Thursday, January 27, 2011

Who knew? Exorcism can be a career path

This encounter with the devil is predictably gloomy, but The Rite feels like The Exorcist Lite.
In Denver, preview screenings for The Rite and The Mechanic took place on the same evening. Proximity to one theater over another and an interest in any movie that deals in supposedly serious fashion with exorcism drove me to The Rite, which stars Anthony Hopkins as Father Lucas, a Welsh priest who plies his trade in Rome. He's an exorcist.

The movie was inspired by a book by Matt Baglio, a journalist who traveled to Rome with an American priest who was training to be an exorcist. Yes, the Vatican evidently offers such a course. I haven't read Baglio's book -- subtitled The Making of a Modern Exorcist -- so I have no idea how much license was taken by screenwriter Michael Petroni.

What arrives on screen is a darkly hued tale that focuses on a priest in training (Colin O'Donoghue), a young man who discovers his faith by encountering demonic forces that possess a pregnant teen-ager (raped by her father) and a boy who claims that he has been kicked by a demonic red-eyed mule.

At first O'Donoghue's Michael Kovak doesn't believe in the devil; in fact, he's not even sure he believes in God. He attends a seminary mostly to get away from his father's mortuary business and to obtain an education he couldn't otherwise afford. One of Michael's teachers (Toby Jones) realizes that Michael is bright and that he can deal with crisis situations. The preist refuses to believe that anyone winds up in a seminary without at least the hint of a calling; he sends Michael to Rome to enroll in exorcism school.

The exorcism class is taught by Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds). Sensing Michael's skepticism, Father Xavier arranges for Michael to meet Hopkins' Father Lucas. A journalist (Alice Braga), who's taking the exorcism course for an article, asks for Michael's help in meeting Lucas, which he eventually provides.

That's the set-up, but there really isn't all that much more to the movie.

The exorcisms play like outtakes from The Exorcist, proving that the 1973 classic still tops this apparently inexhaustible field. When Father Lucas receives a cell phone call during an exorcism, you may find yourself wondering why the filmmakers didn't switch gears and turn The Rite into a comedy. No such luck; the yuks here are inadvertent.

It might have been more interesting had Father Lucas and Michael been forced to match wits with the Devil rather than engaging in the shouting matches that crop up between dull stretches of exposition.

The movie does, however, espouse one interesting idea: The devil isn't necessarily interested in showmanship. If people don't believe in him, his work becomes easier: He can wreak havoc without people putting up their guards.

One of the movie's plot twists -- you know what it is if you've seen the trailer -- encourages Hopkins to go way over the top. The rest of the cast pretty much stands back and watches, as if witnessing an erupting volcano. The other actors aren't bad, but they don't particularlky matter. Nor do creepy flashbacks to Michael's youth in which his undertaker father (Rutger Hauer) prepares Michael's mother's corpse for burial.

Director Mikael Håfström includes some gross-out sights, and the movie provides a few jolts. But its overall arc is entirely predictable, and Hopkins' performance is so exaggerated that you wonder whether he's channeling left-over bits from his Hannibal Lecter portrayals. Maybe he was inspired by Alex Heffes' incessant and obviously ominous score.

Whatever happened, The Rite doesn't present Hopkins at his memorable best nor, I'm afraid, is it intriguing enough to give the devil his due.

There's real movie magic here

The Illusionist may be animated, but its sweet emotions are tender and real.
Captivating from beginning to end, Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist is that rare bit of adult-oriented animation that qualifies as both entertainment and art.

Based on a never-filmed script by the French comic Jacques Tati, the story serves as a touching look at the connection between two lonely souls. The Illusionist makes sense whether you know Tati's work or not, although I suspect the bulk of its audience will be well versed in such Tati classics as Mr. Hulot's Holiday (1953) and Playtime (1967). Tati, born Jacques Tatischeff, died in 1982.

Beautifully drawn by Chomet and his team, The Illusionist tells the story of an aging magician who develops a relationship with a girl who's on the cusp of womanhood. Chomet infuses his movie with little of the manic energy that drove his Oscar-nominated Triplets of Belleville (2003). The Illusionist displays the kind of gentle restraint the story requires, and, like its predecessor, it, too, has been nominated for an Oscar in the best- animated-feature category.

The Illusionist begins by charting the magician's downward spiral. He goes from nearly deserted vaudeville houses to a pub in a small Scottish village. There, he finds what every performer wants, an audience member who's totally enchanted by his work. The sweetly naive Alice watches the magician in wonder, and believes he's really capable of performing magic.

When the magician leaves the village for Edinburgh, Alice tags along. Magician and girl occupy a shabby hotel suite in Edinburgh (he sleeps on the sofa), and we gradually watch as the magician becomes desperate enough to try his hand at ordinary work. Meanwhile, the girl begins to blossom into womanhood.

I'm not sure of the last time I used the word "lovely" in a review, but The Illusionist qualifies. Employing a minimum of speech, Chomet takes a tender, sad and lingering look at the end of a magician's career and the birth of a new phase in the girl's life. Set during the 1950s, the movie takes place at the tail end of the kind of live entertainment that since has vanished or morphed into Las Vegas spectacle.

The magician is a Tati-like figure, who arrives on screen complete with inspired physical bits that shouldn't work in animated form, but do. I've read that Tati's grandson, Richard Tatischeff Schiel McDonald, objects to the movie. (You can read the letter he wrote to critic Roger Ebert and decide what you want to make of it.) Tati's daughter Sophie, who since has passed away, gave the script for The Illusionist to Chomet.

Family issues aside, The Illusionist can't and shouldn't be dismissed, and perhaps it will draw a new generation to Tati's work. With an obvious appreciation for the real-life actor who inspired this animated figure, the magician has been drawn as a tall man, a loner who's not entirely at home in the world. He seems to have suffered quietly for his art.

The Illusionist might have been unbearably sad had the magician not taken steps to help the girl realize her womanhood. He buys her clothes that ease her transition to adulthood. He watches with a mixture of admiration and anxiety as this teen-ager begins to take on care-taking duties, cooking him dinner, for example. Surely, the magician knows that the more transformed the girl becomes, the sooner she's likely to move on with her life.

Chomet understands that Tati was a comic, and he provides laughs as the movie makes its artful way through a fable that explores the complexities of a father/daughter-like relationship. The Illusionist, I think, embraces two kinds of magic: In one, a magician pulls rabbits out of hats and performs other sleights of hand; in the other, people move -- as they do -- from one stage to another. Sadly or happily, time passes.

