Thursday, May 31, 2012

A dark and beautiful 'Snow White'

First off, I can't imagine that the world breathlessly awaits another version of the Snow White story, even one set in a Medieval world that provides fertile ground for some of the best special effects of a still-burgeoning summer.

So it's up to the makers of Snow White and the Huntsman to convince us that their movie is not just another link in a long chain of pointless summer diversions, particularly when we've already seen Mirror Mirror, another attempt to revive and reinterpret the Snow White tale.

If there's a compelling reason for Snow White and the Huntsman, it can be found in the many imaginative ways director Robert Sanders puts real darkness back into Snow White, a fairy tale mostly associated with the Brothers Grimm, who knew how to give kids the willies, and with Walt Disney, who knew how to create cuddly dwarves, seven of them in fact.

This Snow White has no dwarves named Happy or Sleepy, and never winks at the audience. Playing almost every scene straight, Sanders tells the story of how Evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) takes over a kingdom, imprisoning Snow White (Kristen Stewart) in a castle tower.

Daughter of the king Ravenna murdered and rightful heir to throne, Snow White, of course, escapes. With the help of several allies, Snow White stages a comeback in which -- after being resurrected from the dead -- she dons Joan of Arc-like armor and leads a band of displaced warriors into a brutal battle with the queen and her army.

In one of its neatest tricks, the movie plays games with scale, employing a notable crew of British actors to portray the dwarves, a surly bunch of bandits who help validate Snow White's claim to the throne, a spot that rightfully belongs to someone with a pure heart.

Among the dwarves, look for Ray Winstone, Toby Jones, Bob Hoskins and Ian McShane. And, yes, you will wonder what brand of digital sorcery Sanders and his cohorts employed to make grown men seem as if they were a mere four feet tall.

So what motivates the queen? Once abused by a lover, she's been striking back ever since. When Ravenna looks into her prized mirror to ask the key question about who's the fairest of them all, the mirror melts into a golden statuesque figure that speaks to her in deep Vaderesque tones.

The queen's evil brother and toady-in-chief (Sam Spruell ) joins The Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) as he tracks the fleeing Snow White. The Huntsman -- who has been duped by the queen -- quickly changes sides and becomes Snow White's principal protector, with help from rival William (Sam Claflin), a devoted friend from Snow White's childhood.

Working from a script by a quartet of credited writers, Sanders produces some wonderful effects as Snow White's quest takes her through a dark forest, a village populated by women and an enchanted forest where fairies dwell. There, Snow White receives the blessing of a majestic white elk, a moment that underlines her unity with the natural world.

The Queen, of course, stands in opposition to the natural way of things: To sustain her youthful beauty, she sucks the life out of young women. She fears nothing more than the ravaging onslaughts of age.

Sanders, who's making his feature debut, would have done well to ask Theron to tone down her performance, particularly in moments in which the queen rages at the nearest lackey. Stewart, of Twilight fame, doesn't project the pristine beauty that has become a pop-cultural cliche when it comes to Snow White, but she's up to the task of transforming into a young woman who gradually understands the weight of responsibility she's carrying. Hemsworth, best known for playing Thor in the Avengers series, does well as an embittered widower. And Spruell is appropriately obnoxious as the Queen's brother.

All of this goes on too long, but if Sanders isn't great at building momentum or varying the movie's tone, he sure knows how to take side trips. Even as I thought about how I might trim 20 minutes from the movie's 127-minute running time, I maintained interest in a story that's lavishly and alluringly dark. This Snow White is at its best when it's most attuned to courtly spectacle, mysterious forests, and enchanted landscapes, vital ingredients of many a well-created fairy-tale world.

A crowd-pleaser from France

There's certainly a need for a movie that takes a serious look at the way French traditionalists interact with the new and racially diverse residents of their sometimes tumultuous country. The Intouchables flirts with the subject, but seems far more interested in humor and charm than in any deep probing.

Still, the movie benefits from a premise with a bit of topical kick: A young Senegalese man (Omar Sy) winds up working for a wealthy Frenchmen (Francois Cluzet) who's paralyzed from the neck down.

Directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, who also wrote the screenplay, give a crowd-pleasing, odd-couple twist to a bromance that's greatly aided by Sy's vibrant performance as Driss, a young ex-convict who approaches the world with disarming candor.

Not one to filter his remarks, Driss reacts to almost every situation with engaging immediacy and down-to-earth intelligence. Driss can't entirely escape stereotyping, but then neither can Cluzet's Philippe, an aristocratic type who likes classical music, art and literature.

Drisss meets Philippe almost by accident. While going through the motions of job-hunting (in order to maintain government benefits), Driss stumbles into a position that involves caring for Philippe. He doesn't condescend to Philippe or censor himself when it comes to discussing his boss's disability, and Philippe seems to enjoy Driss's lack of reserve.

As the movie progresses, Driss and Philippe develop a convincing friendship, and there are scenes that are both pointed and funny: Driss accompanying Philippe to the opera or Driss deciding to try his hand at painting after learning that some abstract art fetches insanely high prices.

The Intouchables takes Driss seriously, although it can't resist putting him into a predictable situation in which he brings Earth Wind and Fire and party-down dancing to the high-culture crowd.

Those with familiar with French cinema will not be surprised to learn that Cluzet gives a wry and sometimes mischievous performance as a man paralyzed in a paragliding accident. Philippe may be physically helpless, but Cluzet shows that he's not above exerting other kinds of power; he enjoys toying with Driss.

The movie announces at the outset that it's based on a true story, and the real people are shown during the closing credits. It's then that we discover Driss was based on Abdel, an Arab. Knowing who Driss really was made me wonder why the filmmakers changed his ethnicity.

