Thursday, September 27, 2012

'Looper:' A tale of two Joes

A time-travel movie with lots of clever kick.

During its first 45 minutes or so, Looper feels like a smarter-than-usual helping of sci-fi, a noirish tale set in a grungy urban future that's realized by director Rian Johnson with a dreary panache that feels entirely appropriate. But (and here's where things get good) Johnson has more in mind than another dance with dystopia.

Looper also boasts a premise that's a bit of a doozy. By 2074, someone will have figured out how to time-travel. Fearing that a rogue traveler might alter the course of history, whoever runs things in this brave new future will have forbidden people from going back in time.

Outlaw anything and someone's bound to try to figure a way around the ban. So, it's no surprise that the mobsters of 2074 employ time-travel for devious ends. They send enemies back to 2044, landing them in lonely spots where assassins called "loopers" unceremoniously bump them off. It's a "neat" system that leaves the future uncluttered by such pesky evidence as corpses.

Here's how it works. An assassin living in 2044 -- the year in which most of Loopers takes place -- heads to a pre-designated spot, waits for his prey to appear and immediately starts pumping lead. Bam. Job done.

After work, a looper can relax with a hooker, do some recreational drugs or put away a little dough for retirement.

Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) works as a looper, now and again checking in with his world-weary boss (Jeff Daniels).

At one point, Joe tells Daniels's Abe that he's learning French because he plans to retire in France. "I'm from the future. You should go to China," says a knowing Abe, who has traveled back from 2074 to supervise a string of loopers.

Daniels has a small part, but makes the most of it as a boss who finds his job annoying but necessary. And, oh yeah, if Abe picks up a hammer, you'd best run.

Of course, there's a hitch in all this. The mobsters of the future -- led by a character called The Rainmaker -- have decided to close all the loops. Put more simply, they've ordered hits on all the hit men.

After lamely trying to help a fellow looper (Paul Dano), it becomes clear to Joe that he also has become a target. He'll be terminated when he executes an older version of himself who'll be sent back from the future, an ingeniously malicious twist that propels the rest of the movie.

Kill the older Joe (Bruce Willis) and the younger Joe effectively will have eliminated himself.

When things go awry, the younger Joe winds up on the run. Did I mention that the older Joe has an agenda of his own? He wants to find and kill the child who's going to grow up to be the Rainmaker, a fiend whose minions attempted to assassinate Joe but wound up killing his wife.

Take a breath. Watching the movie is a good deal less complicated than trying to describe the intricacies of a plot that proves more than serviceable than it sounds.

The filmmakers have tinkered with Gordon-Levitt's appearance to make him look as if he might eventually turn into Willis. I can't say I bought it, but you either accept this cockamamie contraption whole or walk away. A scene in which the two Joes meet in a diner works in an archly tense way.

After a barreling start, Johnson -- who directed Gordon-Levitt in the indie movie Brick -- shifts the action to a remote farm where the pace slows, sometimes to the movie's detriment.

At the farm, young Joe meets Sara (Emily Blunt), a ferociously protective single mother who lives in isolation with her young son (Pierce Gagnon). As it turns out, this genetically mutated kid has hidden powers that help bring the plot to a compelling boil.

There are times, particularly when the story reaches the farm, when you may wonder whether Johnson has let the movie's motor stall. During such moments, may find yourself spending too much time looking for plot holes or trying to figure out exactly what has been done to alter Gordon-Levitt's appearance. Hang it there, though. Johnson wraps things up with an invigorating bang that helps you forget the parts where time wasn't traveling as fast as you might hope.

Wallflowers of the world unite!

A misfit kid finds his comfort zone.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a better-than-average teen movie enhanced by elements that might have had difficulty finding their way into a similar movie 20 years ago: a major gay character, incidents of high-school homophobia and teen suicide, to name a few.

In adapting his own young-adult novel for the screen, director Stephen Chbosky tries for a mixture of humor and low-key drama. He succeeds in finding a bit of both in a movie whose success may depend on how much you can identify with a young man who -- at the movie's outset -- is keenly aware that he has 1,385 days until he graduates from his suburban Pittsburgh high school. (Somehow, I don't think counting is likely to make the time go faster.)

Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson & The Olympians) plays Charlie, a high school freshman who finds a much-needed comfort zone with a group of his school's self-proclaimed misfits. Charlie hangs out with Patrick (Ezra Miller), a comfortably gay student, and with Patrick's brash half-sister Sam (Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame). This trio of outsiders form credible bonds of friendship, and Charlie gradually begins to fall for Sam.

Set in the early '90s, Wallflower is a coming-of-age tale punctuated by well-documented problems of adolescence. Charlie, for example, is dealing with the recent suicide of a friend. Patrick has agreed to conceal his affair with a star football player, and the perky, rebellious Sam frets about getting into college. At one point, a precocious fourth member of the group (Mae Whitman) decides to declare herself Charlie's girlfriend.

