Thursday, April 28, 2011

'Fast Five's' best when it speeds and bleeds

Fast Five' doesn't make much sense, but its action works and it also reminds us that Hollywood's summer thrill ride is fast approaching.
Fast Five makes no real sense, features some of the year's least interesting acting and revolves around a disappointingly generic heist plot: Regulars from the "Fast and Furious" series angle to steal $100 million from a Brazilian drug lord.

Does any of that matter? Not really. If you're a fan of fast-paced, improbable action, Fast Five delivers the frenzied goods, although you may find yourself twiddling your thumbs between action set pieces.

Thankfully, director Justin Lin stages the action on a grand, pulse-pounding scale, affording us the opportunity to watch a bus do aerial flips, to see high-priced cars being hijacked from a speeding train, and to witness a climactic chase sequence that threatens to destroy half of Rio de Janeiro while maiming nearly every member of the city's police force.
In case you're wondering, all that belongs on the plus side of the movie's ledger.

The series' two franchise players are back: Vin Diesel, who looks like a man constructed entirely from biceps, returns along with Paul Walker, whose all-American looks are marred only by some obligatory stubble. Diesel and Walker play Dominic Toretto and Brian O'Conner, a champion street racer and a former cop who wind up in Brazil after Brian helps spring Dominic from jail.

Jordana Brewster returns as Mia, Dominic's sister and Brian's main squeeze. Brian and Mia don't have much time for squeezing, though. Like everyone else in the movie, they're too busy showing off their muscles, sweating profusely or planning a totally preposterous robbery.

Dwayne Johnson, formerly known as The Rock, constitutes the biggest (as well as bulkiest) addition. Johnson portrays Hobbs, a supercop who's pursuing our heroes. Sporting a goatee, bulging veins and a determined expression, Johnson joins the kick-ass festivities with as much gusto as he can muster.

In typical B-movie fashion, Brian and Dominic assemble a gang to pull off the job, a task that provides the movie with a reason to add a large supporting cast. Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Tyrese Gibson, Sung Kang, Gal Gadot and Tego Calderon add humor, some of it by way of comic action, notably a bit in which the toilets in a men's room are blown up. Very messy.

If you see the Fast and Furious movies because you love street racing, you may feel short-changed. At one point, Dominic and Paul seek out Rio's street-racing scene, but Lin ignores the race in which they compete.

I won't describe any more of the action because most of the fun involves the surprisingly ingenious ways in which Lin, working from a script by Chris Morgan, piles on the carnage as the movie races through Rio's impoverished favelas and across its sleek downtown.

The roar of the action and the crackle of gunfire tend to drown out the small voice in us that wonders what happened to logic. Oh well, with a movie such as Fast Five, credibility takes a back seat to stunts, grunts, artfully designed mayhem and fake grit.

Fans will want to stay through the end credits for a postscript that Lin has added. The rest of the world should know what it probably already suspects: Fast Five is more product than movie, a pre-summer money machine that probably will rev up the box office before the bigger boys arrive. Think of it as Hollywood stripping down to its T-shirt as it starts to flex its thrill-ride muscles.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A two-continent search for a better world

In A Better World features strong acting and some fine moments, but its ending is too pat and its script is too committed to scoring moral points..
Last February, Danish director Susanne Bier won the best foreign-language film Oscar for In A Better World, a movie that tries -- boy, does it try -- to explore the impulses that lead to violence. To accomplish her task, Bier splits her narrative, following developments in her native Denmark and in a dusty, unnamed African country where villagers receive sporadic medical care.

In the Danish segments, school bullying becomes a springboard for a larger inquiry into the origins of violent behavior. In Africa, the movie explores violence generated by the wanton abuse of power in a lawless society: A local tyrant -- referred to only as Big Man -- brutalizes villagers, sometimes cutting open the bellies of pregnant women to settle trivial bets about the gender of an unborn child.

Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a physician, provides the link between the Danish and African segments. A man of liberal conscience, Anton travels to Africa to minister to the poor. His wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), also a doctor, has assumed most of the responsibility for raising their two sons, one of whom (Markus Rygaard) is being bullied at school.

Anton and Marianne are newly separated, as a result of an affair Anton's had, but they still try to act in concert when it comes to their children. Though sometimes hampered by geographical distance, Anton's relationship with Elias seems tender and loving. And the kid clearly adores his father.

But Elias also responds to the overtures of a friend (William Johnk Nielsen), a new kid who has just lost his mother and who only recently moved to his grandmother's farm with his businessman father (Ulrich Thomsen). Thomsen's Christian responds violently to the bully most responsible for Elias' humiliation. A volatile mixture of anger and grief pushes Christian toward extremes, and Bier generates suspense about how far Elias will go in supporting his unforgiving pal.

After Anton returns from Africa, he attempts to teach Elias and Christian a lesson about the futility of violence. When he breaks up a playground fight, Anton gets crosswise with another father, an adult bully who knows he's in the wrong but insists that only he can tell his child what to do. Despite ample provocation, Anton refuses to fight the man, insisting that there's little to be gained from confronting the bully on his own terms. Christian can't accept such a "pacifist' approach. He thinks violence should be met with greater violence.

Throughout the movie, Bier creates situations that test her characters. At one point, Big Man suffers a severe leg wound, and asks Anton for treatment. Anton must grapple with a troubling ethical problem: Is he obligated to treat a man who has inflicted so much harm on others? Should he ignore the pleas of villagers who would be only too happy to see Big Man die?

The plot often feels as if it has been burdened by a need to illustrate such problems, but Bier does a lot right here, too. Anton's pain, Marianne's anger, Elias' loneliness, and Christian's fury all feel real; these elements may have been enough for any movie to handle without also wandering off to Africa, which (in truth) receives short shrift here.

Sometimes when a movie tries to do too much -- and this may be one of those cases -- it fails to do enough. Put another way: In casting such a wide net, Bier doesn't go deep enough. Full of promise and often absorbing, In A Better World winds up being too pat for a film that has dared so much.

Friday, April 22, 2011

As funny as being hit with a wrench

Geek power carried to a vicious extreme.
Here's another movie about a geek who attempts to transform himself into a superhero. The fact that Kick-Ass already filled that bill makes Super mostly superfluous. The fact that the movie's superhero -- played by Rainn Wilson -- decides to use a pipe wrench to beat evildoers senseless undermines Super's attempts at humor. * If there's any saving grace here -- and it turns out to be a small one -- it arrives in the person of Ellen Page, who plays Wilson's sidekick. He's the Crimson Bolt, and she's Boltie. * Page brings comic exuberance to a movie that desperately needs it. * But the rest? Liv Tyler plays a drug addict who falls under the sway of a rock musician (Kevin Bacon). The trouble: She's engaged to Wilson's character, a short-order cook who becomes a superhero to liberate the love of his life from the clutches of addiction. * Super not only follows in the footsteps of better movies, but can't really convince us that its violence should be taken as an expression of cartoon zest. * A total commitment to the dark side might have made Super more interesting, but in this battle between humor and menace, no one emerges a winner.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A slow-moving 'Water for Elephants'

Witherspoon and Pattinson try to carry Water for Elephants, which has its charms, but never quite gels.
It's an old caution, but there's a reason actors don't like to work with animals. Four-legged performers seem to have an easier time capturing our affections than those who walk upright, even if one of the two-legged creatures happens to be Tween heartthrob Robert Pattinson.

Water for Elephants - a carefully burnished adaptation of Sara Gruen's best-selling 2007 novel about a struggling circus -- proves the point, at least it did for me. Humans aside, the character I most cared about in this diligent adaptation of Gruen's novel was Rosie, an elephant.

Set during the Depression, Water for Elephants quickly establishes itself as a nostalgia-heavy hybrid: part love story and part animal act.

