Thursday, May 26, 2011

Odds and ends from the fringe

The talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the title character in Hesher, a quasi-realistic look at an obnoxious drifter who drops into the life of a troubled teen-ager (Devin Brochu). Having recently lost his mother in a car crash, Brochu's T.J. is emotionally vulnerable. He's also a victim of bullying at school. T.J.'s dad, a bearded Rainn Wilson, has so radically retreated from life, he barely talks. Piper Laurie shows up as the grandmother of a family on the verge of collapse. Natalie Portman, who needs some serious career advice despite her recent Oscar for Black Swan, plays a young woman who inadvertently steals T.J's tender heart. Although he's crude and inconsiderate, Hesher ultimately proves he can help a family that's dealing (or not) with overwhelming grief and loss. I'd say a better option would have been to call the cops the minute Hesher showed up. Maybe I'm thinking too literally. Still, Hesher feels too much like a strained attempt by director Spencer Susser to make a first feature with an attention-grabbing hook.


Comic Harry Shearer gets serious when it comes to New Orleans, where he lives part of the time. In The Big Uneasy, a carefully assembled -- if somewhat prosaic -- documentary, Shearer uses testimony from a variety of experts to show that the devastation of Katrina largely could have been avoided. The Army Corps of Engineers doesn't fare well in this concentrated look at the failure of flood-related infrastructure. I won't reiterate the contents of Shearer's documentary, but you would do well to see this worthy addition to the growing body of post-Katrina cinema.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Another 'Hangover' hits the screen

The Hangover Part II shifts to Bangkok for a few laughs and a whole lot of desperation.
How many hangovers are too many? In this case, the answer has nothing to do with alcohol consumption and everything to do with what happens over the weekend when moviegoers cast their votes on The Hangover Part II, a prime example of what might be called “big-screen comedy coasting.” Comedy coasting occurs when filmmakers rely on the same basic gags as the first time -- only with bits of novelty added.

To make Part II, the writers seem to have accepted the oft-recited mantra about what creates real estate value: Location. Location. Location. In pursuit of freshness, the wanton debauchery of the original has shifted from Las Vegas to Thailand, a move that gives the second helping a different flavor, although it's one that's not entirely welcome.

In his return engagement, director Todd Phillips allows the comedy to absorb the pungent and often seamy atmosphere of Bangkok at its unsavory worst, a decision that ups the sleaze quotient of a comedy that’s already steeped in desperation. And this time, the desperation can seem as vivid than the humor.

If you’ve seen the first movie, you know the plot, as well as where to look for most of the laughs. Stu (Ed Helms) is slated to be married to a beautiful Thai woman (Jamie Chung). He invites his pals (Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis and Justin Bartha) to the Thai-based nuptials.

The boys vow to behave themselves, but a pre-wedding gathering on a Thai beach – for just one beer – escalates into a wild night. Of course, no one can remember what happened when the crew (minus Bartha’s character) awakens in Bangkok hotel room that's so squalid a better class of insect might refuse to check in. p> Once restored to consciousnesses, Cooper, Helms and Galifianakis set out to find Teddy (newcomer Mason Lee), the 16-year-old brother of the bride, a boy genius who's already excelling at Stanford. It seems Teddy disappeared during the previous night’s frolic.

Along the way, our hapless heroes also renew their contact with Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong), the mincing gangster from the first installment. Paul Giamatti turns up in a small role as another gangster.

The screenwriters (Phillips, Craig Mazin and Scot Armstrong) spend a lot of time trying out variations on the original gags. In the 2009 movie, Helms’ character woke up without a tooth. This time, he wakes up with the same facial tattoo as Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight champ who made a cameo appearance in the first installment and who also appears in the second.

For those who need warnings about the kind of humor under discussion, it’s worth pointing out that Part II involves transgender sex, a severed finger, nudity, a cigarette-smoking monkey and a variety of other impolite gags that seem to have been tailored for an audience that may care more about reliable repetition than about expressions of originality or imagination.