Dealing with a radical past

Night Catches Us poses a difficult question: How to move on when the past hasn't been fully digested.
Tanya Hamilton's Night Catches Us tries to (and in some measure succeeds) show how powerful events in the past echo in the present. Most of what transpires in Hamilton's film -- set during the mid 1970s -- has its origins during the turbulent '60s when the Black Panthers were establishing themselves as a force in Philadelphia and in other cities. * The story begins when Marcus Washington (Anthony Mackie of Hurt Locker) returns to Philadelphia for his father's funeral. Marcus soon re-establishes a relationship with Patricia Wilson (Kerry Washington), a woman he knew when both belonged to the Black Panther party, an affiliation that led to Wilson's husband being killed by the police and that put Marcus in prison. * Patricia, who's raising her daughter, shares an obvious connection with Marcus, who is scorned by some of his former Panther colleagues. They think he's a snitch. * The supporting cast includes Wendell Pierce (familiar from HBO's Treme) as a bullying Philadelphia detective and Amari Cheatom, as Patricia's cousin, a young man who wants to emulate the radical actions of the '60s. * Both Mackie and Washington are memorable in roles that minimize pyrotechnics. * I thought Night Catches Us could have packed more of a wallop, but it goes a long way toward capturing the struggles of people who probably will spend the rest of their lives trying to deal with the secrets and contradictions of a volatile past -- and perhaps never entirely succeeding.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Oscar speaks, but who's really listening?

The King's Speech or The Social Network? Which will land Oscar's top prize?

When the Oscar nominations were announced this morning at 5:30 a.m. Pacific Time, the cable news stations barely blinked. They were all too busy reporting and commenting on an event that had yet to happen, namely President Obama’s highly anticipated State of the Union address.

What would the president say? What should he say? Would he antagonize his base? Would Republicans cut him any slack? Is he a true centrist or a rabid leftist trying to squeeze into a business suit?

Could it be, as my friend and Denver Post columnist Mike Littwin argues, that politics – ceaselessly batted about on the radio and TV airwaves -- has become the new national pastime? I’d embellish Littwin’s thought and say that politics may have become the new entertainment, an arena in which we act out dramas that seem to reverberate at levels guaranteed to raise blood pressure.

"Don’t take my guns." "Don’t mess with my Social Security." "Sarah Palin’s an idiot." "Sarah Palin speaks truth to elk." You're familiar I'm sure with the 24/7-news-and-opinion drill that many of us routinely denounce, even as we indulge our addiction to it.

The State of the Union aside, those of us who spend too much time writing and thinking about movies are obligated at least to nod toward Oscar. Truth be told, my head is already weary from seasonal acknowledgement. Oscar, which now brings up the rear, almost seems like an afterthought.

For the cinemarati, January has become a slog through an apparently inexhaustible stream of praise: critics’ awards, the Golden Globes, and the various industry group awards: SAG (actors), DGA (directors) and PGA (producers) to name but a few.

Here’s a common lament: Critics supposedly are at odds with the public taste. I don’t think that’s entirely true, but what’s even more apparent is that the gap between critics and the industry seems to have vanished. The 10 pictures nominated for best picture easily could constitute a respectable critic’s 10-best list.

Gone are the days when Hollywood would attempt to honor big-ticket prestige pictures: Little-ticket prestige pictures are – and have been – the rage. Witness: The Fighter, Winter’s Bone and The King’s Speech, all nominated for best picture.

The King’s Speech led the field with 12 nominations, followed by True Grit, which garnered 10. The race probably narrows to a smack down between The King’s Speech and The Social Network with King’s Speech gaining momentum in a showdown between the old and the new.

Topical, trendy and smart, The Social Network tells the story of the founding of Facebook. Historical, familiar and solid, The King’s Speech focuses on a stammering king who must deliver an important speech on the eve of World War II.

Had George VI, the character played by Oscar nominee Colin Firth, been in a similar situation today, he could have skipped the bother and posted on Facebook.

So where are the surprises if any?

If John Hawkes was awake at 5:30 a.m., he might have been spitting coffee all over his newspaper. He was nominated in the best supporting actor category for his work in Winter’s Bone. Winter’s Bone tells the story of a young woman looking for her father in the Ozarks. Hawke’s plays the girl’s uncle, a man caught up in the meth trade. Inclusion always means exclusion, as well. Did Hawkes take a place that could have gone to Matt Damon for his work in True Grit? Maybe Hawkes took the spot that many thought would go to Andrew Garfield of Social Network. Among those who probably have reason to feel snubbed: Ryan Gosling. He was passed over in the best actor category while his co-star, Michelle Williams, was nominated in the best actress category for her work in blue-collar break-up picture, Blue Valentine. Some of us thought Mila Kundis would receive nod for her work as a ballerina in The Black Swan. She didn’t.

A standard Oscar anomaly occurs when a picture is nominated for best picture (Inception), but its director (Christopher Nolan) is overlooked. Yes, that happened, too.

I’m not sure anyone really expected Javier Bardem, a fine actor, to show up on the best actor list for playing a dying man who helps run Barcelona’s illegal immigrant trade in Biutiful, which also was nominated for a best foreign language film Oscar.

If you haven’t been paying attention, you may have been surprised to see that Jackie Weaver (who?) was nominated for best supporting actress for her work as the mother of a Melbourne clan of criminals in Animal Kingdom or that The Illusionist showed up as a nominee for best animated film. It’s French, lovely and probably doesn’t stand a chance against Toy Story 3.

Youth seems to have been well-served Tuesday morning: Two of the actress nominees have yet to turn 21: Jennifer Lawrence nominated for best actress for her work in Winter’s Bone, is 21; Hailee Steinfeld, nominated for best supporting actress for her performance in True Grit, is 14.

I am not among the legions of fans of the documentary Waiting for Superman, which amounted to cheerleading for charter schools, but I was amazed when a friend called to point out that it didn’t make the list of five documentaries nominated for best feature-length documentary.

So, it’s your turn now. Take aim at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which will present its big show on Feb. 27. At that point, I’ll be sitting in front of a television pondering this question: Where is Ricky Gervais when we really need him?

For a complete list of nominees, visit The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences website.

*Initially, I said Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right) had been overlooked in this category. He wasn't.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Art Goes to the Movies -- and you can, too

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Mystery of Picasso kicks off Art Goes to the Movies course.
Ever wondered what it would be like to be in a studio with Pablo Picasso? If someone offered you an opportunity to spend an afternoon watching David Hockney paint, would you take it? Similarly, how much would you spend to be privy to the feverish thoughts driving Vincent van Gogh to the canvas?

Strange as it may seem -- at least at first -- these are not remote possibilities.

If you want to see learn something about how an artist's mind works, join artist Sandra Kaplan and me at the Art Students League of Denver for a weekly course beginning on Feb. 3. For a detailed description of our course, Art Goes to the Movies, see Sandra's website.

