Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Boys will be boys -- on Wall Street, too

Scorsese and DiCaprio whip up excitement, but where's the depth?
If director as talented as Martin Scorsese tackles the subject of Wall Street greed, it's probably appropriate for us to expect a little greatness, a movie that puts its finger on the pulse of something deep and important in the American moment. We want (or at least I want) a movie that scores a thematic bullseye.

That's not what we get with The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese's hopped-up look at the wheeling-dealing world of corrupt brokers whose piles of money grew tall, but whose ambitions remained distressingly shallow.

Don't get me wrong: The Wolf of Wall Street -- which is based on a true story -- can be wildly, even rudely, entertaining. In one surprisingly funny scene, Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio -- as swindler Jordan Belfort -- demonstrate an unexpected facility for slapstick: Belfort tries to function after Quaaludes have brought him to a state of near-paralysis.

Beyond such antic moments, Wolf of Wall Street brims with the kind of whirling energy that reflects the unbridled hedonism of its central character and his gang of eager cohorts.

Working from a script by Terrence Winter, Scorsese uses his considerable powers to immerse us in a gleefully amoral world of drugs, cocaine, sex and wanton spending. It's the 1990s, and money and libido rule.

Judging by the movie, Belfort's greatest (and perhaps only) insight may have been his realization that it's more lucrative to swindle the wealthy than to mess with working stiffs. He elevated his game from a low-rent clientele to the upper reaches of society. He called his company Stratton Oakmont.

Belfort and his unscrupulous cronies got rich by driving up the price of obscure penny stocks. They unloaded shares they controlled at the high point, forcing those same stocks to tank. They reaped obscene profits; unwary customers were hit with big losses.

In a performance that must have required every ounce of energy he possesses, DiCaprio turns Belfort into a cheerleader for self-interest. In a series of fervent speeches to the brokers who work for him, he creates a frenzied atmosphere. He feeds their appetites with encouragement, motivational blather and occasional visits from hookers.

Less a carefully shaped drama than a feverish accumulation of comedy and excess, Wolf of Wall Street begins when a naive Belfort learns the ways of Wall Street from a seasoned broker (Matthew McConaughey), a guy who might be an older version of what Belfort's destined to become.

The ethos espoused by McConaughey's character is as simple as it is jaded: The point of working on Wall Street isn't to make money for clients, it's to make money for oneself. This means snaring customers in a trap in which irresistible promises blur all reason. One stock sale is supposed to lead to another.

Although the firm he initially works for goes belly up after the Black Monday collapse of 1987, Belfort finds his way to a boiler-room brokerage operation on Long Island. There, he learns that he had an uncommon gift for selling penny stocks.

Belfort brings what he learned about big-time Wall Street hustling to a disreputable portion of the market. He eventually strikes out on his own, establishing his first operation in a converted garage.

He does this with help: Sporting a set of false teeth that transform his face, Jonah Hill gives what might be a career-changing performance as Donnie Azoff, Belfort's partner in dissipation and crime.

Azoff sometimes plays bad cop for Belfort. At one point, he swallows an employee's live goldfish: The poor sap has had the audacity to clean the fish's bowl while the staff is supposed to be preparing to take a hot new company -- fashionable Steve Madden Shoes -- public.

Hill makes Azoff crassly funny in ways that would be repulsive if it weren't for his apparently boundless lack of self-consciousness.

As is usually the case with Scorsese movies, milieu dominates. Wolf of Wall Street is not populated by MBA-wielding sharks; it's full of lower middle-class guys, strivers from New York's outer boroughs trying to strike it rich.

I wish Scorsese had done more to emphasize this Wall Street class gap: It might have helped more fully to explain Belfort's motivations and to give events in the movie some useful context.

Belfort sees his ascendance as an expression of his right to maximize opportunity. He talks about money as if were a territory, a land to be conquered and claimed. Those too timid for the task will be left behind, assigned to lives dominated by Ford Pintos and wives growing wide in the bottom. Belford made sleaziness seem heroic.

Scorsese makes sure that debauchery arrives in epic proportions, reaching its height (no pun intended) on an orgiastic airplane flight from New York to Las Vegas.

Scorsese's supporting cast is mostly dwarfed by DiCaprio and Hill. Australian actress Margot Robbie impresses as Naomi Lapaglia, the blonde model for whom Belfort dumps his first wife (Cristin Meloiti).

You'll find cameos from a group as diverse as director Spike Jonze (as a boiler room broker) and author Fran Leibowitz (as a judge).

Rob Reiner has a nice turn as Belford's hot-tempered father. Jon Favreau portrays a lawyer. Former New York cop Bo Dietl appears as himself. Jean Dujardin, familiar from The Artist, plays a Swiss banker who's knowledgeable when it comes to money laundering.

Some scenes are first rate, notably a confrontation between Belfort and a canny FBI agent (Kyle Chandler). The scene takes place on Belfort's yacht and leaves little doubt that Chandler's character can't be seduced or bought, two of Belfort's specialities.

Is the movie watchable? You bet.

But like nagging second thoughts after you've made a big purchase, questions ultimately arise. How much sex and drug-taking do we need to see before we get the point? Does Winter's script -- evidently embellished by a fair amount of improvisation from the actors -- ever get around to expressing a viewpoint about's taking place? Has Scorsese given his raving romp any real depth? Does he ever get beneath the movie's libidinous surfaces?

I think you already know how I'd answer those questions.

At three hours in length, Scorsese's wild opus is never boring, but it seems to have been made with the same kind of irrepressible smile you might see on faces at a reunion of aging, former frat brothers, all of them sitting around a bar, happily and a little too eagerly recalling the shameless excesses of yesteryear.

And one more thing: Let's say we're meant to be appalled by the cartoonish carnality of Belfort and his wild-living bunch. Would it have been better if they had used their ill-gotten gains to buy critically acclaimed art work? Should they have been more community minded and given money to charities or endowed a chair at a major university?

What are we supposed to see as their worst crime, that they may have ruined a lot of lives or that they had hopelessly boorish tastes?

An uneventful life gets busy

Despite fine flourishes, this Walter Mitty doesn't quite fly.
In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller -- as director and star -- works hard to present an offbeat story about a timid man who finally learns to merge his vivid imagination with reality.

Early on, we learn that Walter's the opposite of the guy in Dos Equis commercial: He's the world's least interesting man. Walter's life is so uneventful that he can't think of a single thing to say about himself when he enrolls in eHarmony. He's an anonymous dullard.

I suppose that's the movie's challenge: How do you make an interesting movie about a boring guy?

Stiller's Walter Mitty shouldn't be seen as a remake of the 1947 movie starring Danny Kaye or a faithful adaptation of the 1939 James Thurber story in which Mitty first appeared. It's a new take on old material -- albeit not an entirely successful one.

At its best, Stiller's movie has a pleasingly fanciful quality. It also mixes humor (a jab at The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Button is particularly well-aimed) with a growing onslaught of action-oriented special effects.

For all that effort, the movie's best bits have less to with bold adventure than with smaller incidents. On an elevator in his New York office building, Mitty imagines that he insults his boss's beard, an unsightly affair that makes the man (Adam Scott) look like an incongruous mixture of American Gothic and Brooks Brothers.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty takes place during the waning days of Life magazine, a publication to which Walter has devoted his career. He's in charge of cataloging and keeping track of the magazine's vast photo library.

As it turns out, Life has been taken over by a company that's intent on closing the publication. The final cover is to be a photograph taken by the legendary photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), a character who remains unseen until the film's final act.

O'Connell sends his negative to Life's New York's headquarters, but Mitty and his assistant (Adrian Martinez) lose track of it.

Under pressure from management, Mitty intensifies his search and ultimately takes a bold leap. He leaves New York and travels to the Iceland, the Himalayas and Afghanistan to find O'Connell, who makes a point of being unreachable.

To accept all this you have to forget that photography has gone digital and that toward its demise, Life magazine hardly occupied a pivotal position in American culture.