I was not a big fan of the first movie, and this one turns out have roughly the same impact – only with a grunge quotient that’s not likely to do much for delicate sensibilities or for Bangkok’s already battered reputation.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Cinema Salon about dance on film

This Wednesday (May 25th) at 7 p.m. I'll be presenting another edition of the Colorado Cinema Salon at the FilmCenter/Colfax, 2510 East Colfax Avenue. Premier Denver choreographer Cleo Parker Robinson will join me for a look at dance on film. Parker Robinson has selected six dance scenes from movies, and will talk about what works or doesn't in each of them. As always, the Salons will be informal, conversational and informative. Since the Salon program began last September we've dealt with serious and not-so-serious topics. Wednesday's Salon promises to be one of the most entertaining yet. Hope to see you there.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Another "Pirates" movies sets sail

This edition of 'Pirates' doesn't sink, but it seldom soars.

The Pirates of the Caribbean movies have been plundering the box office for eight years, and the fourth edition – Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – seems in no danger of sinking the franchise's mega-bucks ship.

The series’ fourth movie has enough swash and buckle to please hard-core fans. Johnny Depp serves up the usual mincing helping of Captain Jack Sparrow. Penelope Cruz adds a bit of steam, and a slew of mermaids turn up. When threatened, they snarl and sprout fangs. Hey, who said these movies had to make sense?

What this edition doesn’t have (aside from a feeling of sustained vigor) is Gore Verbinksi: The director of the previous Pirate movies has moved on. Verbinski recently directed the wildly inventive Rango, a gritty animated western that played with the genre in smart, knowing ways.

Verbinski, who surely needed a change of pace, has been replaced by Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha and Nine). Marshall can’t duplicate the intricate action set pieces in which Verbinski helped to reinvent the lost art of visual comedy – not just physical comedy and pratfalls, but a comedy in which the camera and environment were full participants in a series of extended jokes.

Of course, this latest edition of Pirates has action (in largely superfluous 3-D at some locations), but it’s not inspired action. In fact, little about this edition of Pirates seems inspired: It’s an acceptable helping of a franchise: No more.

And Depp? Well, no amount of mascara can conceal the fact that he’s pretty much done everything he can with the role of Captain Jack. Still, if you're up for an encore, he's fine.

The plot finds a variety of folks scrambling to discover the legendary Foundation of Youth while the script figures out ways to add amusements, as well another pirate. A scowling Ian McShane portrays Captain Blackbeard.

For me, the movie never surpasses its opening. The story leaps into rollicking high gear as Captain Jack Sparrow escapes from a London jail. A Sparrow impostor is introduced, and Marshall makes room for a delightful cameo from Judi Dench and an amusingly bloated performance by Richard Griffiths as King George.

The movie’s opening – more or less a prologue – eventually gives way to the rest of the story, which is marred by stretches that drag and drone. Sparrow eventually finds himself aboard Captain Blackbeard’s ship along with Cruz’ Angelica, who says that she’s Blackbeard’s daughter. Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) also chases after the Fountain, as does a group of Spanish noblemen. Never mind why mermaids enter the story. They have a plot function, but their real purpose may have more to do with special effects than with dramatic necessity. Still, a beautiful mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) provides whatever soul the movie has.

I enjoyed listening to Rush and McShane deliver their lines with over-the-top relish, but by now, the franchise feels so familiar, I can’t watch without experiencing a degree of self-conscious detachment: “Oh,” I say to myself with no particular enthusaism, “This is where I’m supposed to be thrilled.” “Here’s where I should be laughing.” “And how long is this thing anyway?”

The answer: Two hours and 16 minutes – some of which proves to be fun, some not. I think we may have reached the point where audience anticipation and excitement has surpassed what the Pirate movies can deliver. Will that put a stop to them? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Two from the art-house side

FOSTER'S BIG RISK THAT DOESN'T PAY OFF. A man talks through a puppet, and we're supposed to take it seriously.
Jodie Foster seems to have taken a risky (and probably wrong) turn with her latest movie. Foster's The Beaver tells the story of a depressed toy company owner (Mel Gibson) who relates to others through a hand puppet -- a beaver that looks like a Sesame Street reject. Gibson gives a decent performance as a disturbed man who has lost interest in life. All possible Gibson jokes aside, the movie -- which casts Foster as the executive's wife and Anton Yelchin as his alienated teen-aged age son -- further taxes credibility when it tries to show that society is as nutty as Gibson's Walter Black. Walter starts addressing his employees through the puppet, which also becomes a major hit in the toy world. Of course, there's a crash. And, of course, the movie must get around to dealing with the serious issues it raises. And, of course, depression is no joking matter. That The Beaver is at all watchable attests to Foster's directorial skill and Gibson's acting, but they've both chosen material that -- almost by its nature -- is self-defeating.

