Friday, January 27, 2012

A gender-bending story set in the 1890s

How you react to Albert Nobbs, a project that Glenn Close reportedly spent two decades trying to bring to the screen, depends almost entirely on how you react to Close in the title role; she's playing a woman posing as a man in 19th Century Ireland. Close, who played the role on stage in the 1980s, brings the project to the screen under the direction of Rodrigo Garcia (Mother and Child and Nine Lives). As written by Close and John Banville and based on a novella (Celibate Lives) by George Moore, Albert Nobbs feels as meticulously crafted as Close's make-up. But here's the thing: I couldn't buy Close as a woman successfully passing as a man. Maybe it's her delicate facial features. Whatever the case, Nobbs looks like a strange version of Close, pinched into a constricted, almost neutered impression of a man. The screenplay tells us that Nobbs decided -- partly for economic reasons -- to pose as a man, but the movie also serves as commentary on how some people have responded to societies bound by rigid gender-role conventions. While working at a hotel, Nobbs meets Hubert Page, a house painter played by Janet McTeer, who brings robust conviction and humor to her role as another woman posing as a man. McTeer's Hubert essentially steals the picture from the deeply repressed and fussy Nobbs, who dreams of opening a tobacco shop. Hubert lives with a woman who loves and accepts him; he suggests that Nobbs also might be able to find some semblance of normal life. Nobbs then turns his attention to Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a co-worker at the hotel. There's genuine poignancy in watching Nobbs, a man of limited imagination, pursue a dream that we know is beyond his reach. At its best, Albert Nobbs stirs emotion, but I never entirely shook the distracting awareness that I was watching Close create an illusion that didn't quite convince.

*For the record, not everyone shares my view of Close's performance, certainly not the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who nominated her for a best-actress Oscar. The Academy does agree on McTeer, though. She was nominated in the best-supporting actress category.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Liam Neeson vs. wilderness and wolves

The Grey takes us deep into the Alaskan wild for a mixture of action and horror.

In the new movie The Grey, Liam Neeson dances with wolves that, for the most part, get the best of a band of grizzled oil rig workers who are stranded in the Alaskan wilderness after a harrowing plane crash.

I don’t know if Neeson is having trouble finding quality scripts or whether he enjoys making these kinds of movies, but he certainly gives action directors their money's worth by bringing instant gravitas to a genre that’s not always taken seriously.

In this case, Neeson – who also starred in Taken and Unknown -- has signed on for a movie that sets action and horror against an inhospitable and frozen landscape.

Once the surviving workers get their bearings, it becomes clear that they’ve quickly made the transition from gritty hard guys to potential wolf food. And it doesn’t take long for director Joe Carnahan, who directed Neeson in the A-Team, to show us the wolves, large, ferocious howlers that are naturally cunning and lacking in mercy, sort of like film critics.

Neeson’s John Ottway, an emotionally wounded man who’s charged with shooting wolves that threaten the oil workers, begins the movie at a forbidding-looking Alaskan drilling site. He's in such a distraught state that he even contemplates suicide.

Ottway obviously has known some other kind of life. He seems to have gone to Alaska in the same way that an earlier generation of movie characters joined the French Foreign Legion. I guess we’re meant to think that the plane crash forces Ottway into a last-ditch attempt at engagement.

The crew that tries to escape the crash scene with Ottway is appropriately motley. The men are differentiated from one another in mostly expected ways. Frank Grillo, for example, portrays an ex-con whose belligerence becomes his defining trait. He’s quick to challenge Ottway’s leadership, even though it’s clear that Ottway has plenty of wilderness savvy.

Obviously, many in this small band will die, and, as is often the case with such movies, you can amuse yourself by speculating about the order in which the unlucky will be picked apart by wolves. You also can brace for the film’s more “philosophical” moments, which play like so much dorm-discussion baloney.

Much is made of a poem (“Once More Into the Fray”) that Ottway says his father wrote. It’s the kind of poetry that could be appreciated only by someone who’s never read a good poem; sort of Jack London meets a Boy Scout handbook.

But if the movie has a message, you’ll find it in the poem: Grit your teeth and do battle with hostile nature.

Carnahan uses gauzy but obvious flashbacks to fill in a blank that doesn’t need filling; they explain why Ottway tends to be so damn morose.

Hey, I’m as frightened by an assortment (or so I've read) of real wolves, puppets and animatronics as the next guy. Some of the scenes in The Grey are rich with apprehension, and a few of the movie's twists even go against the grain of formula

Still, it would have taken a better-written movie to get me to leap whole-heartedly into this glum and frozen fray.

'Man on a Ledge' plunges into mediocrity

A convicted cop makes an unusual ... er ... totally improbable stab at proving his innocence.

If a movie puts a man who's threatening to take the big leap on a ledge some 200 feet above a New York City sidewalk, it’s reasonable to expect that some tension will follow.

