Thursday, July 26, 2012

Bumbling neighbors on the prowl

On someone's drawing board, The Watch probably sounded like a good bet. Why not put three proven veterans -- Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill -- into a comedy slated for release at a time when audiences need a break from the explosive pleasures of summer blockbusters? And how about adding British comic Richard Ayoade for a bit of off-kilter seasoning?

The movie's premise, by the way, sounds tempting, too -- at least in a high-concept sort of way. A group of mostly inept guys from a small Ohio town form a neighborhood watch patrol, only instead of fighting would-be felons, they wind up battling aliens.

A few minutes into The Watch, you may realize that what might have seemed fool-proof has dwindled into pure foolishness. The Watch is an overly vulgar comedy that manages to find a few chuckles amid a ton of distasteful material.

Maybe this comedy was jinxed form the start. Originally titled Neighborhood Watch, the movie underwent a name change after the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida. The title change may have avoided a few unpleasant associations, but it did nothing to make the movie any funnier.

Stiller, who's looking a little long in the tooth for these sorts of boyish antics, plays Evan, a manager at a Costco store. Evan lives with his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) in a nice home in what appears to be an ordinary American town.

An organizer by nature, Evan always seems to be starting clubs or making efforts to diversify his portfolio of friends. He's reasonably happy until a Costco security guard -- on the day he acquires U.S. citizenship -- becomes the victim of a mysterious murder. Hoping to catch the guard's killer, Evan forms a neighborhood crime-fighting unit.

The only people Evan attracts to his misbegotten group are Hill's Franklin, a wannabe cop who flunked the police exam and who lives with his mother; Vaughn's Bob, a party-hearty guy who's mostly concerned about controlling his teen-age daughter's libido; and Ayoade's Jamarcus, a British transplant who wants to meet women.

The movie's quartet of aspiring crime-stoppers quickly discovers that it's chasing aliens instead of humans, but director Akiva Schaffer shows little facility for blending sci-fi and humor, a failing that's especially apparent during The Watch's overblown finale. And if you're expecting a comment or two on the perils of vigilantism, you'll have to look elsewhere.

The supporting cast doesn't bring much to the party, either. Billy Crudup shows up as one of Evan's weirder neighbors. R. Lee Ermy portrays as a profanely irascible town resident, and Will Forte signs on as a local cop who has no use for neighborhood watches.

Eventually, we learn that Hill's Franklin keeps a small arsenal of firearms in his bedroom. When he shows his pals his collection of weapons, we're supposed to laugh. Maybe it's just me, but after the Aurora shootings, I had trouble thinking of a worse idea than turning a gun cache into a sight gag.

Look, after the week we've had in Colorado, I couldn't have been more primed for a ridiculous comedy: The Watch gets it half right. It's ridiculous, but it's not much of a comedy.

One more thing: The Watch provides Costco with plenty of exposure: I wonder whether the company will be happy with the R-rated and mostly unfunny result.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Returning to the multiplex after Aurora

I went to the movies Monday night -- a preview screening of Step Up Revolution. I'd be lying if I told you I was eager to see Step Up Revolution, a Miami-based bauble about dancing (krumping?), flash mobs, baseball caps turned backward, romance and a struggle to save a Miami neighborhood from the clutches of a greedy developer.

I was open to being surprised, of course, but that's not why I decided to leave the house. I wanted to see how I felt sitting in a multiplex for the first time since Friday morning's blood bath in the Century 16, a multiplex in Aurora.

In the aftermath of the Aurora shootings, many commentators are wondering about the wisdom of allowing anyone to buy an assault weapon. Others are asking -- for what seems the gazillionth time -- whether extreme movie violence creates a climate that makes extreme real-life violence more likely.

Neither issue is likely to be resolved any time soon, but, larger questions aside, I figured I'd at least be able to tell whether I felt comfortable or on edge at a screening.

Would it be possible to get totally lost in a movie or would I (and everyone else) be tempted to take occasional looks over our shoulders? I flew as soon as the airports opened after Sept. 11, and, like almost everyone who was airborne during those grief-stricken days, I approached airports and planes with a transformed consciousness. Would it be the same for movies? Would it be worse for those of us who live in the Denver area?

Of course, I also had to ask myself whether Step Up Revolution might be too wimpy for a nervousness test. I checked the movie's rating. PG-13. Same as Dark Knight Rises. Off I went.

And what the hell are we supposed to do about all of this anyway?

There's simply no way to attend movies without congregating with strangers. That's the nature of the situation, and it's part of what made the Century 16 an appealing target for a shooter. We can't live without being willing to encounter people we don't know and who we'll probably never see again. Most of the time, it works out.

So how did I feel?

Well, a little on edge to tell you the truth. I don't usually plot an escape route from a theater, but this time, I looked for the exit signs. When people got up during the movie, I squinted through the darkness, wondering where they might be heading.

