticity of reality and at luring us into worlds where we're never sure what's real and what's imagined. But Nolan has bigger commercial fish to fry than Lynch. With a major summer release, he must fuse art and action. Imagine if someone had told Fellini, a director who know something about dreamy imagery, that he had to add a few car chases to 8 1/2.

Should you go? Sure. See Inception, and get into your own dialog with the movie. Know this, though: My dreams - and I hope yours -- never have included noisy car chases, exploding fireballs or automatic weapons fire, a claim I'm not sure Nolan can make. But then again, I don't sell tickets to my dreams or expect them to reach blockbuster proportions. I'm just happy if I wake up.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Aliens, animated villains vie for attention

Gru works hard at dreaming up new pathways to evil.

Despicable Me doesn't quite have the courage of its nastiest convictions, but at times, it comes admirably close. This often funny and nicely executed helping of animation (available in 3D at many locations) mixes action, character and humor in an appealingly silly way. The story focuses on two villains, each of whom wants the title of world's baddest bad guy. Gru (Steve Carell) -- the former top-ranked villain -- is being challenged by Vector (Jason Segel), a youthful newcomer. The plot contrives to have Gru adopt three orphans so that they can penetrate Vector's lair under the guise of selling cookies. The girls are cute and funny, and although the movie ultimately yields to its sentimental impulses, much of it (quite happily) employs humor with a slightly dark edge. Additional characters abound: Julie Andrews, for example, gives voice to Gru's mom, a sour puss who has spent a lifetime belittling her ambitious son. The backdrops are cleverly conceived and brightly drawn under the guidance of directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin, and Despicable Me turns out to be a pleasant seasonal surprise, an animated movie that's just different enough to make it feel fresh. (I saw the movie in restful 2D and was happy to forgo 3D pleasures so that I could concentrate on the characters and the story.)


Predators makes no mystery of how its aliens look.
Director Nimrod Antal (Armored and Kontroll) assumes directing chores in Predators, a mid-summer helping of alien-planet grit. With Robert Rodriguez backing him up as producer, Antal -- who has a demonstrated flair for unpretentious action and B-movie tough talk -- adds a variety of special effects to the expected butt-kickings and mangled flesh. The story: A group of earthly miscreants finds itself facing off against aliens on a jungle planet where the humans are prey. Led by Adrien Brody, who proves he can play tough, the cast includes support from Alice Braga, Topher Grace, Danny Trejo and others. Forget character development: These are types. We're talking a doctor, a drug runner, a Yakuza gangster, a rapist and more. The jungle settings on this distant planet are convincingly created, and Antal wastes no time leaping into action, eventually making room for Laurence Fishburne in a small role. Antal displays little interest in background, opting instead to deal with what it's like to wake up in the middle of a nightmarish situation and have no other goal but escape. The movie's pulp dialog is nothing special, but Antal keeps things moving as his group of misanthropic earthlings tries to work together to fight aliens who are capable of appearing out of nowhere. More fun at the outset than the end, Predators has some liabilities: The creature design -- reptilian with hints of anthropomorphism -- is not the most imaginative, some of the action is confusingly presented and the movie tends to be hampered by a lack of smarts at crucial points. Call Predators a better-than-average B-movie; a touch more inspiration have turned it into a bona fide down-and-dirty delight. And by the way, after being dropped into an alien world, our heroes don't hesitate to open fire at anything that moves. Somehow, though, they never run out of ammunition. Hmmm.*

*Won't replace Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1987 Predator, which was a far better "B.".

She plays with fire and keeps series burning

She's back and badder than ever.

It's amazing how quickly novelty becomes normative in a culture that thrives on saturation. When we first met Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, she sprang from the screen with startling freshness, quite an accomplishment for a character familiar to millions from the trio of best-selling Swedish books that revolve around her.