A BEAUTIFUL LOOK AT LIFE IN CALABRIA. This magnificent movie can't be easily categorized.

Le Quatro Volte is an exceptional movie from director Michelangelo Frammartino, who stages some scenes but also uses real real people. Frammartino imposes his artistic will on his material in small, revealing doses, as he tells four stories: one about an old shepherd, another about a flock of goats, a third about the felling of a giant tree, and the fourth, a look at the creation of what appears to be a supply of charcoal for the winter. Frammartino is one of those directors who communicate more by telling less. He offers no narration to guide us through the various mysteries that he finds in and around a tiny village in Calabria. I thought a couple of Frammartino's touches were mildly corny, but -- in total -- Le Quatro Volte is a mini-masterpiece that no real film lover should miss.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Westward ho -- or maybe not

A surprising look at the journey West.
If you're looking for an old fashioned indie that bends over backward to show the hardships of life on the frontier, you'll do no better than Meek's Cutoff, director Kelly Reichardt's starkly realized look at a small group of settlers traversing the country in covered wagons.

At first, it looks as if Reichardt only wants to underscore the difficulties of pioneer life: choking dust, the ceaseless creak of wagon wheels and the drudgery of moving across forbidding terrain. If there were contests for movie authenticity, Reichardt would stack-up as a clear favorite.

Reichardt's frontier atmospherics can be absorbing in their own right, serving as a gritty antidote to the robust mythology that dominates our imaginations when it comes to the West. But Reichardt has a story to tell, as well.

The setup is simple enough: A man named Meek (Bruce Greenwood) serves as a guide for three families that are headed west. Meek thinks his work his first-rate, but the families under his guidance begin to wonder whether he knows what he's doing. When it becomes apparent that the travelers are lost, trust in Meek erodes, and when the would-be settlers capture an Indian (Rod Rondeaux), they face decisions that could spell life or death.

The families must decide how to treat the Indian. Even more distressing, they must determine whether they can trust him. They're running low on water, and are uncertain about whether to rely on the Indian, who presumably knows the land. The alternative posed by Meek, who leads the anti-Indian charge, is to kill the captive.

Reichardt's strong ensemble cast includes Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson and Zoe Kazan, all of whom have been properly dirtied up for the occasion.

Give yourself a chance to become accustomed to the rhythms of Meek's Cutoff . and you'll find a movie that not only tells a tantalizing story, but manages to sneak up on you in the bargain.

Meek's Cutoff takes us on a challenging journey; we eventually realize what all the slow-moving realism was about: Reichardt puts us on the same plane as her characters so that we begin to think along with them, wondering how in the hell it's possible to survive the vast indifference of the land.

Laughs on the way to the altar

Bridesmaids msy not be great, but it showcases the talent of Kristen Wiig.
At first blush, Bridesmaids seems to be an entirely transparent attempt to bring the testosterone-heavy Judd Apatow formula into a world populated by women. You know the drill: gross-outs and bawdy humor are garnished with dollops of sentiment and substance.

On second blush -- if there is such a thing -- the Apatow-produced Bridesmaids turns out to be ... well ... a transparent attempt to bring the Apatow formula into a world populated by women -- with some oddball touches added for good measure.

Fortunately, Bridesmaids does have some laughs. Honesty compels me to say that during one of the movie's major bits -- the one in which one woman throws up another's head -- I laughed. It was one of those despite-myself laughs, prompted by an overextended joke that can seem as revolting as it is funny. The bridesmaids suffer extreme bowl distress after lunch at a Brazilian restaurant. Need I say more?

For me, the main attraction of Bridesmaids has less to do with gross-outs than with SNL vet Kristen Wiig, who plays a failed Milwaukee bakery owner who's asked to serve as maid of honor for her newly engaged best friend (Maya Rudolph).

Tensions arise when Rudolph's Lillian allows another friend -- Rose Byrne's Helen -- to assume increasing responsibility for the pre-wedding festivities. Wigg's Annie, whose life has hit a bad patch, begins to stew in jealous juices.

