Sunday, February 26, 2012

Oscar 2012, a ho-hum evening

To almost no one's surprise, The Artist wins best picture.
I can always tell when it's Oscar night. The dazzling fashions? Not really. The excitement of seeing movie stars on TV? Not so much. I know it's Oscar night because it's the only night of the year that you'll catch me watching E!, the entertainment channel. Of course, I only watch the red carpet ceremonies on E! until ABC begins its Oscar coverage. This year, I was glad I tuned into E! because the highlight of the evening arrived when Sacha Baron Cohen (in full Dictator regalia, dumped ashes on red carpet interviewer Ryan Seacrest.

Cohen, whose next movie is called The Dictator, said the urn he spilled down the front of Seacrest's tuxedo contained the ashes of the late Kim Jong-Il. Kim Jong-Il, said Cohen, wanted his ashes sprinkled on the red carpet, as well as on Halle Berry's chest.

Hey, on a boring and mostly predictable Oscar night, you take your thrills where you find them.

Host Billy Crystal improved over last year's combo of James Franco and Anne Hathaway, but -- let's be honest -- that duo set a very low bar. It didn't take long for me to begin wishing Eddie Murphy hadn't dropped out as the host.

At times, Crystal seemed to be the only person chuckling at his one-liners, and his opening movie montage and subsequent song started well enough, but soon drifted into mediocrity.

Oh well, Crystal inserted himself into a scene from The Descendants, awakening from a fake coma after George Clooney kissed him, which I guess was supposed to be funny and daring.

When Chris Rock appeared to present the award for best animated feature, he joked about how easy it was to provide a voice for an animated character. He also provided a hint of what was missing from the evening, a little sharpness, a little irreverence, a little willingness to make jokes that didn't seem to suffer from varicose veins.

The awards?

It was another year of honoring pictures that didn't exactly go crazy at the box office. I was only surprised once, and that was when Dame Meryl Streep -- she of the 17 Oscar nominations -- won best-actress for playing Margaret Thatcher in

The Iron Lady. On this Oscar night, Meryl became The Gold Lady, beating Viola Davis, who seemed to be the favorite of almost every prognosticator, including me. Streep won for a fine performance in a movie that scored a 53 rating on Rotten Tomatoes, not exactly the stuff of which Oscars are made.

Said Streep: “When they called my name, I had this feeling I could hear half of America going, ‘Oh no. Oh, come on. Why her? Again?'"

As a Viola Davis fan, I felt she'd read my mind.

Octavia Spencer won best supporting actress for The Help, though. She was one of the few Oscar recipients who showed some genuine emotion.

Woody Allen won for writing the best original screenplay (Midnight in Paris), but didn't show up at the ceremony. I wondered if he was home watching the Oscars or if he'd switched over to the NBA All-Star Game.

And what was the Academy thinking? Did Adam Sandler really belong in a bit in which various actors ruminated on what makes a great movie?

And what was up with the Cirque Du Soleil number? I took it as one more sign that Hollywood -- which spent the whole evening trying to remind us how much we love movies -- has lost confidence in itself.

Angelina Jolie figured out that the best way to get attention at the Oscars is to do a little flaunting; she showed some leg. Granted, it was only the right leg that protruded brazenly from her gown, but she made a show of it.

I had one genuinely happy moment watching the Oscars, aside from the fact that I impressed with myself for being able to Tweet throughout the program, a minor achievement to be sure, but an achievement nonetheless. My moment of joy arrived when Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won an Oscar for the best documentary short. Junge (They Killed Sister Dorothy and Iron Ladies of Liberia) lives in Denver, and, more importantly, is building an impressive body of documentary work. He's a true talent, and his Oscar was well-deserved, especially since he was nominated a year ago in the same category (The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner) and lost.

Saving Face tells the story of Pakistani women who have become victims of acid attacks, mostly by crazed husbands. It's an eye-opening film, and amid its horror and suffering, it manages to suggest that a bit of surprising evolution may be taking place in Pakistan, at least when it comes to such abused women. (For the record, Junge is the second Denver filmmaker to win an Oscar in this category: Donna Dewey -- A Story of Healing == was the first.)

Enough with the local color.

I thought it was mildly ironic that a French filmmaker (Michel Hazanavicius) won an Oscar for making a film in Los Angeles that celebrated movie history. He beat Martin Scorsese (for both best director and best picture), an America who went to Paris to make Hugo, a film that also captured some of the wonder of early moviemaking.

Oscar predictors may have been feeling slightly uneasy early in the evening when Scorsese's Hugo began to pile up technical awards (cinematography, production design), but the evening ultimately worked its way toward the expected finale with The Artist winning best picture, its fifth Oscar.

And one thing's for sure. You can bet that there'll be plenty of rueful jokes from industry insiders about Harvey Weinstein (of the Weinstein Company) and his uncanny ability to win Oscars. The Weinstein Company distributed The Artist in the U.S.)

Oh well, it's late in the evening, and I'm ready to put Oscar to bed. If you've been at an Oscar party, you're probably just arriving home, wondering why you have to get up for work tomorrow morning and unable to escape the slightly depressing fact that you do.

You can find a complete list of winners at The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences web site.

Friday, February 24, 2012

'Act of Valor' is an ode to Navy SEALs

The Navy SEALs sare tough and daring, but Act of Valor falls short.

Act of Valor is an action film without professional actors, at least not many of them. Directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh use real Navy SEALs to make an unabashed ode to warrior virtues, as embodied in an elite team that finds itself in a long series of battles. These frenzied set pieces begin with and evolve from the rescue of a female CIA agent who has been captured and tortured by terrorists.

Narrated by one of the SEALs, the movie works hard to glorify the warrior spirit, and, for some, it will serve as a kind of big-screen recruiting poster, although obviously not all military personnel have the desire or ability to participate in this kind of activity.

Act of Valor follows the exploits of Bandito Platoon as it moves from one operation to the next, leaving little breathing space in between. I assume that McCoy and Waugh couldn't make a film using real SEALs unless they intended to extoll the military, so it's hardly surprising that they spare no effort in underlining the platoon's coherence and courage.

We see families left behind. We see men who know that they can't be thinking about the distractions of home when they fly into action. We see acts of selfless heroism. Moreover, we get a sense of appreciation for how such elite units (presumably an increasingly integral part of U.S. defense strategy) go about their business.

The filmmakers splay real SEAL maneuvers across a barebones narrative. There's machismo, patriotism and physical daring here, but the problem with the movie is that ... well ... it's not exactly a movie.

The script is really an excuse to march these warriors into a variety of battles with glaring, blaring explosions and lots of gunfire. (The filmmakers reportedly used live ammunition.) The SEAL characters are sketchily developed, and the movie -- never overly concerned with plot -- pits the SEALs against enemies that pose a terrorist threat.