Those who haven't read Chbosky's book won't know that the story harbors a major secret. Revealed toward the movie's end and hinted at in flashbacks, this secret can feel as if Chbosky is not only trying to be topical, but is doing the thematic equivalent of piling on, adding yet another problem to Wallflower's already large collection.

For me, Miller gives the most notable performance. Not many saw Miller's terrific work in the polarizing We Need to Talk about Kevin, but those who did will recognize that this young actor has range and appeal that far outshines the rest of Wallflower's able cast.

Adults don't play a major role here. Dylan McDermott is cast as Charlie's dad; Kate Walsh plays his mom, and Paul Rudd has a nice turn as a high school English teacher who forms a bond with Charlie, loaning him books.

As teen movies go, Wallflower tends to dwarf its recent competition, but I'd be remiss if I didn't report that I've grown a little weary of big-screen adolescence, and for all its attempts at putting on a fresh face, Perks can't entirely shake a feeling of familiarity. That may not (and probably shouldn't) breed contempt, but it could make you wonder whether American movies ever will graduate from high school.

A lesson in one-sided argument

Won't Back Down stacks the deck in favor of charter schools.

Want to know why your kid can't read?

The answer is simple: It's because teachers receive pensions, have job security and are represented by a union that doesn't give a damn about students.

That's the not-so-underlying message of Won't Back Down, a drama that attempts to applaud the efforts of two women -- a mom and a teacher -- to establish a charter school.

Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Fitzpatrick, a lower-class Pittsburgh single mother who's trying to get a better education for her dyslexic daughter (Emily Alyn Lind). When Jamie's efforts to work within the system -- attempting to switch classes -- hits a wall, she enlists the help of Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), a teacher whose son also is having learning problems. Nona's on the verge of being beaten down by a system that doesn't demand enough from either teachers or students.

It's not easy to make a balanced film about the process of starting a charter school, and it's quickly apparent that Won't Back Down isn't going to try. The movie's playing with a stacked deck. This one views school boards, educational bureaucracies and unions as impediments to attaining educational nirvana. And woe to the teacher who might give a moment's thought to salary or job security.

Most of the movie focuses on Jamie's persistence. She works two jobs (one as a bartender, the other selling used cars) and begins to devote all her spare time to turning Adams Elementary school into a charter. She also has a brief and mostly pointless flirtation with one of the school's better teachers (Oscar Isaac), a product of Teach for America.

Davis's Nona has struggles of her own. Her son Cody (Dante Brown) has been deemed a slow learner, and she and her husband (Lance Reddick) have hit a bad patch.

The rest of the cast includes Rosie Perez (as one of Nona's fellow teachers); Holly Hunter (as a union official); Ving Rhames (as principal of a charter school); and Bill Nunn (as the principal of Adams Elementary). Hunter portrays the only union-oriented character who expresses a modicum of doubt about her position.

Right from the start director Daniel Barnz , who co-wrote the script with Brin Hill, makes it clear where the movie's sentiments lie. He quickly introduces us to a teacher who seems to be more interested in texting than teaching. Will she give Jamie's daughter a little extra help? Not if it means staying after 3 p.m.

There's no faulting the main performances. Davis is incapable of giving a bad performance, and she's expectedly convincing as a teacher who wants to rekindle the spark that originally drew her to classrooms. Davis's ability to play life-sized characters serves her well here, and she's able to suggest some of Nona's conflict about turning against a few of her colleagues.

Gyllenhaal's performance as a determined woman has lots of spark, but her character has as little appreciation for nuance as the one-sided script.

For a drama about education, Won't Back Down spends too little time in the classroom. In one welcome scene, Nona fires up her class, but for the most part, the classroom becomes a backdrop for a drama that seems more interested in celebrating two strong women than in tackling complex educational issues.

Look, I have no idea about how to fix the nation's public schools, but I'm willing to bet that if all teachers' unions vanished tomorrow, American education wouldn't suddenly turn some magical corner.

Oh well, you can read about educational policy elsewhere. What I'll say here is that Won't Back Down makes an elementary mistake: It puts its reading of the issues ahead of any deeper exploration of character.

