Thursday, August 30, 2012

This exorcism is strictly kosher

Need an exorcist? Try Borough Park, Brooklyn.
Although exorcism movies have turned into a hefty genre, there's still no better example of the breed than The Exorcist, William Friedkin's 1973 adaptation of William Peter Blatty's novel of the same name.

I say this having just seen The Possession, the latest movie to tell a story about a child who has been possessed by an evil spirit.

The Possession, you should know, is an exorcism movie with a difference. Rather than having the usual collection of Roman Catholic priests show up to battle evil, it falls to a Hassidic Jew to exorcise a dybbuk, a demon that lives in something called a "dybbuk box," an artifact bought for the soon-to-be-possessed girl at a garage sale.

The movie begins with a title card telling us that it's based on a true story. I leave it to you to decide what you think about that, but I'll tell you this: When it comes to exorcism movies, the Catholics have the Jews beat. No contest.

I'll take Max von Sydow and Jason Miller sprinkling holy water over Linda Blair, and pass on Matisyahu -- a Hassidic reggae musician -- who plays a devoutly Jewish man whose body rocks in furious prayer as he tries to expel a demon from a 10-year-old girl (Natasha Calis).

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Calis's Em is the youngest daughter of a basketball coach (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his former wife (Kyra Sedgwick). One day at a garage sale, Em is attracted to an odd wooden box with a Hebrew inscription carved into its lid. Dad buys the box for her. Em brings it home, and begins to exhibit all sorts of crazy, violent behavior.

Sedgwick's character -- who's now dating a dentist -- blames her daughter's descent into weirdness on her ex-husband. But Dad arrives at the uneasy truth: His daughter has been possessed. An older daughter (Madison Davenport) is pretty much irrelevant to the proceedings.

Hebrew inscription aside, at this point I have to admit I was waiting for a slightly skeptical but nonetheless sympathetic priest to show up and bring this hunk of somber horror to its effects-spewing conclusion.

But here's where The Possession tries to make its mark. Dad travels to the Borough Park section of Brooklyn to seek the help of Hassidic Jews, some of whom evidently know a thing or two about exorcising dybbuks.

At this point, Matisyahu enters to the movie, and I began to realize that there was only one man who could give this material its due, and it wasn't Ole Bornedal (Nightwatch), the director charged with putting The Possession through its paces.

Unfortunately, the 15 people who - according to IMDb -- took producing credits on The Possession didn't see fit to hire Mel Brooks, so we're stuck with a movie that takes itself very seriously.

I couldn't.

The actors did.

Known for his work on TV's Grey's Anatomy, Morgan does his best to portray a sympathetic father who's desperately trying to save his daughter. Sedgwick spends most of her time fuming at Morgan's character, who -- at one point -- is wrongly accused of abusively beating his daughter.

Not that Calis doesn't take a beating. As the movie progresses, she's attacked by large, ugly moths, sees a hand protrude from her throat and begins to look as haggard as any 10-year-old with heavy make-up can look.

In the end, the movie's Jewish tilt isn't enough to ward off Bornedal's approach to horror, which pretty much sticks to attempts at providing the audience with jolts of one sort or another.

But now, a confession: Any movie that figures out how to bring a Jewish exorcist, a college basketball coach, and his former wife and kids into the obscure corner of a hospital to conduct a ritual exorcism deserves at least grudging respect. The Possession seems clueless about its own outlandishness -- and, at least for me, was all the more enjoyable for it.

One more thing: If I had known about this kind Jewish hookey-dookey years ago, I might have paid a little more attention in Hebrew school.

Are people really this gullible?

A lengthy article at changed my mind about Compliance, a movie that would seem far-fetched and contrived if it weren't based on real events.

Taking its cue from a vicious 2004 prank that took place at a McDonald's in Mount Washington, Ky.,  and from criminal episodes reported at  70 additional fast-food locations, Compliance becomes a morally complex look at human behavior that leaves you shaking your head in disbelief.

Director Craig Zobel, who also wrote the screenplay for Compliance, seems to have selected various parts of the story from several such incidents, but it's important to know that -- for the most part -- Compliance is more docudrama than fabrication.

Having said that, it should also be noted that Zobel has assembled his movie in a way that not only builds tension but challenges an audience.

Set at a fast-food outlet in Ohio, the movie establishes its milieu before getting down to business. A man claiming to be a policeman phones the manager (Ann Dowd), telling her that one of her employees (Dreama Walker) has been accused of stealing money from a woman's purse. We hear the voice of this policeman (Pat Healy) who mostly remains unseen.

At first, the call sounds reasonable enough. The policeman claims to want to quickly clear things up and move on. As the title suggests, the manager complies: She's in the middle of a busy Friday, and doesn't want any trouble. The supposed cop even knows the name of her regional manager and says he has discussed the matter with him.

As the movie progresses, the man on the phone  becomes more demanding, more demeaning and more sexual. Walker's Becky becomes the target of a variety of humiliations that are not easy to watch, so much so that the movie debuted to walk-outs at January's Sundance Film Festival.

Let me say this clearly: If you don't know what you're getting into, Compliance can be a rough ride. Consider yourself warned.

I'd say that Zobel has succeeded in directing in a way that's neither exploitative nor titillating, although much of what happens in Compliance certainly is alarming.

Before it's done, Compliance has become a study in the power of suggested authority and the gullibility and weakness of people who -- in forsaking common sense and their own moral standards -- participate in all manner of egregious behavior. The story is bizarre -- and all the more troubling because it's true.