I have no ready answer, but the question sent me out of the theater scratching my head instead of basking in the glow of the friendship the movie so ably creates.

Oh well, despite its frank acknowledgements of Philippe's physical problems and its refusal to ignore Driss's life in a Parisian housing project, The Intouchables comes off as light, feel-good entertainment carried by two gifted actors who simply refuse to be defeated by cliche.

Catholic warriors on the march

If a superior historical movie is defined by its ability to infuse a subject with thought-provoking urgency, For Greater Glory mostly misses the mark.

Despite a ton of battle footage and an underdog story that pits a rebel army against a superior Mexican federal force, director Dean Wright's wannabe epic has the washed out blandness of a work that's ultimately limited both by a diffuse script and by its faith-based commitments.

Overly long at two hours and 20 minutes, For Greater Glory revolves around an obscure chapter in Mexican history, the bloody Cristero War that took place between 1926 and 1929 and which saw a group of Catholics take arms to preserve their right to practice their religion.

Mexican president Flutarco Calles, an excellent Ruben Blades, becomes the primary oppressor. The screenplay depicts Calles as a cruel and zealous upholder of the Mexican constitution of 1917 which contained a variety of anti-clerical strictures designed to limit the power of the Catholic Church. In practice, foreign priests were deported, some priests were murdered and churches were desecrated.

A scattered story tries to find focus in the person of General Gorostieta Velarde (Andy Garcia), a retired military officer who's asked to lead the rebel forces. Though skeptical about Catholic dogma, Velarde believes in religious freedom. He ultimately takes the job.

A bland Garcia doesn't do enough with the doubt that must have wracked a man such as Velarde, who -- according to the movie -- eventually was moved to reaffirm his Catholicism by a 12-year-old boy's Christ-like sacrifice.

Several familiar faces crop up in supporting roles. Looking as if he might at any moment be blown away by a stiff wind, a frail Peter O'Toole appears as a priest who's executed by the Federales. And Bruce Greenwood shows up as the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, a diplomat trying to broker a peace that serves U.S. interests.

The For Greater Glory trailer makes a big deal out of the fact that Eva Longoria appears in the movie. Longoria sheds the desperate housewife trappings of her TV fame to become the devout wife of General Velarde: Because Velarde spends most of the movie away from his family, Longoria doesn't get all that much screen time.

Earnest to a fault, For Greater Glory doesn't look hard enough at the contradiction within the rebel forces; i.e., fighting and killing to practice a religion built around the teachings of Christ. A warrior priest played by Santiago Cabrera might well have received more attention, perhaps at the expense of yet another battle.

Now, as for the movie's religio-political agenda: A Washington Post article published on May 24 reported that "For Catholics enraged by the Obama administration’s proposed contraception mandate, the film about the Mexican church’s fight in (the) 1920s is a heartening and timely cinematic boost in the American church’s battle to preserve 'religious freedom' in 2012."

I wouldn't classify For Greater Glory as entirely propagandistic nor do I think that the film will ignite Passion of the Christ levels of controversy, but, as the Post article suggests, even with an "R" rating, For Greater Glory dovetails with the objectives of some Catholic organizations. The Knights of Columbus, for example, devotes an on-line page to resources for promoting the movie.

Some will see all of this as an enhancement, but even those in total synch with the movie's values may find themselves growing antsy during its long march to glory.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A palatable reprise of 'Men in Black'

Early in Men in Black 3, Emma Thompson -- who plays Agent 0 -- delivers a eulogy for Zed, a character played in the previous movies by Rip Torn. Claiming that she's paraphrasing an alien, O speaks in a bizarre, screeching language that gives new meaning to the word "shrill." Thompson's offbeat moment marks one of many amusing bits in director Barry Sonnefeld's often imaginative reprise of a series that began in 1997.

Men In Black 3, available in 3-D, boasts a high degree of creativity, a serviceable enough story and the expected bickering between agents K and J (Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith). The movie may not score a bull's-eye, but it's no dud, either.

The first Men in Black movie caught audiences by surprise. Released in 2002, the second didn't do much for me and most other critics, but sold a fair number of tickets. The third is ... well ... a bit of a conundrum.

What I liked about No. 3, I tended to like a lot, but sporadic enjoyment doesn't entirely compensate for the fact that the various pieces that Sonnenfeld has assembled don't always translate into big-time fun.

This edition involves time travel. In brief: Agent J -- part of a black-suited force that monitors alien activity on Earth -- travels back to 1969 to kill Boris the Animal (Jemain Clement), an alien who has a plan for wiping out the Earth or conquering it or something.

J's arrival in 1969 allows Sonnefeld to do a few time-travel jokes, one revolving around J's encounter with a couple of bigoted policeman. Despite such annoyances, J soon meets a younger version of Agent K. Enter Josh Brolin, who seems to have stolen Tommy Lee Jones's voice, mastering Jones's every clipped, sardonic inflection. I don't know if Brolin's giving a performance or a doing an impression. Whatever it is, it's dead-on.

For his part, Jones appears in the opening and closing scenes that bookend the main part of the movie. In short, he's not required to do much heavy lifting, which is fine. I'm betting the always imposing Jones rather would have been elsewhere.

In 1969, J also meets Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), a dithering alien who's able to see a variety of versions of the future. J also learns a secret about himself, which adds a bit of unexpected poignancy to the story, which is credited to five writers. The multiple authorship sometimes shows. Men in Black 3 doesn't seem to know where it's headed.