A giddy, girly a cappella movie

Pitch Perfect is a purposefully silly, sometimes giddy musical about a women's group that enters (and desperately wants to win) a collegiate a cappella competition. As someone far outside the target audience -- whatever that might be -- I'm not inclined to say much about a movie that comes on like the big screen equivalent of a giggle. Anna Kendrick leads a cast of characters that includes a snooty and ultra-annoying blonde (Anna Camp). Another woman calls herself Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), but might as well refer to herself as the character who most resembles Melissa McCarthy's Megan from Bridesmaids. (Wilson, by the way, appeared in Bridesmaids; she played one of Kristen Wiig's apartment mates.) Wilson's mouthy Amy contrasts with a whispering Asian girl played by Hana Mae Lee. The women's group -- called The Bellas -- squares off against a rival male group known as The Treblemakers. Director Jason Moore piles on the music, not all of which sounded purely a cappella to me. Kendrick's Becca is the nominal main character, a young woman who wants to bring fresh, mixed-tape energy to the Bellas, who seem stuck doing the same numbers again and again. I've liked Kendrick in other movies (Up in the Air and more recently, End of Watch). Here, she's in tune with the movie's loopy spirit, although I can't say I was. What I can say is that every time I see a movie as preposterously energetic as Pitch Perfect, I wonder why I spent my college years hanging around the library. Maybe it's only in movies that the college experience seldom gets anywhere near a book.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The real master is behind the camera

Paul Thomas Anderson's latest is strange, compelling and uncommonly bold..
While watching Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, one thought kept running through my mind: "I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like this." Visually stunning and filled with disquietude, The Master can be as staggering as it is demanding.

When I say that The Master brims with unease, I mean it as high praise. The composition of its images, its almost frightening insularity and the strangeness of its central performances are nothing short of mesmerizing.

The movie centers of two characters, a sailor cast adrift in society after World War II (Joaquin Phoenix) and the founder (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of a cult called The Cause, which claims to take adherents back through past lives as a means of helping them attain perfection.

Untamed, libidinous and violent, Phoenix's Freddie Quell becomes a kind of project for Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd, a test case for Dodd's therapeutic methods. Theirs is a complex relationship built on contradictory helpings of acceptance and scorn.

With his mouth twisted into a perpetual snarl and his shoulders hunched forward, Phoenix creates a character who suggests both menace and vulnerability. Hoffman's Dodd has an air of assumed grandeur. Dodd seems totally convinced of his own importance and singularly focused on his theories, which (as his son reveals in a moment of rebellious candor) the great man may be inventing on the fly.

Prone to violent, alcohol-fueled outbursts, Freddie may not be entirely likable, but Dodd isn't entirely dislikable, either. That's part of the way in which Anderson keeps us off guard.

War scarred and psychologically troubled, Freddie clearly needs help with destructive behavior that includes making potent alcoholic drinks out of any available substance, including paint thinner. For his part, Dodd can't seem to bring himself to kick poor Freddie to the curb.

Anderson slowly lets us know that Dodd is gathering followers, many of them wealthy people who eagerly submit to what he calls "processing." He drubs such followers with provocative questions, repeating each inquiry with willful insistence. Such "processing" is supposed to help people recall and recover from troubling life episodes, roadblocks on the path to perfection.

Anderson insists on keeping the thematic waters muddy, even when his images -- with help from cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. -- are astonishingly vivid, many of them set to the startling rhythms of Jonny Greenwood's invigorating score.

The Master may bother some viewers because it poses unanswered question. Why is Freddie so troubled, for example? He ran away from love he found in his hometown of Lynn, Mass. He probably saw too much war. He claims to have had an incestuous relationship with an aunt. But we're never entirely certain about the forces that keep pushing Freddie into the darkest corners of his mind.

Dodd has been compared to Scientology Founder L. Ron Hubbard, but a movie about the roots of Scientology will have to wait. Anderson has created a haunting vision of the post-war 1950s. Meticulously appointed and yet never entirely realistic, The Master lives in a world fraught with unborn meanings and still-to-be-realized consequences.

Whatever you think of Dodd, you'll have to agree that he has no greater supporter than his wife, played with astringent force by a terrific Amy Adams. As Mrs. Dodd -- one in a succession of Mrs. Dodds -- Adams exhibits frightening levels of loyalty and determination. She's like the ideal corporate wife, well-mannered, attractive, maternal and totally committed to her husband's advancement, a true believer when it comes to The Cause.

Taken together, Phoenix, Hoffman and Adams give three of the year's most commanding performances.

After Anderson's last movie -- There Will Be Blood -- I had an e-mail exchange with a screenwriter who found the movie lacking because it had no third act. The same can be said of The Master. But Anderson is too skilled for us to assume that he doesn't know how to create a third act.

Absent a thunderous payoff, we're left to turn the movie over in our minds, tilling its rich soil as we search for seeds of meaning, wondering whether every image we've seen is meant to be taken literally. Some may be a product of Freddie's lurid imagination, for example.

Movies, of course, are meant to be experienced as much as pondered. And the experience of The Master can be unsettling and uncontainable, as overpowering of some of Anderson's extreme close-ups. If you're with The Master, it may make you feel as if you're standing on the edge of a cliff, fearful of the fall but unable to turn away. The Master can trouble as much as it intrigues, but it also stands as an uncommonly bold piece of cinema.

