Thursday, March 31, 2011

A gripping, if muddled, 'Source Code'

Director Duncan Jones' second feature is vivid and entertaining.
Director Duncan Jones made a splash on the indie film circuit with 2009's Moon, a movie in which Sam Rockwell played an isolated astronaut hoping to return home from a long stint at a moon base. Bigger, sharper and more entertaining than its predecessor, Source Code keeps Jones in the sci-fi realm with a story that can play like a Twilight Zone episode on steroids.

Jake Gyllenhaal portrays Coulter Stevens, a young man who wakes up on a Chicago commuter train. The woman seated across from him (Michelle Monaghan) talks to him as if she knows him. But he doesn't know her. Totally confused, Gyllenhaal's character slips into the restroom to regroup. There, the weirdness gets weirder. When he looks in the mirror, the reflection staring back at him belongs to someone else.

As Source Code progresses, we begin to realize (as does Gyllenhaal's character) what's happening, but it's best not to tell too much more about the movie's plot, except to note that Ben Ripley's screenplay has Gyllenhaal repeating the same scenario a number of times.

We learn what's going on at roughly the same pace as Gyllenhaal's Stevens, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He begins to grasp that he's on a mission that requires him -- with help from some technology, of course -- to keep returning to that train in eight-minute chunks.

With each trip, Stevens gains more knowledge about how high the stakes are. Bombs, domestic terror and terrible urban destruction lurk in the background.

Although I can't say Duncan totally sold me on the movie's time-bending premise, he keeps the story moving with the inexorable speed of the train Stevens revisits. At its best, Source Code comes at us in vivid bursts; its mood becomes increasingly frantic, partly because its hero must work against inflexible deadlines that up the dramatic ante. It's an old contrivance, of course, but Duncan infuses it with fresh energy.

Gyllenhaal acquits himself well, and Monaghan proves exceptionally appealing as a young woman who believes her life has reached a turning point.

The rest of the cast includes Jeffrey Wright, as a brainy scientist, and Vera Farmiga, as Wright's subordinate. Wright, a wonderful actor, seems wasted in a role that just about anyone could have handled. Farmiga, who has more to do, portrays a character that's a bit of a departure for her, but neither Wright nor Farmiga are likely to press this one into their books of indelible acting memories.

Source Code flirts with joining the ranks of paranoia-prone movies that deal with the ways manipulative governments betray their heroes. Too bad the movie's cop-out ending - really an epilogue - pushes Duncan onto less challenging turf. But Duncan knows how to hold an audience's attention, and Source Code's devotion to creating Hitchcock-style suspense keeps us on edge, which (happy to say) is precisely what movies such as this are supposed to do.

Wrestling with a crummy economy

Win Win may pull a few punches, but that doesn't stop it from being an entertaining little movie.
Win Win is a soft comedy about hard times, but -- and this could be the movie's saving grace -- it's neither soggy nor overly sentimental.

Writer/director Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent and The Visitor) builds his story around Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a small-time New Jersey lawyer who represents elderly clients. A sour economy has put the pinch on Mike. He has no money to fix the boiler in his building, and he's worried about how he'll make ends meet at home.

Mike, as you might gather, is not the world's luckiest man. Witness: He serves as the volunteer coach of the local high school wrestling team, which has a record woeful enough to match an economy that has been pinned to the mat.

McCarthy mixes realistic observation and sports-movie tropes as he explores two major plot developments. In the first, Mike arranges for one of his clients (Burt Young) to be placed in an assisted living facility. On the verge of Alzheimer's Young's Leo Poplar needs help, but Mike's behavior in this matter may not be exemplary.

In a related development, Leo's grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up for a visit. When Kyle's drug-addicted mother was ordered into rehab, Kyle fled his Ohio home to escape Mom's abusive boyfriend. Because Kyle is unable to live with his grandfather, Mike decides to look after the boy, an act of ... let's say -- semi-altruism.

Why not full-bore altruism? As it turns out, Kyle was a champion wrestler back in Ohio. Should he enroll in the local high school, he just might help reverse the fortunes of Mike's downtrodden team, a prospect that buoys Mike's sagging spirits, as well as those of his assistant coach (a dour Jeffrey Tambor).

McCarthy assembles the ingredients of a standard sports movie, the kind that builds toward a triumphant finale with high-fives all around. Happily, he takes another tack, focusing on the ways in which Mike's decisions impact those around him, as well as on Kyle's search for an adult he can trust. Kyle's the kind of kid whose young life has been riddled with disappointment.