Some of the scenes (an interrogation, for example) remind us why most features are made with real actors. There's a reason John Wayne made war movies while guys named Eisenhower and Patton fought wars. I'd have preferred to see a documentary about the SEALs. I wanted to hear real SEALs speaking their own words. I wouldn't have minded a bit of nuance here or there. But that's just me.

Now let me say something else. I tend to resent movies that engage in any kind of moral browbeating. I'm talking about movies that set up an awkward dynamic. If you don't like Act of Valor, you must hate everything it stands for -- or so this kind of unstated innuendo goes.

Get this: Not admiring Act of Valor is not the same as disapproving of Navy SEALs or denying their courage or their ability to deal with extreme difficulty. Act of Valor celebrates the valor of the SEALs, but it's as close to propaganda as movies ought to get.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Fighting for a child's life

A French movie about parents under extreme stress.

There's a little too much cinematic self-consciousness in Declaration of War, a French melodrama about the travails of a couple shamelessly named Romeo and Juliette. Romeo and Juliette meet at a party, tumble through a furious courtship montage and wind up with a new baby. As is often the case, the glow of romance quickly gives way to practical concerns. The baby cries all the time. Romeo is trying to whip a new apartment into shape. Sounds familiar, but not all the couple's problems fall within normal parameters. Romeo and Juliette soon learn that their baby has a brain tumor, and this very scary knowledge sets the movie on its true course. It's probably important to know that director Valerie Donzelli, who plays Juliette, once had a relationship with the actor who plays Romeo, Jérémie Elkaïm. The two had a baby together and that baby went through arduous cancer treatments, some of them in the hospital where much of Declaration of War was filmed. The elements for a moving story are in place, but Donzelli doesn't always help her dramatic cause. Some of the cinematic devices she employees seem a little too cute for this kind of subject matter. These include intermittent chunks of narration that help the movie leap ahead in time and a bit in which Romeo and Juliette express their love in song. Fortunately, a welcome level of realism partially offsets Donzelli's worst impulses; Romeo and Juliette are beaten down by what seems an endless round of medical treatments in which every bit of good news (the tumor has been removed) seems to be followed by an equal helping of woe (it was malignant). The baby's difficulties begin at roughly the same time as the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but the real war here is between two indefatigable parents and the disease that threatens their child. Donzelli makes no attempt to canonize herself or her partner in this intermittently affecting look at what sustained stress can do to young lovers who get way more than they bargained for. If life is a learning experience for which we're all ill-prepared, this story enrolls Romeo and Juliette in a post-graduate course.

'Bullhead,' ah those mean Belgian fields

Bullhead -- a Belgian movie populated by thugs who sell illegal drugs used to fatten cattle -- is one of five 2012 nominees for best foreign-language film. Peculiar and grim, the movie focuses on the distorted life of a steroid-using young man (Matthias Schoenaerts) who suffered a debilitating beating when he was a kid. Schoenaerts' Jacky now finds himself living through an uneasy adulthood. I'd never heard of the so-called "hormone mafia" before Bullhead, and the fact that the movie can be a bit confusing didn't help clarify matters. Bullhead begins with a provocative bit of narration that serves as introductory warning: "In the end," we're told, "we're all fucked." Flag hoisted. Message delivered. There's bleak sailing ahead. The movie's ability to hold us in its grip springs from Schoenaerts' roid-raging performance as a cattle farmer who injects himself with staggering amounts of testosterone. At first, Schoenaerts' Jacky seems like one more addition to an endless gallery of brutal movie thugs, but Bullhead enables us to understand Jacky's brooding frustrations. It eventually becomes clear that director Michael R. Roskam -- who's making his feature debut -- has concocted an elaborate saga in which Jacky seeks a revenge that begins to look like the price he expects the world to pay for the torments he's suffered. Roskam's weird, counter-intuitive take on bucolic life pushes a mean-streets mentality into the rural world of cattle farming. As the story develops, a cop is murdered; a hormone trafficker tries to cover the crime; and Jacky -- a grotesque, graceless and sometimes pathetic figure -- veers further out of control. The emotional core of the story centers of Jacky's strained relationship with a childhood pal (Jeanne Dandoy) who witnessed what happened to young Jacky, but didn't intervene. Roskam catches us up in Jacky's rage, despair and loneliness, and a bulked-up Schoenaerts creates a scary, sad character who can't tame his own violence, much less that of the world. Intense and chastening, Bullhead sometimes feels a bit too much like a hormone-stoked freak show, but it leaves you stunned.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Oscar prediction, best picture

OK, time for the a best-picture prediction. I hated the Academy's switch to a 10-nominee format, and I'm no more fond of its variable approach: no more than 10 pictures, no less than five. The proliferation of nominees shows just how desperate the Academy is to expand interest in its golden moment. It can't have been lost on those who make the Academy's rules that many of the movies that find their way onto Oscar's short list aren't exactly blockbusters. Of this year's nominees, the closest we get to movies that feel as if they're aiming at head-nodding, mass approval are The Help and War Horse. It's difficult to believe that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close -- which scored an embarrassing 46 on Rotten Tomatoes -- is even on the list. And although Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life stands as an impressive and singular work, I doubt whether it ranks among the top three vote-getters on Oscar's list.

Best picture, the nominees:
The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
The Help
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
War Horse

I'm predicting a win for The Artist with a fallback to The Descendants. I read somewhere that a campaign had been launched to encourage voters to think about which of Oscar's nominees someone might want to watch years down the road. Voters who think that way may be pushed toward The Descendants as a more durable picture than The Artist, which has a high "delight" factor, but which, by its very nature (silent and black and white) seems a bit of a novelty. It's also possible that The Help will exert its appeal and win, especially if this proves to be a year of excessive vote-splitting. For all that, The Artist seems primed to take home the Oscar.

One more time. I won't be able to say this after today, so ....
Join me, Denver Post Film Critic Lisa Kennedy, Starz Denver Film Festival Director Britta Erickson and Oscar maven Bob Becker at 7:30 p.m. tonight -- that's Wed., Feb. 22 -- at the FilmCenter/Colfax, 2510 E. Colfax Ave. for a pre-Oscar Cinema Salon. The atmosphere will be informal and the talk will be lively.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Oscar predictions, actor and actress

OK, time to get serious. We're approaching the three awards that tend to be most remembered: best actress, best actor and best picture. Don't get me wrong. It's great that Oscar gives the rest of the industry its due. We need reminders that art direction, music, cinematography, make-up, costumes and editing are vital parts of the movie industry. But you rarely hear folks leave a movie gushing about a great editing job, and most of the time cinematography seems to be equated in the poplar mind with pretty pictures. If most people are willing to admit to a bit of ignorance when it comes to the technical aspects of movies, nearly everyone feels qualified to opine about actors, as well as on the overall quality of a film. So let's get to my predictions about who'll win best actress and actor at this Sunday's (Feb. 26) Oscars.

