Thursday, November 29, 2012

'Hitchcock:' doesn't cut deep enough

Calling attention to the Master of Suspense without adding a great deal of insight.

Earlier this year, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo ended the 50-year reign of Citizen Kane as the greatest movie ever made -- at least according to a much-watched poll conducted by the British magazine Sight & Sound. Then came the eagerly awaited but generally disappointing HBO movie, The Girl, an examination of Hitchcock's weirdly obsessive relationship with actress Tippi Hedren, who starred in both The Birds and Marnie.

As if to keep this mini-revival percolating, we now have Hitchcock, a film with a title that suggests an extensive biography but which focuses only on the ordeal Hitchcock faced in making Psycho, a landmark horror film that caused a generation of moviegoers to think twice when pulling back a shower curtain.

For all of this renewed interested in Hitchcock, the cumulative impact of the Sight & Sound poll and two movies about the renowned Master of Suspense have added little by way of fresh insight into one of the screen's most peculiar geniuses, as well as one of its most formidable talents.

Hedren's story already had been recounted in Donald Spoto's 1981 biography, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock. And aficionados long have been familiar with much of the lore surrounding the making of Psycho, the 1960 classic that Hitchcock shot in black-and-white and infused with some of the impolite energies of low-rent horror.

For those who are unfamiliar with Hitchcock's life, Hitchcock -- directed by Sacha Gervasi (Anvil! The Story of Anvil) and starring Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock -- offers the amusement of backstage meandering through Psycho's evolution. Precisely who wishes to watch such a movie remains a little unclear to me. We'll see.

Some background: After North by Northwest, Hitchcock turned his attention to a 1959 novel by Robert Bloch. Bloch's Psycho was inspired by the case of real-flie serial killer Ed Gein. Arrested in 1957, Gein specialized in murder and the exhumation of body parts.

Psycho's road to the screen was bumpy, requiring Hitchcock to mortgage his home to finance a movie that Paramount and its long-time chief -- Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow) -- regarded as an astonishingly bad idea.

The screenplay for Hitchcock -- credited to John J. McLaughlin and Stephen Rebello -- portrays Hitchcock in a period when he found himself at odds with his wife Alma (Helen Mirren). Alma is portrayed as the woman behind the man, truly Hitchcock's better half. According to the movie, Alma should be regarded as essential to Hitchcock's overall success.

In this telling of the tale, a gallant and well-mannered screenwriter, Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who had worked with Hitchcock on Strangers on a Train, arouses Hitchcock's jealousy by establishing a flirtatious relationship with the attention-starved Alma, who evidently had become accustomed to tolerating Hitchcock's fascination with chilly, beautiful blondes.

So what of Hopkins's performance? Keep in mind that Hitchcock was not only a great director but a prominent figure in American culture, mostly because of his television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Long before I had heard of the auteur theory, I knew about Hitchcock, understood something about his style and eagerly lined up to see anything he had chosen to direct.

Put another way, I've seen Hitchcock, and even in a fat suit, Hopkins is no Hitchcock. Still, the obviously gifted Hopkins does his best to find Hitchcock's humor and flair for showmanship, as well as his moments of insecurity. Mirren does better as the steadfast Alma, a woman whose plainness of appearance was matched by a widely acknowledged sharpness of mind.

The movie's small performances can be entertaining. Scarlett Johansson makes a credible Janet Leigh; and James D'Arcy's canny imitation of Anthony Perkins proves a minor delight.

Moreover, Judy Becker's production design -- particularly of the Hitchcock home -- captures the bright rigidity of the '50s, down to the twin beds in which Alma and Alfred slept.

If you're a Hitchcock fan, all of this may strike you as intriguing and you may want to devote some time to discovering where the screenplay has taken liberties with fact. Invention aside, this sometimes amusing look at Hitchcock doesn't dig deeply enough into either Hitchcock's psychology or his artistry to qualify as anything more than a by-the-numbers curio about the making of a movie that has stood the test of time as one of the greatest of all horror movies.

Another foray into gangster rot

It's pungent, but Killing Them Softly feels weary and familiar.
Given the mall-culture perkiness that dominates so much of American culture, it's hardly surprising that filmmakers are attracted to downbeat stories about criminals and crime. Working in the criminal milieu can relieve filmmakers of the pressure to make moral judgments about characters -- or even to fret about how vicious they might become.

In Killing Them Softly, director Andrew Dominik looks for nourishment in the low-life world created by the late George V. Higgins, a novelist who specialized in Boston-based tales from the low end. Director Peter Yates adapted Higgins's The Friends of Eddie Coyle for the big-screen in 1973, giving the great Robert Mitchum one his best roles -- and that's saying something.

Now, Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) has updated Cogan's Trade, a 1974 novel by Higgins. Setting the story at the tail-end of the 2008 presidential campaign and in the middle of the fiscal meltdown that's still shaking the economy, Dominik moves Higgins's characters to the shabbiest parts of post-Katrina New Orleans.

Dominik's adaptation also tries to mount a critique of American capitalism, complete with a riff about the hypocrisy of a slave-owning Thomas Jefferson and the audacity of politicians (in this case, President Obama and John McCain) who try to portray the U.S. as a community of folks pulling together in common cause.

Bullshit, says Dominik's movie -- and it says it loudly.

In fact, Dominik delivers the message so directly that watching the movie might put you in mind of reading a book that's already been underlined by the time you get hold of it.

Hey, I'm as open to capitalism bashing as the next guy, but Domink's attempts to link the fiscal crisis to mob mores -- or the lack of them -- struck me as simplistic and hollow. The idea, I suppose, is to find some sort of equivalence between the big-time mainstream economy and the brutal shadow economy in which small-time criminals operate.

Drably shot and evoking the storytelling structure of Quentin Tarantino (particularly Pulp Fiction), Killing Them Softly punctuates its gangster talkfest with bursts of violence as the various characters betray one another in plot twists based as much on how people perceive reality as on what's actually real, another theme the movie explicitly states.

Stories such as this don't really need much by way of stylistic embellishment, but Dominik puts his stamp on the material anyway. A slow-motion assassination is set to the strains of Love Letter Straight From the Heart, not the last time that music is used to create an ironic counterpoint to the action. Same goes for a steady stream of TV and radio newscasts that become as monotonous and annoying as yellowing wallpaper in a cheap hotel room.

The story begins when a former felon (Vincent Curatola who played Johnny Sac in HBO's The Sopranos) devises a scheme in which a couple of dim-witted thugs (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) are asked to rob a card game run by Markie Trottman (Ray Liotta). Markie once arranged to have one of his own games robbed, but made the mistake of boasting about it. Curatola's Johnny Amato believes that Markie automatically will be blamed for the heist, thus providing a risk-free opportunity for enrichment.

The robbery -- one of the slowest and most protracted I've seen on screen -- sets off a string of gangster machinations that center around a white-collar mob rep (Richard Jenkins) who asks a cunning hit man (Brad Pitt) to clean up a variety of messes caused by the robbery.