Shaffer, who had never acted prior to Win Win, offers a believable mix of sullenness and openness, and Giamatti again proves a master of the art of hangdog expression, coupled this time with a sneaky bent for pragmatism that sometimes leads him astray.

The supporting cast includes Amy Ryan, bracing and true as Mike's down-to-Earth wife, and Bobby Cannavale, a little over the top, as a wealthy friend of Mike's who's trying to get past the pain of a divorce and who sometimes acts the buffoon. Cannavale, who worked with McCarthy on Station Agent, provides comic relief -- although he never struck me as especially funny. Melanie Lynskey portrays Kyle's mother, a woman who shows up just when things seem to be progressing for her troubled son. She insists that Kyle return to Ohio with her.

McCarthy wraps things up in a way that's satisfying, perhaps because the ending is only slightly attenuated. There may be a few loose ends, but we get the feeling that things probably are going to work out for everyone involved.

Win Win uses a depressed economy as the starting point for a drama that can be accused of pulling a few punches, but compensates with characters who are life-sized, plausbile and appealingly ordinary. Admirably, it also refuses to surrender to the most obvious sports-movie cliches. It probably sounds condescending, but I mean no disrespect when I say that Win Win is a nice little movie.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

'Jane Eyre' only fitfully springs to life

Come on baby, light my fire. This Jane Eyre takes too long to spark.
Watching Jane Eyre, the umpteenth adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's, dog-eared 1847 novel, I was besieged by a single nagging thought: "Will high school English never end?"

I had approached the latest big-screen edition of Jane Eyre with more hope than usual, mostly because Cary Joji Fukunaga directed it. Fukunaga's previous work - the viscerally charged immigration drama Sin Nombre - seemed light years away from the world of Bronte, but Fukunaga could have been precisely the right man to breathe new life into a literary classic.

Did he? Not entirely.

Despite the presence of a gifted young actress - Mia Wasikowska - this Jane Eyre comes up short on urgency and passion. Even the presence of the estimable Judi Dench, as the housekeeper at the movie's principal location - Thornfield Hall - doesn't provide a totally compelling reason for us once again to trample across the moors.

Of course, it's all mostly acceptable. And, yes, I'm being something of a spoilsport. Jane Eyre is by no means a bad movie, just one that probably needn't have been made. Besides, if you can't give into your prejudices now and then, what's the point of being a critic?

For those who don't know, the story begins with Jane's mistreatment by an aunt (Sally Hawkins) after her parents die. Jane's shipped off to an orphanage where she's further abused. When she's old enough to leave, Jane lands a position as governess to a child who's being cared for by the gloomy Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbinder).

Rochester's house, we learn, harbors a secret: Jane, we learn, is forbidden from entering an attic room, and often hears strange goings-on about the house with Fukunaga cranking up the ominous atmosphere.

Fassbinder lacks the stature that Orson Welles brought to the role of Rochester, a man whose demeanor can be gruff. Fassbinder broods with the best of them, but he's probably not imposing enough.

Wasikowska - familiar to those who've seen Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland or those who saw her as the daughter of Julianne Moore and Annette Bening in The Kids Are All Right -- is a gifted young actress - but even her work can't always elevate a Jane Eyre that takes its time finding the kind chemistry between Jane and Rochester that can satisfy committed romantics.

Oh well. Enough. With movies such as Jane Eyre I'm never sure whether to write a review or a book report.

So to borrow a phrase from Bill Maher, maybe we need a new rule: Please, a moratorium on movies made from novels for which there are CliffsNotes.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

More than a movie star

How is it possible for one woman to have lived so many lives?

She was an unapproachable goddess, a fallen angel, a movie star, an actress, a temptress, a tabloid dream, an AIDS activist, the wife of a senator, a guest on the Larry King Show, a two-time Oscar winner, a friend to Michael Jackson, a mother, and a woman given a title by a queen, Dame Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Taylor, who died of congestive heart failure Wednesday at the age of 79, transcended movies, occupying a realm of celebrity few have attained.

A friend left me a message early Wednesday morning, saying that the old Hollywood finally could be pronounced dead. br />

Actually, it probably died a long time ago, but we might as well let it be buried with Taylor. Even at her most scandalous, Taylor had an epic stature that eludes today’s tabloid favorites. Running off with Eddie Fisher or cavorting with Richard Burton seems a long way from the feeble antics of Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen.

