Thursday, July 28, 2011

An outlandish 'Cowboys & Aliens'

This genre mash-up offers bits of fun, but its aim isn't dead-on.
Say this: There’s nothing deceptive about the title Cowboys & Aliens, an action-oriented summer movie in which cowboys square off against marauding alien invaders.

The trick of Cowboys & Aliens involves allowing disparate but familiar genres to bump up against each other, to mix clich├ęs from western and sci-fi movies in hopes that the combination results in something fresh. I’m not sure it does, but it certainly results in something that's brazenly outlandish, an unabashed summer movie full of unabashed summer-movie ingredients.

In reasonably short order, the movie's cowboy caricatures get crosswise with alien caricatures. The resultant collision doesn’t quite revitalize either genre, but the whole enterprise is so patently absurd, it can’t help but offer bits of whacked-out fun.

The script plants its sci-fi seed early. In the movie’s opening scene, Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the desert. He has no memory of how he got there or even who he is. He notices a strange-looking shackle on his left wrist. Clearly (at least to us), it’s the product of a civilization that’s more technologically advanced than the one Jake knows.

Before 20 or so minutes have passed, our lone cowboy finds himself at odds with a cruel cattle baron (Harrison Ford). Sure we’ve been down this road before, but both Craig and Ford – owners of two of the craggiest faces in the business -- seem built for it.

Cowboys & Aliens saunters through standard Western situations, doing a pretty good job with them. Jake rides into the town of Absolution. After a dust up with the bullying son (Paul Dano) of the local cattle baron, Jake lands in the clink.

Ford plays Woodrow Dolarhyde, a grizzled rancher who runs his spread and the town with an iron hand. Dolarhyde even thinks he can control the sheriff (Keith Carradine).

Craig glowers; Ford sneers, and both bring movie-star punch to the proceedings as Cowboys & Aliens makes its way through some tensely enjoyable scenes. Few things in movies quicken the pulse as reliably as macho posturing, and Cowboys & Aliens has its share.

Eventually, the aliens -- who fly around in aircraft that resemble giant dragonflies -- begin strafing the town. They also yank some of the townsfolk onto their ships, presumably for further study.

The aliens don’t exactly represent a triumph of sci-fi imagination. Their standard-issue horror-movie look seems to have been cobbled together from previous aliens and leftover slime, and director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and eight credited screenwriters don't give them much motivation beyond a predatory desire to conquer planets and take their gold.

Favreau and his team try to stuff as many summer thrills as possible into the movie’s saddlebags: encounters with thugs from Logergan’s former gang and with a band of Apaches, for example.

Sam Rockwell plays Doc, the saloon keeper who loses his wife to the aliens. And Olivia Wilde portrays Ella, a mysterious woman who joins the posse that sets out to find and fight the aliens.

Here’s a shocker: To battle the monsters, cattle baron and cowboys, thugs and law-abiding citizens, Indians and whites, must set aside differences and act for the common good. The aroma of an obviously stated “message’’ – never a good thing in either cowboy or alien movies -- wafts across western landscapes, beautifully photographed by cinematographer Matthew Libatique.

Craig hits a single note and holds it throughout the movie; he's playing a brutal man who’s unsure what he may have done in his past. Ford, who lately hasn’t exactly been hitting box-office bulls eyes, plays a character without a trace of Indiana Jones twinkle in his eye.

Watching Cowboys & Aliens, I kept thinking that if Clint Eastwood ever makes another Western, he might do well to cast Ford in a role that allows him fully to explore his dark side, something he can’t do in a movie as lightweight as Cowboys & Aliens.

Audiences likely will ride this Cowboy to financial success, but the alien invasion does more than threaten the denizens of a dusty western town; it forces the movie toward the expected raucous climax in which a small band of humans tries to defeat the aliens. A reminder: Noise is not the same as real excitement.

Cowboys and Aliens arrives at the nation's multiplexes with criticism-defying protection. Too crazy? “Well what did you expect from a movie called ‘Cowboys & Aliens?’ Logic? Coherence?”

Not necessarily, but I did expect a movie that did more than put its cowboys, aliens and us through a catalog of summer-movie paces.

Cowboys & Aliens, which has a fair measure of violence and gore, can also be amusing, but its aim isn’t dead-on. There’s no reason aliens (assuming there are any) couldn’t have visited Earth during the 19th century. The characters in Cowboys & Aliens don’t seem quite as amazed about this as you might think.

It’s almost as if they – like us – have seen too damn many movies.