Before his departure from Manhattan, Mitty visits his mother (Shirley MacLaine) and his sister (Kathryn Hahn). He also tries to spark a relationship with a co-worker (Kristin Wiig) who has a young son, one of the few characters to whom Walter is able to relate.

To win the woman of his dreams, Mitty must chart a course of derring-do in which he sheds the cocoon of shyness that has been suffocating him most of his life.

Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh tends to give Mitty a big-movie feel as Walter leaps from helicopters and engages in other exploits, but Walter Mitty never really hits its stride.

By the time, Walter hooks up with the elusive O'Connell we're ready for a finale that's a little more impactful than the one Stiller delivers in what begins to feel like an overly contrived attempt to marry whimsy and adventure. In truth, it's pretty much a shotgun wedding.

Stiller has directed before (Tropic Thunder, Zoolander, The Cable Guy and Reality Bites), and it's encouraging to watch him try to step off the beaten track. But this increasingly middling movie seems to have been aiming for a lot more than it's able to deliver.

Besides, in these CGI-dominated days, the average Walter Mitty doesn't need to overwork his imagination: All he has to is go to the movies and let Hollywood take care of the heavy lifting.

Elba towers as Nelson Mandela

British actor gives Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom a solid core, but movie mostly touches highlights from a significant life.
British actor Idris Elba doesn't really look like Nelson Mandela -- at least not the Mandela we knew from his years as president of South Africa and his reign as a kind of national and even global elder. But the actor's mastery of Mandela's voice and mannerisms give Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom a solid center.

It's difficult to say whether the 24/7 news-cycle immersion that accompanied Mandela's recent death will boost interest in this generally successful bio-pic or detract from it. We've certainly had plenty of biographical information about Mandela in the last month, and those who have read past the headlines know that not everything about the much-admired leader was universally praised.

As directed by Justin Chadwick -- working from William Nicholson's adaptation of Mandela's massive autobiography -- Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a mostly laudatory big-screen biography that only occasionally crosses the line into hagiography.

The sprawling, stylistically agitated movie traces Mandela's development from a radical young lawyer in Johannesburg to his 27 year imprisonment on Robben Island and, finally, to his emergence as a symbol of South African reconciliation.

The rest is pretty much secondary:

Naomie Harris portrays Mandela's second wife, Winnie Mandela, in a performance that matches Elba's, but the screenplay only sketchily outlines the rift between Winnie and her husband: Mrs. Mandela favored violent retribution against those deemed "collaborators" with the government that perpetuated apartheid.

Early parts of this two-hour and 21-minute movie suffer from the hasty way in which Chadwick bounces through events that attempt to humanize Mandela by making brief references to early womanizing. We also learn a little about Mandela's first wife (Evelyn Mase).

At times, it almost feels as if Mandela was rushed to completion, but it's more likely that the filmmakers were hard pressed to find a workable structure for such a towering life.

If you're looking for more than a guide to Mandela and to the struggle against apartheid, you'll have to supplement your viewing with some reading. Even with a two-hour plus running time, it's impossible to do more than skim Mandela's significant and much revered life.

This puts a tremendous burden on Elba, who -- thankfully -- proves himself more than equal to a task that had be as daunting as it was difficult.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

My 10-best movies of 2013

Despite a mostly woeful summer, the usual stream of bland romcoms, a ton of shriveled comedies and some less-than-stellar animation, 2013 turned out to be a good year for movies, so good -- in fact -- that I had difficulty narrowing my year-end list to the 10 best movies.

Moreover, any of my honorable mentions could have replaced several of the films that made my cut.

At the recently concluded Starz Denver Film Festival, I moderated a panel about the ways in which the best of TV seems to have surpassed so many movies. It's true: We seem to be living in a Golden Age of television, at least when it comes to the finest work.

Still, this year's best work made me wonder if maybe the movies still can hold their own. Heading toward 2014, I'm hopeful.

1. Gravity

Director Alfonso Cuaron's deceptively simple space adventure earns the top spot on my list because it not only builds tension, but reintroduces us to the experiential wonders of moviegoing. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play astronauts who find themselves cut off from Earth after being bombarded by debris from space junk. Cuaron, who wrote the screenplay with his son, Jonas, makes room for a subtle emotional subtext about a life reborn, but the movie also can be appreciated as pure, pulse-pounding adventure.

2. American Hustle
Director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) may not make the most penetrating movies ever, but he sure makes some of the most enjoyable. Christian Bale -- as New York con man Irving Rosenfeld -- headlines a terrific cast that features stand-out performances from Bradley Cooper, as an ambitious FBI agent, and from Amy Adams, as Rosenfeld's mistress. Jennifer Lawrence scores big as Irving's aggressively vocal wife. Loosely based on the Abscam scandal of the 1970s, Russell's comedy finds a bit of good in all of its sleazy characters -- and is all the better for having looked.

3.12 Years A Slave
Director Steve McQueen makes the most disturbing movie yet about the South's so-called "peculiar institution." With Chiwetel Ejiofor starring as Solomon Northrup, McQueen brings the brutal reality of slavery into a big-screen culture that too often has been guilty of avoiding hard truths. Ejiofor gives a bravura performance as Northrup, a free man who was sold into slavery during a visit to Washington, D.C. Based on the book Northrup wrote after his escape from slavery, 12 Years a Slave has undeniable, frightening and essential authenticity.

4. Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen brothers seldom fail to push boundaries. As a consequence, their movies almost always display an abundant supply of cracked originality. Musically, Inside Llewyn Davis -- the story of an aspiring folksinger laboring to make it in the 1960s -- isn't as good as the Coen's O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but it boasts the kind of bitter trenchancy that makes the Coen Brothers a treasure for those of us who admire their sometimes grim humor and their always idiosyncratic voice. A bitter pill of a movie, but one worth swallowing.

5. The Great Beauty
If you're going to squander your life, there are worse places to do it than Rome. Director Paolo Sorrentino's astonishingly gorgeous movie follows the exploits of a dissolute writer (Toni Servillo) as he parties his way through a life in Rome. Sorrentino pays homage to Fellini, but his movie proves to be a highly engaging look at a man who is unapologetic about never reaching his potential. Most importantly, Sorrentino's amazing imagery proves a refreshment for eyes tired from too many special effects and too much banal moviemaking.

6. The Past
If you're a fan of the Danish movie, The Hunt, you can substitute it for The Past. The Hunt is a terrific study of what happens when a falsely accused man is subjected to a town's bigotry and hysteria. I opted for Asghar Farhadi's The Past because the Iranian-born Farhadi(A Separation) has a knack for putting characters into complicated situations without compromising their humanity or drowning them in melodrama. In The Past, Farhadi looks at an Iranian man (Ali Mosaffa) who returns to France to complete his divorce from his estranged wife (Berenice Bejo). Mosaffa's Ahmad has been gone for four years, and Bejo's Marie has taken up with another man (Tahar Rahim), a dry cleaner whose wife is in a coma. Farhadi displays a rare ability to create informed empathy for characters who never seem anything less than real.

7. Her
Director Spike Jonze adds to his gallery of oddball films with an odd, often whimsical look at a young man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his computer operating system, voice supplied by Scarlett Johansson. Set in the near future, the story gives Jonze an opportunity to examine the way solipsism undermines romance. Jonze's sweet, sometimes funny movie leaves you with plenty to mull - like what the world may be like when artificial intelligence becomes a little too real.

8. Fruitvale Station
First-time director Ryan Coogler's sad and powerful film focuses on Oscar Grant III, an unarmed, 22-year-old black man who was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit cop on Jan. 1, 2009. Coogler's movie, which left me speechless and stunned, derives its power from the ways in which the director brings us close to a troubled young man, making sure we understand both Oscar's strengths and weaknesses. Michael B. Jordan (Friday Night Lights and The Wire) makes it heartbreakingly clear that this young man was trying to listen to his better angels. Had he lived, he might have heard them singing.

9. Blue Jasmine

I wouldn't call Woody Allen's entry into the 2013 cinema parade a masterwork, but Allen riffs on Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire without sinking into parody. Allen tells the story of a woman (Cate Blanchett) made desperate by the arrest of her finagling Wall Street husband (Alec Baldwin). A supporting cast that includes Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K. and Peter Sarsgaard adds interest, but Blanchett's performance as the mentally unstable Jasmine is nothing less than an Oscar-worthy wonder.