Sandra, who also happens to be my wife, will tackle films from an artist's vantage point, and I'll be looking at the film side, although obviously we're not drawing any lines in the sand. We've designed the course -- the first month will be devoted to exploring the artistic process -- so that it will be of interest to both artists and non-artists. And, yes, you can pay as you go, taking one class at a time.

We'll provide the popcorn and a stimulating evening.

You'll find more information and a sign-up sheet here.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Will love get in way of wanton sex?

Portman's fine; Kutcher, not so much. No Strings Attached falters.

Having won a Golden Globe and a variety of critics' association honors for her performance as a disturbed ballerina in The Black Swan, Natalie Portman seems a shoo-in for a best actress Oscar. The new and, alas, negligible romantic comedy No Strings Attached, isn't exactly a warm-up for Oscars' big prize, but it probably won't do anything to diminish Portman's glow.

No Strings Attached isn't much of a movie, but consider this: Portman's playing a role that might have gone to such rom-com divas as Drew Barrymore, Katherine Heigl or Jennifer Aniston. If you see the movie, think about what it might have been had any of those actresses taken Portman's place.

Proving herself an able enough comic actress, Portman holds the movie together as it zips through a variety of situations that are designed to delay the inevitable union of on-again/off-again lovers.

No Strings marks the first movie to be directed by Ivan Reitman (father of Jason) since 2006's My Super Ex-Girlfriend. Reitman's spry direction and screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether's mildly off-color script keep No Strings from feeling precisely like every other rom-com that's been cluttering the nation's multiplexes.

Meriwether builds her R-rated script around a provocative question: Is it possible for two young people to carry on a torrid sexual affair without wanting to deepen their relationship?

That brings me to Ashton Kutcher, the movie's other marquee name. Kutcher piles on his all-too-familiar sheepish charm, and, at one point, bounces his naked butt across the screen. When it comes to rom-coms, he may be the male equivalent of the Barrymores, Heigls and Anistons, which means he's entirely too predictable.

Here's how the story goes: Portman's Emma, a medical resident at a Los Angeles hospital, proposes a sex-only affair to Kutcher's Adam, an assistant on a TV sitcom. Scorched by a large helping of paternal humiliation - his dad (Kevin Kline) is dating one of his ex-girlfriends -- Adam agrees to Emma's proposition.

Adam and Emma go at it with enthusiasm until Adam begins craving some real intimacy. The emotionally defended Emma doesn't want to detract from her consuming schedule. She's also terrified of commitment.

No Strings is not without sour notes, the loudest of them sounded by Kline, who starred in Reitman's 1993 comedy, Dave. Kline plays Kutcher's father, a faded TV star whose embarrassingly randy behavior pushes the dejected Adam into a drunken evening during which he kicks off his relationship with Emma.

Gifted a comic actor as he is, Kline can't entirely remove the odor of unpleasantness from the role of an older man who craves the fawning attentions of younger women.

There's an increasingly familiar quality to its overall arc, but Meriwether's script makes room for some decent one-liners. Too bad it doesn't allow for more significant contributions from the supporting cast. The only minor character who gets any decent play is Adam's co-workers, an obsessive talker played by Lake Bell.

I'm told that folks who sleep together but maintain every other form of distance are called "friends with benefits." Think of No Strings as a mediocre movie with benefits, most of them due to Portman who - up until the script calls for her to suffer - seems to be having loads of fun. Why not? Someone had to have a good time.

Talk about taking the long way home

Director Peter Weir makes the suffering on this journey feel all too real

In the movie 127 Hours, James Franco plays Aron Ralston, a young Colorado man who freed himself from entrapment in a Utah canyon by cutting off his right arm. In director Danny Boyle’s gripping story of survival, Ralston is outfitted with a variety of equipment: a battery powered light, a video camera and a knife, among other hiking and rock climbing paraphernalia.

It in no way diminishes Ralston’s story – or Boyle’s achievement -- to note that the movie The Way Back tells the story of a survival journey that was unaided by any technology other than a knife. I’m being a little unfair because The Way Back takes place well before a lot of the high-tech gadgetry available to Ralston even existed. But that may be why The Way Back succeeds in showing us – in forcefully primal ways – what it’s like to grapple with the merciless brutalities of nature.

Based on a true story, The Way Back focuses the incredible tale of a group of men who in 1940 hiked 4,000 miles to escape a Siberian gulag. Consider that number for a second: 4,000 miles, a distance I’d view as an ordeal in an airplane, never mind on foot. The men traversed all kinds of forbidding landscapes in their quest for freedom, and director Peter Weir’s movie works as an amazing testament to their desire to survive and be free.

Not all of those who escaped the gulag made it to safety. Ultimately, three of the men crossed the Himalayas into India while another – an American – headed for Lhasa in Tibet in order to find his way back to the U.S.

The story begins when Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is sentenced to 20 years in a Siberia prison camp for being a spy. The Soviets tortured Janusz’s wife in a successful attempt to force her to betray her innocent husband. Once in the prison camp, Janusz quickly realizes that there are at least two dangers: The guards and the vicious criminal prisoners, those who’ve been sent to the gulag for theft and murder as opposed to supposed political activity.

The escape elements of the story couldn’t be simpler. After making sure that we understand the grim horrors of the gulag – freezing temperatures, inhuman work details and scarce food – Weir stages the escape that sets up the rest of the movie. Joining Janusz and cohorts in his trans-continental trek are an American – known only as Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) and a Volka (Colin Farrell) -- a Russian criminal whose torso sports more tattoos than the average American athlete.

Weir probably doesn’t do enough to individualize the characters, but he certainly knows how to make their physical torments seem real. A gaunt looking Harris, for one, looks as if he’d spent years fighting a losing battle with the elements.

With an able assist from cinematographer Russell Boyd, Weir paces his traveler/heroes in some of the most arresting landscapes ever filmed. You feel overwhelmed by the terrain, some of it photographed in long shots that emphasize the isolation of the men, as well as their vulnerability.

About half way through, the travelers are joined by a young woman (Saoirse Ronan) who’s also on the run. At first Mr. Smith, the most emotionally guarded of the men, refuses to take her along, but even he eventually develops respect for a girl of undeniable spirit and physical courage.

The cast handles the variety of accents well, and The Way Back becomes a visually impressive journal of a trip that only the heartiest of souls possibly could have survived. The movie’s ending doesn’t reach the emotional heights for which Weir may have been aiming, but this story of survival makes for a stark reminder of what it’s like to have to claw one’s way toward the next day, maybe even toward the next step.