A robot becomes his best friend

Frank Langella provides the main reason to see the sometimes sentimental Robot & Frank -- a movie about an aging man whose son buys him a robot, a machine that's meant to help Langella's character cope with an increasingly debilitating case of dementia. Langella's Frank spent most of his adult life as a jewel thief, and only recently has gotten out of the slammer. Fearing that Frank will do harm to himself, his son (James Marsden) arranges for Frank to have a robot that cooks and cleans for him, as well as generally organizes his life. It doesn't take too much foresight to know that the robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) is going to develop an odd-couple relationship with Frank, who's as haphazard in his ways as the robot is fastidious. The twist: Initially reluctant to accept assistance, the crusty Frank begins to change his mind when he realizes that the robot can help him plan a heist. The robot reluctantly goes along with the scheme, thinking Frank will benefit from an activity that really involves him. The movie takes place in the near future, but director Jake Schreier doesn't overdo the futuristic touches. The town librarian (Susan Sarandon in a lovely small performance) is being asked to get rid of books and go electronic, but mostly the movie looks very much like the present. Liv Tyler makes a drop-in appearance as Frank's daughter, a young woman who, on principle, opposes robot help. Amid all of this, the movie manages to deal with aging and a loss of memory that's more frightening to us than to Frank, who seldom acknowledges the severity of his deficits. No need making too much of Frank & Robot, but the movie deserves credit for coming close to turning a comic fantasy into a sensitively realized look at the sadness of aging.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Tale of bootleggers has genre kick

Lawless has the look of a great movie, but its rewards have more to do with its hard-core attitudes..
Set in the early 1930s, Lawless tells the story of a clan of bootlegging brothers who rose to prominence in Franklin County, Va. Working from a novel by Matt Bondurant, director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave try for the bracingly bitter tone of a Depression-era story that sometimes feels as if it's out to recycle a variety of familiar western and gangster ploys.

In this case, three moonshining brothers face off against a corrupt lawman. Bondurant's novel, by the way, derives from his family history, and the movie begins with a title card telling us that it's inspired by a true story.

In Lawless, Hillcoat (The Road ) focuses on Jake Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf), the youngest of three Bondurant brothers and the tale's narrator. The Bondurants are hard-core moonshiners led by Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy). Brother Howard Bondurant (Jason Clarke) brings muscle to the proceedings. Jack is considered "the runt" of the Bondurant litter, a young man not naturally given to violence.

In this case, the bootleggers aren't the bad guys. That job falls squarely on the shoulders of Guy Pearce, who pushes the limits of stereotype as Charlie Rakes, a citified sadist of a lawman who travels to Virginia from Chicago. Rakes has been hired to enforce a system of payoffs to local officials.

Fiercely committed to controlling his own affairs, Forrest refuses to play ball with the local pols, and the building blocks fall into place for a story that turns white-lightning outlaws into advocates for untrammeled independence.

Lawless boasts an impressive supporting cast. Gary Oldman has a small role as Floyd Banner, a Tommy-gun toting gangster. Jessica Chastain shows up as a red-headed refugee from Chicago, a woman with a checkered past who hopes find a little peace in a small town. Chastain's Maggie has an eye for Forrest, who -- as played by the stoically impressive Hardy -- seems as immovable as a tree stump.

When Forrest thinks or speaks, he tends to start with a murmured growl that sounds as if it's somewhere between a sigh and grunt. He's the brutal brains and backbone of the Bondurant brothers' thriving booze business. Hardy, who gave one of the bravura performances of cinema in the British movie Bronson, remains an impressive actor whose very presence can seem like a threat. When he really wants to make a point, Forrest uses a set of brass knuckles.

Working with cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, Hillcoat gives his images a romanticized burnish, but when the screenplay calls for brutality, the director presents it with full force. The action builds toward a showdown between the Bondurants and Rakes at a covered bridge.

LaBeouf doesn't always seem perfectly cast as a young man who has an eye for a preacher's daughter (Mia Wasikowska), but he has his moments. LaBeouf's Jack lacks the killer instinct of his tougher brothers, a deficiency that sets up one of the movie's big (and all-too-obvious) questions. Will Jake be able to pull the trigger when the chips are down?

In the end, Lawless comes across as an artfully made genre piece that seems to have been aiming for quite a bit more: It's not in a class with Hillcoat and Cave's previous collaboration, The Proposition, an astringent western set in the Australian outback.

You also may find yourself wondering about the moral calculus that turns the brutal Bondurant boys into heroes. Still, there's a wistful air of longing about this violent movie, an attempt to hold onto a robust moment of Bondurant family history, even if that moment doesn't quite rise to the level of legend.

Friday, August 24, 2012

In this movie, speed is the message

Speeding bikes, heavy traffic and a silly plot turn Premium Rush into a fun ride.

Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) rides a bike with no brakes and no gears to shift. He's a minimalist who works as a bicycle messenger in Manhattan, which means that he's adept at dodging the city's omnipresent taxis, as well as every other form of vehicular transportation. Wilee's also the main character in Premium Rush, a smartly paced and entertaining movie in which speed, danger and stunts are hung on a plot that's built around one of Wilee's assignments. As the movie progresses, director David Koepp works in Chinese gambling dens, an immigration scheme and a very corrupt cop, played with bizarre relish by Michael Shannon. At heart, Premium Rush is a chase movie, but Koepp has fun with graphics, using them to show us how Wilee thinks through the complex maneuvers required to move around jammed city streets. Koepp, who has written action movies such as Mission Impossible, The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Spider-Man and who has directed movies such as Ghost Town, mounts the action with sharpness and clarity. As Wilee furiously pedals to complete his task, Koepp fleshes out the story by moving back and forth in time. Gordon-Levitt infuses Wilee with just enough character (no desk job for this bike jockey) to avoid becoming a cartoon. I've read that the bike riding stunts are real and have not been digitally created, another ploy that helps distinguish Premium Rush from the rest of the breathless genre movies that whiz by during the course of a summer.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The complex life of an aging writer

Director Andre Techine's latest is rich in emotional intrigue.

Watching Unforgivable -- a new movie from French director Andre Techine -- puts one in mind of the pleasures that derive from immersion in the work of someone who directs with urgency and assurance.

