Thursday, September 30, 2010

A few memories of Tony Curtis

Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster in 1957's Sweet Smell of Success.

Some facts (and observations) about Tony Curtis, who died Wednesday at the age of 85.*

-- Curtis began his movie-start life as a $75-a-week contract player at Universal International Studios.

-- He grew up in the Bronx; his real name was Bernie Schwartz.

-- At times in his life, things went a little too well, and he had a little too much fun. When I met Curtis in 1996 (at the Denver International Film Festival), he said he'd been clean and sober for more than 15 years.

-- Sure he made the Defiant Ones, The Sweet Smell of Success, Some Like It Hot and Spartacus, but he also appeared in a movie called The Continued Adventures of Reptile Man.

-- He had a sense of humor about himself.

-- Curtis told me he based the character of Josephine (the musician in drag in Some Like It Hot) on his mother and Grace Kelly. He originally wanted to be a blonde in the movie, but Marilyn Monroe insisted that no one be as blonde as she was.

-- He told me that it annoyed him that the aristocratic parts in costume dramas always went to Englishmen.

-- He spoke fluent Hungarian.

-- The Sidney Falco character he played in Sweet Smell of Success, a rabid New York press agent, came from a variety of street types he'd known in New York.

-- He told me that Cary Grant once told him that you could tell a great bottle of white wine because when it was properly chilled, it tasted like cool water. The remark helped him to master movie acting.

-- He pointed that, despite the myth, he never said "Yonda lies da castle of my foddah" in 1952's Son of Ali Baba. The real line: "Yonder is the valley of the sun and my father's castle."

-- His real father was a tailor and never had a castle, but it's nice to think that Tony Curtis ultimately found his valley of the sun. RIP, Tony.

*All this from back in the Pleistocene days when there was still a Rocky Mountain News, and I worked there.

How Facebook conquered the on-line world

The temptation in reviewing a hot-topic movie such as The Social Network is to try for a big statement. One could, for example, bemoan the illusion of intimacy that a massive social network such as Facebook seems to create. Or one might marvel at the technical savvy and sociological prescience it took to establish Facebook as a game-changing player in the world of communications.

Truth is I'm not ready to see Facebook as the mark of the devil or as a precursor of everything that's great about the unfolding century. For me, Facebook provides a way to keep in touch with old friends and relatives. I share tidbits (newsy or otherwise) that strike me as intriguing and may be of interest to others. I follow suggested links that seem worth a mouse click. I check Facebook at least once a day or (heaven help me) during breaks from Twitter.

Maybe it is just an illusion, but Facebook sometimes makes me feel as if I'm in the loop.

One thing's for sure: I'm not alone. With 500 million people using Facebook, it's a sure bet that a lot of them will want to see Social Network, a well-researched fictionalized and entirely captivating account of the founding of Facebook. The movie also exposes the various bruised egos and lawsuits that floated in the wake of this Web-based revolution.

Directed by David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and written by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing). Social Network might have been subtitled Revenge of the Nerd. Once the brunt of movie jokes aimed at characters with thick glasses, buck teeth and pocket protectors, geeks have morphed into major playahs, potential billionaires who have revolutionized nearly everything - from the way we buy music to the way we watch movies to the ways in which we keep up with world events.

The undisputed champion of the New Geek Order - at least according to Social Network - is Mark Zuckerberg, the kid who began Facebook at Harvard, spread his fledgling enterprise to a variety of other colleges and universities and eventually built it to the point where everyone from college kids to octogenarians have jumped on board. And, oh yeah, Zuckerberg turned himself into a billionaire in the bargain.

In the hands of Fincher and Sorkin, Social Network opens a window into the social structure of a prestigious university - we're talking Harvard and its culture of manic achievement. The movie also draws energy from the rollicking kick associated with invention and seat-of-the-pants entrepreneurship. From dorm room to billionaire isn't exactly an everyday journey, so Social Network passes the interest test with flying colors, particularly when you remember that Zuckerberg's now a ripe 26 years of age.

Of course, downs usually follow most ups, particularly if we're talking the stock market or drama. In this case, the down side involves the break between Zuckerberg (Jessie Eisenberg) and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). By its end, Social Network suggests that somewhere deep inside, Zuckerberg feels the pain of having thrown friends under the bus as he rose to the top of the teeming Web heap.

No point recounting the details of Facebook's founding. Know, though, that the movie draws on Ben Mezrich's book, The Accidental Billionaires. The word "accidental" is important. Zuckerberg doesn't seem to have an out-sized plan to conquer the world. As portrayed in the movie, he's an avid programmer and a conniving friend. He talks at high speeds, and spares no one's feelings. He's a tech genius who catches the social-network tiger by the tail and has the good sense not to let go.

These days success has many consequences, not least among them lawsuits. Social Network tells its story in flashbacks from two deposition sessions resulting from suits filed against Zuckerberg.

Saverin sued Zuckerberg after he was dumped as the company's CEO. Then there were the Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer). The Winklevosses invited Zuckerberg to join them in creating something they planned to call The Harvard Connection. They wound up suing Zuckerberg, claiming he stole their idea and turned it into Facebook.