10. The Act of Killing
This startling and original documentary makes the stock phrase "man's inhumanity to man" sound like something from a Hallmark card. Director Joshua Oppenheimer asks some of the worst offenders of a year-long Indonesia killing rampage to tell their stories. The 1995 genocide resulted in the murder of a reported one million people, most of them accused of being Communists. Some of the killers stage reenactments of their crimes while imitating what they've seen in American movies. I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like this deeply disturbing but undeniably powerful movie.

Honorable mentions: Before Midnight, Cutie and the Boxer, Short-Term 12, The Spectacular Now, The Square, and Wadjda.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

'American Hustle' is the real deal

This is one movie that won't con you when it comes to enjoyment.

I don't know if American Hustle is the best movie of the year, but it's definitely one of the most enjoyable.

Director David O'Russell's exuberant foray into the world of con men and corruption was inspired by the real-life Abscam scandal of the 1970s. In that ugly chapter of recent American history, an FBI investigation -- aided by a con man -- led to a sting that resulted in the conviction of six congressman and a New Jersey senator.

If you're unfamiliar with Abscam, you needn't bother to look it up: The movie's link to real life events is a bit tenuous and ultimately unimportant: American Hustle is best seen as a movie about the spirit of the '70s, as well as a look at some of the more colorful characters the decade spawned.

American Hustle also features some of the year's best acting, much of it from actors who also appeared in Russell's equally enjoyable Silver Linings Playbook.
Christian Bale -- a reported 50 pounds overweight and sporting one of the worst hairpieces in the history of hairpieces (if there is such a thing) -- plays Irving Rosenfeld, a small-time chiseler who also runs a chain of dry cleaning stores in the Bronx.

At a party, Irving finds his a soulmate. She's Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a former stripper who's able to pass herself off as an English woman of culture and distinction.

Sydney responds to Irving's love of Duke Ellington. Why not? If she gets Ellington, there's a good chance she'll get Irving, too. Irving quickly falls in love with Sydney: His spirits are buoyed by her ability to help him elevate his game. He begins to blossom -- and so does his criminal activity.

Of course, Irving isn't entirely free. He happens to be married to a busty woman (Jennifer Lawrence) who's constantly nagging him about one thing or another and with whom he shares an adopted son.

The usually intense Bale seems to be having fun for a change, and I'm not sure that Adams ever has had a better role. Her Sydney is attractive, smart and skillful at striking almost any pose.

Lawrence again proves that she's a terrific actress. Her Rosalyn is a bombshell who spills out of dresses in ways that seem as uncontrollable as her character's eruptive mind.

The plot heats up when Irving and Sydney are busted. Richie DiMaso -- an ambitious FBI agent played by a tightly permed Bradley Cooper -- offers to let this morally dubious duo walk if Irving and Sydney help him make four major busts. They agree, and the movie turns into a comic mystery about who actually might be getting conned.

Russell directs with a zest that seems to have filtered into Cooper's performance, which is full of lewd energies and cocky swagger. A subdued Louis C.K. offers counterpoint as Richie's far more conservative boss.

Russell allows Irving and Sydney to take turns narrating the movie, a stylistic ploy that adds to fun. Russell isn't interested in a Rashomon-like shift in perspectives: He's more interested in taking us inside the world of characters we alternately find appalling and lovable.

And that's the key to what Russell accomplishes: Irving has likable qualities. He can be boorish, but he's also capable of caring about people in ways that feel real. There's a sense of true, live-and-let-live tolerance about him.

To demonstrate this, the screenplay, by Russell and Eric Singer, shows Irving developing a real friendship with Carmine Politio (Jeremy Renner), a New Jersey mayor whose corruption stems from an apparently genuine desire to serve his constituents and create jobs. He wants money to rebuild Atlantic City, still a gambling mecca in waiting.

At one point, Carmine expresses his affection for Irving by giving him a microwave oven. Having never seen one before, the befuddled Irving refers to it as "a science oven."

Liberated from the world of munitions (The Hurt Locker) and action (Mission Impossible -- Ghost Protocol), Renner piles on a robust helping of good-fella charm.

Remember, Irving's no dope. His meeting with a genuine gangster (a late-picture cameo from Robert De Niro) confirms what he already knows: Irving recognizes that he's better at small cons than big ones. He understands his limitations.

At some point -- maybe about three-quarters of the way through -- the picture loses a bit of steam, and I found myself worrying that Russell might not be able to pull the whole thing together. I think he does, and -- in the process -- creates one of the few movies of 2013 that I was sorry to see end.

For a folksinger, life is no picnic

Inside Llewyn Davis -- the latest from the Coen brothers -- is plenty bitter, deliciously so.
An unlikable main character. A dated '60s folk-music scene. Rooms full of cigarette smoke. Fringe life in New York City during a miserably cold winter.

Those are just some of the ingredients that help make Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Daviss the cinematic equivalent of stepping into a puddle of slush. Now, if you know and appreciate the strange, funny and chilled sensibilities found in most Coen brothers' movies, you'll understand that I mean that as a compliment.

Inside Llewyn Davis defies the odds and turns out to be a tribute to the Coens' ability to tease out the humor in almost any situation, including one in which their main character suffers a series of misfortunes.

I particularly loved the fact that the folkies we meet during the course of Inside Llewyn Davis are not burdened by anything as cliched as concern for their fellow inhabitants of the planet. They're a sometimes unpleasant group of struggling careerists, most of them waiting -- albeit unknowingly -- to be eclipsed by an emerging Bob Dylan, the artist who ultimately would leave them all behind.

Put another way: If you're looking for kumbaya fellowship, you'll want to stay outside Llewyn Davis -- far outside.

The Coens focus their acerbic attentions on Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a former seaman who's trying to establish himself as a viable solo act in the New York folk music scene. Llewyn's attempting to go it alone after his partner committed suicide. It's not like Llewyn has been toppled from a lofty perch, though: He and his partner weren't that big a deal anyway.

As played by Isaac, Llewyn is talented enough to be encouraged about his prospects. He has reason to see himself as an unrecognized artist. It's not until late in the movie that he meets a Chicago folk impresario (F. Murray Abraham) who tells him that he's got something -- but not enough to be a headliner.

And that's the rub: Llewyn's story is a grimly funny take on a proverbial frustration: "close, but no cigar."

So what does the title mean? What's inside Llewyn Davis? The way I read the movie and Isaac's masterfully dour performance, it's this: Llewyn thinks he's an artist. He thinks that he should be paid for his art. He refuses to perform like a trained seal, clapping his hands in hopes that someone throws him a fish. He's got standards -- even if no one else happens to give a damn about them.

As the story unfolds, Davis wanders around Manhattan looking for a place to crash. He imposes on Jean (Carey Mulligan), a former lover and singer who's now living with Jim (Justin Timberlake). Jean and Jim sing together, but their music isn't as soulful as Llewyn's.

To make matters worse, Jean has become pregnant and doesn't know if the baby is Llewyn's or Jim's. She's furious, a woman of blistering scorn.

In Llewyn Davis, the Coens have made a movie without much forward progress. Nothing momentous happens. While staying at Jean's apartment, Llewyn meets a strangely sincere soldier who also sings (Stark Sands) at the fabled Gaslight Cafe on weekends: He later tries to impose himself on a wannabe cowboy with a rumbling bass voice (Adam Driver).

Llewyn meets Driver's Al Cody at a recording session for a song he totally disdains: Written by Jim, it's called Please Mr. Kennedy, a ridiculous pop anthem that takes Kennedy to task for his interest in a reinvigorated space program.

When it comes to skewering a certain kind of upper Westside couple, the Coens show no mercy. Ethan Phillips plays a professor who's always happy to welcome Llewyn into his home. His wife (Robin Bartlett) likes to sing with Llewyn and who has the aura of a worn but comfortable piece of furniture.