Pitt's Jackie Cogan decides he can't do all the dirty work by himself, so he calls for help in the person of Mickey (James Gandolfini), a hit man who's not at the top of his game. Instead of taking care of business, Mickey spends his time drinking and whoring or telling stories about problems with the wife who keeps serving him with divorce papers.

There are funny, pungent touches here, including a bit about dognapping. Too bad, that oddball crime turned up earlier this year in Seven Psychopaths, but still...
Look, Pitt has de-glamorized himself before. Gandolfini has a nifty monologue, but putting him in any mob movie can't help but evoke memories of Tony Soprano. In general, the actors seem committed in a dreary sort of way that fits the movie's bleak settings.

Although Higgins arrived early on the low-life scene, his successors have made this kind downbeat approach a little too familiar, and it might have been nice had Dominik generated a little suspense about what was going to happen next.

From the moment Johnny Amato proposes robbing Markie's card game, it's apparent that nothing good is likely to result. And by the time, Pitt's character delivers the final bit of dialogue -- the bitter pill the movie has been waiting for us to swallow -- it feels more like a punchline than a dramatic conclusion.

He takes a limo from job-to-job

Looking for something different? Try Holy Motors.
Holy Motors, the latest film from French director Leos Carax, struck me as the kind of movie that sometimes opens a gap between audiences and critics. Critics tend to enthuse over the kind of purposeful weirdness and blatant opacity in which Carax specializes, and audiences wonder why those same critics can't get a bit more enthusiastic about the latest installment of the Twilight series.

I exaggerate, of course. Maybe.

If you see Carax's movie, see it for the ways in which the director toys with the medium, with the audience and perhaps with himself.

To get something out of Holy Motors, you pretty much need to accept it without pressing for too much meaning. Much of the movie revolves around a spacious white limo, so I guess I'm suggestion that you go along for the ride.

One one level, the movie is about acting and movies, so self-consciously so that it opens with Carax waking up in a darkened room, approaching a wall covered with a forest design, pushing opening a door in the wall and finding himself in a movie theater.

At that point, Holy Motors becomes a series of vignettes about a man (Denis Lavant) who travels around Paris in a limo, putting on all kinds of make-up and carrying out "assignments" which (at least on the surface) have no apparent connection to one another. The man -- known as Mr. Oscar -- works for something called "The Agency."

In one of the movie's most memorable sequences, Mr. Oscar transforms himself into a scruffy monster of a man who rumbles his way through the famous Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, a place where devotees visit the graves of luminaries as varied as Marcel Proust and Jim Morrison.

But Mr. Oscar has not come to pay homage to the towering cultural icons that lie in Pere Lachaise's prestigious repose. Instead, he invades a fashion shoot and kidnaps a model (Eva Mendes). He dresses her as a Muslim woman, and eventually drags her into his sewer lair.

This foul creature, who apparently turned up in previous Carax movie, seems to represent an unleashed form of id -- or perhaps something else. In any case, I laughed (and cringed) when when he bit off a woman's fingers, a bizarre but mordant expression of uncivilized bravado.

At another point in the movie, the great Michel Piccoli -- as a man who seems to represent the organization that gives Mr. Oscar his assignments -- shows up for a talk.

In one of the movie's more abstract sequences -- and I'm not following the order in which the movie presents its vignettes -- Lavant wears a body suit that has been equipped with motion-capture sensors. It's as if he's making a Ninja movie which then morphs into some sort of erotic encounter with a woman in a red body suit, also equipped with motion-capture sensors.

Shifting scenarios and multiple identities put a severe demand on Lavant, who more than rises to the challenge of playing characters who spring from a limo, but seldom feel rooted in reality.

And if Lavant's Mr. Oscar conveys a certain sense of weariness with his ever-changing assignments, maybe it's because they're fraught with impermanence. Perhaps he's wondering what he's accomplishing as he's driven from place to place by a chauffeur (Edith Scob) who dutifully presents him with each new assignment.

I leave it to you to extract whatever meanings you can from Carax's Holy Motors, his first feature since 1999's Pola X. If you decide only to enjoy the movie in bits and pieces, at least you'll know that some of these bits and pieces can be as extraordinary as they are confounding.

Friday, November 23, 2012

This flat has a story to tell

An Israeli discovers a strange chapter in his grandparents' past.

Arnon Goldfinger's grandparents moved from Berlin to Israel during the 1930s, escaping the fate that surely would have awaited them had they remained in Hitler's Germany.

Although Goldfinger's grandparents settled in Tel Aviv, they never totally set aside their identification with the country they regarded as home.

While helping to clean out his grandmother's apartment after her death, Goldfinger discovered a Nazi propaganda sheet that his grandparents had saved. It contained an article explaining that his grandparents -- Gerda and Kurt Tuchler -- once accompanied a prominent SS officer, Leopold von Mildenstein, on a trip to Palestine.

The trip evidently occurred during a moment when factions within the Third Reich were trying to determine the feasibility of deporting Jews to the Middle East, a bizarre situation in which Nazism wondered whether it could make use of Zionism.

Even more amazingly, Goldfinger learned that his grandparents kept in touch with von Mildenstein -- identified by Adolf Eichmann as one of his mentors -- after the war.

This astonishing and frankly baffling story comes to light in The Flat, a documentary made by Goldfinger as he tried to come to grips with a troubling part of his grandparents's past.

We only can guess at the psychological manipulations required for Goldfinger's grandparents to remain in contact with a former Nazi -- even after the Holocaust.
The grandparents evidently didn't discuss such matters with their children. Goldfinger's mother, for example, knew nothing of her parents' strange friendship, if that's what it was. She also didn't know that her grandmother was murdered in Theresienstadt.

Goldfinger and his mother eventually traveled to Germany to meet von Mildenstein's daughter, Edda, an articulate and obviously bright woman who either doesn't know or won't acknowledge her deceased father's entire history.

Goldfinger is a constant presence throughout the film, but he seldom tips his hand about his feelings, allowing the story to emerge as one that offers few -- if any -- answers to a profoundly disturbing question about how two Jews negotiated what must have been some very murky philosophical and moral waters.

By turns fascinating and unsettling, The Flat shows how difficult it must have been for certain people to give up a cultural identification with Germany that they may have regarded as central to their place in the world.

Goldfinger's grandmother kept a flat full of books (all in German). She read Goethe and other towering figures of German literature. Perhaps she was able to disconnect part of herself from the horrific experiences that engulfed Jews during a war in which Nazi annihilation of Jewry was no small objective. Gerda never really mastered Hebrew, preferring to speak in German.

Goldfinger's movie acquires an extra degree of sadness because he had to piece the story together from scraps of information, from conversations with one of his grandmother's surviving friends, from interviews with Germans familiar with the story and from his grandparents' correspondence. The two people he probably most would have liked to interview were no longer around: his grandmother and grandfather. But maybe even they couldn't entirely have made sense of such a confounding story.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Ang Lee conquers 'Life of Pi'

A much-admired novel becomes a magical movie experience.
For years, I resisted Yann Martel's Life of Pi, a 2001 novel that I associated with soggy New Age thinking, the kind of spiritual eclecticism that lacks any genuine rigor. I also confess to being puzzled when I read that Ang Lee, a director of diverse interests and previously demonstrated talents in movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Broke Back Mountain, planned to make a big-screen adaptation of Martel's novel about a boy who finds himself shipwrecked on a life boat with a full-sized Bengal tiger.