In the prosaically titled thriller, Man on Ledge, director Asger Leth does create a bit of tension, but the movie that surrounds the title character is too painfully improbable to keep eyes from rolling.

Instead of the tightly focused picture its title suggests, Man on a Ledge turns out to be an unsatisfying mixture of vertiginous teases, heist-movie ploys and bad cop/good cop moralizing.

Sam Worthington, of Avatar fame, plays Nick Cassidy, the man on the ledge, a former New York City cop who was sent to prison for stealing a valuable diamond.

The screenplay by Pablo F. Fenjves quickly shows us how and why Cassidy wound up on the ledge, where he spends most of the picture.

I won’t burden you with a plot summary, except to say that Cassidy, his brother (Jamie Bell) and his brother’s girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) are involved in a preposterous scheme that’s supposed to prove Cassidy’s innocence.

If you’ve seen even a couple of movies, you’ll quickly be able to separate the bad guys from the good guys, but I’ll give you a rapid rundown of the supporting cast, which includes Elizabeth Banks (as the detective called to talk Cassidy off the ledge); Edward Burns (as a skeptical cop who doesn’t think Banks’ character is up to the job); and Anthony Mackie (as Cassidy’s former partner and purported best friend).

Special mention needs to be made of Ed Harris, who plays David Englander, the real-estate tycoon who owns the building where Cassidy stages his ledge stunt. Englander’s greed and insensitivity are so blatant, they stand out like an overly wide and aggressively garish tie. Getting a bad – i.e., caricatured -- performance from an actor as gifted as Harris takes some doing, but Leth manages it.

Other annoyances crop up: Bell and Rodriguez banter in ways that are neither funny nor believable, and the standard crowd gathers to encourage Cassidy to jump, thus ensuring that a major cliche gets its unruly due.

I wasn’t sure what to make of Kyra Sedgwick, who plays a hard-bitten New York TV reporter. Sedgwick’s Suzie Morales roots for the most lurid and gripping possible story. It didn’t take long for me to begin to share Suzie’s point of view.

So if I was at all tense by the end of this one, it was probably because I was waiting for someone to talk me down from the ledge disbelief.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The rights and wrongs of Oscar

I have no problem with Hugo (11 nominations) and The Artist (10 nominations) leading the field of Oscar nominees for 2012. I’m fond of both pictures, each of which is aware of and rooted in movie history. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo involves the earliest days of cinema, and The Artist focuses on the period in which silent films gave way to talkies.

If you’re interested in the entire Oscar list, you can find it at The Hollywood Reporter.

As for me, I'll focus on a few of the things Oscar got right and also, some of its mistakes. I'm sure you'll agree that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does make mistakes, even if you disagree with me on what they might be.

Best Picture
Right: The Tree of Life. Not an easy choice for the Academy, but a right one.

Wrong: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and, to a lesser degree, War Horse. Neither of those pictures belongs on a list that, for my money, could have been narrowed to the traditional five contenders, The Artist, The Descendants, Hugo, The Tree of Life and Moneyball.

Best Actor in a Leading Role
Right. Demian Bichir was nominated for playing an immigrant father in A Better Life. Great choice that could serve as a career boost for the worthy Bichir.

Wrong: Gary Oldman’s portrayal of George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy might not have been the best performance in that movie, and it probably pushed Michael Fassbender (Shame) off the list. But the NC-17 rated Shame may have been too much for the Academy.

Actress in a Leading Role
Right: Michelle Williams was recognized for her work as Marilyn Monroe in the overrated My Week With Marilyn, a true act of transformation.

Wrong. Glenn Close’s nomination for her portrayal of a woman posing as a man in Albert Nobbs struck me as the major problem with that movie: I didn’t buy her in the role. Close may have pushed two better performances off the list of nominees: Kirsten Dunst’s work in Melancholia deserved recognition, as did Tilda Swinton’s performance in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Or maybe it was Rooney Mara’s nomination for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo that bumped those two gifted actresses.

And what about Elizabeth Olsen who was terrific in Martha Marcy May Marlene?

There's some real suspense in this category, though. Will perennial nominee Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) beat out Viola Davis (The Help) as she did at the recent Golden Globes?

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Right. Nice to see 82-year-old Max von Sydow get a nod for his work as a grandfather who chose not to speak in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Wrong. Kenneth Branagh is a wonderful actor with great skill at directing and playing Shakespeare, but I couldn't quite buy him as Laurence Olivier in My Week With Marilyn. Branagh got Olivier's voice, but not necessarily his vibe. And for a movie that spent so much effort making Michelle Williams look like Marilyn; shouldn't at least as much work have been gone into finding someone who looked more like Olivier?

An aside: Nick Nolte’s nomination for his portrayal of an alcoholic father in Warrior may mark another step in Nolte’s career redemption, but I’d have put Kevin Spacey (Margin Call) on this list before Nolte. Of course, lots of folks thought Albert Brooks would show up as nominee for his work in Drive.

