Thursday, December 27, 2012

No dramatic bounty in 'Promised Land'

Credit Matt Damon, who co-wrote the new movie Promised Land with actor John Krasinski, for tackling a difficult subject. Too bad, Damon and Krasinksi didn't come up with a stronger, more credible script for their movie about issues facing a small rural town when a natural gas company starts dangling major money for fracking rights.

Granted, it's difficult to make a dramatic feature about a subject as controversial and complicated as fracking, but the details in Promised Land don't always compute and a less-than-credible late-picture plot twist limits the movie's power.

Promised Land reunites Damon with director Gus Van Sant, who directed Good Will Hunting (1997), a movie that won screenwriting Oscars for Damon and his then partner Ben Affleck. Van Sant also directed Gerry (2002), a movie that Damon wrote with Casey Affleck and Van Sant.

This time, Damon -- who has appeared in all the movies he's written -- plays Steve Butler, a representative for a natural gas company. His assignment: buying drilling rights from economically stressed farmers. On the verge of a major promotion, Steve is one of the company's best closers, a guy known for achieving success while offering farmers rock-bottom prices. Needless to say, Steve doesn't say much about dangers posed by fracking.

Steve's success stems from his ability to relate to farmers. He grew up on an Iowa farm, and understands that most small farmers are struggling to make ends meet. He views his company's offers as a kind of salvation for farmers -- and, to the movie's credit -- there's some truth in Steve's pitch. Why should farmers sacrifice the future of their families for some romanticized, and in Steve's view, misplaced loyalty to the land?

Steve plies his trade with a down-to-earth partner (an underutilized Frances McDormand), a good-humored, no-nonsense woman for whom the work is just that -- a job, a way to support her son and earn a living. An eye-on-the-ball gal, McDormand's Sue doesn't waste time entangling herself in moral issues.

All seems to be going well for these representatives of Global Gas in their latest assignment until a town meeting at which a high-school science teacher (Hal Holbrook) raises questions about dangers associated with fracking. Holbrook's Frank Yates also wonders whether the promised rewards aren't being exaggerated.

Damon, Krasinksi and Van Sant have a feel for small-town life in an agricultural community and for how reps for a natural gas company might operate. When Steve and Sue arrive in town, they stop at a local store to buy clothing that they hope will make them look more like the town's residents.

But the movie falters when it comes to other details and perhaps even in the way Damon's character develops. First off, I found it difficult to believe that a born-and-bred Iowa farm boy such as Steve wouldn't know how to strive a stick-shift car; the movie uses Steve's difficulty with stick shifting as a running joke.

And when an environmentalist (Krasinski) shows up to warn the townspeople that fracking can result in dead live stock and poisoned land, the movie starts to feel contrived.

Obviously, the script builds toward a crisis of conscience for Steve, but that, too, stuck me as a stretch. This isn't Steve's first rodeo. You'd think he already would have worked out any moral issues stemming from the work he does. He seems a little too naive.

Are we supposed to believe that Steve begins to see new light because he meets an appealing woman in town (Rosemarie DeWitt)? Or is he thunderstruck when he receives revealing new information about the mammoth company that employs him? Maybe he never entirely abandoned his farm-boy roots.

You get the picture. Good intentions don't always make for a good movie, and although Promised Land captures some of the informalities of small-town life and, commendably, tries to find a bit of balance, it falls short both as a character study of a conflicted oil rep and as an expression of agitated social conscience.

Monday, December 24, 2012

'Django Unchained,' also unhinged

A different setting, but it's the same old Tarantino.
Having taken vengeance for the horrors Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis in Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino shifts his attention to blacks in Django Unchained, a wild assault on the antebellum South: land of plantations, slavery, sexual perversity, leering sadism and bloody violence.

If you're wondering -- as I am -- why Tarantino has assumed so many vengeful burdens, I'll wonder along with you. I leave it you to decide whether Jews and blacks should be grateful, offended or indifferent to revisionist fantasies conducted on their behalf.

I wasn't a total fan of Inglourious Basterds, but I'd rank it above Django Unchained, another Tarantino exercise in genre eclecticism that twists the past into something as lurid as an exploitation movie -- only one in which the comic elements have ceased being inadvertent and clearly were intended.

Django Unchained borrows from Spaghetti Westerns (notably 1966's Django by Sergio Corbucci), rap music (I'm not kidding), Blaxploitation movies of the '70s and even other Tarantino movies. In assembling the movie's several acts, Tarantino creates a work that's wanton in its excessiveness -- and that includes its two-hour and 46-minute length.

That's an awfully long time to tell a relatively simple story about Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave who's freed by a bounty hunter and who develops into a kind of laconic cowboy hero with whom no one would want to mess.

Those who know Tarantino's movies (and who doesn't?) won't be surprised to learn that Django Unchained lets the N-word flow freely, includes a surfeit of vividly mounted violence and splashes its way through the kind of old-fashioned southern racism that looks indistinguishable from sadism.

Tarantino fans probably won't mind any of this, and those who don't count themselves among the director's devotees may be consoled by performances that include tasty turns from the incomparable Christoph Waltz (as the bounty hunter who frees Django from slavery and makes him a partner) and Leonardo DiCaprio (as a genteel southern slave owner and monstrous example of humanity).

In many ways, Django is a tonal free-for-all, even boasting a scene that may remind you of Mel Brooks. Tarantino depicts a gathering of Klansman as a convocation of dimwits who complain about not being able to see through the eye holes in masks that have been crudely and ineptly made by the wife of a Klansman.

Other scenes seem to transpose familiar Tarantino tropes (exchanges of dialog that play like gunfights) into new settings.

The story seems nothing more than an outline onto which Tarantino grafts numerous riffs. Waltz's Dr. King Schultz, a former dentist turned bounty hunter, liberates Django in the early going. Schultz's motives aren't entirely altruistic; he knows Django can identify a couple of hoodlums he's been hunting. He wants to collect the reward money.

Django and Dr. Schultz work together before heading to Mississippi to rescue Django's wife (Kerry Washington), who was sold to another slaver after the couple was caught trying to run away. Washington's Broomhilde even speaks a little German, a skill that the screenplay makes use of later.

During this phase of the movie, Foxx pretty much holds himself in reserve, saving Django's blossoming fury for a finale in which it emerges with explosive force.

But Foxx carries a big -- and perhaps impossible -- burden here: He's not only playing a character, he's illustrating ideas about the ways in which blacks have been portrayed on screen with a view, one supposes, toward ultimately subverting such stereotypical images.

To rescue Broomhilda, Django and Dr. Schultz must invade the preposterously named Candieland, a massive planation owned by DiCaprio's Calvin Candie, a plutocrat who enjoys watching dogs tear apart runaway slaves, has a black mistress and forces strapping black men to fight to the death for his personal amusement.

Schultz and Django concoct a ruse that gains them entry into Candieland. They pretend to want to buy a fighter of their own. They hope that Candie will include Broomhilda as an add-on, someone with whom the German-born Schultz can enjoy chatting in his native tongue.