The Winklevosses were the antithesis of the avid, socially inept Zuckerberg. They belonged to one of Harvard's elite clubs; they rowed crew; they considered themselves gentlemen. When's the last time you heard a college kid refer to himself as a "gentleman."

But it's Zuckerberg who remains the center of this energetic, fascinating and smartly written movie. As played by Eisenberg, Zuckerberg becomes a true movie oddity: A main character who also comes off as a class-A jerk.

You don't have to wait around for Social Network to put Zuckerberg's thoughtless cruelty on display. The movie's first scene establishes the boy genius as the kind of IQ snob who dumps on his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) because she attends Boston University. He evidently regards BU as such an unchallenging institution that none of its students should have to waste time studying.

Zuckerberg's insult reflects his idea of an entitled "brainocracy," a group empowered by the kind of super-intelligence that aces the SATs. You get the impression that Zuckerberg's ego revolves around always having been the smartest guy in every class. Look, if you're constantly at the top, it's easy to spend a lot of time looking down.

It's a tribute to both Fincher and Sorkin that we get caught up in a movie about characters who don't exactly warm the heart. We're enveloped by the ceaseless whirl of Zuckerberg's success machine, which increasingly takes on a life of its own. This isn't a story for the bygone dial-up age. It's full of high-speed connections -- in every sense.

Special note should be made of Justin Timberlake's contribution to this frenetic code fest of a movie. Timberlake appears as Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster, chick magnate, entrepreneurial renegade and fellow brainiac. Zuckerberg found a conspirator in Parker, who - at least in this version of the story - taught him how not to feel guilty about screwing his friends during his conquest of the on-line world. Not that Zuckerberg was particularly guilt-ridden before he met Parker. Parker didn't start Zuckerberg's raging fire; he just poured gasoline on it.

When Parker convinces Zuckerberg to move to Palo Alto, the newly minted Harvard dropout starts to live a kind of dreamy nerd fantasy. Computer code mingles with a party atmosphere in the house Zuckerberg rents. He also runs into his first serious money, a $500,000 investment in his new company.

Fincher's final image leaves little doubt that Zuckerberg - the character in the movie, not necessarily the real guy - knows that all's not right, a message Eisenberg communicates with a drawn expression that makes him look as if he's on the verge of tears. Cynics among us might say, "What a shame; he can cry all the way to the bank."

It's a reasonably strong moment, but my first reaction after the movie - for all its depictions of business machinations, personal betrayals and brainy condescension -- had to do with Facebook. I wanted to drop my account, to withdraw from the ranks of those who have helped turn Zuckerberg into a high-tech titan.

The feeling passed. I'm still on Facebook.

If I had dropped Facebook I wouldn't have seen an old photo my cousin Richie dug up of my parents and most of my aunts and uncles, seated at a table at some long-ago wedding. I wouldn't know what foods are building the waistline of a food-obsessed "friend." I wouldn't know that another friend just found a new job, that still another is looking for a new house or that a page called "I'd Rather Have a Root Canal Procedure than Listen to Sarah Palin Give A Speech" has sprung up on Facebook.

I learn things - both trivial and significant - by participating in Facebook. But how you get from that to billions of dollars is beyond me. For that kind of action and savvy, you'll have to ask the real Zuckerbeg. Judging by the movie (and by a recent New Yorker profile), it's one bit of information Zuckerberg may not be sharing.

A remake that sticks close to the original

Moretz and Smit-McPhee locked together.

We’ve seen so many vampire movies lately that these blood-sucking creatures of the night have come to seem like neighbors, a bit more remote perhaps but also distressingly familiar. It’s worth remembering, then,that the Swedish movie, Let the Right One In (2008), was one of the strangest,most original and emotionally resonant of all the vampire movies to hit the screen within the last several years.

Built around the torments of a lonely boy living in the chill of what seemed an endless winter, Let the Right One In echoed with the sadness of something that felt like eternal soullessness. The 12-year-old boy at the movie’s center was caught in a trap that never allowed the kind of triumphant release we’ve come to expect from horror movies.

Now comes the inevitable American remake, and the surprise, I suppose, is that Let Me In (a slightly altered title) doesn’t betray everything about its bleak predecessor. A little more vivid, a little more graphic and significantly less ambiguous than the Swedish original, Let Me In nonetheless follows a course that’s steeped in horror – not only the shock of bloody attacks – but also of being caught in an unbreakable cycle of deterioration and woe.

Kodi Smit-McPhee's Owen lives with his single mom (Cara Bouno) in a nondescript apartment complex in what seems to be a small town in the middle of nowhere, the kind of remote place where the cold invades bones.

One evening, a man (Richard Jenkins) and his daughter (Chloe Moretz) move into one of the apartments. Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) quickly establishes that there’s something different about 12-year-old Abby. Abby doesn’t wear shoes, even in the cold. She doesn’t attend school. She seems tougher (and smarter) than most 12-year-old girls. And maybe the man who accompanies her isn’t her father.

Reeves mostly follows the lead of the original in a story that deals with the way Owen is bullied at school. His mom – intentionally photographed in ways that never allow her to emerge as a full presence -- doesn’t understand her son’s loneliness. His father isn’t around. He’s one of those kids left to cope with difficult situations without adult help.