A welcome crack of the ringmaster's whip might have sped us through some of the movie's duller spots, and the movie's cast never quite gets, but Water for Elephants survives on atmosphere and grace, partly because it has been photographed with a keen appreciation for Americana by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto.

Working from a script by Richard LaGravenese, director Francis Lawrence applies liberal amounts of storybook glow to a production that makes improbable co-stars out of Pattinson of Twilight fame and Oscar winners Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line) and Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds).

Pattinson may draw fans to a movie that displays him in a warmer light than the Twilight series in which he plays a vampire and world-class brooder. I'm still not sure about Pattinson's acting, but I'm relieved to know he can smile.

In Water for Elephants, Pattinson plays Jacob Jankowsi, a senior at Cornell University. Jacob's about to receive his degree in veterinary science, when he learns that his Polish immigrant parents have been killed in an automobile accident.

Distraught and disoriented, Jacob leaves school and hops a freight. He quickly learns that he's caught a ride with a train belonging to the Benzini Bros. Circus. Jacob signs on as a roustabout, but his veterinary talents soon earn him a higher spot on the circus totem.

The movie, of course, is no Dr. Dolitte. Jacob's immediately attracted to Marlena (Witherspoon), the star of the circus' centerpiece act. Decked out in glittering costumes, Marlena stands on the backs of galloping horses. Why this is such a special act never is made clear: I'm no circus expert, but women atop horses seems like three-ring boilerplate to me.

Every movie romance needs an obstacle. So it's no surprise that Marlena is married. Her husband August (Waltz) owns the circus; he's an impresario who blends old-world charm, entrepreneurial gusto, show-business savvy and outright sadism.

August, who regards himself as the ruler of this empire of illusion, employs a unique method of downsizing. When times get tough, he throws an excess worker or two off his moving train, a procedure called "redlighting." He also brutalizes the animals in his circus.

Someone decided that Witherspoon should adopt a Jean Harlow platinum blonde look that fits the period. But she's in a role that would have perfectly fit a young Jessica Lange, someone with less of a cheerleader vibe.

Pattinson and Witherspoon may be a bit of a mismatch. There's chemistry between them - just not enough.

An alternately charming and scary Waltz does a semi-reprise of the sadistic Nazi he played in Inglourious Basterds. "The guy certainly knows how to hold the screen.

Water for Elephants both sentimentalizes and deglamorizes circus life, where all the patrons are known as rubes and the workers make up a close-knit fraternity of the alienated.

Lawrence begins the story with framing device. Hal Holbrook appears as the aged Jacob, a 90-year-old who has escaped from the old age home where he resides to visit a circus that has hit town. A circus manager listens as Jacob tells what has become a legendary story: how the Benzini Bros. Circus finally collapsed.

Because Jacob provides the story with off-screen narration, I found it mildly troubling that Lawrence used Pattinson to narrate instead of relying on Holbook's barrel-aged tones, which would have given the story more flavor.

The story becomes increasingly melodramatic, and no one is likely to confuse Water for Elephants with a realistic look at the Depression, but Lawrence seems to be bending over backward to be respectful of Gruen's novel, an understandable strategy but one that doesn't always result in the best movie.

Fittingly, the other star of Water for Elephants is Rosie, an elephant August buys to boost the circus' sagging box office. And, yes, Rosie steals every scene in which she appears. So let me relieve you of some guilt. If you feel more for Rosie than for any of the movie's human characters, I doubt whether you'll be alone. That says a lot for Tai (the 42-year-old elephant playing Rosie) and not as much for the movie itself.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A history lesson from Robert Redford

The Conspirator tells an interesting story, but it's awfully earnest -- and that's the trouble.
What do you do when a movie tackles an interesting subject, boasts a prestigious cast, delivers a message with which you generally agree, and you still give it your enthusiastic endorsement?

Here's what I do: I say that you may want to see Robert Redford's new movie The Conspirator, but you probably shouldn't expect to be blown away. Redford's movie has its virtues, but it's also overly earnest and dry, a bit of civics lesson on film.