Unforgivable, Techine's 19th film, finds the 69-year-old director (Wild Reeds and The Girl on the Train) in fine form as he tells the story of Francis (Andre Dussollier), a novelist who has traveled to Venice to write. As the aging Francis searches for living quarters, he meets and marries (impetuously it seems) an attractive young real estate agent (Carole Bouquet).

In more or less breathless fashion, Techine -- who co-wrote the screenplay with Mehdi Ben Attia from a novel by Philippe Djian -- introduces a variety of other characters, all of whom begin to figure in the story.

A sampling: On the advice of Bouquet's Judith, Francis tries to persuade a private investigator (Adriana Asti) to search for his grown daughter Alice (Melanie Thierry), an actress who may have vanished with an impoverished aristocrat (Andrea Pergolesi) who supports himself by selling drugs and dabbling in art forgeries.

Later, Francis hires a young man (Mauro Cante) to trail his wife, whom he suspects of having an affair. To add even more complexity, this young man -- recently released from prison -- is the son of Asti's character, a lesbian who once had an affair with Judith.

This brief synopsis only begins to describe the layers of connection among the movie's characters, all of whom get their due by the time the movie ends.

Techine likes to move quickly, not worrying about dotting every "i" or crossing every "t." For me, he succeeds in establishing a world populated by characters who are living with a sense of elasticity. French characters are living in Venice, where they mingle with Italians. Relationships tend to shift, as do the languages the characters speak.

Techine is onto something with a story that refuses to take root, skimming through situation after situation in ways that prove intriguing. Unforgivable is a movie full of glancing blows and sudden insights.

A superb cast abets Techine in his efforts. A greying Dussollier plays a character who seems to be creating complexities in life that he's currently unable to imagine on the page. He's suffering from writer's block. And there's an emotional coolness about Bouquet that serves her character well.

Unforgivable may extend a bit too long, and it's not necessarily the most profound of movies, but its pulse carries us along as surely as the small boats that transport these characters from the island where Francis has rented a home to the city where Judith works.

More important, Techine understands personal complexity and emotional entanglement. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that he knows that such matters often can make understanding nearly impossible.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

On the road -- with comic twists

Hit & Run travels a road full of comic turns, and it's a fun ride -- up to a point. The movie tells the story of a guy (Dax Shepard) who travels to Los Angeles with his girlfriend (Kristen Bell). Among the movie's twists: This apparently sensitive young lover has been assigned to the witness protection program. Why? He received a break for testifying against his partners in crime led by a character played by Bradley Cooper. Bell's Annie -- an academic by trade -- has been offered a great teaching post in Los Angeles. It's a career move she can't pass up, and her boyfriend knows that if he doesn't encourage her, he'll probably lose her. Once Shepard's character leaves the small California town where he's living under the assumed name of Charles Bronson, he opens himself to pursuit by the folks who want to kill him for ratting them out. There's a dippy quality to the proceedings, and Shepard and Bell do a nice job of turning the movie into an oddball look at the ways in which relationships develop. Bits and pieces of information about Shepard's character gradually (and amusingly) come to the fore. Offbeat humor sustains some interest until the time Bronson's father (Beau Bridges) turns up. Nothing wrong with Bridges's performance; it's just that the movie then breaks out the heavy artillery and blasts away whatever minor charms it has spent time accuring. Tom Arnold is meant to add laughs as a bumbling sheriff with a streak of monumentally bad luck behind the wheel, but his character's propensity for car carnage becomes repetitive. Although Hit & Run has loopy high points, it ultimately runs out of road. Shepard, who co-directed with David Palmer, throws in car chases (seldom a sign of a fertile imagination), but they get decent mileage out of Charlie's souped-up 1967 Lincoln Continental, a speedy remnant from his former felonious life.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

An urgent look at the fall of Versailles

A superior period piece -- as opposed to one that feels as if it belongs in mothballs -- has a sense of present-tense immediacy. Although Farewell, My Queen covers familiar ground -- the last days at Versailles before the fall of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette -- the movie earns high marks for managing to feel entirely fresh.

Director Benoît Jacquot fills the screen with tension, finds an interesting way to tell the story (from the perspective of a young woman who serves as the queen's reader) and even manages a surprising conclusion to a historical tale in which the outcome is well-known and inevitable.

Shot at Versailles and beautifully appointed, Farewell, My Queen centers on Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux), a young woman who has been working at Versailles for four years when the movie begins. Farewell, My Queen opens with Sidonie being awakened from a sound sleep; the moment sets the tone for everything that follows. The whole court is awakening -- albeit reluctantly -- to the fact that it's about to topple.

Jacquot, -- along with Gilles Taurand -- co-adapted a novel by Chantal Thomas; the screenplay wisely doesn't tell us much about Sidonie's background. She's a young woman who evidently found her identity at Versailles, and is entirely devoted to the queen. There's an avidity about Sidonie; she works hard to stay abreast of gossip about events unfolding in and around the court. She knows literature -- she's a reader after all -- and, as played, by Seydoux, she has an alarming alertness about her. She's no pushover.

The rest of the performances keep pace. As Marie Antoinette, Diane Kruger -- a German actress playing the Austrian who found herself on the French throne -- is beautiful, pampered and capricious. Kruger brings welcome complexity to her performance. Her Marie Atoinette is no cartoon of cruelty, although she's plenty vain. The queen, who spends most of her time in her bedroom, has been carrying on an affair with Gabrielle de Polignac, a young duchess played by Virginie Ledoyen.

Jacquot daringly lowers the volume on Bruno Coulais's agitated score, giving it the feel of a pulse that's beating wildly. A restless camera beautifully captures the sense of mounting confusion faced by both the nobility and those who serve it. An old order is falling, but Jacquot understands that for those who lived it, the experience was immediate, shocking and, in many cases, terrifying.