Reeves slowly develops the relationship between Owen and Abby, and for those who haven’t seen the Swedish original, the movie may seem a revelation, the antithesis of the garish shock machines that typify most American horror, as well as a kind of commentary on alliances formed at a time when one is too young to make significant decisions.

It’s no surprise that Jenkins gives a fine performance. Same goes for Elias Koteas, who plays a cop. But the movie couldn’t possibly work if its two young actors weren’t up to the task. Smit-McPhee, who played the boy in the unrelentingly grim big-screen adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, has a wounded quality that’s perfect for the movie, and Moretz, last seen as a profanity-spewing dynamo in Kick-Ass, projects just the right amount of eerie resolve.

If there must be remakes of foreign movies, Let Me In probably qualifies as a model for how it should be done. The movie may be have moved from Sweden to the U.S., but in a way location hardly matters. The story really takes place in the land of loneliness and in the bruised areas of the human heart.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

'Wall Street' sequel closes mixed

Michael Douglas and Shia LeBeouf tackle Wall Street.

America's favorite champion of greed is back. Freshly released from prison, Gordon Gekko is ready to use his status as a celebrity criminal to lecture the nation on how Wall Street ravaged the economy, pushing unsuspecting investors over a financial cliff. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps -- director Oliver Stone's follow-up to his 1987 hit -- plays variations on the kind of revenge themes that gave the first installment much of its punch and offers more than a few discourses on how we found ourselves on the brink of financial ruin.

Money Never Sleeps can be likened to a much-heralded initial public offering. The movie begins with high expectations and momentum, but ultimately suffers from a greed of its own: the desire to jam a ton of information and opinion into a story that sometimes loses itself in a tangle of financial maneuvers. And beyond all expectation and perhaps sense, Stone includes an epilogue that tries for (gasp!) a bit of happily-ever-after bliss.

Don't think I'm completely sour on Stone's effort. To begin with, Money Never Sleeps represents one of the few instances when a sequel makes sense. The audacious Gekko is past due for release from prison, and there hardly could be a better time for Stone to aim his cannons of rancor at Wall Street. In all, the idea of a Wall Street sequel seemed like a hanging curve ball, a fat pitch Stone could knock out of the park. I'd say, he's doubled off the left field wall.

The set-up is simple enough. Gekko, ably reprised by Douglas who won an Oscar for his work the first time around, is released from jail after having spent eight years on ice for insider trading. Not one to waste an experience, Gekko writes a best-selling book that goofs on the signature line from the last movie: It's called Is Greed Good? Gekko's ideally positioned to reveal the ways in which Wall Street sold out the country for fun and profit. Gekko, after all, invented the game. The book lands Gekko on the lecture circuit.

But Gekko isn't entirely happy being a prophet at the gates of the crumbling wall of capitalism. He seems to understand that he's hurt others, notably his family. Saddened by the death of a son (from a drug overdose), a remorseful Gekko would like to reconcile with his daughter (Carey Mulligan). Disgusted with her father, Mulligan's Winnie runs a left-leaning Web site. She's also engaged to a "hungry" young investment banker (the always avid Shia LeBeouf.) She hasn't spoken to her father in years.

LeBeouf's Jake Moore - really the movie's main character - embarks on his own vengeful ploy when he realizes that his Wall Street mentor (Frank Langella) has been victimized by the corrupt manipulations of another tycoon, the silky smooth Bretton James (Josh Brolin). Jake meets Gekko at a speaking engagement, and asks for advice. Gekko agrees to play the role of revenge consultant on condition that Jake brokers a meeting between father and daughter. For her part, Winnie has no idea that Jake has been in touch with her father.

That's enough about plot to give you an idea about where the story is headed - or maybe not. The script by Alan Loeb and Stephen Schiff expands its portfolio to include a green energy company that badly needs an infusion of capital, Swiss banks that still know how to hide money, an aging power broker (Eli Wallach) who may be cagier than we think. All this and bailouts, too.

But you know what? The real fun of Stone's movie - and it does have some kick -- involves precisely the things the director may be attempting to condemn. Brolin, in another fine performance, plays a character who's interesting only because he's rich and powerful and has a well-upholstered lifestyle.

And the movie is at its engaging best when the rich are seen flaunting their wealth, power and cunning. A charity ball at the Metropolitan Museum of Art drips with alluring opulence. The infighting at a Federal Reserve meeting creates the illusion that we're experiencing an inside look at how the power structure works.

Moreover, Jake's energy has an infectious quality. He may be young, but he's living high on the hog in a fancy Manhattan apartment. LeBeouf conveys the giddy sense of confidence that can come from being certain about one's ability to make big money, something I've observed in others but never experienced personally.

But there's a liability in focusing on Jake's adrenalin-fueled ambition. The movie invests too much of its dramatic capital in LeBeouf's character, a young man who's not the equal of the character Charlie Sheen played in the original. And the relationship between LeBeouf and Mulligan falls short of terrific. It's as much plot contrivance as love affair.

