Thursday, March 29, 2012

Snow White as warrior princess

This version of Snow White is great when it comes to upholstery. The rest? Not so much.
Call her "Snow." That's what everyone in the movie Mirror Mirror does, so you might as well join the crowd and bring a heavy helping of contemporary informality to a classic fairy tale.

We're talking about Snow White, the mythic beauty who probably is best known for being a character in Disney's first, full-length animated feature, which hit the nation's screens in 1937 and spawned one of the most durable trivia questions ever: Name all seven dwarfs. I usually forget Bashful, but that's another story.

The Snow White story has been through a variety of mutations, and now arrives on the screen as a tale narrated by the evil queen (Julia Roberts), a woman who presides over her kingdom from a golden clamshell of a throne and who becomes the main attraction in a movie dominated by outlandish costumes, lavish sets and hairdos so preposterous they look as if they belong in a topiary.

It's almost as if the filmmakers knew they lacked a great story and decided to dazzle us with production-value footwork. We're even treated to a CGI monster for Snow (Lily Collins) to fight.

That's right. Director Tarsem Singh (The Cell and Immortals) has concocted a version of the Snow White story that turns pretty, pure Snow into a warrior princess. The screenplay by Melissa Wallack and Jason Keller also transforms the seven dwarfs into mini-warriors and bandits who leap about on stilts and, most irreverently of all, turns the handsome prince (Armie Hammer) into a bit of a bumbling doofus.

The movie thrives on upending fairy-tale conventions, toppling or toying with some of the genre's hoariest cliches. Fairy-tale bashing is always welcome, but this edition of Snow White is more about production design than anything else, and despite a lot of trying, Mirror Mirror can't sustain the spirit of abandon that would have made it soar. The movie creeps right up to Tim Burtonesque weirdness without quite going over the oddball edge.

An ultra-arch Roberts may not make the greatest evil queen ever, but she seems to be having a good time. An under-utilized Nathan Lane has an amusing turn as advisor and henchman to the queen. If you get bored, you can admire the work of the make-up department, which has given Collins's face the radiance of a polished apple. (Yes, the screenwriters find a way to work the fabled apple into the script, but if you're looking for the satisfactions offered by a traditional telling of a beloved tale, you'll be disappointed.)

The dwarfs? They're much less cuddly than in the Disney version, which, I suppose, can be considered a form of progress. But the film doesn't go quite far enough with its wit and has almost no flare for satire.

I had no say in the matter, of course, but if it had been up to me, I'd have scrapped "Snow" and gone with Ms. White -- at least once or twice.

Finding the universal in the obscure

Father and son both are Talmudic scholars, but they're also at odds in Footnote, a movie that tests their very souls.

The Israeli movie Footnote puts its characters into a vice and squeezes until it hurts. Director Joseph Cedar, who also wrote the screenplay, deals with a host of ethical issues embedded in a testy, competitive father-son relationship. To further complicate matters, this particular father and son happen to ply the same trade: They’re both Talmudic scholars.

Talmudic scholarship hardly sounds like the basis for an exciting movie, but if you give Footnote a chance, you’ll soon realize that it’s a story about what can ensue when a son enters the family business and surpasses his father -- not an impossible or uncommon situation aside from the fact that this time the father is an obsessive scholar who has spent this life attempting to prove a single point, only to be eclipsed by another scholar and then by his son. Footnote finds novel ways of dealing with the kinds of tensions that sour a relationship that, perhaps more than any other, plays a key role in defining manhood.

Cedar, who previously directed the combat film Beaufort, this time embeds his story in a different kind of battle, the ruthless competition that often ripples through academic circles, where -- as the old joke has it -- the conniving is great because the stakes are so damn small.

Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi) is a much honored scholar, whose approach to research tends to be cultural and intuitive. Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba), Uriel’s father, is a meticulous, fact-oriented researcher who’s contemptuous of the way in which his more successful son conducts his scholarly business.

But here’s the rub: Uriel has been honored for his work while Eliezer never has received the acclaim he believes he deserves. When Eliezer is told that he’s going to be awarded the prestigious Israel Prize, he feels as if a life of rejection is about to be vindicated. A dedicated philologist, Eliezer finally will emerge from shadows that he believes have been cast over his career by jealous detractors, not the last of which is the devious Professor Grossman (Micah Lowenstein).

No fair telling more, but know that Cedar’s sharp and lively movie puts father and son into a moral quandary that tests each man’s deepest principles and threatens to undermine the entire psychological basis for each man’s character.

Sounds heavy, I know, but Cedar -- particularly in the early going -- dishes out the story in playful, spirited chunks. Only gradually does he abandon an overtly comic tone.

Cedar seems to have no special fondness for academia. A meeting of a prize-awarding committee staged in a room the size of a broom closet blisters with comedy and conflict. Amit Poznansky’s score can have a near-antic quality, and Cedar sometimes uses chapter titles to set up a sequence, thus allowing us to maintain perspective while the character’s are rapidly losing theirs.

Cedar is particularly attuned to the absurdities that abound in the quest for recognition and status, even as they’re reflected in the omnipresent face of Israeli security, uniformed guards and metal detectors.

The movie’s title derives from the fact that Eliezer’s great achievement involves having been named in the footnote of his mentor, an important scholar. For Eliezer, this apparent trifle has taken on gargantuan, life-justifying proportions.

Amusing and provocative, Cedar’s movie should not be mistaken for a footnote in the history of Israeli cinema; it’s a major addition, a work of incisive, biting humor and acute observation.

A powerful look inside a mother's torment

We Need to Talk About Kevin isn't for everyone, but this look at a reluctant mother is provocative and haunting.

Director Lynne Ramsey’s We Need to Talk About Kevin had a run on last fall’s film festival circuit, opened commercially in New York and Los Angeles in December of 2011, but only now is beginning to circulate around the country. In conjunction with November's Starz Denver Film Festival, Ramsey and screenwriter Rory Kinnear visited Denver to talk about a movie that involves a killing rampage at a high school. Gifted and unapologetic about her choices, Ramsey made it clear that she understood that some people might reject her movie on its face.

It’s important to take note of the words “on its face” because We Need to Talk About Kevin is not really about a young man who kills fellow students at his high school, although that horrific event does reverberate throughout the story, giving it an extremely disturbing edge.

Unsettling, yes, but I can't agree with a woman who at a festival screening of the movie said We Need to Talk About Kevin never should have been made. There are very few "shoulds" when it comes to art. Many artists like to explore the extremes of human behavior because they know that such extremes often push toward difficult truths. If nothing else, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a movie of extremes.

