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.

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