Taylor's life was in most ways unimaginable. She appeared in her first movie at the age of 10, 1942’s There’s One Born Every Minute. Two years later, National Velvet would make her a star -- and she remained one.

She won two Oscars – for Butterfield 8 (1961) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1967). Her co-stars were legendary: Spencer Tracy (Father of the Bride); James Dean (Giant); Montgomery Clift (Suddenly Last Summer, Raintree County and A Place in the Sun); Paul Newman (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and Marlon Brando (Reflections in a Golden Eye). That's not a resume: It's history.

I once attended an event in Santa Fe at which Taylor showed up. She instantly eclipsed every star in attendance, inspiring a paparazzi rush that was both frightening and inevitable. This was in 1980. Taylor was past her big-screen prime, and she still managed to relegate everyone else to “B"-list status.

Even as the tide of journalists swept rudely toward her, Taylor remained regal. As close as the photographers and scribblers got, she seemed untouched, a woman on some unattainable Olympus.

We won't see the likes of Taylor again; celebrity culture has become far too puny for goddesses -- fallen or otherwise.* *I decided not to run a picture with this brief article because no single photo captures Taylor; it would take a hundred photos.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Who said drugs make you dumber?

Not everything about Limitless adds up, but it's still great fun.
Sometimes, thought can be a movie's worst enemy.

If you think too much about Limitless - a new thriller about a pill that enables its takers to access every part of their brains - you'll probably fall headlong into a plot hole or find yourself puzzling over whether this or that action by its main character makes sense.

Not nearly as stylish or tricky as Inception -- kind of a distant cousin -- Limitless still manages to establish itself as more creative than the average March movie. Better yet, this energized, mind-bending fantasy doesn't stint when it comes to reveling in the sheer joy of winning. And, yes, it's generous about sharing the fun.

The set-up is plenty enticing. Eddie Mora (Bradley Cooper) is a New Yorker whose life is going nowhere. Eddie has a book contract, but hasn't written a word. He has an ex-wife (Anna Friel) he hasn't seen in years. His current girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) has pegged him as one of life's losers and is ready to move on. Eddie's tiny apartment is as much of a mess as his life.

One day Eddie bumps into his former brother-in-law (Johnny Whitworth). Whitworth's Vernon says he's working for a pharmaceutical company; he offers Eddie a pill that promises to change his life. Eddie initially resists, but eventually takes the pill.

Wham! Eddie's reborn. He cleans his apartment; he starts writing the novel that long had eluded him. He's off and running on a success track.

But wait....

The pill's effect, of course, wears off, leaving Eddie with a new and simple objective: Get more of the drug, which the movie calls NZT.

Cooper, familiar to most audiences from The Hangover, makes Eddie's transformation convincing as he blossoms into a guy who can master any task. Want to play piano? No problem. How about learning a new language? Ditto.

Eddie dispenses information with the precision of a guy throwing a great game of darts, and Cooper makes it clear that being super-smart is both fun and addictive.

Limitless also offers another bit of happy news. Robert De Niro does fine work as Carl Van Loon, a corporate giant who wants to use Eddie's abilities to analyze a pending mega-deal. It's great to see De Niro liberated from low-grade comedies such as the abysmal Little Fockers. Maybe there's something left in his tank, after all.

Director Neil Burger employs heady visual trickery to show Eddie's drug-induced state, and screenwriter Leslie Dixon keeps the proceedings lively by attaching a variety of twists to the main plot. At one point, Eddie gets crosswise with a Russian mobster (Andrew Howard). Later, he's implicated in a murder that's handled so hastily you may have forgotten it by the movie's end.

That's the trick: Limitless employs speed to great advantage. It moves quickly, encouraging us to enjoy the excitement of Eddie's meteoric rise, even as we wonder whether he can sustain his super-charged acuity. Limitless may not dot every "i" or cross every "t", but the filmmakers seem to be betting that they'll score enough points - including one bit that's guaranteed to leave an audience buzzing -- to keep us from over-thinking what we've seen.

I'd say they've succeeded.

Law from the backseat of a limo

Matthew McConaughey, an actor who’s had as many downs as he’s had ups, seems to do well in courtrooms. His “breakthrough” movie – 1996’s A Time to Kill – cast him as an attorney, and so does The Lincoln Lawyer, a pulpy, improbable and moderately entertaining new thriller.

