Thursday, June 30, 2011

A totally middling 'Larry Crowne'

Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts can't save this comedy from its own blandness.
Tom Hanks and Nia Vardalos wrote the screenplay for Larry Crowne, a depressingly bland comedy about a downsized salesman who tries to re-imagine his life by attending community college. *** Hanks also produced, directed and stars in Larry Crowne, but I'll be damned if I could tell what appealed to him about playing a character who starts out as a smiling Gumpian goofball and winds up cool enough to attract the interest of Julia Roberts. Roberts plays a community college speech teacher whose course is supposed to change lives. ... The script that brings Hanks and Roberts together bogs down in supposedly colorful scenes in which Hanks' Larry Crowne interacts with his neighbor (Cedric the Entertainer) and becomes pals with an attractive student (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who schools him in the art of being cool, which involves buying clothes at thrift stores, texting incessantly and riding around with other students on motor scooters. *** Maybe Hanks & company thought that Larry Crowne would enable them to take a soft but telling look at the impact of a shriveling economy on a 20-year Navy vet who, at the movie's outset, enjoys his work at a big-box store so much, he seems like a Panglossian idiot. *** Look, Hanks is far too likable an actor to be off-putting, and it's nice to see Roberts work again, even in the role of a disaffected, mildly embittered college instructor in the midst of a bad marriage. But the screenplay doesn't dig deeply into either character, opting instead for the cinematic equivalent of the kind of easy-listening music you sometimes hear in a dentist's office. Not bad. Not good. Not much of anything. *** I was hoping that Larry Crowne would be the summer movie that flew under the radar, providing an adult alternative to all the agitated summer junk ... er ... I mean blockbusters. Not nearly as much fun as Hanks' first directorial effort, 1996's That Thing You Do, Larry Crowne is barely detectable by radar. It feels as if the movie's ambitions were downsized, right along with Larry's job.

Oh goodie, more news about the news biz

In this documentary, media columnist David Carr practically becomes the face of The New York Times.
One of the early sequences in Page One: Inside the New York Times mentions the demise of The Rocky Mountain News, a newspaper that almost lived to celebrate its 150th anniversary. As a former News employee, the reference made me sad -- not only because the death of a Denver daily cost many friends their jobs, but because it suggested that an atmosphere of gloom would hang over Page One, an all-too-familiar pall cast by predictions that newspapers are one step away from the death rattle.

If you've been paying attention to the world of journalism, you already know a lot of what Page One has to say. If not, you can catch up with the litany of newspaper woes by watching, Stop the Presses, a more comprehensive documentary than Page One.

For the uninitiated, a brief recap: Declining ad revenues, sinking circulation, feisty new media outlets and an inability to attract young readers have imperiled newspapers. Many men and women who dedicated their lives to newspapers have lost jobs.

Know this: Journalists harbor strange, complicated feelings about the papers for which they toil, but they mostly love them. That's why a downsized journalist isn't just a newly unemployed person: He or she is a jilted lover. But that's a story for another day.

Having set a grim stage, director Andrew Rossi takes us into the world of the New York Times as revealed by the Times' media department, the section of the paper that covers the business and social implications of newspapers, television and the Internet.

There, Rossi finds his documentary's dominant character, columnist and media reporter David Carr. Carr, who wrote a book about his life as a crack addict and single parent, is a savvy writer whose work consistently breathes fresh life into the Times' business section. He's an interesting guy, who grew up working for alternative papers, which may explain why he has a convert's zeal for his current employer. He's a vocal, gravely voiced keeper of the Times faith.

Nothing wrong with that, but Rossi's focus on the Times' media department doesn't do enough justice to the paper's scope. A documentary about the Times without a word from Maureen Dowd, Tom Friedman or Frank Rich, who still was writing his influential Sunday column when the film was shot? Sure, we hear from executive editor Bill Keller, and we also get an idea of how the Times works a big story, in this case, Carr's knock-out punch of an article about the Tribune bankruptcy. We're inside the Times' building, but are we inside the Times?

Rossi doesn't tell us where the Times' powers are concentrated, who has juice within the organization and who doesn't, and how ordinary reporters view their lives at the paper.

For me, an inside peek at a Times news meeting hardly seemed revelatory. News is interesting (or should be); news meetings, not so much. And it's hardly surprising that the editors we meet are hardworking, conscientious and, like most editors I've known, concerned about when the hell a story is going to move from a reporter's computer to theirs.

But did we really need rehashing of the old-media/new-media debate, which by now should cause eyelids to droop in all quarters? Too many tears already have been shed by too many people about the diminishing stature of newspapers, which is why Page One sometimes feels old hat, the worst thing you can say about a documentary about the world's greatest news gathering organization. Moreover, the business environment for papers seems to have stabilized -- at least a bit -- since the movie was shot.