So be prepared to enjoy Men in Black in bits and pieces:
-- An opening sequence in a Chinese restaurant is funny in a downbeat sort of way. It also assembles an appropriately disgusting collection of alien life forms, including a giant alien fish about the size of a small tugboat.

-- To travel through time, Agent J must leap off the Chrysler Building, a feat that gives Sonnenfeld an opportunity to apply some vertiginously effective 3-D, an opportunity that repeats itself during the movie's finale, which takes place at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

-- A joke involving the late Andy Warhol (Bill Hader) doesn't quite pay off, but the filmmakers deserve credit for advancing a novel explanation for Warhol's strange personality.

You get the idea: Men in Black 3 puts lots of ingredients in its bag and shakes them up to mixed effect.

Smith sometimes works a little too hard to ignite an old spark, and there certainly was no pressing reason for anyone to revisit these characters.

Having said that, Sonnefeld & company deserve mild praise for bringing a palatable version of an old favorite into the summer of 2012, where I hope the franchise finds its eternal rest after patting itself on the back for at least trying to hit some strangely amusing notes.

'We Have a Pope' -- and almost a movie

This Vatican-based comedy could have been sharper.
Director Nanni Moretti, best known to American audiences for 2001's The Son's Room, has hold of an intriguing subject with We Have A Pope, a gentle comedy about an obscure cardinal (Michel Piccoli) who, much to his bewilderment, emerges as a compromise candidate for the papacy. There's only one problem: Piccoli's character can't make the psychological leap required for him to walk out on a balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square and proclaim to the multitudes that he is indeed Il Papa. Instead, he goes through what appears to be an anxiety attack so massive that the desperate cardinals call in a psychiatrist (played by Moretti) to help the pope conquer his fears and ascend to the papal throne. Piccoli's pope believes in God, but doesn't seem to think that he possibly could have the authority to speak for his creator. At one point, he's able to don civilian clothes and take to the streets of Rome, where we learn that he once aspired to be an actor. Left with nothing much to do inside the Vatican, Moretti's character organizes a volley ball tournament among the restless cardinals. The press and public await word. Piccoli gives a sweet performance as a humble, doubt-riddled man of the cloth; he's matched by Polish actor Jerzy Stuhr, as a no-nonsense civilian charged with stage-managing the pope's ascendance and with keeping the press at bay. In his role as writer and director, Moretti seems to have decided to work with a light touch. If he's poking fun at the Church, he's using a feather duster rather than a laser. I found myself wishing that Moretti had made a more serious and perhaps weightier drama about what it means for someone to step onto the world stage. But even in its serio-comic form, We Have a Pope provokes thought. It leaves us to wonder what might happen if someone refused to accept the lead in a global drama. Piccoli's pontiff once wanted to be an actor; the movie's irony is that a twist of fate offers him the one role he doesn't believe he can play.

Monday, May 21, 2012

A high-stakes ballet competition

Youth America Grand Prix is a ballet competition open to students ranging from eight to 19 years old. The annual competition has become a major event in the world of ballet, probably because the prizes are big. Winners can receive scholarships to prestigious dance schools and even contracts with major ballet companies. For the young men and women who emerge victorious, doors to careers can be flung open. Watching First Position -- a documentary about the competition and some of its competitors -- can be deeply moving because of the dedication and enthusiasm these talented young people display. I'll mention only one of the six youngsters that director Bess Kargman follows as she builds toward the finals. Fourteen-year-old Michaela DePrince (shown above) arrived in the U.S. after being orphaned in Sierra Leone. Hardly the delicate, fine-boned figure of ballet cliche, DePrince has a powerful athlete's body and spectacular skills. When the competition arrives, DePrince must decide whether to compete despite having suffered a debilitating ankle injury. If DePrince's story doesn't inspire you, you probably can't be inspired. Kargman's film intrigues and informs -- as far as it goes. I wish Kargman had delved deeper into the effect this kind of high-powered competition has on children, particularly those who don't win. I also wondered why she didn't deal with the kind of body obsessions that can put dancers on the road to dangerous eating disorders. (Disclosure: Through the making of a film and later involvement with The Eating Disorders Foundation in Denver, I've learned to take such matters seriously.) First Position doesn't qualify as the definitive documentary about kids and competition, but it opens the door to a world that may require deep and early commitment for even the most talented youngsters to have a shot at success.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Missteps sink this 'Battleship'

It looks like a video game. Too bad you have to watch it instead of playing.

Terrible dialogue, ear-splitting noise, an uninspired premise, patriotic pandering, booming close-ups and an ocean full of cornball sentiment help sink the action movie Battleship not long after it leaves port. Derived from a Hasbro board game, Battleship is one of those lamentable movies that seem to have been assembled from spare parts taken from other movies. You'll find the cacophonous metal-on-metal abrasions of the Transformer movies, the fist-pumping bravado of movies such as Top Gun and a sic-fi premise that could have been lifted from any number of aggressively commercial entertainments from director Michael Bay. You know the drill: An alien force is about to invade the Earth. It falls to a slacker hero (Taylor Kitsch) to save humanity by finding his emerging manhood and leading the charge against the aliens. A large cast features several highlighted performances: Alexander Skarsgard of True Blood fame == plays Kitsch's older brother, and Brooklyn Decker portrays Kitsch's love interest. She's the daughter of an admiral (a little seen Liam Neeson). Director Peter Berg piles on the heavy action, much of it built around chaotic camera movements and frenzied editing. The aliens, once revealed, are disappointing creatures. Maybe it doesn't matter because most of the time, we can't' see them anyway: They're hidden by armored suits that make them look as if they were conceived as action figures long before there were jammed into this orgy of destruction. Berg takes a bow toward The Greatest Generation in an effort to blend contemporary war heroes with those from our more glorious World War II past, but the whole business comes off as rigid salute to the kind of courage found only in movies, bolstered, of course, by a megaton barrage of CGI. Did I say the movie is loud? Think of it this way: Experiencing Battleship is like listening to a symphony composed entirely of cymbal crashes.