Bisexual and burdened by a troubled past, Lisbeth had been officially declared incompetent, an ironic twist because she's also a genius, a computer whiz who can hack into any system, penetrating even the most secure walls of privacy. Played with single-minded determination by Noomi Rapace, Lisbeth seemed like someone we hadn't seen before; even her sexual encounters felt extreme, like well-planned military campaigns.

Several months later - with the release of The Girl Who Played With Fire, the second in author Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy - Lisbeth already has become a bit of a stock figure in the popular imagination. Don't blame Rapace's performance, which continues its display of flinty, relentless will. Blame cultural ubiquity, the tendency for our most popular fictions to become instantly inescapable.

So far, neither movie totally has lived up to its source material, but Dragon, I believe, came closer than Fire. Still, the second installment boasts enough twists and turns to hold interest and make Girl Who Played With Fire an intelligent and sometimes riveting must-see for devotees. And, no, I'm not sure the second movie makes much sense if you haven't seen the first or read the novels.

Perhaps to keep the story from feeling formulaic, Part II departs from the first helping by keeping Lisbeth and journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) apart, although they're obviously traveling in the same direction. Lisbeth must evade capture until Blomkvist can prove that she's not a triple murderer.

If disappointment begins to bubble beneath the surface, it's worth reminding ourselves of the brilliant way in which the late Larsson flipped the neo-noir script. In most noir dramas, the hero is a guy, and Blomkvist qualifies for the role. He's a smart, hard-bitten journalist who's been around the block. Larsson wisely puts the best cards in Lisbeth's hands. Half the time, Blomkvist races just to keep up.

Fire deftly conflates two aims: To give us a complicated mystery and to disclose more about Lisbeth's disturbing background. By the end of Fire, we understand more about how Lisbeth evolved into an emotionally distant techie genius who can't seem to abide lasting intimacy.

Director Daniel Alfredson and writer Jonas Fryberg (not the writer/director team of the first installment) advance the story, setting us up for the final installment, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest, and introducing some interesting new secondary characters, one a frightening blond behemoth of a man who looks as if he popped in from the set of a Bond movie.

Fire creates tension between misogyny and eroticism in much the same way as the original, but it's Lisbeth who keeps the wheels turning with Rapace suggesting every bit of her character's intelligence, emotional wariness and remarkable strength. Those who are hooked should find themselves wrapped in Fire's well-woven web of intrigue, crime and devilish perversity.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

'Cyrus:' We laugh, even as we squirm

They're locked in a battle for love.

Cryus turns out to be several movies in one -- all united by a pitched battled between two apparent losers who hope to emerge victorious. And here's the hook: Both are competing for the affections of the same woman -- only she's one of their moms.

At first blush, Cyrus comes on like a straight-ahead comedy about a scattered and apparently hopeless middle-aged schlub whose life seems as crumpled as a discarded Kleenex.

The movie shifts gears when the hapless John (John C. Reilly) meets an attractive and apparently available woman (Marisa Tomei) who immediately responds to him. John’s loneliness begins to break down. Much to his amazement, he's made a connection.

A third door when John discovers that Tomei’s Molly lives with her grown son (Jonah Hill), an aspiring composer who seems to have an entirely unnatural attachment to his mother, an attachment that’s so strong, it threatens to undermine what might be John’s last chance at happiness.

Not all of the various threads in Cyrus cohere, but when the movie is funny, it’s as funny as any of this year’s more obviously engineered comedies.
The movie owes a lot – close to everything -- to its three principal actors:

Reilly plays a self-aware schlemiel in the tradition of a Woody Allen character, only without the gnawing neuroses and constant agitation. Reilly’s John is a decent guy who’s lost most of his confidence before the picture starts. He’s overly dependent on the advice of his ex-wife (Catherine Keener). She's engaged but can't quite cut poor John loose.

Hill’s popularity (acquired in such Judd Apatow comedies as Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall) generally has eluded me. Here, though, he finds a character that entirely suits him, a boy/man with big-time mommy issues. The script never quite clarifies how weird this mother-son relationship has become, a strategy that may frustrate some, but one that allows the movie’s writer/directors -- brothers Jay and Mark Duplass – to push viewers into speculative areas that sharpen the movie’s edge.