A gut-wrenching LAPD drama

Two cops patrol the hood in tense End of Watch
In End of Watch, director Robert Ayer pours on lots of gritty, convincing resolve as he takes us inside the world of two Los Angeles police officers. This mostly episodic look at patrolling partners (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena) covers a variety of tensely portrayed situations and makes it clear that these young cops are as hooked on the excitement of the streets as the gang bangers they frequently confront.

With his head shaved and eyes glaring, Gyllenhaal plays Brian Taylor, a former Marine who provides the movie with an opening narration that establishes these cops as guys who brook no nonsense when they put on their uniforms. Meet them in a bar, you'll like them. Meet them in an alley, and you may be sorry.

Pena, a terrific actor who finally gets a major chunk of screen time, plays Mike Savala, a Mexican-American cop whose wife (Natalie Martinez) is pregnant. Pena creates a tough, likable working-class hero.

When Taylor and Savala aren't battling crime or helping people in trouble, they're bantering in their black-and-white. They're comfortable trading ethnic jibes, cops who are more loyal to each other than to any outside group.

At one point, Taylor tells Savala that he finally has met a woman with whom he can talk, something he's been craving. Enter Anna Kendrick as Janet, the woman who steals Taylor's heart.

Ayer doesn't spare us graphic violence, and some scenes in End of Watch are super-tense. When the cops enter houses with their guns drawn, they have no idea what they might be facing. At such times, End of Watch works on the gut.

Perhaps for leavening, Ayer introduces us to a bit of off-duty life when Taylor joins Savala at a quinceanera, and there are obligatory scenes at the station house where the men receive their daily assignments. Taylor and Savala also get crosswise with an older cop (David Harbour).

At some point, Ayer needs to introduce a story line. Dropped into all the action is a tale in which Taylor and Savala stumble into the world of Mexican drug cartels and become targets for a hit.

Some of the action is seen from the viewpoint of a mini-documentary that Taylor is filming. There's also footage supposedly taken by gang members. By now the use of feigned amateur video has become as stale as the average car chase. Ayer just as effectively could have employed an edgy, hand-held style without putting video cameras into the hands of his characters.

The looming presence of the drug cartels leads to a bullet-riddled finale marked by a level of violence that goes way over the top. I don't know if it's realistic, but it feels too much like an attempt to further juice the already juiced proceedings, making us wonder whether Ayer, who wrote the script for Training Day, isn't more interested in visceral excitement than authenticity.

Still, End of Watch holds you in its grip. It does a good job convincing us that the cops who work in gang-dominated neighborhoods aren't all that different from soldiers in a war zone. Had the movie gone a step further and done more to remind us that the same goes for most of the residents of those same neighborhoods, End of Watch would have been even better.

Eastwood scouts for another hit

Trouble With the Curve is low on surprises, but still offers some satisfaction.
Predictable, a little corny and featuring a familiar performance from Clint Eastwood as a crotchety old baseball scout whose bosses think he may have lost something off his fast ball, Trouble With the Curve can be pleasing in the way of formula movies that pretty much work.

Eastwood portrays Gus, a legendary scout for the Atlanta Braves. Gus has two problems: a statistic-addicted younger man in the organization (Matthew Lillard) doesn't trust his judgment and he's losing his eyesight. Disabilities or no, Gus is stubborn, and he does have one loyal supporter in the Braves organization (John Goodman).

Gus's baseball future seems to hinge on his evaluation of Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill), a high school slugging prospect the Braves are eager to sign.

Randy Brown's screenplay contrives to have Bo's daughter (Amy Adams) join him in North Carolina to help scout Bo. She'll be Gus's eyes. Of course, Gus doesn't want help, and Adams's Mickey (she was named after Mickey Mantle) has problems of her own. On the verge of earning a hard-won partnership, she has to leave her Atlanta-based law firm for a few days to assist Gus.

Eastwood can play a character like Gus in his sleep, but his performance is by no means lazy. He gives the role its due, creating a hard-boiled type who has trouble coming to terms with any sign of vulnerability.

My respect for Adams continues to grow. Watch her in The Master and look at her here. You'll be hard-pressed to tell it's the same actress. I'm not talking about the way she looks, but the way she acts. Her character in The Master has a spine of steel; here she's playing a strong woman, but one who has to hold up her end of a romantic tale.

While helping her father, Mickey meets a young scout (Justin Timberlake) who takes an immediate interest in her.

The story pits Gus's instincts and experience against the statisticians, and you don't need a score card to know who's going to win that battle. This is, after all, a Clint Eastwood movie, and it's unlikely that he's going to suffer an irreparable defeat.

This time out, Eastwood cedes directing chores to Robert Lorenz, who has worked as a second-unit director and producer on a variety of Eastwood productions. Aside from creating a blurry spot in the middle of images that are supposed to represent Gus's fading eyesight, Lorenz does a straightforward job with material that's fairly straightforward.

To the extent that there's subtext, it goes like this: Mickey's an adult, but she and the long-widowed Gus still have issues, which the screenplay doesn't deal with until the end and which hardly qualify as dramatic dynamite.