The movie? One scene in Step Up Revolution gave me a moment's pause.

The movie is about young dancers who turn up in public places, initially to express their "art" and later as a form of protest. They want to keep a developer from destroying their neighborhood. In one of the movie's protest dances, the dancers -- who call themselves The Mob -- infiltrate a reception that the developer is giving for Miami politicians, the city council, I think.

The Mob specializes in making unusual or dramatic entrances. This time, they roll out canisters and dance their way through clouds of smoke. They're wearing gas masks.

Canisters. Gas masks. "Great," I thought to myself, an unfortunate coincidence that reminded me of what happened in Aurora.

I have no idea whether anyone else cared or even noticed.

Step Up Revolution -- in 3-D by the way -- is part of a glossy series of movies in which, among other things, angry impulses are channeled into dance. It's a movie without weapons, and it seems mostly designed to appeal to younger audiences who want to watch hotties of both sexes while experiencing the mild jolts of rebelliousness that stem from dancing in forbidden places -- in the middle of a traffic jam or in an art gallery (the movie's most inventive sequence). I'm not planning to review the movie, a task that might be better left to teenage girls. Still, I'm glad I went.

No, I didn't really expect anything to happen, and I'm not about to stop going to the movies, even as we grow nostalgic for the times when all we had to fear was that the person behind us would be talking, texting, kicking the back of our chairs or checking his or her cell phone during a screening.

There's plenty to complain about when it comes to the contemporary theatrical experience, but I suspect most of us won't give it up. Our edginess will diminish, even as we remember the horror inflicted on those for whom the movie experience will never be the same, even as we realize that a crime of this magnitude steals a bit more of our precious trust.

Let's be honest, though. Half the time, the worst thing that can happen in a multiplex is the damn movie. At least for a while, we might do well to consider that a blessing.

Friday, July 20, 2012

It was a dark night indeed

Aside from the family and friends of those who died or who were wounded or traumatized at the Century 16 Theater in Aurora early Friday morning, I'm betting no one feels worse about what happened than director Christopher Nolan. I'm not suggesting Nolan or anyone else connected with Dark Knight Rises has any responsibility for what appears to be the act of one person, a 24-year-old man wearing a gas mask and wielding weapons. Nolan made a serious and intelligent movie, and this should have been a celebratory weekend for him and everyone else connected with Dark Knight Rises, which is (and which will remain) a very good movie with a strong and forbidding vision. It's no small irony that Dark Knight Rises takes place against a backdrop of multiplying dangers and ever-present dread. It's too early to comment on what happened at the Century 16 or to pontificate about what any of it means. But there seems little question that everyone who sees Dark Knight Rises will now be looking at at the movie through an unexpected real-life lens. I've never been to the Century 16, but I've sat in many audiences in many Denver-area theaters just like it. That's what I do. And like everyone else who spends unconscionable amounts of time in movie theaters, my experience (our experiences) may not feel the same again, at least for a good long while. This is a sad and shocking morning and -- on so many levels -- an occasion for the deepest grief.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

She's unsure what she wants

Can a marriage crumble gently? Sarah Polley's Take This Waltz suggests the answer is "yes."
Take This Waltz -- a new movie from director Sarah Polley -- hits, misses and sometimes seems to be searching for a point as it follows the emotionally inconclusive life of Margot (Michelle Williams), a woman who's slipping into the final stages of a crumbling marriage. Although there are good scenes in Take This Waltz, which Polley also wrote, the movie doesn't amount to as much as you might hope, particularly considering that Polley's debut feature -- Away From Her -- was a restrained and quietly moving story about a couple dealing with the onset of the wife's Alzheimer's. The story in Take This Waltz is driven by Margot's long and not always intriguing flirtation with one of her neighbors (Luke Kirby). Kirby's Daniel is an artist who supports himself by pulling a rickshaw around Toronto. Very quaint. Margot's husband Lou (a surprisingly credible Seth Rogen) spends most of his time experimenting in the couple's kitchen. He's writing a cookbook about the many ways in which chicken can be prepared. Polley may have wanted to bring Margot to a point at which she's able to free herself from both the intoxicating pull of new romance and loyalty to her husband of five years. At times, it feels as if Polley drops story obligations to say something that she thinks needs addressing. A nude shower scene at a local pool, for example, seems calculated to show how women's bodies look when they're not being portrayed from an erotically charged male perspective. And in what amounts to a reach, Polley casts comic Sarah Silverman as Lou's sister; Silverman proves interesting enough as a recovering alcoholic who's as acerbic as she is self-aware. Nothing about Take This Waltz made me less respectful of Polley's talent. She's a nervy director who's willing to take chances, and she shows a real flair for casual interaction. I liked what I liked about Take This Waltz, ignored the rest and look forward to seeing where Polley, still best known as an actress, goes next.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

'Dark Knight' rises to a fitting conclusion

Director Christopher Nolan keeps things dark and dangerous as he brings his Batman series to a startling conclusion.