The rise and fall of a Texas funeral director

A flower blooms in a small Texas town -- and his name is Bernie.

Bernie Tiede was a solicitous assistant funeral director in the tiny Texas town of Carthage. Marjorie Nugent was Carthage's richest widow, a woman known for her meanness of spirit. Bernie (Jack Black) prided himself on providing service with a sensitive smile and praise to Jesus. Perhaps convinced that even the town ogre couldn't help responding to his irresistible warmth, Bernie befriended Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine).

Bernie eventually gave up his job at the Carthage funeral home to become Mrs. Nugent's aide and confidant. He prospered. He traveled with her. She found someone to assuage the loneliness she wouldn't admit to having, but she never lost her taste for delivering a punishing remark. No matter what else happened, Marjorie never allowed Bernie to forget that he had been put on this Earth to respond to her every demand.

One day or maybe it was in one frustrated moment, Bernie snapped. He shot Marjorie four times with a rifle. She died, a fate that often befalls those who suffer multiple rifle wounds.

Bernie, a seriocomic movie from director Richard Linklater, is based on a true story taken from a magazine article by Skip Hollandsworth, who co-wrote the movie's screenplay with Linklater. Mixing actors and real Carthage townsfolk, Linklater comes up with a movie that should be celebrated -- not because it deals with murder -- but because it exudes the kind of regional flavor that's difficult to come by in today's homogenized movie climate. Linklater's movie is Texas to the core.

Black's fans are in for a surprise. His Bernie is a Jesus-loving graduate of funeral director school who also preaches and sings at the local church. Bernie prides himself on his neat-as-a-pin appearance, and has a slight mincing quality to his gait. Bernie may be light in the loafers, as one townsperson unoriginally puts it, or he might just be a kind of rare Texas flower that blooms in a small town that can't always tell the difference between sincerity and salesmanship. Hell, neither can Bernie?

I couldn't look at Black without thinking that Bernie probably overdoes it in the cologne department.

Looking as if someone had just force fed her a lemon, MacLaine creates a character who seems to have been born sour and remained that way.

Black and MacLaine -- as unlikely a screen pairing as I ever expected to see -- are terrific together. She hectors and bullies Bernie. He tolerates her until the moment he loses his patience and picks up that rifle.

Linklater spends a lot of time introducing us to Bernie and to Carthage. In an early scene, Bernie addresses a group of aspiring funeral directors, teaching them the finer points of mortuary science, things like how to keep the eyes of the deceased from popping open, always a cause for alarm.

The second half of the picture deals with the way in which Bernie tries to cover up his crime and the trial that follows his arrest.

In district attorney Danny Buck, Matthew McConaughey has found a role he really was born to play, a country bumpkin whose strategy involves turning Bernie into an effete alien who knows things like which color wine goes with which kind of food and who can pronounce a few common French words. Scandalous.

Buck finds himself at odds with the good people of Carthage, some of whom think that Bernie may have done the world a small favor when he sent Mrs. Nugent to her eternal reward. They're outraged that Buck has been granted a change of venue for the trial, shifting the proceedings to another small Texas town where (as one character puts it) the people are likely to have more tattoos than teeth.

Linklater, the director of movies as wide-ranging as Slacker, Waking Life, Before Sunset and Me and Orson Welles, has come up with a winning oddball of a movie. Having real people -- most of them naturally funny -- comment on Bernie and Mrs. Nugent makes us appreciate the comic tone Linklater has chosen for the movie. It's not imposed on the material, but stems from a living, breathing reality.

Bernie may be guilty of minimizing murder a bit, but it also maximizes local flavor. And that's something movies very much need.

The end of the world and other matters


What would you do if you knew that the world was going to end today? No loopholes. No escape clauses. You and the rest of humanity are about to become extinct. That's the question that director Abel Ferrara -- perhaps best known for the scabrous cop drama Bad Lieutenant -- asks in 4:44 Last Day on Earth. Judging by the movie's two main characters (Willem DaFoe and Shanyn Leigh) the answer goes something like this: You'd pretty much do what you always do -- only with a heightened consciousness that you were living your final hours. Leigh plays an artist who paints in the couple's New York loft; DaFoe portrays a reformed drug addict. So what happens? A delivery kid shows up with Chinese food. DaFoe calls his daughter from a previous relationship. The couple makes love, argues, meditates and prepares for the worst. Ferrara surrounds DaFoe and Leigh with TVs (always on), computers and smart phones, making us wonder whether even the end of the world can't be experienced without some form of electronic mediation. Those familiar with Ferrara's work will find a softer, less heated approach in a movie that's not nearly as pretentious as Lars von Trier's Melancholia, which also dealt with the end of the world. Although Buddhist lectures and an interview with the Dalai Lama sometimes play on TVs in the background, neither character in 4:44 Last Day on Earth seems to be asking big questions. The point, one supposes, is not to imagine the end of all humanity, but to encourage thought about what really should matter to us. The movie blames man-created holes in the ozone layer for the approaching doom. But let's face it: The difficult truth, the one we seldom choose to acknowledge, is that any day could be our last. DaFoe and Leigh sometimes seem to be improvising, which means there are awkwardly acted moments, but there's also an undeniable quality of exhausted resignation about 4:44 The Last Day on Earth, a feeling that stems from knowing that there will come a moment when the universe puts a period at the end of each of our meager sentences -- and from thinking that all of humanity could reach a point when there will no next generation to set things right.