Once in Candieland, Django and Schultz also encounter Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a house slave whose speech and inflections recall Jules, the character Jackson played in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. Stephen, who has served the Candie family for years, isn't outwardly subservient, but he knows where his Big House bread is buttered. He remains loyal to his master.

Tarantino builds tension, and some of the scenes in Django Unchained are beautifully executed, DiCaprio, Waltz, Foxx and others at a tense formal dinner in Candieland, for example.

Enjoyable in bits and pieces Django Unchained is another off-the-hook helping of Tarantino. If you want to take the movie seriously, you can argue that Tarantino is playing around with film iconography from several generations of "B" and mainstream movies, although that may make Django Unchained a tough talking entertainment for cinema geeks. You also can look at it as a full-blown exercise in absurdity or as a simple revenge saga.

But whatever it aspires to be, Django Unchained felt a little old hat to me, Tarantino strutting his stuff in another genre playground. And by now, Tarantino movies have acquired an almost clubby aura in which cinematic in-jokes, outré slices of violence and ample helpings of the "MF" word act as signifiers of a brand of movie "cool" that forgives every indulgence and all manner of cruelty, so long as the tables eventually are turned.

But the trouble with revisionist revenge sagas is that they don't really loosen the grip of the past; they take aim at images and play with situations we know from other movies, often standing them on their heads. The whole business is a bit like shooting at ghosts. You make a lot of noise, but, in the end, you have to wonder whether you've actually hit anything.

A dark, melodramatic 'Les Miz'

You may find imperfections, but the big-screen version of Les Miserables ultimately proves stirring.
The voices sometimes seem to be straining. An abundance of extreme close-ups tends to give the movie a feeling of cramped intimacy. Although filmed mostly on sets, the movie steeps itself in gritty 19th century realism. It's a musical with dirt under its fingernails.

I'm talking about Les Miserables, the big-screen adaptation of the much-revered musical that made its debut in Paris in 1980 and seems to have been in production somewhere ever since.

Melodramatic, operatic and seen through cinematographer Danny Cohen's dark lens, Les Miserables bypasses its imperfections, ultimately getting where it needs to go. It's less a story well-told than a production massively mounted, but that may be precisely what the material needs.

Based on an 1862 Victor Hugo novel, Les Miserables thunders its way through nearly three hours of suffering, death and melodrama, frequently miring its cast in mud, muck and -- as the title promises -- the kind of bone-deep misery that might have roused envy even in Dickens, himself no slouch when it came to injustice and suffering.

As directed by Tom Hooper (The King's Speech), Les Miserables is top heavy with marquee names, including Anne Hathaway, who tackles the role of the tormented Fantine in a performance in which emotion seems to spill from her every pore.

I'm not going to provide background for every character in Les Miz, but Fantine, you may recall, is a single mother, a status that caused her to be scorned and persecuted for profligacy in France of the 1800s. And, yes, it might be advisable to bone up on Hugo's story before you go because plot points breeze by as if propelled by wind machines.

The story centers on poor Jean Val Jean (Hugh Jackman), the ex-convict who violates his parole and spends a lifetime fleeing Javert (Russell Crowe), a lawman who applies justice like a lash. Amanda Seyfried turns up as Fantine's daughter, Cosette, a woman who eventually is sheltered by Jean Val Jean.

All of this takes place against a post-revolutionary historical backdrop in which the monarchy has been restored in France, and the people are suffering under the weight of too much regal indifference.

The movie's third act deals with the revolt of 1832, introducing us to Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a revolutionary who's smitten by Cosette. Be assured barricades will be stormed. The spirit of the people will be aroused. You will be stirred.

To heighten the feeling of emotional urgency, Hooper had his actors sing their numbers as the cameras rolled rather than relying on lip-synching. The technique is employed to mixed result.

Jackman, who has a history in musical theater, carries it off convincingly, as does Hathaway. Crowe, who has a background singing with rock bands, is only moderately successful. Trussed up in the costume of a 19th century lawman, Crowe moves around as if encased in plaster. Javert's a rigid guy, but Crowe never seems entirely comfortable playing him.

Hooper doesn't quite suffocate the production, but I wish he had let it breathe some, and I got tired of watching close-ups of the singers. Hooper must have wanted his camera to bring us close to the performances, but the face of a singer -- particularly when grappling with heavy emotion -- isn't always a thing of beauty.

The major numbers in Les Miserables -- At the End of the Day, I Dreamed a Dream and One Day More -- are effectively performed, and there's even a bit of comic relief. Sacha Baron Cohen makes an appropriately despicable and conniving Thénardier, an inn-keeper who for a time takes charge of Cosette. Baron Cohen receives an able assist from Helena Bonham Carter -- now a specialist in playing grotesque-looking women -- as Madame Thénardier. Samantha Barks makes a bit of splash as their daughter, Éponine.

I'm not a particular fan of musicals, and Les Miz involves wall-to-wall singing with almost no spoken dialogue. I can't exactly say that Les Miserables left me humming any of its tunes. But whatever problems the big-screen version has, I mostly enjoyed it and even felt a slight tingling of the spine during its finale. Put another way, Les Miserables has genuine theatrical power.

A bland, predictable 'Parental Guidance'

Billy Crystal and Bette Midler in a comedy that's silly, sentimental and not very funny.
During Parental Guidance, a distressingly juvenile comedy starring Billy Crystal, a Little Leaguer uses his bat to slam Crystal's character in the -- why put it politely? -- testicles. It's intended as a funny moment, but like much of the comedy in Parental Guidance it's pretty painful -- and if not painful, predictably bland. The story finds old-school grandpa and grandma (Crystal and Bette Midler) taking care of their three grandkids so that their parents (Marisa Tomei and Tom Everett Scott) can take a trip. The parents worry because grandma and grandpa haven't seen the kids for a while and are not versed in contemporary methods of child rearing, the kind in which gratuitous indulgence has replaced sensible discipline. At times, it seems as if Crystal may be improvising, but neither he nor Midler can bring this mixture of obvious humor and rancid sentiment to a boil. Despite a host of problems, grandma and grandpa ultimately help the kids deal with their issues. The screenplay offers condescending jokes about the ways in which grandpa and grandma are technically illiterate. Other jokes involve constipation, urination and regurgitation. That's not to say that this PG family-oriented comedy is overly crude -- only to tell you that it's way short of wit, insight and, even worse, laughs.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A look at the year's best

Time for a top-10 list. Sorry, Abe, you may have been our greatest president, but the movie Lincoln didn't make my cut. Sure Daniel Day-Lewis is on target for an Oscar nomination for giving the 16th president a folksy veneer that masked his toughness. But overall, I found it easier to appreciate Steven Spielberg's beautifully detailed movie than to become involved in it.

My number one pick, The Master, confounded many. I get that. But I also thought director Paul Thomas Anderson's latest work was haunting and strange, an encompassing view of post-war America that, at least in my opinion, should be taken as commentary rather than as a reflection of reality.

Among the documentaries I admired in 2012 were The Gatekeeper, The Imposter, Searching for Sugar Man and The Central Park Five. The Central Park Five and The Gatekeeper are still opening around the country. If you miss any of these docs ... well ... that's what Netflix is for.