I'm betting that not many Americans know the story of Mary Surratt, a 42-year-old woman who was hanged in 1865 for being part of the conspiracy that led to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth. Surratt, a staunch Catholic and proud Southerner, owned a Washington, D.C., boarding house where the conspirators plotted the president's murder. She claimed innocence.

At one point, Surratt was offered leniency on condition that she disclose the whereabouts of her youngest son, John. John later admitted to helping hatch a plot to kidnap Lincoln, but insisted that he had no part in the president's assassination. John Surratt remained in hiding during his mother's trial; he ultimately was tried and acquitted.

In telling Surratt's story, Redford takes a step forward from his last directorial outing, 2007's Lions For Lambs. Preachy and obvious, Lions made a head-on attempt to deal with the consequences of the war in Afghanistan. Steeped in period atmosphere, The Conspirator proves more subtle, although it's impossible not to see parallels between the issues raised by the Surratt trial and those surrounding military proceedings at Guantanamo.

Rather than providing us with a definitive answer about Surratt's guilt, Redford uses the movie to defend a principle: A nation of laws - especially during times of heated public sentiment -- must offer fair trials even to those whose guilt seems beyond question. Justice must be served; the craving for vengeance, resisted.

Working from a script by James D. Solomon, Redford focuses on Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), the lawyer who's assigned to defend Surratt before a military tribunal.

At first Aiken wants no part of the Surratt case. Like just about everyone else in Washington, he has little doubt about her guilt. As the story develops, Aiken begins to understand that, at minimum, Surratt deserves a hearing, something the military seems disinclined to provide.

Redford surrounds McAvoy with a powerful cast. Robin Wright portrays Surratt as a strong and devoted mother: She won't betray her son to save he own life. Surratt makes no bones about her loyalty to the Confederacy, but insists she knew nothing about what the plotters were discussing when they gathered in her boarding house.

Tom Wilkinson plays Reverdy Johnson, the Maryland lawyer who involved Aiken in Surratt's defense; Danny Huston portrays Joseph Holt, the prosecuting attorney; and Kevin Kline appears as Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War.

According to the movie, Stanton wanted a quick verdict; he was interested in satisfying the public hunger for vengeance that followed the assassination. Kline's Stanton is a severe, unforgiving man who thinks the demands of the nation, as he sees them, take precedence over individual rights.

Evan Rachel Wood terrific as Veda Pierce in HBO's recent version of Mildred Pierce, brings emotional urgency to a movie that sometimes seems to be striking courtroom-drama poses. She plays Surratt's daughter.

Credit Redford & company for attempting to illuminate a little-known chapter of American history, and giving the movie a persuasive period look, but The Conspirator can feel restricted by its courtroom setting and by what seems a carefully worked-out agenda, the need to remind us that emergency situations shouldn't obliterate our freedoms. At times, the movie seems as committed to making points as it is to telling a story.

Still, there's no point damning Redford's effort, even if it ultimately emerges as a musty addition to the canon of socially conscious movies that don't so much raise questions as answer them.

New 'Scream,' same as the old 'Scream'

Wes Craven revisits the Scream franchise, but gives us little to shout about.
Scream 4 offers little that we haven't seen before as it jauntily follows in the self-conscious, bloody footprints of its three predecessors.

Directed by horror maven Wes Craven and written by Kevin Williamson -- the duo that has overseen all the Scream movies -- this fourth edition builds toward a variety of moments that have been engineered to create whoops and hollers in any crowd that's already primed to have a good time and doesn't care if that good time is not entirely distinguishable from the experiences it associates with the previous films.

Scream 4 loads the screen with characters as it mingles appearances by original cast members (Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette) with new arrivals (Rory Culkin. Emma Roberts and Hayden Panettiere).

This edition finds Sidney returning to Woodsboro to hype Out of the Darkness, a book she's written about how she survived her horrific experiences.