Best actress, the nominees:
Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis, The Help
Rooney Mara, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn

I wasn't a big fan of The Help, but I am an admirer of Viola Davis, and I think she'll win in this category. Most observers seem to argue that the best-actress contest boils down to a battle between Davis, who played Mississippi maid Aibileen Clark in The Help, and Meryl Streep, who portrayed former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. I'd rule out Rooney Mara, who was fine and flinty in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. She's young, and should have more shots at an Oscar. I didn't buy Glenn Close as a woman masquerading as a man in Albert Nobbs, and although Michelle Williams, as Marilyn Monroe, was the best thing about the slight and negligible (I know, lots of people love it) My Weekend With Marilyn. She'll probably go home without a statue.

Best actor, the nominees:
Demian Bichir, A Better Life
George Clooney, The Descendants
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt, Moneyball

I suppose this one boils down to a race between George Clooney (The Descendants) and Jean Dujardin (The Artist). I initially favored Clooney, but shifted after the Screen Actors Guild went for Dujardin. An awful lot of actors cast ballots in the Oscar voting. I certainly wouldn't be upset if Clooney were to win, but as we inch toward Sunday, Dujardin seems to be the favorite.

And did I happen to mention the Cinema Salon Wednesday, Feb. 22? No, well let me clue you in. I'll be joined by Denver Post Film Critic Lisa Kennedy, Starz Denver Film Festival Director Britta Erickson and Oscar maven Bob Becker at 7:30 p.m., Wed., Feb. 22 at the FilmCenter/Colfax, 2510 E. Colfax Ave. Chances are good that we'll put on a more interesting show than you'll see Sunday night when the Oscars are awarded.

Monday, February 20, 2012

More predictions, best director

With Oscar now only five days away, the suspense mounts -- or at least it's beginning to bubble upward. Today's prediction focuses on direction, and, yes, we're nearing the home stretch of my predictions because I'm only dealing with the major categories. No best make-up or best song for me. I've got three more to go, best actor and actress and best movie.

Best director, the nominees
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Martin Scorsese, Hugo

The Directors Guild of America winner usually wins the Oscar. This year, the DGA picked Michel Hazanavicius, who directed The Artist. The smart money is on Hazanavicius because of the ascendance of The Artist among Academy voters and because of the DGA award he's already won. I'm not going to go against the smart money, but I have to reiterate my admiration of Terrence Malick and for The Tree of Life, a movie that tried to meld the personal and the cosmic. Even those don't regard Tree of Life as an unalloyed triumph (and I guess I belong in that group) surely will acknowledge that it's the most ambitious movie in the lot. I'd rule out Woody Allen in this category. In another year, Alexander Payne might have had a clear path to best picture and best director. Not this year. It's always a bit dangerous to try to assess the degree of difficulty faced by a director, but judging from afar, I'd say that Hugo is the most difficult of all the movies represented on this list, a 3-D production with spectacular sets, two child actors and a sense of delicacy that's unusual for a big movie. Still, I wouldn't bet against Hazanavicius. He's probably a lock.

What? You thought I wasn't going to mention the upcoming Cinema Salon program? You thought I wasn't going once again to invite you to join me, Denver Post Film Critic Lisa Kennedy, Starz Denver Film Festival Director Britta Erickson and Oscar maven Bob Becker at 7:30 p.m., Wed., Feb. 22 at the FilmCenter/Colfax, 2510 E. Colfax Ave. We'll help you prepare for Oscar so that you can amaze friends and family. And if we don't do that, we'll at least give you an interesting evening of pre-Oscar chat.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Predictions, docs and foreign films

The prediction game continues. Today, best guesses for the documentary feature and foreign-language categories. Putting these two together is not meant to diminish the importance of either, but to save a little space. Know that most predictions about the year's best foreign-lanuage film are made by people who haven't seen them all. That's certainly true in my case, but when it comes to Oscar, you don't always have to have seen every film to know which way the winds of victory are blowing. Anyway, here are today's predictions:

Best documentary, the nominees:
Hell and Back Again
If a Tree Falls
Paradise Lost 3

Another difficult category, but Wim Wenders 3-D look at the work of choreographer Pina Bausch might be the best reviewed of all these films, a combination dance and interview film that introduced many viewers to Buasch's daring work. If there's an upset in this category, it's likely to come from Hell and Back Again, director Danfung Denis'examination of the life of Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris, who we meet in the midst of battle in Afghanistan and who we watch struggle after being severely wounded and returning to his North Carolina home.

Best foreign-language film, the nominees:
Bullhead (Belgium)
Footnote (Israel)
In Darkness (Poland)
Monsieur Lazhar (Canada)
A Separation (Iran)

I've only seen two of these films, but I'm going with A Separation because it's one of the best films of 2011, a beautifully nuanced look at a deteriorating Iranian marriage and the difficulties that arise when the husband hires a young woman to take care of his father, an aging man who's suffering from dementia. Agnieszka Holland's In Darkness is considered the best challenger in this category. Holland tells the story of Jews forced to hide in the sewers of Lvov during the Nazi occupation of Poland.

Don't you hate all the self-promotion you find on the Web? I certainly do. Having said that, let me once again invite you to join me, Denver Post Film Critic Lisa Kennedy, Starz Denver Film Festival Director Britta Erickson and Oscar maven Bob Becker for an Oscar preview Cinema Salon, 7:30 p.m., Wed., Feb. 22 at the FilmCenter/Colfax, 2510 E. Colfax Ave. We'll predict, I'm sure, but we'll also talk about why we still care (if we do) about the whole damn business. I enjoy doing these lively, informal Salon programs, in part because the audiences can be fun. I encourage you to try one.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

My predictions: Best screenplays

The predictions continue. Here's another installment in the march toward Oscar, my predictions for the best screenplays (adapted and original). Remember, the Oscars will be awarded on Sun. Feb. 26.

Best adapted screenplay, the nominees:
The Ides of March, George Clooney, Beau Willimon & Grant Heslov
The Descendants, Nat Faxon, Alexander Payne & Jim Rash
Hugo, John Logan
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Bridget O'Connor & Peter Straughan
Moneyball, Aaron Sorkin, Steven Zaillian & Stan Chervin

The Descendants is the likely winner here. The movie's trio of credited writers did a fine job adapting Kaui Hart Hemmings' 2007 novel for the screen. The three main characters -- a father and his two daughters -- were memorable, and the movie managed an exceptionally difficult feat, mixing humor and serious drama without capsizing.