Among other observations: It seems 2012 was the year in which Matthew McConaughey proved that he's a better supporting actor than a leading man with impressive performances in Magic Mike and Bernie. Beasts of the Southern Wild , which will find its way onto many 10-best lists, probably deserved its status of the year's best-reviewed indie. The movie also earned praise for non-actor Quvenzhané Wallis, who played a six-year-old girl learning how to survive in a Louisiana backwater. Moonrise Kingdom strengthened director Wes Anderson s position with his loyal fans.

It also should be mentioned that the theatrical experience took on a new dimension in Aurora, Co., where shooting no longer was confined to the screen. After Aurora, I noticed no decline in the number of weapons that found their way onto the big screen. Sept. 11 didn't put an end to explosive violence, and I'm betting that we're not likely to see any gun control on the big-screen in the wake of 2012's Aurora carnage or the recent school shooting in Connecticut.

I hope Hollywood proves me wrong.

My 10-best list follows:

1. The Master

Director Paul Thomas Anderson's movie focused on a strange rivalry between two men (Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman). Terrifically acted and almost mesmerizing, The Master boasts some of the year's most exciting filmmaking. Like other of Anderson's movies, The Master may require multiple viewings to appreciate and fully absorb its thoroughly disquieting tone. Phoenix plays a wayward, alcoholic war veteran who falls under the sway of a cultish leader (Hoffman).

2. Zero Dark Thirty

Director Kathryn Bigelow follows The Hurt Locker with another tough-minded topical thriller, this one about the quest to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. As she did in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow avoids taking a position about what we're watching -- in this case numerous scenes in which CIA operatives torture a captured al Qaeda terrorist in hopes of obtaining valuable information about bin Laden's whereabouts. Bigelow's straightforward approach to a complex story allows us to reach our own conclusions about what we're seeing. An outstanding Jessica Chastain portrays a dedicated CIA agent whose persistence leads the CIA to bin Laden. Sure we know how the story ends, but in this case, it's how the movie gets there that counts.

3. Amour
A French couple in their 80s (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) are the centerpiece of a touching story about what happens when a perfectly contented husband and wife face a sudden decline. Director Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon) softens his usual hard edge, but still delivers an unblinkingly honest look at love, grief and adjustment to the inevitable. Wonderfully seasoned actors, Trintignant and Riva are excellent, but it's Trintignant who eventually carries the full burden of the movie's considerable weight.

4. Silver Linings Playbook
Not perfect, but a lovable rom-com that challenges formula without surrendering its humanity. A mentally disturbed former teacher (Bradley Cooper) meets his match in the person of a widow (Jennifer Lawrence) with a personality that's ... well ... Philly strong. Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver provide able support as the parents of Cooper's Pat. A little loopy and a lot of fun, this one is augmented by genuine emotion and (of all things) a whacko dance contest.

5. Life of Pi
I was braced for the worst, but director Ang Lee manages a lovely big-screen adaptation of Yann Martel's wildly popular novel. The CGI effects are nothing short of miraculous, and the story contains enough ambiguity to keep even confirmed cynics from rolling their eyes. As young Pi, newcomer Suraj Sharma gives an extraordinary performance. Lee's fable about a boy shipwrecked with a full-grown Bengal tiger transports us to a richly imagined and ultimately rewarding world.

6. Argo
Aside from a small misstep at the very end, Ben Affleck's thriller generates both humor and tension in telling the story of CIA-concocted ruse to save a team of American diplomats who had taken refuge in the Canadian embassy during the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran. Alan Arkin and John Goodman are terrific as the Hollywood guys who help Affleck's Tony Mendez carry out a plan in which Mendez poses as the director of a fake film crew that enters Iran under the guise of scouting locations for a sci-fi movie.

7. Footnote
Israeli director Joseph Cedar puts his characters into a vice and squeezes until it hurts. A father and son -- both Talmudic scholars -- find themselves in a testy, competitive relationship in this acutely intelligent look at what happens when a son enters the family business (in this case, academia) and surpasses the father. Lior Ashkenazi plays Uriel, an honored scholar who takes an intuitive approach to his work. His father (Shlomo Bar-Aba) prefers meticulous fact-oriented research. Footnote turns into a work of biting wit and smart observation.

8. The Dark Knight Rises
Christopher Nolan wraps up his Dark Night trilogy in gripping fashion. The release of Dark Knight Rises was tainted by the Aurora shooting that took the lives of 12 people on the film's opening night. If that shooting put you off Dark Knight, you may want to get the DVD and give it a try. Credit Nolan, Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt with bringing the series to an intelligent conclusion. If Dark Knight Rises offered a forbidding vision of a world in which no one can feel totally safe ... well ... connect the dots for yourself.

9. Farewell My Queen
Filmmakers aspiring to make period pieces owe it themselves to take a look at Benoît Jacquot's pulsating drama about the last days of Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). The story centers on a servant (Léa Seydoux) who lands the job of reading to the queen. Jacquot breathes urgency into every frame of a movie that concludes with a twist that's both horrific and chastening. In the bargain, he takes us into a world in which denial has replaced hope.

10. Bernie.
The always versatile Richard Linklater directed the year's best comedy, which is saying quite a bit when you realize that he was telling the story of a real-life murder in which a former undertaker (Jack Black) bumped off a despotic widow (Shirley MacLaine) whose bullying ways made her the least popular person in the tiny town of Carthage, Texas. Black and MacLaine couldn't be better. Same goes for Matthew McConaughey, who plays the DA who prosecutes Bernie. A real-life tale bolstered by the participation of some real Texans.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

This is 40 -- and it's pretty funny

Judd Apatow puts a toe into mature waters, but doesn't forget to bring along the laughs.

It takes a long time to get to her, but when the new Judd Apatow comedy, This is 40, arrives at a scene that's stolen by Melissa McCarthy, the humor suddenly becomes incendiary, foul-mouthed and very funny. Building on the crudeness she established in Bridesmaids, McCarthy scores big -- so big, in fact, that writer/director Apatow had the good sense to include one of her character's rants in an outtake.

But I digress, even before I begin.

In this mostly enjoyable outing, Apatow casts Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann (Apatow's real-life wife) as a husband and wife who also happen to be the self-absorbed parents of two daughters (Apatow's real daughters, Maude and Iris). Rudd's Pete runs a Los Angeles-based record company devoted to indulging his passion for '70s rock. Mann's Debbie owns an upscale boutique. And, yes, This is 40 represents a reunion for Rudd and Mann, both of whom appeared in Apatow's 2007 comedy, Knocked Up.

Of course, Pete and Debbie are way past knocked up. They're deeply ensconced in the grind of family life. Over the years, their relationship has lost a good deal of its romantic luster. Not surprisingly, Pete and Debbie have issues -- not the least of which revolves around the financial help Pete gives to his father (Albert Brooks), a likable freeloader who has started a new family.

A sharply funny Brooks -- who immediately raises the movie's comic ante -- plays an older man married to a younger woman and now grappling with three young children. Long on gall, Dad views any resistance by Pete as evidence of his son's selfishness. Never mind that Pete has financial troubles of his own.