Still, there's something to be learned here.

A title card at the end of the movie tells us that one of the paper's media reporters has become chief of the Times' Baghdad bureau. I don't know if Rossi really understood the importance of that -- not for one reporter's career but for the flow of information at a time when too much of the media has buried its head in the sands of hyper-local coverage.

Even with cutbacks, the Times has a Baghdad bureau. That should shame every news organization that has attempted to cut and slash its way to profitability. It should, but I'm guessing it won't.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Robots and rubble: 'Transformers' is back

Shia LaBeouf returns to lead director Michael Bay's latest marathon of destruction.
Right after Sept. 11, 2001, knowledgeable people were talking about the ways in which movies might be impacted. Surely, audiences would be turned off by the sight of skyscrapers falling in the heart of major cities. Reality finally would silence Hollywood’s worst impulses, forcing it to examine the ways in which it doled out cinematic pleasure – or so the argument went.

Almost a full decade after that fateful day, we can see just how naïve such initial reactions were. If you don’t believe me, watch the booming last act of director Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which (I’m embarrassed to say) is also the best part of the movie, a knock-down, drag-out rampage that makes surprisingly effective use of 3-D as most of downtown Chicago is reduced to rubble.

Everything about Dark of the Moon leads Bay and his cast toward this climactic battle in which the Decepticons (evil robots) square off against the Autobots (robots dedicated to helping mankind). And when Decepticons and Autobots get it on, they tend to smash everything in sight.

Grudging respect must be paid to Bay for offering a smorgasbord of ingredients that probably will animate the summer box-office. If the movie had a motto, it might be: "Ignore collateral damage, pile on the destruction."

Dark of the Moon adds a few new twists to its 154-minute running time, even making room for a cameo appearance by Bill O’Reilly. Yes, that Bill O’Reilly.

Among other additions: Appearances by John Malkovich (as a silver-haired tycoon); Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (as LaBeouf’s love interest); and Frances McDormand (as a U.S. intelligence officer). Leonard Nimoy -- no stranger to portentous sci-fi -- lends his voice to the character of Sentinel Prime, a sagacious Autobot that's brought back into action several decades after having crashed on the moon.

Megan Fox? She’s not present, but don't fret. A rear view of Huntington-Whiteley elicited happy adolescent hoots at a preview screening, which ought to give you some idea about her function in the movie.

Ah yes, the moon. For years, conspiracy theorists and cranks have argued that the U.S. never landed on the moon. Dark of the Moon advances another theory: It seems that the U.S. went to the moon to check out an alien craft that had smashed onto the lunar surface.

To make his case more persuasive, Bay mixes newsreel footage with historical re-creations that include Presidents Kennedy and Nixon, and the late Walter Cronkite. I'm guessing, of course, but I can't help but think that the venerable CBS anchor would have been surprised to find himself adding traces of credibility to a loopy summer blockbuster.

After this "historical" introduction, the movie leaps into the present where LaBeouf’s Sam is jobless and living with his girlfriend (Huntington-Whiteley). Sam’s a little jealous of his girlfriend’s boss (Patrick Dempsey), a rich guy with a killer car collection.

Eventually, we learn that the Decepticons are trying to take over Earth so that they can save their dying civilization -- or something like that. The Autobots join with humans to stop the brutal Decpticons and to provide summer’s heaviest helping of metal-crunching chaos.

No offense to the robots, but they all tend to look alike, which may help explain why the movie never really develops a strong rooting interest, aside from encouraging us to wish that LaBeouf would tone down his over-amped performance.

I’ve read that the final battle sequence lasts for 50 minutes. I don’t know if that’s true, but it certainly felt like it. Bay goes for the action jugular with 3-D images of men plunging from skyscrapers and giant robots chipping away at Chicago’s skyline. A menacing, snake-like creation called Shockwave bores its way through concrete like an intergalactic jackhammer.

In case it's not yet clear, character development, story and emotional involvement all give way to Bay's spectacularly created marathon of destruction. If that’s what you’re after Dark of the Moon won’t shortchange you.

In fairness, it should be noted that Dark of the Moon represents a marked improvement over the last installment (Transformers; Revenge of the Fallen), but there’s a difference between a three-ring circus of mayhem and a story that aims to do more than give 'em a lot of what they came for -- and then add more on top of that.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Speedy 'Cars 2' misses the magaic

Pixar moves into the fast lane for a sequel that doesn't flame out, but is burdened by too much plot.
Pixar and Disney have revved up their engines for Cars 2, an action-oriented sequel to the more subdued 2006 original, which took place in the sleepy desert town of Radiator Springs.