Annie wishes she could have a meaningful relationship instead of the "adult sleepovers" she shares with a randy and wantonly insensitive pal (Jon Hamm). She also envies Helen's burgeoning relationship with the very wealthy Helen.

Annie's sisters in comedy include Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey) and Becca (Ellie Kemper), but the scene-stealer award for supporting players goes to Melissa McCarthy, who portrays Megan, an overweight woman who serves roughly the same function that Zach Galifianakis serves in comedies. She's the groom's sister, an unrepentantly crude woman who does nothing to conceal her libidinous desires and seems never to have heard the word "sublimation." Everything she says feels as blunt as a punch to the gut.

There are false notes in this march to the altar. When Wiig's Annie finally releases her pent-up fury at Lillian's bridal shower, her response seems too ugly for a comedy, and it can feel as if director Paul Feig is having trouble deciding whether he wants to indulge the movie's mass-appeal gene or surrender to its off-the-wall eccentricity.

One of the movie's strangest touches has Annie living with s roly-poly brother and sister. After the sister in this duo reads Annie's diary, she tries to cover up by insisting that she thought it was "a very sad handwritten book," a bizarre observation that makes you realize that there should have been more where that came from.

Wiig brings an unusual presence to the screen. She can be crass, funny and smart, sometimes all at once. A scene in which Annie gets looped on an airplane (the women are heading for a bachelorette party in Vegas) highlights Wiig's abilities, and some of the writing -- by Wiig and Annie Mumolo -- displays insight, manifested in knowing observations about pre-nuptial insanity.

A side note: It's fitting that Wiig and the late Jill Clayburgh have been cast as mother and daughter. Clayburgh actually looks as if she could have been Wiig's mom. One more aside: Annie's relationship with an unlikely state patrolman (Chris O'Dowd) reflects an offbeat bit of writing that could have made for a whole other movie.

And now for a pet peeve. Did I mention that Bridesmaids is a bit over two-hours long? On the way home, I played Bill Maher, and did a New Rules number with myself. New Rule: No comedy should be more than an hour-and-a-half long and that includes the damn credits.

In search of the past's terrible secrets

A powerful look at the shocking, complicated consequences of hatred
When the various plot threads of Incendies have been pulled taut, the movie begins resonating in your head like a thousand plucked strings.

Incendies spans great geographical and emotional distances as it tells the provocative and often shocking story of a woman who suffered unspeakable indignities in the midst of raging religious conflict between Lebanese Muslims and Lebanese Christians.

In the early going, the movie’s narrative feels fragmented and slightly confusing. Unless you know something about the Middle East, it may take awhile to figure out that much of the action is taking place in Lebanon.

This apparent lack of cohesion probably is necessary. Trust director Denis Villeneuve to clarify things as the movie progresses; Villeneuve’s fractured narrative has nothing to with artistic pretense and everything to do with allowing us to proceed at roughly the same pace as the movie’s characters. Incendies is a movie of discovery, hidden secrets and profoundly disturbing revelations.

Villeneuve, who adapted the movie from a play by Wajdi Mouawad, begins the story in a notary’s office in Montreal. Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) and Simone (Maxim Gaudette) listen as the notary (Remy Girard) reads their mother’s will. Mom’s estate will be divided equally between Jeanne and Simone, who are twins.

Routine business after a death, but there's more: The twins' mother has made a puzzling additional request. She wants Jeanne to search for the father both children had presumed dead. For his part, Simone is charged with looking for a brother neither of the twins knew they had. This search becomes their real inheritance, a way to discover their history.

Separately and then together, the twins begin to learn about their mother’s life. When Narwal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) lived in Lebanon, the nation was wracked by strife: The violent conflict between Christians and Muslims left deep reservoirs of pain in its wake.

Simone initially resists his late mother’s request; Jeanne embraces it, traveling to Lebanon where she begins to learn about her mother’s life. Flashbacks show us Narwal’s years in Lebanon, and Azabal – in a stunning performance -- creates a portrait of woman swept up in a tide of war and hatred.

Villeneuve’s direction is vibrant and alert, and his depictions of warfare are harrowing, particularly an attack on a bus carrying Muslim civilians. It’s the kind of violence that can occur only when people put themselves beyond all feeling, except possibly hatred.