But, hey, does any of this really matter? Doesn't Christopher Plummer have a lock on best-supporting actor for playing a late-blooming gay man in Beginners?

Actress in a Supporting Role
Right: Janet McTeer did the best work in Albert Nobbs; she played another woman posing as a man in 19th century Ireland.

Wrong: Melissa McCarthy was funny in Bridesmaids, but I don't see her turn as a crude but ultimately endearing woman as an Oscar turn, especially if it bumped Shaileen Woodley (The Descendants) off the list.

Here's another category that doesn't seem to allow for much suspense. Octavia Spencer (The Help) have a probably has a lock on this on.

Right: Terrence Malick was recognized for The Tree of Life, a movie that divided audiences, but stands as one of Malick’s best.

Wrong: Nothing, really.

Best Adapted Screenplay.
Right: The Descendants and Moneyball, although The Descendants is probably more right.

Wrong: I have no problem with any of the nominees (which also include Hugo, The Ides of March and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but if The Help is nominated as best picture, how could it be omitted from a list that did not include The Ides of March. And wasn't the narrative in Tinker Tailor just a wee bit confusing?

Best Original Screenplay
Right: A Separation. Ashgar Farhardi’s look at an Iranian family in distress (also nominated for best foreign-language film) is beautifully written.

Wrong: Bridesmaids. It may have been the best-written comedy of the year, but Martha Marcy May Marlene was a better-written original, as was Another Earth.

Oh well, my choices tend to skew indie, which is only one of may reasons Academy voters never asks for my opinion. Sta tuned for more as the race heats up.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

She kicks butt -- and means it

Director Steven Soderbergh stops making sense, and opts for action.

The other night I was looking at Angelina Jolie's body, not an uncommon activity for male moviegoers, but my motivations had nothing to do with prurient fantasy. Watching Jolie at the 69th Golden Globes, I couldn't help thinking to myself, "God, that woman is thin."

I mention this because Jolie has appeared in a variety of movies -- notably the Lara Croft series -- that emphasize her physical prowess. Seeing the elegantly dressed Jolie at the The Golden Globes, I had a difficult time believing in her action-hero chops.

But Gina Carano, the star of director Steven Soderbergh's new thriller Haywire? She's a whole other story.

According to a fan site, Carno's a 145-pound kickboxer. Carano not only looks as if she can deliver a punch, she actually does deliver many of them, often in rapid, punishing succession.

I probably never would have heard of Carano had Soderbergh not cast her in a thriller that's notable for ... well ... Carano, as well as for some protracted, bruising action, much of it cleverly conceived.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that Carano happens to be attractive or that she's able to hold the center of an action-oriented thriller. So, if you want to see a woman who fights -- and means it, Haywire definitely fills the bill.

But beware, the plot of the movie can go as haywire as the title, and, as a colleague suggested after a preview screening, you run the risk of wearing yourself out if you try to follow it too closely.

Carano plays Mallory Kane, a woman who works for a private espionage agency. In Soderbergh's globe-hopping story, Mallory is pursued by a variety of foes, some of whom pounce on her with sudden fury.

For those who want to know a little more, I'll take a shot: Someone wants Mallory dead. Displeasure with Mallory has something to do with a Barcelona-based job in which she was hired to rescue a Chinese journalist (Anthony Brandon Wong).

Upon returning from Barcelona, Mallory is given another assignment by her boss (Ewan McGregor). He tells her that he has a really easy job for her. Reluctantly, she travels to Dublin to hook up with a British agent (Michael Fassbender). There, Mallory discovers that she's the target of an elaborate assassination plot.

Fassbender, who played a sex addict in Shame, again finds himself between a woman's legs - only this time he's subjected to strangulating punishment during a fight in a hotel room that does more damage than six drunken rock bands.

To carry out his cinematic mission, Soderbergh has hired a large and impressive cast that includes Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Channing Tatum and Bill Paxton. Don't get to worked up, though, most of these actors appear in what amount to extended cameos.

Soderbergh also gets tricky with the movie's structure. He has Carano tell the early part of the story to a befuddled young man (Michael Angarano) whose car she commandeers. Her tale is told in a series of flashbacks that feature chases on foot, excruciating brawls, and rooftop scrambles. All of this concludes with a car chase in the woods that's both novel and harrowing.

When Mallory has finished her story, the narrative shifts to the present, building toward a finale that's both pointed and a little confounding. I know that sounds impossible, but that's how it is.

Part of me wants to say that Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs have steeped the movie in needless complication and purposeless confusion. Sure, Haywire shows off Soderbergh's ability to handle action, but when set pieces become a movie's main attraction, you have to wonder why a little more care wasn't spent on storytelling.

"But wait," the Soderbergh fan in me says. Maybe there's another way to look at it. Maybe Soderbergh is offering a wry commentary on the way most Hollywood action movies are packaged and sold. Couldn't almost every action movie be called Haywire? Aren't they all wild collections of set pieces thrown around plots that make little sense? And was my colleague right? Maybe it's wrongheaded of me to want to know what motivates any of these characters.