Quick but telling touches abound. At one point, the king (Xavier Beauvois) appears. The courtiers -- in full plummage -- sucrry toward him, frightened people hoping for answers. None are forthcoming. Imagine peacocks awakening to the roar of a lion, and you'll have a feeling for the mood at court. Such an attitude of fearful surprise might well have characterized those who cloistered themselves in the opulence of Versailles, and knew little of life beyond court with its boundless intrigues and ludicrous finery.

In covering four days before the French Revolution, Jacquot avoids scenes that scream out about their historical importance. He's interested in what it felt like to be at Versailles as the wheel of history turned.

We know the outcome, but not all of these characters know their fates: It's that sense of terrified confusion that gives Farewell, My Queen so much remarkable and instructive urgency.

An old-fashioned French melodrama

The French actor Daniel Auteuil plays a key role in and directs The Well-Digger's Daughter, a movie based on a 1940 film by Marcel Pagnol. Auteuil, you'll remember, made his mark acting in two terrific adaptations of Pagnol's work, Jean de Florette (1984) and Manon of the Spring (1986), both directed by the late Claude Berri. Although Well-Digger's Daughter isn't up to the level of either of those films, it should appeal to those with a taste for high-level melodrama, enhanced, of course, by the scenery of Provence. Auteuil portrays the gruff, well-digging father of a young woman (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) he idolizes for her purity and saintliness. When Berges-Frisbey's Patricia becomes pregnant by the son (Nicolas Duvauchette) of the town's wealthy grocer, Auteuil's character turns his back on her. He banishes her from his home. The movie seems to be set-up for a tragedy fueled by an old man's recalcitrance and his daughter's independence. The strong-willed Patricia refuses to take the easy way out, spurning an offer of marriage from one of her father's co-workers (Kad Merad), a good-hearted fellow who offers to marry her even though she's carrying another man's child. World War I provides more melodramatic upheaval, and the movie moves toward its somewhat pat but still satisfying conclusion.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A fable that's beyond belief

Soaked in sentiment, The Odd Life of Timothy Green requires a leap of faith the movie never enabled me to make. A Disney-produced fantasy, Odd Life tells a story in which a couple that's been unable to procreate decides to rip pages from a small pad and write down their wishes for an ideal child. Perhaps to put the matter permanently to rest, they bury the papers in a box in their backyard garden. A violent storm hits, and magic ensues: A dirt-covered boy with leaves sprouting from his legs appears. He's Timothy, and he grew in the garden. The couple (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) are flabbergasted by this child of the soil, but gradually adjust to the presence of their "son'' (CJ Adams). As Timothy tries to fit into his new family and community, he's enrolled in school, plays soccer (badly), cheers up his dying grandfather (M. Emmet Walsh) and fulfills his parents dreams. Everything's going fine until Timothy's leaves begin to yellow and fall. (No, I'm not making this up.) There's also a subplot about how dad, who works at the town's pencil factory, must fight to keep the factory open. Mom has a job, too. She gives tours at the local pencil museum. Interesting actors are wasted in support. Rosemarie DeWitt plays Garner's stuffy sister, and David Morse portrays Timothy's other grandfather. Dianne Wiest signs on as a local sourpuss. I'm sure some folks who will buy this family-friendly fluff as sweet, sad and stirring. I'm not one of them. It struck me as a little creepy.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Running in Bourne's footsteps

Revamped with a new hero, the The Bourne Legacy is only semi-successful.

Goodbye Jason Bourne. Hello Aaron Cross.

Right there, you can see part of the problem with The Bourne Legacy, a semi-successful attempt to perpetuate a franchise with Jeremy Renner taking over for Matt Damon. Renner plays Cross, one of nine chemically enhanced Treadstone operatives. He's like Bourne, but he's not Bourne.

Damon's absence can't help but be felt because we've come to identify the Bourne movies with (here's a shocker) a character named Bourne.

In the hands of director Tony Gilroy, who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Dan, The Bourne Legacy proceeds in fits and starts, possibly because it's forced to establish its Bourne bona fides with lots of references to its predecessors. (The movie takes place at roughly the same time as the end of The Bourne Ultimatum.)

Familiar from The Hurt Locker and more recently from Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol, Renner is an explosive actor. He looks and acts tough enough for a globe-hopping thriller, and in this outing he has a snub-nosed intensity that makes him a credible action hero -- if not a franchise figure.

We meet Cross while he's conducting a solo training exercise in Alaska. We quickly learn that he's a super-operative who can go one-on-one with a snarling wolf. We also discover that he's being hunted by his own super-secret agency, which -- thanks to threat of exposure and possible public outrage -- is being closed.

That means that Cross must be killed, a project that's being led by a retired Air Force Colonel played by Edward Norton, who -- like every other actor in the movie -- spends most of his time looking seriously grim. Norton's character is a proponent of the notion that some things are morally reprehensible but essential to U.S. security. In a dirty world, survival depends on playing dirty. That's where guys like Bourne and Cross come in.

The plot eventually contrives to bring a fleeing Cross into contact with a scientist (Rachel Weisz) who has been working on the project that develops the chemicals that give Treadstone agents their heightened powers. Cross and Weisz's Dr. Marta Shearing spend the rest of the movie trying not to be killed.

Blame recent events -- shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin -- but for me, the most disturbing scene in the movie involves a shooting in a lab. It's staged for maximum impact by Gilroy, who directed and wrote Michael Clayton and Duplicity. What makes the lab scene so horrific is that there's no hail of bullets: A gunman picks off his victims one by one, each shot ringing with chilling clarity.

Gilroy does a decent job with the rest of the action, but a lengthy motorcycle chase in Manilla -- the film's climax -- leans toward the outrageous and makes it clear that Gilroy and company are making a summer movie with a capital "S." The longer the chase went on, the more it smelled of pandering to me.

The movie's ending isn't especially satisfying, leaving one with the impression that the filmmakers have huffed, puffed and blown down a lot of houses without getting much of anywhere. The series, we suppose, is meant to continue.