Perhaps to balance things, Debbie's father (John Lithgow) enters the picture, as well. He's also married to a younger woman, and has been estranged from his daughter for years.

As the movie progresses, Lithgow's character sheds the bonds of caricature and becomes a real, flesh-and-blood father. Credit Apatow with mixing some expectedly crude humor (not all of it funny) with a few well-played scenes in which the writer/director makes a welcome journey into adult territory. Hey, at least he's putting a toe in deeper waters.

Unlike a comedy such as The Guilt Trip, This is 40 is no anemic two-hander. Apatow not only makes room for Brooks and Lithgow, but for Jason Siegel (as an overly confident physical trainer), Graham Parker (as a musician who can't sell any of his new recordings), Chris O'Dowd (as one of Pete's employees) and Megan Fox (as a woman who works in Debbie's boutique).

That's a decent amount of support for a comedy that aspires to be attuned to the debilitations of middle-age, many of them shockingly trivial. Pete is a little too fond of cupcakes. Debbie likes to sneak cigarettes. In this sun-splashed and mostly prosperous LA world, what could be more sinful than overeating or doing something that poses a direct threat to robust good health?

At 134 minutes, This is 40 probably overstays its welcome, and no one's likely to confuse it with Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, which Apatow reportedly watched before making his movie. OK, so Apatow isn't making great art, but, then again, Bergman didn't get many laughs, either.

Another loner, another show

Tom Cruise fights his way to justice as Jack Reacher.
Somewhere along the line, it became mandatory for a certain kind of male hero to display as little emotion as possible, to become an icon of don't-mess-with-me toughness. As played by Tom Cruise, former soldier Jack Reacher -- the main character in a series of popular books by British novelist Lee Child and the title character in Cruise's new movie -- is one such man: decisive, physically fit, brutal when necessary and unencumbered by possessions. Reacher has only one shirt to his name, travels by bus and always seems to keep moving.

Jack Reacher, a new movie adapted from Child's 2005 novel, One Shot, takes place in in Pittsburgh and kicks off with a harrowing shooting. Positioned in a parking garage, a sniper picks off five people in what appear to be random acts of senseless murder.

The sniper (Joseph Sikora) is quickly arrested. Evidence against him seems overwhelming and irrefutable. Of course, in movies, a scenario such as this only can mean one thing: The guy didn't do it. It doesn't take long for the shooter's attorney (Rosamund Pike) to become embroiled in an attempt to discover why Sikora's character has been made into a patsy.

She has help. Just before slipping into a coma, Sikora's character scrawled one sentence on a legal pad, "Get Jack Reacher."

Pike's Helen hires Reacher, who turns up in Pittsburgh for reasons of his own, to help figure things out, a task for which he's well-suited because he's a former military policeman known for his brilliant investigatory powers. You know the drill: Reacher's the kind of guy who can visit a crime scene and notice things that the police always seem to overlook.

The cast of characters drawn together by the murders includes the Pittsburgh District Attorney (Richard Jenkins), who happens to be Helen's father, a man with whom she has long-standing but ill-defined tensions. David Oyelowo plays the lead detective on the case. Neither the DA nor the cop can understand why Helen insists on wasting time on such an unambiguous situation.

Looking a little gaunt in the face, Cruise does his version of the tough, mysterious loner, and the rest of the actors do little to compete with him. How tough is Reacher? He can take out five guys in a fight outside a bar.

The villains in Jack Reacher offer the only hints of personality. They're led by Werner Herzog, a director who spends most of his time behind the camera. Herzog brings just the right amount of sadistic intensity to the proceedings. He's not playing a villain, but Robert Duvall -- in a late-picture appearance as the owner of a shooting range -- adds life to a story that's not without a few dull spots.

The mystery at the heart of writer/director Christopher McQuarrie's screenplay isn't especially compelling, and Jack Reacher builds toward a shoot-out at a construction site that doesn't exactly represent a high point in the history of imaginatively presented action.

McQuarrie, who wrote the screenplay for Cruise's Valkyrie, receives a major assist from cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who gives Pittsburgh an appropriately noirish sheen, and who has fun with a woozy car chase, the movie's best action set piece.

But there's something tired and lame at the core of Jack Reacher, which doesn't exactly break fresh cinematic ground.

I know there's nothing new under the sun, so there's no shame in telling a story about another tough guy who'll let nothing stop him from exercising his own brand of justice. But unlike the best of Cruise's Mission Impossible movies, Jack Reacher isn't enough fun to make you overlook its flaws. And you can't take it all that seriously, either.

Love that lands like a punch

Rust and Bone pulsates with life, romance and bare-knuckle boxing.
Director Jacques Audiard directs Rust and Bone, a romance between two people with bruised hearts, with refreshing boldness. Although some of the ingredients of Audiard's tale may sound familiar, they're given new life, thanks in part to the director's brash style and to a couple of vivid performances by actors playing two unlikely lovers.

Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) trains orca whales at Marineland, a seaside attraction in the town of Antibes on the Côte d'Azur. Alain (Mathias Schoenaerts), known as Ali, is a bare-knuckle fighter who meets Stephanie when he's working as a bouncer at The Annex, a rough Antibes nightclub.

Ali has a five-year-old son (Armand Verdure), but has no idea how to take care of the boy; he relies on his sister (Corinne Masiero) to tend to the child. It's clear that Ali is not trying to win any father-of-the-year awards. He plows from one situation to the next: head down, seldom looking too far into the future.

Into this already turbulent brew, Audiard adds a major shock: Stephanie loses both her legs when a whale jumps out of a pool during a performance. We begin to wonder whether Rust and Bone isn't going to settle into the rhythms of formula: Damaged beauty learns to live with her disability, perhaps with help of a back-street brawler.

It's just here that Audiard finds surprising success. He seems to understand that he's working with ingredients that could have inspired two separate movies, one about a woman's rehabilitation and another about a boxer finding his way back to his son. Instead of papering over differences, Audiard revels in the resultant collisions, allowing them to give the movie a sense of pulsating urgency.

Cotillard, whose legs were eliminated with skillful CGI work, creates a character who doesn't always react in expected ways. When she sees Ali fight for the first time, she smiles. She's a little thrilled by the violence -- and eventually, she takes over as Ali's manager, a role she assumes with confidence and pride.

The "romance" between Stephanie and Ali hardly has a hearts-and-flowers beginning. Ali, who never seems put off by his legless pal, sleeps with Stephanie after she tells him that she wonders if she still can have a sexual experience. He thinks she deserves a sex life, and offers his body in what appears to be part favor, part experiment.

Just because Ali sleeps with Stephanie doesn't mean that he's ready to curtail the rest of his sex life, which consists mostly of one-night stands that he conducts with near-aerobic zest.

Cotillard's acting prowess already is familiar to American audiences for her Oscar winning turn as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose or more recently for her work in The Black Knight Rises. Here, she makes a bitter beauty, a woman who's too strong to surrender control of her life.