Obviously, neither Lee nor anyone else could have attempted to tell such a story before the advent and continued sharpening of computer-generated imagery. (Lee employed CGI and footage of a real tiger in bringing Life of Pi to the screen.)

To both my surprise and relief, Lee's 3-D version of Martel's novel has moments so magical, they recall the splendid imagery of bygone classics such as The Thief of Bagdad. Life of Pi includes so many dazzling sights (from fanciful to fierce) that it instantly qualifies as one of the screen's bona fide visual splendors.

The story -- told by an adult Pi to a visitor to his Montreal home -- begins by recounting the experiences of Pi's younger days. As a child, Pi grew up in Pondicherry, India. His father owned and operated a zoo, where young Pi learned about animals. These early and highly idealized Indian scenes are entirely captivating and sensual, as if one were inhaling the story through jasmine-infused vapors.

As he grows, Pi becomes interested in religion -- or should I say, he becomes interested in many religions: Hinduism, Catholicism and Islam. He's open-minded about his spirituality, despite the pleas of his rationalist father to settle for one set of beliefs. By believing in everything, perhaps the boy believes in nothing, his father rightly cautions.

Pi's father also teaches his son a lesson about the predatory nature of tigers in a scene that's likely to unsettle younger children; I know it unsettled me. It's a harsh reminder that the natural world, of which we're both a part of and apart from, doesn't always conform to our anthropomorphic expectations.

When Pi's family falls on hard times, Dad decides to sell the animals in Canada. The family boards a cargo ship with the animals, and heads to the new world. When a storm sinks the ship, Pi finds himself sharing a lifeboat with a small menagerie: a vicious hyena, a wounded zebra, an orangutan, a rat and a large tiger named Richard Parker.

For those who are not familiar with the book, I won't say too much more about exactly what happens, but the story forces a resourceful and increasingly battered Pi to learn to live with a wild and often agitated tiger, who just as easily could regard Pi as lunch as a worthy companion.

Suraj Sharma, a non-actor selected by Lee from a field of 3,000 candidates, plays Pi of the lifeboat sequences, really the heart of the movie. The youngest version of Pi is played by Ayush Tandon. The adult Pi, who tells the story, is portrayed by Irrfan Khan. All of them are good, but Sharma had the difficult assignment of acting as if the tiger actually were present. There's a feeling of unstudied realism to his work, as well as a consuming and youthful avidity.

Gerard Depardieu makes a cameo appearance as a cook on the ship that's carrying Pi's family to Canada, but the real stars of Pi are Lee and his technical team. Images of flying fish and of a night sea enriched by the reflection of a million stars have a breathtaking quality that make the movie an enchantment, even during the few moments when it appears to be running out of steam.

Lee's movie relies more on sights than sense -- not necessarily a bad thing for a fable. When Pi and Richard Parker arrive on a remote island populated by meerkats, the movie compounds the exoticism that Lee already has established.

For all its splendid physicality, Life of Pi is also a metaphorical journey into the unknown. Pi grows up in a cocoon of comfort. He adopts many religions. But the storm strips him of the support system he so carefully has constructed (home, faith and family) and brings him into contact with the irreducible and sometimes terrifying primacy of nature. It's not only faith that helps him, but a survival manual he finds on the lifeboat, along with a supply of food and water -- and, just as important, his willingness to look nature in its fierce eye.

The adult Pi begins the story by telling a visitor that the tale he's about to recount will leave the listener (and presumably us, as well) believing in God. I can't say that the movie has that kind of impact because Life of Pi is more about about the role of storytelling in our lives than it is about Pi's spiritual quest.

But however you take the movie's mildly ambiguous ending may be beside the point. You will believe that Pi suffers. You will feel the threatening majesty of a panicky tiger. And, at times, you will see the taunting beauty of the world in which Pi is driven to near despair. You also will feel the disconnect between the imaginatively rich world of Pi's youth and the more constricted world of his adulthood.

At its best, Life of Pi is a genuine wonder -- not because it affirms our spiritual beliefs but because it affirms the power of movies to shatter the daily strictures that govern ordinary life and transport us into worlds beyond what our own experience can deliver.

A ridiculous remake of 'Red Dawn'

It may be updated, but it's not a whole lot smarter.
During the recent election, a large number of economically distressed voters expressed concern that the U.S. was on its way to becoming Greece. If these deficit hawks pay attention to the updated remake of 1984's Red Dawn, they'll discover just how wrong they were. The U.S. -- the movie warns -- might be turning into North Korea.

Can't you see it? All of us lined up before some impersonally massive government building as grim-faced soldiers parade missiles through our streets? And everywhere we'd look, there'd be posters denouncing corporate corruption and greed -- and they wouldn't have been posted by the Occupy Movement but by our fiendish North Korean overlords.

If you haven't already figured it out, let me say it more clearly: The 2012 edition of Red Dawn is a violent and ludicrous movie in which teen-agers spout aphorisms about saving the homeland.

Now, the 1984 edition of Red Dawn -- a movie that has gathered a devoted following over the years -- was also preposterous, but at least it had a muscular foolishness about it, perhaps because it was co-written and directed by John Milius, who -- among other achievements -- wrote Conan the Barbarian and co-wrote Apocalypse Now. According to IMBd, Milius is not done: His script for Genghis Khan is in pre-production.

In Red Dawn, Milius dropped many of his usual concerns down the age ladder to tell the story of a group of teen-agers who defended their midwestern town from a Soviet invasion.

This time out, director Dan Bradley, who seems to have spent most of his career as a stunt coordinator, shifts the villainy to North Korea.

Well, maybe it's understandable. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the Chinese were supposed to be the villains in the new movie, but China was deemed too lucrative a market to be cast as the latest embodiment of evil. The North Koreans, who don't seem to have many ardent friends in the world, must have seemed a safer bet.

This time, a group of teen-agers from Spokane, Washington -- led by the Marine brother (Chris Hemsworth) of one of them -- battles North Koreans who parachute into their town and begin pasting anti-capitalist slogans all over the place. These fiends are led by Captain Cho (Will Yun Lee), a handsome but diabolical sort who isn't above shooting resisters at point black range.

Spurred on by Hemsworth's character, the teens adopt the methods of Iraqi insurgency -- conducting raids and planting lethal IEDs. They begin to attack the North Koreans, who you'd think would have more to do than worry about a bunch of kids hiding in the woods.

An undistinguished cast includes Josh Peck, as the football playing brother of Hemsworth's character. Connor Cruise portrays the son of Spokane's mayor, a politician who collaborates with the North Koreans.