Trouble with the Curve wraps things up so neatly, it's a bit like watching a player who never gets his uniform dirty. This one's for moviegoers who long for happy endings and who are inclined toward what's commonly known as old-fashioned entertainment.

I'm not always one of those people, but saw no reason to fault a movie that wants to tell its story, maybe moisten a few eyes and move on.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Two docs about two kinds of artists

Despite a title that suggests seam-head delights, Paul Lacoste's Step Up to the Plate is about as far from baseball as any movie possibly could get. Lacoste's spare documentary takes us into the minds of two master chefs -- Michel Bras and his son Sebastien. The movie begins at a pivotal moment in both men's lives; Sebastien is about to take the reins of his dad's world famous restaurant in the Aubrac region of France. Sleek and modern in its decor, the restaurant is located in a rural area, and looks pretty much like a destination stop for those for whom food is a passion. You get to watch both Brases at work, and you learn a bit of Bras family history in a movie divided into four seasons, each revolving around certain kinds of vegetables and flowers. During the winter, Michel and Sebastien travel to Japan, where the family has another restaurant. It's fairly clear that Michel Bras isn't going to have an easy time "retiring," and he's never shy about critiquing his son's food. It's also clear that Sebastien -- who works on developing a new dish throughout the movie -- has patience, as well as his own approach to food. Lacoste shows us how various dishes are created from start to finish. The completed dishes have the look of small sculptures, raising -- at least for me -- questions about whether one is supposed to look at it or eat it. But then, I'm the kind of guy who's repelled when he sees the word "drizzled"' on a menu, as in, say, a balsamic drizzle. For serious foodies, though, Step Up to the Plate is a must.


I'd never heard of Wayne White until I saw Neil Berkeley's documentary Beauty is Embarrassing. Maybe I should have. It turns out White -- now a full-time painter and sculptor -- once designed sets and puppets for Pee-wee's Playhouse, the short-lived but much-praised TV show that spawned a couple of movies and became home to a variety of visual artists who found themselves happily ensconced in a creative playpen. The documentary shows how White, who has had a lifelong interest in art, went from being a rebellious southern kid to being a rebellious adult living in Los Angeles. These days, White makes paintings on which he displays (in very large letters) epigrammatic statements, often laced with profanity. After putting himself in a Hollywood pressure cooker making videos for Smashing Pumpkins and working on other high-profile projects, White decided it was time for art to trump commerce. Whatever you think of his White, you'll have a difficult time denying that the man is tremendously versatility. There's also something refreshing about White's insistence that there's nothing wrong with art that entertains. I don't want to put words in White's mouth, but after seeing this documentary, I wondered whether he might not advise all "suffering artists" either to get a grip or try something else.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A tense, well-acted 'Arbitrage'

Robert Miller has a lovely wife and two grown children who work for him at his wildly successful hedge fund. As befits a man of great wealth, Miller and his wife give major money to charity, and he's regarded as a Wall Street wizard, a guy who hits way more than he misses.

But Robert -- Richard Gere in a performance that's smart and icy -- may not be anyone's idea of a role model. He has a mistress (Laetitia Casta), and he's in the midst of carrying out a fraud, a $412-million scheme designed to fool auditors who are evaluating his company for a possible merger.

Robert desperately wants the merger to succeed, which means he's walking a financial tightrope. He hopes he can close the deal before he faces exposure and ruin.

Despite the movie's initial appearance, writer/director Nicholas Jarecki isn't necessarily out to make a major statement about financial corruption, something, say, on the order of last year's Margin Call.

First and foremost, Jarekci cranks up a thriller that has Robert trying to cover up another crime, a task that involves him with a young black man (Nate Parker) who owes him a favor and helps carry out the deception.

This part of the movie introduces a determined cop (Tim Roth) who spends most of the movie trying to prove Robert's guilt. If things threaten to get dull, an amusing Roth's around to pose questions that seem to annoy everyone with whom he talks.

Adding a second criminal element to the financial deception has a dual effect: It keeps the movie from bogging down in complex wheeling and dealing (good), but it also prevents Jarecki from making a strong enough statement about a financial system in which unethical and illegal behavior seems to be tolerated -- so long as no one gets caught.

Jarecki has a lot on his plate, but he mostly weaves the movie's many threads into a brisk and coherent thriller that features a variety of strong performances. Among them: Susan Sarandon portrays Robert's wife, a woman who may know more than she lets on. Brit Marling plays the daughter who works for and idolizes her father, and who provides the movie with a character who experiences morally based doubt.

About three-quarters of the way through, I began to wonder how Jarecki would join the movie's many plot lines, and I can't say I found his resolution entirely satisfying, but there's enough crackle, intrigue and pleasure (smart guys trying to outsmart one another) in Arbitrage to keep it percolating nicely.