Oh well, Whatever Soderbergh had in mind, he's found the right woman for the job. Put another way, you come away from the movie believing that Carano easily could kick Jolie's butt -- and maybe even take on her share of punks with names like Bruce, Arnold and Sylvester.

Besides, there's one thing I know for sure: McGregor has the worst hair cut I've seen in a movie in a long time, especially for someone who's not playing a death-row prisoner who's about to be fried.

'Red Tails' offers a fleet history lesson

A rudimentary look at the battles the Tuskegee Airmen fought.

It's hardly surprising that the George Lucas-financed Red Tails puts lots of energy into flying sequences that evoke the terror and excitement of airborne battle.

Of course, Red Tails has more on its mind than zooming action. The movie also aims for social significance, telling the story of the Tuskegee Airman, black pilots who overcame prejudice and long odds to make significant contributions to the World War II combat effort.

Red Tails isn't the first feature to tackle the Tuskegee story, another being The Tuskegee Airman, a 1995 HBO movie starring Laurence Fishburne. The action in Red Tails may be a lot spiffier than what you'll find in its 1995 counterpart, but I found the older movie to be more comprehensive, more interesting and better acted - although both may be more earnest than they need to be.

As directed by Anthony Hemingway, from a screenplay by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder, Red Tails rides on bursts of bold action and straightforward exposition, some of which points out the alarming contradictions faced by airmen fighting for a country that didn't fully accept their humanity.

These highly educated men were relegated to flying behind-the-lines missions until a determined colonel (Terrence Howard) convinced a wary and sometimes bigoted Washington hierarchy that the Tuskegee Airmen -- stationed in Italy at the time - deserved a chance to fight.

Supposedly drawn from interviews with Tuskegee Airmen, the drama in Red Tails nonetheless has a cookie-cutter feel that limits the efforts of a large and appealing cast.

The screenplay's two main Tuskegee pilots are Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oyelowo) and Martin "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker.) Little and Julian are best friends but have fundamental disagreements that revolve around Julian's drinking and Little's risk-taking.

Cuba Gooding Jr., who appeared in the HBO movie, joins Howard as a ranking officer. He seems to be trying to provide all his scenes with an exclamation point by determinedly stuffing a pipe into his mouth.

Perhaps to add dramatic variety, Red Tails has Oyelowo's Little strike up a relationship with an Italian woman (Daniela Ruah). Maybe someone thought a few quiet moments were necessary to punctuate the atmosphere of robust camaraderie surrounding the fliers, who can be intensely competitive with one another.

Lucas has said that he had to finance the picture and pay for its distribution because studios shied away from an all-black cast. That may be true, and Lucas is to be commended for having the persistence to stay with a project that he began thinking about in 1988, but Red Tails can't be called a complete success.

In achieving some of the old-fashioned zeal for which it must have been aiming, Red Tails sacrifices much of the edge we've come to expect from the best war movies.

That's not to say that Red Tails is without value. Young audiences in particular may know little or nothing about the segregated quality of civilian and military life during the 1940s. Deficiencies aside, Red Tails offers a zippy - if rudimentary -- history lesson, as well as plenty of affirmation of the achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen.

'Extremely Loud' and irritatingly quirky

The child at the center of director Stephen Daldry's adaptation of a Jonathan Safran Foer novel may wear on your nerves.

There are beautifully acted scenes in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the big-screen adaptation of a 2008 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, and the best of them can’t be written about in detail without including string of spoilers that might dilute the impact of a tear-jerker built around the residual pain of 9/11.

Acting aside, Extremely Loud manages to be a very mixed blessing. Director Stephen Daldry (The Reader, The Hours, and Billy Elliot) brings quiet assurance to material that can be moving but is also too self-consciously eccentric for its own good.

The story centers on 11-year-old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), a kid who’s forced to adjust to the loss of his father (Tom Hanks). Hanks’ Thomas Schell happened to be at a meeting in the World Trade Center on the fateful September day when the world seemed to change forever.

I had at least two reactions to Horn’s performance. On the one hand, I found him to be annoying enough to sometimes undermine the sympathy we naturally should feel for a kid in his situation. There are hints that Oskar suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, but they are not developed. Look, at his worst, Oskar can be insufferable.

At other times, I found myself thinking that Horn’s performance was nothing short of amazing, considering that he’s been asked to carry the movie. Daldry reportedly discovered Horn after seeing him on Jeopardy, and then proceeded to put him into nearly every scene in the film.

Early on, Daldry establishes an affectionate relationship between Oskar and his dad. A jeweler by trade, Hanks’ Thomas engages and sometimes frustrates his son by setting up a variety of problems for young Oskar to solve, including the fanciful task of finding the missing sixth borough of New York City.

Oskar is nothing if not persistent, so it’s hardly surprising that he concocts an elaborate project that allows him to cling to his father’s memory. Mom (Sandra Bullock in a fine performance) grapples with her own grief.