The Norwegian film Headhunters begins as if it's going to be a crackling thriller about a corporate headhunter who, in his spare time, steals art. In this full-time executive and part-time thief, director Morten Tyldum has found an interesting character, and actor Aksel Hennie imbues him with the kind of arrogance that accrues to someone who thinks he's putting something over on the world, even if he's not sure his run of unearned luck can last. Hennie's Roger Brown has a beautiful wife (Synnøve Macody Lund), a stylishly modern home and lots of possibilities for new art thefts. He also has an accomplice (Elvind Sander), a worker at a security firm who (for a price) shuts off the alarms at the homes Roger burglarizes. Roger's life changes on the day that he's approached by a confident CEO type (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who's looking for a new job. The movie then turns into a kind of cat-and-mouse game revolving around a valuable painting that has come into the possession of Coster-Waldau's character. We suspect something particularly strange is up when Coster-Waldau's character begins to reveal his background. He's a former special forces guy who worked for a company that has invented all kinds of high-tech tracking devices. Tyldum eventually switches gears, turning the movie into a disturbing game of can-you-top-this with Roger falling into one terrible trap after another. I'll spare you the details, but the squeamish should exercise a bit of caution here. Tyldum has a refined taste for macabre visual sight gags, and it should tell you something that Headhunters already has been slated for an American remake, perhaps because Tyldum builds the story around imaginatively conceived and steadily escalating physical horrors and perhaps because the movie's view of corporate types is fashionably unflattering. Headhunters is involving to be sure, but I couldn't help thinking that it's also one more movie looking for outré ways to distinguish itself from the rest of the indie pack.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Strange bedfellows: tyranny and humor

Sacha Baron Cohen's The Dictator isn't as transgressive as his best comedy, but it's not laugh free, either.

Sacha Baron Cohen has a genius for turning inappropriate remarks and vulgar behavior into transgressive social critiques. Daring as he is dirty, Cohen first came to the attention of American audiences with Da Ali G Show, which aired on HBO. Cohen pushed Ali G -- an outlandish British hip hop journalist -- into the real world, where he conducted interviews that often left his prey foaming with outrage or shaking their heads in disbelief. Ali G was, if you can stand the contradiction, brilliantly ignorant.

Baron Cohen transferred these skills to the big screen with 2006 with Borat (inspired), a comedy that he followed with 2009’s less successful Bruno. Now comes The Dictator, a film that begins with a dedication to the late Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, a brazen bit of humor that sets the tone for a comedy that includes most of the Baron Cohen trademarks: blatantly stated bigotry, exceptional vulgarity and broadly aimed satire.

In The Dictator, the combination produces enough laughs to keep Baron Cohen fans happy, although the movie seldom seems as daring or dangerous as Baron Cohen’s bizarre mockumentaries, which brought him into contact with non-actors who weren’t in on the joke.

This time out, Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the cruel dictator of the fictional Middle Eastern country of Wadiya. Early on, Aladeen travels to New York City to address the United Nations. There, another Wadiyan leader (Ben Kingsley) leads an assassination attempt involving one of Aladeen’s many hapless doubles.

Not that plot matters. The point is to put this arrogant, self-absorbed tyrant into the middle of Manhattan, where -- shorn of his beard -- he can be the proverbial fish out of dictatorial waters.

Left to his own devices, Aladeen lands a job at the Free Earth Collective, an organic Brooklyn food store run by a feminist activist (Anna Farris). He also reunites with a Wadiyan nuclear scientist (Jason Mantzoukas) who escaped one of Aladeen's many execution orders, handed out by the capricious dictator as casually as others distribute business cards.

Among his many New York-based educational experiences, Aladeen learns to masturbate, an activity that gives director Larry Charles, who directed the two previous Baron Cohen movies, an opportunity to go gross -- not his first nor his last in a picture that probably contains a few too many such moments.

Oddly, the movie’s most trenchant bit of comedy comes in a speech Aladeen delivers at the end. Its target: Not the dictatorial abuses of the Sadaam Husseins and Muammar Gaddafis of the world, but conditions closer to home.

Did I think The Dictator was a great movie? No. Did I laugh enough to recommend it to Baron Cohen fans, as well as to those who arrive at the theater adequately forewarned? Yes.

A final thought: At February’s Oscar ceremonies, Baron Cohen walked the red carpet dressed as Aladeen, complete with fake beard. He proceeded to spill the ashy contents of an urn he was carrying on E! red carpet host Bryan Seacrest’s tuxedo. The ashes, said Aladeen, belonged to the late Kim Jong-il.

It was a great “oops” moment that fit Baron Cohen’s humor perfectly, soiling the usual red carpet orgy of praise and fatuous banter, and setting a standard of impropriety that The Dictator can’t quite match.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

'Dark Shadows' casts too small a spell

It's not exactly cursed, but this Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaboration is as dramatically flat as it is visually elaborate.

I can't say I was overjoyed when I first heard that Johnny Depp planned to reunite with Tim Burton for a movie in which Depp would play 200-year-old Barrnabas Collins, a vampire and the most memorable character in Dark Shadows, which first appeared as a TV soap opera in 1966.

Although HBO's True Blood looms, and I plan to watch it, I'm close to being vampired out. I'm also a bit tired of watching Depp bury himself under piles of make-up and bizarre costumes. The campy prancing of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies has worn me out.