It might be better to do your thinking about Incendies after you let the movie settle. As you reflect back on the movie, you'll know that Villeneuve has shown us how past horror eventually insinuates itself into the present, how some people must survive without the balm of consolation and how two grown children must grapple with an impossibly difficult truth.

Making a short story long

Some short stories should be allowed to remain on the page.
Raymond Carver's short story -- Why Don't You Dance? -- can be read in five minutes, presuming you drag your feet. In a terse, deadpan style that allows the reader to fill in a variety of blanks, Carver introduces us to a man who has hit bottom.

Here's Carver's first sentence: "In the kitchen, he poured another drink and looked at the bedroom suite in his front yard."

Obviously, the main character in Carver's story is not having a good day. Not only the bedroom suite but just about everything else he owns is sitting on the lawn. The man seems to be alone; his wife may have vacated the premises to avoid her husband's rage and drinking. Or maybe she'd had enough, and simply didn't want to talk about their relationship anymore. Once a guy's stuff hits the lawn, there's not much left to talk about anyway.

Everything Must Go -- the movie derived from Why Don't You Dance? -- allows writer/director Dan Rush to fill in details that Carver purposefully omitted. Try as he may, Rush can't quite stretch Carver's minimal tale into a full-blooded movie.

In the movie, we meet Nick (Will Ferrell) in the midst of the mother of bad days. He's been fired from his job, and his wife has tossed all his stuff onto the front lawn. The neighbors are curious or vexed. Passersby take the scene for a garage sale.

Bolstered by a nonstop stream of beers, Nick settles down to contemplate his fate or maybe to avoid contemplating his fate. Rush does a good job setting up Nick's modest catastrophe, allowing the humor of despair to rise from the narrative like foul vapors from a dump.

I like despair as much as the next guy, but as soon as Nick is awakened from a night's sleep on the lawn by the automatic sprinkler system, an alarm went off my head. Too easy, I thought. Too expected. Too much like a gag you'd see in a very different kind of Will Ferrell movie.

Now in fairness, it should be noted that we're not talking about a movie that spends the next 100 minutes staring at a guy on his lawn. Not exactly. Nick has what are known in the trade as encounters: first with Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace), a portly black kid who Nick pays to watch his stuff while he replenishes his beer supply, and then with Samantha (Rebecca Hall), a pregnant woman who just has moved into the neighborhood and is awaiting her husband's arrival. Nick also discusses his situation with a detective (Michael Pena), who also happens to be his AA sponsor.

At a desperate low point, Nick visits a woman (Laura Dern) he hasn't seen in years. Kenny notices Nick's high school yearbook amid the debris on the lawn. Turns out Dern's character wrote something nice about Nick. Maybe she has an encouraging word for him. Clearly, Nick is grasping at straws.

Nick's relationship with Kenny has touching aspects, and Ferrell is quite good as a depressed man who has allowed alcohol to get the better of him. But there's at least one scene that calls for Nick to express his anger at someone. Samantha draws this particular short straw. Ferrell is much more than a comic buffoon, but a drunk with a venomous side? I didn't totally buy it. I didn't see enough mean in him.

Everything Must Go probably should have remained a short story, a writer's take on the kind of strange suburban sight we might see in real life, prompting us to wonder what series of events could have brought a man to the point where he's sitting in a recliner on his front lawn surrounded by all his crap and not having a clue what comes next.

I guess that's where I part company with the movie. I'd rather imagine what might have happened than to know what did: Filling in the blanks in Carver's story may amount to a case of subtraction by addition.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Samurai warriors battle long odds