In The Lincoln Lawyer, McConaughey portrays Mickey Haller, a slick, marginally ethical attorney who delights in either getting his clients off or cutting them the best possible deals. The title of the movie stems from the way Mickey conducts his business, from the backseat of a black, chauffer-driven Lincoln Town Car.

Directed by Brad Furman and written by John Romano, The Lincoln Lawyer tells a story that relies on the kind of twists and turns that seem to occur only in legal thrillers – either on screen or on the page. The movie is based on a 2005 novel by Michael Connelly, a veteran cop reporter, who now plies his trade writing fiction.

McConaughey keeps the movie on track, giving Mickey plenty of conniving spirit and immodest charm as he deals with a variety of low-life clients – from prostitutes to gang bangers to drug dealers. Mickey has built a solid reputation among Los Angeles' criminal class. He is not admired by the police.

Fortune – in the form of a major payday -- smiles on Mickey when he’s asked to represent Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), a rich guy whose mother (Frances Fisher) wants to keep him out of jail. A high-priced hooker has accused Roulet of beating her senseless.

Is this woman for real or is she seeking to drain the rich kid’s pocketbook?

The movie quickly answers that question as it morphs into a cagey game in which a hard-partying attorney -- perhaps for the first time – finds himself asking pointed ethical questions.

The movie boasts a strong supporting cast. Marisa Tomei portrays a prosecuting attorney who happens to be Mickey’s former wife. John Leguizamo shows up as a corrupt bail bondsman, and William H. Macy (sporting the long-haired look of an unrepentant hippy) plays an investigator who helps Mickey, sometimes making well-placed payoffs.

Fair to say that the entire supporting cast is a bit under-exposed as the story lurches from point A to point Z, sometimes speeding too quickly past the rest of the alphabet. Let’s just say the plot loses credibility as the movie progresses, maybe because Lincoln Lawyer isn’t quite smart enough to pull off its plethora of dodges, feints and last-minute revelations.

But McConaughey and crew keep Lincoln Lawyer in the game. Sans any desire to probe deeply, Lincoln Lawyer slides by quickly, but contains a few too many contrivances to make us believe it knows how things really work.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Of monks, men and fateful choices

They're monks, but they often wear civilian clothing. If they don't talk about religion with the people whom they serve, perhaps it's because they're not seeking converts. Rather, they're trying to live their convictions. They help with medical treatment or offer the occasional bit of friendly conversation.

To support themselves, they sell honey in the village marketplace. They make sincere attempts to understand the spiritual lives of the Muslims whom they live amongst in Algeria's Atlas Mountains. They are Cistercian monks, yes, but they are also men, which means they have doubts -- not so much about their faith, but about the proper way to deal with the rising threat of violence from Islamist extremists.

Of Gods and Men, a movie from French director Xavier Beauvois, doesn't treat its band of monks as saints, but as people who've chosen to live in a certain way. Little about the film feels exalted or "spiritual," even though many sequences are punctuated by the monks at prayer.

It's just here that Beauvois makes his best decision: He's not pushing religious doctrine, but examining the ways in which men of faith deal with a crisis. When it becomes clear that the monks may be in grave danger, some of them talk of leaving Algeria. They want to help the villagers they've pledged to serve, but aren't particularly interested in becoming martyrs. Others feel that they have made a commitment, and must see it through. The movie takes place in 1996, a time when militant Islamist elements were insisting that foreigners leave the Algeria.

The personalities of the monks are not of primary importance. Christian (Lambert Wilson) guides the monks through their various decisions. Christian evidently was elected leader, but his views don't always please his comrades. Luc (Michael Lonsdale) -- who serves as the doctor -- also stands out among the monks: Luc has a sweet but never sappy demeanor. He's older, bearded and seems entirely at peace with the world and with the way he has chosen to live in it.

One of the movie's most beautiful scenes occurs toward the end when the monks gather for a meal, and listen to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. As they drink wine, they share a moment of brotherly love. Without saying anything, they seem to share an understanding: Events seldom lend themselves to easy comprehension. Still, they are bonded as brothers. I suppose you could say that scenes such as this are what critics mean when they talk about quietly moving drama.

Most of the villagers, like the monks, only want to get on with their lives. The extremists, who at one point murder a group of Croatian workers, don't care that the locals and this small group of French monks live in neighborly harmony. The motivations of the extremists are as political as they are religious.