The movie also indulges in a myth, a bit of nostalgia for capitalism past. Time was - or so we're led to believe - when Wall Street was different. Langella's Louis Sabel comes on like a cut-rate version of an Arthur Miller character, a Wall Street trader who longs for the days when companies had substance. Remember when we used to make things? Remember when we didn't accumulate mountains of debt just to stay afloat?

Not content to take shots at Wall Street excess, Stone also drags in murky real-estate practices. Susan Sarandon plays Jake's mother, a Realtor who has to borrow money from her hotshot son in order to hold onto properties that have become increasingly difficult to unload. Chewing on a New York accent thick enough to choke a house cat, Sarandon is fun to watch.

I've previously admired Mulligan's work. Here, though, her most impressive feat involves the way that Winnie cries. On a couple of occasions, a lone tear trickles down Winnie's rounded cheek. Very touching.

I decided to let those solitary tears stand for my feelings at the end of a movie. Money Never Sleeps mostly held my interest, but it lacks the emotional and intellectual that the subject demands. In a key line that I reveal here only because it found its way into the trailer, Gekko instructs Jake about the harsh way of things: "It's not about the money. It's about the game," says Gekko.

In the context of the character, the line makes sense, but try telling that to the people who suffered most from the Wall Street collapse, those with vanquished IRAs, devastated pension funds or lack of gainful employment. For all its pontificating, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps works better as glossy escapism than as a biting social critique.

'Never Let Me Go': sensitive -- but remote

Mulligan, Knightely and Garfield in a rare happy moment.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go, seemed an unlikely candidate for big-screen adaptation. That hasn’t stopped director Mark Romaneck, working from a screenplay by novelist Alex Garland, from attempting to bring Ishiguro’s carefully calibrated novel to the screen.

If ever a movie wanted to be taken seriously, it’s Never Let Me Go. Tastefully made, quietly presented and bathed in arty attitudes, Never Let Me Go look as if has been tailored for art-house consumption.

That's not necessarily a bad ambition, but too much of the time, the movie proceeds as if in a trance, unfolding in languid fashion while suggesting deeper meanings that, upon reflection, may not seem quite so deep.

The movie’s problem may be simple: Ishiguro told the story as a first person account from a 31-year-old woman named Kathy, played here by Carey Mulligan. Kathy recounted her days in school with strange precision and with ominous hints about what might be in store for her and her classmates.

Despite the intermittent use of an off-screen narration delivered by Mulligan, the story deadens when viewed from the outside, the only perspective an audience has. That’s why some of its most heartbreaking moments don’t drip with emotion.

I’m not sure that Never Let Me Go can be written about without spoilers. All I’ll say is that the three main characters are not facing a happy future. They’re also involved in a mild love triangle. Both Kathy and Ruth (Keira Knightley) are taken with Tommy (Andrew Garfield). Followed through stages of their lives, these three act like normal kids, then inquisitive teenagers and finally young adults. No matter how ordinary they seem, a sense of quiet strangeness surrounds them.

No faulting the performances, but Never Let Me Go winds up feeling as remote as it is finely honed. The more we learn, the more we wonder why none of the characters bothers to rail against his or her lot in life, something I didn’t feel while reading the novel. Maybe that’s the point Romaneck (One Hour Photo) is trying to make: He’s telling us about the way powerlessness is bred into people. And I suppose it’s true that most of us accept things the way they are. Our minds can be as gray as the sweaters worn by the students at Hailsham, the school where much of the story -- perhaps its best parts -- is set.

If you see Never Let Me go, you’ll realize that the movie has a sci-fi connection: Romaneck (like Ishiguro) probably wanted to play down the sci-fi aspects of his story and raise a philosophical question that can’t be stated here without spoiling more of the movie.

All I can say is that at the point at which my heart should have been breaking, I felt as I’d fallen into a kind of trance. The movie ultimately seems purposed to serve as an arty encouragement, a call to embrace life to the fullest because death looms for one and all.

It’s a lesson this artful, sensitive but emotionally reticent movie would have done well to heed.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Two from the art house circuit

There’s plenty of visual talent on display in Zhang Yimou’s A Woman, A Gun and A Noodle Shop, but that doesn’t mean the movie’s any good. Zhang has taken on the oddball task of remaking the Coen brothers’ debut movie, Blood Simple. Zhang already has done his version of film noir with the gorgeous Ju Dou (1990). Maybe that’s why so much of this strange hybrid seems to be straining to be different. Zhang treats his characters as pawns in an antic comedy that’s reliant on slapstick, overly broad acting, devious plot twists and cartoonish directorial ploys. Some of the terrain surrounding the noodle shop is astonishingly sparse, but this story about a woman trying to free herself from a beastly husband -- the owner of a noodle shop in the middle of nowhere -- lacks the sexy allure of noir, the undertow of eroticism and even the sustained fun of good comedy. Zhang is too talented to make a movie that’s totally without interest, but this one’s a miss.