Schoenaerts, who appeared in the hard-boiled Belgian movie Bullhead, is not nearly as well known to U.S. audiences, but he's perfectly cast. He tells Stephanie he fights for fun -- and he seems to mean it. His Ali is one of those characters who seems to operate totally in the present tense.

Best known for his landmark movie Prophet, Audiard allows the elements of his new movie to rub against one another in ways that can feel exciting. In a way, Rust and Bone is as much about bare-knuckle love as it is about bare-knuckle fighting.

Others have pointed out that, at heart, Rust and Bone is an old-fashioned movie. That's true, but it's to Audiard's credit that it seldom feels anything less than fresh.

When hysteria trumps innocence

A documentary chronicles the injustices suffered by The Central Park Five
In the wake of the Connecticut school shooting, it may be time to redefine what we mean when we call a crime "horrific." Back in the more "innocent" days of 1989, few crimes seemed as horrible as the brutal beating and gang rape of a female jogger in New York's Central Park.

Whipped into a frenzy, New York's tabloid press indulged its hyperventilated blood drool. And when the police announced that the crime had been committed by five black teen-agers, emotions went through the roof.

Suddenly, people couldn't stop talking about teen rampages called "wildings." Politicians expressed the expected outrage and horror, and pundits wondered if, this time, civilization really wasn't coming to its oft-predicted end.

Clearly, this was not a good climate in which to be a defendant in a high-profile case, particularly one in which several of the accused had confessed. Who -- reasonable people rightly asked -- would confess to such a heinous crime if they hadn't actually committed it?
The Central Park Five, a new documentary from director Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns* and her husband, David McMahon, answers that question, and takes us on a journey that resulted in five innocent youngsters serving more than a decade behind bars. The kids were part of a larger group of teen-agers who may have been up to no good in the park on that awful night, but whatever they did, they did not rape and brutalize a 28-year-old jogger who was making her evening run.

A belated jailhouse confession from the real perpetrator coupled with DNA evidence eventually cleared The Central Park Five. Their sentences were vacated in 2002.

For Ken Burns, The Central Park Five represents a bit of a departure in style. The movie, which consists of news footage, current interviews with the men who were convicted (sans one who declined to talk) and with relevant authorities is a sobering account of how and why justice was so badly miscarried. It's impossible to watch The Central Park Five without wondering whether we're looking at an aberration or something far more common.

If all this sounds interesting, you probably want to watch out for West of Memphis, another documentary in which false confessions play a key role. Totally different milieu. Different horrifying crime. But West of Memphis raises many of the same disturbing questions about the efficacy of the criminal justice system.

*Sarah Burns also wrote a book about the case, The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York City's Most Infamous Crimes, Knopf, 2011.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

On the road with Mom

Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen as mother and son in a contrived and mostly mediocre comedy.
Devoted Barbra Streisand fans may turn out for The Guilt Trip, a comedy that tries to expand Streisand’s reach into the comic sphere in which Seth Rogen lives. I suppose it's a natural progression for an actress who already played Ben Stiller 's mother in two Focker movies. What's next? Babs as Jonah Hills mother?

This time, Streisand plays the widowed mother of Rogen’s Andrew, a chemist who’s trying to peddle an environmentally safe cleaning product that he recently invented. That may not sound like the basis for a road movie, but that’s precisely where director Anne Fischer takes a comedy built around predictable scoopfuls of mother/son craziness.

From what I've already told you, you should know that Jewish mother Joyce (Streisand) will drive her son Andrew (Rogen) to distraction before it becomes clear -- as in such movies it must -- that mother really does know best.

The story -- a bit of endurance test, really -- jams Rogen and Streisand into a compact car -- and asks us to ride along with them.

Here's how it happens: Andrew, who's visiting his mother in New Jersey, is about to drive across country in an attempt to sell his revolutionary new product to major retailers. Andrew tells his mother he wants company, but his real purpose is to take Mom to San Francisco so she can re-unite with a boyfriend from years gone by.

Why does Andrew care about this? In an early picture revelation, Mom tells Andrew that he’s named for this very same fellow, a man she passionately loved but who didn’t return her affections. Evidently, Andrew’s father was Joyce’s rebound choice for a husband. And, yes, all of this comes under the heading of too much information for any mother to be sharing with a son.

In a movie built from sheer contrivance, nothing needs to make much sense, but in playing the ineffectual (in both business and love) Andrew, Rogen sacrifices himself on the Streisand altar. It’s difficult for me to imagine hardcore Rogen fans flocking to a movie in which Streisand is the main attraction. This could be Rogen’s first appearance in something that qualifies as a chick flick.

Director Fischer doesn’t do anything special with material that’s built around in-car banter and a couple of major comic set pieces, the most prominent of which is set in a Texas restaurant where Joyce takes on the challenge of eating a four-pound steak. If she finishes, the steak is free. She also meets a handsome Texan in the bargain.

I chuckled a few times. But let’s face it: Whatever character Streisand plays, she can’t be anything other than the Streisand. So if you’re a Babs' addict, you’ll get your fix, and maybe you won't care that The Guilt Trip borders on the insipid.

Others may find The Guilt Trip to be a less-than-hilarious ride that leaves them to wonder who thought it would be an amusing character trait for Joyce to insist on eating M&Ms in bed.

Put another way, there's a whole lot more mediocrity than guilt in this trip.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Bill Murray makes a credible FDR

Hyde Park on Hudson is a smaller work than a great president deserves.
At 62, Bill Murray remains a mystery and a marvel, an actor who seems willing to try almost anything. I don't know about you, but if I were casting a movie in which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt figured in a major way, Murray's name probably wouldn't have made my shortlist.

As it turns out, Murray's FDR is the best reason to see director Roger Michell's Hyde Park on Hudson, a small-potatoes drama that revolves around a tepid sexual affair between FDR and his cousin Daisy (Laura Linney).

Judging by two recent movies, American history seems to be shrinking. Steven Spielberg's Lincoln deals with four months in the life of the 16th president and is as much about about legislative process as individual triumph. Hyde Park on Hudson, which doesn't even feature FDR's name in the title, focuses on another tiny sliver of history, showing more interest in FDR's libido than his leadership ability.

Even taken as a minor work, Hyde Park on Hudson remains problematic. It's difficult to understand what might have attracted the womanizing FDR to Daisy, a plain flower of woman who narrates the movie, but who comes across as severely challenged in the personality department. She's the poor cousin FDR draws into his powerful sphere, but she pretty much remains an outsider, never quite finding a niche in Roosevelt's inner circle.

According to the movie, FDR begins this lackluster affair on the eve of an expected visit to his mother's Hyde Park estate by King George VI (Samuel West) and his queen (Olivia Colman). FDR's mother (Elizabeth Wilson), who owned Hyde Park, anxiously tries to whip the household into shape for the royal visit. FDR's wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams) offers assistance, wit and tolerance when it comes to her husband's wandering eye. By this time, Roosevelt's marriage is mostly about appearances.

There are a couple of good scenes involving Daisy. The best of them has FDR's trusted secretary "Missy" LeHand (Elizabeth Marvel) schooling Daisy in the need to accept the fact that she isn't and never will be FDR's one-and-only.