A sad-sack loses his soul mate

Steve Carell joined by a talented cast in Crazy, Stupid, Love
Steve Carell looks like a guy many of us might have gone to school with at some point or other. Carell, who made his big-screen breakthrough in 2005's The 40-Year-Old Virgin, is neither impossibly handsome nor off-puttingly strange? His movie characters sometimes have a sad-sack quality, but can seem entirely normal -- in a middle-of-the-road sort of way. Not a comic who likes to poke a finger in anyone's eye, Carell wouldn't seem out of place on line at a Home Depot store.

An improbable leading man, Carell's comic skills nonetheless have made him a headliner, and his latest comedy -- Crazy, Stupid, Love -- surrounds him with a moderately successful mixture of relationship issues, rom-com cliches and better-than-average farce.

In Crazy, Stupid, Love Carell plays Cal, a married man whose wife (Julianne Moore) tells him she wants a divorce. After a 25-year-marriage that began with a middle-school romance, Cal and Moore's Emily probably are together more out of habit than love. To seal the divorce deal, Emily confesses to an affair with one of her office mates, an accountant played by Kevin Bacon.

Once rejected, Cal slips into full-blown depression. He also becomes an unlikely regular at an upscale singles bar, where he's the proverbial fish out of bottled water. At the bar, Cal meets Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a slick womanizer who decides to give Cal a makeover. Jacob wants to turn Cal into a mirror image of himself, a smooth operator and certified play-ah. This is what's known in the trade as a necessary contrivance, a development that allows the movie to continue and gets Hal off his bar stool.

Crazy, Stupid, Love is a movie composed of meanwhiles, perhaps too many of them. Cal emerges as a love machine, and his eighth-grade son (Jonah Bobo) falls for his baby sitter (Analeigh Tipton), a girl who's four years ahead of him in school. Bobo's Robbie embodies the movie's major theme, which has to do with finding one's soul mate and pursuing him or her without fear of appearing either crazy or stupid.

In yet another "meanwhile," a young woman (Emma Stone)* rebuffs Jacob's advances; she's busy studying for her bar exam. But when Stone's Hannah is slighted by an attorney (Josh Groban) she assumes has fallen for her, she seeks out Jacob in what amounts to an expression of defiance and anger. Of course, Stone's Hannah falls for Jacob, and, of course, he suddenly realizes that there's more to life than sexual conquest. He's in love, too.

Jacob and Hannah close their love deal in a very amusing comic scene that pokes well-deserved ridicule at the final dance sequence of Dirty Dancing with its Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes rendition of Time of My Life. Last seen in the gritty Blue Valentine, the talented Gosling avoids turning Jacob into a caricature. Moore seems a little worn out in an underdeveloped role. An outgoing Stone, with her "I'll-try-anything" attitude, plays well against Gosling's cool.

I laughed at Marisa Tomei's increasingly broad portrayal of the teacher who becomes Cal's first conquest, and who lives to regret it.

Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (I Love You Phillip Morris) work their way (not always successfully) through the variety of tones in Dan Fogelman's hit-and-miss screenplay. Still, a first-rate cast and a couple of well-staged comic high points push Crazy, Stupid, Love into the plus category. You'll have to make up your own mind about a sentimental, end-of-movie speech that threatens to turn Carell into the Jimmy Stewart of love.

Did it warm my heart? Not really. Carell and Moore never convinced me that they were soul mates. Still, when Crazy, Stupid, Love magnifies a comedy of misunderstanding into moments of giddy farce, it comes awfully close to fulfilling the whacky mandate of its title.

*When initially published,I incorrectly called Emma Stone, Emily Stone. My bad.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

'Friends with Benefits' -- and not much else

Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis generates some chemistry, but it's mostly wasted in a fizzy, R-rated bauble.
In Friends with Benefits, Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis play characters that decide to pursue a no-strings-attached sexual relationship. If this sounds familiar, it’s because you already may have seen No Strings Attached, an Ivan Reitman-directed rom-com with precisely the same premise, but with different stars: Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman.

Timberlake and Kunis are far more appealing than their predecessors, but their movie still feels like a major helping of been-there, done-that – albeit one that’s enlivened by chemistry between Kunis and Timberlake and an R-rated approach to the sex scenes.

Both Timberlake and Kunis have acting cred. Timberlake easily could have received a best-supporting actor nomination for his work in Social Network; Kunis, in another supporting role, did standout work as a ballet dancer in Black Swan.

Here, both actors have been encouraged to keep things light and airy, and Timerlake redeems himself (at least a bit) from the mediocrity of Bad Teacher, a much worse summer comedy. In this outing, he's Dylan, a Los Angeles graphics designer who’s recruited by headhunter Jamie (Kunis) for a major job at GQ magazine.