A far more successful effort can be found in The Sicilian Girl, the story of Rita Mancuso, a real-life woman who battled the Mafia by trying to put one of its chiefs in jail. Ably played by Veronica D’Agostino, Rita gets crosswise with the Sicilian mob and finds herself buried in the witness protection program in Rome. She’s estranged from familiar surroundings and from her family. But Rita's a determined young woman who insists on channeling her fierce energy into the pursuit of revenge against the man who ordered her father’s murder. The fact that Dad also was a Mafia chieftain doesn’t deter Rita from seeking vengeance, but events ultimately force a shift in her consciousness. Her thirst for revenge gives way to a yearning for justice. Director Marco Amenta’s camera tends to crowd in on the movie’s many characters and the narrative isn’t developed in the most fluid of ways, but the raw determination of D’Agostino’s performance keeps Sicilian Girl firmly on track.

Friday, September 17, 2010

'Easy A' showcases Emma Stone

Easy A is bound to make at least one entertainment headline; the movie likely will establish Emma Stone as the next big thing, a quick-witted young actress who can carry a movie. Stone plays Olive, a high schooler who lies about having lost her virginity. As a result, Olive becomes a teen version of Hester Prynne, complete with a scarlet letter that she wears with satirical pride. Written in the self-consciously smart style of a Juno, Easy A tries to illustrate the perils created by rumor and deception. Easy A can be fun, but don’t let me catch you comparing to smarter teen movies, namely Election or Clueless. Of course, a bit of cautionary moralizing creeps into the comedy: As Olive’s story spreads and magnifies, her best friend (Alyson Michalka) deserts her. She also becomes a target for her school’s Jesus freaks, a group led by the sanctimonious Marianne (Amanda Bynes). Of course, Olive’s parents (Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci) are impossibly hip and ultra-relaxed about their daughter’s behavior. The twist here: Olive tries to capitalize on her newfound status as the school slut by asking a variety of hapless guys to pay for the right to say they’ve had sexual experiences with her. Are there laughs here? Some. But Easy A provides us with another example of kids who couldn’t possibly exist without a clever writer. I admired Stone's spunk, but found Olive to be alternately annoying and amusing, which is pretty much how I felt about the rest of the movie.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ben Affleck goes to 'Town'

Ben Affleck and Jeremy Renner as partners in crime.

Boston has been very, very good to Ben Affleck. The actor and sometime director jump-started his career with Good Will Hunting (1997), a Boston-based movie he co-wrote with Matt Damon. In 2007, Affleck directed Gone Baby Gone, a crime yarn set in the Boston area. With the volatile new thriller, The Town, Affleck returns to the Boston scene for more tough-talking crime.

Adapted from a novel by Chuck Hogan, The Town bristles with pungent dialog, hard-boiled acting and vivid characters from Boston's criminal class. The movie takes place mostly in the Boston neighborhood known as Charlestown. There - or so we're told at the movie's outset - bank robbery practically constitutes a family business.

Affleck portrays Doug McCray, a bank robber mired in a standard problem: McCray's had his fill of the criminal life, and wants to go straight. Too bad the neighborhood - embodied in a dangerous, loose cannon of a criminal played by Jeremy Renner - keeps pulling him back for one job after another.

Like many before him, McCray pins his hopes for redemption on a woman (Rebecca Hall). Hall's Claire Keesey works as an assistant manager at a bank McCray and his boys rob in the movie's gripping opening scene. They also kidnap Claire briefly. The robbers wear skeleton masks that make them look especially menacing, and that keep Claire from identifying her tormentors.

Worried that Claire may have picked up a clue or two, McCray establishes a relationship with her. He wants to make sure that she can't incriminate him or any of his felonious cohorts. Not surprisingly, McCray begins to fall for Claire, allowing himself -- maybe for the first time -- to imagine life away from the mean streets of Charlestown.

But escape from the past never proves easy, and the script - credited to Peter Craig, Affleck and Aaron Stockard - places plenty of obstacles in McCray's path: neighborhood loyalties; a reflexive hatred of cops and a bit of old-fashioned intimidation to mention only a few.

The Town boasts the kind of gritty authenticity that we've come to expect from good crime movies, all of it bolstered by fine work from Affleck's supporting cast.

Last seen defusing bombs in The Hurt Locker, Renner can scare the daylights out of you even when he's smiling. Jon Hamm (of TV's Mad Men) stretches a bit as an FBI agent, and Pete Postlethwaite has a nice turn as a florist who runs a small crime empire. Don't overlook Chris Cooper, who shows how much an actor can accomplish in very little time. He appears in one scene as McCray's imprisoned father.

No Boston-bred movie can (or should) escape Fenway Park - home to the city's beloved Red Sox -- and The Town is no exception. I won't say more except to note that the use of heavy artillery during the movie's finale tends to blow away what's best about The Town: the way it captures the tone and texture of life among the criminally inclined. There's enough firepower in the movie's final scenes to make you wonder whether you're in Boston or Baghdad.

By that time, though, you will have gotten what there is to get from The Town. The movie's real pleasure derives from thrust-and-parry dialog and from characters accustomed to living on a dangerous edges.

Affleck's performance also helps. He makes McCray intense, serious and street-wise. At its best, his movie follows suit.

The story behind Pat Tillman's death

Like most red-blooded American men, I enjoy professional football – the games at least. But I could do without the kind of hype that tries to beef up the sport's propagandistic playbook with references to God, patriotism and military service.