Ghostface, the series' resident killer, also returns, evidently inspired by Sidney's reappearance. Ghostface, of course, slaughters many teens, high-school students being the most expendable ingredient in most horror movies.

As fans of the series know, Ghostface is a phone freak; this being 2011, he uses lots of cell phone minutes. He always tries to call his victims before he strikes, speaking in a gravely menacing voice supplied by Roger Jackson, an actor whose name I mention as a courtesy to those who plan on entering trivia contests over the weekend.

Roberts plays Sidney's cousin, the teen-ager around whom the other kids gather for self-referential dialog, as well as for the typical events that pass for plot in horror movies that do little more than alternate jokes and stabbings.

The finale will score in some quarters, but by then I was pretty sick of the whole thing. Even with a little updating, Scream 4 feels old hat, a helping of horror that too often left me bored and bummed.

And when the script tries to get meaningful – serving up blather about the emptiness of fame and celebrity – my eyes rolled. Even in a small, ironically intended doses, social significance is the last thing I want from a Scream movie.

An Irish tough guy takes on the mob

A worthy addition to a reliable genre..
Every now again, a movie takes us by surprise. That’s what happened to me with Kill the Irishman, a welcome addition to the expansive gallery of gangster movies, perhaps our grittiest and most consistently rewarding genre. In addition to having some fire in its belly, Irishman has the added benefit of being based on the true story of a bomb-riddled crime wave that swept Cleveland in the mid-1970s.

A tough Irishman named Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson) provides the focus for a drama that pits him and several cohorts against Cleveland's reigning Mafia bosses. At stake: the city’s criminal largess – and a certain, twisted sense of ethnic pride.

Danny, a rough-and-tumble kid who starred on his high school’s basketball team, begins his career working on the Cleveland waterfront. He muscles his way to the top of the longshoreman’s union. Corruption – payoffs and various other forms of larceny – afford Danny a taste of the good life. He relishes it – until the cops close in on him.

After cutting a deal to avoid prosecution, Danny pursues a less organized life of crime with director Jonathan Hensleigh and cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub giving dangerous, gritty life to this tumultuous period of Cleveland’s history.

At first, I wasn’t sure about Stevenson’s performance; it seemed a little flat. An Irish-born actor who has spent most of his life in England, Stevenson keeps the histrionics to a minimum, sometimes relying on sheer physical bulk to convey Greene’s bravado and menace, but as the movie progresses, Stevenson becomes increasingly credible. His Danny is as tough as a calloused fist.

A thug who’s not afraid to be caught reading a book, Greene never shrinks from a fight, takes no crap from anyone and seems to have made a major life decision early: In a brutal world, no one was going to push him around. Wisely, Stevenson never quite settles the question of whether we should abhor Danny or admire his grit.

Hensleigh surrounds Stevenson with a large, capable cast. A beefy Val Kilmer plays a cop who grew up with Danny, and has followed his exploits. Vincent D’Onofrio portrays a Mafia guy. Passed over for a promotion, D’Onofrio’s John Nardi forms an alliance with Danny, offering proof of his undying friendship in one of the movie’s most chilling scenes.

These days, no gangster film can call itself complete unless Christopher Walken makes an appearance. Here, Walken plays Shondor Birns, a Jewish restaurateur who’s more interested in crime than cuisine. Tony Lo Bianco signs on as Jack Licavoli, head of the Italian mob in Cleveland. Paul Sorvino does cameo duty as a New York mobster.

I can’t say that Kill the Irishman breaks a lot of new ground, but it does a hell of a job digging up old soil, and it even throws in a bit of Irish romanticism for good measure. In an attempt to present Danny as something more than a mean-spirited thug, we’re given a scene that anoints him as a bona fide Celtic warrior, the noble descendant of a breed of hard-drinking, hard-fighting men who may not have known how to rule the world, but weren’t about to let it rule them.

That may be blarney, but Kill the Irishman delivers the gangster goods, earning its place among a variety of small films that pack some wallop.