Mike Leigh on the curse of loneliness

Brilliantly acted and unafraid of pain, Mike Leigh's Another Year takes us to uncomfortable places.
Tom and Gerri are two halves of a London couple ensconced in an idyllic marriage. They seem to enjoy each other's company. They both work at productive jobs. He's a geological engineer. She's a psychological counselor. Their home exudes lived-in comfort, and, in their spare time, Tom and Gerri toddle off to their garden plot to grow vegetables. Did I mention, he cooks, and they never seem at a loss for a decent bottle of wine to enhance even the most rudimentary of meals?

Tom and Gerri occupy the center of Mike Leigh's quietly moving Another Year, a movie that takes us through four seasons in the lives of Tom, Gerri and the people who assemble around them. For all their contentment, Tom and Gerri are like a ship gathering barnacles of despair -- in the form of friends and relatives.

I've observed this phenomenon at close hand: One couple becomes a centerpiece in the lives of a variety of people. Many of these "satellite" folks measure their lives against the happy couple's apparent successes. Unlike recent American movies about couples -- Rabbit Hole and Blue Valentine, for example -- Another Year doesn't deal with crisis situations. The despair in Another Year is life-sized and cumulative, and seems to have grown in the well-watered soil of loneliness and desperation.

Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen play Tom and Gerri, two well-adjusted adults who treat their friends with acceptance, as well as with a bit of condescension. Their door seems always to be open, but Tom and Gerri also understand the inadequacies of some of their friends, showing slight traces of the superiority the self-possessed sometimes feel toward the maladjusted.

Early on, Leigh makes it clear that he's intent on assaying a particular kind of despair, the kind that closes in when people reach the brink of what has become known as "young" old age, the late 50s, say. To make the point, Leigh begins the movie with one of Gerri's co-workers talking to a woman (Imelda Staunton) who's suffering from terrible insomnia.

Staunton's Janet is advised to seek counseling, but you can tell from Staunton's grim expression that this woman doesn't want to talk and probe; she wants the blessed relief of unconsciousness. Staunton's character vanishes after that first scene, but she sets a powerful tone for what follows.

I don't mean to make Another Year sound like an ordeal; it isn't. A splendid ensemble cast creates characters that are recognizable and real. We could know these people. Maybe, in some way, we do. There's real pleasure in that.

Two of Tom and Gerri's friends stand apart from the rest.

First, Mary (Lesley Manville), a secretary who works at the same facility as Gerri. An annoyingly giddy manner masks Mary's depression. She's one of those women who never had much going for her, but was reasonably attractive. Now that her looks are beginning to fade, Mary faces the prospect of ... well ... no prospects. Mary doesn't talk; she prattles, and when she drinks too much wine -- which is whenever she drinks -- she inevitably embarrasses herself.

Stick with Manville. I believe that before the movie's done, she topples the walls of caricature and gets to something painfully real.

Then there's Tom's old buddy, Ken (Peter Wight). Ken shows up for a visit, looking like a walking prelude to a coronary. He smokes. He's almost always got a beer can in hand. Overweight and disheveled, he seems to be gasping for breath even when he's standing still. He's a wreck, and he makes an awkward play to connect with Mary, another wreck. She's too vain to admit that Ken might be the best that she can do.

Somehow, Mary has made Tom and Gerri's son Joe (Oliver Maltman) the target of a misguided flirtation. He's a lawyer, and he seems to have the same generally cheerful disposition with which his father and mother are blessed. He humors Mary. When Joe brings home a girlfriend (Karina Fernandez) to meet his parents, Mary's thrown into a tailspin. She's being ridiculous, of course, but for Mary, Joe probably represents a way into the happily-ever-after existence that Tom and Gerri seem to have found. When that door slams shut, she's sad and rueful.

As with all Leigh movies, plot seldom stands in the way of characterization and drama filters through the incessant drip of ordinary life, a backyard barbecue, an unannounced visit or an afternoon tea.

In the movie's final segment the tone shifts a bit: We meet Tom's brother Ronnie (David Bradley). Ronnie's wife has just passed away. His affliction is twofold: He's stricken with grief and unable to express it. It's difficult to believe that Tom and Ronnie derive from the same gene pool, but Leigh insists on bringing Ronnie -- a veritable mountain of gloom -- into the movie's home stretch.

Not everything in Another Year is fully realized. But the performances are outstanding, and Leigh dares to show us what happens to those unfortunate folks who realize that they've arrived at a moment in which life is as good as it's ever going to get -- and, sadly, it's not good enough.

They're casualties of a shifting economy

Woes in the world of management; execs feel the pain, too.
Just about all the men in The Company Men have enjoyed success. Their houses are spacious. They drive upscale cars. Their kids don't want for anything. Class trip to Italy? Not a problem. They're competent businessmen who believe they've earned the fruits of corporate life at a Boston company that made its name building ships. Of course all bubbles eventually burst, and, in the hands of director John Wells, The Company Men becomes a lingering look at what happens when a company begins to shed once valued employees who have turned into excess baggage.

Dead weight, it should be noted, has nothing to do with skill, experience or even prior success. It has to do only with balky parts of the company that have become a drag on profits and, thus, a worry for stockholders. A company that made its bones in the rugged world of manufacturing now sees its future in a newly acquired health-care subsidiary. And all those men who built and sold the ships? Well, that's why we have scrap heaps.

The Company Men has obvious relevance in a time of economic duress. It begins during the Bush administration and continues for a year. For a while, the movie does a good job chronicling the fate of newly unemployed executives, men who are unaccustomed to viewing themselves as failures or showing up at a less-than-luxe placement center.

All well and good, but somewhere along the line, Wells begins to succumb to predictability; he shrinks from the tough conclusions that deserve to be drawn from this story and offers light at the end of a dark economic tunnel. He also concentrates his attention on a well-heeled management class, paying relatively little attention to workers who also have been cast aside. In fact, they're mostly invisible.

Ben Affleck plays Bobby Walker, a confident salesman who's among the first to be fired. He's followed by a variety of others, including Chris Cooper's Phil Woodward, an executive who worked his way up from the factory floor. Tommy Lee Jones plays the tough-minded head of the ship-building division, a guy who values his employes and who believes in the old-fashioned way of doing business; i.e., making things and selling them for a profit. His view obviously is losing traction.

As Bobby's brother-in-law, Kevin Costner gives a nice small performance. He's a contractor who mistrusts what he sees as Bobby's white-collar arrogance. Costner's Jack Dolan ultimately helps Bobby rediscover a sense of purpose in hard, physical labor, not the first evidence of the cliches that increasingly make their presence felt.

Scenes at the fictional GTX Corp. ring true, as does the performance of Craig T. Nelson as the company's hard-assed CEO. Nelson's character has adjusted to new economic realities and is blessed with the ability to avoid looking back. He's aided in his downsizing efforts by an equally tough woman (Maria Bello) who delivers lots of bad news to lots of angry employees.