Once he arrives in Manhattan, Dylan and Jamie become fast friends. The two hit it off; both claim to have no interest in emotional attachment. Dylan proposes that they sleep together, thereby dispensing with the cumbersome baggage that usually accompanies sexual relationships.

From that point on, director Will Gluck (Easy A) follows a conventional rom-com arc, adding extra spice with extended cameos from Patricia Clarkson (as Jamie’s salacious mother); Richard Jenkins (as Dylan’s Alzheimer’s-stricken dad); and Jenna Elfman (as Dylan’s single-mom sister).

The supporting cast seems to be having fun. Wish I could say the same for myself, but Gluck’s mixture of body-worship, glib one-liners, preposterous characters and energetic pacing seems more suited to Bollywood than Hollywood, and a bubble-gum silliness of tone keeps the movie from attaining full-fledged grown-up status.

Friends With Benefits also includes a self-conscious, against-the-grain performance from Woody Harrelson, as Tommy, GQ’s openly gay sports editor. Harrelson, like much of the rest of the movie, seems to be trying way too hard.

If you've seen a ton of current rom-coms, you may be amused by the script's knowing swipes at the whole soggy genre. But little about Friends With Benefits struck me as natural or real, and at times, the movie seemed so committed to its own blithe absurdity that I couldn't help wondering whether it was touched in the head.

Errol Morris' 'Tabloid,' a real page turner

Joyce McKinney holds the screen in a documentary that's as loopy as it is lurid.
Say this about Errol Morris: The man knows how to keep an audience involved, even when he's just filming talking heads. In his new documentary, Tabloid, Morris finds another fascinating and entirely offbeat subject. Tabloid tells the story of a woman who, in the 1970s, found herself at the center of a pumped-up tabloid scandal in Great Britain.

Although Morris couldn't have foreseen the turmoil that has sprung from the current Murdoch affair, he has made a movie about obsessive love that also serves as a fine introduction to the lurid appetites of British tabloids.

Morris introduces us to Joyce McKinney, a woman who's now in her 60s. When Joyce was a young blonde bombshell, she was accused of kidnapping and raping her Mormon boyfriend, a young man who was on a Mormon mission in England. McKinney, who claims that the so-called "manacled Mormon" was the love of her life, insists that she was trying to rescue the lad from the clutches of a mind-controlling cult.

Kirk Anderson, the alleged kidnapping victim, declined to be interviewed by Morris, who compensates with an extensive helping of McKinney. She comes off as lively, candid and loopy. He also talks with reporters from warring British tabloids and an ex-Mormon who fills in blanks about Mormon beliefs.

I can't say that Tabloid ranks with Morris' best work, movies such as The Thin Blue Line, A Brief History of Time and The Fog of War, but it offers its share of tabloid fun as it whips through a story that touches on pornography, prostitution, bondage and (ready for this?) dog cloning.

Yes, Tabloid can be amusing, but as I reflected back on the movie, I realized something about the power of obsession and how it can distort an entire life. But don't tell that to McKinney: Amazingly, she seems pretty comfortable with her whole whacked-out story.

A salute for 'Captain America'

It may not be great, but the latest Marvel Comics origins movie is better than expected.
Captain America: The First Avenger begins where many comic book stories find their origins -- with vicious Nazis. As World War II rages, a fiendish Nazi harnesses a power that is both occult and mythical. Johann Schmidt, a fiend with the towering posture of a wannabe ubermensch, threatens to destroy all of the world's major cities.

Back in the U.S., diminutive Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is devastated by the 4-F rating he's assigned by his draft board. Rogers, who weighs an anemic 90 pounds, wants to fight for his country. Eventually, he's given an opportunity to participate in a top-secret program designed by German refugee scientist, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci with a German accent).

Here's where the comic book fun begins in earnest. After being placed in a machine that zaps his cells, Rogers emerges with a health club physique. He also has lightening speed and the ability to out-leap even the most gifted high jumper. He's transformed into Captain America, and almost immediately swings into action.

I'm condensing, of course, but that's the gist of director Joe Johnston's hearty contribution to the origin stories that precede next year's release of The Avengers. Johnston, who directed the retro favorite Rocketeer, again dips into nostalgia. It's as if the 1940s world he creates == an America full of futuristic expositions and war-bond drives -- has been assembled from dozens of patriotic posters and old movies, a fantasy version of the past that's particularly satisfying.

Evans brings self-effacing charm to the title role. He's joined by a variety of strong performers. Tommy Lee Jones plays a gruff Army officer who's not entirely sold on Rogers' abilities. Hayley Atwell portrays the Army officer who assists in Rogers' training and who eventually becomes his love interest -- in chaste fashion, of course.