Based on a novel by Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin has no interest in explaining school murders, which may be unexplainable anyway. What distinguishes both the novel and Ramsey’s movie is a willingness to take a highly subjective look at the main character Eva (Tilda Swinton in the film), a mother who can’t accept her son. Eva probably never wanted to be a wife and mother, and she's forced to re-evaluate her life after her son (Ezra Miller) commits a horrible crime.

Courageously, Ramsey has done what few filmmakers who adapt novels for the screen are willing to do: She has taken only what most intrigued her about Shriver’s dense fiction and discarded the rest. This approach probably was essential because Shriver told the story through a series of letters written by Eva. What remains is a riveting account in which past and present mingle as the movie works its way toward the climax we know is coming.

Ramsey and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey create powerful imagery -- and if you pay attention -- you’ll soon become aware that you are not receiving a rounded, clear-eyed portrait of a troubled family: You’re getting the view from inside of Eva’s head -- and it’s not a pleasant one.

Swinton makes a perfect Eva, a woman who has stepped into a life in which she feels like a stranger. Eva gave up a career as a travel agent to become a wife and mother, but We Need to Talk About Kevin is not a feminist tract that decries Eva’s loss of independence; it’s a mesmerizing, intimate examination Eva’s life as a mother who deals with a child who (for reasons that movie never fully explains) is a handful from day one.

Roll a ball to little Kevin, and he refuses to return it. He just sits there. Long after most kids are toilet trained, Kevin continues to poop in his pants, an act of willful disobedience.

On some level, Kevin knows that he is not a wanted child. He perceives his mother’s rejection and misses no opportunity to punish her for it. Like many a misguided child, Kevin's also smart enough to see through the facade of suburban life that’s supposed to shield people from their demons.

Only Kevin and his mother share this twisted intimacy. Kevin’s dad Franklin (John C. Reilly) takes a boys-will-be-boys attitude toward Kevin, insisting (even when the evidence is overwhelming) that things are OK. Eva and Franklin’s second child (Ursula Parker) somehow seems to have escaped from the family’s loop of rage, denial, frustration and lack of fulfillment: It’s as if she’s been dropped into this nightmare from a more much more pleasant dream.

Swinton’s masterful performance turns Eva into a witness as much as a participant in her life. Eva’s encountering an awful truth, so it’s not surprising that Swinton often looks stunned and shattered. Try as she may, Eva can’t change what seems to be an indestructible part of her nature, a resistance to being Kevin’s mother.

Ramsey’s casting is spot-on: Reilly’s perfect as a deluded dad. The actors who play Kevin as a boy (Rock Duer and Jasper Newell) are equally good, as is Miller, who takes over when Kevin becomes an adolescent.

Ramsey, whose last movie was the equally difficult Morvern Collar (2002), is alert to the satirical possibilities in even the darkest material. She doesn't approach her characters with soggy sympathy but with a cool - even cruel -- eye.

Ramsey made We Need To Talk About Kevin for very little money. She and her crew had to work fast. I think the haste served the material, which also boasts provocatively fragmented storytelling, remarkable sound design and a haunting score by Jonny Greenwood.

In a community that lives with the memory of Columbine, some may wish to avoid the provocations and occasional horror of We Need To Talk About Kevin. I wouldn’t try to argue anyone out of such a position.

But those who see We Need to Talk About Kevin will find a fevered nightmare with humor nipping at its edges. For me, We Need To Talk About Kevin stands as a small masterpiece of subjective cinema; its febrile tremors infiltrate, challenge and ultimately haunt the mind. And know this: We Need to Talk About Kevin is not an exercise in social realism; it's an exercise in emotional realism: rampant, dark and unafraid.

Monday, March 26, 2012

What about kids killing kids?

A reply to a Facebook post, wondering why people should want to see a film about children killing children, and asking why I didn't object to the movie based on such offensive subject matter:

Although Suzanne Collins's best-selling The Hunger Games -- the first book in a trilogy -- may not rank among the great works of sci-fi history, it's eminently readable and follows a familiar sic-fi path, pushing toward a horrible extreme -- children killing children -- as a means of exposing contemporary truths.

Among other things, Collins seems interested in mounting a critique of a society much like our own, a society that hungers for the dangers of "reality," but only as observed from a safe distance; i.e., while watching television. It's also important to know that in The Hunger Games, the children do not kill for kicks or because they are inherently evil. They kill because they're forced into a situation in which they have no choice. Each participant in the games is selected by lot and thrust into a lethal game that allows for only one winner.

Kids are also human, so it's hardly surprising that some are buoyed by the attention they receive prior to the games, that some form self-serving killing alliances during the games and that some are more eager participants than others. By the story's end, though, Collins introduces an act of resistance that can't be written about in more detail without introducing spoilers, but which should be taken into account when evaluating the movie.

There are no inviolable rules when it comes to criticism, but rejecting a work because of its subject usually makes little sense. It's not necessarily a film's subject that matters, but how a filmmaker deals with that subject. Whether The Hunger Games succeeds or not can be debated, but -- in my view -- neither the movie nor the book qualifies as exploitation.

Apart from all of this, it's not my business to tell people why they should or should not see a movie, but to think and write about whether a movie succeeds or fails -- or does a bit of both. It's up to readers to decide for themselves whether they're interested enough to see the work in question or prefer to stay home.

And if you're looking for a guideline about the age at which The Hunger Games becomes appropriate viewing for young people, you can note the movie's PG-13 rating. An even better guide may come from the book itself: Katniss -- the young woman we follow throughout the book and movie -- is 16.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Odds favor big-screen 'Hunger Games'

It's not as good as the book, but The Hunger Games has lots to recommend it.
Movie, good. Book, better.

We’re talking The Hunger Games, one of the more anticipated movies of a year that has yet to produce an entertainment with blockbuster potential. Adapted from the first in a trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins,The Hunger Games surely will be scrutinized in the way all novels with devoted followings are; i.e., there will be intense interest in whether director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit and Pleasantville) has honored both the letter and the spirit of Collins’s novel.

Burdened by too much exposition and less emotionally resonant than the novel, the big-screen version of The Hunger Games nonetheless is marked by sufficient fear and fervor to push it onto the plus side of the ledger. Just as important, the filmmakers have found an actress (Jennifer Lawrence) who's capable of displaying the mixture of toughness and vulnerability the story demands.

For those unfamiliar with Collins’s work, a brief introduction:

The Hunger Games tells the story of Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), a 16-year-old living in yet another dystopian future. After an unexplained apocalypse, the country of Panem replaced what we know as North America. The Capitol -- the most advanced part of Panem -- exploits and rules each of Panem’s 12 districts. Katniss hails from District 12, formerly Appalachia and one of the poorest sections of Panem.