Affleck gives a convincing performance as a man whose confidence is put to the test. When men are fired, their egos also are downsized. They've lost their place in the world.

It's fair to say, though, that Wells' screenplay might have benefited from a harder edge and a tougher conclusion. The Company Men should not be dismissed, but when it's done, you may realize how much more it could have accomplished.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Broadcast Critics honor 'Social Network'

The Broadcast Film Critics Association Friday evening picked The Social Network as its best film of the year, beginning what's likely to become a steady stream of top awards for the much-admired movie about the founding of Facebook.

The movie also won awards for David Fincher (best director); Aaron Sorkin (best adapted screenplay); and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (best score).

Here's a list of the major Critics Choice awards:

Best actor: Colin Firth, The King's Speech

Best actress: Natalie Portman, The Black Swan

Best supporting actor: Christian Bale, The Fighter

Best supporting actress: Melissa Leo, The Fighter

Best original screenplay: David Seidler, The King's Speech

Best animated film: Toy Story 3

Best documentary: Waiting for Superman

Best foreign-language film: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Best song: If I Rise, 127 Hours

Best Comedy: Easy A

Best action movie: Inception

Best cinematography: Wally Pfister, Inception

Best art direction, Guy Hendrix Dyas, Inception

Best young actor/actress: Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

For more on the awards visit the Broadcast Film Critics Association web site.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

This 'Hornet' has no sting

Seth Rogen doesn't cut it as a superhero, and the movie scores only fitfully as a comedy.

January may be the oddest of all movie months. In much of the country, several of the more interesting movies of the previous year are just beginning to reach theaters. When it comes to new releases, however, the picture is grimmer. Many movies that open in January arrive with a question trailing in their wake: Why didn't we see this during the summer or at some other peak movie-going period?

That's certainly the case with The Green Hornet, a superhero movie that would seem better suited to the sweltering days of summer than to the frozen hours of mid-winter matinees.

The Green Hornet has a lengthy history. It began as a radio serial in 1936, found life as a comic book and also enjoyed a brief run on television during the '60s with the legendary Bruce Lee portraying Kato, the Hornet's sidekick. This new big-screen version reportedly went through a variety of incarnations before it fell into the laps of actor Seth Rogen and director Michel Gondry.

Rogen, a veteran of such Judd Apatow comedies as Knocked Up and co-writer of hits such as Superbad and Pineapple Express, is certainly an unlikely candidate to play a superhero, and Gondry, known for visual creativity (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep) isn't exactly a renowned master of the blockbuster form.

But back to January. After spending two hours watching this re-tooled and needlessly 3-D version of The Green Hornet, I began to conjecture about why it has arrived in January.

Although Rogen wrote the script with his partner Evan Goldberg, it works only fitfully as comedy.

But wait, as they say on those late-night TV commercials: There's more.

When it comes to action, particularly as the movie limps toward its finale, Gondry sacrifices wit for the usual collection of fender-bending and explosive noise, none of it handled with special aplomb. And Gondry's trademark creativity seems more hinted at than expressed as bodies fall like overly ripe fruit from burdened trees.

At heart, The Green Hornet is an origins story. Rogen's Brit Reid suffers at the hands of his abusive newspaper publisher father (Tom Wilkinson). Having reached his 20s, Reid is skilled only at spending daddy's money on women and parties. When his father passes away, Brit finds himself in control of Los Angeles' Daily Sentinel, an influential paper. He also develops a relationship with Kato (Jay Chou), a creative mechanic and inventor with martial arts skills. Together they carry out a prank, and The Green Hornet is born. Kato signs on as sidekick and principal butt-kicker.

No superhero movie can survive purely as a bromance - even a testy one that makes Kato more assertive than the usual sidekick. Enter an underutilized Cameron Diaz, as the woman Britt hires to be his secretary.

Rogen, who does his usual shtick albeit with annoyingly manic bursts of energy, flops as a superhero, even one who's designed to play against the usual cliches. The Green Hornet's claim to fame involves the way the public perceives him. The Hornet cultivates the image of a bad guy in order to do good.

This brings us to the subject of villainy, an essential ingredient in any comic-book movie. Christoph Waltz, who won an Oscar for playing a soft-spoken, sadistic Nazi in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, portrays Chudnofsky, the evil Russian crime czar who rules Los Angeles. Too bad Waltz's best scene arrives at the very beginning of the movie when he squares off with an aspiring gangster (James Franco in cameo). That scene - full of self-conscious bluster and exaggerated menace -- suggests what the movie might have been.

This being a slow movie month, The Green Hornet probably will enjoy a decent opening weekend before fading, but, based on what I saw, I put myself in the side of those that wouldn't mind seeing The Green Hornet vanish into the mists of pop cultural history with the speed at which his car of choice -- the fabled Black Beauty -- tears up the road.

This Hornet's got no buzz.

A marriage gone hopelessly wrong

Director Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine is fueled by raw emotion.
In Blue Valentine, director Derek Cianfrance does what director John Cassavetes sometimes did: He pushes his actors toward what feel like breaking points, putting them in emotionally charged situations and allowing them to claw their way out – or not.
This look at both the beginning and end of a blue-collar marriage contains moments so potent they seem to put the movie’s principal actors – Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling – at emotional risk. For much of the movie, Williams and Gosling are suspended in the uncharted waters of a turbulent present that neither of their characters fully comprehends.

Cianfrance does this by shattering the usual narrative flow of a story. He shows us the beginning of the relationship and its end, omitting the middle. He also avoids smooth transitions from one time period to another, allowing scenes from the past and present to bump against each other in ways that take some adjustment, and – at least in the early going – create mild confusion.

At heart, Cianfrance’s movie is about two people who enter marriage with totally different expectations. Gosling’s Dean believes it’s possible to be thunderstruck by one woman, so much so that he’ll decide he must spend the rest of his life with her.

Obstacles don’t necessarily matter to Dean. He’s working for a moving company in Brooklyn. Cindy – the woman who ignites Dean’s passion -- lives in Pennsylvania. He knows nothing about her, and she knows nothing about him. No matter; he’s got a feeling.

Besides being hopelessly naïve, Dean’s approach causes him to ignore a lot of warning signs, and puts him in an awkward position: Once he achieves his goal, there’s nothing left. He’s without aspiration.

For scenes set in the present, Gosling has trimmed his hair to create a receding hairline and put on weight. Six years into marriage, Dean is contented being a house painter. His idea of a relationship-renewing experience involves checking into a tacky motel in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, getting drunk with his wife and spending the rest of the evening having sex. He knows the motel is silly, but doesn’t care. He’s ready to enjoy the silliness.