Audiences should find enough action and exoticism in Bourne Legacy to give it box-office life, but I wonder whether future movies will continue to put the Bourne name into the title, will let Cross move forward under his own banner or will switch to one of the other agents that are running around the dangerous world that novelist Robert Ludlum imagined when he created the Bourne series.

The Cross Ultimatum? Doesn't sound right, does it?

A movie that campaigns for laughs

For Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, politics is a laughing matter -- at least for a while..
Right up until it develops a conscience, The Campaign is a very funny comedy about a congressional election that pits a slick, empty-headed congressman named Cam Brady (Will Ferell) against an unlikely opponent (Zach Galifianakis).

Under the guidance of director Jay Roach, The Campaign is at its best when its being preposterous, lewd and blatantly outrageous.

Cam's has had a lock on his North Carolina seat in the House for years. But Cam's re-election bid (for a fifth term) hits the skids when he's caught making an obscene phone call to one of his mistresses. Cam's speeches emphasize America, Jesus and freedom, but even such default cheerleading may not save him this time around.

Sensing vulnerability, a couple of kingmakers -- the billionaire Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) -- handpick Galifianakis's Marty Huggins as the GOP challenger to Cam, a Democrat whose years in Congress have turned him into a cipher.

Jokes trump party affiliations with Galifianakis playing his character as a mincing, effeminate man who's tutored in the rough side of politics by his ruthless campaign manager (Dylan McDermott). Marty's married with children, but seems more devoted to his two pet pugs than to his family.

Best not to reveal too many of the jokes, but the movie plays with a variety of stereotypes, most hilariously with a maid who works for Marty's dad (Brian Cox). And there's humor and bite in a debate scene in which Marty challenges a bumbling Cam to a task that stymies him: reciting the Lord's Prayer.

All well and funny, but the screenplay becomes significantly less amusing when it tries to sharpen its satirical edge, making obvious points about the injection of big money into politics. The Motch brothers, of course, evoke the real-life Koch brothers.

Not content to stop there, the script takes a misguided Capraesque turn in its third act, again proving that sincerity and comedy don't necessarily make good bedfellows.

Clocking in at a mercifully fleet 85 minutes, The Campaign fizzles before it's done, but when it's funny, it's a lot funnier than most of this summer's comedies. Is it possible to cast a positive vote for half a movie?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A look at an implausible ruse

The Imposter, a totally involving documentary from director Bart Layton, is one of the few films that you won't be able to out-guess, unless you already happen to know the story of Frederic Bourdin. Bourdin insinuated himself with a Texas family by pretending to be Nicholas Barclay, a teen-ager who disappeared in 1994. More than three years later, Bourdin -- in Spain at the time -- pulled off what appears to be an impossible ruse. A 23-year-old man with a French accent, he claimed to be a 16-year-old American. To make matters more bizarre, Bourdin -- interviewed extensively throughout the course of Layton's film -- looked nothing like Barclay. Barclay's family accepted him anyway. But there's much more to the story than that. Normally, I don't like documentaries that rely heavily on re-enactments, as this one does. But Layton's mixture of interviews, home videos and recreated drama works to create one of the most perplexing movies of the year -- and I mean that in a good way. We watch in a state of semi-amazement as Bourdin tells his story, and eventually falls under the suspicion of a private investigator. Gradually, the focus of The Imposter shifts into even weirder territory. It's best to say no more -- other than to tell you that Layton's film probably will have you shaking your head in disbelief, quite an achievement for a documentary about a true story in which truth turns out to be the most difficult thing to find.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Should this marriage be saved?

Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep are unhappy together as a long-time husband and wife in Hope Springs.
Hope Springs deals with a marriage that's foundering. I've seen the movie referred to as a "dramady," which means it's supposed to blend comedy and drama. I guess that's a fair description, but I wouldn't call Hope Springs great drama or sharp-edged comedy. Mostly, the movie stands out for being an adult-oriented movie that arrives in the middle of a comic-book summer and for being willing to show aging characters talking -- albeit awkwardly -- about sex.

Nothing dramatic happens to bring this marriage to the brink, which is more or less the point. Hope Springs has more to do with the deadening accrual of habit than with rash infidelities or Virginia Woolf-style knock-down drag-outs.

Initially, I wondered whether Tommy Lee Jones, an actor who can seem as angry as a clenched fist, would team well with Meryl Streep, an actress who excels at both drama and comedy. I'm not sure I ever bought them as a couple, but I watched with interest as they worked over material that vacillates between compelling and second-rate.

Here's the drill: Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Jones) have been married for 31 years. Five years before we meet them, Arnold hurt his back and began sleeping in the guest room. He never returned to the bedroom he and Kay once shared. Arnold's an accountant. Kay works in a clothing store. And if you happened to meet them in real life, you'd probably think they were as happy as most other couples in Omaha, which is where they live.

Kay knows differently. She's not content, even if Arnold is comfortable in the rut he's dug for himself. He goes to the office. He comes home. He eats dinner. He falls asleep in front of the TV while watching the golf channel.

In a bold move, Kay enrolls in a $4,000 intensive marriage counseling session in Maine. These sessions are conducted by Bernie Feld (Steve Carell), a psychologist who has written a best-selling book called You Can Have the Marriage You Want, the title of which pretty much explains what it's about.

Predictably, Arnold has no interest in therapy. When he realizes that he either must accompany Kay to Maine or give up on his marriage, he boards a plane -- not that he quits complaining. Counseling won't do any good. The psychologist's a fraud. The whole thing costs too much.

I've got two views about Hope Springs, which was written by Vanessa Taylor and directed by David Frankel, who also directed Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. There's an undeniable element of daring here, particularly in the therapy scenes, which -- in fairly short order -- address Kay and Arnold's badly depleted sex life.

At its best, the movie plays like a less taxing version HBO's In Treatment, and I half wondered why Carell had usurped Gabriel Byrne's role as one of entertainment's more credible shrinks.