The Dark Knight Rises might be the first summer blockbuster that could benefit from massive doses of Prozac. Darkly hued and mired in Bruce Wayne's Imax-sized funk, this Batman movie sets a ton of anarchic violence against a backdrop in which a masked villain takes aim at Gotham, destroying it in bits and pieces before his hoped for finale, a nuclear explosion that will send the place shrieking toward oblivion.

And if all that weren't enough, billionaire Wayne also takes a hit in the pocketbook; he goes broke during the course of a 164-minute movie that includes -- among what may be too many layers -- a bit of corporate intrigue.

For all of that, Dark Knight Rises has a riveting quality that's bolstered by an encompassing and masterfully created sense of dread. Director Christopher Nolan packs his movie with dark forebodings that create a feeling of what might happen when the center no longer holds and chaos begins to reign.

I'm still trying to figure out exactly what values Dark Knight Rises tries to uphold -- if any, but there's no denying that Nolan's movie is daring, strange and, in its best moments, startlingly extreme.

The opening parts of Nolan's third and final installment of the Dark Knight series reminds us that Wayne has become reclusive after being blamed for the death of district attorney Harvey Dent, a rogue lawyer who, since his death in the last movie, has been wrongly lionized by the citizens of Gotham. They view Dent as a heroic crime fighter.

Wayne's devoted butler Alfred (Michael Caine) suggests that his employer quit playing savior to a forlorn world and begin living a fulfilling normal life. Wayne, of course, isn't done with Batman, who resurfaces as dense clouds of doom begin forming over Gotham. The city has been targeted by terrorists.

Before Dark Knight Rises concludes, these terrorists will have attacked the Gotham Stock Exchange and a packed football stadium, and for much of the time, Batman won't be able to do a damn thing about it. About half way through the movie, he's captured, transported to arid climes and thrown into an imprisoning pit.

Put aside comic-book expectations. Dark Knight Rises would sooner rip out its tongue than plant it in its cheek. Even more than in the first two installments, Nolan strives to create an environment in which a battered world is about to be consumed by calamitous waves of terror.

Christian Bale retains his hard-won title as the most most intense and obsessive of all Batmen. During the course of the movie, Bale takes the kind of beating that makes you wonder whether he shouldn't follow these performances with long stints in an upscale sanitarium.

Only Anne Hathaway's Catwoman -- a.k.a. Selina Kyle -- hints at levity. Hathaway's sultry sarcasm shoots beams of light across cinematographer Wally Pfister's otherwise inky palette and provides a bit of contrast to Hans Zimmer's doom-struck score.

Some of the movie's characters are familiar: There's Caine's Alfred, of course. Morgan Freeman's Lucian Fox continues to provide Batman with his vehicular toys. Gary Oldman, as Gotham's police commissioner, adds to the seriousness.

Joining Hathaway on the newbie side of the ledger are Marion Cotillard (as Miranda Tate, a member of the Wayne Enterprises board); Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as a Gotham cop who still believes in Batman); and Tom Hardy (as Bane, the villain with a Darth Vader-like voice and a leather mask that's every bit as weird as Hannibal Lecter's.) (I thought it was me, but I've been reading that lots of people had difficulty understanding all of Bane's rumbling pronouncements.)

Nolan does a first-rate job with the action, which is chaotic but comprehensible. The special effects (all manner of destruction) are well conceived. They pass in hurried review as Nolan creates feverish swirls of action, commendably avoiding the cliche of The Big Moment, grand entrances for Batman, etc.

Perhaps to keep us unsettled, Nolan never gives this epic-sized movie a solid core, but focuses on an out-of-control society in which various forces contend for supremacy.

A haunting sense of fatalism undergirds Dark Knight Rises, and there's little to suggest that our battered species ever will run out of hideous villains. This time, the fiends aren't nearly as distinctive as a Batman nemesis such as the Joker, but as Bane, Hardy exudes so much frightening authority, you believe he could turn Batman into a loser.

In the end, it's not so much the action-oriented excitement that makes Dark Knight Rises so compelling; it's the tenacity with which Nolan clings to a forbidding vision in which nothing and no one ever feels truly safe.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The stormy life of a six-year-old

The primal imagery of Beasts of the Southern Wild can leave you shaken -- partly because of the film's fable-like rawness and partly because first-time director Benh Zeitlin strives for (and sometimes achieves) a near-visionary quality.

Using a non-professional cast and adhering to a folk tale-structure, Zeitlin has made a movie that has become -- with some justification -- the darling of this year's crop of indies, so much so that nothing is likely to surpass the wave of critical enthusiasm that washed over Zeitlin's Louisiana-based opus.