Dean’s life plan might have worked, except for one thing. Cindy no longer shares it, if she ever did. After being charmed by Dean, who has an unashamedly goofy streak, she marries him in a moment of weakness and need, a psychological state suggested by plot details best discovered in a theater.

When we first meet them, Cindy and Dean are already on the downside of their marital arc. They live in Pennsylvania. Cindy works as a nurse for a doctor who bolsters her self-esteem. She’s beginning to wonder whether she can get more out of life. Dean plays with their daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyaka); he works; he drinks beer; he’s living his dream; Cindy’s living his nightmare.

In one of the earliest scenes, the fully clothed Dean has fallen asleep in a living room chair, where he’s presumably spent the better part of the night. Frankie is out looking for the family’s missing dog. Cindy remains in bed. Clearly, the family is not operating with the greatest possible synchronicity.

Both Williams and Gosling face difficult challenges. A movie such as Blue Valentine demands that its actors respond with what must appear to be unrehearsed immediacy. Each character has been given some history, but Williams and Gosling pretty much are disconnected from the logical supports traditional narratives provide.

This can be powerful, but it also can look strange and a touch unconvincing. When Dean courts Cindy with a ukulele, he croons a silly version of You Always Hurt the One You Love, and asks her to dance to it. They’re on the street, tucked into the entranceway of a small store in her Pennsylvania hometown. The moment has wacky charm, yes, but it’s also self-consciously dippy.

And when Dean – during another courtship segment – tries to force Cindy to tell him a secret, he climbs over the railing of a fence on the Brooklyn Bridge, presumably threatening to leap if Cindy doesn’t reveal her secret. Gosling has said that he climbed the fence, waiting anxiously for Williams to capitulate so that he could come down. Two actors challenging each other to see how far each will go generates a certain kind of theatrical excitement, but it doesn’t necessarily equate with believable behavior.

The sex scenes in Blue Valentine are explicit, and initially resulted in an NC-17 rating, since overturned to give the movie an R, which seems more in line with the content and context that Cianfrance establishes. “R” is the right rating, and Blue Valentine certainly is worth seeing – for its performances, for the nearly palpable -- if sometimes strained -- commitment to truth seeking that seems to underlie every scene and for the director’s willingness to condense the narrative in hopes that he’ll find something essential.

Maybe it’s just this: Once someone checks out of a marriage, the relationship is doomed. Cindy pretty much has given up on Dean. She’s sold her emotional stock in the relationship. Poor Dean. From that point on, all he can do is make matters worse.

No 'Dilemma' about this one: It misfires

What's wrong with The Dilemma? Well, just about everything.

One normally wouldn't expect much from a comedy released in the sluggish chill of January, but I hoped that The Dilemma might prove an exception to the rule when I noticed that it had been directed by Ron Howard. In movies such as Splash, Parenthood and Cocoon, Howard has shown a flair for comedy that's not afraid to add a bit of feeling and relevance to its laugh mix. * My advice: Call The Dilemma a mistake for everyone involved. Harbor no hard feelings, and move on. * This comedy about the ways lack of trust undermines relationships includes moments that are downright ugly -- a fight involving a baseball bat and an impromptu blow torch, for example -- and little that's either insightful or funny. * A paunchy looking Vince Vaughn plays Ronny, a Chicago man who discovers that the wife (Winona Ryder) of his best friend and business partner (Kevin James), is cheating. To tell or not to tell? That's the question that plagues Vaughn's Ronny throughout the movie, which also features Jennifer Connelly as Ronny's girlfriend. * Vaughn's glib shtick -- by now too familiar to be amusing -- puts James in the position of playing straight man. Ronny, a recovering compulsive gambler, and Nick, an engineer with confidence problems, run an engine design company. They're trying to sell their variation on an electric motor to Dodge, where an outspoken consultant (a wasted Queen Latifah) has been assigned to their case. * Comedies can, of course, be made about almost anything, including infidelity, but this one misjudges the value of its serious side and overestimates its laugh potential. * The movie's first scene poses a reasonably interesting question: Can we ever really know someone, even a spouse? I'm not sure I have an answer, but I think we can tell when a movie misses: The Dilemma definitely does.

Much to admire about 'Rabbit Hole'

Rabbit Hole has some great moments, but never springs to full heartbreaking life.

Rabbit Hole, director John Cameron Mitchell’s big-screen adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-wining 2007 play, is tasteful, unsentimental and often beautifully written.

That’s saying something because the screenplay – also by Lindsay-Abaire -- deals with a subject that easily could have devolved into hand-wringing melodrama: a New York couple attempts to cope with the death of their 4-year-old son.

We meet Howie and Becca – played by Aaron Eckhart and Nicole Kidman -- eight months after their son Danny’s death. I won’t say what happened to Danny because Mitchell plays the movie’s emotional cards slowly and wisely, which should come as a relief to anyone who fears that Rabbit Hole will deliver an emotional clobbering.

Tension arises from the different ways in which Howie and Becca attempt to deal with their son's death. Howie watches a cherished video of his son on his smart phone. It helps him remember happier times. Howie’s untroubled by physical reminders of his son’s existence – drawings pasted to the refrigerator, for example. He seems to treasure them.

Becca, on the other hand, hardly can abide the residual paraphernalia of her son’s lost life. She’s carrying the departed Danny in her head, and it’s all she can do to move on.

Of course, both Howie and Becca attempt to maintain a normal facade in the face of unspeakable tragedy. They put up a brave middle-class front. Their house is neat. Howie seems to be functioning well enough at work. He’s liable to return home in the evening and find Becca puttering over dinner.

Kidman, nearly unrecognizable in the movie’s early scenes, steers clear of any suggestion of glamour, but her portrayal of the sometimes icy Becca not only holds her character’s emotions in check, but also keeps us at bay, and, I think, limits Rabbit Hole’s ability to crack open our hearts. It’s almost as if Mitchell and Lindsay-Abaire have studied the mathematics of grief and allowed their calculations to inform the movie’s structure and all of its various subplots.

Becca’s younger sister (Tammy Blanchard) is involved in a relationship and recently has become pregnant. Both Becca and Howie attend a support group where Howie meets Gaby (Sandra Oh), a woman whose grieving style may be closer to his than Becca’s. Becca’s mother (Dianne Wiest) takes comfort in religion. She also has dealt with the death of a child, an adult son who succumbed to drugs.

In what may be the movie’s best scene, Wiest and Kidman talk about the way grief never ends, but morphs into something easily recalled and somehow bearable: The awful weight of it lessens with the passage of time.

The relationship between Becca and a high school student (no, it’s not at all kinky or sexual) begins in mystery, but eventually assumes an unsatisfying air of contrivance.