Villainy is supplied by Hugo Weaving who plays Dr. Schmidt, a character who eventually reveals himself as Red Skull, a man with a skeletal face that clearly places Johnston's movie in the land of the comic book. Red Skull looks as if his skin has been ripped off, exposing the raw underside of a countenance that already seemed plenty evil.

The action sequences in Captain America tend to be somewhat extended, which I found a bit boring. But there are plenty of battles for action fans, and a prologue and epilogue that explain how Captain America will be catapulted into the present for the upcoming Avengers movie.

And, yes, in some sense, Captain America, like Thor, is a preview of coming attractions for The Avengers, which promises a mega-helping of Marvel Comics heroism.

Still, Captain America has some kick, and it can be found in the star-spangled spirit that, like its title character, carries the day.

A troubled kid breaks the movie mold

A quietly funny teen drama that's capable of surprise.
I've come to dislike almost every quality the movie Terri promises to exude. A staunchly independent spirit makes Terri immediately recognizable as a Sundance entry. Moreover, the movie's not beyond indulging in moments of off-kilter quirkiness. On top of all that, Terri takes us into the world of another troubled adolescent, a young man whose obesity makes him a target of derision for his schoolmates. *** Yes, I'm suspicious of all such trappings, but I found myself wrapped up in Terri, a movie full of unexpected soul, quiet humor and an unassuming sense of itself. *** Credit director Azazel Jacobs (Momma's Man) for finding precisely the right teen-ager to play Terri. Jacob Wysocki portrays Terri, a kid who wears pajamas to school, and lives with his uncle (Creed Batton), a man who seems to be suffering from a dementia that allows him only limited periods of lucidity. *** John C. Reilly brilliantly complements Wysocki's performance as a kid on the verge of self-discovery. Reilly's Mr. Fitzgerald -- the assistant principal at Terri's school -- tries to develop relationships with all the school's misfit kids. Fitzgerald seems to care about his charges, youngsters with whom he's inappropriately but refreshingly honest. Reilly is developing into a kind of comic treasure, and he gives tremendous credibility to a slightly implausible character. *** In a late scene, Terri almost discovers the mysteries of sex with Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), a girl who has earned the scorn of her classmates for precocious sexual behavior and who Terri chooses to defend. The scene is terribly awkward, which perhaps fits the situation: Terri, Heather and a much-less appealing misfit buddy (Bridger Zadina) get drunk together. *** Terri distinguishes itself and its director by rising above almost all the cliches suggested by its overly familiar subject matter. Terri is the kind of movie about a teen-ager that probably will mean more to adults than to kids. That's a good thing.

Another look at life gone sour

Jenna Fischer's the highlight of this sometimes amusing, but negligible tale.
In A Little Help, Jenna Fischer plays a Long Island dental technician who's mired in a faltering marriage. As a result, Fischer's Laura has become a little too fond of beer, a little too negligent about herself. She's also convinced that her husband (Chris O'Donnell) is having an affair.

Fischer isn't afraid to show us Laura's unraveled state. At times, we see the beauty that once touched the hearts of high school boys. At other times, we see a beleaguered working wife and mother who no longer gets much pleasure out of life.

Fischer gives a strong performance in a movie that early on drops its major dramatic bomb: O'Donnell's character dies of a heart attack.

Thus begins Laura's process of recovery. She begins to feel her way toward a new life, no simple matter. She's constantly berated by her sister (Brooke Smith) for failing to take responsibility for her life. Her mother (Lesley Ann Warren) isn't much better, and her father (Ron Leibman) is too busy recounting his triumphs as a former sports writer to pay much attention to anyone else.

Meanwhile Laura's son (Daniel Yelsky) tries to adjust to life at a new school by telling a whopping lie to gain sympathy. He puts his mother in an awkward position: Either she must play along or make her son even more miserable. This fib gives the movie an unpleasant tilt because Daniel's lie borders on the indefensible.

As if all this weren't complicated enough, Laura's brother-in-law (Rob Benedict) mostly submits to his wife's bullying while trying to be a pal to his teen-age son, an aspiring rock musician.

There's nothing particularly compelling about any of this, and writer/director Michael J. Weithorn never fuses the movie's parts into a satisfying whole.