Are the monks hopelessly naive? Maybe, but they're not portrayed as men whose intelligence has been consumed by the fires of faith. When the Algerian government offers to send soldiers to guard the tiny monastery, the monks decline. As westerners who've had enough of imperialist power relationships, they insist -- even at the cost of their lives -- on looking for an alternative response. Or maybe it's just this: Those who've opted for non-violence must accept the consequences of their decision.

Are these monks attempting to atone for the barbarisms of French colonialism? I'm not sure that Beauvois intends for the movie to go quite that far, but he invites us to think about such matters. Of Gods and Men -- bravely, I think -- shows us the uneasy relationship between deep faith and a turbulent world. Quite properly, it is movie more full of questions than answers, a sobering look at the struggles of conscience.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A somber, silly 'Red Riding Hood'

Red Riding Hood tries to enter a teen-oriented Twilight zone. This dismal failure is redeemed only by the occasional inadvertently evoked laugh.
Red Riding Hood: "Why, Mr. Critic, what big claws you have." Critic: "The better to rip you to shreds." Venom, like most potent drinks, should be poured judiciously, and Red Riding Hood is too easy a target to bear the brunt of a totally brutal assault. Besides, a lack of epic scale keeps the movie from entering the upper echelon of big-screen stinkeroos, although it definitely earns its place among a host of less important flops.

Aside from the fact that the movie springs from an idea as generic as it is bad - a werewolf terrorizes a medieval village - Red Riding Hood suffers from undistinguished direction, wretched writing and acting that ranges from bland (the movie's young leads) to overwrought (Gary Oldman as Solomon, a werewolf hunter).

The movie's marketing calculations seem obvious. Red Riding Hood looks as if it has been designed to appeal to the Twilight crowd, right down to the hiring of director Catherine Hardwicke, who directed the first Twilight movie.

The cast, I presume, is meant to make young hearts flutter. Amanda Seyfried portrays Valerie, the movie's title character. Two suitors: Peter (Shiloh Fernandez) and Henry (Max Irons, son of Jeremy) fight over Valerie.

So much for the eye candy.

Of the adult cast, only Julie Christie (as Grandma) seems to have any inkling of what the movie could have been, showing occasional flashes of leering, subversive wit.

I was half-tempted to begin this review by proclaiming Red Riding Hood the best comedy of the year, but decided against it because all the laughs are inadvertent, deriving mostly from a ton of portentous dialog.

-- "It was the most brutal winter I could remember."

-- "Come with me or the streets will run red with blood."

Or my favorite, an exchange between villagers after someone suggests that Valerie be handed over to the wolf, a snarling, scrawny computer-generated beast the size of a pony.

One villager: "You can't give her to the wolf. That's human sacrifice."

Another: "We've all made sacrifices."

Ain't that the truth?

Some of the additional chuckles derive from the movie's attempt to draw class distinctions among the squalid townsfolk who suffer through a dark, cold winter that's punctuated with werewolf attacks.

We learn, for example, that a woodcutter earns far less than a blacksmith. That's why Valerie's mother (Virginia Madsen) wants her daughter to marry blacksmith Henry instead of woodcutter Peter. She urges her daughter to move on up, as it were. For her part, Valerie - who provides the movie with occasional bits of narration - insists on following her heart.

Seyfried, who seemed so promising on TV's Big Love has yet to show much A-list potential on the big screen. She spends much of Red Riding Hood looking perplexed, as she peers out from beneath the hood of her trademark red cloak, a gift from Grandma.

Of course, the Red Riding Hood story is well known, so it's up to the filmmakers to find some juicy subtext and oddball embellishments.

How's this for an add-on? A sinister Oldman arrives in town with a giant iron elephant in tow; we eventually learn why he's traveling with such a bizarre prop, putting an end to what might be the movie's only real mystery -- and a minor one at that.

Screenwriter David Johnson (Orphan) dabbles in themes that range from sexual to silly, with the two often overlapping.

He also introduces a variety of red herrings to go along with Valerie's red cloak. Because the wolf spends most of its time as as human, we're led to wonder whether he could be hiding in the guise of the village dullard or an earnest looking fellow who signs up for wolf hunts or, of course, in the person of grandma, who lives in a cabin outside the village and serves Valerie unappetizing bowls of gruel.

All, however, is not grim. At one point, the villagers believe that they've killed the wolf. Their celebration involves a communal dance scene that's something to behold: Swaying villagers getting down with their bad selves.