This time, the Pixar team -- led by director John Lasseter -- delivers a globe-hopping series of races and action sequences that leap from the U.S. to Japan and, then, to Italy, France and the United Kingdom. Building his picture around motion and commotion, Lasseter serves up a creative hunk of animation, but it doesn't come close to Pixar's best work, say all the Toy Story movies, two of which Lasseter directed.

I admit it: I still have trouble adjusting to the notion of an all-car universe in which the cars talk and give each other high fives by bumping front tires. The only thing my car has ever said to me is, "More gas, please!" OK, maybe one time it said, "You think replacing the water pump was expensive, wait until you have to redo my clutch."

Watching Cars 2 requires picking through the clutter created by an overly complicated plot that's built around espionage, racing, alternative fuels and the importance of remaining loyal to friends. It's an eight-cylinder effort where six might have done nicely.

The movie finds Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) returning to racing to face off against Italian rival Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro). An international Grand Prix has been set up by Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard), a car that claims to have invented a replacement fuel for gasoline.

Always eager to race, McQueen risks embarrassing himself by agreeing to allow the buck-toothed Mater (a tow truck voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) to tag along. Unfortunately, Mater does more than tag along. He begins to dominate the picture. In tow truck or human form, a little Larry the Cable Guy goes a long way.

In case racing fails to provide sufficient kick, the movie adds two British spy cars: Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). They're trying to discover who's behind a scheme involving an army of cars that have been tagged as lemons.

Mater probably is over-exposed because the character has been given responsibility for creating the movie's emotional tug. Early on, Mater and McQueen have a falling out. It takes the rest of the movie for them to reconcile.

Now, I'm not saying that Cars 2 is a dud. The overall arc of the movie isn't especially satisfying, but the detailing can be great, and Lasseter's backgrounds are nothing short of stunning, beginning with the splashy Tokyo sequences. He (and co-director Brad Lewis) do a terrific job creating the sights of Paris and London.

In general, the movie lets you visit a vividly realized fantasy version of Europe, and you don't have to worry about where the dollar stands against the Euro. Too bad this Pixar move into the fast lane also features an unfortunate amount of heavy artillery. Who needs automatic weapons in an animated movie aimed at little kids?

Well, not just little kids. True to Pixar form, Lassiter makes a valiant (if not entirely successful) attempt keep both adults and children happy. Cars 2 is a buoyant helping of middle-grade entertainment that's destined to do good business.

How do I know? The kid sitting next to me at a preview screening thought the movie was "cool." His assessment may not capture everything there is to say about the movie's quality, but it probably tells you something about its commercial prospects.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A real cowboy's inspiring story

Child abuse seems to be passed from one generation to the next, so when we're confronted with an exception to the rule, it's worth trying to figure out what turned the tide. You can think about such matters while watching Buck, an inspiring documentary about a cowboy who employs a kinder, gentler way of training horses.

Buck Brannaman, a 49-year-old trainer who advised Robert Redford during the filming of The Horse Whisperer and who conducts horse-training clinics throughout the country, was abused as a child. Buck's dad turned his sons (Buck has an older brother) into trick ropers; they were cute and good, but that didn't stop their father from beating them senseless.

Despite his troubled upbringing, Buck avoided repeating the sins of his father. I think that's because a high school coach and a local sheriff intervened: Buck and his brother were placed on a sprawling Montana ranch. There, Buck became part of a large foster family headed by Forest and Betsy Shirley. Forrest, a strong father figure, kept his charges busy. Betsy, a woman of irrepressible spirit, filled the mother role. Buck, whose own mother died when he was 11, still refers to Betsy as his mom.

Buck is married and has two daughters, but remains a bit of a loner, traveling the country to conduct training sessions. His methods -- based on trying to identify with and understand an animal's fear -- have enabled him to work with both horses and owners, and to hear Buck tell it, his human trainees can be at least as difficult as his four-legged students.

First-time director Cindy Meehl follows Buck through a variety of workshops, shows us how he trains horses, and allows him tell his story in a slow, relaxed way that's completely engaging.

Buck is exceptionally good at what he does, but he can't always work miracles. In the film's most heartbreaking segment, he's unable to school a horse whose predatory impulses can't be curbed. He also makes clear that the horse's owner (not the horse) is responsible for the fact that the horse must be put down.

Buck leaves us wondering what happened to Buck's older brother, but a couple of loose ends can't negate what Meehl's beautifully shot documentary accomplishes: It tells a strong and involving story about a man who seems totally inseparable from what he does.