For this duo of West Siders, Llewyn's the weird, artsy guy who might be asked to entertain other dinner guests, and you get the feeling that Llewyn disrepsects the couple's tolerance, generosity and boundless capacity to endure his impositions.

To make matters worse, Llewyn loses the couple's cat, a pet whose name clues us into the nature of the Coens's enterprise. (See movie. Discover name.)

The movie supposedly was inspired by the story of real-life folk singer Dave Van Ronk, but its origins don't really matter. You'll get the drift as the Coens unfurl their deadpan take on the early '60s.

Nowhere is this more evident than when Llewyn joins a jazz musician (John Goodman) and a stoic driver (Garrett Hedlund) on a car trip from New York to Chicago. Goodman sits in the back seat, alternately sleeping and tearing Llewyn apart for being something he deems as risible as a folksinger. It's a small bit of genius characterization from one of the Coens's regular performers. Goodman is funny, dissolute and sometimes dead-on.

The Coens open the movie with a scene that repeats at the end and which becomes even more mordant the second time around. What else should we expect? Inside Llewyn Davis is a bitter pill, but like many other bitter pills that the Coens have served us, it's well worth swallowing.

The story behind 'Mary Poppins'

Emma Thompson proves the highlight of Saving Mr. Banks
The late Walt Disney was no stranger to the public eye. As the regular host of many of his company's TV shows, Disney became an avuncular presence in America's living rooms: He was the super nice neighbor, the friendly guy at the corner store, as well as the man who helped sell America on dreams.

In the new movie -- Saving Mr. Banks -- Disney is played by Tom Hanks, who tries hard to be as Disneyesque as possible. But it's not really Uncle Walt who occupies the center of a movie about how author P.L. Travers's Mary Poppins became a Disney classic.

That spot belongs to Travers, played with a major helping of disdain by Emma Thompson.

From the start, Thompson's Travers expressed disbelief and mistrust about Disney's motives. She very much doubted that Hollywood would do justice to her story.

But Travers also needed money, and her agent pushed her toward Disney, warning her that she might lose her London home if she didn't make a deal.

Travers agreed, but insisted on having final script approval. She also ruled out the inclusion of any animation. (Here, Disney bested her: He managed to get a chorus of animated penguins into the movie, which starred Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews.)

Disney and Travers couldn't have been more different. True to his folksy ways and easy informality, Disney insisted on calling Pamela Lyndon Travers by the diminutive, "Pam." Travers was appalled. She insisted that Disney call her Mrs. Travers.

Even with Thompson expressing Travers's distaste for all things Disney, the screenplay by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith comes off as a somewhat bland and sanitized version of Hollywood history. Disney, who died of lung cancer, tried to hide his addiction to cigarettes from the public. The film acknowledges Disney's nicotine cravings, but not much more.

The movie is at once a rudimentary guide to the making of a much-beloved family movie and a look at Travers' difficult early life in the Australian outback.

Her charming father (a fine Colin Farrell) was a hopeless alcoholic: Her mother (Ruth Wilson) became his unlucky wife. Annie Rose Buckley plays the younger Travers in flashbacks that alternate -- often in ungainly fashion -- with the story of Disney's fitful attempt to bring Mary Poppins to the screen, a goal he accomplished in 1964.

If there's any compelling reason to see this movie, Thompson supplies it. She's flinty and aloof as Travers, although she she does thaw by the end, at least a litte. Travers eventually overcomes some of her resistance to the cuddly Disney machine, partly because she strikes up a friendship with her Disney-supplied chauffeur (Paul Giamatti). He has a disabled daughter who loves Travers's books.

Travers objected when Disney proposed turning her story into a musical, so it's no surprise that she exasperated Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman), the brothers hired by Disney to write the Mary Poppins' score.

Despite Thompson's performance and a bit of behind-the-scenes allure, Saving Mr. Banks -- directed by John Lee Hooker (The Blind Side) -- is only intermittently entertaining and not entirely devoid of that once inevitable hallmark of many Disney efforts: sentiment.

Those who've been hankering to know exactly how Chim Chim Cher-ee entered the big-screen musical vocabulary will find out -- along with a variety of other things that rank low on the scale of cosmic importance, but -- then again -- what doesn't? I watched. I shrugged.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Two indies, a hit and a miss

White Reindeer ultimately gets around to being a Christmas movie, but not without a whole lot of struggle. Director Zach Clark's seasonally placed story focuses on Suzanne (Anna Margaret Hollyman), a Virginia real estate agent whose husband is killed during a home break-in. Clark, who also wrote the screenplay, deals with the period of grief, dislocation and revelation following the death of Suzanne's husband. After her stunned entry into widowhood, an appropriately dazed Suzanne begins to learn things about her late husband that she didn't know, a journey of discovery that brings her into contact with a stripper (Laura Lemar-Goldsborough) who's raising a young daughter. As Christmas approaches, Suzanne also finds herself at swingers' party in her suburban neighborhood. Credit Clark with mining the humor and absurdity in Suzanne's situation. He takes the road-less-traveled for a Christmas movie, but manages to find his way to a redemptive finale.


Director Neil LaBute's Some Velvet Morning can feel like more like an exercise that a full-blown movie. Those familiar with LaBute's work -- his short films almost usually end with a twist that throws everything else into disarray -- may think the writer/director is playing familiar notes with a confined drama that centers on a male character's acid sarcasm and raging need. Alice Eve plays Velvet, a high priced hooker who answers the door of her Brooklyn brownstone to discover that a former lover (Stanley Tucci) has arrived for a surprise visit. Tucci's Fred is holding a couple of suitcases, and claims to have left his wife: He's apparently ready for a relationship with Velvet, even though he hasn't seen her for four years. LaBute fans won't be surprised to learn that Velvet and Fred spend much of the movie locked in battle. Cinematographer Rogier Stoffers gives LaBute's two-hander (set almost entirely in Velvet's brownstone) real visual tension, and Eve and Tucci know how to have at it. But if you're schooled in LaBute's work, you may be able to anticipate the movie's ending long before it arrives. If not, you may find yourself wondering exactly why you've been invited to this caustic and insular party.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A funny, messy 'Anchorman 2'

If promotional effort counts, Will Ferrell deserves 2013's award for being the hardest working man in showbusiness.

In full Ron Burgundy regalia, Ferrell seems to have turned up everywhere. In some markets, willing news anchors have acted as if Ferrell's promotions are the funniest thing ever. To which I only can say, "Puh-leeze."

Not that Ferrell isn't funny: It's just that his Anchorman 2 promotional shtick wore me out.

Now, allow me to equivocate some more. There's little question that Ferrell's Ron Burgundy qualifies as a classic comic character, a self-absorbed anchorman who's as devoted to his hair as he is to the pursuit of truth, justice and the American way.

The original movie, a modest box-office success, has done landmark business in the secondary market. Excitement about the sequel, even though it arrives nine years after release of the original, is running high.

So what's the verdict?

Let me put it this way: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues put me in mind of Charles Dickens's famous opening for A Tale of Two Cities: To paraphrase and perhaps overstate matters: Anchorman 2 is the best of comedies; it's also the worst of comedies. If you read a little further into Dickens' opening paragraph, you'll find this sentence, as well: "It was the age of foolishness."

If Anchorman 2 is representative of its time, we are indeed living in another age of foolishness. Unashamedly ridiculous, this sequel catches up with characters from the first installment some 10 years after we first met them.

Ron and his wife Victoria (Christina Applegate) are now a news team in New York City. When the anchor of the network evening news (Harrison Ford) cedes his job to Victoria, a jealous Ron goes into a tailspin, abandoning his wife and young son (Judah Nelson) and landing work as an announcer at San Diego's SeaWorld.

Ron's rescued from exile when an eager representative (Dylan Baker) of an emerging 24-hour news network invites him to gather his old team and become part of the fledgling GNN family.

This gives director Adam McKay, who wrote the screenplay with Ferrell, an opportunity to bring back the cast from the first installment: Paul Rudd returns as Brian Fantana, hard-partying investigative reporter; Steve Carell reprises his role as Brick Tamland, the world's weirdest weatherman; and David Koechner revives Champ Kind, America's crudest sportscaster.