I've read that the movie has been transformed into a novel by author Sarah Blakley-Cartwright. According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, Blakley-Cartwright "would spend as many as 14 hours each day writing, occasionally taking a break from her typewriter to visit the set or interview the characters for inspiration."

I'm amazed that anyone could spend 14 minutes writing about this misbegotten tale, but that - as they say - is another story.

A blood moon announces the worst of the werewolf attacks. By the time it arrives, I found myself thinking that the only thing that could have made this movie any more preposterous would have been the arrival of Sarah Palin to shoot the wolf from a plane that was speeding over the fog-shrouded landscapes. Come to think of it, that would have added a welcome touch of lunacy to a movie that's too somber to recognize its own silliness.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

An evening of film about art

Can artistic obsession drive someone to madness? Was sculptor Camille Claudel right to think that her famous mentor had exploited her talent? Those are only two of the questions raised by the impassioned French movie Camille Claudel.
Join artist Sandra Kaplan and me at 6:30 p.m. Thursday March 10 at the Art Students League of Denver, 200 Grant Street, for Art Goes To The Movies, a look at director Bruno Nuytten's portrait of the neglected 19-20th century artist whose affair with Auguste Rodin may have left her emotionally destroyed.

Isabelle Adjani portrays Claudel and Gerard Depardieu plays Rodin. Nuytten infuses his 1988 film with a passionate urgency that befits its subject. Discussion and popcorn follow a showing of the film. All are welcome. $12 members of the League, $15 non-members.

And, by the way, that' a photo of the real Claudel on top of a picture of Adjani as Claudel. Adjani makes herself look more like Claudel than the photo suggests.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Small town, older woman and, yes, poetry

A movie about guilt, responsibility and reconciliation.
Korean director Lee Chan-dong follows his masterful Secret Sunshine (see review below) with another movie steeped in mysteries that hide beneath the surface of ordinary life. * In the quietly evocative Poetry, Lee focuses on Mija (Yun Jeong-hie), an older woman who lives in a small Korean town. * As the movie progresses, we learn that Mija is suffering from early Alzheimer's. She's also saddled with the task of taking care of her adolescent grandson (Lee Da-wit), an indifferent kid who has been part of a crime that a group of the town's dads are trying to cover up -- a gang rape. * Perhaps needing a bit of solace, Mija enrolls in a poetry class. She struggles to develop her powers of observation, to look deeply at things. * As was the case with Secret Sunshine, Poetry focuses on a woman who is not entirely at home in the world. Mija dresses elegantly and has an almost airy quality about her. She usually looks as if she's stepped out of the pages of a chic gardening magazine, an appearance that's very much at odds with her part-time job, taking care of an old man who apparently has suffered a stroke. * Yun floats through the movie with an eerie sense of detachment that throws the actions of those around her into sharper relief.* Poetry deals with issues of guilt, responsibility and the troubles of a woman who finds herself thrown into the middle of a male-dominated cabal, a group of fathers who care only about making sure their sons escape the consequences of their criminal behavior. * But more than all of this, Lee's film suggests that only poetry (or perhaps more broadly, art) provides a place where painful contradictions -- if not resolved -- at least become bearable.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Leapin' lizards! Rango is one wild ride

Rango has some rough spots, but it's clever and creative -- and maybe not for kids.

Rango, an animated western, is too enjoyably weird to ignore - even if it's not entirely clear exactly who the movie is for. Film buffs? Maybe. Fans of clever invention? Sure. Kids? I'm not certain.

Think Sergio Leone meets Chuck Jones with traces of Chinatown thrown in, and you'll begin to understand what director Gore Verbinski has wrought, an animated western that plays with genre clich├ęs and assembles some of the year's most vivid imagery.

Rango, from another script that feels as if it has been composed by tossing ingredients into a Cuisinart, is made tolerable by its blend of silly humor, arch wit, savvy movie references and a few major surprises. The movie can be fun, but it's difficult to imagine that the littlest kids will get much beyond the cartoon antics supplied by Verbinski, who proved himself a master of visual comedy in a couple of Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

Did I mention that Rango's hero is a lizard voiced by Johnny Depp, an actor who's no stranger to nutty proceedings? Well, that's what Verbinski gives us, a bug-eyed wannabe gunslinger who - I'm giving away nothing here - ultimately saves the day.