13 Assassins celebrates Samurai movie tropes without getting self-conscious about it.
Japanese director Takeshi Miike's new movie, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, is slated to show at the Cannes Film Festival, which kicked off on May 11. If you can't make it to Cannes and you've been seized by a samurai jones, you'll definitely want to spend some time with Miike's 13 Assassins, which opens in Denver this week and is moving slowly around the country. * Miike could have called this one, The Death Of A Whole Lot of Samurais. Miike's body count is high in this story about a samurai warrior who tries to topple a sadistic nobleman in a battle with very long odds. How long? Try 13 against 200. * Of course, Miiki doesn't spare us the sight of some of the evil warlord's work, some of which may upset the squeamish. * The idea of desperate battle between a small group of honorable men and an entire army is both familiar and preposterous, but Miike pushes it to extremes, allowing the climactic battle to extend for 45 action-packed and somewhat exhausting minutes. * Miike's movie is set in the 19th century, a time when once valued warriors are losing their status, a popular moment for many directors who are partial to the genre's apparently endless supply of swords, horses and bloodshed. * 13 Assassins is a large-scale production with an epic look, if not an epic story, but if you like this kind of movie -- and what self-respecting movie fan doesn't -- 13 Assassins should do the trick. * And by the way, Hara-Kiri is in 3-D. I'm no 3-D fan, but I have to admit that I can't wait to see what Miiki does with another dimension.

Friday, May 6, 2011

A look at some of the world's oldest art

It's no gallery, but the art is first rate.
In his 2006 book, The Cave Painters, author Gregory Curtis observes that the first thing everyone seems to notice about the cave paintings of the Paleolithic Era is their beauty. Curtis goes on to point out that cave images focused primarily on animals. For Curtis, this repetitive tendency suggests a brand of art that supported the social order of its time, which happens to have occurred some 32,000 years ago.

If you want to see the beauty (and amazing skill) of these early paintings, you'd do well to check out Werner Herzog's new documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, although you may need to read Curtis' book for a fuller picture of the culture that produced this art. And, yes, I used the word "culture" advisedly.

Granted exclusive access to the Chauvet cave in France, Herzog and a small crew took 3-D cameras into the cave to photograph its paintings. Some of the folks with whom I saw Forgotten Dreams thought the 3-D was well used and that it added to their experience. I have to say that it left me feeling slightly woozy, even though I appreciated the sense of immediacy and presence it provided.

But on to the heart of the matter: The art we see is vibrant, sophisticated and accomplished. Paleolithic artists were able to suggest motion, and to make creative use of undulating cave surfaces. None of the work is marked by the crudeness that might have been ascribed to it by those of us who know little about Paleolithic life.

It's also fascinating to learn that humans did not inhabit the caves, but entered them to draw or to paint and possibly to conduct "religious" rituals. Herzog shows us a rock with a bear skull that has been placed on top of it. We may be looking at an early altar.

Those familiar with Herzog's work in documentaries such as Encounters at the End of the World and Grizzly Man know that he tends to make room for heightened commentary, the kind of observations that allow him to spar with a universe he can find mysterious, indifferent and unyielding. Normally, I go along for almost any journey Herzog takes, but for me Herzog proved the most troublesome feature of Cave of Forgotten Dreams. I'm sure others will have precisely the opposite reaction, but this time I found Herzog's presence distracting.

Still, the fact that Herzog's camera has access to sights that none of us could see on our own makes the movie special. And, of course, the paintings are priceless. If you're intrigued by the idea that some of our earliest ancestors were interested in art, music (they played carved flutes) and spirituality, you can't help but be fascinated by what Herzog shows. When he allows his camera to survey the art in silence -- which happily he does -- the movie couldn't be better.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

'Thor' swings a mighty (loud) hammer

Thor's motto: Talk loudly and carry a big hammer. Kenneth Branagh's entry into the world of superheroes provides some fun.
Thor drops the hammer that gets the summer-movie parade rolling, and if it doesn't quite hit the nail on the head, it delivers a pretty loud whack.

A Marvel Comics character since 1962, Thor does his hammer throwing in a grandly scaled entertainment that hits the screen with enough sound and fury to leave little room for doubt: Another comic book hero has left his calling card at the nation's multiplexes, and has done so in bold, emphatic fashion.

In chronicling Thor's transition from arrogant warrior to humble king, director Kenneth Branagh goes big, flooding the screen with everything from epic-sized fights to lightening-like flashes of energy to large men wearing Viking helmets that go heavy on horns.

What can I tell you? Any movie that makes room for Frost Giants and Anthony Hopkins can't be accused of taking itself too seriously. Hopkins plays Odin, Thor's father and king of Asgard, the realm where Thor and his fellow Norse gods cavort in robust fashion.