A friend used to say that by the late stages of his career, Marlon Brando had stopped being an actor and had turned himself into a special effect. Although Depp hasn't gone quite so far off the deep end, he's also becoming something of a specialty item. Need some first-class comic weirdness? Call Depp.

Depp's next two movies -- The Lone Ranger (as Tonto) and Pirates of the Caribbean 5 (again as Captain Jack Sparrow) -- don't exactly promise a return to Donnie Brasco form. I'm by no means suggesting that Depp's mailing in his performances, but he does seem to be spending a lot of time writing pretty much the same letter.

Burton, who now has collaborated with Depp on eight movies, seems in need of a creative re-charge, as well.

The opening of Dark Shadows -- eerie and ominously dark -- turned my initial fears into hope. Maybe Burton would accomplish something amazing, namely boosting soap opera into the category of grand opera, creating a movie that was both mysterious and sprawling.

It was not to be.

Depp and Burton have devoted their considerable skills to a mostly superfluous enterprise that's rich in Gothic atmosphere and visual creativity, but which doesn't have much else going for it.
Working from a screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith, Burton creates a movie that too seldom gets beyond random chuckles.

And there's something inherently troubling here: Putting this much effort and production value into Dark Shadows seems roughly equivalent to performing open heart surgery for a mild case of indigestion. At the risk of losing track of my metaphors, this is overkill.

Burton and Depp are too accomplished to fail entirely. Dark Shadows has its moments as it brings Barnabas, who became a vampire in the 1800s, into the 1970s. Newly arrived in the disco era, Barnabas encounters everything from macrame to mirror balls to bitterness about the Vietnam War.

Depp plays his vampire as straight as Barnabas's rigid posture. When Barnabas addresses a group of pot-smoking hippies, Depp's comic-timing proves impeccable. "It is with sincere regret that I must kill all of you," he says. Barnabas's failure to see the irony in the formality of his remark makes the moment amusing.

A beautifully mounted prologue sets up the vampire part of the story. Barnabas is turned into a vampire by a witch (Eva Green), a woman he ditched in favor a fair-haired beauty (Bella Heathcote). Green'a Angelique takes her revenge by casting a spell that forces Heathcote's character to leap off a cliff.

A stricken Barnabas follows, but rather than dying in the crashing surf below, he's turned into a vampire by Angelique, who wants him to endure his grief eternally. To add to his suffering, she binds him in chains and buries him.

All of these actors turn up in Collinsport, Maine, in 1972. Still a witch, Green's character has taken over the town's shipping industry. Heathecote's Victoria Winters has become a governess, who works for the Collins family, which occupies a 200-room mansion, a dilapidated emblem of faded glory.

When a crew of hapless construction workers digs up the coffin in which Angelique buried Barnabas, he springs into action, vowing to restore the family's stature.

The rest of the cast includes Michelle Pfeiffer as the matron of the Collins family; Chloe Grace Moretz as the family's sullen teen-ager; Cully McGrath as David, the troubled boy of the clan; and Jonny Lee Miller as David's shiftless father.

Sporting a shocking red wig, Helena Bonham Carter portrays Julia, a doctor who has been hired to help restore David's mental health. Jackie Earle Haley appears as the family's caretaker, a scowling lump of a man whom Barnabas recruits as his attendant.

Before the movie concludes, Burton wheels out a barrel full of special effects, and he ends with a flurry of gothic romanticism that's not unlike the romanticism of the Twilight movies, only more grandly and more operatically expressed.

Burton's lavishly designed set pieces, a cameo from Alice Cooper and occasional humorous asides aren't enough to make something consistently enjoyable out of this extravagantly mounted entertainment. Maybe Dark Shadows shouldn't have been exhumed, but left to molder in the nearest pop-cultural graveyard.

Is she savior or menace?

Losing our moorings inside a Los Angeles-based cult.
Brit Marling starred in and co-wrote last year's Another Earth, an emotionally devastating bit of sci-fi built around real human emotion, namely the guilt experienced by a young woman who caused a fatal automobile accident. With Sound of My Voice, Marling again appears in a movie in which a mild sci-fi hook jump-starts a story that's more focused on probing human behavior than on speculating about the future.

Sound of My Voice doesn't have nearly as much emotional heft as Another Earth, but it's constructed in ways that keep us guessing about where our sympathies rightly belong. Director Zal Batmanglij, who co-wrote the script with Marling, does a good job of creating a world that feels as if it has been cut off from the rest of life and put under intense scrutiny.

Broken into 10 sections, the story begins when a couple (Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius) decides to go undercover to make a documentary aimed at exposing what they believe to be a dangerous cult.

In the movie's compelling opening scenes, Denham's Peter and Vicius's Lorna are blindfolded, bound and taken to a modest suburban Los Angeles home. There, they're asked to shower and put on hospital gowns. The vibe is borderline hostile, and if we didn't know that Peter and Lorna were acting of their own volition, we might think they'd been kidnapped.

Enter Maggie (Marling), an attractive blonde who's hooked up to an oxygen tank. Little by little, Maggie tells her story, which revolves around her claim that she has been transported from the future into our present.

With help from a bearded associate, Maggie has begun to gather a small group of devotees, pledging to prepare them to survive a time when the country will be torn apart by civil war, and scarcity will become the order of the day. No one discusses religion.

Scenes in which Maggie works on her charges can be gripping, particularly one in which she gradually peers into Peter's past. She tries to force Peter to purge his weaknesses and fears by literally vomiting them up.