Economic exploitation being insufficient torment for the residents of the districts, the Capitol each year stages The Hunger Games, a lethal contest that resembles the TV show Survivor. The name of every district child from the ages of 12 to 18 is put into a national lottery. One boy and one girl from each district are then selected to compete. The 24 competitors -- known as Tributes -- battle to the death. The last remaining Tribute wins. And it’s all on TV, of course.

Katniss, whose father died in a mining accident, has had plenty of time to hone her survival skills. She engages in illegal poaching to feed her emotionally crippled mother and her younger sister, exploring the forbidden forests around District 12 with her pal (and potential boyfriend) Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

The story begins in earnest when Katniss’s sister Prim (Willow Shields) is selected to represent District 12 in The Hunger Games. Katniss immediately volunteers to replace her sister, a substitution allowed by the rules of what otherwise seems an arbitrary game, which is manipulated by high-tech gamesmakers who control the game’s physical environments.

I won’t bother you with additional details except to say that Collins’s book, which consists of Katniss’s first-person account of the games, does a better job when it comes to exposition, probably because everything transpires from Katniss’ highly focused point-of-view.

In order to handle expository chores on screen, Ross is forced outside the arena, where we see the control room where technicians oversee the games. The bearded Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) runs the control room. Look, it's never a good sign when a movie has to stop to explain itself.

In the book, Collins’s propulsive narrative gathers momentum from Katniss’s observations, doubts, craftiness and occasional deliriums. On screen, Katniss’s inner life becomes the responsibility of Lawrence, the young actress who was nominated for an Oscar for her work in Winter’s Bone. Lawrence must suggest with looks and presence what Katniss was able to convey with words in the novel. She gets awfully close, although I have to say that Lawrence wasn't quite as battered, desperate and crafty as the Katniss of my imagination, the one put there by Collins's prose.

Josh Hutcherson plays Peeta Melark, the other competitor from District 12. A baker’s son, Peeta falls for Katniss, a development that gives the movie a bit of romantic spin -- or does it? Can competitors in this deadly game allow themselves to have feelings for one another? Are Peeta’s feelings real or are they part of a strategy related to winning the game?

The movie tries to include most of the events that kept the novel percolating, but shortchanges the more resonant emotions of Collins’s book, particularly those involving Katniss and Rue (Amandla Stenberg). A 12-year-old competitor from an agricultural district, Rue develops a touching relationship with Katniss during the games.

The movie’s adults are mostly well cast. Woody Harrelson plays a watered-down version of the dissolute Haymitch Abernathy, a District 12 competitor who won the 50th Hunger Games and a reluctant mentor to Peeta and Katniss, who have been thrust into the 74th edition of the games. Elizabeth Banks portrays Effie Trinket, the ridiculously pretentious woman appointed to escort Katniss and Peeta to the Capitol. Stanley Tucci shows up as Caesar Flickerman, the host of the Hunger Game TV interviews and a master of faux sincerity. Lenny Kravitz has a nice turn as Cinna, the Capitol resident who’s responsible for helping to shape Katniss’ public image. And Donald Sutherland plays the head of Panem, a cunning and cruel leader who seems to have been inserted mostly in preparation for the next installment.

Ross and cinematographer Tom Stern do a good job creating District 12, a grim, coal-mining area that has been given a look that evokes the Great Depression. But The Hunger Games isn’t exactly coy when it comes to dealing with themes such as the degradations of poverty, as well as exploitative TV, voyeurism, and political oppression. In a way, the movie is another hybrid, a picture that has been crossbred from Survivor, The Truman Show and maybe Lord of the Flies.

Collins’s book seems better paced than the movie, which -- in its quieter moments --falls a little flat, and I’m not sure how much the big-screen version will astonish and captivate those who haven’t read the book.

But Hunger Games is smarter than most fiction aimed at young adults, and it isn’t afraid to explore the dark, bloody terrain of a society that’s willing to amuse itself by brutalizing its children. To the Tributes, the games are a matter of life and death. For everyone else, they’re a TV show.

So a recommendation with only mild reservations. Taking a cue from Katniss’s weapon of choice -- the bow -- I’d say that The Hunger Games definitely hits the target, although it's no bull's eye. And now that the world of Collins’s novels has been established, it should be easier to give us an ever better second helping.

Fishing for romance in an unlikely spot

Everything about the romantic comedy Salmon Fishing in the Yemen sounds unappealing, maybe even ridiculous. Here's the drill: A wealthy sheikh (Amir Waked) wants to create a river for salmon in the parched deserts of Yemen. His British financial representative (Emily Blunt) asks a fisheries expert (Ewan McGregor) to design the salmon habitat, a multi-million dollar task that he views as sheer folly. McGregor's Fred, who works for the government, resists until he's pushed by his boss who's being pushed by his boss, Kristin Scott Thomas as a manipulative PR woman who works for the Prime Minister. Scott Thomas's Patricia Maxwell thinks that the salmon project might be a welcome rarity: a feel-good story from the usually distressed Middle East. Director Lasse Halstrom works his way through Fred's crumbling marriage, which must fall apart for romance to blossom between Fred and Blunt's Harriet. Harriet's slowly developing attraction for Fred also faces an obstacle: Harriet is involved with a British soldier serving in Afghanistan. When she receives word that her beau is missing and presumed dead, she goes into the expected funk. McGregor does a nice job of allowing Fred's charms slowly to peek through the character's geeky devotion to fish. Scott Thomas makes spectacularly officious PR woman, and Waked, as the sheikh, projects wisdom and whimsy as a ruler with an outlandish dream and equally outlandish amounts of money to pay for it. But Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is only intermittently rewarding, with Lasstrom serving up a bit low-key humor and a plot that's not particularly compelling. See it for McGregor's charming turn or, better yet, wait for the DVD. Know this though: McGregor and Blunt have a lot more to offer than Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried, the stars of Hallstrom's last romance, Dear John.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

An unlikely (but funny) return to high school

I can't imagine that the world's population has been trembling with anticipation at thought of a 21 Jump Street movie. Who among us spends significant time yearning to revisit '80s television, even with a series that spawned Johnny Depp's mega-career? Beyond that, the idea of undercover cops re-enrolling in high school to smash a drug ring doesn't pulsate with originality. And who wants to return to high school under any circumstances?

All this by way of saying that the big-screen rendition of 21 Jump Street should have been a notable dud rather than an amusing (if intentionally silly) attempt to cast a parodic spell over a TV show that took itself fairly seriously.

21 Jump Street teams Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as screw-up police officers who are assigned to a unit that investigates youth crime and which is run by a scowling police captain played by Ice Cube .