To the movie's credit, therapy isn't shown as an instant cure-all. For Arnold and Kay, therapy is full of bumps, detours, bruised feelings and anger.

Carell plays his role straight in a movie that finds its best moments in his character's office. Frankel's few attempts to open things up can seem superfluous. An example: Kay visits a local bar where she encounters a sympathetic bar tender (Elizabeth Shue).

I said I was of two minds about Hope Springs. Here's the second. I found it almost impossible not to be a little too aware of the acting. Jones gives Arnold the hunched posture of a man who's pushing through life. Arnold's running on residues of resolve and lowered expectations. Streep finds Kay's weariness, her yearning and also her tendency to be a little clueless at times.

The supposedly "humorous" parts of the movie aren't all that funny, although the trailer seems designed to persuade us that Hope Springs is a comedy.

So what am I saying? Although parts of Hope Springs are commendable, I didn't totally buy Taylor and Frankel's exploration of the calcifications that can be wrought by age, habit and lack of imagination. I wish the movie had been a little tougher.

So I'll split the difference. Yes, it's refreshing to see a movie that deals with adult themes. But Arnold and Kay's troubled marriage finds itself in the middle of a movie that seems to want to explore real issues, but -- in the end -- doesn't want to ruffle too many feathers, even those belonging to Arnold and Kay.

A look at the great Ai Weiwei

The 55-year-old artist Ai Weiwei has been poking his finger in the eye of Chinese authority for years. Currently the subject of a case in which the Chinese government claims that Ai owes $2.4 million in back taxes and penalties, the artist has spent the better part of his adult life championing free expression and human rights.

In 2011, Ai spent 81 days in detention after being arrested at the Beijing airport. Since his release, Ai -- who helped design China's signature "birds nest" Olympic stadium -- gradually has been resuming his role as China's most famous artist and one of its highest profile provocateurs.

The documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry examines Ai's life prior to his detention, a time when he made extensive use of art and social media to criticize the Communist Party.

Ai, whose work includes sculpture, photography and installation, was instrumental in calling attention to government corruption that contributed to the death of schoolchildren in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. For his efforts, Ai was beaten by police in Chengdu, a case he pursued with no expectation of obtaining redress, but with a desire to expose the workings of an unjust system.

Throughout his career, Ai has proven himself adept at making adjustments: At one point in the film, Ai is invited to build a studio in Shanghai. When the political winds shift, the authorities order the studio destroyed. Ai responds by throwing a party, a river crab feast.

In Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, director Alison Klayman introduces us to Ai's politics and art, which are often inseparable. We see Ai installing a piece at the Tate Modern in London ("Sunflower Seeds"); we see him working in Germany (a retrospective at the Haus der Kunst in Munich) and we see him at home in China, all of which makes Klayman's film must viewing for anyone interested in Chinese politics, contemporary art and the right of all people to express themselves freely.

I recently spoke with the 27-year-old Klayman about Ai and the making of Never Sorry:
Q. Can you tell us anything about Ai's current status?

Well, as you know, the court in Beijing ruled on his appeal to the charge (of tax evasion). (In July, a court rejected Ai's appeal; Ai was barred from the proceedings.) It's kind of amazing that they heard the case at all, but things didn’t go to his lawyer’s satisfaction. Weiwei spoke out strongly -- on twitter and to reporters -- about how he was kept from the trial. They refused to say where they’re getting the numbers for the $2.4 million fine. Ai still is being threatened with various on-going investigations. He was told he shouldn‘t travel. They're holding his passport. When he was released (from detention) he was under bail conditions for one year. Slowly, he has pushed the limits on all of his restrictions, but he's been unable to travel outside Beijing for the last year.

Q. Do you think your documentary can help Ai in his struggle to get back to where he was prior to his arrest?
Klayman: What I get from him is that he’s happy to have his story shared as much as possible. He's glad that the movie is seen as good. It's hard to tell where the decision making (about Ai) is coming from. It's not easy to understand why they (the Chinese authorities) do what they do. It's not clear whether outside pressure would make the Chinese double down on him. In the past, his international recognition has helped. The film will play a part in that.

Q. Did Ai's political views, which he makes no attempt to hide, make your job as a filmmaker more difficult?
Klayman: There are challenges in filming Ai Weiwei. He's a very strong individual, someone who has as many as 30 different projects going at any given time. He was open to letting me be around. I was not on the list of his major concerns, so I really had to assert myself. He's a famous, a world renowned artist. As for the challenges of working in China, I'd been there for several years and was somewhat familiar with Ai. My project wasn’t publicized. There are lots of things you have to think about -- how to get footage out of China, for example. You need a plan. But I never had any of my equipment touched.

Q. So how did this project originate?
Klayman: I lucked out. I already was in China. (Klayman lived in China from 2006 until 2010.) I wanted to do journalism and documentaries. I studied Mandarin. I had many different jobs and tutors. ... I met Ai because a roommate of mine was working on an exhibition at his gallery. I was asked if I wanted to make a video about the show. I was handed the chance to film him. I have an open attitude, and I wanted to do a good job. Ai could appreciate that.

Q. Much of Ai's art is playful, even though it deals with serious issues. I wonder if it was fun to be around him.
Klayman: A lot of the time it was. A big part of his personality is his love for life, new things and fun things and having a sense of humor. He likes to be a vibrant and enjoyable experience for the people around him. I felt no matter what happened, the film would be an enjoyable experience for audiences.

Q. Is it possible that politics will overwhelm art for Ai?
Klayman: I feel all of it (art and politics) is coming from the same impulse on Ai's part. Whether he was doing interviews or talking about things that are far from a fine art context -- politics and the Internet, for example -- I never felt as if he was taking off his art hat. I never heard him identify himself as anything other than an artist. For him, the role of artist is to be engaged and to protest for freedom of expression. Everything he does comes from the same motivation.