As if adding a new Red Dawn to the culture weren't enough of an affront, the movie savages itself, chopping the action into indecipherable chunks that it runs through an editing meat grinder.

The guerrilla fighters take the name of the town's football team, dubbing themselves "Wolverines." I wish that this had been a high-school football movie because then it would probably only have been hackneyed instead of being violent, silly and dumb.

A Philly-based romance to love

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence create some of the year's best chemistry in Silver Linings Playbook.
Movies don't have to be perfect to be loved. It's a good thing, too, or we might never love anything that reached the big screen. Because it's a romantic comedy that spits in formula's eye, because it's built around winning performances and because it successfully mixes humor with a bit of edgy drama, Silver Linings Playbook deserves a big hunk of audience love.

From the movie's opening, it's clear that we've never seen Bradley Cooper (of Hangover fame) in this kind of role. In an early image, we see Cooper's Pat Solitano talking to himself. As the movie progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Pat has lots of high-speed conversations bouncing around his head.

Pat, we also discover, is about to be released from a mental institution. He's in the up-cycle of a bipolar affliction, and somehow has convinced himself that he's going to find the silver lining in every cloud that has or ever will hang over him.

Pat was sent to the institution as part of a plea bargaining deal. Eight months earlier, he arrived home to find his English-teacher wife in the shower with a history teacher. Pat, a substitute history teacher, lost control and nearly beat the man to death.

Director David O. Russell's character-rich comedy distinguishes itself by throwing away both the romcom and mental-illness-drama play books as it encounters life's absurdities and celebrates its saving graces.

Pat's mother (Jacki Weaver) picks him up at the institution, and brings him home. Pat's father (Robert De Niro) is appropriately concerned about his emotionally tipsy son, a guy who's liable to erupt in anger when he hears Stevie Wonder's My Cherie Amour, the song he and his wife chose for their wedding.

Obsessively determined, Pat has one goal. He wants to win back his wife Nikki (Brea Bee), a task made more difficult by the restraining order that she has taken out against him.

I know. It may not sound like it, but Silver Linings Playbook is most assuredly a comedy, although it sometimes pushes the definition to a breaking point.

Hopes for Pat's recovery don't look particularly promising because he refuses to take his meds and because he's not entirely convinced that he needs to do anything more than stay positive.

He's also not keenly self-aware, which may explain why Pat jogs through his neighborhood in sweats covered by a plastic garbage bag. It has something to do with trying to lose more weight. Nikki thought he was getting too flabby. But a garbage bag?

As part of his battle plan, Pat goes on a reading jag: He tries to devour every book on the syllabus his English-teaching wife uses. He retreats to his attic room and reads Hemingway's Farewell to Arms. But rather than being moved by the book's powerfully sad ending, he's outraged. He wakes his parents at four in the morning to rant about the fact that Hemingway couldn't bring himself to write a happy ending for his story about love and war.

For Pat, nothing feels more urgent than whatever emotion he happens to be experiencing, whatever thought pops into his head. He's locked inside himself.

Based on a novel by Matthew Quick, the screenplay has more in mind than chronicling Pat's dissent into mental illness. At a dinner with old friends (John Ortiz and Julia Stiles), Pat meets his match, a young neighborhood woman (Jennifer Lawrence) with a slutty reputation and a penchant for honesty. For a while, it looks as if the screenplay is going to pit one against the other in a contest to see who's crazier, Lawrence's widowed Tiffany or Cooper's tightly wound Pat.

It takes an adventurous director such as Russell (Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings and The Fighter) to keep a movie such as Silver Linings Playbook from blowing up in its own face.

Russell doesn't shy away from some of the drama that's bound to be produced in a situation involving mental illness. The police are frequent visitors to the Solitano household. But he also has a firm grip on the comedy that's lodged in the Solitano family dynamic, and he gives the story an ample helping of Philly soul.

The story also introduces us to Pat's therapist (Anupam Kher); his older brother (Shea Whigham) and a variety of others; Chris Tucker plays a friend Pat meets during his eight month stint in the mental ward.

But the movie's beating heart belongs to Cooper and Lawrence, who create some of the year's most interesting chemistry.

Cooper never has been better; and Lawrence proves herself a sexy force of nature as a woman who (in my old neighborhood) would have been said to "have a real mouth on her."

De Niro excels as a compulsive and extremely superstitious Philadelphia Eagles' fan and part-time bookmaker; Weaver (familiar from Animal Kingdom) is fine as his long-suffering wife, a woman who generally tries to see things through the silver linings that her son says he hopes to find.

When I tell you that Silver Linings Playbook builds toward a dance contest (no, I'm not kidding), your guard rightly should go up. Trust me. This is not a typical, end-of-movie contest, and Silver Linings Playbook is no run-of-the-mill romcom.

You may find reason to carp about Silver Linings Playbook, but remember what I said at the outset: Love -- as Pat and Tiffany amply demonstrate -- is far from perfect. Still, there'd be a lot fewer movies, if we didn't believe that it beats the hell out of the next best thing.

An 'Anna Karenina' rich with artifice

A radian Keira Knightley shines as Anna, but it takes time for the story to break through all its artifice.

Director Joe Wright and playwright Tom Stoppard have tried (boy, have they tried) to avoid the musty odor of costume drama in adapting Tolstoy's masterpiece, Anna Karenina, a novel that has been brought to the screen at least a dozen times.

Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement and Hanna) immerses the movie in theatrical artifice and dazzling stagecraft. He uses model trains as real trains. He sets scenes in front of a proscenium arch. He has characters walking on catwalks suspended over the sets. His opening scenes quickly destroy the naturalistic grounding we're accustomed to finding in period pieces.

Rather than adding a sense of contemporary urgency, Wright's artfully exercised gimmickry gives Tolstoy the feeling of an opera -- albeit one in which the characters never sing. Exposing us to the artifice of the settings can be both distracting and instructive, and one presumes that Wright wants to put the empty facade of a highly defined society on display. He plays urban falseness against the more authentic realities of country life, breaking away from the confines of sets and filming rural scenes on actual landscapes.

Amid all this, the story clarifies itself in concise bursts. I sometimes felt as if I were watching greatest hits from Anna Karenina, snatched from the pages of Tolstoy and presented in a giddy whirl.

Wright and Stoppard concentrate on Tolstoy's story of passion and ruin, one of the great themes of the novel. Anna (Keira Knightley) is married to Karenin (Jude Law), a government minister. She has a young son and most likely believes herself to be happy and well-placed in society. Then, she meets the alarmingly attractive Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Anna's world is rocked by the intrusion of undeniable passion, a desire that will lead her away from the constraints required to keep up appearances in a world of scintillating Tsarist-Russian surfaces.

Vronsky represents another facet of appearances; he's striking in his white uniform, a figure who -- as the late Pauline Kael once said of someone -- looks as if he belongs on top of a wedding cake.

Anna's story is set against the backdrop of another tale. Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young man who initially is rejected by a princess (Alicia Vikander). He then retreats to his rural estate where he tries to relieve his painful self-consciousness by joining with the peasants in physical labor.