A comic hones his stand-up

If you have any desire to try your hand at stand-up comedy, Sleepwalk with Me could give you major second thoughts. Based on the experiences of comic Mike Birbiglia, the movie tells the story of how a comic named Matt Pandamiglio (played by Birbiglia) hones his chops at a variety of low-rent locations.

Birbiglia, who shares directing credits with Seth Barish, narrates this story of comic aspiration, adapted from one-man show he performed in 2008. Although I didn't find the stand-up routines all that funny, the comic's take on his relationship with Abby (Lauren Ambrose), his live-in girlfriend, is well-observed.

Matt and Abby have been together for eight years. She's ready to marry. He's not. Enough said.

About the title? It turns out that Matt is a sleepwalker who acts out the wild scenarios of his dreams while still asleep, a problem that gives the movie its bizarre climax.

Matt's march toward success begins when he receives a bit of advice from comic Marc Maron, who tells him he'd do well to personalize his act. Maron's suggestion stems from an off-hand remark made by Matt, who says he doesn't want to get married until he's sure that nothing else good can happen in his life. Use that, says Maron.

Birbiglia winds up being a likable enough presence to keep us involved, and Ambrose -- familiar from TV's Six Feet Under -- shines as a woman who ignores more than a few signals about Matt's intentions.

The movie's script was written by Birbiglia, his brother Joe, Ira Glass -- of PBS's This American Life -- and director Barish. The screenplay has Matt talking directly to the camera when he needs to elicit sympathy, a gimmick that probably shouldn't work, but does.


Neither Jesse Eisenberg nor Melissa Leo can save Why Stop This?, a fatally mixed-up comedy about a brilliant high school pianist who's trying to get his drug-addicted mother into rehab. An early picture contrivance has Eisenberg's Eli and Leo's Penny searching for cocaine so that her urine will test "dirty." The uninsured Penny, who has been clean for three days, is told that the only way she'll qualify for treatment is to fail a urine test. Mother and son contact Sprinkles (Tracy Morgan) and his partner Black (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), drug dealers who, alas, are in need of re-stocking. All four set out to score drugs from a bigger dealer (Paul Calderone). Eli, who on this very day is supposed to audition for a scholarship to a prestigious music school, wants his mother to get straight so that she can take care of his younger half-sister (Emma Rayne Lyle) when he leaves home. Eisenberg, who turns 29 in October, is too old to be playing a high echooler, but he manages a few laughs in a comedy built around escalating desperation. Morgan fares better in the comedy department, and Leo looks appropriately bedraggled. But what is this? A coming-of-age comedy? A comedy about the way illegal drug use creates colliding class contacts? Or a half-serious look at the problems caused by a good-hearted but negligent mother? Whatever it is, Why Stop Now? certainly didn't need scenes in which Eli's high school classmates dress up as Revolutionary War re-enactors. Huh?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

''The Words:" How about a rewrite?

This melodrama seems to be looking for something more serious than anything it finds.
A successful and well-respected author takes the stage for a public reading of his latest novel. Our willingness to accept this supposed literary titan as the real deal depends on what we think of his writing.

So here's the first sentence that Dennis Quaid's Clay Hammond reads: "The old man stood in the rain." Really? That's it? A bit of scrawl that's only a step above "a dark and stormy night?"

Fortunately, the movie quickly leaves Quaid and begins showing us the story his character is reading, an improvement (though a small one) over the writing we've just heard.

Hammond's tale centers on Rory (Bradley Cooper), an aspiring writer who lives in New York City with his girlfriend and soon-to-be-wife (Zoe Saldana). Rory's writing career is going nowhere. His confidence is ebbing. His father (J.K. Simmons) suggests that it might be time to look for a job.

A frustrated Rory eventually does seek employment, landing a low-level position at a literary agency. But Rory still dreams of becoming a literary success, and his self-image is tied to that dream.

As often happens in lesser works of fiction, contrivance -- masquerading as fate -- intervenes.

During a honeymoon trip to Paris, Saldana's Dora buys Rory an old briefcase. Upon returning to the U.S., Rory discovers an unpublished manuscript tucked in one of the briefcases folds. Lo, it's a terrific book about an American GI in post-war France.

Because The Words has been operating with a kind of precise predictability, we immediately know that Rory is going to appropriate the novel, that it will become a major success and that he will have launched an impressive (if fraudulent) career.

To add another layer of complexity, directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, who also wrote the screenplay, dramatize the story told in the purloined novel. That tale features Ben Barnes as a GI turned writer and Nora Arnezeder as the French woman who steals his heart and with whom his life hits a tragic snare.

But back to the story that Quaid's character is reading.

In that melodramatic tale, the old man who was standing in the rain (a withered-looking, bearded Jeremy Irons) reappears to claim authorship of the book Rory has passed off as his own. Irons's character wants Rory to wrestle with his conscience.