You can tell that the movie is more interested in comedy than credibility because Hill and Tatum -- in defiance of the imperatives of any known gene pool -- try to pass themselves off as brothers once they're assigned to a school.

Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) have one exceptionally smart trick up their sleeves. The script, based on a story by Hill and screenwriter Michael Bacall, flips the script on Hill and Tatum. Hill's Schmidt, a scorned nerd in high school, discovers that he actually fits into the the politically sensitive school environment of the 21st century. Suddenly, he's cool. Tatum's Jenko, a much-admired jock when he attended the high school, seems like a dumb oaf when seen through an updated contemporary lens. He gets roped into going to band practice, and is forced to figure out a way to fake his way through advanced chemistry.

Hill has plenty of comic experience, but Tatum -- usually cast as a gooey-eyed hunk in movies such as The Vow -- handles his comic assignment with surprising aplomb, playing a character who can be dumb and dumber all by himself.

Beyond that, Hill and Tatum work well enough together to keep the movie from tumbling into the usual garbage heap of crude, intentionally stupid humor. Their growing bromance seems heartfelt, encouragement that it's possible to outgrow high school prejudices.

The supporting cast includes Brie Larson, as a high school drama student who thinks Schmidt's cool, and Dave Franco, brother of James Franco, as a high-school wheeler-dealer, who traffics in a drug that's supposed to break new ground in hallucinogenic experience.

I could have done without the movie's noisy attempts at action, which include a mind-numbing car chase, and not all of the jokes connect, but 21 Jump Street is the kind of movie that's best summed up by the collective sigh of relief it seems to have engendered from the critical community. And in fairness, it should be noted that the primary audience for a movie such as this probably will be ready and willing to forgive a few wrong turns.

Adrift and waiting for a sign

To date, the best film from the Duplass brothers (Jay and Mark) remains 2010's Cyrus, a comedy starring John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill and Marisa Tomei. Cyrus began a movement by the brothers toward movies that retain the offbeat mumblecore edge of previous work (The Puffy Chair and Baghead), but also incorporate mainstream elements, particularly when it came to casting. Jeff Who Lives at Home, the latest from the Duplass brothers, continues the brothers' mash-up approach, this time putting Jason Segel and Ed Helms at the center of a comedy about two very different brothers, each weird in his own way.

Segel's 30-year-old Jeff -- the title character -- lives with his widowed mother (Susan Sarandon), and seems to be stuck in life's mud. Jeff smokes a lot of dope, and appears to have been unduly influenced by M. Night Shyamalan's movie, Signs. Jeff's waiting for his prolonged state of limbo to be shattered by something semi-miraculous. He can't get on with his life until he receives a message from the universe, a sign that will help him chart a course out of his mother's basement. To the rest of the world, this may look like emotional paralysis, but Jeff has confidence that his destiny will be revealed to him.

Brother Pat (Helms) isn't housebound; he has a job working in a paint store and a wife (Judy Greer). Avid and ambitious, Pat longs to climb the ladder of success. He buys things he can't afford (a Porsche) and neglects his wife, who was planning to use the Porsche money to put a down payment on a house. Using household money to indulge a male fantasy is never a good idea, and Pat's purchase leads to trouble. So does his overly aggressive personality.

Not surprisingly, Jeff eventually receives his sign -- or what the takes to be his sign. It arrives in the form of a phone call that introduces him to the name Kevin. Jeff's new mission: find Kevin, a search that produces laughs -- albeit in a low-key register. In keeping with the brothers' scaled-down approach, the story unfolds during the course of one day in Jeff's life.

At a fleet 82 minutes, Jeff Who Lives at Home makes room for some well-executed comic scenes. When Pat and Jeff spy on Pat's wife Linda in hopes of catching her in the midst of an affair, the movie flirts with classic farce.

Meanwhile, Sarandon's Sharon tells a workmate (Rae Dawn Chong) that she's been receiving messages from a secret admirer. Sharon's wary, but the messages quicken her pulse. Could romance be lurking? Will a long-smouldering fire suddenly be re-lit? Can she ever get Jeff to complete a chore?

The Duplass brothers are good at finding absurd humor in moments of fallibility. Jeff Who Lives at Home isn't nearly as sharp or distinctive as Cyrus, but it has enough offbeat humor to get by, and Segal makes Jeff seem like a decent enough slacker, a good-hearted fellow who's mired in a world where cosmic jolts are a definite rarity.

Will Ferrell, the Spanish-language edition

If you know nothing about Mexican cinema, you might be fooled by Casa de me Padre into thinking that films produced in Mexico are poorly made, overly melodramatic, embarrassingly cheap and inadvertently silly. Those who know Mexican film understand that nothing could be further from the truth. Mexican cinema, though often neglected in the U.S., has had many periods of high achievement. What Will Ferrell & company have done in Casa de me Padre is to make a parodic version of the kind of movie they believe characterized Mexican cinema in the 1970s. Some critics have suggested that this subtitled movie, in which Ferrell and all the other actors speak Spanish, is more indicative of the work found in popular Spanish-language telenovelas. If you can get past all that, you may find some chuckles in what amounts to a courageous gamble for Ferrell, starring in a Spanish-language movie that may not appeal to his generally avid fan base. Ferrell plays Armando, the nerdy son of a rancher (Pedro Armendariz Jr.) Armendariz's Miguel Ernesto regards Armando as a lovable dolt, favoring his more wayward son Raul (Diego Luna).* When Raul arrives home with a beautiful woman (Genesis Rodriguez), papa is overjoyed. The smart son has returned. But all is not well. An illicit and often-brutal drug trade (led by a gangster known as La Onza (Gael Garcia Bernal) flourishes on the ranch. The movie plays a bit like an extended sketch, but Ferrell and his spirited comic cohorts plunge happily into material that draws much of its humor from the self-consciously shoddy way in which the film has been made. At one point, Ferrell and Rodriguez ride fake horses, a phony looking white cat adds mystical flourish, and no attempt is made to paper over holes in the movie's low-rent artifice. It's quite possible that Casa de me Padre -- a hit-and-miss affair that includes some amusing moments -- will become a footnote in Ferrell's career. Despite occasional burst of violence, the movie plays like a good-natured spoof that pokes fun at the kind of movies that, though presented with great seriousness, can't help but be perceived as preposterous.

*For those who like to keep track of passing time, it has been 11 years since Bernal and Luna appeared in the popular comedy, Y Tu Mamá También.