Added to the mix are Kristen Wiig, as a weirdly intense love interest for Carell's Brick; Megan Good, as GNN's hard-charging boss; and James Marsden as Jack Lime, GNN's handsome anchor and network star.

While Lime headlines GNN's newscast, Burgundy and his cohorts are relegated to the 2 a.m. slot, which is about as close to prime time as Burgundy is to Edward R. Murrow.

But wait....

Burgundy regains prime-time exposure when he stumbles upon a rating-boosting formula, a mix of feel-good news and mindless patriotism, all presented with Ferrell's masterful pomposity.

Setting the story during the period when non-stop news was born gives Ferrell and McKay an opportunity to add a bit of trenchancy to their comedy, serving up satire about the 24-hour news cycle and the vacuousness of so much of broadcast news.

It would be nearly impossible to sum up all the gags and sketchy plot lines in Anchorman 2, which survives a woeful beginning before providing its biggest laughs. It also would be unfair to reveal the many big-name cameos that are stuffed into the picture's finale. Discovering their presence is half the fun.

By the time, the end credits roll, you either will have submitted to the movie's unashamed foolishness or you'll have found the nearest exit.

If memory serves (and who knows about that), the approach here seems more scattershot than in the original, which also was directed by McKay. Anchorman 2 emerges as a disjointed collection of gags -- one involving a rescued shark, another mocking the over-produced oomph of summer movies, another reducing Ron to bawling infancy. The list goes on -- and then on some more.

You get the idea, when it's bad, Anchorman 2 falls flat; when it's good, it's a preposterously silly look at ... well ... I'm not entirely sure what.

Still, I laughed enough to leave the theater with a smile on my face or maybe it was a half smile, inspired partly by my puzzlement at the hit-and-miss quality of the whole affair and partly by the bits I found too funny to resist.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Will the BFCA lead the way to Oscar?

The Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA) Monday announced nominees for its 19th Annual Critics’ Choice Movie Awards. Winners will be honored at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards ceremony on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. The show will be broadcast live on the CW Network at 8:00 PM ET.

The BFCA, of which I'm a member, this year produced two frontrunners: 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle tied in voting with 13 nominations each. Gravity took second place with a total of 10 nominations.

And, yes, Scarlett Johansson received a nod in the best supporting actress category for a role in which she's never seen on screen. Johansson provides the voice of a computer operating system in director Spike Jonze's Her.

The Broadcast Film Critics Association is the largest film critics organization in the U.S. and Canada, representing more than 280 television, radio and online critics.

So here's this year's BFCA list of nominees. You can take them as a fairly good predictor of what's likelky to show up on Oscar's short list.


American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers ClubScarlett Johansson
Inside Llewyn Davis
Saving Mr. Banks
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

Christian Bale – American Hustle
Bruce Dern – Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave
Tom Hanks – Captain Phillips
Matthew McConaughey –
Dallas Buyers Club
Robert Redford – All Is Lost

Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock – Gravity
Judi Dench – Philomena
Brie Larson – Short Term 12
Meryl Streep – August: Osage County
Emma Thompson – Saving Mr. Banks

Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips
Daniel Bruhl – Rush
Bradley Cooper – American Hustle
Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave
James Gandolfini – Enough Said
Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club

Scarlett Johansson – Her
Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts – August: Osage County
June Squibb –
Oprah Winfrey – Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Asa Butterfield – Ender’s Game
Adele Exarchopoulos – Blue Is the Warmest Color
Liam James – The Way Way Back
Sophie Nelisse – The Book Thief
Tye Sheridan – Mud

American Hustle
August: Osage County
Lee Daniels’ The Butler
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

Alfonso Cuaron – Gravity
Paul Greengrass – Captain Phillips
Spike Jonze – Her
Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave
David O. Russell – American Hustle
Martin Scorsese – The Wolf of Wall Street

Eric Singer and David O. Russell – American Hustle
Woody Allen – Blue Jasmine
Spike Jonze – Her
Joel Coen & Ethan Coen – Inside Llewyn Davis
Bob Nelson – Nebraska

Tracy Letts – August: Osage County
Richard Linklater & Julie Delpy & Ethan Hawke – Before Midnight
Billy Ray – Captain Phillips
Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope – Philomena
John Ridley – 12 Years a Slave
Terence Winter – The Wolf of Wall Street

Emmanuel Lubezki – Gravity
Bruno Delbonnel – Inside Llewyn Davis
Phedon Papamichael – Nebraska
Roger Deakins – Prisoners
Sean Bobbitt – 12 Years a Slave

Andy Nicholson (Production Designer), Rosie Goodwin (Set Decorator) – Gravity
Catherine Martin (Production Designer), Beverley Dunn (Set Decorator) – The Great Gatsby
K.K. Barrett (Production Designer), Gene Serdena (Set Decorator) – Her
Dan Hennah (Production Designer), Ra Vincent (Set Decorator) – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Adam Stockhausen (Production Designer), Alice Baker (Set Decorator) – 12 Years a Slave

Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers – American Hustle
Christopher Rouse – Captain Phillips
Alfonso CuarĂ³n, Mark Sanger – Gravity
Daniel P. Hanley, Mike Hill – Rush
Joe Walker – 12 Years a Slave
Thelma Schoonmaker – The Wolf of Wall Street

Michael Wilkinson – American Hustle
Catherine Martin – The Great Gatsby
Bob Buck, Lesley Burkes-Harding, Ann Maskrey, Richard Taylor – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Daniel Orlandi – Saving Mr. Banks
Patricia Norris – 12 Years a Slave

American Hustle
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Lee Daniels’ The Butler
12 Years a Slave

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Iron Man 3
Pacific Rim
Star Trek into Darkness

The Croods
Despicable Me 2
Monsters University
The Wind Rises

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Iron Man 3
Lone Survivor
Star Trek into Darkness

Henry Cavill – Man of Steel
Robert Downey Jr. – Iron Man 3
Brad Pitt – World War Z
Mark Wahlberg – Lone Survivor

Sandra Bullock – Gravity
Jennifer Lawrence – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Evangeline Lilly – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Gwyneth Paltrow – Iron Man 3

American Hustle
Enough Said
The Heat
This Is the End
The Way Way Back
The World’s End

Christian Bale – American Hustle
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf of Wall Street
James Gandolfini – Enough Said
Simon Pegg – The World’s End
Sam Rockwell – The Way Way Back

Amy Adams – American Hustle
Sandra Bullock – The Heat
Greta Gerwig – Frances Ha
Julia Louis-Dreyfus – Enough Said
Melissa McCarthy – The Heat

The Conjuring
Star Trek into Darkness
World War Z

Blue Is the Warmest Color
The Great Beauty
The Hunt
The Past

The Act of Killing
Stories We Tell
Tim’s Vermeer
20 Feet from Stardom

Atlas – Coldplay – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Happy – Pharrell Williams – Despicable Me 2
Let It Go – Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez – Frozen
Ordinary Love – U2 – Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Please Mr. Kennedy – Justin Timberlake/Oscar Isaac/Adam Driver – Inside Llewyn Davis
Young and Beautiful – Lana Del Rey – The Great Gatsby

Steven Price – Gravity
Arcade Fire – Her
Thomas Newman – Saving Mr. Banks
Hans Zimmer – 12 Years a Slave

Thursday, December 12, 2013

This 'Hobbit' opts for action

Desolation of Smaug improves on Unexpected Journey, especially when it comes to adventure.
First, a confession: I am not a devotee of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. I'd be lying if said that I cared deeply about the fate of Bilbo Baggins, who in the latest movie from director Peter Jackson must confront a fire-breathing dragon known as Smaug.

Yes, I know. Smaug sounds like a particularly virulent form of air pollution, which leads me to my second point. I'm constantly tripping over the names that grow like weeds in Tolkien's mythologically oriented stories: Knowing that Gandalf -- the wizard played by Ian McKellen -- wants to put Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) on the throne of Erebor could be fuel enough to light the fires of interest in some, but leaves me in search of a truly compelling rooting interest.