Fair to say that Zeitlin, who works with a filmmaking collective called Court 13, brings a fresh eye to the Isle of de Jean Charles, where the movie was shot and which has been turned into a fictional site called The Bathtub, maybe because tropical storms fill it with water and because it has a levee on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other.

Zeitlin works hard to load the movie with regional flavor, yet his imagery can push the story into a near-mythic realm. This odd mixture of specificity and timelessness gives Beasts a feeling of exoticism befitting its immersion in a part of the country that will feel unfamiliar to most audiences.

The story centers on six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), a girl who lives with Wink (Dwight Henry), her rough-edged father. Although the movie ultimately provides a rationale for the way that Wink treats Hushpuppy, his behavior sometimes seems abusive.

Hushpuppy sleeps in a different ramshackle facility than her father: He's constantly pushing her toward what he regards as the independence she's going to need to survive in a place where lethal storms constantly loom. Fable or no, I found Wink off-putting -- at least initially.

It's tempting to say that Wallis gives the movie its heart, but it's not exactly heart that she conveys; it's more about her nearly preternatural strength. Considering what happens in the movie -- a terrible hurricane which evokes memories of Katrina -- Hushpuppy will need every bit of fortitude she can muster.

Zeitlin doesn't attempt to conceal his concern for the environment: He shows images of the melting polar ice caps and also includes shots of wild beasts -- they're called aurochs -- which suggest that The Bathtub (and perhaps by extension, the planet) is under siege by rebellious natural forces that have grown tired of being abused.

In this instance, nature's vengeance, if that's what it is, is directed at folks who are the least guilty of defiling their environment. Folks in The Bathtub make use of the detritus and junk of a larger society with which they have only limited contact.

Because of the performances of Wallis, Henry and other locals, Beasts stands as a testimony to American idiosyncracy, as well as to the kind of close-knit communities that can develop among those who live outside the mainstream.

When it counts, the residents of The Bathtub pull together to help one another survive, and even in the face of adversity, they're surprisingly good-spirited.

I can't say that Beasts makes total sense, but it takes us places that we haven't been before and boasts some of the year's wildest imagery thanks in part to Zeitlin's commitment to Hushpuppy's point of view. Beasts of the Southern Wild may not be a mini-masterpiece, but it makes you hope that the talented Zeitlin, who's only 29, will continue to push the boundaries of cinema in ways that we can't yet imagine.

The lingering power of first love

Young love seen through a sophisticated lens.
She's 15. He's 19. They fall in love. Put that into an American context, and you've got the makings of a gooey-eyed teen romance drawn in juvenile strokes. The French movie Goodbye First Love begins with exactly that premise, but proves a surprisingly sophisticated look at the lingering power of a young woman's first exposure to passion and romance. Camille (Lola Creton) falls for Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky). She clings to him, believing that without him she might expire. He loves her, but he's antsy. Perhaps because he's older, he understands that he should see some of the world. He wants to travel to Latin America. I'm not sure how long Camille and Sullivan are together, but it amounts to a relatively short time, considering that Goodbye First Love covers eight years, focusing mostly on Camille's post-Sullivan life. Geographical distance and time cause Sullivan take their toll on Sullivan's interest, and Camille doesn't expire. She gets on with her life, becoming a student of architecture and eventually an employee and lover of her teacher (Magne-Havard Brekke), a Norwegian architect. Camille moves in with Brekke's Lorenz, and they seem reasonably happy together. But the power of Camille's love for Sullivan never really wanes. Writer/director Mia Hansen-Love doesn't condescend to Camille, whose ardor tends toward the melodramatic nor does she suggest that romance paves the way to happiness. By the end of Goodbye First Love, you'll realize that Hansen-Love has demonstrated that early intoxication can leave one with a long -- and not always pleasant -- hangover.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A piercing look at Russian life

If you're interested in art and cinema, director Andrei Zvyagintsev is a name you should know.
Elena, a new movie from Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev, had me from the first shot. We're looking at an upscale apartment building in the gray light of dawn. The shot focuses our attention on one apartment, seen through leafless branches. A hawk, half hidden in shadows, can be seen on the right side of the frame. Eventually, another bird flies into the shot. Almost reluctantly, the sun begins to rise.

The shot is held for what seems a ridiculously long time, leaving us to wonder exactly how Zvyagintsev wants us to respond. No music sets a mood. We're on our own.

Zvyagintsev then takes us inside the modern, tastefully decorated apartment, where we meet Elena, played by Nadezhda Markina. Elena wakes up, gets out of bed and begins a morning routine that she's probably done hundreds of times before. As part of her morning ritual, she pads into another bedroom, opens the drapes and awakens a man.