An alienated teen narrates his own story

Sometimes I wish I'd never heard of Holden Caufield, the teen hero of J.D. Salinger's seminal novel, The Catcher in the Rye. *** Had I never read Salinger or seen movies such as Rushmore, I might have thought more highly of director Richard Ayoade's Submarine, the story of 15-year-old Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), the Welsh narrator of a story about (what else?) himself. *** Ayoade tries for (and sometimes succeeds at) giving his movie visual flair, but his strenuous commitment to quirkiness wore me out. *** Oliver, who seems to be growing up in the 1970s, is baffled by his parents, a depressed biologist father (Noah Taylor) and a frustrated mother (Sally Hawkins) who flirts with an old beau, a proto-New Ager played by Paddy Considine). *** Oliver also becomes involved with Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige), a classmate with a taste for arson. *** The story leads Oliver to a defining test: Can he drop his cynical pose and be available when Jordana needs more than another deadpan playmate? *** Ayoade's visual acrobatics didn't totally freshen this teen-age story for me. I kept thinking that Oliver should get back to us in maybe 10 or 15 years. Maybe then I'd be interested. Or maybe not.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

And the rest of my week

For reasons that I can't explain -- even to myself -- I decided to attend an advance Saturday morning screening of Mr. Popper's Penguins, a kid-oriented comedy starring Jim Carrey. Yes, the same Jim Carrey who broke onto the big screen talking out his ass in Ace Ventura Pet Detective, but who has shown plenty of versatility in recent years. *** Based on a 1938 book by Richard and Florence Atwater, Mr. Popper centers on an ambitious father who's separated from his wife. He's also too busy making killings in New York real estate to be much of a dad. *** Everything changes for Carrey's Mr. Popper when his adventurer father passes away and sends him a half dozen penguins. Much of the comedy involves the way Mr. Popper tries to adapt his life to the penguins. It's no surprise that the birds ultimately contribute to the awakening of Popper's latent humanity. The good, if predictable, news: Popper re-establishes a relationship with his young son (Maxwell Perry Cotton), his recalcitrant teen-aged daughter (Madeline Carroll) and his former wife (Carla Gugino.*** The supporting cast includes Angela Lansbury as owner of New York's Tavern on the Green, a property that the charming but duplicitous Mr. Popper seeks to buy.*** Carrey has an amazing ability to modulate his comedy for a kid-friendly audience, and he can be engaging as a man who learns to love a variety of real and CGI penguins. *** Too bad the movie sends the wrong message in vilifying a zookeeper and penguin expert (Clark Gregg) who thinks that keeping penguins in an apartment is a mistake. Isn't it? Shouldn't a guy like this have been made into an example rather than a jerk? *** By the end of this tame but mildly amusing affair, you can look back fondly on such high points as the scene in which the penguins learn to take care of their bathroom business in Mr. Popper's toilet. Oh well, the penguins are appropriately cute, and at least they don't talk out their butts.


Director Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death is so obviously trying to make itself into a harrowing masterpiece that the movie loses some of its punch. Over-composed black-and-white images tend to cast an artistic pall over proceedings too horrific to need any compositional enhancement. *** Lu focuses on the 1937 siege by the Japanese of the city of Nanking. As a Chinese director, Lu takes a major risk, at times presenting developments from a Japanese point-of-view. --- Granted, the Japanese soldier on whom he focuses (Hideo Nakaizumi) is torn by the cruelties he witnesses, but many viewers may wonder how one soldier's tormented conscience can be compared with the massive suffering the Chinese experienced. *** To round out the picture, Lu adds additional moral complexity on the Chinese side. He introduces us to Mr. Tang (Fan Wei), a man who works for a Nazi (John Paisley) businessman who has developed real sympathy for the Chinese people and their culture. Tang believes an alliance with the German will protect his family from the japanese onslaught. *** The Rape of Nanking has been documented before, but the event offers limitless story-telling opportunities, and, at its best, City of Life and Death makes a powerful addition to the cinematic literature on injustice and suffering -- and also offers an amazing recreation of a badly ravaged city.

A gay father and his straight son

Christopher Plummer brings charm to Beginners.
Beginners has received lavish praise in most quarters. I wish I shared the enthusiasm of many of my colleagues, but I found the movie a mixed achievement, best when focusing on the relationship between a straight son (Ewan McGregor) and his gay father (Christopher Plummer); weakest when dealing with the son's burgeoning love affair with a French actress (Melanie Laurent).

Alternating between scenes in which McGregor's Oliver pursues a relationship with Laurent's Anna and flashbacks to Plummer's character's final years, the movie doesn't dig deeply into either situation, suggesting more than it dramatizes.