Best original screenplay, the nominees:
Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen
Margin Call, JC Chandor
A Separation, Asghar Farhadi
The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius
Bridesmaids, Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumulo

Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris is the front runner (and my pick) in a category that -- with the exception of Bridesmaids -- includes nothing but award-worthy nominees. A Separation likely will win best foreign-language film, so it probably will miss out in this category. It's possible, if unlikely, that the intricate and literate Margin Call screenplay could prevail.

I pick Allen because the movie was one of his most popular, and because every awards show needs to honor someone who isn't likely to show up.

Caveats: It's always dangerous to count Aaron Sorkin out, and if The Artist goes crazy, it might win best original screenplay.


Join me, Denver Post Film Critic Lisa Kennedy, Starz Denver Film Festival Director Britta Erickson and Oscar maven Bob Becker for an Oscar preview Cinema Salon, 7:30 p.m., Wed., Feb. 22 at the FilmCenter/Colfax, 2510 E. Colfax Ave. We'll predict, I'm sure, but we'll also talk about why we still care (if we do) about the whole damn business anyway.

*An update: The Writers Guild of America Sunday (Feb. 19) announced that The Descendants won its award for best adapted screenplay, and Midnight in Paris took the award for best original screenplay. After I originally posted my predictions in this category, a reader commented negatively on Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris (See below). I wouldn't have voted for it as best original screenplay, either, but the professionals evidently admired it more than any other picture in the competition.

Friday, February 17, 2012

My Oscar predictions: Supporting roles

Every year, it's incumbent on critics to make Oscar predictions. Rather than flood you with predictions, I thought I'd try something different this year. Throughout the coming week, I'll gradually work my way toward best picture as I consider the major categories. So without further ado, my first predictions for the 2012 Academy Awards, which will be handed out on Sunday, Feb. 26.

Best supporting actor, the nominees are:
Kenneth Branagh, My Week With Marilyn
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Nick Nolte, Warrior
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Max Von Sydow, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Sure I'd love to hear a Nick Nolte acceptance speech, but I'm going with the conventional wisdom in this category. Christopher Plummer will win for his portrayal of a late-blooming gay man in Beginners.

Best supporting actress, the nominees are::
Bérénice Bejo, The Artist
Jessica Chastain, The Help
Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer, The Help

As always, a difficult category, but Octavia Spencer is the frontrunner who will prevail. If I had a vote, I'd cast it for Janet McTeer, who played a woman posing as a man in Albert Nobbs.

Caveats: Some critics believe there could be a groundswell of support for Max Von Sydow because he's had a long and estimable career. I wouldn't bet on it. Berenice Bejo might ride the coattails of The Artist, a favorite for best picture, but I'm thinking that Spencer will turn the rest of the field into also-rans.*

Join me, Denver Post Film Critic Lisa Kennedy, Starz Denver Film Festival Director Britta Erickson and Oscar maven Bob Becker for an Oscar preview Cinema Salon, 7:30 p.m., Wed., Feb. 22 at the FilmCenter/Colfax, 2510 E. Colfax Ave. We'll predict, I'm sure, but we'll also talk about why we still care (if we do) about the whole damn business anyway.

Short in length, but long on impact

This year's Oscar-nominated documentary shorts make for powerful viewing.
If you have to choose between the various categories of Oscar-nominated shorts, I'd opt for the documentaries. I don't mean to shortchange the other two categories (features and animation), but the documentary shorts constitute the strongest of the three groups, at least in my view.

The five nominated documentary shorts are The Barber of Birmingham, Incident in New Baghdad, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, Saving Face and God Is the Bigger Elvis, which is not part of the package available in theaters and which tells the story of Delores Hart, an actress who gave up a successful career to become a Benedictine nun. I hope it's as good as the rest of the shorts because the overall quality of this year's package is especially impressive.

For those who like to play the Oscar guessing game, it's worth knowing that the competition may narrow to two films, Lucy Walker's The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom and Daniel Junge's Saving Face.

I have to admit to some bias here because Junge lives in Denver and has been building an estimable career that includes feature-length documentaries (They Killed Sister Dorothy and Iron Ladies of Liberia), as well as The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner, which was nominated in this category last year.

Junge's new film deals with the plight of Pakistani women who have been the victim of acid attacks, mostly by unrepentant husbands. Junge's revealing film tells us lots about Pakistani attitudes toward women, which, thankfully, seem to be evolving.

Junge and his co-director, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, build their film around strong characters -- not only the women whose stories they tell, but Dr. Mohammad Jawad, a British plastic surgeon who travels to Pakistan to offer his services to women who've been attacked with acid.

The collaboration between Junge and Chinoy has produced a film that's not always easy to watch -- and shouldn't be, but which introduces us to women of courage and persistence who have suffered greatly and who are working to change a society in which male-domination can reach grotesque proportions.

If I had a vote (which I don't) I'd cast it for Saving Face -- not only because I know and respect Junge, but because I found his film to be the most powerful of the four that I saw, which is no knock on the other films in this admirable category.

The opening of Walker's Tsunami -- a four-minute look at the destruction of a small Japanese town is unforgettable; Incident in New Baghdad takes a sobering look at a horrible 2007 incident in the Iraq war and what it did to an American soldier who witnessed it; and Barber of Birmingham introduces us to James Armstrong, a Selma barber and foot soldier in the Civil Rights struggle.

All of these films prove that you don't necessarily need major time to make a big statement. And know this: Watching these films just might give you more by way of substance and emotion than you'll find in many commercial features.*

In Denver, the documentary shorts package is playing at the FilmCenter Colfax, 2510 East Colfax Ave. Watch for it at art houses in your city. In Denver, the animation and feature shorts can be seen at Landmark's Chez Artiste.

A beautifully realized animated world

I'm not sure what motivated me to drag myself to a Saturday morning screening of The Secret World of Arrietty, another helping of anime from Japan's famed Studio Ghibli. Saturday morning? A kid's movie? Did I really need it?

I rationalized, telling myself that Japanese anime has a well-deserved reputation for high quality, that I already was awake and that I had finished with the Saturday New York Times. Besides, I was interested (really) in the cross-cultural possibilities of a Japanese movie inspired by The Borrowers, a 1952 children's novel by Mary Norton. Originally made in Japanese, the movie was later dubbed into English. It has both an American voice cast and a British voice cast, and is being distributed in the U.S. by Disney.

All of that seemed like enough of a cultural mashup to get me out of the house, and -- as it turns out -- The Secret World of Arrietty harbors some interesting cultural anomalies. Characters speak in English, but read Japanese books. The few cars we see in the movie have Japanese license plates. And the country house where most of the movie takes place has an alluring look that seems to blend both Japanese and western influences.

For me, the most rewarding aspect of The Secret of Arrietty centers on the beautifully realized world that director Hiromasa Yonebayashi creates, an appealing storybook environment in which tiny beings live in the basement of a house where an ailing young boy has gone to stay with his grandmother prior to a heart operation.