A page from that particular book received a mighty turn in 2004 when Pat Tillman, a star strong safety for the Arizona Cardinals, was killed in action in Afghanistan. Tillman, who gave up professional football to volunteer for the Army after 9/11, already had served in Iraq, and the initial reaction of the Army was to turn its fallen hero into a poster boy for patriotic myth-making.

But the truth about Tillman’s death tended to undermine its legend-building potential. Not long after Tillman died, it was revealed that he was killed by friendly fire. And the more details Tillman's family turned up, the less it seemed as if Tillman’s demise resulted from some unavoidable fog-of-war chaos.

An uglier and far less comprehensible picture began to emerge: Tillman’s death may have been the tragic consequence of actions taken by overzealous Rangers who ignored Tillman’s repeated attempts to identify himself as a U.S. soldier. Tillman’s mom pushed – and then pushed harder – to obtain the real story behind her son's death..

All of this emerges in the documentary The Tillman Story, and you can draw your own conclusions about whether the case for extreme negligence has been made. Inescapable, though, is the reality of Tillman’s life: He didn’t believe in God and had come to think of the Iraq war as a waste. He also was a man of honor, who insisted on fulfilling his military commitment.

By the end of director Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary, Tillman stands out as a unique individual, an athlete who could level opposing players, but who hardly fit the dumb-jock mold.

Bar-Lev’s documentary isn’t without weaknesses, nor does it paint everyone in the Tillman camp in a flattering light. (Tillman’s youngest brother’s outburst at a memorial service may have been honest, but seemed lacking in both good timing and taste).

Whatever you conclude about Tillman's death, you'll find a documentary that shows how a man who responded to the call of duty became a victim of the very machine he honored with his service. Bar-Lev’s documentary helps ensure that Pat Tillman will be remembered as a complicated man – not as anyone’s symbol of anything, and that alone makes it a real success. Anyone who bothered to take an honest look should have know that Tillman never could have been pigeonholed.

Gangster life with a French accent

Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) was one tough customer.
Mesrine: Killer Instinct is part one of a pair of gangster movies that opens in Denver Friday (Sept. 17) and continues with a second installment – Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 – on the following Friday. In the hands of director Jean-Francois Richet, the narrative can be alarmingly choppy, but a spectacular performance by Vincent Cassel (as the notorious Jacques Mesrine) turns the two movies into must-see gangster viewing. Richet traces Mesrine’s origins from his service in the French army in Algeria to his death in 1979. Richet hints at the gangster's motivations, but never skimps on showing Mesrine's brutality. That’s important: Mesrine proves a charismatic and nervy figure, but his behavior -- particularly when it involves violence -- is nothing less than appalling. Part one includes a fine performance from a heftier than ever Gerard Depardieu; Part 2 makes room for Mathieu Amalric, as a thief who’s appalled by the way Mesrine courts the media. Mesrine evidently had a knack for escaping from prison, as well as for self-promotion. It’s a bit of a cheat to do a quick-hit review on four hours worth of movies, but if you love gangster fare, Richet's richly realized look at a real-life French master criminal should become part of your movie-going vocabulary. (French with English subtitles.)

Friday, September 10, 2010

The man who danced toward freedom

It's possible to see Mao's Last Dancer as a fascinating story told with a simplicity that borders on naivete, and for about a quarter of the way through the movie that's just what I did. I immersed myself in a story based on ballet dancer Li Cunxin's tumultuous life. Taken from his parents as a boy in rural China, Li overcame initial weaknesses to become a strong dancer. He was selected to travel to the U.S. to study at the Houston ballet. He wound up staying in America, much to the embarrassment of the Chinese government. Alas, the movie's simplicity sometimes looks like a lack of sophistication with director Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies and Driving Miss Daisy) alternating between Li's early years in China and his adaptation to a less constrained life in Houston. Played with great earnestness by Chi Cao, Li becomes the central figure in a drama that seldom veers much from a predictable course. Working in broad strokes, Bereseford sketches the torments of the Cultural Revolution, Li's culture shock upon arriving in America and his growing understanding that artistic expression requires a measure of personal freedom. Amanda Schull portrays Li's first love interest; Joan Chen appears as his peasant mother; and Kyle MacLachlan portrays the lawyer who comes to Li's aid when the Chinese try to force the dancer's return to Beijing. Bruce Greenwood portrays Ben Stevenson, artistic director of the Houston ballet and the man most responsible for bringing Li to the U.S. All of these characters could have benefited from more development. Ballet enthusiasts will be heartened to know that Beresford doesn't skimp on the dancing, but Mao's Last Dancer can feel more like a bold outline than an intensely imagined recreation of real events.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Joaquin's still here -- sort of

One picture's worth a ... well ... you know.

If the late and proudly reprobate Charles Bukowski had written about movie stars instead of down-and-out drunks, he might have created Joaquin Phoenix. Drugged, dissolute and looking as awful as any one can look on the sunny side of the dirt, Phoenix is the subject of I'm Still Here, Casey Affleck's "documentary" about a year in the life of a movie star who suddenly announced that he had abandoned acting to take up rapping.

The events following Phoenix's departure from Hollywood are chronicled in Affleck's movie, which some regard as a hoax on a par, say, with faking a decision to walk away from a lucrative and apparently rewarding acting career. It's possible - some even say likely - that I'm Still Here is an elaborate goof, a sneering reminder that we shouldn't presume to know anything about actors based on what we see of them on film.