Here’s how Oskar’s plan works: While rummaging through his father’s closet, Oskar finds a key and a name – Black -- in a vase. He decides that the key and the name must be clues that his father meant for him to follow. He decides that he must locate every Black in the New York City phone book to determine just what lock this key opens.

That's already a bit of stretch, but Extremely Loud further undermines its credibility with persistent quirkiness that can make Oskar seem more like a literary conceit than a real kid.

Oskar communicates with his grandmother (Zoe Caldwell) via walkie-talkie. She lives in an apartment across the courtyard from Oskar's apartment. Oskar's condescending and rude to the doorman of his apartment (a wasted John Goodman). Oskar so repeatedly refers to 9/11 as “the worst day” that the phrase wears itself out. He’s spooked by public transportation, and when he’s out and about, he carries a tambourine, which seems to function as a kind of security blanket.

Eric Roth’s screenplay also introduces a character called The Renter (Max von Sydow), an old man who rents a room in Grandma’s apartment. Oskar is warned to stay away from The Renter, a sure sign that the two are destined for a significant encounter.

Did I mention that The Renter doesn’t speak? Well, he doesn’t. He communicates either by showing the palms of his hand (on which he’s written “yes” and “no”) or scratching brief notes on a small pad. More quirkiness, but von Sydow is believably strange.

The movie comes closest to something truly heartfelt when Oskar meets an investment adviser played by a remarkably quiet and palpably tender Jeffrey Wright. He’s a guy who’s in the process of divorcing his wife, an equally good Viola Davis.

Images of 9/11 to soup-up the drama, but for all its emotional heavy lifting, Extremely Loud feels too arty and idiosyncratic fully to work. At nearly every turn, Extremely Loud seems to be trying way too hard to convince us of its specialness.

She's young, gifted and gay

A coming-of-age story with Hip-Hop kick.

Few things are as resistant to upset as the apple cart of parental expectation. And for some middle-class families, coming to terms with a child’s gayness can qualify as a threat to deeply entrenched values.

But what about the gay child? What’s life like for him or her in a household ruled by denial? And what if that child happens to be black?

That’s more or less the question answered by Pariah, a powerful and affecting drama that centers on Alike (Adepero Oduye), a gay, self-aware high school student who’s still got one foot in the closet.

Alike’s dad (Charles Parnell) is a cop; her mom (Kim Wayans) looks for solace at church and suspects that her husband might be having an affair. Neither parent is prepared to deal with the sexuality of a straight daughter – much less a gay one.

For her part, Alike (pronounced All-Lee-Keh), endures a tense existence with her parents and her younger sister (Sahra Mellesse) in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn.

A good student and budding writer, Alike tries to hold her world together. It’s not easy. She changes clothes when she leaves the house, donning a kind of genderless Hip-Hop look, sometimes hanging out at a gay club.

Oduye does lots of things well, including capturing Alike’s pain and the intensity with which she assess every situation in which she finds herself. Oduye’s playing a character who’s not fully formed and can’t be until her truth is acknowledged – particularly by a father who insists she’s “normal” and a mother who has enough suspicions about her daughter that she wants her husband to intervene.

Dad resists, and after a conversation in which Alike tries to talk to him about love, he concludes that she must have a boyfriend.

You’ll appreciate Oduye’s deeply felt performance even more if you know that she’s a 33-year-old actress; she obviously hasn’t forgotten that at 17, emotional setbacks tend to hurt more than they will in later life.

At one point, Alike’s mother pushes her daughter into a friendship with “good girl” Bina (Aasha Davis). This relationship – which is supposed to steer Alike away from the bad influence of the openly gay Laura (Pernell Walker) – becomes pivotal for Alike in unexpected ways.

As often seems to be the case these days, the adults in Pariah live in a totally different world than their children. Mom and Dad have worked hard to attain and maintain a middle-class lifestyle, which means they also embrace the kind of convention that makes it difficult for them to accept a gay daughter.

Director Dee Rees, who also wrote the screenplay, tends to work in a style that includes lots of close-ups. Cinematographer Bradford Young uses them to make us understand the claustrophobic nature of a world that has yet to open for Alike.

An end-of-picture plot twist may resolve things for Alike too conveniently, but Rees has made a movie that’s open-ended enough to make us wonder what all its characters might be like a year from the time the final credits roll. You'll find the expected coming-of-age triumph here, but it’s tempered by Rees’ knowledge that not all the wounds we’ve seen opened are likely to heal.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Award Machine Powers Up

The Golden Globes loom for Sunday evening (Jan. 15). I've never taken the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which awards the Globes, all that seriously -- not that I have anything against critics associations or foreigners, for that matter. Look, I'm not going to rattle on about awards, but -- for the record -- I'm reporting the results of voting in the two critics' groups in which I cast ballots. It should go without saying that the winners don't necessarily reflect how I may have voted. The Broadcast Film Critics Association gave out its Critics Choice awards in Los Angeles last evening (Jan. 12). The Denver Film Critics Association announced its streamlined year-end awards list earlier this week.