Arrietty -- the title character -- is one of these little people, and she and the boy -- Shawn, by name -- strike up a friendship that eventually topples barriers of mistrust between the little people and the potentially dangerous humans, referred to by the little folks as "beings." The tiny basement dwellers are called "borrowers'' because they survive by taking things they're sure won't be missed by the "beings."

The different sizes of the movie's characters gives Yonebayashi lots of opportunities to toy with scale. He and his team have been meticulous in depicting Arrietty's entry into the larger world of the house, a rite of passage guided by her caring but somewhat stoic father.

I don't know if the story's deliberate pacing will satisfy a generation of hyperactive kids who may crave more frenzied entertainment, but watching The Secret World of Arrietty can feel like turning the pages of a masterfully illustrated storybook, and the kids at the preview screening I attended seemed unusually attentive.

Most of the story, which flags a bit around the three-quarter mark, involves the slowly developing relationship between Arrietty (voice by Bridgit Mendler) and Shawn (David Henrie). Shawn's efforts at bridge-building are made more difficult by a meddlesome housekeeper (Carol Burnett). Henrie also provides a minimal but sometimes touching narration.

Of course, child-oriented lessons about the way two potentially alien worlds find common ground are passed along, but the craft display here is rich enough to sustain adult interest, even among adults who find themselves at the movies at a time when they're more accustomed to reaching for that second cup of coffee.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Two spies compete for the love of one woman

This Means War: Another strained rom-com bites the dust.

Tom Hardy is an interesting young actor. Hardy made a strong impression as Ricky Tarr, a disillusioned spy in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In the gritty -- if overpraised -- Warrior, he played a young man training for mixed martial arts combat.

If you really want to pull out all the Hardy stops, make an immediate point of seeing Bronson, a riveting British import in which Hardy played Michael Peterson, an unrepentant British criminal. And, yes, Hardy also appeared in Inception, in which he played a member of Leonardo Di Caprio’s dream-invading posse.

The 34-year-old Hardy is an interesting and versatile actor, one of those gifted performers who’s capable of being unrecognizable from picture to picture. That’s a good thing for him because Hardy’s appearance in This Mans War could mark a low point in what I trust will be a long and admirable career.

In this preposterous romance, Hardy plays a CIA agent who competes with another CIA agent (Chris Pine) for the affections of a perky woman (Reese Witherspoon) who hasn't had much luck when it comes to love.

Hardy portrays Tuck, a divorced father who shares a buddy bond with his long-time CIA partner FDR Foster (Pine). When the two demonstrate more improvisational flare than than the agency customarily tolerates, they wind up assigned to desk jobs by their no-nonsense boss (Angela Bassett). Basset’s so wasted in this movie, casting her amounts to a form of actor abuse.

The only thinking you’ll find here involves moving the screenplay from one contrivance to the next. Witherspoon portrays Lauren, a successful woman whose job involves evaluating consumer products. Each man meets Lauren independently of the other. When they discover they’re both taken with Lauren, they begin a competition for her affection, sometimes using sophisticated CIA surveillance equipment to aid them. And you were wondering why we have trillion dollar deficits.

To add an element of Mr. & Mrs. Smith-style danger, a fiendish criminal (Til Schweiger) is out to kill Tuck.

Although both agents are highly competitive, FDR is the more seasoned womanizer of the two. Tuck is a bit of a disadvantage in this area; he spends time with his young son and misses the family he lost, presumably because he was never around.

Comic actress Chelsea Handler rounds out the movie’s cast; she plays the sexually oriented, ultra-pragmatic and loud-mouthed best friend, a married woman who encourages Lauren to date both men and enjoy herself. Handler’s supposed to offer comic relief, but her role proves as cliched as roles get in this kind of strained rom-com affliction.

Perhaps as a sop to men who are dragged to This Means War, director McG (Terminator Salvation, Charlie's Angels and We Are Marshall) dishes out action, staging a bruising fight in a restaurant and an over-the-top finale involving a car chase. OK, we’re watching a fantasy romance, but in what world is it possible for two men to engage in a fight that destroys an upscale restaurant without the police showing up?

Pine, who appeared as young Captain Kirk in the 2009 edition of Star Trek and who had a nice turn with Denzel Washington in Unstoppable, doesn't exactly burn up the screen here. Hardy's a bit better at carrying his share of this unsavory load, and Witherspoon tries to bring spunk to a character that’s about as believable as CIA agents who act like frat boys. I wasn’t a fan of Water for Elephants -- Witherspoon’s last movie -- but at least that picture showed some ambition, which is more than can be said for This Means War, which tries to merge three genres -- romance, action and comedy -- and winds up making a mockery of each.

Besides, who needs a romance in which there’s more action in the streets than between the sheets? This Means War is a dud.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

'The Vow' makes a pledge to formula

Amnesia, heartbreak and romance make for a too-familiar Valentine's Day entertainment.
It's not exactly high praise -- at least from my point of view -- but The Vow, a romance starring Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum, resembles a big-screen adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks' novel. Maybe that's because McAdams appeared in the big-screen adaptation of Sparks' The Notebook, and Tatum starred in Dear John, another adaptation of a soggy Sparks' romance.

Whatever the reason, the comparison should be enough to warn off those who shy away from romance that has been lacquered with formulaic glaze, (For the record, IMDB lists five writers as having had something to do with the screenplay, and, in case it isn't already obvious, it's not derived from a Sparks' novel. It's just Sparks-like.)

The movie begins by telling us that its story was inspired by "true events," which could be taken as a way of saying, "Look, what you're about to see is calculated and maybe a little sappy, but what can we do? It's inspired by a true story? Don't blame us. Blame reality."

McAdams and Channing play a husband and wife whose lives are ripped apart when she suffers amnesia after a terrible auto accident, chillingly depicted near the movie's outset.

The rest of the story centers on the way Tatum's Leo tries to re-establish his relationship with McAdams' Paige. His task is made more difficult by the fact that she remembers everything that happened to her before she became involved with him.

Additional complications are added by the suburban family from which Paige had been estranged. Because she doesn't remember turning her back on her parents (Sam Neill and Jessica Lange), she now feels most comfortable spending time with them and with her sister (Jessica McNamee). Leo's left out in the emotional cold.

Paige even thinks she might still be in love with a former fiancé (Scott Speedman), a lawyer with whom she broke up before dropping out of law school, moving to Chicago, becoming a sculptor and marrying Leo.

McAdams and Tatum fulfill their genre obligations well enough with Tatum going the extra mile by revealing (to the squealing delight of a female-dominated preview audience) his bare butt.