Slim as it is, the movie picks up steam when the King and Queen arrive. Audiences already will be familiar with West's "Bertie," the main character in the much-acclaimed The King's Speech. Scenes in which the king and queen puzzle over American ways are mildly amusing (they fret about the prospect of having to eat hotdogs at an FDR-arranged picnic), and a late-night talk between FDR and the king allows Murray to show just how skilled a politician FDR was.

Of course, FDR was president long before the 24-hour news cycle. The press ignored his peccadilloes, never reported that polio had forced him into a wheelchair and generally cooperated in creating the illusion of authority Roosevelt needed to become one of the U.S.'s greatest presidents.

Michell captures the languid warmth of a New York State summer, as well as the feel for a mansion that the British regarded as "quaint," but which was sumptuous by American standards. As befits the title, the house becomes a kind of character in the movie, the frame on a very small picture.

To say that the story told in Hyde Park on Hudson is a footnote to history is perhaps giving it more credit than it deserves. The political stakes involve the king's attempt to ascertain whether Britain could count on the U.S. as an ally as it marched inevitably toward war with Germany.

Mild and mostly forgettable, Hyde Park on Hudson again underscores the fact that in his generation of SNL alums, no one has evolved into a more accomplished, versatile and adventurous actor than Murray. He makes clear the contrast between FDR's private life and public image and enables us to see just how much FDR understood the importance of maintaining that gap. Too bad, he's not in more of the movie.

This 'Hobbit' hits -- and misses, too

It's by no means a disaster, but Peter Jackson's return trip to Middle Earth mixes thrills and disappointment.
I wish I had seen director Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey at the normal 24-frames-per-second rather than the hyper-vivid 48-frames-per-second at which the movie is being shown at certain locations, apparently to give it the kick of extra clarity. When combined with 3-D, The Hobbit's high-def look proved so distracting that I had difficulty finding a way into J.R.R. Tolkien's story about Bilbo Baggins's quest to help a group of dwarves reclaim their homeland.

After the Hobbit screening, I checked with a couple of fellow critics. Averaging our responses, it probably took us somewhere between 30 to 40 minutes to settle into Jackson's film, which is nearly three hours long.

Watching The Hobbit, you may feel roughly the same sense of forced wonder you might experience while observing the latest super-dooper, high-def TV in the showroom of some big-box store. It seems plenty spiffy until you remember that you neither have the need nor the desire to see every bit of stubble on some anchorman's face.

And if you're a cineaste, the nuanced richness of film probably does a lot more for you than the shocking acuity of the images you'll find in The Hobbit. Put another way, instead of liberating the material in The Hobbit, technology seems to imprison it.

If you can get past Jackson's visual approach, you may find (at least I did) a story that doesn't fully engage until its final hour. Encumbered by lots of expositional foot-dragging, The Hobbit works in bits and pieces, some spectacular, some dull.

In this predecessor to Tolkien's more elaborate Lord of the Ring novels -- already made into three blockbuster entertainments by Jackson -- Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is recruited by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) to help a troupe of dwarves regain the mountain kingdom they lose in the movie's action-oriented prologue.

Attracted to gold, a dragon -- Smaug by name -- expels the dwarf population from Lonely Mountain. Having become too gold-hungry for their own good, the dwarves are driven from their mountain Eden.

There's no faulting the performances which include brief appearances from Cate Blanchett (as Galadriel), Christopher Lee (as Saruman) and Hugo Weaving (as Elrond), but the burden of breaking the novel into three separate movies can't help but take its toll. Many scenes are extended well-beyond necessity, and the movie includes stretches that are talky enough to make you wish these damned dwarves would pick up the pace.

Early on, Bilbo's peaceful home is invaded by dwarves who disturb his much-valued tranquility and eat everything in his well-stocked larder. Sagacious as always, Gandalf seems to know that the reluctant Bilbo eventually will answer duty's call.

When this dwarf crew -- led by Thorin (a majestic Richard Armitage) -- takes to the road, the movie falls into a pattern in which talk alternates with action.

Jackson and the four writers who receive screenplay credit for The Hobbit would have done well to look up the word "adaptation;" it doesn't mean the same thing as "expansion." I know the legion of Tolkien fans demand careful detailing, but I could have used with some concision, particularly in a screening that required wearing 3-D glasses.

In Jackson's telling of the tale, the quest to reclaim a homeland sometimes feels like a forced march.

The well-cast Freeman tends to look less like a Hobbit than an aging Beatle, but for all its distractions, the force of Tolkien's story ultimately prevails.

If you hang in long enough, you will be rewarded by a final battle that takes place on footbridges in a goblin cave that's home to the Great Goblin, a blubbery creature with a beard-like growth on his face, a sagging sack of skin that has a tendency to sway. You'll also get an amusing sequence in which Andy Serkis -- sounding like a cross between Peter Lorre and Daffy Duck -- reprises his role as Gollum, this time playing a game of dueling riddles with Bilbo.

Look, I ultimately got involved with The Hobbit, but I hope that in the next two outings, Jackson pays less attention to technological wizardry and more to expeditious storytelling. I say this because it's already too late to wish that he had made one compact and totally involving film instead of committing to three.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Who'd make the best parents?

Two gay men try to adopt a teen-ager no one else wants.
In Any Day Now -- a drama about a gay couple fighting to adopt a teen-ager with Down syndrome -- Alan Cumming plays Rudy, a drag queen whose humor and decency anchor what turns out to be a moving and thoughtful story. Although set in 1970s California, Any Day Now tackles an issue that feels timely, particularly now that the Supreme Court has agreed to take up two cases involving gay marriage. The movie's key question: Should a loving gay couple be allowed to adopt and care for a child no one else wants? Cumming portrays Rudy, a budding singer who performs in a drag club. There, he meets Paul (Garret Dillahunt), a buttoned-down attorney who works in the DA's office. Before Rudy and Paul become a couple, the newly divorced Paul must come to grips with his gayness. He's circumspect about his sexuality, particularly at work. Initially, Paul's embarrassed when Rudy visits his office to find help for 14-year-old Marco (Isaac Levin), a kid who has Down syndrome and who's being abused by his mother. Rudy knows that there's little hope for 14-year-old Marco if he vanishes inside the Family Services network. Arrested for prostitution, Marco's mother agrees to allow Rudy and Paul to take care of Marco. They establish a home together, but Marco's stability is threatened when his mother is released from jail. For reasons that are less than honorable, she demands that the boy be returned to her. The flamboyant Cumming works well with the more restrained Dillahunt, and they both convey genuine concern for a kid who clearly benefits from their involvement. Director Travis Fine's movie easily could have toppled into hopeless melodrama, but for the most part, Fine brings troubling issues to the fore in human and affecting ways.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Critics' Choice Award nominations

Lincoln received a record 13 nominations for the 18th annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards, surpassing Black Swan, which garnered 12 in 2011. I'm a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association -- the nominating organization -- and present its list of nominees as a way of getting you ready for a season of awards, top-10 lists and year-end hoopla. Winners will be announced live on the CW Television Network from the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica on January 10, 2013.