Here's the twist: Plummer's Hal didn't come out until his wife of 38 years passed away. Hal was 75 when he began openly exploring the gay life, pursuing his gayness with personal gusto and organizational frenzy. He hosts gay movie nights, gay letter-writing sessions (protests mostly) and other activities that revolve around his long-hidden sexuality.

To its credit, Beginners is not a story about Hal's hypocrisy. Within the context of Hal's repressive times, his behavior made some sense. His wife, Georgia (a wonderful Mary Page Keller) knew Hal was gay before they married. She thought she could change him. By the time she realized she couldn't, Hal and Georgia had established a life together, which they both liked.

Besides, Mom developed a set of sardonic defenses to cope with the situation. For my money, she's the movie's most interesting and least explored character.

In what amounts to its central irony, Beginners has Hal contracting lung cancer soon after leaving the closet. He's most alive at a time when he's dying, maintaining a relationship with a joyful younger man (Goran Visnjic).

Director Mike Mills, who previously directed the indie hit Thumbsucker, includes some gimmicky touches: insertion of old photos and panels from a cartoon series on which Oliver's working. Oliver provides a narration that stresses the peculiarities and similarities of the different time periods the movie covers. There's even a talking dog -- or at least one whose thoughts are projected on the screen with subtitles.

Oliver takes over Hal's Jack Russell terrier after his father's death, an event that has already transpired when the movie opens. That leaves Oliver to tell the story in flashbacks as events trigger memories of his father's recent death.

McGregor does a fine job portraying an emotionally guarded character who doesn't know quite what to make of his dying father's gayness.

For me, the love story between Oliver and Anna produced as many yawns as sighs. Previously seen in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, Laruent is an interesting actress, but her character -- a woman who also has father issues -- serves mostly to show that Oliver can bring himself to the brink of commitment without actually going over the edge.

It's interesting, though not vital, to know that Mills lived through the movie's main situation, only learning that his father was gay after his mother died. It's more important to know that Beginners is good-hearted, and it certainly benefits from the quiet abandon and humor that Plummer brings to the role of a man who's determined to enjoy every moment he has left.

If there's a compelling reason to see Beginners, Plummer provides it.

'Green Lantern' fails to cast a bright light

Another comic-book hero hits the screen, but doesn't make a big enough splash.
Green is the color of will. Yellow is the color of fear.

I learned this important lesson in color-coding while watching Green Lantern, Hollywood's latest attempt to find commercial life in a comic-book series, this one from DC Comics.

Green Lantern -- available in superfluous 3-D at some locations -- plays like what it is: an attempt to establish a franchise -- albeit one that falters. Hey, if yellow weren't already taken, I'd make it the color for the movie -- as in yellow for cheesy.

I'm not going to spell out a ton of Green Lantern lore, something the movie takes considerable time doing, perhaps realizing that the Green Lantern -- hardly on a par with Superman or Batman -- needs a hefty amount of introduction for anyone who doesn't fit the fanboy mold.

Here's the gist: A group of immortals known as the Guardians has created the Green Lantern Corps to fight evil in the universe, which has been divided into what seem like thousands of sectors.

Early in the movie, a wounded member of the Lantern Corps crash lands on Earth, where he passes his mantle to Hal (Ryan Reynolds), a brash test pilot who refuses to play by anyone's rules. Hal receives a ring and a lantern, keys to his superpowers, which include creating objects from mental images, flying and donning a skin-tight green suit.

Director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) tries to put the movie's tongue in its cheek, but, at times, Green "Lantern seems like an overproduced parody of comic-book movies rather than a witty version of the breed.

A fairly strong cast has been enlisted to keep the movie's mediocre wheels turning: Reynolds, who seems to have spent a lot of time working on his abs, does a fair job with a reluctant superhero.

Peter Sarsgaard gives a weirder, more captivating performance as Hector, the scientist son of a white-haired senator (a wasted Tim Robbins). By the time, Hector finishes his experiments -- beginning with dissection of the alien who fell to Earth -- he starts to look like a comic-book version of the Elephant Man.

Blake Lively provides what passes for Hal's love interest; she plays the daughter of a weapons-manufacturing industrialist. And Mark Strong signs on as Sinestro, a member of the Lantern Corp who doubts Hal's commitment and skills, and who subjects him to a good thumping from Kilowog, a Latern trainer who looks like a mutant version of Shrek. Michael Clark Duncan provides Kilowog's voice.

The movie has some fun with these training sequences, and, to Reynold's credit, he injects humor and self-deprecation into the role. But even at that, Green Lantern doesn't earn its stripes as a big-screen standout.