Tomei, a fine comic actress, plays a woman who seems ready to move beyond the mother phase of her life. Tomei’s Molly also grapples with the guilt generated by her devotion to a son with whom she has lived well past the time when he should have struck out on his own. No father is mentioned.

Molly’s social life -- or so we presume -- consists of occasional encounters with men, most of whom have been unable to withstand the pressures created by Cyrus, whose feigned sincerity can be unnerving. He’s as cunning as he is odd, and Hill’s deadpan performance makes him increasingly unappealing.
If you look a little past the surface, you’ll find unexpected nuance in Cyrus. Reilly’s John may not be quite as hopeless as he seems. When his ex-wife (a cheery Catherine Keener) invites him to a party, he spiffs up and shows up. True he gets drunk, but he also shows that he’s capable of taking the kind of risks that are required if one is to make real connections with others.

Tomei’s Molly isn’t all that she seems either. Away from Cryus, she’s an engaging woman who responds to honesty and helps to bolster John’s sagging ego. She’s smart enough to know that beneath John’s ineptitude, there’s something genuine. The script doesn’t spell it out, but you get the impression that Molly’s way past other kinds of relationships.
All of this evolves into a competition for Molly’s affections. Is Molly a mother? Or is she a companion and lover? Can the two roles be reconciled? They won’t be if Cyrus has anything do with it; he tries his best to ensure that mommy remains mommy.

Once John and Cyrus realize that they’re locked in winner-take-all combat, the movie sharpens its knives and lets them swipe at each other, a rivalry in which the Duplasses find a good deal of comic potential, some of it realized.

The Duplass brothers – Puffy Chair and Baghead – come out of the so-called Mumblecore movement that that was all the indie rage a couple of years back, and they bring some of that movement’s shaggy-dog ambiguity to Cyrus, which unfortunately tends to lose a bit of steam as it progresses. True to their low-budget roots, the Duplasses aren’t exactly groundbreakers when it comes to visual style.

Here, though, they excel at experimenting with a contrived situation. I’m not sure that you’d call Cyrus an entirely successful experiment, but it can be extremely funny. And it infuses its comedy and outlandish situations with something real – a feeling for the kind of loneliness that backs people into corners, trapping them in lives they’d rather not be leading.

That’s more substance than you’ll find in most comedies, and it helps elevate Cyrus into something more than a series of gags strung around a ton of obvious conceits. Exactly what that something is remains open to question, which isn’t an entirely bad thing. I enjoyed Cyrus a lot, even as I found myself wishing it were just a little bit better.

'Ondine:' real charm, a little bite

Neil Jordan has been a great director and a disappointing one. With movies such as The Crying Game and The Butcher Boy, Jordan established himself as one of cinema's more distinctive voices. But he's also made Hollywood movies that have fallen short of expectation, notably 1994's Interview With The Vampire and 2007's The Brave One. Ondine -- Jordan's latest -- falls somewhere in the middle of the the director's pack, but that doesn't mean it's not worth seeing. This time, Jordan tells the story of a fisherman (Colin Farrell) who fishes a woman (the Polish actress Alicja Bachleda) out of the sea. Sexy and mysterious, Bachleda gives the movie its charm, helping Jordan sustain a mystery about whether her character just might be a selkie, a mythical sea creature. There's more, of course: Farrell's Syracuse is a recovering alcoholic with a precocious daughter (Alison Barry) and an ex-wife (Derva Kirwan) who hasn't stopped drinking. Working from a script he wrote, Jordan more or less clears up the mystery about Ondine before the proceedings conclude. Farrell (down to Earth) and Backleda (more elusive) play off each other in engaging and credible fashion, and Ondine sets itself apart from more boisterous summer fare; it's a minor, yes, but downright agreeable.