The Nominees:

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
The Master
Moonrise Kingdom
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

Bradley Cooper – Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln
John Hawkes – The Sessions
Hugh Jackman – Les Miserables
Joaquin Phoenix – The Master
Denzel Washington – Flight

Jessica Chastain – Zero Dark Thirty
Marion Cotillard – Rust and Bone
Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva – Amour
Quvenzhane Wallis – Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts – The Impossible


Alan Arkin – Argo
Javier Bardem – Skyfall
Robert De Niro – Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman – The Master
Tommy Lee Jones – Lincoln
Matthew McConaughey – Magic Mike

Amy Adams – The Master
Judi Dench – Skyfall
Ann Dowd – Compliance
Sally Field – Lincoln
Anne Hathaway – Les Miserables
Helen Hunt – The Sessions

Elle Fanning – Ginger & Rosa
Kara Hayward – Moonrise Kingdom
Tom Holland – The Impossible
Logan Lerman – The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Suraj Sharma – Life of Pi
Quvenzhane Wallis – Beasts of the Southern Wild

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Les Miserables
Moonrise Kingdom
Silver Linings Playbook

Ben Affleck – Argo
Kathryn Bigelow – Zero Dark Thirty
Tom Hooper – Les Miserables
Ang Lee – Life of Pi
David O. Russell – Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg – Lincoln

Quentin Tarantino – Django Unchained
John Gatins – Flight
Rian Johnson – Looper
Paul Thomas Anderson – The Master
Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola – Moonrise Kingdom
Mark Boal – Zero Dark Thirty

Chris Terrio – Argo
Tony Kushner – Lincoln
David O. Russell – Silver Linings Playbook
David Magee – Life of Pi
Stephen Chbosky – The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Life of Pi – Claudio Miranda
Lincoln – Janusz Kaminski
Les Miserables – Danny Cohen
The Master – Mihai Malaimare Jr.
Skyfall – Roger Deakins

Anna Karenina – Sarah Greenwood/Production Designer, Katie Spencer/Set Decorator
The Hobbit – Dan Hennah/Production Designer, Ra Vincent & Simon Bright/Set Decorators
Les Miserables – Eve Stewart/Production Designer, Anna Lynch-Robinson/Set Decorator
Life of Pi – David Gropman/Production Designer, Anna Pinnock/Set Decorator
Lincoln – Rick Carter/Production Designer, Jim Erickson/Set Decorator

Argo – William Goldenberg
Les Miserables – Melanie Ann Oliver, Chris Dickens
Life of Pi – Tim Squyres
Lincoln – Michael Kahn
Zero Dark Thirty – William Goldenberg, Dylan Tichenor

Anna Karenina – Jacqueline Durran
Cloud Atlas – Kym Barrett, Pierre-Yves Gayraud
The Hobbit – Bob Buck, Ann Maskrey, Richard Taylor
Les Miserables – Paco Delgado
Lincoln – Joanna Johnston

Cloud Atlas
The Hobbit
Les Miserables

The Avengers
Cloud Atlas
The Dark Knight Rises
The Hobbit
Life of Pi

Madagascar 3
Rise of the Guardians
Wreck-It Ralph

The Avengers
The Dark Knight Rises

Christian Bale – The Dark Knight Rises
Daniel Craig – Skyfall
Robert Downey Jr. – The Avengers
Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Looper
Jake Gyllenhaal – End of Watch

Emily Blunt – Looper
Gina Carano – Haywire
Judi Dench – Skyfall
Anne Hathaway – The Dark Knight Rises
Jennifer Lawrence – The Hunger Games

Silver Linings Playbook
This Is 40
21 Jump Street

Jack Black – Bernie
Bradley Cooper – Silver Linings Playbook
Paul Rudd – This Is 40
Channing Tatum – 21 Jump Street
Mark Wahlberg – Ted

Mila Kunis – Ted
Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook
Shirley MacLaine – Bernie
Leslie Mann – This Is 40
Rebel Wilson – Pitch Perfect

Cabin in the Woods

The Intouchables
A Royal Affair
Rust and Bone

The Imposter
Queen of Versailles
Searching for Sugar Man
The Central Park Five
West of Memphis

“For You” – performed by Keith Urban/written by Monty Powell & Keith Urban – Act of Valor
“Skyfall” – performed by Adele/written by Adele Adkins & Paul Epworth - Skyfall
“Still Alive” – performed by Paul Williams/written by Paul Williams – Paul Williams Still Alive
“Suddenly” – performed by Hugh Jackman/written by Claude-Michel Schonberg & Alain Boublil & Herbert Kretzmer – Les Miserables
“Learn Me Right” – performed by Birdy with Mumford & Sons/written by Mumford & Sons – Brave

Argo – Alexandre Desplat
Life of Pi – Mychael Danna
Lincoln – John Williams
The Master – Jonny Greenwood
Moonrise Kingdom – Alexandre Desplat

Thursday, December 6, 2012

More fizzle than sizzle in this romcom

Gerard Butler and Jessica Biel bring little sparkle to Playing for Keeps.
I don't know exactly when Gerard Butler became a mandatory presence in mediocre romantic comedies, but he seems to have been pigeonholed into a career that relies on his rumbled good looks, roguish charm and willingness to adapt to formula.

In Playing for Keeps, a romcom in which Butler portrays a former pro soccer player, the Scottish-born actor, has plenty of genre cliches to kick around, this time in a story that finds his character trying to win back his the former wife (Jessica Biel) he still loves and the young son (Noah Lomax) he barely knows.

Having squandered his fortune in ill-advised business deals, Butler's George Dryer is well on his way to becoming another has-been athlete. Scottish by birth and temperament, Dryer has moved to Virginia in vague hope of landing a sportscasting job and winning back the family he lost as result of irresponsible behavior; i.e., womanizing.

George begins to earn his chance for redemption when he takes on the job of coaching his son's soccer team, a task that also brings him into contact with a variety of sexually deprived soccer moms who are looking for bedmates and solace.

In this category, we find Judy Greer (needy and insecure) and Catherine Zeta-Jones (sexually aggressive and confident). They both play characters who want to sleep with Dryer, who's trying his best to behave himself.

Additional support is provided by Dennis Quaid, who signs on as a wealthy soccer dad who cheats on his wife (Uma Thurman), a woman who also tries to leap into George's bed.

The sexual situations are ripe for farce, but director Gabriele Muccino tempers the movie's PG-13 impulses with a story that's more interested in fuzzy feel-good sentiment than in becoming a playful sex romp. I guess kids' soccer and adult groping don't make for the greatest mix.

The script, credited to Robbie Fox, can seem disorganized and random. At the movie's midpoint, for example, you may find yourself wondering what happened to Quaid's character and why the script even bothered to include him in the first place. By the end, you'll discover that Quaid's Carl is around only to add a list-minute and totally unnecessary bit of plot business.

Because romance -- even at its most predictable -- needs obstacles, Biel's Stacie is engaged to be married when Dreyer arrives in Virginia. James Tupper portrays Stacie's little-seen fiancé, the most underdeveloped of several underdeveloped characters.