Oscar-winning documentary scores big

Undefeated scores its biggest victory off the field.
I'm not sure that Undefeated, which won the Oscar for best documentary feature in February, would have gotten my vote. (My pick for best documentary -- Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss -- wasn't even nominated.) I do, however, think that Undefeated -- which follows a single season of a downtrodden Tennessee high school football team -- has plenty of conflict and characters that we learn to care about. We don't root for these young men because they play for a much-derided football team that's trying to capture its share of glory, but because many of them are playing from behind, as far as life is concerned. This North Memphis school and its students are dealing with crippling economic deprivation, some of it resulting from the loss of a factory. Coach Bill Courtney tries to push his Manassas Tigers toward an achievement that has eluded the school for more than a decade: He desperately wants to make the playoffs. Courtney, who can be tough, faces a constant barrage of frustration, but he cares about the kids who play for him, sometimes to the point of neglecting his own family. Directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin build their film around the coach's relationship with three of his players: Montrail 'Money' Brown wants to succeed on and off the field, but hits a rough patch when he's injured. Just released from juvenile detention, Chavis Daniels has a major chip on his shoulder. O.C. Brown stands out as a talented lineman who could be college bound if he's able to raise his GPA. Undefeated becomes a story about the struggles of fatherless kids and a coach who grew up fatherless and understands their pain. Courtney constantly fights to keep his charges on track, admitting that he sometimes doesn't know whether he should throw in the towel. A man of strong character and rumpled appearance, Courtney holds them film together just as he keeps his team from crumbling. Undefeated includes a fair amount of high school football, but the passes, runs and tackles aren't what stay with you. What lingers are the kids, their coach and the taxing but ultimately rewarding year they spend together.

Another bad cop on the road to ruin

I don’t know if it's possible for an actor to give more to a role than Woody Harrelson gives in Rampart, another story about a massively corrupt cop whose life is mired in a multiplicity of betrayals -- not the least of which is the betrayal of responsibility as an officer of the law. It may help to think of Rampart as The Bad Lieutenant west, a movie that recalls director Abel Ferrara's sensational (as in tabloid “sensational”) 1992 look at a corrupt New York City detective played by Harvey Keitel

Rampart takes place in 1999, and is named for a real-life LAPD scandal involving police ties to gangs. But Rampart, which was directed by the gifted Owen Moverman (The Messenger), takes place after that scandal and presumably acquires its name because of the poisonous atmosphere of mistrust it generated around the already tarnished LAPD. Rampart is less an indictment of the LAPD than a roiling, agitated look at a uniformed cop who has been bad so long, he doesn’t even remember what good looks like.

Harrelson plays David Douglas Brown, a cop who has been given the nickname of “Date Rape” by his fellow officers: He's suspected of having killed a serial rapist, doling out his own brand of justice without the encumbrance of a trial. He’s a swaggering, cocky member of the LAPD who may actually think of himself as a good cop; i.e., one who prizes results over procedural niceties.

It's easy to see how a cop might fall into this trap: If you cross the line to achieve what you regard as a good end, how long before you cross it just because you can?

As this edgy -- even jagged -- movie progresses, Brown reveals himself as a lost soul who’s estranged from his current wife (Anne Heche), and who happens to be the sister of his former wife (Cynthia Nixon), a needless domestic complication in a script credited to James Ellroy and Moverman.

Brown’s also a father; he shares tender moments with his youngest daughter (Stella Schnabel), but his teen-age daughter (Brie Larson) treats him with rueful disregard. Because Brown's such a well-known louse, Larson's Helen evidently views her sullenness as a kind of entitlement.

After Messenger, a terrific little movie about two Army officers (Harrelson and Ben Foster) assigned to informing next of kins about loved ones who have been killed in battle, a lot of actors probably wanted to work with Moverman. His strong supporting cast includes Messenger vet Foster, as a wheelchair bound bum; Ice Cube, as an internal affairs investigator; Ned Beatty, as a retried cop who seems to have schooled Brown in corruption; and Robin Wright, as a lawyer and extracurricular love interest for Brown.

They’re all good, but the movie is caught in Brown’s corrupt swirl. Somewhere near the mid-picture mark, he's caught on camera beating a fleeing suspect, an incident that creates a Rodney King-style furor. He tries to rob a poker game to generate cash for himself, and winds up being investigated for an unlawful shooting. He smokes too much and drinks excessively. He's a dangerous wreck of a man, who offers arrogant rationalizations to the police psychologist (Sigourney Weaver) who questions him. He did time in Vietnam and has been on the crime front lines for decades. That's his rap.

Rampart aims for gritty truth, but may be too caught up in Brown's delirium to find any. You’ll find some overwrought scenes and lots of pulp-flavored cinematography as Rampart follows Brown’s descent into a private hell that, in the end, seems all too familiar -- not necessarily from reality, but from other movies that have tried to plumb the souls of other cops gone bad.

Harrelson deserves credit for pulling out all the stops, but Rampart is so hell bent on pushing his character beyond the moral pale, that it ultimately lets him down. Rampart is well-performed, but it often feels as tarnished as its main character.

Footnotes: I don't know what it means (probably nothing) but for those who collect coincidences: Brei Larson, who out-sullens just about every known teen-ager in Rampart, has a much lighter turn in 21 Jump Street, which also opens this week. Ice Cube, who plays an internal investigator for the LAPD in Rampart, portrays another cop in 21 Jump Street. Of Ice Cube's two performances, I prefer his work in Rampart, which allows him to break out of his one-note, scowling mode.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The witness is the prosecution

Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey will join me for a Cinema Salon Sunday, March 25 at 2 p.m. at the Colfax/FilmCenter, 2510 E. Colfax Avenue. DA Morrissey will share his views on some of the movies that have done a good job portraying the legal community and others that might deserve to be held in contempt. I've been curating and moderating these Salon programs for more than a year, and I tell you (with as much modesty as I can muster) that our mixture of talk and film clips offers a great opportunity to indulge your movie passion and to meet a wide range of interesting people. Salon participants have ranged from the former Archbishop of Denver, Charles J. Chaput, to Oscar-winning filmmaker Daniel Junge to Denver's iconic choreographer Cleo Parker Robinson. We've discussed subjects as somber as the Holocaust and Film and as much fun as The Best Action Sequences Ever Filmed.

Our audiences have been lively, inquisitive and well-informed, and our quests have included some of Denver's most influential and interesting people. So be there for our first Sunday afternoon Salon as we meet the man who has served as Denver's DA since 2005. Mr. Morrissey has established himself as a national expert on DNA technology and has become a strong leader in the field of victim advocacy.