Rather than adding dizzying complexity, the movie's stories-within-stories approach feels entirely routine. It does, however, bring about a few minor realizations. Among them: Cooper should henceforth try to avoid appearing with Irons, who -- even in a silly role -- can't entirely hide his superior acting chops.

The rest of the cast doesn't exactly soar, either. Quaid's face shows plenty of mileage, but he's stuck in slim role in which he's both admired and challenged by a literary groupie (Olivia Wilde). Wilde's character attends Hammond's reading and very obviously is looking for more than bookish inspiration.

It's entirely possible that The Words wants to explore big themes: The tension between life and art and what happens when a young man's ambition is unmatched by his talent, but the movie winds up feeling as thin as the paper on which its multiple novels are printed.

The Words tells many stories. Unfortunately, all of them are mediocre.

Playing phone sex for laughs

A comedy with an indie spirit -- and dirty talk..
Just about anything can be a source for comedy -- and that includes phone sex, the central gimmick in For a Good Time, Call ..., a movie that tries to celebrate female friendship while taking a giggly approach to its risqué hook.

Here's the gist: Economic necessity forces two antagonistic young women (Lauren Anne Miller and Ari Graynor) to share the same digs, a spacious but pricey Gramercy Park apartment that Graynor's character took over after her grandmother died.

We quickly learn that Graynor's Katie supports herself with multiple jobs: She's both manicurist and phone sex worker.

After losing her publishing job, Miller's character -- named Lauren -- decides to help Katie make the move from employee of a phone-sex service to owner of her own operation. The two become partners in a story that begins to look like an advertisement for starting a small business -- with dirty talk added for ribald measure.

If you're looking for a movie that in any way explores the moral and psychological impact of being a phone sex worker, you'll have to look elsewhere. Working from a script by Miller and Katie Anne Naylon, director Jamie Travis has nothing much in mind other than turning out a gloss of a comedy that offers the female equivalent of a "bromance." Does it become a "she-mance" when women are involved?

I won't include spoilers, but know that the script revolves around a few twists that are ridiculously improbable and that it also provides the two women with a gay male friend, an obligatory presence in this kind of comedy. As the gay pal responsible for bringing the two women together, Justin Long battles cliche -- and I'm afraid loses.

Few expect realism in a giddy comedy, but the idea that Katie would meet with one of her regular callers (Mark Webber) makes too big a mockery of verisimilitude. And the movie's suggestion that there might be something more than friendship bubbling beneath the surface of Lauren and Katie's relationship seems ill-defined and confusing.

In this odd couple pairing, Miller portrays the organized woman; and Graynor -- who makes the bigger impression -- portrays the free spirit. The actresses work well enough together and whip up a few chuckles, but despite its phone-sex focus, For a Good Time, Call can't let go of convention: Girl meets girl. Girl and girl have a Big Fight. Girl and girl reunite as best buds.

Cameo appearances by Seth Rogen and Kevin Smith (as masturbating callers) do little aside from helping to establish the movie's comic and indie credentials -- and up the gross-out ante.

The visiting relatives are French

Julie Delpy's new comedy deals with culture clashes, but in a strained way.

In 2007, Julie Delpy starred in and directed 2 Days in Paris, a comedy about a couple that traveled to Paris hoping to salvage a foundering relationship. Delpy has now moved her act across the ocean for 2 Days in New York, a comedy about a Manhattan-based couple trying to survive a visit from her amazingly intrusive family -- and one of her old boyfriends.

Delpy plays Marion, a French photographer who's living in Manhattan with her boyfriend Mingus (Chris Rock). Mingus and Marion seem to be getting along well enough until her recently widowed father (Delpy's real-life dad Albert Delpy) shows up with Marion's sister (Alexia Landea) and the sister's boyfriend (Alex Nahon). As it happens, the boyfriend used to date Marion.

2 Days in New York serves as a kind of ragtag sequel to 2 Days In Paris: Both Delpys, as well as Landea and Nahon, appeared in the earlier movie, which provides a foundation for this one. But, no, it is not necessary to have seen the first movie to get something out the second.

Delpy evidently likes the kind of complications frequently found in contemporary life. Marion has a daughter (the child she had in 2 Days in Paris). For his part, Mingus has a son from a previous marriage.

This time, the comedy centers on what some of have called culture clashes, but which struck me as strained comic situations. Marion's father is supposed to be endearingly crude, but can seem more the latter (crude) than the former (endearing), and the whole business plays as if Delpy wanted to make a ribald sitcom with lots of loopy undertow.

To complicate matters, the French characters don't understand American blacks, and Mingus becomes increasingly frustrated with Marion's visiting relatives.

Delpy gives Marion a scattered quality that borders on frenzy, and Rock -- who's playing a talk show host -- does his best to make the transition from an annoyed but tolerant boyfriend to a guy whose patience is pushed to the limit.