Oh well, a negligible movie might have been even more negligible without Fischer, best known for her work on TV's The Office and, in A Little Help, operating at her exasperated and often funny best.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Measuring prospects for a long life

A minor documentary about a major subject.
Concerned about the rude and inexorable encroachments of age, director Mark S. Wexler, son of famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler, sets out to explore the possibilities of extending life well beyond anything we now regard as a normal allotment of years. Hexler's discursive documentary, How to Live Forever, sounds wisest when it reminds us that perhaps we should accept the inevitable rather than deny it, but the movie is far more amusing when looking at the possibilities for lives that extend well beyond 100 years. Wexler visits places where people routinely outlive most of us (Okinawa), spends time at a mortuary trade show, discusses cryogenics and current biological research as he visits with folks who have yet to go (gently or otherwise) into that good night. Among them: Fitness guru Jack LaLanne,* a 94-year-old surgeon who still practices medicine, an elderly Japanese man who has made a second career out of what he calls "senior porn," and a 101-year-old Brit who ran the London Marathon. Wexler employs an unexpectedly light touch that mixes amusement with reflection for a documentary that's better for its eccentricities than for its insights.

*LaLanne died in January of 2011; he was 96.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Bye 'Harry!' You've made a grand exit

The final Harry Potter film brings the series to a memorable, exciting conclusion.
A decade ago, I didn’t know a horcrux from a ham hock, and Hogwarts sounded like an obscure affliction of the skin that no one willingly would discuss in mixed company. That was then.

Now I know that seven horcruxes had to be destroyed before Harry's epic encounter with evil Lord Voldemort. Like gazillions of others, I’ve been Potterized – at least enough to realize that you never want to meet a Death Eater in a dark alley, that Quiddich is played with broomsticks and that author J.K. Rowling has an undeniable talent for inventing words.

If you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, you are part of the fringe that has managed to escape Pottermania, and need read no further.

The rest of you should know that the big-screen series adapted from Rowling’s amazingly popular books has resulted in some good movies, at least one so-so movie and an overall achievement that deserves a hearty round of applause.

Fans can rest assured that director David Yates has brought the series to a dark, exciting conclusion with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Part 1 seemed to be marking time, holding us at bay until the final battle could be joined, which means Part 2 (stay with me here) is really the third act of Part 1.

That makes the entire movie into a kind of grand finale, resulting from Warner Bros.' decision to split the final Potter book in two.

It’s finally time for Harry, Hermione and Ron to call a halt to Voldemort’s nefarious plans, a situation that allows the filmmakers to unleash a torrent of special effects – from chalices that multiply on their own in an underground vault to zap-zapping wand fights that (alas) always remind me of something out of an old Flash Gordon serial.

Screenwriter Steve Kloves brings the proceedings to an operatic conclusion that's beautifully complemented by composer Alexandre Desplat’s ominous score. There's a near-majestic quality to some of the events in Part 2. A sequence in Gringotts Bank -- with goblins hunched over thick ledgers -- is a triumph of imaginative design.

Much of the series' success involves the fact that the Potter cast has remained in tact, save for the passing of Richard Harris, who originally played Dumbledore. This consistency has allowed us the pleasure of watching the movie’s three stars – Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) and Emma Watson (Hermione Granger) – grow into young adulthood.

In this action-oriented conclusion, little remains to be revealed about our stalwart trio; they’re fulfilling the destinies that Rowling set out for them.

Casting – not only in the main roles, but also in the supporting roles – remains pitch perfect. Ralph Fiennes imbues Voldemort with a sinister purity that’s truly unnerving. Michael Gambon (as Dumbledore), Robbie Coltrane (as Hagrid), Maggie Smith (as professor McGonagall) all return, as does Alan Rickman, who plays Severus Snape. If Rickman wanted to prolong his screen time, he did a good job: Like someone giving a master class in enunciation, he stretches every syllable to the breaking point. Ciaran Hinds joins the fray as Dumbledore’s brother. And, yes it would be something to see a cast of this caliber in a non-Potter movie – and I haven’t even mentioned Helena Bonham Carter, Julie Walters, David Thewlis.

A word, if I may, about 3-D. This edition is available in 3-D. The 3-D is by no means awful, but cinematographer Eduardo Serra’s darkly hued images seemed even darker when viewed through 3-D glasses, nicely shaped to replicate Harry’s trademark specs.

Now, if you’re tempted to let your mind wander en route to the climactic battle, don’t fret. You will be snapped back into attention as Harry faces Voldemort in a battle that produces so much rubble, it must have forced Hogwarts to embark on a major rebuilding campaign.

Not wanting to leave us trembling from all the unleashed fury, Yates includes Rowling’s epilogue, which takes us 19 years past the final battle and allows for an appropriate goodbye to characters that have become part of pop-cultural consciousness.