One more thing: You'll see so many car-bomb explosions in Kill The Irishman that when you leave the theater, you may be tempted to take a good look under your car before you start it. Hey, you can't be too careful.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

'Hanna' unleashes more girl power

Hanna can't be accused of visual dullness, but shouldn't it make a little more sense?
The new thriller Hanna may be visually bold, but there’s less to it than meets the eye. Fairy tale overtones, breathless action and a striking performance from Saoirse Ronan can't quite get Hanna past its own gimmickry.

The movie’s most important gimmick can be found in its title character. Sixteen-year-old Hanna (Ronan) comes equipped with the kind of identity that earns respect in movies. She’s a carefully trained killer, a deadly helping of girl power served in an action context.

Ronan’s Hanna may have an Alice in Wonderland face, but she’s not likely to show up at any tea parties. She can take on multiple foes, out run even the most determined of pursuers, speak a variety of languages, and hunt game before breakfast. Did I mention that she handles weapons as deftly as other kids text?

Raised in a Finnish forest by a rogue CIA agent (Eric Bana), Hanna has been well schooled in the survival arts. She has been taught to anticipate danger and to defend herself.

In fairness, it must be said that Ronan elevates Hanna above the script’s abundant absurdity, giving her an eerie determination that makes this disorienting and far-fetched thriller more compelling than it deserves to be. When Hanna leaves the isolation of the forest, she’s like an alien trying to understand a new planet.

But Ronan can’t totally make up for the script’s lack of logic, unless you buy the idea that references to fairy tales excuse a multitude of sins, particularly a lack of plausibility.

I’m not over-interpreting: Wright makes explicit references to classic fairy tales, beginning with an illustrated edition of Red Riding Hood that Hanna peruses in an early scene and culminating in a showdown in an abandoned German amusement park where Wright offers one last grandly overstated chance to equate evil with a wolf.

Having passed beyond the age of the brothers Grimm, we must look for our ogres, witches and wicked stepmothers in the one place that reliably supports big-screen villainy: the secret corridors of government. Hanna must square off against a CIA bureaucrat (Cate Blanchett) who combines the bite of the Big Bad Wolf with the cunning of a wicked witch.

If Ronan is able to take Hanna beyond gimmickry, Blanchett – a gifted actress who need not apologize for anything she does – fares less well. Her Marissa, an all-business killer, is a predator, right down to her bleeding gums. She’s arch, vicious and burdened by a wavering Southern accent.

Wright, who directed Ronan in Atonement and who also directed a big-screen version of Pride and Prejudice, this time forsakes literary adaptation for a kinetically charged fantasy in which Hanna spends nearly the entire movie on the run. When Hanna decides she’s ready to leave the forest, she’s captured by Marissa’s troops. After she escapes, she heads for Berlin, where she’s supposed to reunite with Bana’s character.

En route, Hanna faces a variety obstacles. Notable among these supporting menaces: Tom Hollander’s Isaacs, a freakish blond killer whose looks and intonations suggest a level of perversity so ingrained, it has become casual.

At heart, Hanna is little more than a glorified series of chases with one interlude offering a bit of relief. Hanna latches onto a normal family that’s touring Morocco in a battered van. Hanna does her best to make friends with the family’s teen-age daughter (a lively Jessica Barden), but Hanna has not learned much about social interaction.

The movie doesn’t sit still for long, and Hanna soon finds herself back in motion, traversing borders with an ease that defies logic. She also runs a lot, an activity that has prompted comparisons to director Tom Tykwer’s 1998 Run Lola Run. Unlike Tykwer’s streamlined effort, Wright’s Hanna loads up on plot, boosting its adrenalin level with a throbbing Chemical Brothers score that amounts to musical fist pumping.

At the end of a movie, it’s sometimes interesting to imagine what might be next in the life of its main character. For Hanna, that question only can be answered in movie terms. What’s next? The only thing I could think of for this wholly unreal character was a sequel.

Put another way: I don’t think there are any proms or SATs in young Hanna’s future.