A. Can you return to China?
Klayman: That remains to be seen. I did go back after his detention, and I spoke out a javascript:void(0);lot while he was being detained. I went back in the fall, and didn't have any problems. But I have to apply for a new visa; I hope that they don't see Ai Weiwei as an anti-China film.

Q: Did making this documentary change you?
Klayman: How could it not change me? This has been my life's work for the last couple of years. It became even more serious when the stakes were raised by Weiwei's detention. Being around Weiwei and making the film has taught me not to think small. Seeing the work he's doing and how it's impacted people all over the world has taught me that big things are possible. Art can impact people in a way that transform politics. That's an exciting realization for me.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Action makes hash out of 'Total Recall'

This remake of a 1990 movie is more muddled than mind-bending.
The remake of 1990's >Total Recall is a cluttered, unsatisfying attempt at dystopian sci-fi that ultimately loses itself in a blur of action, much of it presented in a visually confused jumbles.

Like the original, this revamp is based on a Philip K. Dick short story (We Can Remember It For You Wholesale), but the 2012 edition tends to brood more, partly because it replaces Arnold Schwarzenegger with Colin Farrell. Farrell plays Douglas Quaid, a factory worker who's part of the great lumpenproletariat that serves the wealthy in what's left of humanity after a series of devastating wars at the end of the 21st Century.

Farrell's Douglas Quaid lives in The Colony, a futuristic slum that's located in Australia. The Colony is home to legions of drones who staff assembly lines in the affluent United Federation of Britain. Workers from The Colony commute to the United Federation via a kind of super-subway called The Fall, which travels through the Earth at breathtaking speeds.

After missing out on a promotion, Quaid decides to spice up his humdrum life by visiting Rekall, a facility that enables its customers to live out any fantasy they choose -- and to retain a memory of it. With Rekall, illusions become indistinguishable from real experience.

Quaid opts for a spy fantasy, but before his illusory journey gets rolling, he learns that he's not really a worker bee, but a highly trained real spy who's being pursued by the Chancellor of the Federation (Bryan Cranston), one of the least ominous villains in quite some time.

The rest of the story puts a confused Quaid into a situation in which his certainty about everything -- including his identity -- is undermined. His wife (Kate Beckinsale) may not be his wife. If a young woman Quaid meets as he flees his pursuers (Jessica Biel) seems familiar, maybe it's because he's had dreams about her.

Of course, there's also a resistance, led by a character named Mathias, played by Bill Nighy, who demonstrates -- with very little screen time -- that an interesting actor can survive in the middle of a movie full of futuristic bric-a-brac. Aside from Nighy, I wouldn't call any of the performances distinctive.

The best thing about the movie are its CGI enhanced settings, which -- at their best -- are reminiscent of the dystopian sleaze of Blade Runner, another movie inspired by a Dick story. Neither The Colony nor The United Federation look entirely real, but they're interestingly realized, as are various forms of futuristic transportation, notably hover cars.

But when it comes to overall impact, Total Recall's mixture of turgid exposition and frantic chases miss the mark, and if memory serves me, the original movie was better directed by Paul Verhoeven than this one is by Len Wiseman, who previously wrote and directed a couple of Underworld movies.

Look, you know a movie's misfiring when you half wish the actors and story would get out of the way so you could better explore the worlds that the filmmakers have created. Wiseman avoids the kind of mind-bending wooziness that would have made the movie more challenging, subordinating Dick's heady themes to a ton of brain-numbing action that tends to make us indifferent about the movie's outcome.

An FYI: The original was rated R and included a trip to Mars; the remake is earthbound and rated PG-13.

Love, class and exploitation In India

Director Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People) plays an artistic long shot in Trishna, a movie that shifts the location of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Ubervilles to contemporary India. Obviously, such an effort required Winterbottom to play freely with Hardy's story, but he attempts to retain an important Hardy theme: the awful effects of imprisoning social structures. Making effective use of a variety of Indian backdrops, Winterbottom creates plenty of initial interest in the story of Trishna (Frida Pinto), a young woman who falls under the sway of the upperclass son (Riz Ahmed) of a prosperous hotel owner. Ahmed's Jay arranges for Trishna to move from her village to Mumbai, where she begins work in one of the hotels owned by Jay's father. For a time, it seems as if Jay genuinely is smitten by Trisha's plush beauty. But things go desperately wrong as the story chronicles the casual cruelties that begin to surface and enlarge, ultimately defining Jay's behavior toward Trishna. Despite a new buoyancy in Indian culture -- represented by Trishna's exposure to the playful rhythms of Bollywood -- Winterbottom steers the story toward an expectedly tragic result. Trishna may be the title character, but she's also a pawn in a story that, from the very beginning, stacks the deck against her. This may be Winterbottom's point, but instead of breaking our hearts, it puts a bit of a stranglehold on an ambitious but faltering effort.

In "Ruby,'' he finds his gem

Romantic comedy with charm -- and a bit of intelligence, too
It's a common enough experience. Hungry for romance, we fall in love with our dreamy idea of a person rather than with the more complex flesh-and-blood version. This familiar scenario usually leads to disappointment because -- no matter how committed we are to our fantasies -- reality has a way of kicking them to the curb.

The new romantic comedy -- Ruby Sparks -- carries such a situation to imaginative, amusing extremes: Calvin (Paul Dano) is a young Los Angeles-based novelist whose career has stalled after a smashing debut. Nothing breaks the logjam of Calvin's block until he begins writing about a young woman named Ruby Sparks: For Calvin, Ruby becomes both a character and a muse.

It's just here that the movie takes its defining twist.

To Calvin's surprise, Ruby (Zoe Kazan) suddenly becomes real. She turns up in Calvin's kitchen, acting as if her presence is the most natural thing in the world. After his initial shock, Calvin gradually comes to accept the fact that one his creations has made the transition from the typed page to real life.