Thor is played by Chris Hemsworth, an Australian actor who looks like a cross between a Norse warrior and a California surfer. Hemsworth, who slips into the American argot as easily as he tosses off the script's portentous dialog, helps keep the movie from swirling down the cosmic drain. He's strong enough to pull a slightly scattered script together, has a godlike physique and manages to make his character more likable as the movie progresses.

After an hour so, you may feel comfortable enough around Thor to call him, "Dude,'' as in "Dude, where's your hammer?" Or maybe, "Dude, I like your cape." Better known for staging Shakespeare than for throwing spears, Branagh piles on the special effects as he paves the way for next year's Avengers movie, an exercise in comic book crossbreeding in which Thor joins other Marvel superheroes.

In this edition, the action alternates between Asgard and Earth. Thor lands in New Mexico after displeasing daddy. As punishment for leading an unauthorized raid on Jotunheim, the realm where the Frost Giants reside, Thor is banished to Earth.

Had Thor been less arrogant, he would have ascended to the throne in the movie's early going. Evidently ready for retirement, Odin wants to cede his kingdom to Thor. But the old king is put off by his son's epic-sized flaws: arrogance, impetuousness and an eagerness to make war.

Thor and Odin have an argument in which they shout mightily. Get used to it. At key moments, the actors don't talk; they bellow.

Working from a script by a trio of writers, Branagh mostly finds the right balance for a comic-book movie, blending action, humor, stabs at grandeur and thematic issues involving fathers, sons, sibling rivalry and a burgeoning love between a mortal and a god.

Natalie Portman portrays Jane, an astrophysicist who catches Thor's eye, setting up a possible romance between a mortal and a god. During his exile on Earth, Thor also encounters a group of scientists led by Erik Selvig, played by Stellan Skarsgard, whose befuddled expression suggests he may be asking himself exactly he's doing in this movie.

Despite her recently acquired best-actress Oscar, Portman's stuck in a supporting role, and she's not as interesting as another of Selvig's colleagues, portrayed by an acerbic Kat Dennings. On the Asgard side, we're introduced to various Thor loyalists, notably Volstagg, an ebullient Norse warrior played by Ray Stevenson with enough hair and beard to clog a thousand drains. A more carefully groomed Tom Hiddleston plays Thor's younger brother, Loki, a character with a complicated background that steers him toward treachery.

As is the case with most such movies, Earthlings in black suits eventually show up to add a note of bureaucratic menace. S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) leads the contingent of black suits; he's an investigator we've already met in the Iron Man movies.

Many of the Asgard scenes sprawl across spectacular backdrops that can't quite disguise their artificial look, but there's enough going on here to please comic-book fans, as well as those who like movies that leave them feeling as if they've been subjected to sonic boom.

And don't look now, but there's more where Thor came from. Due later this summer, another movie taken from Marvel's superhero storehouse: Captain America.

Two wedding invitations from Hollywood

This weekend, Hollywood has issued invitations to two weddings, but I wouldn't necessarily rush to RSVP. Both movies -- Something Borrowed and Jumping the Broom -- have problems, but given the choice, I'd head for Martha's Vineyard, where the livelier and slightly more realistic Jumping the Broom takes place. Both movies have a sitcom flavor and both are heavily reliant on contrivance, but I prefer Angela Bassett and Paula Patton (as mother and daughter) to Ginnifer Goodwin and Kate Hudson (as best friends). Besides, Jumping the Broom, unlike its competitor, offers some real laughs.


In the thoroughly mediocre Something Borrowed, Ginnifer Goodwin plays Rachel, a lawyer who has two best friends: Darcy (Kate Hudson), a woman Rachel has known since childhood, and Dex (Colin Egglesfield), a guy with whom she attended law school. When Rachel fails to acknowledge her romantic interest in Dex, Darcy swoops in for the kill. Dex and Darcy clearly make for an oil-and-water couple, but they're soon engaged. It doesn't take long for the movie to start feeling like junior high school with the principal characters trying to outdo one another. Meanwhile, Rachel's level-headed buddy (John Krasinski) encourages her not to defer to Darcy. The trailer gives away the movie's major twist, so I don't feel bad about including it in this brief review: Rachel and Dex sleep together, which puts Dex in a tough spot. He must decide whether to go through with the wedding or follow his heart. Goodwin (the new Doris Day?) knows how to handle this kind of role; Hudson tends to be shrill and over-the-top; and Egglesfield seems longer on looks than personality. As romcoms go, Something Borrowed feels entirely familiar, less a full-bodied movie than a cardboard cutout.