Rabbit Hole certainly has its moments. We’re watching a couple of decent people who must learn how to continue living in the face of the unthinkable, but I couldn’t entirely shake the feeling that I was witness to a very good rehearsal of material that had yet to spring fully to life and which generally left me on the outside looking in.

Put another way: I don’t believe that Mitchell has found a way to bring Rabbit Hole from the stage to the screen with all its power intact.

Don't miss upcoming Colorado Cinema Salon

Plan ahead. The Colorado Cinema Salon convenes at the Denver FilmCenter/Colfax 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 20.

Is this shameless self-promotion? Only a little because the real reason to attend the Salon has nothing to do with the fact that I curate and moderate the program. It has everything to do with this month's guests: JENNIFER JASINSKI, executive chef and owner of Denver's Rioja and Bistro Vendome restaurants, and producer/director DONNA DEWEY, whose short film ''A Story of Healing," won an Oscar.

Jasinski and Dewey headline a Movies in My Life edition of the Salon. We'll see clips from the three movies each has selected as having had a major influence on her movie consciousness.

The Salon atmosphere is informal and participatory and geared for both stimulation and fun.

The Film Center is located at 2510 E. Colfax Ave. across from East High School and next to the Tattered Cover book store. The FilmCenter's phone no: 720-381-0813.

If you've not attended, this is a great time to give the Salon a try.

Watch the Broadcast Critics awards Friday

I don't mean to push one event by knocking another, but .... As far as I'm concerned, the only reason to watch the Golden Globes this Sunday is to see the "stars" in what passes for informal mode. Honesty compels me to tell you that I'm a member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association, but I'm also telling you that its awards are a credible index of two things: What may be happening come Oscar time and which movies really deserve recognition. You will not find a nomination for The Tourist anywhere in the BFCA lot. The BFCA Critics Choice awards will be broadcast at 7 p.m. Mountain time Friday, Jan. 14, on the VH1 network. Enough said. Tune in.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A few words with John Cameron Mitchell

A director explores a deeply emotional subject.
John Cameron Mitchell began his film career on cinema's wilder fringes. In 2001, he made a major splash at the Sundance Film Festival with a big-screen adaptation of his off-Broadway musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. With composer Stephen Trask, Mitchell told the unlikely story of an East German transgender rock star who toured the U.S. Mitchell played the lead role in the movie.
And just in case Hedwig wasn't outre enough, Mitchell followed in 2006 with Shortbus, an explicit look at a group of New Yorkers trying to work through a variety of sexual and relationship issues.

With Rabbit Hole, the 47-year-old Mitchell, has taken an entirely different tack. He has directed an adaptation of a 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire, who also wrote the movie's screenplay. Rabbit Hole employs an A-list cast -- Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart -- to tell the story of a couple attempting to cope with the death of their 4-year-old son.

Rabbit Hole, which opened last year's Starz Denver Film Festival, already has been released in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, and is beginning to make its way around the country.* Mitchell visited Denver for the movie's November film-festival showing, which was attended by his parents, who currently live in Colorado Springs.

The unavoidable question for Mitchell: What led a director whose previous interests hardly can be described as mainstream to a project of this kind?

"The script obviously was deeply mature because David had been through the play. He’d made the screenplay even better. The characters were cut like diamonds, and the structure was really tight. But there was also a humanity and a lack of sentimentality that felt different from any other film about the same subject matter."

A strong screenplay was bolstered by a personal connection that brought the material close to home for Mitchell.

"When I was a teen-ager I lost a brother, who was four. That experience completely defined our family. Working on the movie, a lot of the feelings came flooding back, feelings I hadn’t really dealt with because in the ‘70s you weren’t encouraged to talk about your feelings, especially with the military and the Catholic background I grew up in. (Mitchell's father is a retired U.S. Army Major General.)

So how did folks cope in those stiff-upper-lip days?

"You might pray, but you just got on with it," said Mitchell. "We never really talked about it, so this was my chance to purge some stuff."

*Rabbit Hole opens in Denver Jan. 14.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

'Country Strong' is weak on insight

No faulting Gwyneth Paltrow, but Country Strong sings a wobbly tune.

No amount of country spunk can conceal the pain that ripples through the life of Gwyneth Paltrow's Kelly Cantor, a country/western superstar who has hit a bad patch. When she was five months pregnant, a drunken Kelly fell off a Dallas stage and lost her baby. She hasn't been the same since. Well, who would be?

Country Strong, the movie about Kelly's attempted comeback and her on-going tussle with fame, boasts some decent music, but it plays as if writer/director Shana Feste built it around the mistaken notion that a dash of drama, a carload of accents, a bit of sexual intrigue and a dollop of show business cynicism add up to a satisfying big-screen experience.

They don't, and Country Strong winds up tasting a bit like last night's binge. A whole lot of tears have been shed in it, but the beer's still stale.

The movie opens with Kelly in rehab, where she's met Beau (Garrett Hedlund), a handsome young man who likes to sing, and who plays fair guitar. Beau's also destined to become part of a love triangle involving Kelly's husband and manager, played by real-life country star Tim McGraw, who appeared opposite Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side.

It's an index of something gone wrong that McGraw, whose acting ability may be too under-developed to catch all his character's complexities, doesn't sing. Just about everyone else does. The singing actors are all pretty good, although Paltrow's mostly kept away from microphones until a climactic show in Dallas, where Kelly's supposed to make a redeeming comeback.

To thicken the movie's country stew, an aspiring singer (Leighton Meester) becomes Kelly's opening act. Meester's Chiles Stanton is unashamedly ambitious, and once she overcomes a tendency to freeze on stage, she's pretty darn good. Of course, she's also eager to use Kelly in order to advance her own career.

The movie's music isn't half bad, but the ethos that pervades Country Strong seems to have been fabricated from a substance that can be found behind many bulls in many country fields. It goes something like this: Some singers - that would be Hedlund's Beau - are pure. They sing because they love the music, and don't give a hang about adulation. Give 'em a bar on a Saturday night and a thumpin' back-up band, and they're happy as farmers on government subsidy.

Fame, we're told, is not compatible with love, which may be why poor Kelly has allowed her life to spiral toward the bottom of a Smirnoff bottle. Fame has killed the love in her. Well, almost. She seems to feel something for a baby quail that she rescued from a field and keeps in a tiny box. The bird, by the way, eventually vanishes from the picture without explanation.

Confusion reigns when it comes to the love we find in Country Strong. McGraw's James loves his wife, but holds himself back from her, probably because he can't forgive her for being drunk and losing their baby. He's tied to her by what's left of his love and a need to feed off what remains of her career.

Beau, who's recruited for Kelly's comeback tour, seems to have genuine feelings for her, but he also develops a relationship with Leighton's Chiles.