Consider this a gloss on Tolstoy's story. There are many additional characters and currents that ripple through a movie that sometimes seems as if it's caught in a limbo between the stage and the screen with hints (as already noted) of opera and even of ballet tossed in for good measure.

A stylized ball where Anna and Vronsky dance calls much attention to itself, as does a lot of what Wright attempts. Wright's betting that no amount of artifice can squelch the story's emotional life.

To the extent that this holds true, credit must be given to the performances, most of which survive the movie's devotion to so much uber-artistry. Knightley can be radiant, determined, vulnerable and shattered as Anna. Law, who has been made to look clerical and plain, makes a sturdy Karenin, a man trying to control a situation that's spiraling toward chaos. Attuned to the importance of social arrangements, Karenin seems incapable of connecting marriage with passion. Taylor-Johnson makes a dashing if increasingly distressed Vronsky.

The main actors are bolstered by a large and well-selected supporting cast that includes Kelly MacDonald as Dolly, Anna's sympathetic sister-in-law, a woman trying to get over the adultery of her husband (Matthew Macfadyen.)

Once the affair between Anna and Vronsky is exposed, Wright no longer can maintain the movie's spinning frenzy. The pace slows. Prices must be paid.

Credit Wright with pushing the medium and trying a fresh approach to Tolstoy. I can't say it entirely works, but in the end -- many of the emotions associated with Anna's tragedy remain, and I doubt whether any actress could bring more to the role than Knightley, who embodies nearly all of Anna's epic passion and gathering torment.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Bye Bye Bella: Farewell Edward

Before the screening of the final chapter of the Twilight series -- The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part II -- I chatted with a devotee of the Stephenie Meyer novels, who encouraged me to read the books, which she preferred to the movies for a variety of reasons that I'm in no position to judge. I haven't read any of Meyers's books, and, despite encouragement from a perfectly nice fan, I plan to keep it that way.

On screen, the series wraps with a multitude of soggy scenes that build toward a climactic final battle as Hollywood bids farewell to Bella and Edward, who, by this time, have been joined in matrimony.

The movie begins with Bella awakening after her conversion from human to vampire. It seems that Bella and Edward also have become parents of a daughter, Renesmee. It's just here that the movie sinks its teeth into the semblance of a plot: The Volturi -- nose-in-the-air vampires who reside in Italy -- want to snuff out poor Renesmee because they think kiddie vampires are so uncontrollably destructive, they're likely to give more decorous vampires a bad name.

But Renesmee is only half vampire. She's not immortal. And it's up to the Cullen clan of vamps either to persuade the Volturi that Renesmee poses no threat or to battle them to the death, with a little help from werewolf friends. Or something like that.

I find it nearly impossible to pay close attention to the story points in these movies because I'm too busy waiting for what have become a series of obligatory audience responses -- oohs, ahs and screaming, not at the horror of a vampiric threat, but at the sight of Taylor Lautner revealing his carefully sculpted abs.

This time, Lautner's Jacob -- a werewolf -- spends a lot of time hanging around the Cullen clan because he has "imprinted" himself on young Renesmee, who grows to maturity at an alarmingly fast rate. It takes Bella time to accept the fact that Jacob will retain a lifetime connection to her daughter.

The movie has a full plate: It must somehow settle things between Bella and her father; it must set Renesmee on some sort of life course, and it must let us know that Bella and Edward will remain undead in some perpetual happily-ever-after.

Director Bill Condon has some fun showing how Bella discovers her vampiric powers. Her senses are heightened. She develops extraordinary strength. Like other vampires, she also can move at hyper-speeds. My favorite lesson: Bella has to learn how to make believe that she's breathing so that she can pass as a human when necessary.

By now, the cast has become comfortably familiar. Robert Pattinson's Edward gets gets to watch as Kristen Stewart's Bella evolves as a vampire, but he's still capable of falling into moments of swooning adoration. Stewart grows Bella's confidence as she masters a new skill set.

As head of the Volturi, Michael Sheen gives the movie's most archly entertaining performance.

The Twilight series has proven itself critic proof. Its fans don't care what critics think -- and they've turned out in large enough numbers to create a phenomenon that has sustained high box-office levels since 2008.

The most enduring lesson I learned came in the final chapter when it became apparent that vampires can be killed by ripping their heads off and throwing them into a fire. No stakes through the heart for these folks.

As for love between Bella and Edward -- which oozes adolescent ache like an overripe piece of fruit that's being squeezed too hard -- I bid it a fond, if relieved, farewell. Unlike the movie's legions of fans, I have no desire to see it go on forever.

Spielberg, Day-Lewis tackle Lincoln

Though impressively thorough, Lincoln sometimes loses its way..
Steven Spielberg's Lincoln opened on both coasts last week, receiving mostly glowing reviews for its seriousness of purpose and for Daniel Day-Lewis's performance as a stooped but canny Lincoln, a president who knew how to use his homespun, country lawyer charm to great advantage. And, yes, just about everyone has applauded Spielberg's restraint, praising him for refusing to bury the story under swells of obvious sentiment or corn-fed patriotic goo.

All that's true. Tony Kushner, who wrote Angels in America and also co-authored the screenplay for Spielberg's Munich, has taken his cue from Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln , paying careful attention to the political in-fighting caused by Lincoln's insistence that the House of Representatives pass the 13th Amendment, the landmark piece of legislation that outlawed slavery.

Taking place two years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Spielberg's historical opus avoids towering, bio-pic sweep, focusing instead on the ways in which Lincoln plied his Democratic opponents (with jobs and other rewards) to encourage them to vote for the amendment. At the time, Republicans advanced progressive views on slavery and the Democrats insisted on preserving the status quo.

Lincoln also was operating under a deadline of sorts. By January of 1865, it had become apparent that the South would lose the war. Lincoln, who stalled a peace delegation of southerners, wanted slavery abolished before any truce could bring the secessionist southern states back into the union fold.

Day-Lewis's Lincoln seems happier if he can tickle the opposition into submission rather than clobber it into compliance. Lincoln likes to tell pointed stories that he finds terribly amusing and which encourage a good deal of eye-rolling among an entourage that sometimes finds itself eager to take less circuitous routes to the point.

The Lincoln we meet in Spielberg's movie is also a savvy wheeler-dealer who understands that persuasion sometimes requires pliable ethical standards. Spielberg & co. wouldn't have been wrong to see a bit of trenchant topicality in the story of a beleaguered president trying to work with a divided, recalcitrant Congress.

Daw-Lewis puts himself on the fast track for an Academy Award nomination by playing an iconic figure and trying to make him life-sized. He gives such a meticulous, carefully considered performance that I found myself wondering if he wasn't being a little too cautious.

I can't say that I felt as if I were watching Lincoln; I felt as if I were watching Day-Lewis interpret Lincoln, filtering my response to the performance through a stream of recurring questions: Did Lincoln really talk this way? Did he so seldom exude a sense of command?