In the movie's biggest piece of oddball casting, Vincent Gallo shows up as an art buyer who purchases one of Marion's works at an exhibition. She says she's auctioning off her soul to the highest bidder: Gallo's character is only too happy to play the devil.

How you react to 2 Days in New York probably depends on whether the movie inspires laughter or irritation. I leaned toward annoyance. Like Mingus, I found myself eager for these visiting French marauders to go home. Maybe the movie then could have taken a more convincing look at the relationship between Marion and Mingus.

Instead, Delpy turns her movie into a testing ground for a stream of situational humor and jumbled comedy -- only about a quarter of which struck me as amusing.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Back to Brooklyn for Spike Lee

Spike Lee returns to Brooklyn for Red Hook Summer, one of the gifted director's least satisfying and most puzzling movies yet. This time, Lee focuses on the relationship between a teen-ager (Jules Brown) and his grandfather (Clarke Peters). The young man, who lives in Atlanta, is taken to New York by his mother (De'Adre Aziza) so that he can spend a summer with the grandfather he has never met. Not surprisingly, Brown's "Flik" isn't happy to be cooped up in a small apartment in Red Hook's projects. To make matters worse, Flik isn't the least bit religious and his grandfather is an old-school preacher. Familiar from both The Wire and Treme, Peters is a fine actor, but he's stranded without much of a script. Long scenes in the Lil' Peace Of Heaven Baptist Church tend to make you wonder whether Lee, co-wrote the script with James McBride, knew where he wanted to take a cast of characters that includes Chazz (Toni Lysaith), a no-nonsense girl who becomes Flik's friend. Lee makes a cameo appearance as Mookie, the character he played in Do the Right Thing. Some 23 years later, the savvy Mookie is still stuck delivering pizzas, which might be the strongest comment Lee has to make in this mostly languid movie. For the longest time, nothing much happens in a movie that shows Flik trying to film everything he sees with his iPad 2. Then, something dramatic does happen. The trouble is that Lee hasn't laid the groundwork for a major reveal that turns the movie into a blur of pain and emotional confusion. I won't disclose the movie's big twist, but it makes Red Hook Summer seem like an entirely different film from the one Lee began. Lee displays demonstrable fondness for this Brooklyn neighborhood and for some of its residents, but Red Hook Summer simply doesn't work.

A beautiful, towering 'Samsara'

If you're looking for a generalized definition of the sanskrit word "samsara," try this: Samsara is the cyclical condition marked by birth, old age, sickness and death. In Eastern religious traditions, the only antidote to the suffering inherent in samsara -- i.e., life as most of us know it -- is the liberation of enlightenment. That idea (and many more) are woven into the fabric of director Ron Fricke's towering and meditative new movie, Samsara.

Fricke, who directed 1992's Baraka and who worked as the cinematographer on director Godfrey Reggio's landmark Koyaanisqatsi (1982), this time tries to unite his many disparate images around themes of impermanence, rebirth, death, destruction, desecration of the planet and more.

Working in 70 mm, Fricke spent more than five years filming in 25 countries. His visual feast of a film proceeds without dialogue.

The resultant "documentary" takes us to familiar and exotic locations for many different purposes. But for me, the real subject of Samsara is the photographic eye. I'm not talking only about stunning visuals, although Samsara contains a veritable glut of them. I'm talking about the way photography can decontextualize pieces of reality, presenting them in ways that feel strange, invigorating and fresh. Samsara, then, is about the power of seeing, a testament to the transformative possibilities of new vantage points.

At one point, Fricke takes us inside a massive Chinese factory where legions of workers manufacture high tech electronics. His images emphasize the dehumanizing scale of this kind of mass production. He allows us (perhaps even forces us) to come to terms with what we're observing.

And, yes, I'm writing this on a computer that probably was produced in such a factory.

As Samsara unfolds, Fricke takes his cameras to places such as the Himalayas, Jerusalem, and Mecca. In aerial night shots, cars on the freeways of Los Angeles mimic the ceaseless flow of blood cells through veins and arteries.

If there's a flaw in Fricke's approach, it involves the way he edits the movie to score worthwhile but obvious points. Desperate Brazilian favelas threaten to spill into modern downtowns, underlining a devastating social and economic split in Brazil. A chicken processing plant exposes cruel indifference to animal suffering. A section on the manufacture of ammunition is chilling.

A Filipino prison, where the prisoners (as exercise?) participate in what looks like a choreographed dance fascinates while it unsettles, a combination found in many of the images in Fricke's enormous catalog of visuals.

Fricke balances his critique of modernity -- if that's what Samsara is -- with images that are as strikingly beautiful as they are mysterious. Samsara is at its best when Fricke offers the least amount of guidance, and we're left to contemplate the movie's mysterious cascade of images.

For most of the movie's 110-minute length, these images wash over us with a wavelike force that both inspires and chastens.