Ultimately, the Green Lantern must fight Parallax, a demonic creature that looks like cross between a thundercloud and a heavy pollutant. Will the Earth be saved? Will there be explosions? Will anyone past the age of 14 still be awake?

To the last question, the answer is, "Yes,'' particularly if the movie's noisy action set pieces have anything to do with it, but overall Green Lantern offers only sporadic bursts of enjoyment, and no exertion of will -- the vital ingredient behind the Green Lantern's power -- could make me feel otherwise.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A kids' adventure that delivers

Director J.J. Abrams channels his inner Spielberg -- and it mostly works.
It seems like a long time since we've had a breathless teen adventure, a movie fueled by enthusiasm, bustle and a desire to watch many things blow up. Super 8, director J.J. Abrams' homage to Steven Spielberg, is a mostly welcome throwback to the kind of movies Spielberg used to make, which means it's filled with cascading action and awe-struck aspirations.

Don't get the wrong idea. Best known for having created TV's Lost, as well as for movies such as Mission Impossible III and Star Trek, Abrams doesn't pay fawning tribute to Spielberg, who served as one of the movie's producers. Instead, he delivers a movie that tries to balance charm and shock.

Set in the tiny town of Lillian, Ohio, Super 8 focuses on a group of boys (and one girl) that sets out to make a zombie movie with a Super 8 camera, the kind of accessible gear that dominated the late '70s, when the movie takes place.

When the kids sneak out for a late-night filming session, they become witnesses to a monstrous train wreck, presented by Abrams with full appreciation for the force with which flying boxcars can hit the ground.

After the crash, Lillian is beset by strange occurrences. Electrical appliances stop working. Power outages become routine. Engines disappear from vehicles on a used-car lot. Something's afoot, something mysterious, dangerous and not too difficult to predict if you've seen enough movies.

The boys in the movie give strong and sometimes amusing performances. Charlie (Riley Griffiths) is directing the zombie film with vigor, as well as with a precocious insistence on maximizing "production value." But it's Joe (Joel Courtney) -- the kid who handles make-up and effects -- who emerges as the movie's main character.

Joe recently lost his mother in an industrial accident. He's trying to adjust, as is his sheriff's deputy father (Kyle Chandler), a lawman who assumes increasing responsibility for the town's safety as the story unfolds.

Joe also has a crush on Alice (Elle Fanning), the daughter of a drunk; Alice is recruited to act in the zombie movie. Unlike the rest of the amateur cast, Alice actually has acting chops.

With movies such as Super 8, it doesn't take long for "the authorities" to rear their troublesome heads. The Air Force begins investigating the train wreck, cluing us to the fact that something more than a derailment has happened.

Less an ode to amateur filmmaking than a bid for summer blockbusterhood, Super 8 has its share of seat-rattling moments. It also has enough of a scare factor to make it a questionable entertainment for younger children. (The movie is rated PG-13).

And for all of Abrams tries to do, he can't do the one thing that Spielberg did with hits such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. -- make a movie that perfectly reflects the pop-cultural zeitgeist.

Still, at its best, "Super 8" builds around characters that are entertaining and likable. You can root for these kids to make it through the chaos and overwrought destruction.

For a touch of whimsy about the kind of films movie mad middle-schoolers might actually make, you'll have to stick around through the closing credits. Be sure you do. It's worth delaying your trip to the parking lot by a few minutes.

Malick's 'Tree of Life' grows to greatness

Terrence Malick has another movie in the works, but it's difficult to imagine that he'll top Tree of Life.
Beginning with 1973’s Badlands, Terrence Malick has released only five features.* Malick, who has both troubled and inspired critics, currently has a movie in post-production, which feels odd because Malick's The Tree of Life -- now moving around the country -- serves as a kind of grand, sometimes inscrutable summation of one of the strangest careers in movies.

Whatever else can be said about the 67-year-old Malick, it’s clear that he insists on charting his own course. With The Tree of Life, he tries for a movie that embraces both the intimate and cosmic, wondering out loud whether there’s any connection between the two.

Not surprisingly, the movie’s intimate scenes involve family. With help from a perfectly cast Brad Pitt, Tree of Life captures the dictatorial authority of a 1950s father better than any movie I’ve seen. On the cosmic side, the movie includes special effects sequences about the creation of the world and the evolution of life, even making room for what appear to be CGI dinosaurs that look as if they’ve wandered in from some wayward summer blockbuster.

In other hands, Tree of Life might have come off as a cockeyed, reeling mess. In Malick’s hands, it becomes something elevated and sorrowful, a movie that captures the mournful sweep of time.