Although Lincoln tells amusing stories, the real humor in the movie stems from Tommy Lee Jones, who pays the staunch abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. Jones's caustic Stevens is an out-sized creation that enlivens the movie's sometimes subdued tone, reinforced by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's fondness for dimly lit interiors, appropriate one supposes for the period.

As Mrs. Lincoln, Sally Field can be vivid, and, I think, right for the role. Bereft over the loss of a young son, she's terrified when her oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) decides to join the Army. A scene in which Lincoln and Field's Mary Todd Lincoln fight over their children is one of the most fully realized in the movie. Unable to dissuade Robert from joining the army, Lincoln secures him a relatively safe staff position.

At times, I found myself thinking that if C-Span had existed in the 19th century, it might have looked a bit like Lincoln, particularly in scenes that take place on the House floor. And although Lincoln is no museum piece, not every scene springs fully to life, perhaps because the movie sometimes feels constricted by what may have felt like an obligation: Get the historical details right.

As befits a movie with a cast that seems the size of the entire Congress, Lincoln boasts a variety of notable appearances. Jared Harris portrays Ulysses S. Grant. David Strathairn is all starch and polish as Secretary of State William Seward, and an unrecognizable James Spader portrays W.N. Bilbo, a political operative who's not put off if asked to operate on the shady side of any ledger. You'll also find work from John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Hal Holbrook, and Tim Blake Nelson.

The movie opens with a ferocious battle scene, which probably was necessary. The cost of war weighs heavily on Lincoln and on the movie. We feel the sadness of unprecedented slaughter. I don't suppose I need to tell you how the story ends, although it's worth pointing out that Spielberg's ending (more epilogue than finale) leans toward hagiography; it's too much of a genuflection for a movie that has tried to avoid myth-making.

I certainly wouldn't want to dissuade anyone from seeing Lincoln, but I also would tell you that I watched this movie from the outside, always aware that I was seeing a re-enactment of history rather than experiencing a historical drama. Thorough, brilliantly competent and at times stirring, Lincoln has many obvious virtues, but it never quite attains the greatness its subject seems to demand.

Sean Penn as an aging rock star

This Must Be the Place hits some wild notes, but never quite finds its niche.
An erstwhile rock star who goes by the name Cheyenne has taken up residence in Ireland. Darkly painted finger nails, red lipstick and tumbling Alice Cooper locks make it clear that Cheyenne clings to his renegade image, even though he no longer performs. In case he needed to seem even stranger, Cheyenne speaks with the fey lilt of a fatigued ingenue.

In playing Cheyenne, Sean Penn often extends his lower lip so that he can blow wayward strands of hair off his face, as if trying to puff away the image that has settled over him. As can be the case with faded performers, Cheyenne is unsure he ever deserved big-time recognition in the first place.

Cheyenne is the main character in the odd, sometimes arresting and often wayward movie, This Must Be the Place, and it's no surprise that he's played by Penn, a daring actor who isn't afraid to challenge himself. Penn incorporates the residue of Cheyenne's former excesses -- a typical trio of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll -- into the character's every breadth, and gives This Must Be the Place its odd centerpiece.

Director Paulo Sorrentino, who co-wrote the screenplay with Umberto Contarello, doesn't seem to be worried about landing on stable turf. He puts the story in motion when Cheyenne visits the U.S. for his estranged father's funeral and then decides to make a road trip to search for the low-level Nazi guard who humiliated his father in Auschwitz.

This journey -- perhaps a way of connecting with the father he hasn't seen in 30 years -- brings Cheyenne into contact with a gruff Nazi hunter (Judd Hirsch), who tries to dissuade him from any mission of revenge. The man who haunted his father's memories hardly rates a tremor on the Nazi Richter scale, says Hirsch's character.

Disregarding such advice, the creatively spent Cheyenne takes to the road, encountering a series of people relevant to his search, including the Nazi's granddaughter (Kerry Condon). These characters turn up like clues scattered across isolated corners of the U.S., giving the movie the flavor of a typical American indie -- only charged with a sense of surrealism. Indie icon Harry Dean Stanton turns up at a restaurant where Cheyenne makes a stop, further establishing the movie's offbeat bona fides.

Now and again, Cheyenne calls the wife he has left in Dublin, a down-to-earth woman (Frances McDormand) who works as a firefighter in Dublin, the city where Cheyenne has built the mansion in which he lives a life that seems uneventful to the point of vacancy.

Sorrentino, who demonstrates undeniable visual skill, achieves a sense of weirdness without strain, even making room for a cameo from David Byrne, who plays himself, a still fertile musical talent whose stardom, unlike Cheyenne's, didn't lead to a dead-end.

If This Must Be the Place has a subject, it probably has something to do with the ways in which Cheyenne clings to adolescence, a sad man whose perpetual childhood may spring from futile efforts to win his father's love. Cheyenne has all the money he needs, but his life lacks purpose. Still, he's capable of disarming moments of honesty and insight.

It may not matter precisely what This Must Be The Place has in mind or that Cheyenne's confrontation with an aging Nazi is capped with an image of startling -- if self-conscious -- shame. To be honest, I'm not sure what really matters in a movie that wafts its way through 118, often-bizarre minutes, all the while leaning heavily on Penn's performance.

If you see This Must Be the Place, see it for the strange notes that Sorrentino hits in telling a story that tries to scrape the make-up off Cheyenne and return him to the human race.

Does it?

I'm not sure, but This Must Be the Place stands as one of the year's certifiable cinematic oddities.

Precise music, sloppy lives

A great cast does its best to elevate A Late Quartet.
Sometimes I wonder if even Christopher Walken knows where his line readings are headed? Walken, of course, has acquired the reputation of being an actor who specializes in characters who challenge expectation and defy most ideas of normality. But not always. A Late Quartet, a movie about a string quartet that faces a major crisis, provides welcome proof that Walken is not only a highly capable actor, but an extremely sympathetic one. The movie takes the burden of weirdness off Walken's shoulders, something that should come as a relief to both the actor and his audience..

Walken plays Peter Mitchell, the group's cellist and elder statesman. When Peter tells the other members of the unimaginatively named quartet -- The Fugue -- that he has been diagnosed with Parkinson's, troubles begin to threaten the group's 25-year history.

Conflicts quickly arise among the musicians: two of whom (Philip Seymour Hoffman -- as the second violinist -- and Catherine Keener -- as the violist) enter a shaky period in their marriage. To add further complication, professional jealousy starts to poison the atmosphere: The second violinist thinks it's time for him to change places with the first violinist (Mark Ivanar.)

You can tell from a quick perusal of the bold-faced names in the preceding paragraph that A Late Quartet boasts a terrific cast, all of whom are in expectedly fine form.

It's hardly surprising that Hoffman, most recently seen in The Master, gives a strong performance as Robert Gelbart, a husband who believes that his wife, Juliette, is not supporting his quest to play first violin. He's also in conflict with Ivanar's character over the quartet's approach to music, which very much has been determined by the first violinist's highly controlled personality and his preference for technical mastery over free-flowing passion.