Generally, I don't announce the movies we'll be focusing on in advance; it's more fun to discover them during the course of a Salon, but I'll tell you that Mr. Morrissey has selected a variety of clips from some intriguing movies. (You'll find a photo from one of them at the right, and if you can identify it, you'll know one of a half dozen movies we'll be putting into evidence.) You won't leave with the Salon with a law degree, but you'll gain a valuable insight into the way a long-time prosecutor looks at movies that deal with the law. One more thing: The FilmCenter bar is always open during Salons.

Friday, March 9, 2012

'John Carter' aims at Mars, but misses

John Carter may not be a dud, but it's not the one we've all been waiting for, either.
Disney seems to shopping for a new franchise with John Carter, an action adventure taken from A Princess of Mars, the first in a series of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels centered on John Carter, a Civil War veteran who is transported to Mars. Originally published in 1912, Burroughs' novel has been the basis for a variety of comic book series that achieved popularity among some boomers. Maybe that's why Disney put its money on a piece of sci-fi that originated long before the words “high tech” entered the popular vocabulary.

If I were a betting man, I’d wager against the development of a major John Carter franchise, at least if the first movie is any indication. John Carter isn’t awful. It is, however, determinedly retro, and if you didn’t know it derived from Burroughs, you might find it to be a bit retro, a bit cheesy and mostly lacking in the kind of golly-gee enthusiasm that sometimes saves movies from looking ... well ... cheesy and dated. Worse yet, as played by Taylor Kitsch, the main character comes off as bare-chested and bland.

Director Andrew Stanton (WALL-E and Finding Nemo) doesn’t seem to have had as much luck making the leap to live action as Brad Bird, who went from The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille to the breathless achievements of Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol.

At two-hours and 12 minutes, John Carter has a few fun moments, but it also can feel as if it's laboring under its own weight, and several of the most interesting supporting players -- Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, and Thomas Haden Church - are unseen, providing voices for CGI characters such as Sola, a.k.a, the green martian woman from Thark.

The story transports John Carter to Mars (never mind how) where he finds himself battling with the Tharks, reptilian-looking creatures with tusks, long faces, four arms and a language that requires subtitles.

Tharks alone are not sufficient fodder for a movie this sprawling, so the plot tosses Carter into the middle of a battle between warring cities of red-skinned Martians, who look like humans who've spent too much time at the beach. Goaded by Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) of Helium, Carter ultimately drops his neutrality and joins the battle to keep Helium from being dominated by the wicked Prince Sab Than (Dominic West). There's even more plot manipulation thanks to another group of evildoers called The Elites.

To add another level of complication, Sab wants to marry Princess Dejah Thoris. Her father (Ciaran Hinds) consents to the wedding to keep Helium from being destroyed.

Of course, Carter and Dejah Thoris are the movie’s real romantic item, and by the end, Stanton manages a small tug at our oft-plucked heart strings.

I could have done without the 3-D, which seemed to be used to no special advantage, and John Carter includes a fair amount of Martian gibberish that would have been unbearable had it not generated a few unintended chuckles.

Oh, I almost forgot. On Mars, Carter discovers that he’s able to make giant leaps into the air; this newly acquired power, a result of diminished gravitational pull, helps him to survive and to become an effective fighter, including in the obligatory scene in which he battles giant creatures in an arena.

The movie, however, hardly represents a giant leap when it comes to action/adventure: I can't say John Carter generated the excitement a burgeoning franchise needs, and it certainly didn’t make me crave another helping.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

With friends like these ....

A trendy sitcom of a movie substitutes banter for real depth.
Call me old-fashioned, but I still cling to the expectation that movies should to be richer, bigger and more emotionally savvy than anything that's available on TV. While watching Friends With Kids, a rom-com from director Jennifer Westfeldt, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had tuned into a sitcom made by a writer/director who was well-versed in the distressingly insular language of contemporary relationships.

Westfeldt's movie feels smart in the way that sit-coms sometimes feel smart; it's almost as if issues are being referenced rather than explored.

Like most rom-coms, Friends With Kids springs from a contrivance. Two friends (Westfeldt and Adam Scott) are wary of the pitfalls that can sabotage sustained relationships, but want to become parents anyway. So, they decide to avoid the problems faced by their friends with children and have a kid without the burden of also having a romantic relationship. Because they're not sexually attracted to each other, they think it should be easy to have a kid, share parenting chores and otherwise get with their lives. It helps that they live in the same Manhattan apartment building.

For the most part, the movie's more traditional couples are accessories that support the main endeavor. Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd play a husband and wife who fight all the time because they're both constantly frazzled about the demands of child-rearing. Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig play another couple. Their marriage buckles because of the strains placed on it by his womanizing.

Not surprisingly, the married couples think that Westfeldt’s Julie and Scott’s Jason have lost their minds. They think it's a mistake to have kids without a formal relationship, but at least in the beginning, Julie and Jason seem to have made a wise choice. They're super-tolerant of each other’s dating lives, and they split the demanding chores of caring for an infant.

Westfeldt (co-writer and star of Kissing Jessica Stein) keeps the tone reasonably light, as she examines the dating lives of Julie and Jason. A beefy looking Ed Burns shows up as a a possible beau for Julie; he’s a generally nice guy who’s divorced and has kids of his own. Jason falls for a sexy dancer (Megan Fox) who’s very clear about having no interest in a traditional relationship or in having kids.

About three-quarters of the way through, Westfeldt shifts the movie's tone. At a dinner on a Vermont ski trip the friends take together, Ham’s character has too much to drink and launches into a sneering tirade about Julie and Jason, predicting that their arrangement ultimately will crumble.

True to form, it does, and the movie stops being a trendy look at contemporary lives and love, and becomes a traditional rom-com that poses a distressingly predictable question: Will Julie and Jason become a couple?

I watched Friends With Kids without being bored or totally put off, but things never really deepen in ways that feel emotionally right.

One footnote: I won't give anything away, but the last line of the movie is needlessly coarse, a turn-off just at the moment when Friends With Kids could have used a little glow.

'Silent House' makes little horror noise

Elizabeth Olsen quakes and trembles, but fails to blow this house down.