Overall, I'd say that The Vow is one of those movies that has a difficult time touching the heart because you feel as if you've seen it even before the opening credits roll. The Vow is also the kind of romance that's geared to offer maximum reassurance, not only because it's devoted to formula but because it's obsessed with surfaces: No matter how bad things get, everyone always seems pretty well put together.

Put another way: Few people have been propelled through the windshield of a car and emerged looking as good as McAdams.

Sifting through the wreckage of 'Safe House'

This action-oriented blur of movie relies on Denzel Washington to hold it together.
A desk-bound CIA rookie comes into contact with some of the agency's more questionable practices. As a result, he begins to understand that the action for which he has been longing comes with a steep price, an acceptance of ethical expediency that can undermine anyone's humanity.

That kind of situation surely would make for an interesting movie. Unfortunately, Safe House -- which focuses on the relationship between a CIA novice (Ryan Reynolds) and a former agent gone rogue (Denzel Washington) -- is not that movie.

Safe House is a jumbled mishmash of action wrapped around a strained plot that's given a bit of extra cache by a strong cast that -- besides Reynolds and Washington -- includes Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Ruben Blades, Sam Shepard and Robert Patrick, actors who, for the most part, are present without making a big impression. Most of the supporting cast hangs out in a media-heavy control room at CIA headquarters.

If you find the movie intermittently confusing, blame David Guggenheim's muddle of a script and director Daniel Espinosa's frenzied direction. Bruising car chases and vicious fights are spewed across the screen in fragmented, hand-held chunks that ape the visual incoherence of some of the set pieces in the Bourne movies and which seem to have become the fashion in too many editing suites. (Here's a quick, but helpful FYI: Richard Pearson, who did the editing here, also edited The Bourne Supremacy.)

Reynolds portrays Matt Weston, a CIA agent who’s working in a low-grade post in Cape Town, South Africa. Matt’s life changes when Washington’s Tobin Frost -- a former agent who has wandered way off the reservation -- surrenders at a U.S. consulate. Frost is brought to Weston’s safe house for interrogation sessions, which include water boarding.

As the interrogators ply their morally dubious trade, the safe house is attacked by an unidentified group of invaders, a development that puts Weston and Frost on the run. Weston's supposed to keep Frost safe so that he can be questioned and prevented from doing further harm to the agency and to the U.S. interests its supposed to protect.

The rest of the movie proceeds in an action-oriented blur. Reynolds functions as a kind of straight man to Washington, who delivers another wily performance as a savvy, manipulative sociopath who knows every trick in the book. Why not? He seems to have helped write it.

At one point, Frost overpowers Westen and puts a gun to his head; he spares the young man's life while simultaneously insulting his prowess. Frost says he only kills professionals. It's tough to top Washington when it comes to thee kinds of obvious "power" moments, but I found myself hoping he soon finds a script that's challenging in a totally different way.

The pounding pace of Safe House doesn't allow much time for reflection. That’s a good thing because the action can be as puzzling as it is improbable, all of it undergirded by the predictably cynical notion that the CIA is as devoted to treachery and betrayal as it is to gathering useful intelligence.

Safe House could have benefited from more useful intelligence itself. Instead, the movie coasts on pre-digested attitudes, Washington’s undeniable appeal and lots of punishing action. Before it's done, just about every character in Safe House takes some sort of beating. So, finally, do we.

'A Separation' is one of the year's best

This Oscar-nominated film takes a revealing look at life in Iran.

When western audiences first began to discover Iranian film, viewers were caught by the beauty and simplicity of stories that often focused on children, perhaps to avoid the stultifying intrusions of censors. Iranian film has evolved since then, and nothing stands as a better emblem of its potential maturity than A Separation, a powerful and emotionally involving drama about a husband and wife who separate and are then caught up in a legal battle involving the woman who takes care of the husband's aging father.

Though steeped in all manner of personal and social conflict, A Separation is one of those rare movies that respects every character's point of view, offering a complex and realistic portrait of characters operating under intense pressure: the urgent need to find custodial care for a demented father, the desire to open new opportunities for a daughter, the pain of a troubled marriage, the resentment bred by those who think society has pushed them toward the bottom and the sense of entitlement felt by a middle class that's not beyond condescension toward those assigned to lower status.

It's ironic, I suppose, thatA Separation -- nominated for Oscars as best foreign-language film and in the best original screenplay category -- arrives at a time when it's impossible to pick up a newspaper without reading about tensions between the U.S. and Iran. Those of us who've loved and championed Iranian film find it deeply disturbing that some of the country's finest filmmakers -- Jafar Panahi, for example -- are in jail. Others -- Abbas Kiarostami -- are working outside the country. It may not bring great joy to the likes of Ahmadinejad, but a movie such as A Separation has the kind of refreshing candor and authentic humanity that's at the core of exceptional drama.*

Director Asghar Farhadi begins the story with an Iranian couple mired in conflict. As A Separation unfolds, we start to suspect that this couple embodies many of the difficulties of life in Iran on both personal and political levels, which inevitably spill over into the realm of religion. These conflicts feel both familiar and strange, built on recognizable human frustrations, yet pushed to extremes in a society in which conflict resolution can be cumbersome.

The movie's crumbling marriage serves as a backdrop for everything else that transpires. Simin (Leila Hastami), a doctor, wants to find new opportunities abroad, presumably because of the way women are restricted in Iran. Simin wants to take her 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) with her. Her banker husband (Peyman Maadi) is willing to grant the divorce, but wants his daughter to remain in Iran.

Simin won't leave the country without Termeh, but she does leave her husband. She moves out of the couple's apartment and takes up residence with her parents.

Meanwhile, Maadi's Nader feels trapped by a sense of love and duty. He refuses to abandon his aging father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) who suffers from dementia and needs 24-hour care. Semin's departure leaves Nader, who works as a banker, in desperate need of someone to watch his father.

Eventually, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to care for his father. It doesn't take long for another conflict to emerge, this one between Nader and Razieh. This clash is bolstered by the staunch religious convictions of Razieh's resentful, unemployed husband (Shahab Hosseini). Razieh says she's uncomfortable with duties that include changing the clothes of Nader's incontinent father, something she views as improper and perhaps a violation of Islamic law.

I won't burden you with more plot description, but know that Farhadi weaves a tangled web of cross-purposes in which the movie's characters struggle to advance their various points of view. And don't think that Nader carries the torch for reason in the face of Islamic fundamentalism. He's a flawed man whose behavior contributes to his problems.

Farhadi also takes the characters through Tehran's legal bureaucracy as the parties seek redress. We begin to feel that life in Iran is beset by complications that prevent the movie's adults from attaining any sense of sustained equilibrium.

Farhadi provides enough information for us to understand each characters, although it's never easy to say who's right or wrong. Interestingly, the movie opens with both Simin and Nader pleading their case to an unseen judge, who's supposed to rule on their divorce. Let's just say, you wouldn't want to be that judge.