As you peruse these lists, keep one thing in mind. As Mickey and Sylvia alerted us in their classic 1956 song, Love is Strange. That goes for movie love, too.

The Broadcast Film Critics Association

Best picture: The Artist
Best actor: George Clooney, The Descendants
Best actress: Viola Davis, The Help
Best supporting actress: Octavia Spencer, The Help
Best supporting actor: Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Best acting ensemble: The Help
Best director: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Best comedy: Bridesmaids
Best animated film: Rango
Best foreign film: A Separation
Best young actor or actress: Thomas Horn, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Best documentary feature: George Harrison: Living in the Material World
Best adapted screenplay: Moneyball, Steve Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, story by Stan Chervin
Best original screenplay: Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen
Best cinematography (tie): The Tree of Life and War Horse
Best art direction: Hugo
Best editing: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Best make-up: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Best visual effects: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Best sound: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II
Best action movie: Drive
Best song: Life's a Happy Song, The Muppets
Best score: The Artist

The Denver Film Critics Association
Best picture: The Tree of Life
Best actor: Brad Pitt, Moneyball
Best actress: Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Best supporting actor: Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Best supporting actress: Shailene Woodley, The Descendants
Best director (tie): Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life and Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Best screenplay, adapted or original: The Descendants, Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Best animated feature: Rango
Best ensemble: The Descendants
Best original score: The Artist, Ludovic Bource
Best breakout star: Jessica Chastain
Best documentary:
Page One: Inside the New York Times
Best foreign language film: A Separation

'Contraband' smuggles a few thrills into January

Mark Wahlberg stars in a caper movie that's not nearly as ambitious as some of what he's produced.

There are two ways to look at a movie such as Contraband. As a hard-boiled thriller compared to dozens of other similar movies, it's not exactly a groundbreaker. If, on the other hand, you're prone to seasonal generosity, you may want to regard Contraband as a serviceable entertainment, particularly for those seeking a quick genre fix.

An admission: I don't always get Mark Wahlberg, who's building one of the great mixed-bag resumes. He's produced great shows on HBO (Entourage and Boardwalk Empire), and has given really strong performances in movies (The Departed and The Fighter). With Contraband, Wahlberg works hard to turn in another performance as a regular guy, a former smuggler who's working hard to go straight, but he doesn't seem to be operating on the most ambitious side of his ledger.

Contraband focuses on Wahlberg's Chris Faraday, a married man and father who has started his own security alarm business as he tries to leave his criminal past behind. There's not much dramatic ore to be mined in movies about former felons who give up lives of crime, so the movie must find a way to force a reluctant Faraday back on the wrong side of the law.

It doesn't take long for us to learn that Faraday's brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) has screwed up a drug smuggling job. As a result, he owes major money to a vicious mobster, Giovanni Ribisi in another over-the-top performance as a smuggler with a sadistic streak.

The only way Chris can ride to his brother-in-law's rescue is to set up another smuggling job with help from a buddy (Ben Foster).

The most interesting thing about Contraband may be its milieu. The movie begins in New Orleans, but winds up spending a fair amount of time working its way through the world of container ships. Faraday stages a smuggling caper that takes him to Panama and brings him into contact with various thugs as the plot expands to involve counterfeit money, cocaine and a Jackson Pollack painting. Don't ask.

The supporting cast, some of it underutilized, includes Kate Beckinsale in the somewhat thankless role of Chris' wife, a woman who's increasingly threatened as the movie wears on, and J.K. Simmons, as the captain of the ship that Chris uses for his smuggling operation.

Director Baltasar Kormakur, who starred in the Icelandic original on which Contraband is based, doesn't always help matters, directing in an edgy, abrupt style that can be more disorienting than exciting.

Kormakur deserves credit for wrapping up a lot of details in fairly short order, even if the ending doesn't deliver quite enough kick to lift Contraband out of the thriller ghetto. Having said that, I'll add that I didn't really mind the movie, and even got caught up in it at times. I know this isn't going to sound like high praise, but for all its problems and loose ends, Contraband is ... well ... OK.

'Carnage' draws blood, but only a trickle

What happens when the parents are not all right?

Carnage, a big-screen adaptation of a play by Yasmina Reza, struck me as Edward Albee light, 79 minutes of burgeoning sarcasm and spewed venom that's supposed to deprive its characters of all their civilized pretexts.

But instead of feeling like a scathing revelation, this semi-satirical drama seems only to be putting its characters through a lot of pre-determined motions. The game feels rigged, and it's not all that interesting anyway.

The story is simple. Two sets of New York parents meet after the son of one has attacked the son of the other with a stick, knocking out a couple of teeth. One set of parents seems determined to use the incident as a teaching moment; the other seems vaguely conciliatory, but we know from the outset that the initially hopeful mood will give way to something far less polite.