After a variety of unsatisfying one-night stands, Paula Patton's Sabrina pledges not to sleep with another man until she's married. It doesn't take long for Sabrina to become engaged to Jason (Laz Alonso), a New York investment banker who grew up in downscale Brooklyn. Conflicts arise when it becomes clear that Sabrina's well-heeled family is unprepared to accept Jason's mom, a truculent postal worker played by Loretta Devine. Devine squares off against Angela Bassett, who plays Sabrina's take-no-prisoner's mom. The script by Elizabeth Hunter and Arlene Gibb finds comedy in class conflict as families and friends gather at the Martha's Vineyard home where the wedding is to be held. The script also makes room for a couple of stock characters who add humor: the outspoken Shonda (Tasha Smith), best friend of the groom's mother, and Willie Earl (Mike Epps), the groom's equally outspoken uncle. The movie was produced by J.D. Jakes, a Dallas-based preacher who may be responsible for the movie's mild religious tilt. To its credit, though, Jumping the Broom seems more interested in entertaining than in proselytizing. The movie is not without clinkers, not the least of which involves a melodramatic twist the script easily could have done without. But director Salim Akil keeps the movie percolating as it heads toward its predictable conclusion, having only flirted with a few real issues, but at least acknowledging the world in which they exist.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Love in a time of brutal war

There's at least as much passion in the filmmaking as in the various romances in Bertrand Tavernier’s The Princess of Montpensier, a 16th century story set against a backdrop of brutal war between Roman Catholics and Protestant Huguenots.

Philippe Sarde's edgy score and Tavernier's fluid camera infuse this period piece with plenty of urgency. Tavernier also reminds us that few conflicts are more vicious than religious wars, a message that resonates as loudly today as it did in the 1500s.

The Princess of Montpensier is based on a short story by Madame de La Fayette, a 17th century writer who’s credited with having penned the first historical novel, The Princess of Cleves. Tavernier preserves La Fayette’s fascination with courtly intrigue, and also gives us a vivid feel for life in war-torn France during the 1500s.

If the public life of France is torn apart by war, the private lives of the movie’s characters seems equally tumultuous. A series of clashing passions revolve around Marie (Melanie Thierry), a young woman who’s forced into marriage by a father who’s more interested in cementing a land deal than in ensuring his daughter’s happiness.

The dashing Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel) – Marie’s original beau -- continues his pursuit, even after Marie has been married off to Prince de Montpensier (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet). Later, Marie turns the head of yet another man, the dashing Duc d’Anjou (Raphael Personnaz).

As the story unfolds, Marie’s husband becomes increasingly jealous – and with good cause.

The movie’s most interesting male character arrives in the person of Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), a warrior who decides to withdraw from battle after he kills a pregnant woman. Comte de Chabannes, who taught the Prince de Montpensier the arts of war, becomes Marie’s tutor, instructing her in everything from the reading to herbal cures. He, too, falls under Marie’s spell.

Each of the men desires Marie for different reasons: the prince because she’s his wife; de Guise because he can’t have her; Duc d’ Anjou because he’s vain; and Comte de Cabannes because Marie revives his sense of youth and innocence. The Comte’s love probably is the purest and least self-serving.

All of this might have been more effective had Thierry been able to endow the princess with a little more mystery. The buxom, blonde Thierry plays a young woman who has yet to learn to conceal her intentions, assuming she even knows them. I suppose that's the way she is, but it makes the story less interesting than it should be.

I’m a great admirer of Tavernier’s work – from A Sunday in the Country to Captain Conan with a stopover at ‘Round Midnight. Some of Tavernier’s recent films (In the Electric Mist and Holy Lola) have not received wide exposure in the U.S., but he remains one of the world’s important filmmakers. A director who refuses to be imprisoned by genre, Tavernier seems to break new personal ground in nearly every movie.

Princess of Montpensier allows Tavernier to pit large-scale historical events against a personal story of less-than-epic proportions, and Tavernier’s deep love of cinema is palpable in nearly every frame, as is his commitment to authenticity.

So even if a Tavernier movie is a little less than hoped for (as is the case here), it's still worth watching a master at work.