The bulk of the movie revolves around a Texas family in which Pitt plays the patriarch. Through the course of many domestic vignettes set in the 1950s, Pitt’s Mr. O’Brien emerges as a disciplined failure, a father who wants to harden his two sons against the disappointments of an unforgiving world.

The boys’ mother (Jessica Chastain) is softer, bringing hints of grace and relief into the lives of her boys.

It’s important to know that these pivotal characters are not caricatures; they’re shaded and drawn in ways that allow for nuances and gray areas.

Having grown up in the 1950s, I can’t say that Malick offers a comprehensive depiction of the period. He has, however, found an essential truth about it, a sense of longing and pain that must have been dredged from memories of Malick's own Texas youth.

These “memory” segments memorialize the past without nostalgia, as Malick finds a tone that mixes emotion and detachment.

The story, such as it is, begins with the death of one of the O'Brien sons at age 19. Did he die in a war? A car accident? Malick never says. But the young man’s death establishes a mood of grief that hangs over the rest of the movie – not only for this lost son, but also for the great army of the dead that has preceded all of us.

Beautifully played by Hunter McCracken, young Jack – the oldest of the O’Brien sons -- becomes the central figure in the movie's '50s-based scenes. Sean Penn provides counterpoint in scenes set much later. Penn plays Jack as an adult, an architect whose memories invade the brittle modernity of the environments in which he operates.

I can’t say that the segments involving Penn (including a depiction of a reconciling moment in the afterlife) work. And Tree of Life surely can be picked at. Of course, the birth-of-the-universe scenes evoke the chilly grandeur of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's also possible that Malick’s vision to end all visions isn’t especially well thought-out. I’m not sure that the movie’s two-hour and 18-minute running time couldn’t have been shortened without damage to the overall enterprise.

But it’s best to take The Tree of Life in its strange entirety, to respect its ambitions and cherish its achievements, even as we strain to hear what the characters are saying when they whisper to God, wondering where He is. Quiet thoughts are projected toward an unseen and unresponsive vastness. It’s as if every life amounts to a whispered question that always remains unanswered.

I don’t totally understand Malick’s spirituality. Maybe he doesn’t understand it, either. He sees a world of oppositional forces represented by nature and grace. But whatever drives Malick leads him to a movie that seems to risk everything.

Malick takes the broadest possible aim, yet here's something deeply personal about Tree of Life, a humanity that's reflected in the way we hold the fragments of memory that make up a life. Dad played classical piano. At one point, Dad took a long and mysterious trip. When he departed, it felt to his sons as if a country had been liberated. An incident with the younger O'Brien brother and a BB gun lingers as a source of guilt for Jack. And on and on, snapshots from some recurrent dream.

The only other filmmaker I know who has attempted this kind of somber reflection is another Terrence, British director Terrence Davies. I thought about Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives while watching Malick’s more expansive movie. Both are attempts to salvage the past or maybe just to review it as part of some restless search that resists definition, as if we can't help watching our own movie.

With the exception of The New World, I've liked all of Malick's movies. Maybe I’ll see that one again. Perhaps I’ll reconsider. I definitely will see The Tree of Life again – not because I think I’ll figure it out on second viewing, but because I want to re-experience its nobility and sadness.

I understand those who view Malick's efforts as a spectacular form of self-indulgence, but in Tree of Life, I joined him for worship at the church of cinema. Think of Tree of Life as a beautifully somber cathedral with a ceiling that reaches toward infinity and stained glass windows made of memory.

*Terrence Malick's Features: The Tree of Life (2011), The New World (2005), The Thin Red Line (1998), Days of Heaven (1978), and Badlands (1973)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Cheers for a new edition of 'X-Men'

This prequel offers a good deal of fun.
It trivializes history, beckons to our inner mutant, and, oh yeah, offers a fair measure of summer fun. We're talking X-Men: First Class, a prequel that shows how the series' mutants split into opposing groups -- those with a "can't-we-all-get-along" credo and those who mistrust humankind, and, therefore, seek to destroy it.

First Class mostly hits the spot with an origins story that explains how Magneto and Professor Charles Xavier came to occupy their respective positions in a Marvel Comics universe occupied by mutants who are leaving humans in the dust as they move up on the evolutionary scale.

Magneto, you'll recall from previous X-Men movies, is the evil mutant; Professor Xavier helps train mutants to aid humankind.

In the hands of British director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass), X-Men: First Class advances the franchise by moving backward in time, specifically to the Cuban missile crisis which pitted the U.S. against a mighty Soviet foe, a looming nuclear showdown that feels almost quaint by today's standards.

This foray into history yields a surprisingly entertaining prequel that survives a few brushes with effects that border on the cheesy.