A picture such as Sound of My Voice only can work if we entertain the possibility that Maggie is telling the truth about herself. Marling's performance makes that possible. Her Maggie is alluring, insightful and slightly ethereal. She has an obvious gift for looking into people's hearts, breaking them down and rebuilding them for the challenging new future they're supposedly going to face.

To its credit, the screenplay never bothers to dot every "i" and cross every "t," but it's clear from the start that Peter and Lorna -- like us -- must grapple with their sense of certitude.

You don't need to know much more to become caught up in the game that Batmanglij plays right up until an ending which -- if not exactly mind-blowing -- has a definite kick.

Great person, not a great movie

Bio-pic about a Nobel prize winner needed more interpretive spark.

The Lady is a big-screen biography of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese leader who spent 15 years under house arrest for opposing her country's brutal military regime.

The movie also serves as a showcase for actress Michelle Yeoh , who gained international prominence when she appeared in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and who gives a carefully calibrated performance as a woman who sacrificed much to fight for Burma, now known as Mayanmar.

Aung San Suu Kyi's fate as a leader and icon may have been sealed in 1947 when her liberal-leaning father was assassinated on the eve of assuming the country's presidency. In the 1960s, Aung San Suu Kyi traveled to Britain, married an Oxford professor (David Thewlis) and had two sons.

Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Myanmar in 1988 to be with her dying mother, and stayed to fight for democracy. For most of her long confinement, Aung San Suu Kyi's husband and sons remained in England.

Director Luc Besson, who usually makes or produces stylish, propulsive action pictures (The Fifth Element) isn't exactly operating from a position of strength when it comes to a bio-pic with a heavy political overlay.

Besson and screenwriter Rebecca Frayn clearly admire Aung San Suu Kyi, as well they should. Absent from their picture, though, is a sense of incendiary passion about the subject, other than what was required to have chosen it in the first place.

Though consistently well-crafted, The Lady misses the greatness that Aung San Suu Kyi's story deserved. Focusing so much attention on the much-tested but enduring marriage between Aung San Suu Kyi and her professorial husband, Michael Aris, may have seemed a way to personalize a political story, but it also helped derail the movie's pursuit of larger and perhaps more significant purposes.

Aung San Suu Kyi, whose house arrest ended in 2010, recently took a seat in the Burmese Parliament, despite her severe (and totally justifiable) reservations about the country's new constitution, a document that dictates that a quarter of the parliament must come from the military. With or without a movie about her, Aung San Suu Kyi's fight continues.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A total comic-book extravaganza

The Avengers unites superheroes for a smashing good time.
The world as we know it faces grave danger. An external force from a distant galaxy is poised to plunge through a mysterious space portal and attack the Earth and all dwell upon it. There's hope, but also a problem. To save the world, a group of bickering superheroes must put aside their differences long enough to fight a common enemy.

That's pretty much all there is to the story of Marvel's The Avengers, but an outline of the plot doesn't say enough about what director Joss Whedon has accomplished with the first mega-movie of summer. To me, it seems as if Whedon hasn't so much directed a movie as he has organized a teeming and often entertaining cinema onslaught.

The Avengers boasts a large cast, a galaxy of terrific special effects, some particularly well used 3-D and enough explosive action to stock an entire summer's worth of movies.

All of this should come as good news to the millions who've been waiting for the much-hped movie that unites a variety of Marvel superheroes: Captain America (Chris Evans), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth). This quartet of heroic overachievers receives support from Black Widow, a.k.a. Natalia Romanov (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). All of these characters are brought together by S.H.I.E.L.D., the secret agency that's run by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).

So what exactly happens? Well, a lot of noise and clamor as Thor's evil half brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) opens a portal that will allow an invading army to conquer the Earth. Fiercely played by Hiddleston, Loki embodies every known political evil: He believes that humans must be -- in his words -- "freed from freedom." If humans crave subjugation, Loki's just the man for the job.

Movies such as The Avengers really are elaborate collections of set pieces that have been carefully designed to raise pulse rates. If we're lucky -- as we are here -- the action will be assembled with witty flourish.

In an early scene, Black Widow dispatches a team of vicious Russian interrogators while tied to a chair. In another high point, The Hulk throws Loki around like a rag doll. The Hulk and Thor bump heads. Iron Man and Thor trade blows.

Each superhero's personality emerges as Whedon zooms through the movie's 2 1/2-hour length. Captain America's super-sheld, to cite one example, is matched by his super-sincerity. Downey, an established master of ironic detachment, throws around one-liners as Tony Stark before donning the Iron Man suit that allows him to fly and stave off attackers.

Credit Whedon for injecting humor into proceedings. When The Hulk springs into action, he's motivated with a single and bluntly effective word that, in different circumstances, might be worthy of a Mel Brooks' parody: "Smash!"

If you thought that in a post 9/11 world, you'd never see another movie that ravaged the Manhattan skyline, think again. The movie's lengthy finale -- a more intelligent and imaginative version of the kind of action we've seen in the Transformers movies -- takes a major bite out of the Big Apple.

Look, I know The Avengers is a comic-book fantasy and I know Manhattan hasn't escaped other movie attacks, but I still have trouble watching New York being destroyed. Call me a wimp if it makes you feel better, but that's how I see it.

There are moments when the superheroes are together in the S.H.I.E.L.D. control room when the pace flags, and Avengers could mark Jackson's least interesting performance ever. Until now, I've never seen him look as if he needed a wake-up call. Of all the superheroes, Iron Man and the Hulk struck me as the most fun, but there obviously are more from which to choose.

Enough. I enjoyed The Avengers, but I left the theater entirely unaffected by it. I think that's because I'm still a bit put off by the idea that this much money and effort has been funneled into comic-book escapism that provides the expected thrills but doesn't give us much to chew on.