'Arthur' didn't need remaking

An unnecessary remake of a medium-grade comedy.
After watching Russell Brand play an infantile drunken billionaire in the entirely unnecessary remake of 1981’s Arthur, I thought about stopping at the nearest saloon and ordering a double. A stiff drink might have washed away the taste of mediocrity that pervades a juvenile comedy that has been tweaked for a new century.

Whatever its faults, the original – which earned the estimable John Gielgud an Oscar for playing an imperious butler named Hobson -- tops this silly remake in nearly every way.

To begin with, Brand lacks even the small amounts of pathos that Dudley Moore brought to the title role, and Helen Mirren -- terrific an actress as she is – can’t add the same level of dry humor that marked a Gielgud performance steeped in witty disdain.

In fairness to Mirren, it should be noted that Gielgud was given better dialog. Besides, Mirren’s playing Arthur’s nanny, not his butler. Creepy, no? A grown man with a nanny? Is it hilarious when she Mirren’s Hobson tells Arthur to be sure to wash his “winky?” If you answered “yes” to that question, let’s agree never to talk dirty to each other.

Screenwriter Peter Baynham follows the same basic plot as the original. Arthur's mother orders her Hopelessly playboy son to marry an upper crust New Yorker or be disinherited. In the original, Arthur’s father – head of a large corporation -- issued the marriage ultimatum. The gender changes in Baynham’s script do little to freshen characters that weren’t exactly novel 30 years ago.

The 2011 edition of Arthur boasts a variety of additional miscalculations, not the least of which is the fact that the woman Arthur is ordered to marry (Jennifer Garner) is more appealing than the woman he falls for (Greta Gerwig), a Queens resident who conducts unauthorized guided tours at Manhattan's Grand Central Station and who aspires to write children’s books.

Baynham and director Jason Winer try to make the movie acceptable for 2011 with a half-hearted reference to the recession and an end-of-picture resolution that finds Arthur 12-stepping his way toward sobriety. And you certainly won’t be surprised to learn that the movie refuses to take its silliness straight, mixing in a bit of sentimentality at the end.

I suppose that one’s reaction to Arthur hinges on Brand, who looks more dissolute than Moore, who had the appearance of a drunken gnome. Funny as a wanton rock star in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Brand didn’t exactly knock me out in last year’s Get Him to the Greek, and he’s even less amusing here.

In a how-the-mighty-have-fallen aside, it should be noted that Nick Nolte appears in a small role as the father of Arthur’s fianceĆ©. Watching Nolte do this kind of thankless job made me sad, which isn’t what a movie such as Arthur is supposed to do.

And, no, I didn’t stop for that drink. I went home and streamed the original on Netflix, an activity that only confirmed what I already suspected. The remake goes nowhere.

'Your Highness' is a royal flop

This Medieval comedy is vulgar, but not funny..
Once a darling of critics, David Gordon Green (George Washington and All the Real Girls) lately has been dabbling in low-brow comedy, first in 2008's Pineapple Express and now with Your Highness. * Green manages to take two of last year's prominent Oscar names -- James Franco (nominee) and Natalie Portman (winner) on a downward spiraling ride. * Tasteless and often downright ugly, Your Highness attempts to spoof the cliches of the sword-and-sorcery genre. * Danny McBride, who along with Franco appeared in Pineapple Express, plays a prince immersed in a sibling rivalry with his older brother Fabious (Franco). The brothers embark on a quest to save Fabious' finacee (Zooey Deschanel). * Deschanel's Belladonna has fallen into the clutches of the evil wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux). The brothers ultimately find Belladonna, but discover few laughs as the script pours on the F-word, something you can do at home without having to purchase a ticket. * Is it me or is there some kind of rule that after winning an Oscar, an actor must always appear in a bad movie? Oh well, at least Portman looks good. * The movie's comic high point involves a severed penis. Does that tell you enough? No? Well, the presence of special effects makes the movie seem as overproduced as it is witless.* By the end, I was hoping that Your Highness wouldn't raise its sword in in triumph, but would fall on it instead.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Playing with reality and art in Tuscany

An Iranian master travels to Italy, and asks provocative questions about the nature of art and reality.
The Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has taken a trip to Italy, and we’re better off for it. Certified Copy – Kiarostami’s tantalizing new movie – is that rare film with sophisticated aspirations realized without strain.