Given its complex scenario, it should come as no surprise that A Separation generates plenty of tension about the fates of its characters. Farhadi takes us into a highly stressed society that's full of irreconcilable conflict. That's a lot of thematic territory for what could have devolved into a domestic soap opera, but A Separation is much too perceptive for that. It's an insightful and honestly observed piece of work.

*In an interview, Farhadi told TimeOut London that censorship in Iran is a bit like British weather, "one day it’s sunny, the next day it’s raining. You just have to hope you walk out into the sunshine." The censors allowed Farhadi to film the script he submitted, a process no Iranian filmmaker can avoid unless he or she wants to work underground. I hope the sun of sanity shines on more of them.

Monday, February 6, 2012

'Pina' and the need to keep dancing

Director Win Wenders' Oscar-nominated documentary captures the ferocity in a choreographer's work.

To the uninitiated (that would be me), Pina Bausch, the German choreographer who died in 2009, seems like a true original. Her dancers varied in body types and ages, and she concentrated as much on the movements of hands as she did on footwork. Movements in many of her pieces can have the look of body-contorting spasms that occur with machine-like repetition. Pina evidently eschewed the grace and beauty of traditional dance, preferring to find vigor in a dramatic farrago of play, wit, conflict and menace.

Director Wim Wenders' Pina, a documentary tribute to the choreographer and those who dance in her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, highlights the work of individual dancers, as well as of Pina’s entire company.

Selecting samples from four pieces by Pina, Wenders presents the dances without explanation, although he does include snippets of interviews with dancers, presented in voiceovers that accompany silent close-ups of each speaker.

Wenders reportedly had been planning to make a film with Pina, who died before that project could be started. Wenders shot the subsequent film in 3-D, and Pina has been widely hailed (along with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo) as an example of 3-D used to artistic advantage rather than to generate cheap thrills or to boost ticket prices.

Many critics have argued that 3-D allowed Wenders to capture a feeling for the space through which the dancers moved. I’m in a distinct minority here, but I didn't think Wenders consistently used 3-D to great advantage. And little in Pina substitutes (what could?) for the shock of immediacy that goes with live performance.

Oddly, Wenders greatest technical contribution, or so it seems to me, involves the sense of intimacy fostered by sound. We hear dancers breathing. We hear the movement of feet on a stage. Because some of Pina’s work included moments without music, these sounds add to the sense of rawness that characterizes much of Pina’s work.

Some of the dancing (Mueller’s Cafe, for example) is done on stage; some of it takes place in industrial settings; some of it transpires on what appears to be the median strip of a busy roadway. These locations add to the novelty of Pina’s challenging works, and keep the film from feeling as if the dancers have been hermetically sealed inside an art bubble.

But even the stagey numbers are not without interest. In an early piece (Rite of Spring), the dancers move atop dirt that has been spread across the stage floor; in another (Vollmond), they splash through a great puddle of water on a stage or scamper over a huge faux rock.

None of the dances are seen in their entirety, but Pina enables us to come away with a strong sense of Pina’s work, as well as an appreciation for the fierce striving of an artist who tried to capture something vivid and transformational.

Pina evidently was the kind of director who gave instructions that left plenty of room for interpretation. At one point, for example, she advised a dancer to consider becoming a little crazier.

Far from being flip, Pina's exhortation serves as a significant statement from an artist who knew that it's sometimes necessary to push past the edge of madness before one can feel free enough to speak.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Ah, to be young and have superpowers

Chronicle goes a long way toward reinvigorating a genre.

Prior to a late-evening screening of Chronicle -- the uncustomary hour of 9 p.m. -- I checked for a rating on Rotten Tomatoes. No point heading for the multiplex at such an odd hour for a movie that promised to do nothing more than add to my already extensive file of big-screen disappointment.

But there was hope. Early reviews of Chronicle gave the movie a surprising 100 percent rating, meaning those who’d already been to screenings were blown away by another in the apparently endless series of “found-footage” movies that jump-started their way toward unwarranted popularity with The Blair Witch Project.

For the first half of Chronicle, I thought that those earlier reviewers had nailed it.

Chronicle tells the story of three high-school kids who descend into a mysterious cave, are radiated by a mysterious object and, as a result, find themselves in the possession of superpowers. The three kids develop their powers slowly, discovering them as they go along. They also react to their newfound abilities in believable ways; i.e., they play around, turn into pranksters and generally enjoy their enhanced abilities, which seem to derive from exercising enormous amounts of concentrated will. Our three protagonists are learning what they can do at the same pace as we are, and when the boys discover they can fly, the screen floods with giddy, airborne glee.

So who are these kids?

Matt (Alex Russell) is a decent young man with enough philosophical pretensions or maybe Wikipedia-acquired knowledge to quote Schopenhauer. Matt’s cousin Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is an outcast with a drunken, physically abusive father and a terminally ill mother. Steve (Michael B. Jordan) is a popular black kid who’s running for class president.

It’s refreshing that our heroes don’t become secret crime fighters or superheroes. No matter what happens, they continue to act like young people, although Matt becomes the first to realize that super powers bring super responsibilities. He seems to sense that the discouragement of a hard moral lesson looms.

Roughly midway through, director Josh Trank -- working from a script by Max Landis (son of director John Landis) -- switches tones. Andrew goes from scorned nerd to high-school heartthrob, but can’t stop overcompensating for years of torment at the hands of bullying classmates. Increasingly, he uses his powers in destructive ways that begin to divide the three buddies.

Now before I continue, a word about the movie’s principal technique. Andrew is running around with a video camera. He’s filming everything in the dizzying, hand-held style associated with this kind of movie. At a mid-picture rave, another camera-wielding character turns up. Monica (Ashley Hinshaw) is a video blogger whose testy relationship with Matt slowly deepens. This two-camera approach provides welcome expansion of the movie's visual vocabulary.

You can look Trank’s “found-footage” approach in two ways. We, of course, do live in a moment when even the most banal activities are likely to be recorded. And it’s hardly far-fetched to think that a kid such as Andrew, who has trouble relating to others, would put a camera between himself and his environment.

On the other hand, I’m tired of these hand-held exercises in faux amateurishness, and I wondered if I would have enjoyed Chronicle any less had it been shot without the found-footage gimmick.

As Andrew spirals further and further out of control, the Seattle-based story turns into another orgy of destruction.

I wish that the movie’s second half had been as imaginative as its first, but the story has to go somewhere as Matt realizes that he must do something to reign in Andrew's vengeful fury.

Still, Chronicle and its young cast deliver much more than you’d expect. For the most part, it's a smart, creative look at normal kids dealing with an abnormal situation. Don’t look for Chronicle to make a Blair Witch-like cultural splash, but as superpower movies go, it’s full of reinvigorating life.