We later learn that the man who occupies this separate bedroom is Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), Elena's husband of two years, a matter-of-fact fellow who retired from an unnamed profession with a fair amount of money and an authoritarian sense of himself.

Zvyagintsev masterfully teases us, slowly disclosing details of Elena's life, snippets of information that paint a portrait of a woman whose devotion to her family (from a previous marriage) drives her to an act that's best discovered in a theater.

Zvyagintsev, a director who made a splash on the international circuit with 2003's The Return, gives his movie a noirish twist, but before the picture is done, he exposes us to a contemporary Russia in which the genetics of doom have long escaped the social test tube. Some accumulate wealth; others live marginally.

Elena's son Sergey (Aleksey Rozin) finds himself among the latter group. Sergey has a wife, two children and no job. He relies on his mother -- who collects a pension from her career as a nurse -- to support him. He also hopes that his mother's well-heeled husband will send his oldest son to college, apparently the only way the young man can avoid the army. But from what we see of this shiftless teen-ager, his future might be even less promising than that of his father.

Katya (Yelena Lyadova), the daughter Elena's wealthy husband, becomes a key character in the movie's dramatic landscape. Zvyagintsev leaves us to fill in a backstory about Katya, but turns this embittered young woman into the movie's most witheringly cynical voice.

When visiting her father in the hospital after he's had a heart attack, Katya makes it clear that she has little interest in his money. She has a grudging love for her father, but tells him she won't have children because she doesn't want to pass on the seeds of despair and futility that she sees as endemic to the human experience. It's part pose and part serious statement, the view from another character who can't imagine the future.

To the extent that Zvyagintsev encourages us to generalize, he presents a picture of Russian society that's extraordinarily bleak. Though obviously comfortable, Vladimir's apartment feels sterile, the triumph of taste over conviction. By way of contrast, Elena's son lives in cramped quarters on the outskirts of the city in a building near several nuclear reactors.

Zvyagintsev -- and his fine cast -- tell a story, but they're also delivering a quietly scathing critique of Russian life, exposing us to a society in which even Elena's stalwart qualities -- her broad-faced strength and dogged persistence -- don't always seem like virtues. In another era, Elena could have been the face on a triumphalist Soviet poster extolling the virtues of hard work. In an amoral, rudderless society, we're not sure where she fits in.

Elena isn't quite up to the standard set in The Return, but the movie encourages probing thought as well as reaction. Elena is marked by Zvyagintsev's unrelenting honesty and by his refusal to allow his finely wrought movie to join the ranks of what we might call "the cinema of reassurance." Elena cuts deep.

Monday, July 9, 2012

On 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'

Few would argue that indie director Benh Zeitlin’s first film -- Beasts of the Southern Wild -- hasn't scored big. In January, the film won the top jury prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Four months later, the movie received the coveted Camera d’ Or at the Cannes Film Festival, a prize awarded for the best first feature in the festival.

Beasts of the Southern Wild was shot on the Isle de Jean Charles, a low-lying slice of Louisiana land populated by the descendants of Cajun and Native American fishermen. Beyond Isle de Jean Charles? Nothing but the encroaching waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

The 29-year-old Zeitlin -- who grew up in New York but now lives in Louisiana -- battled mosquitos and 110-degree heat to tell the story of six-year-old Hushpuppy, a girl forced to deal with an impending storm that not only threatens her survival but the survival of the very ground on which she walks. To further complicate matters, Hushpuppy must deal with Wink, a father who’s hellbent on schooling her in survival, sometimes in ways that appear almost abusive.

But plot isn’t the only point here: Zeitlin and his 90-member crew captured a near-primal sense of reality as they struggled to bring a modern-day folk tale to life -- all with locals who had never acted before.

Here, then, a few words from the director and from Dwight Henry, the actor who played Hushpuppy’s father. Eight-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis was also on hand during a recent Denver publicity tour, but by the time I spoke to her, she seemed understandably bored and tired, publicity not being a favored activity of eight-year-olds. Wallis said making the movie was fun and that she wanted to continue acting, but I figured it was enough that she gave a terrific performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild without me pushing her into small talk.

The instantly engaging Henry more than made for Wallis's reticence. When he's not acting, Henry operates the Buttermilk Drop Bakery & Cafe in New Orleans's Seventh Ward. New Orleans could not have a better ambassador than Henry, who remained in the city throughout Katrina and who talks about his hometown with preacher-like zeal.

At Sundance, where Beasts of the Southern Wild had its premiere, Henry showed up with 1,500 doughnuts for the audience. Unfortunately, it was impossible for him to supply samples of his baking prowess on a city-to-city publicity tour, but you get the feeling that if he could have, he'd have been handing out doughnuts everywhere he went.