Know this, though: It's hardly unusual for parts of documentaries to be staged. Even the most devoted of filmmakers can't be everywhere at once. The recreation of an important moment doesn't necessarily invalidate the truth of a documentary. Affleck, who appeared with the film at the Venice Film Festival, has denied that the movie is a hoax, an obligatory stance on his part whether the movie is truthful or not.

If I'm Still Here is all illusion, it's a well-created one. Affleck adopts a convincingly sloppy hand-held style that emphasizes fly-on-the-wall eavesdropping. He includes embarrassing footage of Phoenix that found its way onto You Tube, and, of course, he makes room for Phoenix's now legendary 2008 appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman. Phoenix showed up to promote Two Lovers - his supposed last movie - and wound up looking like an escapee from a mental institution: bearded, bedraggled and, dare we say, tormented by unseen demons.

"I'm sorry you couldn't be here tonight," concluded Letterman. A distraught Phoenix looked as if he'd just been waterboarded.

A plot line of sorts runs through I'm Still Here. Once he declares his rapping intentions, Phoenix tries to obtain an audience with Sean "Diddy" Combs. He ultimately meets Combs. Nothing seems to come of it. Combs doesn't blow him off, but he's not interested in paving Phoenix's way to hip-hop stardom, either.

So what about Phoenix's rapping abilities?

Let's say he's hardly on a par with any hip-hop heavyweights. This lack of ability either supports the idea that I'm Still Here is an elaborate joke or informs us that Phoenix is even more deluded than we think. He says he's sick of interpreting material others have written. Mostly, he's sick of playing the character called Joaquin Phoenix, a state of discontent that isn't likely to earn him much sympathy.

Say again? You're tired of being rich, famous and of having the opportunity to do highly creative work that has earned you two Oscar nominations and a ton of audience and critical acclaim in movies such as Gladiator and Walk the Line? How unfortunate.

Whatever else I'm Still Here might be, it's definitely not an exercise in image building.

During the course of the movie, Phoenix behaves like a man anxious to drive nails into his own coffin. He snorts coke, hires call girls and belittles his associates. He often rants incoherently. For all the world, he looks as if he's coming apart at the seams as he pursues a career that marks as ridiculous a leap as any he might have taken in assuming the identity of a fictional character. I'm Still Here is a vanity project thrown into reverse, its gears grinding loudly.

So what evidence supports the idea that the film is a fake? The fact that Affleck is Phoenix's brother-in-law makes it difficult to believe he'd allow Joaquin to appear this way. An end credit announcing that Phoenix and Affleck co-wrote the film raises additional questions. Affleck's directorial style -- lighting so dim you sometimes find yourself straining to see through the mush - makes you wonder if he's not pushing the gritty authenticity a little too hard.

An even better question: Should you spend money on a film that may or may not be real? Tough call. I'd say that I'm Still Here has roughly the same appeal as the proverbial car wreck you can't turn away from, and it ultimately raises questions about our ability to distinguish between reality and image - whether that image is of a talented, complex and ultra-intense Oscar nominee or an artist who looks as if he's on the verge of losing his mind.

Affleck makes us share in Phoenix's apparent descent. And, yes, I lean toward thinking that there's some core of ugly truth here, as well as a disturbing question: Joke or not, who in his right mind would want to present himself to the world this way?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Butt-kicking galore in 'Machete'

OK, Machete, we won't ask you to text.
Three years ago, director Robert Rodriguez included a trailer for a movie called Machete in his portion of Grindhouse, the Rodriguez/Tarantino B-movie revel. The trailer was a spoof. The movie didn’t exist.

The spoof has become reality with the release of Machete, a full-blown, helping of butt-kicking, B-movie action. Rodriguez, who shares directing credit with Ethan Maniquis, serves up a hunk of grindhouse fare that has been amped-up and given booming production values that make you wonder whether it's possible to mix movies and steroids.

Can we think of this as a surprise? Hardly. Rodriguez's love for exploitation-style movies was apparent from the start. He kicked off his career in 1992 with El Mariachi, a super-cheapo riff on exploitation movies.

Like its predecessors, Machete mixes over-the-top violence, humor, severed body parts, beautiful women and growling machismo. But this particular concoction is designed to boot the guilty pleasure of the grindhouse into mainstream multiplexes. For me, the mainstreaming of cultish fare always diminishes its power, and Machete is no exception. These movies might have been funnier when the people who made them weren't looking for laughs.

The story revolves around an ex-Federale named Machete (Danny Trejo), a super-strong Mexican who knows how to wield his weapon. Trejo's Machete is thrown way off his game when his wife and daughter are murdered by a Mexican drug lord named Torrez (Steven Seagal with a Spanish accent). Machete crosses the border into the U.S., keeping a low profile until he’s drawn into a plot to assassinate a State Senator (Robert De Niro with a southern accent) who wants to build a border fence.