But, hey, that's just me being me. For what it is, The Avengers definitely delivers the comic-book goods, and I suppose we ought to make room in our hearts for commercial movies that pile on excitement intstead of ripping us off.

A great cast checks into this hotel

Judi Dench and Tom Wilkinson paint portraits of characters in their twilight years..
In a season when most movies spend inordinate amounts of money creating adolescent thrill rides, a film that delivers a pep talk to the geezer crowd almost immediately qualifies as worthy -- if only from counter-programming point of view. Before you knock over your Metamucil, know that I'm old enough to disqualify myself from accusations of ageism. If I'm not a full-fledged geezer, I'm certainly a geezer in training.

Let me be even more specific. I'm older than both Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson, who -- in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel -- play characters who have stumbled into a post-retirement twilight zone.

A terrific British ensemble cast -- Judi Dench and Maggie Smith join Nighy and Wilkinson -- helps overcome some of the sentiment that inevitably bubbles through a movie that insists on telling us that it's never too late for ... well ... something.

Maybe romance. If not romance, maybe a bargain-priced hip replacement. And if not that, perhaps a swan song roll in the hay.

Director John Madden -- who can hit wonderfully right notes (Shakespeare in Love) as well as obvious clinkers (Captain Corelli's Mandolin) -- follows a group of seven Brits to a shabby hotel in Jaipur, India.

It's instructive to compare Madden's movie to last week's Darling Companion, another movie populated by characters in their '60s. I wouldn't call Madden's movie a triumph, but at least it springs from more than marriage ennui among the affluent, a prime focus in director Lawrence Kasdan's movie. The characters in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel face real problems of aging: diminished income, ravaged nest eggs, ill health and loneliness.

Thats' not to say that Madden's movie wouldn't have been better had it not treated the woes of aging quite so dutifully, almost as if compiling a checklist for a late-life self-help book.

Working from a script by Ol Parker, who adapted a novel by Deborah Moggach, Madden puts his capable cast to best use when it comes to delivering sharp dialog or sharing tender moments. He also understands that India offers a rich and colorful backdrop for a story in which each character overcomes at least one problem.

Examples: Wilkinson's Graham, a sad and emotionally burdened gay man, tries to rectify a mistake he made in his youth; Dench's character is dealing with the travails of recent widowhood; Smith plays a bigoted woman who has come to Jaipur as a medical tourist. She needs a hip replacement.

Living in India has its difficulties. One couple exemplifies opposing responses to a land of heat, spice, poverty, beauty and exuberant street life: Dogulas (Nighy) learns to delight in the city's pleasures. By way of contrast, his embittered wife (Penelope Wilton) complains about the food and refuses to leave her hotel room.

Libidos don't always go gently into the good night of old age. Norman, the aptly named Ronald Pickup, is looking for a last fling. Celia Imrie would like to find a rich husband.

The cheerfully chaotic young man (Dev Patel) who runs the hotel is prone to exaggerating the splendor of its amenities, which mostly are non-existent.

Patel's Sonny Kapoor has his own troubles. He's romantically involved with a young woman (Tena Desae) who works at a call center. Sonny's mom (Lillete Dubey) opposes her son's relationship with Desae's character, and wants to sell the hotel, which she views as both a social embarrassment and a financial burden.

There's no faulting any of the performances, and there's enough wit and humanity in the screenplay to keep The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel from turning smarmy. And if -- in the end -- it's a bit of a fantasy for the over 60 crowd ... well ... not everyone wants to groove on The Avengers.

Prostitutes and other working women

How you react to Elles -- director Malgorsata Szumowska's lingering look at a Parisian journalist (Juliette Binoche) who's writing an article about prostitution -- depends on what you think of the ways in which Szumowska has portrayed the film's prostitutes. Elles focuses on two bright and breezy young women (Anaïs Demoustier and Joanna Kulig) who seem unusually confident about the way in which they earn their money.

Each of these women finds herself in at least one situation that's either physically damaging or emotionally abusive, but for the most part each seems to take her work in stride. Each chooses her own clients. Each feels a little sorry for the mostly older men who use her services. These attractive young characters can seem as if they were contrived solely to counter stereotypical images of prostitutes, but they're usually in good spirits when we see them.

That's more than can be said for Binoche's frazzled character. Binoche's Anne is raising two sons -- one who loses himself in video games and another who smokes too much pot. She's also dealing with a husband who expects her to prepare lavish dinners for his boss, and she's trying to write the magazine article about prostitution, a task that seems to be troubling her greatly.

The only time Binoche's Anne seems happy and relaxed is when she's in the company of one or the other of the prostitutes whom she's interviewing for her article. She's able to laugh with them in a way that she can't at home. She's even turned on by some of the stories her hooker subjects tell her.

Szumowska has said that the prostitutes in her movie are realistically depicted, that today's young women can become prostitutes without pimps. They can choose their clients. The Internet has replaced walking the streets.

Maybe so, but film begs us to ask a painfully obvious question: Which is worse, happy prostitution or a miserable, hypocritical bourgeouis existence? Szumowska, who includes lots of explicit scenes between prostitutes and their customers, doesn't gain enough by bringing Anne and these young prostitutes into the same movie. What seems daring on the surface turns into an act of thematic reduction rather than expansion. Throughout, I kept wondering what a director such as Catherine Breillat,* who also has explored sexuality and its attendant issues, might have done with similar material.

Some of Breillat's films: *36 Fillette (1988); Romance (1999); Parfait amour! (1996) and Brève traversée (2001).