Harry, Hermione and Ron have matured over the course of a decade, as has much of the Potter audience. And although I’m not a Potter zealot, I admit that there’s something undeniably satisfying about having gotten through a tumultuous decade with characters that first reached the screen a couple of months after Sept. 11, and remained to see us through.

For its most ardent fans, Harry Potter has been a series to grow up with – not grow out of, which partly explains why they love it so much and why it has been such a unique success: on the page and in this smartly executed final chapter.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

When does arson become terrorism?

Mild-mannered Daniel McGowan hardly fits the profile of a domestic terrorist. But as a member of the radical environmental group, The Earth Liberation Front, McGowan was sentenced to seven years in a federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill. He was classified as a terrorist, a designation that probably brands him for life and severely limits his contact with the outside world while he's imprisoned.

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front takes a look at McGowan's radicalization and its aftermath. Although McGowan admitted to participating in ELF assaults on property -- mostly arsons -- he resisted the path taken by many of his cohorts. He did not flip for the Feds. Those ELF members who helped build the case against McGowan served softer sentences or avoided jail time altogether.

The perplexing question that lingers after watching Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman's gripping documentary is this: Does McGowan's punishment really fit his crimes or has he been treated unjustly? No one in the film suggests McGowan should have gone unpunished, but there are nagging questions about whether he deserves to be called a terrorist. Nuanced and complex, If a Tree Falls, tells us that McGowan's disillusionment with the ELF came when the group began debating whether it ought to stop worrying about whether people were harmed during arsons that included a $12-million ski lodge in Vail. McGowan, who insisted on a policy of not harming individuals, left the group.

Curry and Cullman chronicle McGowan's journey from peaceful protester to arsonist. He may have been misguided, but McGowan comes off as sincerely committed to the environmental cause in a documentary that has been assembled with consummate skill. (The movie won an award for its editing at last January's Sundance Film Festival.)

THE DIRECTOR SPEAKS I recently spoke with director Marshall Curry about his film, which raises complex moral and legal questions. Q. Most environmental documentaries convey a strong point of view. You seem to have tried to maintain a degree of balance.

Curry: These days, most documentaries about the environment do have singular points of view. I don’t have a philosophical problem with advocacy films, but in this case, the balance isn’t about he-said/she-said journalism. The balance is more a reflection of my feeling that this is really a complicated topic. This is tricky material, and the film reflects that.

Q. In the end, how did you come down on the question of whether McGowan should be viewed as terrorist?

Curry: Someone said to me, 'This is a movie that requires audiences to chew their own food.' We don’t answer the question that the movie raises. That may leave people uncomfortable, but that’s how the story left us. We want you to leave the theater and argue about it.

Q: So what drew you to the subject?

Curry: One day four Federal agents walked into my wife's office, where Daniel was working. They arrested him. (McGowan had quit the ELF, and was trying to live obscurely in Manhattan.) I didn't know about Daniel's life. He wasn't at all what I think of when I think of a domestic terrorist. His dad’s a cop. He grew up in Queens. It was interesting to me that someone like him could have been part of such a radical group. Daniel isn't Che Guevara. He not Malcolm X. ... He’s everyone’s little brother or employee, and that makes the question more personal for audiences. How does someone who, on the surface, seems so normal get involved in such radical action? It was interesting to me that someone like Daniel could have been part of such a radical group. I find it interesting when my expectations are contradicted by reality.

Q. So what drove this 'normal' guy to extremism?

Curry: It was a passion about the environment and frustration with the other tactics he was trying. There are plenty of people who get frustrated with letter writing and civil disobedience, but don’t move on to arson. I guess it’s something in his personality and history that made him take it to the next step. That’s what we were trying to explore. What were his experiences and how did he interpret them?

Q. I've read that in the beginning, McGowan told you he was innocent.

Curry: At the very beginning, he pled not guilty. He told us the same thing. We began to suspect he had done it before he came clean, but it wasn’t until he told the government that he was able to tell us the same thing. When we first started editing, we had a first act in which he said he hadn’t done it. Once we realized the movie wasn't a whodunit, we scrapped that. We had him open the movie by saying he did it.

Q. Fires aren't easy to control and you never know what might go wrong, but the fact that Daniel opposed harming people seems to earn him sympathy, something it's not easy to extend to all the other ELF members.

Curry: Even at that meeting where people were discussing harming people, no one was coming up with specific plans. Not harming life was a big part of their philosophy. But when I saw the photos of a fire for the first time and realized how big it was, I also realized how dangerous these fires were. The ELF was careful. They scoped the places out and knew what time the cleaning leady went home. Things like that. But a fireman could have been hurt during the fire.