It may not be groundbreaking -- but it's creepy

Daniel Radcliffe tries to shake Harry Potter in an eerie, if familiar, hunk of horror.

It’s always a bit puzzling when a character in a movie decides to spend a considerable amount of time in a house that we know is haunted. Such situations -- common enough in horror movies -- put the audience a couple of steps ahead of the characters and tend to turn horror films into predetermined rituals that deliver their shocks with time-table efficiency.

The Woman in Black -- a new hunk of horror based on a London stage play -- more or less fits into such a standard horror mold, but does a good enough job to merit attention. At its best, The Woman in Black -- set in the early part of the 20th century -- is plenty creepy.

Part of an attempt to revive a venerable name in British horror, Hammer Films, The Woman in Black also is notable as a starring vehicle for Daniel Radcliffe, known to most audiences as child wizard Harry Potter. In The Woman in Black, Radcliffe plays a young lawyer who’s sent to a dreary English village to organize the papers of a deceased woman. Radcliffe’s Arthur Kipps, is also a widower with a young son. He leaves the boy in the care of a nanny when he sets out to tackle his legal assignment.

Upon arrival in this bleak rural village, Kipps receives the cold shoulder from the townsfolk, who warn him not to go to the deceased woman’s home, a dilapidated mansion outside the town. The townsfolk, of course, have a point. Every time someone visits the rotting old manse, one of the town’s children meets with a gruesome end.

As it turns out, the mansion is the real star of the movie; it has been designed to push as many spook buttons as possible, replete with cobwebs, clutter and creepy-looking wind-up toys. As Kipps sorts through papers he finds in the mansion, he begins to sense movement around him. He sometimes catches a glimpse of a ghostly lady in black, who seems to dart around the periphery of the frame.

The core of the movie rests on fun-house effects and how Radcliffe responds to them. Alas, Watkins gets more mileage from the former than from the latter. You’d think that by now, Radcliffe would have mastered the art of reacting to special effects, but he goes through most of The Woman in Black without showing much personality.

He does, however, evince steady sprays of gleaming-eyed intensity, as well as a bit of stubble, perhaps to reassure us that his boy-wonder days are done.

The supporting players add old-pro polish. Ciaran Hinds plays Mr. Daily, one of the few locals who’s kind to Kipps. It turns out that Mrs. Daily (Janet McTeer) has gone round the bend as the result of the loss of her young son. Mrs. Daily treats her small dogs as replacement children. The twins, as she refers to them, eat in high chairs at the same table as the Dailys, an image that offers one of the movie's few humorous moments.

With a movie such as this, a lot depends on how all the creepy threads ultimately are pulled tight. The ending, which immerses poor Kipps in what looks like a ton of marsh mud, tends to be a bit overwrought, but stops short of ridiculousness, and the British countryside has been photographed by cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones in forlorn fashion that speaks of an impenetrable loneliness. The light in the movie looks as cold as the underbelly of a dead cod.

If you think about it long enough, you’ll find some subtext here, but you may prefer (with no apologies necessary) to enjoy the movie’s encompassing atmosphere of dread, its ability to give you the chills and the effective way it doles out the kind of jolts that tend to shriek their way through moments of eerie silence.

A story of big whales and big media

It's good to save the whales, even if they're animatronic.

In 1988, three gray whales found themselves trapped under the ice off the coast of Alaska, namely the tiny, top-of-the-Earth town of Point Barrow. To further complicate matters, the whales' path to the ocean was blocked by an enormous ice ridge. Panicky and exhausted, the whales were forced to surface through a small hole in the ice that allowed them to breathe. As the temperatures dropped, it became increasingly clear that even this hole would freeze over, dooming the whales to death by suffocation.

Fortunately for the whales, their story -- to use the media argot -- blew up. Reporters from more than 26 networks made their way to Barrow to cover a nail-biting adventure that culminated with the arrival of a Soviet icebreaker that helped clear a path for two of the surviving whales.

Big Miracle, a movie about the 1988 efforts to save these whales, calls these sea mammals Fred, Wilma and Bamm-Bamm, a goofy homage to the Flintstones. I don't know if anyone really called the whales by those names, but Big Miracle uses traces of anthropomorphism -- as well as other ingratiating measures -- to make an already accessible story even more accessible. I'd call it wasted effort.

But let me not condemn a movie that's hell-bent on conveying the right message. In the washed-out world of family fare, Big Miracle qualifies as an entirely acceptable entertainment that's best when it derives its emotions from the whales -- a mama, papa and baby -- and less effective when it comes to the movie's humans, who engage in the kind of PG-rated interactions that are mostly unburdened by complication.

John Krasinski plays a TV newsman who's working on a series of features in Point Barrow when he learns about the stranded whales. His report eventually makes its way to the network. Environmentalist Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore) quickly joins the fray; she begins pressing for a major effort to save the whales. At one point, the whales are under threat of being "harvested" by the local Iñupiats, who have a long tradition of whale hunting.

The movie's additional cast includes Dermot Mulroney as a U.S. colonel who flies one of the helicopters that try to drag an oil-company owned icebreaker to the scene. He's being pressured by a presidential aide (Vinessa Shaw) who sees an opportunity to do some good while bolstering President Reagan's image with environmentalists.

Oil company executive J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson) also capitalizes on the opportunity to look beneficent. Initially resistant to a save-the-whales campaign, McGraw eventually catches the spirit of a project that at times seems as crazy as it is noble. Rescuers dig a series of holes in the ice so that the whales can breathe while moving toward open waters.

To add kid flavor, we're given the story of an enterprising and appealing Inupiat boy (Ahmaogak Sweeney) and his grandfather (John Pingayak), the figurehead who represents the ancestral ways of a people who mostly were ignored until the whale frenzy broke into the global conversation.

The script also hints at a possible love triangle. Kirsten Bell plays an aspiring TV reporter who's looking to make a name for herself. She catches Krasinski's eye, but he's still emotionally involved with Barrymore's character, a woman with whom he only recently ended a relationship.

Don't get the impression that Big Miracle has any sense of absurdity when it comes to the sight of an Inupiat elder chanting next to cameramen as they jockey for the best view of increasingly stressed whales. Director Ken Kwapis stays within general-audience parameters while giving the material a pre-teen tilt.

Some of what happens may upset younger kids, but Big Miracle tells its story in a way that's clearly designed to show that opposing forces can work together to accomplish ... well ... a big miracle, something that seemed especially noteworthy during the waning days of the Cold War.

One more thing: You'll see clips of Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings reporting the whale story on the nightly news for their respective networks. They, too, I'm afraid, represent an increasingly endangered species, the network anchor. Got cable?