Linking the movie to immigration issues ultimately turns Machete into a Latino revenge saga aimed at all the folks who rail against illegal immigrants. Trejo, who has the kind of look that could frighten small children, makes an unexpected hero who must fight off drug lords, corrupt vigilantes and a mysterious political operative (Jeff Fahey).

As you can tell from De Niro’s presence, the movie is cast for fun. Don Johnson shows up as a ruthless vigilante who likes to shoot people who cross the border; Cheech Marin signs on as Machete’s brother, a priest who never will serve as a model for non-violent behavior.

Say this: Rodriguez understands his audience. There’s plenty of pulchritude, notably from Michelle Rodriguez, as a woman who runs a network that offers support to illegals, and Jessica Alba, as a customs agent who prefers justice to law and who enjoys jumping Machete’s bones. If that’s not enough to make macho pulses race, Rodriguez includes nude scenes from Lindsay Lohan, who plays Fahey’s character’s wayward daughter.

Note: Given her recent troubles, Lohan has turned into an instant sight gag, not really where any actress wants to be.

Most of the action has been engineered to draw whoops from the multitudes, including a signature line for Trejo’s character: “Machete don’t text.”

Of course, with this kind of movie, the violent envelope must be pushed: An escape scene involving a ropey strand of intestine provides what either can be regarded as a high or low point, depending on how much tolerance you have for gore.

Rodriguez seems to have achieved his goals here, but I’m more than a little tired of the adolescent humor and super-charged energy of movies that exult in their pulpy origins. Rodriguez is good at what he does in Machete, but I half wonder whether it's worth doing at all.

A brilliant Australian rumble in the jungle

Grandma knows best ... or does she?
If there’s a false note in director David Michod’s riveting Animal Kingdom, I didn’t detect it. This Australian debut movie enters a crime world unlike most others we’ve seen. Working with a terrific cast, Michod penetrates the closed world of one Melbourne family, building a climate of excitement and dread.

Now, we’re not talking a crime family a la the Sopranos. We’re talking about a clan of blood relatives who treat the world – and sometimes one another – as a jungle full of prey. Take the movie's title seriously.

I don’t know if the filmmakers thought about it, but Animal Kingdom might just be the perfect movie for our moment of economic gloom and frantic competition. When the going gets tough, people aren’t always inclined to extend a helping hand, unless it’s to put it into your pocket. I may be reading too much into this narrowly focused, grimly targeted movie, but I see it as a mean movie for a mean time.

The story centers on Josh (James Frecheville), a 17-year-old who moves in with his grandmother after his mother dies of a heroin overdose, expiring while the two are watching a game show on TV. As played by Australian stage actress Jacki Weaver, grandma enters a pantheon of crime mamas that includes Cody Jarrett’s Mom (Margaret Wycherly) in James Cagney’s White Heat. High praise, I know, but Weaver’s Janine Cody is an instant classic.

Sweetly and inappropriately seductive with her three sons – evidently each with a different father – Weaver’s Janine has a smile that masks a deadly disposition. As played by Weaver, nothing about this grandma is clichéd or easy. She’s not out to charm the audience with faux toughness; she’s portraying a character whose affections can turn on a dime without evincing the slightest change in demeanor.

Frecheville plays Josh – known as “J” – without a great deal of expression. That’s the right choice. Josh is navigating his way through a world he knows is dangerous, and he’s never entirely sure how he fits into it or even if he wants to adapt. Like everyone else in the film, he’s also scared to death of his uncle Pope, played with incomparable menace by Ben Mendelsohn.

To his credit, Michod – who also wrote the screenplay – never drifts into caricature or cliché. Pope occasionally makes sincere efforts to reach out to his nephew, but he’s ill equipped to make good on offers to become a sounding board. Besides, no one trusts Pope enough to turn him into a confidant.

Although the plot revolves around revenge, the movie has less to do with gangster exploits than with the struggle for power inside the movie’s well-drawn "animal" kingdom, a domain that includes the Melbourne cops. Guy Pearce plays a detective who offers Josh protection, understanding that the kid has only two choices: He can rely on his uncles or on Pearce’s Detective Leckie. Both choices have advantages and disadvantages, and it’s up to Josh to figure out how best to survive his foray into this jungle of murderous rage, personal weakness and craven self-interest.

Luke Ford and Sullivan Stapleton sign on as Josh’s other two uncles, and Laura Wheelwright portrays Josh’s girlfriend, a young woman ensnared by the cruelties of a world that she’s ill equipped to understand. When Josh visits Laura’s house, we see how far outside the norm his life has moved.

Michod does nothing to glamorize these criminals. He also understands that their world is fraught with fear – of one another and of the society at large. He uses music effectively, and, just as importantly, knows when not to use it. (Notice the scene in which the brothers ambush a squad car as payment for the death of one of their partners in crime. No music spoils the point-blank drama of the moment.)

Animal Kingdom is a dark, unhappy movie that bravely denies us the voyeuristic pleasure that most crime movies offer. We can feel as trapped as Josh by this unseemly band of brothers, and we fear for his fate at their hands.

There are so many good scenes and so much fine acting in Animal Kingdom that you needn’t fret over the occasional line of lost dialogue, the disappearance of words inside the thick Melbourne accents. You can’t miss the gist or the skill with which Michod brings this grim tale to life.