Fans of the novel -- which has been divided into three movies by Jackson -- already know that the climactic battle with Smaug will take place deep inside Lonely Mountain, where Smaug guards the treasure that once belonged to an exiled dwarf population.

The same fans probably won't care that this epic confrontation -- we know it's epic because Jackson amplifies the sound to booming levels -- tends toward unreasonable lengthiness. They will, I'm sure, experience the thrills that are meant to be derived from a dark spectacle of a movie built around an evil dragon that talks -- voice by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Smaug may have been given the movie's best dialogue, but the spoken word isn't really the point here.

Desolation of Smaug boasts more action than Jackson's first installment, An Unexpected Journey. Early reviews rightly have pointed out that Jackson picks up the pace, although he still allows the movie to linger for two hours and 40 minutes. And, yes, some of the battles tend to rage on longer than is necessary.

Did I mention that Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is expected to play a crucial role in reclaiming the dwarf homeland, and that he's accompanied on his journey by 12 dwarfs?

Before Gandalf heads off on his own, he finds shelter for his companions at the home of Beorn (Mikael Persbrand), a man who can become a bear through a process known as skin-changing. I leave it to more erudite pop cultural scholars to determine whether the shape-shifting Beorn influenced the writers of True Blood, which also features characters who can transform themselves into animals.

I'm told that those who demand unwavering fealty to Tolkien's novel may find reason for lamentation. Legolas (Orlando Bloom), a character from the Lord of the Rings, joins this edition. A female character named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) also has been added to a mix that definitely favors those who are hirsute and hardy.

Mostly, though, the cast consists of stalwart dwarfs, repulsive Orcs and representatives of other Tolkienesque species. The assorted adventures include a nifty battle with giant spiders. When the dwarves escape from a forest, they're propelled down a roiling river in barrels, perhaps the movie's action high point.

I saw this edition in 3-D projected at the normal rate of 24 frames per second, not at the hyper-vivid 48 frames-per-second that marked the first installment. For me, this made for an improved and much-less-distracting viewing experience. And Jackson and his special effects team certainly know how to employ CGI for maximum impact.

The peripherals -- Howard Shore's score, the haunted landscapes of Jackson's native New Zealand and the elaborately constructed sets -- are all up to snuff.

Jackson, by the way, ends the movie with a terrific cliff-hanger. We'll have to wait until December of 2014 for the conclusion of a story that serves as prequel to The Lord of the Rings saga. I won't be counting the days, but Jackson's fans, who undoubtedly will turn this edition into a box-office bonanza, probably will leave the theater in an expectant mood.

Maybe between now and next December I'll become more Hobbit proficient. Has anyone got a copy of Elvish for Travelers they can loan me?

Noam Chomsky, the animated version

A creative look inside the mind of a famous linguist.
Earlier this week, I was reading a piece by Stanley Fish on the New York Times Web site. Fish -- an academic and a regular contributor to the Times's on-line efforts -- commented on the 2013 John Dewey lectures that were given by Noam Chomsky at Columbia University.

Fish pointed out that "the academic views of a professor are independent of his or her real-world political views ... You can't reason from an academic's disciplinary views to the positions he or she would take in the public sphere; they are independent variables."

I had been thinking about that very subject after watching Michel Gondry's documentary, Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?: An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky

In his hyper-creative film, Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) interviews Chomsky, who is probably best known to most of us as a political thinker operating from the left side of the spectrum. Gondry mostly focus on Chomsky, the linguist.

As a filmmaker, Gondry remains unbound by convention. His mostly animated documentary is supplemented by filmed interviews with Gondry. It's as if Gondry's using his drawing skills to keep pace with leaps in Chomsky's thinking.

The mixture of animation and talk can be as overwhelming as it is intoxicating, but I was grateful to Gondry for spending time on Grondry's linguistic theories, which -- to the extent that I understood them -- seemed quite interesting.

Gondry, whose English is thickly accented by his native French, can be heard in some interviews, and he's not always confident about being a worthy conversational match for Chomsky.

If you're looking for a summary of Chomsky's thought, you'll find a reasonably cogent one in Fish's report on Chomsky's first John Dewey lecture, which addressed the question, "What is Language?"

Says Fish: The creativity of "language performance" finds its source "not in the empirical world, but in an innate ability that is more powerful than the stimuli it utilizes and plays with."
I could rattle on, but let me simply say that Gondry's documentary, which also deals with Chomsky as a kid, as a father and as a husband to his late wife, can be equally stimulating and confusing as it breezes by in its steadfastly original way.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Hard times in Pennsylvania

Despite intense acting, Out of the Furnace doesn't quite make the cut.
Almost every moment in Out of the Furnace -- a brooding working-class drama steeped in Rust Belt realism -- seems amplified in what feels like a strained search for meaning.

Boasting a terrific bad-ass performance by Woody Harrelson, the movie nonetheless seems an ultimately failed attempt to give pulpy material a socially significant boost. Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) tries for thematic elevation by garnishing a revenge-oriented drama with woes created by diminished economic opportunity and the psychological suffering of Iraqi war veterans.

Cooper (Crazy Heart) builds his generally grim movie around an intense performance by Christian Bale, who plays Russell Baze, a Pennsylvania steel mill worker and the older brother of Rodney Baze (Casey Affleck), a troubled veteran of four tours in Iraq.

Credited to Brad Ingelsby and Cooper, the screenplay piles on plenty of complications.

Principal among these twists: Russell winds up in prison after a fatal car accident. He was drinking.

Meanwhile, Rodney pleads with a local bookmaker (Willem Dafoe) to arrange a big-money, bare-knuckle fight for him in New Jersey.

As it turns out, the Jersey bare-knuckle scene and a variety of other criminal activities are presided over by Harrelson's Harlan DeGroat, a character cast in the fires of unapologetic evil.

But wait ... there's more:
While he's in jail, Russell's former girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) takes up with a new lover, a sheriff played by Forest Whitaker, who might just as well have found something else to do for all the impact the script allows his character to make.

We also meet Russell's uncle (Sam Shepard), a character who rounds out the cast of hard-working, salt-of-the-earth Pennsylvanians, guys who toed the line, drank their beer, prayed the rosary, asked for nothing and went deer hunting for recreation.

You can tell that a movie is going for high-voltage impact when Dafoe -- no stranger to tough-textured realism -- gives one of the film's more relaxed performances.

There's no reason to fault any of the acting, but Harrelson's frightening performance achieves stand-out prominence.

Harrelson's DeGroat makes his presence known in the movie's opening scene, a brutal encounter that takes place in a drive-in and which calls for DeGroat to ram a hotdog down his date's throat before mercilessly assaulting a good samaritan who tries to intervene in the poor woman's behalf. DeGroat's wearing shorts at the time, a sartorial choice that gives his violence an alarmingly informal air.

It's equally clear that Affleck's Rodney has veered out of control -- albeit in a completely different way. Rodney has no interest in working in a steel mill, has accumulated substantial gambling debts and simmers with rage over lost comrades and memories of war-time carnage.

Cooper and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi do their best to give the gritty Pennsylvania settings -- steel mills, bars, dreary row houses and abandoned factories -- the kind of polished decay that movies can bring to towns that have seen better days.

Bale's deep-immersion performance doesn't leave much on the table, but Out of the Furnace can't quite transcend revenge impulses that ultimately take over and cheapen a drama that seems to be trying for more.

And try it does. If it were possible to get a hernia from attempting something meaningful, everyone involved in Out of the Furnace would need abdominal surgery. In the end, though, I'm not sure that this isn't a case in which black-and-blue marks outnumber serious insights -- despite all the heavy lifting.