Q. Have you seen Daniel since his imprisonment?

Curry: No. He's in this special terrorist prison that has little access to the outside world. (Since he first was imprisoned in Illinois, McGowan has been moved to a prison in Indiana.) He gets something like one 15-minute phone call a week. He uses that to talk to his wife, not to us. At one time, we tried to interview him in prison, but our request was denied. They really don’t want him to have access to the media.

Q. One of the arson victims, the owner of a lumber mill, raises a reasonable question: He wonders if the ELF members realize where the paper and wood they use actually comes from.

Curry: The environmentalists counter by saying, 'We’re not against wood and paper. We're against clear-cutting because of the way it effects the environment. You can’t replant a 500-year-old tree.' They also object to the idea of private industry cutting on public land.

Q. A lot of the time you were interviewing Daniel, he was under house arrest and facing the possibility of major jail time. How did you handle that?

Curry: There were two types of questions. There were legal questions. Daniel didn’t want to say something that could get subpoenaed and wind up in his case. Once he changed his plea, it became easier to have candid conversations about the fires. There were also emotional things that needed negotiating. He was depressed. He was looking at possible life in prison. We wanted to make a movie, but also to respect his personal space. That ended up being more of a negotiation than the legal questions.

Q. I was fascinated to read that you shot your first film, Street Fight, by yourself. You bought a camera and dove into your subject, the 2002 mayoral election in Newark N.J., that pitted newcomer Cory Booker against entrenched pol, Sharpe James.

Curry: I watched a ton of documentaries and analyzed the way they were made. I tried to understand how some scenes play off other scenes. I saved money, and thought I either could go to film school or make a movie. I made Street Fight as an alternative to film school.

A struggle over a mountain

I'm guessing that those who believe faith can move mountains aren't thinking about Massey Energy's work in West Virginia.

The company, which mines coal through mountain top removal methods, recently found itself in a battle with local residents who desperately tried to prevent Massey from trimming the top off the last untouched Appalachian mountain.

Director Bill Haney does a thorough and convincing job of showing the impact of mountain top mining on the folks who occupy the valleys beneath ravaged or endangered peaks. It's not a pretty picture.

Eager to pose viable alternatives, the movie also campaigns for wind power, telling us that wind-generated energy is both economically and environmentally preferable to coal-fired power. The film also argues that green solutions would create more jobs than coal mining produces.

Haney has been criticized for spending too much time on Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a devoted environmentalist who joined West Virginia residents in the fight to preserve Coal River Mountain. And The Last Mountain could have benefited from more interviews with miners who are fearful of losing their jobs. Would they be absorbed into a wind-centered economy or are they out of luck?

Overall, though, the movie certainly raises one's ire, which is probably what Haney intended, and, yes, there's a sickening finality to mountain top mining. Reclamation efforts aside, even faith can't restore the top of a mountain that has been flattened.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A story about life on the margins

Although immigration remains a hotly debated topic, few movies have tried to portray the daily lives of those who come to the U.S. in search of economic opportunity. Credit A Better Life with rising to the challenge with a simple, if sometimes melodramatic, story about a father who's trying to establish a better life for himself and his adolescent son. *** Director Chris Weitz, who has been responsible for mega-movies (The Twilight Saga: New Moon), does two things in this modestly scaled indie: He tells a mostly affecting story, and he moves us through parts of Los Angeles that don't often yield themselves to the camera's eye. *** Carlos (Demian Bichir) is an undocumented Mexican who works as a gardner. Carlos' struggle to make ends meet doesn't leave him much time for his 14-year-old son (Jose Julian). *** The movie flirts with questions about whether Julian's Luis will fall into gang life, but never gives into cliches about it. *** Weitz builds a story about father/son reconciliation around the search for a stolen truck, and he obtains fine performances from his leads: Bichir brings stoic presence to the role of a single father who struggles to survive while trying not to cut ethical corners; Julian displays the right blend of adolescent anger and innate decency as he searches for his place in the world. *** No need overselling, but A Better Life should be seen by table-thumpers on all sides of the immigration question. Without posturing, Weitz has told a deeply human story that's interested in more than the border that divides the U.S. and Mexico; it's also interested in the borders that can divide a father and son who grew up in very different worlds.

This week's mega-helping of vulgar fun

Another movie for fans of rude/crude humor.
If you've been hankering to watch Jennifer Aniston play dirty dentist, the new comedy Horrible Bosses is eager to oblige. So is Aniston, who turns out to be good at flaunting her character's maniacal libido.

Working overtime to turn out more of the rude/crude humor that has become a Hollywood staple, Horrible Bosses follows the antics of three bumbling employees who vow to kill their abusive bosses, one of them played by Aniston.