Credit a strong cast led by Michael Fassbender, who plays Erik, the young Holocaust survivor who will grow up to be Magneto. Erik has difficulty balancing his desire for revenge -- a Nazi killed his mother -- and his willingness to help others.

Played with conviction and charisma by Fassbender, Erik eclipses a youthful Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). Charles, also a mutant, tries to persuade Erik to join him in a quest that not only will help settle Erik's Auschwitz score, but also will benefit the rest of humanity.

The preternaturally good-natured Charles has grown up in the company of Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), a red-haired, blue-skinned mutant who can change appearances, often morphing into a lovely young blonde who wants to fit into human society.

In pivotal early action, we meet a Nazi doctor (Kevin Bacon) who's trying to force young Erik to use his psychic powers to advance evil causes. As it turns out, this Nazi doctor is Sebastian Shaw, a mutant who wants to rule the world and who re-emerges in the 1960s with a beautiful but chilly assistant, January Jones' Emma Frost.

Once the movie arrives in the 1960s, The X-Men crew gathers and begins its training, first under the guidance of a CIA official (Oliver Platt) and then on its own. Rose Byrne, last seen in "Bridesmaids," portrays a more sympathetic CIA operative.

This time around, the mutant crew includes Hank (Nicholas Hoult), Alex (Lucas Till), Sean, (Caleb Landry), Armando (Edi Gathegi) and Angel (Zoe Kravitz). Before the movie's finished, all the mutants will acquire comic-book names related to their powers: Beast, Havoc, Banshee and Darwin, for example.

The climax involves a ferocious battle of wills between mutants who are forced to take sides. Forgive me for thinking that Erik's arguments for the dark side can be more persuasive than the opposition's plea for understanding, a conclusion that may have more to do with the power of Fassbender's performance than with the strength of Magneto's powers of reason.

You get the idea: This is an enjoyable comic-book view of history as a bubbling cauldron of oppositional forces locked in a tug of war that never can be fully resolved -- at least not without jeopardizing a franchise.

A fantasy about life in Paris in the 1920s

These days, Woody Allen seems to miss as often as he hits, but on occasion, he still connects. That’s the case with Midnight in Paris, Allen’s 41st film, a slender but entertaining amusement starring Owen Wilson as a Hollywood writer whose most ardent wish is granted: He gets to meet the inspiring artistic heroes who populated Paris during the 1920s.

Wilson’s Gil travels to Paris with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy). Eager to establish his own Parisian agenda, Gil wanders into the city one evening. Around midnight, he joins a group of revelers who ride by in a vintage yellow car.

Voila! Suddenly Gil finds himself in the company of such sanctified luminaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein and Cole Porter.

Gil’s time-travel life – romantic and fulfilling -- contrasts with his depleted life in the present. He’s engaged to a beautiful but superficial woman (McAdams’ Inez). He's also at odds with Inez's all-business father, and he's sick of his life as a “Hollywood hack.” Commercially successful but dissatisfied, Gil wants to write a novel.

Allen treats Paris with as much reverence as he has treated Manhattan, reveling in the city’s trademark sights. Like Gil, he seems to understand that to visit Paris is to experience both present and past, to view today's sights while absorbing the vibe left by the great minds that have inhabited this most infatuating of cities.

Allen’s treatment of Paris borders on the nostalgic, but he also questions Gil’s (and perhaps our) fantasies about the 1920s. Does anyone’s moment look as good as a brilliant moment in the past? And would that past – if we could live in it – really meet our expectations?

Like Sean Penn in Sweet and Lowdown, Wilson delivers Allen’s lines without being trapped in an Allen imitation. Wilson doesn’t really fit into the Allen mold, which may explain why he holds his own. Wilson’s mixture of naivete, inadvertent humor and gee-whiz romanticism serves the character he’s playing.

Midnight in Paris features a large cast. Standouts include Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein; Corey Stoll as Hemingway; and Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali. Marion Cotillard is stuck playing Picasso’s winsome muse, an irresistible woman who contrasts with Gil's shrill and insensitive fiancée and her all-business family.

Midnight in Paris survives on charm and clever moments, not the least of which involves Gil’s suggestion that the great Luis Bunuel (Adrien De Van) make a movie about upper-crust guests who are unable to leave a dinner party, a premise that – of course – describes Bunuel’s 1962 Exterminating Angel, a biting satire.

Allen isn’t a satirist. In Midnight in Paris, he’s a whimsical pessimist who ultimately instructs us in the art of acceptance: We must settle for what’s available in our own time. Allen also can’t end the movie without offering Gil a ray of hope in the presence of a potential new woman in his life, making for an ending that’s easier than we might expect from a movie built on admiration for artists who made a habit of not pulling their punches.