Benh Zeitlin:

“A lot of this film is about what it's like to live in a place where every year you take your chances on what's going to come. It's not set in the future, but it's about a time when the future is very precarious. I want people to think about the emotional experience of having the place that you're from wiped out. ... The film is not about Katrina; it’s about living under an assault of storms. I think that's more universal than the political dialectics around Katrina.

"Nature is way more powerful than we are. You sense that down there. There's a real respect for nature that comes living in a place where nature is so clearly powerful. It's interesting that in a place where nature is the most violent, there's the most respect for it. The people in the film are on the front lines of where nature takes back what it owns.

"Risk was embedded in every element of the film: the place, all the different actors. There were so many impossible tasks on our plate. Our mandate was never to back off any of them. But had we not found Quvenzhane Wallis, it would have been a terrible film. She's an extraordinary actress. We looked at 4,000 kids -- even before we finished writing the script.

“Directing non-actors is not so different from directing actors. ... You're trying to help people generate the emotions they have to generate for the scene. We interview for weeks and weeks before we touch the script. We rehearse every scene three times before we get to the shoot. Every time we rehearse, we rewrite to get closer to the voice of the person who’s playing the character. You have to be open to adapting your vision to the changeable elements of a performance. A lot of this movie is not from my experience, so I gained a tremendous amount through this process. I learn a lot about the world and about different kinds of people from people I chose not because of their previous work, but because they're such great people."

Dwight Henry

“Everywhere we go, it seems like people were born somewhere else. But us from Louisiana? Man, we're from where we're from. We're not leaving under no circumstances. It's just the type of people we are. We love the land that we live in. We love our culture. We love our people.
"I didn't leave during Katrina. I was in neck-high water. They had people sitting on a bridge for days. People just dying because they weren't getting medicine. It took the government days to respond to people dying on roofs. We were waiting on helicopters and boats to come to the rescue, and nobody's coming.

“Before Katrina, I had two businesses open. I lost one of them. I was able to recover and recoup the other. My business grew so well that I actually had to move from one small location and get bigger. When I opened up after the storm, there was only one business in that whole area, a tire shop. They opened up because there was so much debris in the streets and people had to get their flats fixed. I came back with so much will and determination, I opened before big companies: McDonald's, Burger King, Dominoes, Pizza Hut.

“My first business was right across the street from the casting agency. The people from casting used to come over to the bakery to get coffee and doughnuts and to get breakfast and lunch from me. They put fliers in the bakery asking for people who wanted to audition for an upcoming film.

"I never had any aspirations to be an actor. I'm a restaurateur. But they kind of seen some leadership things in me through the course of coming to the bakery, seeing how people looked up to me in the community.

"They seen some of these qualities in me and wanted me to audition for the film. One day me and Michael Gottwald (one of the film's producers) were sitting at the table talking, and I said, 'I'm going to audition for the film' I went over and auditioned, never expecting to get the part.

“My heart is in being a restaurateur. That's my foundation. I have five kids and that's something I can pass on to my kids. I can't pass an acting career on to them. In the movie, my kid is the most important person in the world to me, and I'm doing everything possible to ensure that she understands some things. (In setting Hushpuppy on a survival course, Henry's Wink can sometimes seem cruel. Henry sees Wink's behavior as education bred by necessity.) He’s emphasizing a point with urgency. It's important that when he's not there, she'll be OK. And in real life, that's important to me, too, to make sure that my children are OK."

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Oliver Stone gets his groove back

Savages takes a blistering look at the drug trade.
If you didn't already know that it's a bad idea to get crosswise with a Mexican drug lord, Oliver Stone's Savages will deliver the message in bold, gut-kicking fashion. Author Don Winslow's 2010 novel of the same name has provided Stone with a cornucopia of ingredients that he definitely knows how to cook.

Spilling over with sex, violence and ill-gotten luxury, Savages is Stone's best work in a long time, a movie that tells a vivid story that pretty much keeps Stone off his soapbox.

The action revolves around three characters. Chon (Taylor Kitsch) is a former Navy SEAL who runs a thriving marijuana business along with his parter Ben (Aaron Johnson), a brainy Berkeley grad with a social conscience. Ben uses some of his money to help folks in Third World countries.

Chon and Ben live with Ophelia (Blake Lively), a woman who goes by the name of "O" and who narrates this seductive story of crime and corruption. Both men sleep with "O," and both profess to love her. She insists she loves both of them. It takes two guys to make a whole man for "O" -- or so she says.

Stone wisely surrounds the movie's young leads with a veteran supporting cast that includes Salma Hayek (as a drug czarina); John Travolta (as a corrupt DEA agent); Benicio Del Toro (as a brutal mob enforcer) and Demian Bichir (as a well-dressed executive in Hayek's crime network).

The trouble starts when Hayek's Elena decides that she's going to take over Chon and Ben's business. She's attracted to this California duo because they've cultivated the best pot in the U.S., marijuana known for its killer THC count.