Expelled from his terrarium early in the movie, the lizard - apparently a pet chameleon - wanders into the desert where he winds up in the aptly named town of Dirt, a dusty outpost that's on the verge of running out of water.

Our lizard hero tells a tall tale, defends the town from a ravenous hawk (sort of), winds up as sheriff and begins fulfilling his destiny, something he's been encouraged to do by a sagacious armadillo called Roadkill (Alfred Molina).

Verbinski doesn't skimp on characters. In fact, he overloads the screen with everything from rats to bats. There's Beans (Isla Fisher), a spunky lizard gal who's trying to save her daddy's ranch. Ned Beatty gives voice to the town's mayor, a turtle with a big hat and an ego to match, and Bill Nighy gives sinister life to the hired gun in the piece, the frightening Rattlesnake Jake.

This highlight reel only skims the surface of a big-time voice cast that also includes Abigail Preslin, Ray Winstone, Harry Dean Stanton and Timothy Olyphant - not to mention a mariachi band composed of four owls.

Visually striking, Rango eventually floods the screen with action that includes a heavy barrage of gun fire that's appropriate to a genre spoof, but a bit much for little kids. Rattlesnake Jake gave me the willies, so I'm assuming that younger kids may find him scary, as well. And some of the language is ... well ... indelicate.

Somewhere around the three-quarter mark my enjoyment flagged, maybe because the story suffers from literary indigestion: It's overstuffed.

Still, Verbinski deserves credit for turning Rango into an impressively creative entertainment whose excesses are redeemed by the twang of its best dialog and the sheer wildness of its heart.

Damon, Blunt can't save 'Adjustment Bureau'

A misguided blend of romance and sci-fi.
The work of novelist Philip K. Dick has tempted many filmmakers – from Steven Spielberg (Minority Report) to Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall) to Ridley Scott (Blade Runner). So it hardly would be surprising if sci-fi fans are licking their chops in anticipation of The Adjustment Bureau, a new movie based on a 1954 short story by Dick. To them, I say, “Slow down.” By the end of this generally disappointing movie, you may well be licking your wounds.

The Adjustment Bureau is a misguided trifle that teams Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in a romance that’s constantly facing obstacles.

Dick’s ideas about free will and fate ultimately play second fiddle to romance, and writer/director George Nolfi even tosses in some feel-good sentiment at the end, perhaps as a way of appeasing those who've been put off by the movie's overly glum approach.

Damon plays Daivd Norris, an attractive young man who’s running for the U.S. Senate. When the New York tabloids expose one of Norris’ indiscretions (an immature but minor incident), he loses his lead in the polls. On the night of his election loss, Damon’s David winds up talking to himself in the men’s room of a Manhattan hotel. Suddenly, Blunt’s Elise emerges from a stall. It’s an unlikely but interesting meeting, and it successfully establishes some real chemistry between an affable Damon and an unfettered Blunt.

The script then proceeds to clobber Damon and Blunt with obstacles, most supplied by bland-looking men in fedoras. These men, who work for something called The Adjustment Bureau, look like bored mid-level executives. It’s impossible to say much more without spoilers, so I’ll leave it at that.

John Slattery, familiar from TV's Mad Men, and Anthony Mackie, who garnered high praise for his work in The Hurt Locker, are among the "adjusters" (my word, not the movie's) who race around Manhattan, sometimes using extra-normal powers to keep David and Elise apart.

Writer/director Nolfi does well enough with some scenes, but he doesn’t seem to have figured out how to make the whole enterprise credible. The Adjustment Bureau is a romantic fantasy and sci-fi meditation that never quite jells.

Perhaps the movie’s best visual ploy involves the way adjusters are able to move from one environment to another simply by opening doors. Open the door to a boardroom and they may find themselves in the substrata of a Manhattan street or, better yet, in the middle of Yankee Stadium, a spacious view that provides relief from what can be the movie's airless environment.

The Adjustment Bureau forces Damon and Blunt to fight against the film’s contrivances, which, alas, don’t make a whole lot of sense. Worse yet, the mystery Nolfi builds drains away when characters stop to explain things, always a bad sign. The more we know, the less interesting The Adjustment Bureau becomes.

No matter how much Damon and Blunt look and act like lovers who can’t keep their hands off each other, they can't turn The Adjustment Bureau into something that feels urgent and real. I suppose there's an irony in that: Two lovers spend the whole movie reaching for each other, but the movie holds us at arm's length.