Heavier on raunch than wit, Horrible Bosses begins when our hapless heroes (Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis) decide their sanity depends on getting rid of the aggressively vile people for whom they work.

It's difficult to watch Horrible Bosses without thinking that the filmmakers are looking for increasingly outrageous ways to walk through the door thrown open by raunch masters such as Judd Apatow (The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up) and Todd Phillips (the Hangover movies).

As was the case with those movies, fans of purposefully tasteless humor should find laughs in a movie about downtrodden employees who know nothing about murder, which means they probably don't watch enough TV.

Not surprisingly, the movie's extremely horrible bosses serve up an exaggerated variety behavior that in real life would result in more lawsuits than laughter.

In a role that amounts to a cliche for him, Kevin Spacey plays the sadistic head of the financial company where Bateman's character works. He teases Bateman's Nick with promises of a promotion. He forces him to drink a glass of 18-year-old Scotch at 8:15 in the morning, and then accuses him of having a drinking problem. He's a humiliation specialist.

Colin Farrell -- whose main job here seems to involve not looking like himself -- portrays the odious Bobby Pellitt, the cocaine-snorting son of the kindly owner of a chemical company (Donald Sutherland). Sutherland's character dies within the first 15 minutes, leaving the company to his hateful son.

Taking a break from mediocre romantic comedies, Aniston portrays a sex-crazed dentist who insists that her assistant (Day) sleep with her. It's an impolite, turn-the-tables role in which a woman sexually harasses her male employee.

An underutilized and funny Jamie Foxx plays an ex-convict, a guy our trio of bumblers seeks out in a divey bar. For $5,000, Foxx's character -- whose name can't be printed here -- becomes what he calls "a murder consultant."

His idea: To avoid establishing any motives, the boys should kill one another's bosses, a plan that evokes references to (and jokes about) Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train.

Horrible Bosses does little more than look for ways to keep the jokestream flowing. Nothing wrong with that, but a joke about spilled cocaine? Really?

When it comes to comedy, especially vulgar ones, I feel duty-bound to distinguish the audience reaction from my own. I'd say that the preview audience with which I saw the movie found it funnier than I did. Me? The thing that made me chuckle the most -- aside from Foxx -- was one of the lines Sudeikis, as the over-sexed male in the group, delivers during the obligatory outtakes.

During the movie, Bateman and Sudeikis do a decent job of carrying the banter load with Day working at the more exasperated end of the spectrum. It also should be pointed out that for all its vulgarity,Horrible Bosses isn't nearly as corrosive as Hangover 2.

Once you adjust to director Seth Gordon's comic style, you can see many of the jokes coming. Some will make you yuk. Others will make you duck. How you respond to this ribald helping of humor probably depends on whether you're doing more of the former than the latter.

They put the soul into gospel

A lingering look at the world of gospel music.
Until I saw the documentary Rejoice and Shout, I'd never heard of Claude Jeter,* a gospel singer who plied his inspirational trade with at least two estimable groups, The Swan Silvertones and The Dixie Hummingbirds. Jeter, who died in 2009 at the age of 94, sang in a beautiful falsetto voice that can't be listened to without thinking of another master of the upper registers, Al Green.

Jeter is seen giving a spectacular performance in Rejoice and Shout, which introduces the uninitiated to a variety of major gospel singers and groups, trying not to shortchange either musical or faith perspectives.

The movie opens with Smokey Robinson (of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles) professing his faith, perhaps to remind us that gospel -- which often sounds very much like secular R&B -- is rooted in spirituality and that those who perform it or listen to it can be transported to near ecstatic states.

Director Don McGlynn's greatest achievement involves the "performance" footage he has assembled from gospel all-stars such as Sister Rosetta Thorpe, The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Mahalia Jackson, The Clara Ward Singers and The Staple Singers.

Interviews from experts -- Bill Carpenter, Anthony Heilbut and Jacquie Gales Webb -- are punctuated with comments from singers Mavis Staples, Ira Tucker (of The Dixie Hummingbirds) and others.

McGlynn's documentary could have benefited from a little more social context; it's really a kind of annotated concert film, but it should help spread the word about gospel music in all its soul stirring varieties.

*Since I wrote this brief review, a friend who knows more about music than I'll ever know told me that I actually might have encountered Jeter before. He said Jeter and The Hummingbirds worked with Paul Simon on a couple of tunes: Loves Me Like a Rock and Take Me to the Mardi Gras. Jeter also provided some of the inspiration for Simon's Bridge Over Troubled Waters.