The story needed no further wrinkles, but the screenplay has Ivanar's character giving violin lessons to Alexandra (Imogen Poots), daughter of Robert and Juliette. Alexandra harbors a good deal of resentment toward her parents, another dynamic in what turns out to be a script that tries to hit a few too many melodramatic notes.

Director Yaron Zilberman builds the movie around all of these personal tensions, as well as around the group's efforts to master Beethoven's challenging Opus 131.

I know a musician who remained unconvinced (perhaps even bothered) by the fake playing that this talented quartet of actors must attempt. But there's no faulting the cast for the way it inhabits each character.

Hoffman captures Robert's restlessness, volatility and disappointment; Keener excels as a woman who too often has been called upon to become a stabilizing influence on the group; Walken brings a sad sense of resolve to the role of a recently widowed man who's about to lose the skill that has carried him through life. Less well-known than the others, Ivanar more than holds his own.

Zilberman's approach to the material is fairly straightforward, but the screenplay he co-wrote with Seth Grossman, isn't always sure-handed. The story comes dangerously close to farce as the result of an affair that Poots's Alexandra initiates with Ivanar's character.

If you're looking for deep insight into chamber music, you may be a bit disappointed, but the notion that disciplined classical musicians can lead particularly sloppy lives is not without interest, and a screenplay would have to have been awfully bad to defeat a quartet of actors this good.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

For James Bond, life gets harder

Does Bond still have it? An exciting Skyfall puts the question to a staunch test.
As an iconic movie hero, James Bond has died many deaths, only to be reborn in new guises for new times. Once known for his impeccable style and unquestionable taste in martinis and women, Bond recently has settled into a recessionary mode -- at least as far as his erstwhile playboy image is concerned.

In Skyfall -- his third Bond movie -- Daniel Craig has become an even blunter, more stoic Bond. In a time when drones target terrorists, when small units of highly trained Navy SEALs can seem more effective than entire armies and when shadowy villains seem more interested in lethal disruption than in global conquest, the single-handed bravado of Bond might seem as out-dated as the preposterously ambitious villains of 007's big-screen formative years.

Skyfall continues Bond's march into the future -- and more. It entertains, chastens and finds its own distinctive voice.

In keeping with this new spirit, Skyfall features an amusingly sly villain, a former MI6 agent played with wily, seductive ease by Javier Bardem, who adds to the gallery of classic villains he began creating with Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men.

Despite his casually expressed cruelty and the threat he poses to British intelligence, Bardem's Silva isn't the only enemy Bond must face. Bond also must do battle with time. He's forced toward introspection as he wonders whether he's truly up to the task of combating the evil Silva and preserving the integrity of MI6. The devious Silva threatens to expose a raft of agents on the Internet. He must be stopped from executing a cyberterrorist assault on secrecy.

But even here, the Bond series faces adaptive pressures. Is Silva out to conquer the world as a result of a maniacal lust for power? Not really. He's more disgruntled employee than global threat. And as we eventually learn, he has good reason to be upset.

To fulfill its mission of creating a more human Bond, the series has brought on a director whose reputation hardly hinges on action. Sam Mendes (best known for American Beauty, Road to Perdition and Revolutionary Road) doesn't skimp on action set pieces, but he brings a welcome sense of dramatic grounding and psychological heft to the proceedings.

The trick, one supposes, is to balance innovation with tradition. There are beautiful women (Naomie Harris and Berenice Marlohe), an appearance by Bond's Aston Martin DB5 and a prologue that has Bond toppling onto a speeding train, as well as a bit in which the world's most famous spy races a motorcycle across rooftops in Istanbul. But Skyfall remains as much about propelling Bond into the 21st century as it is about delivering the winking thrills of yesteryear.

Maybe that's why Skyfall's most weirdly flirtatious scene takes place when the blond, soft-spoken Silva captures Bond and taunts him with homoerotic advances. For his part, 007 remains unfazed.

The need for redefinition pervades just about every aspect of the movie. M, the fabulous Judi Dench, is under threat from a bureaucrat (Ralph Fiennes) who thinks it's time for her to retire. The venerable Q has been replaced by a youthful version, played here by Ben Whishaw. Gadgetry seems to have been kept to a minimum.

Even the movie's climax feels a bit shrunken. The action eventually shifts to Bond's boyhood home in Scotland, where an old mentor (Albert Finney) is enlisted to help beat back Silva and his minions, who put the house (not fondly remembered by Bond) under severe assault. You get the idea: The scale of the picture exceeds the grandeur of its themes.

This being the 50th anniversary of the indestructible Bond franchise, it's fair to say -- as I already too much have -- that Skyfall is committed to entertaining while perpetuating the series. It continues the exciting, often intriguing and clever retooling of the Bond mythology, but what's really at stake isn't the continued existence of a weary, threatened world, but the future of Bond himself.

Physically powerful and much less prone to puckish humor than any of his predecessors, Craig may just carry Bond into the future with will, muscle and a severely knotted brow. Bond, as you'll notice, accepts each new assignment "with pleasure.'' It's to Craig's credit that we feel as if there also will be equal amounts of pain.

What makes an Israeli or a Palestinian?

Talk about dramatic contrivance: The Other Son revolves around a whopper. An Israeli baby and a Palestinian baby were mixed up at birth, thanks in part to chaos resulting from scud missile attacks on Haifa during the Gulf War of 1991. An Israeli military officer (Pascal Elbe) and his French-born wife (Emmanuelle Devos) wind up raising the Joseph (Jules Sitruk), the boy they believe to be their biological son. A pre-enlistment blood test reveals that Joseph couldn't possibly be the child of the officer and his wife. DNA testing turns up the biological son who wound up with the wrong parents. He's Yassin (Mehdi Dehbi), a brilliant student raised by his Palestinian mother (Areen Omari) and father (Khalifa Natour) in the West Bank. Yassin is en route to medical school in Paris, where he just received his baccalaureate degree. The movie examines how each family copes with this stunning revelation. Director Lorraine Levy creates a variety of interesting situations for both families, beginning with arguments about whether the boys even should be told about their biological identities. As the movie unfolds, Israeli/Palestinian tensions are brought into focus. We see the difficulties imposed by checkpoints that separate the West Bank from Israel, a chasm that's further enhanced by the ominously looming fence that seems to function both as a physical barrier and as a metaphor. Though trained as an engineer, Yassin's father must work as an auto mechanic, and Yassin's older brother (Mahmud Shalaby) can't conceal his anger at the "brother" who is not what he seemed to be. Levy wisely soft-pedals the movie's lessons about the common basis of all humanity, and I'm not sure she knows what to do with all the volatile forces she's unleashed. But a strong cast and an intrinsically interesting premise -- not to mention the wildly different personalities of the two young men -- make The Other Son a worthy attempt to examine what appears to be an unbridgeable divide.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Imperiled plane, imperiled pilot

Denzel Washington takes flight as an alcoholic airline pilot.
Flight -- the latest film from director Robert Zemeckis -- has all the markings of another Hollywood thrill ride. With Denzel Washington playing a commercial airline pilot, the movie seems headed for the kind of territory in which the steely expertise of a seasoned pilot saves an imperiled plane. You half expect an airborne version of Unstoppable, a terrific action movie in which Washington played an engineer trying to head-off a runaway train.