Hey, I'm all for love, even when it takes a few detours, but none of these relationships have as much depth of feeling as a fine country tune, and Country Strong isn't exactly brimming with revelation or a sense that it's grasped something essential about the world of country music. Put another way, it's not likely to do for Paltrow what the role of Bad Blake did for Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart; i.e., win her an Oscar.

Oh well, Paltrow's already won one for Shakespeare in Love, which may prove that she's better off with an English accent than a country twang.

But acting isn't the issue here. Paltrow knows how turn on the charm (watch her in a scene in which Kelly visits a Make-A-Wish child); Hedlund, last seen in the 2010 edition of Tron, has shufflin' credibility; and dang if Meester isn't convincing as a squeaky-clean and perky singer with a less than pristine backstory.

I can't say I hated watching Country Strong, but, like Kelly, it badly needed a trip to rehab - not the kind with shrinks, but the kind with screen doctors who might have been able to give its shopworn story a makeover.

A star on the road to nowhere

Director Sophia Coppola books first-class on a journey that goes nowhere.

Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere opens to the sound of a well-tuned Ferrari engine. The sleek black car -- I'm guessing a price tag that tops $150,000 -- enters the frame, disappears and then re-emerges. It soon becomes clear that this expensive, carefully calibrated vehicle is circling a track. More significantly, the car’s impressive arsenal of capabilities seems at odds with any functional imperative: Car and driver are going nowhere.

You get the idea, I'm sure. Coppola’s excessively languid portrait of Johnny Marco, a movie star played by Stephen Dorff, is about to introduce us to a life that seems to have lost all sense of purpose.

As the picture unfolds, we learn that Johnny, the driver of the car in Coppola’s opening, has taken up temporary residence in the Chateau Marmont, a Los Angeles hotel where celebrities command apartment-sized living spaces while protecting their privacy.

Johnny takes advantage of this privacy in a variety of less-than-creative ways. Early on, he hires two blonde pole dancers to cavort for him. (They bring portable poles.) He wanders through the parties that seem to emerge effortlessly around him. In moments that feel acutely vacant, Johnny plants himself on the sofa, smokes cigarettes and swigs beer from a bottle, surrounded by whatever passes for his thoughts.

So what’s the point and should we care?

How you answer those questions goes a long way toward determining how you’ll react to Somewhere, which either can be viewed as an immersive portrait in the life of a movie star whose success has allowed him to lose touch with reality or as an enervating act of directorial indulgence in which interminable pacing masquerades as insight.

I fall somewhere between these two extremes.

If Somewhere remains watchable, it’s partly because Dorff makes Johnny semi-sympathetic. He’s capable of moments of genuine tenderness, and he has fun with his 11-year-old daughter, Elle Fanning’s Cleo. Thankfully, Johnny doesn’t lord it over people who work at the hotel. He’s not prone to rampant displays of ego -- or of anything else for that matter.

Johnny’s tendency to indulge his impulses (ordering every flavor of gelato in a posh Italian hotel during a publicity tour) sometimes puts him on a level playing field with Cleo, although – truth be told – Cleo often seems more mature than her father, not to mention more in touch with reality.

While driving Cleo to a figure skating lesson, a suspicious Johnny wonders whether an SUV might be following his car.

“There are kind of a lot of those in LA,” Cleo observes, reminding Johnny (and us) that she’s in touch with a reality that her father mostly manages to evade.

Coppola, who grew up around the movie business, presumably knows a thing or two about Hollywood. Johnny’s dutiful but detached attitude toward publicity seems credible, but Coppola extends Johnny’s sense of detachment to nearly everything. In the plush cocoon in which Johnny resides, life has turned into the equivalent of 24-hour room service. Ask, and it shall be delivered.

Perhaps to give us a sense of the way time seems to expand in such an insulated environment, Coppola holds shots for a very long time, far past the point where they have anything more to reveal. And she (purposefully, we presume) tells no story because story would be antithetical to a world in which luxury begins to feel like sensory deprivation.

At one point, Johnny attends a session where a couple of effects artists make a mold of his head. Quietly, he vanishes inside the hardening mask; it’s part of a process to make him look like a 90-year-old for his next role. It’s as if Johnny’s being buried alive, consumed by the demands of a profession he doesn’t seem to enjoy.

A movie about a pointless existence becomes meaningful to the extent that we identify. Johnny’s world of over-saturated luxury is not one that most of us have experienced, and when we step back, we may wonder why this star seems to have no passion for acting.

Is it the fault of a business that has no passion for anything but commerce? Is he just a jerk, as the anonymous text messages he occasionally receives claim? Is there nothing about fame that he enjoys?

I went a long way with Somewhere, hoping that Coppola, whose work (Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, and Marie Antoinette), I’ve mostly liked. I hoped that Coppola finally would reward my patience. But rather than feeling for Johnny, I began to experience the same sort of numbness that encases his life.

Despite an ending that may suggest otherwise, Johnny remains on the road to nowhere – as Coppola’s opening shot suggests. That’s a valid point, I suppose, but it infects the entire movie. Before Somewhere concludes, you may find yourself wondering why you’ve been given a first-class ticket on a journey with no real destination.

Class, madness, murder: A family story

When charm curdles, so does the marriage. So what does it mean when the wife disappears?

It's immediately interesting that All Good Things is the first dramatic feature from documentary filmmaker Andrew Jarecki, known to movie audiences for the mesmerizing Capturing the Friedmans, which told the story of a Long Island child molestation scandal. * Jarecki, whose provocative documentary proved that he knew something about dysfunctional families, turns his attention to another strange collection of relatives in this generally interesting take on a story based on the life of Robert A. Durst, heir to a New York real estate empire. Durst was convicted of a slaying in Texas, and more to the movie's point, was suspected of murdering his wife Katie, who disappeared in 1982. * Jarecki has attracted a powerful cast to his dramatic debut: Ryan Gosling plays David, the character based on Durst. Frank Langella portrays his businessman father, and Kirsten Dunst portrays Katie, a young woman who initially is charmed by David, but who increasingly becames frightened of him. * The movie takes its name from the health food store that David and Katie open in Vermont during the early days of their marriage. But David eventually is lured into daddy's business, which has its shady aspects and which seems to bring out the worst in him. * Gosling appears in Blue Valentine, a much better portrait of a troubled marriage, but he gives his usually effective performance, and Dunst makes us understand Katie's conflicted attitude toward her husband. * Jarecki uses the movie to speculate about what happened to Katie, and he does a nice job illuminating class distinctions between Katie and the family into which she marries. But the movie's sum never exceeds the strength of its parts, and All Good Things winds up an also-ran in the plethora of year-end releases that's spilling over into 2011.