Lance Armstrong's one big lie

A filmmaker finds himself caught between the mythmakers and the myth busters.
The Armstrong Lie was one 15 documentaries that this week turned up on Oscar's short list, a group that eventually will be whittled to five films. The title of director Alex Gibney's film immediately tells us what the film is about, the "no-I-didn't-dope" lie that ultimately toppled cyclist Lance Armstrong from his perch as a celebrity athlete with an inspiring story. The kid from Plano, Texas, won the Tour de France seven times after surviving treatment for testicular cancer that had spread to his brain and lungs. Armstrong saw his particularly brutal bout with cancer as a battle in which loss equated with death, a view he extended to cycling. Gibney initially committed to making a film about Armstrong's 2009 comeback attempt; it was to be a story of heroic perseverance against impossibly long odds, the saga of a man intent on sending a message about his ability again to overcome life-threatening limitations. Then came the scandal about Armstrong's use of banned substances and his ultimate admission that he doped. Armstrong doped in a sport in which doping apparently was the rule rather than the exception, but that didn't exonerate him. I wouldn't rank The Armstrong Lie with Gibney's other work (The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side), but it certainly draws the contrast (or perhaps lack of it) between the pre-confession Armstrong, who adamantly denied using banned substances and the Armstrong who wound up spilling the beans to Oprah. It's also clear -- from watching Armstrong in his various incarnations -- that he's a pretty compelling figure. Some call him "intimidating." Additional interviews include former teammates and Michele Ferrari, a science-oriented doctor who created the doping regimen Armstrong followed. For me, the Armstrong story suffers from a bit of old-news fatigue, but for cycling enthusiasts and those who want to gain some insight into the ego of a celebrity athlete, The Armstrong Lie works effectively and, alas, depressingly well.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Bluegrass in Belgium? You bet

But music isn't the only stand-out in The Broken Circle Breakdown. You'll also find plenty of heartbreak.
An adorable kid with cancer. A soundtrack loaded with country music. Guys wearing cowboy hats, and driving pickup trucks. A woman ornamented with enough tattoos to decorate a small fleet of sailors on shore leave.

These are but a few of the ingredients that made a committed urbanite like me less than eager to watch The Broken Circle Breakdown, a Belgian import built around characters who are fascinated by America, particularly the alternately rhythmic and plaintive tunes that once helped downtrodden residents of Appalachia cope with hardscrabble lives.

Initial reservations aside, I'm certainly glad I ignored by own biases because director Felix Van Groeningen hits an emotional jackpot with this story about two lovers whose initially giddy but ultimately troubled relationship gives the movie its beating, vibrant heart.

Alternating between the couple's problematic present and its often delirious past, Van Groeningen tells the story of bluegrass musician Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and his tattoo artist wife Elise (Veerle Baetens), who also happens to be a fine singer and who's quickly incorporated into Didier's band.

Along with their fellow musicians, Didier and Elise enjoy an upbeat bar-band life that's enriched by music, camaraderie and care-free exuberance.

Although he's initially thrown by Elise's unexpected pregnancy, Didier seems to adapt to fatherhood quickly: He clearly loves his daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse), and has more than a little difficulty coping when she's diagnosed with cancer. We know about Maybelle's grave illness from the start because the movie opens in the hospital where the six-year-old begins her treatment.

Many of the musical scenes and much of the courtship between Didier and Elise play at levels that are so upbeat they're dizzying. The underlying question, I suppose, is whether Didier really understands the pain at the heart of some of the music that he plays. Is he playing with authenticity or is he playing at authenticity?

Van Groeningen keeps bringing the movie to a boil and then taking all the fizz out of it, showing us again and again that a fun beginning doesn't always lead to a pleasant conclusion.

Broken Circle Breakdown -- named for the tune Will the Circle be Unbroken -- often flirts with corniness. Didier has a shaggy, purportedly endearing quality that's borderline annoying: An appreciative Elise enjoys his antics -- at least until she no longer can.

But as the movie progresses, Van Groeningen strips away the excitement of new love to show us depths of pain and sadness that may have been there from the start. Scenes in the present don't just alternate with the past, they comment on them, gradually expanding our knowledge in ways that give them new meaning.

Toward the end, there's an almost over-stuffed quality to the movie, which tries to jam an awful lot into an essentially narrow frame.

In one late-picture scene, for example, Didier unleashes his rage during a performance, ranting about the way religion has undermined the science that might help those suffering with cancer. By that time, the drama has shifted to focus on the different ways in which Didier and Elise try to cope.

You come away from Broken Circle feeling that life doesn't always make sense, but knowing, too, that sometimes music can help some folks carry on despite the pain.

True to the movie's dual concerns -- music and personal tragedy -- Van Groeningen also understands that not everyone can bear the worst burdens. That knowledge keeps his movie from turning into one more helping of cinematic self-help. Broken Circle Breakdown makes for an emotionally rich experience in which not all pain and suffering can be eased.

For some, there simply can be no comfort. Others choose to play on. I wonder if Van Groeningen isn't asking us to respect either choice.

Friday, November 29, 2013

A young woman's sexual awakening

This Cannes winner takes a frank approach to sex and to an evolving relationship.
Blue is the Warmest Color takes almost three hours, and proceeds at a pace that allows scenes as they will. Among the tributes I can pay the movie is to say that I was never bored by it. I say this not because Blue contains one of the lengthiest, explicitly presented sex scenes in movie history or that this scene is between two women.

I say it because in presenting a love story that revolves around the relationship between a 19-year-old school girl (Adele Exarchopoulos) and an older art student (Lea Seydoux), director Abdellatif Kechiche gives his movie a feeling of real life tumbling before us -- not only in its sex scenes (which, I think, could have been shorter), but in the way the movie deals with Adele's evolving life: from her student years to her days as a primary school teacher.

About those sex scenes:
The movie's sex scenes probably stem from Kechiche's desire to present lesbian sex frankly. And like it or not, sex is at the heart of what has attracted these women to each other.

Still, there's a sense in which the movie's sex scenes are sensationalistic or at least an example of erotic overstatement. Decide for yourself.

Now onto other matters:
If you've seen a picture of Exarchopoulos's face and don't like it, Blue is not the movie for you. Kechiche includes so many close-ups of Adele's face that you'll be able to memorize its every nook and cranny: It's as if he reagrds Exarchopoulos's face as a newly discovered planet, ripe for exploration.

The point, I think, is for Adele's abundant emotions to be reflected on screen. Exarchopoulos allows Adele's thoughts and feelings to ripple across her face without censorial intervention, revealing her character's joys, discoveries and many confusions.

It takes a while to see what Kechiche is after. He's telling a story about the ways in which passionate love often fails to sustain. Ultimately, Adele and Emma are quite different. Emma, the artist, discovers that she craves a stability that's threatened by Adele's always rampant passions.

Early parts of the story focus on Adele's sexual awakening and her realization that she's gay. Emma helps Adele make the leap, but the signs for long-term harmony aren't good. Adele comes from a lower middle-class family; Emma's family is more sophisticated. Think spaghetti dinners vs. oysters on the half shell.

Adele confesses to feeling a constant hunger. She's young, formative and eager to devour the world. Emma's palate already has been educated.

Adele's fascination with Emma reaches obsessional proportions, but she seems to know -- though perhaps not fully -- that her's is a doomed love. At a party thrown by Emma, Adele begins to sense that she's not entirely comfortable around Emma's friends. In the end, it's Adele who may be the more daring of the two. Her sexuality is all-consuming, even threatening. Emma wants to play it safe.

Blue is the Warmest Color won the top prize at last spring's Cannes Film Festival. I don't know if it was the best film at Cannes, but I would say that its rumpled informality exposes two women characters (and I'm not talking nudity here) in ways seldom seen on screen. The movie also has something to say about the difficulty of sustaining relationships between people who may not know themselves as well as they think.

Fair to say: Love and lives in flux can make for an extremely volatile mix.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

'The Great Beauty' is aptly named

An Italian film that dazzles the eye -- and doesn't neglect the mind, either.
Like a beautiful river in spring, director Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty overflows with sights that re-awaken our sense of what cinema can accomplish, the way it can startle the eye and activate the senses.

Some critics have viewed The Great Beauty as a descendant of Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960), a look at debauched Roman life that takes place 53 years after Fellini assayed the same subject. Comparisons with Fellini are further fostered by the fact that the main character in both movies is a disaffected journalist.