I'm glad I saw Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy Mae Marlene before I saw Silent House, a new horror film from the husband-and-wife directorial team of Chris Kentis and Laura Lau. I'm also glad I saw Kentis and Lau's 2004 Open Water -- a highly effective movie about divers fighting off sharks -- before I showed up for a preview screening of the far less impressive Silent House. I'm saying that there's real talent behind Silent House, which was designed to look as if it had been shot in one continuous take, unfolding in real time. It's an interesting idea, but the picture doesn't have enough to offer, unless you've been yearning to watch Olsen quake, tremble, cry and snivel her way through what initially appears to be a pretty standard haunted house movie. The set-up: Sarah (Olsen) is helping her dad (Adam Trese) spiff up a summer house that he's planning to sell. Also along for the ride is dad's brother (Eric Sheffer Stevens). For a movie called Silent House, it's interesting that Kentis and Lau rely heavily on sound to build tension in the isolated country home that serves as movie's principal setting: We hear ominous foot steps, a fair measure of creaking and lots of things that go bang in the dark. We also catch glimpses of sights that are meant to chill as they hover eerily on the movie's periphery. I'm not going to reveal more of the plot, but I will tell you that I had little trouble figuring out the general direction in which the situation was headed. And if you play Silent House back in your mind, it may not hold up the way the most fiendishly clever horror movies do. Credit Kentis and Lau for not always going for obvious jolts, but in sum, Silent House seems like an undernourished attempt to freshen a weary genre. It's also no compliment to say that Silent House sometimes feels as if it's only a few steps ahead of the latest found-footage foray into contemporary horror.*

*Silent House is based on a Uruguayan film called La Casa Muda.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Moves on the art-house circuit

Chico & Rita. Directors Fernando Trueba and artist Javier Mariscal take a lingering, discursive look at the bumpy love affair between a jazz pianist and a singer in this Oscar-nominated animated feature. The movie begins with the pianist -- old and wandering through the mists of memory -- thinking about how he met Rita in Havana during the jazzy latter days of Batista's regime. The story takes Chico and Rita from Havana to New York, Paris and Las Vegas as they try to sustain musical careers and fan the flames of an affair that meets with its share of obstacles, some of them caused by Chico's roving eye. The movie's music takes precedence over the animation, which tends to flatten out faces, and an improbable ending puts a smiley face on a sometimes edgy story. Still, the main virtue of Chico & Rita is that it's aimed entirely at adults, which means it makes room for Rita's voluptuous carnality and includes an animated sex scene. I don't take this as a sign that adult-oriented animation has a real future, but one always can hope.


As a lover of director Tran Anh Hung's The Scent of Green Papaya, I found myself hoping I'd be equally transported by Norwegian Wood, Tran's big-screen adaptation of a popular 1987 Japanese novel by Haruki Murakami. Tran serves up some of the year's best and most memorable imagery, but tells a story that's never fully involving. The tale springs from the suicide in the 1960s of an adolescent whose death haunts the lives of two friends. Watanabe (Ken'ichi Matsuyama) leaves his village home to become a college student in Tokyo, but remains detached from the student turmoil that surrounds him. Eventually, Watanabe re-connects with the beautiful Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), who was the girlfriend of the boy who killed himself. Watanabe and Naoka establish a relationship, but she ultimately winds up languishing in a mental institution, tormented by the unfulfilled sexual relationship she had with the boy who committed suicide. Another student (Kiko Mizuhara) -- the sexually aggressive Midori -- also establishes a relationship with Wantanabe. The elements of a fine movie are in place, but Norwegian Wood misses the mark, something in the manner of an arrow that hits the target and falls gently to the ground. Notable, though, are the brilliant work of cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin and the musical score of Jonny Greenwood.


It's not possible for me totally to resist a performance by Alan Arkin, so I was happy enough watching Thin Ice, a bit of neo-noir set during the middle of winter in Wisconsin, where (as one character) puts it, there are two seasons: winter and road work. Director Jill Sprecher tells the story of an unscrupulous insurance agent (Greg Kinnear) who's trying to persuade a aging and somewhat addled client (Arkin) to give him a valuable violin. Of course, Arkin's Gorvy, who lives in a house strewn with bric-a-brac and clutter, doesn't know the instrument has any real value, at least not at first. The plot thickens appropriately as Sprecher makes room for appearances by Bob Balaban (as an appraiser of violins), David Harbour (as an ultra-sincere insurance agent who works for Kinnear's Micky), and Billy Crudup (as a workman who installs security alarms). Crudup gives a strange and lively performance as a man who becomes mired in criminal activity, and Kinnear does his best to hold the story together as an increasingly desperate man. The trouble with Thin Ice: If you've seen enough of these neo-noir, con-game stories, you'll peep the movie's hole card long before you should. This is not a case where familiarity breeds contempt, but it sure as hell takes off some of the edge.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Is it a party or a weapon of destruction?

Project X is a bad-taste comedy with energy and anarchy to spare, maybe too much of both.
It doesn’t take much by way of film background to know that movies are caught in a cycle of escalating expectation, not to achieve greater artistic quality but to discover new ways to poke, prod and otherwise bring audiences out of their collective stupor.

Each new horror film must be gorier and more creatively vicious than the last. The next fast-paced thriller must make the last fast-paced thriller seem as if it had been slogging through mud. The same pattern holds for movies about adolescence, which expend tremendous amounts of energy trying to be dopier, raunchier and more superficially transgressive than their predecessors.

It, therefore, should come as no surprise that Project X, a comedy produced by Todd Phillips of Hangover fame and directed by newcomer Nima Nourizadeh, is trying to be the teen party movie to end all teen party movies. If it’s not, I’d hate to see what comes next. Project X is so full of anarchic energy, it practically makes your head spin.

I suppose it’s fair to call Project X a supercharged descendant of Superbad: It's half party movie and half assault on suburban decorum, a teeming comedy that finds a way to include rioting, girls gone topless, drugs, noise, and wall-to-wall music, not to mention a nut job with a flame thrower and a phalanx of police officers.

Here’s the wafer-thin and all-too-familiar premise: Thomas Kub (Thomas Mann) is celebrating his 17th birthday. His parents are leaving town for the weekend. When parents in a teen movie go away for the weekend, you can bet all hell will break loose. Spurred on by his randy pal Costa (Oliver Cooper) and his chubby friend JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown), Thomas agrees to host a house party that’s meant to be a game changer; i.e., it’s supposed to turn three generally anonymous high schoolers into cool kids.

In the hands of these three kids, Thomas’ house party becomes a weapon of mass destruction, which (and I don’t think I’m giving away anything here) ultimately results in the demolition of half his neighborhood, a battle royal staged with choppers from the local news stations circling overhead.

The first half of the movie (maybe more) serves up party-hearty humor with the speed of projectile vomiting -- and no more subtlety. A high point? Consider the angry dwarf who punches taller men in their genitals. Nearly everyone at Thomas’ party looks to be so stoned (on various combinations of alcohol and drugs) that they barely can utter a coherent sentence, which, I suppose, is appropriate because Nourizadeh’s pop-riddled soundtrack may be more important than any dialogue.