Many flaws can be forgiven in this kind of movie, but it's difficult to overlook the lack of chemistry between Butler and Biel, a deficiency that pretty much sabotages any chance that Playing for Keeps will rise above the mediocrity in which its so thoroughly drenched. A bland Biel fails to charm, raising a question that will make sense only to those who've sat through too many of these drippy romcoms: "Was Katherine Heigl otherwise occupied?"

'Lay the Favorite': A break-even bet

Director Stephen Frears offers a light take on the world of gambling.
After watching Lay the Favorite, the latest film from British director Stephen Frears, I turned to the Rotten Tomatoes web site to see how the film -- which debuted at last January's Sundance Film Festival -- had fared with other critics.

I was shocked to see that Lay the Favorite, a gambling comedy based on a true story, had scored a paltry 26 percent on the Tomatometer. In other words, most of the critics that Rotten Tomatoes tracks not only disliked Lay the Favorite, they came close to hating it.

I admit to shock because Lay the Favorite, which could be considered a very distant cousin of such Frears' movies as 1990's The Grifters, hardly qualifies as an object for cinematic scorn. It's not Frears's best work, but it's a colorful and sometimes amusing look at people who make their living betting, and it involves characters who aren't pushed to the tawdry limit.

Casting way against type, Frears puts British actress Rebecca Hall in the role of a private dancer who sets out to break new career ground in Las Vegas. After failing to land a job as a cocktail waitress, Hall's Beth Raymer finds work placing bets for a professional gambler (Bruce Willis) who's attracted to her abilities with math -- as well as to the way she fills out a pair of short shorts.

Problems arise because Willis's character -- one Dink by name -- is married to Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones) a woman who doesn't like competition. Tulip takes a strictly business approach to marriage: She insists that Dink vowed to take care of her, and says she'll reciprocate as long as he doesn't stray.

The screenplay, based on a memoir by the real Beth Raymer, also introduces a New York-based bookmaker. An over-zealous Vince Vaughn plays Rosie, a gambler who's as impressed by himself as he is by any of the teams on which he bets. Unlike Dink, Rosie's an illegal bookmaker, and Beth goes to work for him in New York when things turn sour in Las Vegas.

Along the way, Beth becomes involved with a journalist (Joshua Jackson), a mostly normal guy who represents -- at least for a time -- a break with the hustling world.

The major achievement of the screenplay by D.V. DeVincentis, involves the ways in which the characters are forced to behave challenge our initial assumptions about them. And although none of the performances are likely to turn up on Oscar's short list, they're mostly within the range of what Frears is looking for, a slightly cracked comedy lodged in the unpredictable world of gambling.

Lay the Favorite isn't a change-your-life movie. I'm not sure it has a whole lot to say, but it doesn't take itself seriously enough to qualify as a demonstrably bad bet.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

An uphill fight to fly downhill

Was it crazy or bold or both? A documentary looks at a skateboarder's big adventure.
Before watching the documentary Waiting for Lightning I'd never heard of Danny Way, which is not surprising because my lack of knowledge about professional skateboarding is probably exceeded only by my ignorance about the feeding habits of certain rare species of mollusks.

Put another way, I neither know nor care about skateboarding, but that doesn't mean that I didn't find the slickly mounted and intermittently thrilling Waiting for Lightning without merit. Whatever the ultimate value of Way's achievements, there's little question that his success required overcoming obstacles that easily could have derailed a man of lesser drive.

Consider: Way's challenging childhood included the early loss of his father, the wayward drifting of his mother, the death of a beloved mentor and -- at one point -- a broken neck. I'm sure I'm omitting a few other catastrophes from Way's Dickensian resume, but you get the idea. He didn't have it easy.

Now 38, Way survived because skateboarding gave his life a singular focus. He was good enough at it to turn pro at 13 and to pursue a career that appears to have been devoted to testing limits.

In the interviews shown in Waiting for Lightning, Way makes a quiet and undemonstrative daredevil. It's left to other interviewees to explain and laud him as the film works its way toward an attempted feat that's as dangerous as it is outrageous.

In 2005, Way committed to jumping over the Great Wall of China on a skateboard.

Director Jacob Rosenberg gives us plenty of background on Way's life as he builds toward the spectacular China jump, which required the construction of a ramp and a quarter pipe that -- at least from a distance -- easily could have been mistaken for some sort of architectural aberration.

We also get to watch way ply his skills at a variety of stages of a career that the film sees as inspirational.

I don't know if I was inspired, but I have to say that the footage of the Great Wall jump was riveting enough to make me forget that -- to some -- extreme sport is synonymous with extreme folly.

All I can say is that I hope that kids who are taken with skateboarding enjoy the ride, but aren't tempted to follow in Way's adventurous footsteps. If ever there was a film that needed a "don't-try-this-at-home" warning, it's Waiting for Lightning. Clearly, Way occupies a world of his own.

Sex, nobility and Enlightened values

The Danish drama, A Royal Affair, mixes lofty ideals and basic human desire.
Dramas involving royal families can produce a mixture of titillating detail and -- if we're lucky -- a sense of higher purpose. The Danish drama, A Royal Affair, provides mild satisfaction on both counts by focusing on an affair between the Queen of Denmark (Alicia Vikander) and the physician (Mads Mikkelsen) who became her husband's most trusted adviser.

The story begins when Vikander's Caroline Mathilde, a member of the British nobility, is shipped to Denmark to marry King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard). Willing but sensitive, Caroline Mathilde quickly discovers that her husband is half fop and half lout, a mentally unstable monarch whose interest in whoring exceeds his interest in just about everything else.

Director Nikolaj Arcel eventually softens his portrayal of King Christian, who turns out to be more malleable than expected. He's also lonely, which is where Mikkelsen's Johann Friedrich Sturensee fits in. A German-born rationalist and committed proponent of Enlightenment values, Sturensee becomes the king's physician. His closeness with the king quickly puts him in an advisory capacity, and Sturensee uses his position to push the king toward all manner of reforms -- forbidding torture, ending privilege for nobles and allowing some freedom of the press, to name several.

These reforms don't come without opposition. Accustomed to running the country, ministers of the Danish cabinet have come to regard the king as little more than a royal rubber stamp. Members of the cabinet, as well as representatives of the church, aren't happy about ceding any of their authority to an intermittently deranged king and his German confidant.

So much for the movie's higher ambitions.

Now for the bed-hopping. The queen and Sturensee wind up as lovers. Their affair proves costly to them, but useful to the aggrieved nobles and their allies in the church, two groups that want to put both the king and the peasantry back in their places.

Mikkelsen, who played a Bond villain in Casino Royale, and Vikander, currently on view in Anna Karenina, generate the right amount of swooning chemistry, and, as the king, Folsgaard inspires real pathos. His King Christian can seem as lost as he is out of control.

All of this plays out with the right amount of period-piece authenticity, and A Royal Affair -- Denmark's submission in this year's foreign-language-film Oscar category -- proves that the path toward reform can be paved with both the highest ideals and the most common of desires.