Is Calvin crazy? Not at all. Other people see Ruby, too.

Kazan, who wrote the screenplay, sprinkles no magic dust over her fantastical premise. Ruby appears. That's it. We're asked to live with it, just as Calvin is.

A variety of off-camera relationships add extra spice to a romance that doesn't so much bend our minds as divert them for most of the movie's 104 minutes: The directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) are married. Dano and Kazan have been a couple for five years. Feel free to speculate about the effect of all this interpersonal calculus as you follow Dano's Calvin on his romantic adventures.

The idiosyncratic Dano portrays a young man who isn't always sure he wants topple the walls of isolation that surround him. More than most young actors, Dano excels at conveying the debilities of a fragile psyche.

Kazan, on the other hand, has just the right balancing charm to play Calvin's dream girl, a 26-year-old painter from Ohio, who -- of course -- doesn't know that she's a fictional creation.

Most of the people in Calvin's life are happy that he's finally been able to connect with someone. Calvin's brother (Chris Messina) applauds Calvin's situation. Who wouldn't want a woman who could be made to fulfill any desire simply by having her author write it? It should be pointed out that although Calvin's authorial command over Ruby eventually gets a bit out of hand, it takes no kinky directions.

As the story develops, Calvin introduces Ruby to his mother (Annette Bening), an aging hippie who lives with a sculptor (Antonio Banderas). Bening and Banderas are playing cliches, but seem to have fun with them. Elliot Gould shows up as Calvin's shrink, but the movie works best as a two-hander between Dano and Kazan.

Although the screenplay eventually pushes into some dark corners -- which Dano is more than capable of exploring -- Ruby Sparks mostly keeps its strange and whimsical premise well within normal reach. And if you're up for it, the movie even has something to say about the appeal and perils of trying to control the one you love.

It was good to be the queen

How much is too much? For some people, there are no limits.

In Mel Brooks' The Producers, the larcenous theatrical producer Max Bialystock looks out the window of his office and spots a passing Rolls Royce.

"When you got it, flaunt it,'' Max yells, a reflection of his own grandiosity and a lesson to Leo Bloom, the timid and trembling accountant who's supposed to check Bialystock's books.

The Siegels -- the couple at the center of director Lauren Greenfield's fascinating new documentary, The Queen of Versailles -- flaunt it to a degree that even Bialystock might find embarrassing.

After making a fortune in the time-share business, David Siegel, 74, and his wife Jackie, 43, set out to spend some of their treasure on construction of a 90,000-square-foot house inspired by and named for Versailles. Located in Orlando, Fla., it would be the biggest house in the U.S.

When Greenfield began her work, Siegel was on top of the world as the owner of Westgate Resorts, a company that boasted the biggest time-share business on the planet. Running this extravagantly successful business fueled Siegel's pasha-like existence. He had all the trappings of inordinate wealth: private jets, limos, the big house. You name it.

But Siegel became a victim of the 2008 crash that sucked the life out of many an enterprise. His operation depended on the availability of cheap money. He sold time-shares to folks who put little money down. When the banks cut him off, his business began to suffocate.

I won't attempt to describe the financial workings of Siegel's empire. The important thing to know -- as far as this documentary is concerned -- is that the house of cards toppled. A movie that may have begun as a look at the lifestyles of the fabulously nouveau riche became a chronicle of belt-tightening and downward mobility, so much so that upon boarding a commercial flight for the first time, one of the seven Siegel children wonders what all those strangers are doing on the family plane.

I've read that David Siegel is suing Greenfield for defamation. I don't know the basis of the suit, but it hasn't stopped the movie from playing around the country. If you see it, you'll discover an intriguing chronicle of a go-go business hitting the skids, of a family under financial strain and of a woman (Jackie) whose taste you may not admire, but who shows more spirit and adaptability than you might expect.

You also get to watch as a businessman gradually loses his mojo.

And to hear Siegel tell it, he had plenty of mojo. Early in the film, Siegel claims that he helped George W. Bush win the presidency. Asked exactly how he did that, Siegel demurs. It might not necessarily have been legal, he says.

For all Siegel's wealth and influence, it's Jackie who holds the movie together. After earning an engineering degree in college, she worked for IBM. She turned her back on the wage-slave world to become a model. Her marriage to Siegel is her second. Jackie always seems to have kids underfoot. She loves dogs -- both living and a couple preserved by taxidermy, and she has a big-screen presence to rival her bust size. She's not one to be ignored, and you kind of like her -- in the way that you might like someone who has lost touch with the way most people live, but who doesn't seem to look down on anyone.

When hard times strike, the Siegels are forced to trim their staff of servants, which means they're forced to fend for themselves in their 26,000-foot mansion, the one they expected to leave when Versailles was completed. It never was.

I couldn't always decide how I felt about these people, but I watched Queen of Versailles with a kind of flabbergasted disbelief.

When Jackie, now grappling with reduced circumstances, is forced to rent a car, she asks the man at the counter for the name of the driver; she's evidently unaware that those who rent from Hertz must chauffeur themselves. Her plans for Versailles are so monumentally overstated that you don't know whether to laugh or cringe.

Oh well, no one ever said money could buy taste, and it's not possible to watch The Queen of Versailles without wondering whether the Siegels are getting their comeuppance. That may not be fair. The bankers that ultimately choked off Siegel's cash -- the air supply of his business -- seem to have paid far less of a price enabling such businesses to flourish.

Some people have suggested that what happened to the Siegels stands as a metaphor for a society marked by greed, out-sized ambition, over-reaching, debt accumulation and wanton materialism.

I don't buy that argument. Most of the people I know are not greedy, do not indulge their every desire, and live in proportion to their economic situations. The Siegels don't need to symbolize the collapse of the entire U.S. economy in order for Queen of Versailles to command attention. They're watchable all on their own, people whose lives were blown up so large, they couldn't help but explode.