Ben, who's had enough of the drug business, is ready to sell. Chon wants to hold onto the enterprise they've built. Besides, he's convinced that no involvement with Mexican drug lords comes with insurance: It only can end badly.

If there's a certain amount of callowness among the movie's younger actors, the old pros compensate. Looking thick as a side of beef and sporting a close-cropped hair cut, Travolta is both funny and appalling as a rogue DEA agent; Del Toro's turn as the quietly vicious Lado follows suit; it's, by turns, chilling and amusing; and Hayek brings power-hungry bitchiness to new levels of steely-eyed intensity as Elena.

The rest of the plot involves kidnappings, torture and a level of brutality from which Stone never shrinks. Think of it this way: When drug lords decide to "punish" someone, they're not talking about spankings or slaps on the wrist. The squeamish should know that the movie includes beheadings and a scene in which a suspected rat is doused with gasoline and burned alive.

I don't know if there's a larger point here, although we can't help noticing that the drug trade couldn't thrive without massive police corruption and wanton violence.

Stone and cinematographer Dan Mindel balance the bloodshed with the rich light of Laguna Beach, where Chon, Ben and "O" reside. They also do a fine job of pointing out how luxury contrasts with squalor, depending on where characters fit on the drug-trade ladder.

Some of the dialogue is burdened by a phony, pulp toughness that rings hollow ("You don't charge the world, it changes you") and some of it is bitingly funny. I can't cite the movie's best darkly funny example without including a spoiler, so you'll have to take my word about the amusing part.

You'll find many of Stone's trademark visual tricks, but this time, he's letting the story do most of the work, and Savages is better off for it. Put another way: The movie is good enough to make you forget all about Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Even an overly tricky finale (bound to annoy some viewers) can't cancel the pleasures of this robust, sensual and unashamedly scabrous movie.

The real fun of Savages springs from the movie's pungency, from Stone's bravura handling of its violent set pieces and from his insistent acknowledgement that the dark side doesn't necessarily disappear just because the California sun is shining.

Old material in an ancient city

Woody Allen's To Rome With Love is no valentine.

Watching Woody Allen in his new film To Rome With Love, I found it impossible not to wonder whether, at 76, Allen hasn't lost a little something off his fast ball -- at least as an actor. Playing a retired opera director who believes he has discovered a gifted new tenor, Allen's one-liners arrive a bit late, like a tardy traveler after the train already has left the station.

But watching a cranky Allen do his cranky thing isn't the only problem with To Rome With Love: Allen isn't at his best behind the camera, either: To Rome with Love seems consistently off-key, a comedy that's unable to find a sustained rhythm.

In To Rome With Love, Allen plays Jerry, a man who visits Rome with his wife (Judy Davis) to meet his daughter (Alison Pill) and her new fiance (Flavio Parenti). When it comes to delivering a line, by the way, Davis doesn't miss a beat.

Jerry also meets the father of the future groom (Fabio Armiliato), an undertaker blessed with a beautiful singing voice -- but one he's only able to use while singing in the shower.

The undertaker's plight leads to a sight gag that stands as the movie's comic centerpiece, but you can see it coming all the way from the Via Veneto, and, once revealed, the joke is repeated enough to lose its edge.

Allen isn't only interested in Jerry's desperation. As if writing short stories for The New Yorker, he weaves a variety of brief tales into a series of alternating vignettes on love Roman style or, more precisely, Allen style -- adding a footnote about the perils of celebrity, which doesn't really amount to much.

In these additional stories, Alec Baldwin plays an architect who's revisiting Rome. Once an ambitious young man, Baldwin's John is a study in capitulation; he now designs shopping malls. Early on, John runs into a young architecture student (Jesse Eisenberg) who lives in the Trastevere neighborhood, John's former haunt.

Eisenberg's character shares an apartment and a relationship with Sally (Greta Gerwig), but he's smitten by one of Sally's visiting friends, a young actress played by Ellen Page.

Rather than developing into a real character, John becomes a kind of spectral observer: He's constantly commenting on Eisenberg's moves, warning him that if he falls for Page's Monica, he'll surely be sorry.

Allen uses another of the movie's stories to comment on the perils of celebrity. Roberto Benigni plays Leopoldo, a nondescript Roman who suddenly finds himself hounded by photographers and TV journalists eager to record his every thought -- no matter how banal. The joke here centers on the fact that Benigni's character is being stalked by an avid but fickle media that turns him into an attention junkie before shifting its gaze to someone else.

In yet another story, a provincial husband (Alessandro Tiberi) is forced to introduce a gorgeous hooker (Penelope Cruz) to his conservative Roman relatives, claiming that she's really his wife. This farcical situation arises after the young man's real wife (Alessandra Mastronardi) gets lost looking for a hair stylist in Rome, and winds up in a flirtatious relationship with an Italian actor (Antonio Albanese).