Sorrentino must have been aware of his film's kinship with La Dolce Vita, but it would be irresponsibly wrongheaded to view The Great Beauty as wannabe Fellini. The movie speaks in its own voice and has its own concerns.

The Great Beauty centers on Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a writer who started his career as a novelist and shifted to journalism, a craft he seems to practice only sporadically.

Jep might be the living embodiment of squandered potential: He wrote one high acclaimed novel, and never wrote another. Instead of developing his art, Jep devoted his life to Rome's near-decadent social scene: He's an unashamed party animal, a man for whom parties can equate with power.

Early on, Jep says that he aspired to be king of the socialites, a man with the power to make parties fail should he choose to do so.

Fittingly, the movie's first party is a doozy. To celebrate his 65th birthday, Jep organizes a teeming gala replete with throbbing, infectious music that seizes the revelers, including his editor (Giovanna Vignola), a dwarf who's as savvy as Jep and who can be as unsparing in her assessments of others.

Jeb may not appear anguished, but he knows he's reached an existential dead end. At one point, he says that his crowd knows how to do the best train dance in Rome. Why the best? Because it goes nowhere.

As the movie unfolds, Jep learns that the woman he first loved has died. He then begins an often wry examination of what many might regard as a wasted life. He also meets two women. Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli) is a stripper who continues to work even though she's in her 40s; Giusi Merli plays a woman many regard as a saint, an impoverished, toothless nun who sleeps on floors and who has a startling otherworldly presence.

Servillo makes a charming host; at moments when the movie feels a bit confusing, he's there to remind us that we're watching a meditation about Rome, about the city's strange juxtaposition of ancient ruins (Jep's apartment overlooks the Colosseum) and chic modern design, about the city's sensory appeal and about the sybaritic pleasures to which Jep has devoted much of his life.

No matter what else you get out of The Great Beauty, it will reward your senses with carefully chosen music (from techno pop to Henryk Gorecki), with the ravishing imagery cooked up by Sorrentino and his cinematographer Luca Bigazzi and with Serville's engagingly worldly performance.

In a way, Jep's a connoisseur of the senses. Servillo doesn't so much walk as he glides. He makes it clear that Jep wears his sophistication easily. There doesn't seem to be an ounce of strain in him.

Sometimes, I forgot about trying to make anything much out The Great Beauty, but feasted on imagery that continues even through the movie's end credits. In an age of 3-D and comic-book blockbusters, I'd almost forgotten what magnificent visual imagery can do for a movie.

The only special effects in evidence here are Sorrentino's and Bigazzi's incomparable eyes, their unsurpassed sense of composition and color. The Great Beauty is a cinematic temptation: The movie plays like a brilliant, witty conversation that's loaded with intriguing asides.

I was once on a train in Italy; the man sitting next to me asked where I was headed.
"Rome," I said.

"Ah, Roma,'' he responded, putting much color and commentary into the word. There was admiration, cynicism, respect, perhaps even a touch of world-weariness in his tone.

After watching The Great Beauty, I thought about that voice again.
"Ah, Roma," indeed.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Engery thaws Disney's 'Frozen'

It may not be a classic, but this animated feature offers the season's most kid-friendly entertainment.
Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, Frozen -- the latest 3-D animated feature from Disney -- boasts obligatory splashes of humor, aggressively showy musical numbers and good voice work, all abetted by impressive visuals and the trendy theme of female empowerment.

Although it falls short of Disney's best, Frozen should generate plenty of PG enthusiasm in a season otherwise lacking in entertainment for kids.

The story involves Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel), a blonde beauty whose magic touch turns everything to ice. To protect her adoring younger sister Anna (Kristen Bell) from being turned into a frozen ice statue, Queen Elsa retreats to a palace that's far removed from the kingdom of Arendelle -- but not before encasing the whole country in the perpetual frost of an endless winter.

Bell's Anna, who's being pursued by a handsome prince (Santino Fontana), refuses to accept her sister's rejection.

With help from the hardy Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his trusty reindeer Sven, Anna sets out to find her sister and persuade her to return to her throne. A reindeer named Sven? Yeah, I liked that, too.

Surely, there's a way for the two sisters to reunite so that Elsa can rule without converting her kingdom into a year-round ice rink.

Every animated feature needs a cute comic character: In Frozen, that duty falls to a snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad), who adds a bit of humor. Olaf faces an inherently existential problem: He longs to see summer, the season would spell his quick demise.

Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, Frozen makes room for friendly trolls, as well as a bit of action. And only the most sensitive of youngsters will be traumatized by a hulking snow monster that defends the queen's ice palace.

The movie's musical numbers were written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, and, like Frozen, they can be a little heavier on energy than enchantment.

If you're looking for resonance and fairy-tale subtext, you'll have to search elsewhere. Frozen's pleasures are pretty much on the surface. But that's no reason to discount kick the that you probably will find.

'Oldboy:' Reworking a cult classic

Spike Lee tries hand at a story that attempts to bring the shock of a South Korean movie to American multiplexes.
I wasn't a major fan of director Chan-Wook Park's Oldboy, but I admired its shocking audacity: Park's revenge saga featured the kind of violence that tends to delight certain genre enthusiasts. Among other things, the movie's main character ate a live octopus and extracted an adversary's teeth with a claw hammer.

Released in 2003, Oldboy was not a movie for the squeamish: It appealed mainly to those who were caught up in Park's revenge trilogy, which included Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005). Personally, I liked Lady Vengeance best.

I have no idea how Spike Lee's remake will play with those who are unfamiliar with the original. But for those of us who know Park's movie, watching Lee's version becomes little more than an exercise in comparative viewing.

Lee doesn't skimp on shock or violence as he brings Mark Protosevich's screenplay to life. The remake offers a mixture of new wrinkles and familiar ploys that should keep fans of the original guessing right up until the finale.

In this version, Joe (Josh Brolin) -- the main character -- is a hopelessly crude advertising executive whose offensive behavior is matched only by his alcoholic intake. After a particularly awful drunken binge, Joe awakens in what appears to be a shabby motel room. He has no idea how he got there. It eventually dawns on Joe that he's being held prisoner, although he has no idea why. He remains in this state -- being fed nothing but dumplings from Chinese takeout -- for 20 years.

While imprisoned, Joe -- whose room has a television set that mostly broadcasts advertisements for exercise equipment -- sees a newscast in which he learns that his estranged wife was murdered. His three-year-old daughter has been placed in the care of others.

Poor Joe: He's the only suspect in the crime.

When Joe's finally released, he dedicates his life to proving his innocence and wreaking vengeance on his captors. Of course, he must first find out who his captors are.

It's difficult to say more without spoilers, but it's worth knowing that Lee and Protosevich (I Am Legend) approach Park's story by offering variations on many of the same issues that concerned Park: namely perverse sex and brutal violence. Like Park, Lee gradually doles out revelations that are intended to rock Joe's already shaky world.

Lee brings an eclectic approach to casting. South Africa's Sharlto Copley (District 9) plays Joe's nemesis; Elizabeth Olsen portrays a social worker and former drug addict who tries to help Joe after his escape; and Michael Imperioli signs on as a bartender who has known Joe since the days when they both attended the same prep school.

Lee also finds a role for Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the man in charge of Joe's imprisonment. He also works in one of his trademark dolly shots lest we forget who's behind the camera.

Fans of the original will want to know that Lee replicates the hammer fight that became a signature of the original. The way Lee tweaks the story may be slightly more preposterous than the way in which Park brought it to its chasenting conclusion. The American version also has a tendency to over-explain things that remained more beneficially murky in the original.

But the main thing missing from this American version is the soulful, agonized performance of Choi Min-shik, who played the imprisoned man in Park's movie. The other actors don't compare as well, either. It's not that they give bad performances; it's more that the raw quality of the original (as difficult to take as the outré violent touches) isn't always in evidence.

What's left is a weird plot and dreary atmospherics as Lee dips into waters that reminded me not only of Park but of Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg.

It would be wrong to deem Oldboy a total failure: I was interested in how Lee and Protosevich approached their task, but I never figured out why they wanted to take on the job in the first place.