By following a couple around the Italian village of Lucignano, Kiarostami plays with the elusive nature of reality, and the difficulty of separating it from illusion. If that’s too heady for you, know that the movie also works as an easygoing look at relationship dynamics.

Here’s the set-up: A British author (William Shimell) visits the Tuscan town of Arezzo to give a lecture. Shimell’s James has written about the uneasy relationship between copies and originals.

Elle (Juliette Binoche), a French antiques dealer who’s living in Italy, arrives after the lecture has begun, and is further distracted when her teen-age son (Adrian Moore) shows up.

Distractions aside, Elle manages to hook up with James. She offers to show him around, deciding that a drive to nearby Lucignano would be perfect. He agrees, and off they go, talking about his ideas about art, her ideas about art, and other subjects that tend to veer toward abstraction.

When the locals begin treating Elle and James as a married couple, they decide to play along. Gradually, they begin acting like a real married couple.

They argue over his long absences from the marriage; they bicker about the way she treats their apparently exasperating son. It becomes increasingly clear that this 15-year fictional “marriage” has reached an impasse, a situation that gains in irony when we realize that many couples – filled with the joy of new love – come to Lucignano to marry.

One such couple asks James and Elle to take a picture with them. She’s willing; he has to be dragged into the photo. Character stands revealed.

As the movie progresses, it almost seems as if the characters themselves have begun to embody Kiarostami's questions about artistic authenticity. The issues between Elle and James seem quite real, even though they’ve told us they’re only pretending to be married. The copy begins to ring true. Or, as some have speculated, maybe Elle and James really are married.

On one level, Certified Copy resembles Richard Linklater’s paired movies Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, but Certified Copy goes beyond those movies to grapple with dizzying questions about the nature of art – all in an unobtrusive and plausible way.

To some, Certified Copy may seem like a slender story about two people playing a game that takes a serious turn. Nothing more. On that level, Bincohe’s impassioned performance contrasts nicely with Shimell’s cool portrayal of a man who spends entirely too much time in his head.

All of this encourages us to ask ourselves a provocative question. Isn’t every movie an illusion, a representation of reality that we treat as if it were real? There never was nor ever will be a Don Corleone, but the title character from The Godfather gives us vivid insights into the psyches of men who wield great power. Pick your own example.

By the end, Kiarostami’s “simple” little movie has opened to complexities that most movies avoid – the complexities of acting a role, the complexities of plumbing the depths of character and the complexities of male/female relationships, of course, but also -- and just as important -- the complexities of the ways in which we see and, therefore, convince ourselves to believe.

Friday, April 1, 2011

His mind is stuck in the '60s

There’s something a little drab about The Music Never Stopped, an interesting -- though slender -- story about a young man (Lou Taylor Pucci) who loses his memory of anything after 1969 as the result of a benign brain tumor. * Based on The Last Hippie, an Oliver Sacks’ story, The Music Never Stopped alternates awkwardly realized flashbacks to the '60s with action set in the assisted living facility where Pucci’s character resides. * Pucci’s father (J.K. Simmons) tries to reestablish a relationship with his son, a difficult task because Pucci’s Gabriel, a former musician, only can communicate when he’s immersed in the ‘60s music he loves; i.e., The Beatles or the Grateful Dead. * Dad’s pretty much a big band guy who hated his son’s music and all the countercultural attitudes that went along with it. * Still, it’s Simmons’ Henry Sawyer who finds a music therapist (Julia Ormand) to help reach out to his son. * An equal blend of touching and strained moments, The Music Never Stopped has its virtues, but never quite achieves the expected impact.