Kids jump off the roof of the house into the pool; they do tequila shots; they dance; they abandon the backyard for the forbidden interior of the house; they tie the families Yorkshire terrier to helium balloons and let him float skyward. They hold nothing back as the nervous Thomas, who has been warned by his parents not to wreck the house, gradually gives himself over to the "epic" spirit of an evening that’s destined to go down in North Pasadena history as a volcanic eruption of hormonal insanity.

In the movie’s late stages, the party blows up -- just about literally. The level of chaos becomes so intense that even jaded critics may find themselves watching with a bit of jaw-dropping amazement.

Project X wavers between funny and appalling. Which side you lean toward probably depends on how old you are. And the movie ultimately can’t seem to make up its mind whether it wants to caution against wanton excess or provide non-stop titillation.

Mann does a decent job as Thomas. Thomas' tension: To give into the party impulse with new "hotties" or stick with the girl (Kirby Bliss Blanton) who liked him before he was considered cool.

Say this: Project X -- utilizing the woozy, hand-held approach necessitated by yet another found-footage gimmick -- leaves you wondering whether you’ve witnessed a teen movie or a blow to civilization as we know it. And if you're looking for something that does justice to the adolescent female point-of-view, you'll have to look elsewhere.

I didn’t find Project X especially funny, and I hope that its steaming pile of bad-taste jokes aren't mistaken for anything truly rebellious. I admit to feeling a bit of wide-eyed amazement at the lengths to which Nourizadeh and company go in applying anarchic zeal to every situation, but in the end, an overdose of anarchy is just that -- too damn much.

A Pole helps Jews in a dark hour

Director Angnieszka Holland tells a little-known Holocaust story

Not long ago, Poland was regarded -- at least among many Jews of a certain age -- as a bastion of anti-Semitism. I grew up around Jewish people who believed most Poles were secretly (or even openly) happy that the Germans were doing their dirty work for them, eliminating Jews from every aspect of Polish life. It didn’t matter that the first people to die at Auschwitz were Polish political prisoners or that the Germans regarded the Poles as lesser beings. One question resonated above all others: Where were the Poles when most of the country's Jewish population was being annihilated?

During the past 20 or so years, there has been a conscious effort in Poland to come to grips with that image, mostly in the form of new interest in Jewish culture. Warsaw and Krakow host two of the world’s largest Jewish festivals, and in Warsaw, a Jewish history museum is under construction. Poland is making an effort to understand Jewish culture, and to make Polish/Jewish history a part of Polish history.

If one were inclined toward skepticism, one might think of this as a somewhat hollow gesture, Judaism without Jews. The Jewish population of Poland, though growing, remains woefully small. There were 3.3 million Jews in Poland prior to World War II. The number of Jews in Poland today is estimated at between 8,000 to 12,000, and I'm not sure that a generation of younger Poles is as caught up in any of this as their parents may have been.

So where am I going with all this?

At this point, any contemporary movie that grapples with the relationship between Poles and Jews during World War II must be seen in the context of Poland’s evolving mindset about such matters.

All of this makes director Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness part of an ongoing trend that has yet to reach its destination -- if, indeed, it has one, as well as a singular artistic effort.

Holland, who dealt with Holocaust-related issues in Angry Harvest (1985) and Europa, Europa (1990), this time offers a portrait of an initially reluctant hero: Poldek is a Polish sewer inspector who winds up helping a handful of Jews in the city of Lvov, which is now part of the Ukraine, but which belonged to Poland during the war.

In part, In Darkness is made compelling by its setting, the sewers of Lvov, where a small group of Jews hides from the Nazis. It takes a man such as Poldek, who knows how to scavenge and how to negotiate the sewer system, to supply the Jews with food and water -- at first for a price. When the Jews run out of money, Poldek continues to help, perhaps because he begins to see past stereotypes he long has taken for granted.

Holland offers a rounded portrait of the Jews who take to the sewers, where they live in horrible darkness and suffer all the kind of indignities that easily are imagined -- from the inescapable stench to an abundance of rats. The hiding Jews include a couple of kids, a man who abandoned his wife and daughter for his mistress, a religious Jew, a stalwart guy who’s willing to fight and a wealthy man who never dreamed he'd be put in such a position.

Poldek (Robert Wieckiewicz) proves a commanding figure, a gruff, physically powerful man who has become accustomed to doing whatever he must to keep himself, his wife and his young daughter alive during the German occupation. A young sidekick (Krzysztof Skonieczny) helps Poldek and shares in his looted bounty.

I’m always a little wary of stories about Holocaust survival -- even harrowing ones. In essence, the story of the Holocaust is not one of hope and survival, but of mass murder. But Holland's movie -- as its title suggests -- is a grim and affecting exploration of the way people behave under extreme pressure; it also reminds us that when the worst conditions occur, it’s impossible to predict who among us will be capable of acting with decency.

An affair remembered -- but not well

If you enjoy hating Madonna, a pursuit many seem to regard as a kind of moral obligation, you'll definitely be put off by W.E., Madonna's look at the relationship between divorcee Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII. Wallis and Edward's world-shaking affair led Edward to abdicate the throne in 1936. He claimed that he could not rule without the woman he loved at his side.

If you're not a Madonna hater -- and I'm not -- you still may be disappointed by Madonna's directorial effort, a lavishly empty attempt to say something (I'm not sure what) about obsessive love.

Perhaps fearing that the Simpson/Edward relationship -- shown briefly in The King's Speech -- has lost its sensational luster, Madonna and screenwriter Alek Keshishian juxtapose it with a story that takes place in 1998: A young married woman -- in the throes of a bad marriage -- becomes obsessed with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

It's just here that the movie falls apart: The movie's two stories do not seem to inform or enhance each other, and taken on their own, the Manhattan segments aren't all that intriguing.

Nothing wrong with Madonna's casting: Andrea Riseborough, who plays Simpson, may be more attractive than her real-life counterpart, but she conveys Simpson's troubling mixture of ambition and confusion. Edward (James D'Arcy) comes across as something of a lightweight.

Abbie Cornish also acquits herself well as a Manhattan woman who's fascinated by items once owned by Simpson and Edward, possessions that are being auctioned off as the story unfolds. Cornish's Wally Winthrop strikes up a relationship with an auction house security guard (Oscar Isaac). He arranges for her to have private viewings, and becomes romantically interested in her.

Madonna seems to have spared little expense in capturing the formal but slightly decadent ambiance around Edward, but W.E. seems more self-consciously arty than it needs to be.

I've read British reviews of W.E. that take Madonna to task for not doing more to show that the fashion-conscious Simpson wanted to catch a king. In this version, it's Edward who pushes for marriage.

I don't know if that criticism is justified, but I do know that W.E. stands as a stylish mediocrity that definitely could have benefited from some of the flashy/trashy wit Madonna brings to her stage shows.