The acting, alas, struck me as variable. Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz portray Alan and Nancy Cowan. She's an investment adviser; he's an attorney. The Cowans visit the apartment of Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly and Jodi Foster), parents of the boy who was clobbered.

To some degree, Carnage aims at satirizing middle-class pretensions. Only Waltz's Alan Cowan, a lawyer who's representing a pharmaceutical company in the midst of a crisis, seems reluctant to play the role of deeply concerned parent. He's too busy taking calls on his cell phone, much to the annoyance of his wife and also, I'm afraid, the audience.

Of all the actors, Winslet struck me as most convincing -- with Reilly bringing up a reasonable second. Foster, on the other hand, seems miscast as a mother who carries her liberal values with stiff determination and self-righteous fury. Foster's performance vacilates between brittle and shrill and, at times, she seemed so overwrought I feared her head might explode.

Credit director Roman Polanski for keeping the proceedings fleet and for preventing the movie -- set almost entirely in one Brooklyn apartment -- from feeling boxed in.

Reza's play, first staged in France, came to Broadway starring James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis. I can imagine that being in the company of the actors would give this material a considerable boost. But on film, Carnage comes across as not terribly insightful and only fitfully amusing.

Streep's strong. 'Iron Lady?' Not so much

Meryl Streep scores as Margaret Thatcher, but the movie misses the mark.
The moment I saw Meryl Streep's meticulously aged and slightly unrecognizable face in The Iron Lady, two words inevitably leaped to mind: Oscar nomination. This isn't necessarily Streep's fault, but thoughts of future encomiums automatically seem to crop up whenever Streep appears in a movie that requires an accent.

And in this case, Streep's not only playing a famous and controversial woman, she's playing someone suffering from dementia, which turns over an additional Oscar trump: the disease card.

I don't meant to diminish Streep's achievement, which is considerable, but she -- like everyone else -- must live with a reputation, and I think it says something (not necessarily positive) that you may leave Iron Lady talking more about Streep's performance than about the woman she's playing.

Thatcher, of course, is a movie-worthy subject. The former British Prime Minister -- more or less Britain's answer to Ronald Reagan -- spent 11 years trying to dismantle Britain's version of what conservatives pejoratively call "the welfare state." I'm always wary of politicians who want to save their countries from decline, and Thatcher was that kind of leader. The daughter of a grocer, she thought that hard work and grit were life's great cure-alls.

Whatever you think of Thatcher, it's fair to say that Iron Lady misses the mark. Streep may be pitch perfect as the doddering Thatcher, but the movie spends entirely too much time on this part of the prime minister's life, which is sad but not nearly as interesting as her rise to power -- first as a member of Parliament, then as Secretary of State for Education and Science, then as leader of the opposition party and, finally, as prime minister.

As directed by Phyllida Lloyd, from a script by Abi Morgan, Iron Lady falls victim to its own flashback structure. While recalling her past, Thatcher wanders about her quarters having conversations with her dead husband (Jim Broadbent), who we see. Thatcher's canny enough not to conduct these hallucinatory talks in the company of others.

Because she's smart and practiced, Thatcher knows how to maintain a decent front, although the people closest to her -- notably her daughter (Olivia Colman) -- know what kind of shape she's in. Thatcher seems to miss her son Mark, who lives in South Africa and who remains unseen throughout the proceedings.

Streep and Broadbent have some nice moments together, and Broadbent seems to capture some of Denis Thatcher's pluck, even though we only see him as a figment of his wife's imagination.

Although she doesn't look like Streep, Alexandra Roach does an equally nice job as a young and upcoming Thatcher, a woman who begins to explore a political career and who is encouraged by her beau and future husband (Harry Lloyd).

Credit Lloyd with pulling off a tricky bit of business; he looks nothing like Broadbent, but somehow manages to suggest that he grew into the man we meet in Thatcher's delusions.

The movie's 13-member make-up department, which includes prosthetics people, a contact lens optician and a silicon technician -- turns Streep into Fort Thatcher, an imposing and fortified woman whose frailties have begun to show through. Streep looks too much like Thatcher in her dotage and not enough like Thatcher in her prime. Maybe it doesn't matter: She has some pleasingly arch scenes with the men who surround her, listening to their advice while retaining a sense of independence and authority that ultimately veers into tyrannical dominance.

But as the movie fluctuates between Thatcher's addled present and her powerful past, it can't seem to decide whether to applaud her feminist pluck or condemn her political ego. And in dealing with such matters as Britain's war in the Falklands, I'm not sure Iron Lady takes much of a position at all, except to say that the victory restored Thatcher's waning popularity.

So, yes, Streep no doubt will get her Oscar nomination, but we didn't need a movie about Margaret Thatcher to tell us that it's sad to watch a once-commanding person ravaged by dementia or that a long marriage has its tender moments or that an ambitious, intelligent woman worked hard to become one of the most powerful people on the planet. And we certainly didn't need a movie that doesn't seem to know which of those things qualifies as most intriguing.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A yakuza-palooza of a movie

A Japanese mob movie that doesn't skimp on violence.