The point: Through these adventitious adulterous relationships, husband and wife are able to unlock their libidinous vaults -- and grow.

The fault here lies not with the cast, but with material that's too anemic to sustain full-blooded drama or robust farce. Even the Roman setting can't disguise the fact that Allen seems to be treading water.

To Rome With Love might have been unbearable had it not been for Rome itself. Allen and cinematographer Darius Khondji bathe the Eternal City in affectionate light as they take us through some of its major sites, seldom veering off the beaten track. But even that only goes so far.

Allen's final shot -- a brass band playing Volare on the Spanish Steps -- doesn't vibrate with the expected magic, and as I took it in, I felt much as I did throughout most of this pleasantly mediocre addition to Allen's amazingly large collection: It just wasn't enough.

Monday, July 2, 2012

New life for 'Spider-Man' franchise

Fresh faces reinvigorate a familiar comic-book yarn..
A moody teen-ager is bitten by a spider that's been subjected to genetic enhancement. After the bite, the young man begins to develop strange powers. Suddenly, he's stronger than he should be. Streams of silken material shoot from the palms of his hands, further boosting his powers by allowing him to swing from high places or to leap from tall buildings without hitting the ground. It's as if he's able to make his own bungee cords.

A simple spider bite leads to a momentous destiny: The young man makes the transition from Peter Parker of Queens, N.Y., to Spider-Man.

Because most moviegoers and Marvel Comics fans already know all this, you may be asking yourself why we needed another movie to tell us how Spider-Man began his crime-fighting career, a movie that covers old ground rather than one that continues where the Spider-Man series left off in 2007.

Within the first few minutes of The Amazing Spider-Man, you may forget such questions, and realize that you're enjoying visiting familiar turf, this time with new faces and with a different sensibility than the one director Sam Raimi brought to the Spider-Man movies, a sensibility that's both edgier and a bit more complex.

The Amazing Spider-Man remains a comic-book movie, but in the hands of director Mark Webb, who's making the leap from a small independent film (500 Days of Summer) to a summer blockbuster, Spider-Man receives new life, something that might have been impossible with a movie called Spider-Man 4.

I saw The Amazing Spider-Man in Imax and 3D. But what I most liked about this version had little to do with the movie's extravagant effects or with watching Spidey leap from one Manhattan skyscraper to the next.

For me, the fun of this new edition of Spider-Man involved the way Webb and the movie's writers stake out their own turf, tweaking the characters to give them a different feel and adding more emotional complications.

Essentially, this edition of Spider-Man is like two movies in one. The first is a pure origins story in which Peter Parker acquires his superpowers. The second story gives Spider-Man his first real challenge, pitting him against The Lizard, a mutant creature derived from an experiment by a brilliant, one-armed scientist (Rhys Ifans) who has been working on something called cross-spieces genetics.

Events in the first part of the movie should serve as touchstones for most viewers. While he's still a boy, Parker loses his parents when -- for mysterious reasons -- they're forced to flee their New York home. Young Parker is left in the care of his aunt (Sally Field) and uncle (Martin Sheen).

When Parker enters high school, Andrew Garfield (The Social Network) takes over the role. The 28-year-old Garfield might be credible in grad school, but never looks as if he belongs in high school.

I know. I know. It's only a movie, but still ...

Webb does a good jog guiding Garfield through the awkward transition from Peter Parker to Spider-Man, even if he's a bit repetitive in showing us how Parker learns to use his superpowers. An early scene in which Peter's powers get the best of him on a subway car is one of the movie's most creative.

These high-school segments lay the movie's moral groundwork with Sheen's Uncle Ben setting ethical standards for young Peter.

I'm giving nothing away to tell you that Uncle Ben is killed by a fleeing felon, leaving Peter to develop on his own while Field's Aunt May frets about the fact that her nephew frequently arrives home looking much the worse for wear. Spider-Man is not immune from taking his lumps.

Garfield makes an edgier Spider-Man than his predecessor, Tobey Maguire, and he also suggests more complexity as he nurtures his crush on Gwen (Emma Stone), a whip-smart fellow student at a Queens high school. Gwen's father (Denis Leary) happens to be a New York City top cop who takes some convincing that a lizard-like monster is terrorizing Manhattan.

When it came to the monster portion of the movie, I was a bit skeptical myself. I didn't find The Lizard all that impressive, and a protracted action-oriented finale needlessly extends the movie's length.

But Garfield and Stone give Spider-Man a credible emotional life that fits with Peter's longing for his absent father, and in its overall impact, Spider-Man more the passes summer movie muster.

Here's hoping, though, that the next episode gets Peter out of high school and into a milieu where Garfield not only will be able to act the part, but to look it, as well, especially when he's not wearing Spidey's trademark mask.