Although Flight features some of the most harrowing airborne sequences ever, it's as much about an imperiled life as an imperiled plane. From the opening scenes in a disheveled hotel room, it's clear that Washington's Whip Whitaker has a drinking problem that he tries to temper with head-clearing snorts of cocaine.

The story revolves around Whip's two lives: His life as a dissolute drunk and his life as a guy who believes he can leap from an alcohol-infused stupor to his highly demanding job without losing a step. It's the kind of confidence that comes from having done it before -- probably a lot.

But a flight from Orlando to Atlanta changes everything, and introduces some welcome moral complexity into Zemeckis's movie.

Whip is flying drunk when his plane experiences a grave mechanical failure. He's able to call on training and reflexes to deal with the situation, but there's no gainsaying his intoxication. He's a completely irresponsible hero who saves 96 of the plane's 102 passengers -- and does it without a miscue.

In a moment of extreme crisis, the captain in Whip takes command of the drunk, even to the point where Whip flies the plane upside down in order to slow its fall.

After its compelling opening and horrific crash-landing, the movie establishes itself as something else, the story of an addict whose ability to deceive himself and others is threatened by a National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the crash.

Washington -- who's now almost 58 and beefier than when he was younger -- gives a memorable performance as a man who has gone through a bitter divorce and seldom sees his teen-aged son. Whip has nothing going for him other than twined abilities: He can fly and he can lie.

The movie's early scenes introduce another character, a young heroin-addicted woman (Kelly Reilly) who, after an overdose, will meet Whip in the Atlanta hospital where he -- and the surviving passengers and crew -- are taken after the crash. For a time, Whip's life mingles with Nicole's at the family farm where Whip retreats to hide from the press.

I don't know if it was absolutely necessary, but a scene in which Whip, a cigarette smoker, meets Reilly's Nicole in the hospital is a real crowd-pleaser. Not because of anything Reilly or Washington do, but because of a monologue delivered by a cigarette-smoking cancer patient (James Badge Dale).

Clearly, this is Washington's show, although the supporting cast is quite good. John Goodman adds robust comic relief as a take-charge drug dealer, one of Whip's wayward pals. Don Cheadle plays the smart, amoral lawyer who's asked to guide Whip through his NTSB ordeal, and Bruce Greenwood portrays a long-time friend and union representative who's eager to turn attention away from pilot fallibility and onto failing equipment.

Washington's scenes with Cheadle are particularly interesting. As savvy as Cheadle's ("I can fix anything") character is and as wobbly as Washington's Whip becomes, Washington takes charge of every moment, never entirely letting go of Whip's defiance, bravado and percolating contempt.

Melissa Leo has a small but effective turn as an NTSB lawyer who wants to expose Whip for what he is.

Now, the movie is not without problems. It seems unlikely to me that a man such as Whip could hide his addiction from his employers. The movie suggests that others have served as Whip's enablers, but still. Moreover, the way in which the screenplay dispenses with the co-pilot's knowledge of Whip's condition struck me as far-fetched.

Zemeckis makes up for some of these problems with a agonizingly tense scene in which Whip -- in an attempt to straighten himself out -- tries to resist the siren call of a miniature bottle of vodka in a hotel mini-bar.

Back to live action after forays into animation with Polar Express and A Christmas Carol , Zemeckis doesn't flinch when it comes to showing alcoholic behavior. And I wondered whether the director of Forrest Gump and Back to the Future wasn't trying a little too hard to establish his hard-boiled bona fides.

Not to worry: After all the hard drama, Zemeckis brings the movie in for a soft landing with scenes that take some of the sting out of its previous tough-mindedness and which struck me as false.

Whatever its shortcomings, Flight benefits greatly from Washington's strength: Even when the movie falters, Washington's never anything less than riveting as a pilot whose life has spiraled out of control -- even while he's thinking that he's far too slick to land with a crash.

Sex & a very singular man

The Sessions tells the story of a man in an iron lung whose libido has not been paralyzed.

Until his 1999 death at the age of 49, poet and journalist Mark O'Brien had spent most of his life in an iron lung. A boyhood bout with polio left O'Brien without the use of muscles from his neck down. He couldn't breath on his own for long.

In 1997, filmmaker Jessica Hu made a made a documentary about O'Brien, Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien. I haven't seen that documentary, but I have seen The Sessions, an often funny (really) and always revealing account of O'Brien's efforts to have a sex life -- or maybe just to have sex. Not surprisingly for someone in his condition, O'Brien remained a virgin at age 38.

As depicted in The Sessions, O'Brien's interest in sex seems like the most natural thing in the world for a man whose zest life far exceeded the boundaries imposed on him by his iron lung. Always upfront about his circumstances and about himself, O'Brien wrote a magazine article about his sexual adventures. If he felt sorry for himself, he did a good job of hiding it.

John Hawkes (familiar from Winter's Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene) plays O'Brien, and it may take audiences time to connect this gaunt, atrophied version of Hawkes to any previous images the actor has projected.

If Hawkes is not nominated for an Oscar in the best-actor category, it will go down as one of the great injustices in Academy Award history. But don't think that Hawkes deserves a sympathy Oscar for playing someone with a crippling disability; he deserves an Oscar nomination for creating a memorable character, a man of varied interests (from poetry to baseball) whose desire to experience sex seems like an extension of his curiosity about the world.

In pursuit of his goal, O'Brien contracts for the services of Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate with a husband (Adam Arkin) who knows about her job. That job turns out to be the source of the movie's quietly expressed emotional life. And although Mark and Cheryl eventually must deal with emotions, which always are difficult to sever from physical interaction, The Sessions doesn't hide behind a veil of faux romance.

Appearing naked in many scenes, Hunt portrays a woman who sees her role as that of an educator, teaching her clients the ways of the body with remarkable levels of sensitivity and acceptance. The sex scenes between Mark and Cheryl are frank (he has difficulty not ejaculating prematurely) but never seem distasteful.

For those who somehow wonder about the morality of all this, The Sessions focuses on Mark's relationship with Father Brendan, a priest played with practical intelligence and appropriate discomfort by William H. Macy.

Father Brendan wonders about his role as an adviser in Mark's sexual pursuits, ultimately (and rightly) concluding that although he doesn't believe God condones out-of-wedlock sex, Mark surely qualifies for a pass.

Director Ben Lewin presents Mark's story in straightforward fashion, infusing every scene with believable reactions -- from the clerk at the motel where Mark and Cheryl meet, as well as from Mark's various care takers.

Without shame and with a good deal of courage, The Sessions answers questions that you might think about but would be too embarrassed to ask if you actually met someone such as Mark, who (as you can see from the above picture) was able to spend brief amounts of time out of his iron lung.

The Sessions stands as one of the more intriguing and quietly remarkable movies of the year, as well as a reminder that sexual experience can and should be one of life's joys.