With his new movie, Outrage, Takeshi Kitano not only has put his toe back in yakuza waters, he has taken a full-body plunge. (Kitano's last yakuza film was 2000's Brother.) The opening of the movie involves a slow pan of limos. Drivers and assorted flunkies wait for their bosses to leave a big mob meeting. It's a master stroke from Kitano, who also appears in the movie and who may most familiar to American audiences for The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi. It's an off-beat but telling way to introduce us to this strange and increasingly violent world. Like feudal lords the bosses are surrounded by retainers who cool their heels away from the main action. It takes time to sort through the confusing gaggle of feuding mob bosses -- both petty and important. What's not confusing is Kitano's use of graphic violence, including a scene involving a mobster and a dentist's drill that forced me to avert my eyes. As an actor, Kitano is known as Beat Takeshi. Here, he plays Otomo, a mob guy who takes on the kind of assignments others won't do and executes them without much fuss or complaint. Otomo is ordered to work against one boss, but eventually learns that in a world of rampant betrayal, trust can prove fatal. The ending is more downbeat than you might expect, and not everyone will be able to tolerate the movie's excruciatingly depicted violence. But Kitano's fans won't want to miss the director's re-entry into the world of the yakuza, where giving someone the finger means something entirely different than it does in most American contexts. Outrage is a yakuza movie that sometimes smirks in the same way as Otomo, who seems to know he's stuck in a world populated by the most ruthless of vipers.*

*Connecting the dots: In the current issue of The New Yorker (Jan. 9, 2012), Peter Hessler profiles Jake Adelstein, an American who has been writing about the yakuza for years. At one point, Hessler quotes an ex-yakuza as telling him that a yakuza must think of himself as being on stage. "If you're bad at playing the role of a yakuza, then you're a bad yakuza." I couldn't resist applying this quote to Outrage, in which some of the yakuza performances erupt in exaggerated fury. That, of course, raises an interesting question about Japanese gangsters and other major role players. At what point does the act become real? Being a yakuza may require acting skills, but when the performance turns violent, does it become something else? When Hamlet ends, the stage is littered with corpses, but after the curtain falls, the actors get up and go about their business. The same can't be said for the most unfortunate of yakuza victims. Oh well, I can feel myself starting to go in circles here, but I wanted to add this note as an aid to understanding and perhaps appreciating some of the performance styles in Outrage.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Broadcast critics set for year-end honors

Hugo and The Artist lead the field of Broadcast Film Critics nominees.

Just when you thought it was safe to put your formal wear back in mothballs, it's once again time to dig out the old tuxedo. OK, maybe that's not true for you (or me), but it certainly applies to lots of Hollywood folks who are about to hop a ride on the annual awards express.

The Broadcast Film Critics Association begins the season with its 17th annual awards show, which will be broadcast on VH1 live from the Hollywood Palladium on Jan 12 at 6 p.m. (MST). Comics Paul Scheer and Rob Huebel will host the event.

If you like star-gazing, it's worth knowing that the nominees all tend to show up for BFCA event, which this year features a musical and film tribute to Martin Scorsese, who also happens to have directed one of the year's most nominated movies. Scorsese's Hugo garnered 11 nominations, as did The Artist. Both films were one nomination shy of the record 12 nominations garnered by Black Swan a year ago.

The BFCA (the largest critics' organization in the U.S. and Canada) has some 250 members who ply their trade on television, radio or on line. That includes me. Maybe I'm biased, but I think the BFCA awards are a better bellwether for Oscar than the much-hyped Golden Globes.

To whet your appetite, here's a list of the major BFCA nominees:

The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The Help
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
War Horse

George Clooney – The Descendants
Leonardo DiCaprio – J. Edgar
Jean Dujardin – The Artist
Michael Fassbender – Shame
Ryan Gosling – Drive
Brad Pitt – Moneyball

Viola Davis – The Help
Elizabeth Olsen – Martha Marcy May Marlene
Meryl Streep – The Iron Lady
Tilda Swinton – We Need to Talk About Kevin
Charlize Theron – Young Adult
Michelle Williams – My Week With Marilyn

Kenneth Branagh – My Week With Marilyn
Albert Brooks – Drive
Nick Nolte – Warrior
Patton Oswalt – Young Adult
Christopher Plummer – Beginners
Andy Serkis – Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Bérénice Bejo – The Artist
Jessica Chastain – The Help
Melissa McCarthy – Bridesmaids
Carey Mulligan – Shame
Octavia Spencer – The Help
Shailene Woodley – The Descendants

Stephen Daldry – Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Michel Hazanavicius – The Artist
Alexander Payne – The Descendants
Nicolas Winding Refn – Drive
Martin Scorsese – Hugo