Thursday, January 31, 2013

Zombies need love, too

Warm Bodies is formulaic in some ways and totally fresh in others.
You know this drill. Zombie meets girl. Zombie loses girl. Zombie ...

OK, maybe you haven't seen this scenario played out with a zombie, but you've followed similar patterns in a zillion other love-struck rom-coms.

Warm Bodies -- which just as well could have been called I Ate Her Boyfriend's Brains -- earns extra credit for embracing romantic cliches while avoiding a variety of others.

This mostly sweet-tempered movie also does a reasonably good job of delivering a "can't-we-all-get-along" message. In this case, "we" refers to zombies and humans living in a post-apocalyptic world of deprivation and scarcity.

The zombies in Warm Bodies' hang out at the airport of the unnamed city where the action takes place. They shuffle aimlessly through empty, litter-strew corridors, looking as bereft as travelers who've been told all flights have been cancelled.

When the zombies venture away from the airport, it's to feed on small parties of sustance-seeking humans.

The story centers on a zombie named "R," played by Nicholas Hoult, and a young woman named Julia, portrayed by Teresa Palmer. A lonely "R" rescues Julia after a feeding raid in which he eats her boyfriend's brain, apparently the best part of any human, although a couple of hours of watching Congress on C-SPAN might convince you otherwise.

Consuming the brains of others keeps zombies going, while allowing these otherwise memory-deprived creatures to experience the memories of the person on whom they've dined, a form, one supposes, of mental indigestion.

Most of the movie focuses on the relationship between R and Julia. Her life is complicated by the fact that her father (a staunch John Malkovich) leads the surviving humans in their battle against zombies. He hates zombies.

Because zombies have difficulty speaking, Hoult -- blood-stained, pallid and wearing a tattered hoodie -- generates pathos by playing a good deal of the movie as a nearly mute creature struggling to express himself. We do, however, hear R's thoughts, which are fluently spoken and mildly amusing. They also serve as the movie's voice-over narration.

Writer/director Jonathan Levine, working from a novel by Isaac Marion, seems more interested in offbeat romance than in dotting every "i" and crossing every "t," and he relies on the movie's well-executed production design to convey a feeling of post-apocalyptic rot.

Hoult and Palmer turn the movie into a pleasing fable about the way love can revive the dead, presuming you're willing to view death (as the movie does) in metaphoric terms.

Levine (The Wackness and 50/50) doesn't do nearly as well in trying to fulfill other genre obligations, say, horror. Skeletal creatures called Bonies become the major threat to both humans and zombies. Bonies have moved well beyond redemption. All that's left of them are bones and ravenous appetites.

Sprinkled with mild humor -- some of it from one of R's fellow zombies (Rob Corddry) -- Warm Bodies sometimes looks more serious than it actually is, but the movie's better than you'd expect for a zombie-human teen romance.

"Zombie-human teen romance? No, I can't believe I just wrote that, either.

Major actors, minor movie

No movie starring Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin can be all bad -- and Stand Up Guys isn't.
Putting Christopher Walken, Al Pacino and Alan Arkin into the same movie raises a large amount of justifiable expectation. None of these veterans have worked together before, and it's reasonable to assume that the cumulative weight of their old-pro experience will deliver the big-screen goods.

Unfortunately, Stand Up Guys -- the story of aging mobsters forced to come to grips with their mortality -- only partially lives up to the promise suggested by its powerhouse cast.

As directed by Fisher Stevens, from a script by Noah Haidle, Stand Up Guys finds its best moments in the relationship between Pacino and Walken, as a couple of bottom-feeding hoods who inhabit the lower echelons of the criminal subculture.

Walken's Doc, who spends most of his time painting pictures of sunrises, refers to himself as a "retired" man. He lives in a modest apartment. His hell-raising days appear to be done. He's proud of the fact that he has cable. Hey, at a certain point, you take your pleasures where you find them.

A low-key drama begins when Pacino's Val (short for Valentine) is released from a 28-year stretch in prison. Val's the movie's most "stand-up" guy because he served his time without ratting out any of his cronies.

Walken's Doc meets Val upon his release. The two hug awkwardly, and the movie proceeds to chart the next 24 or so hours in the lives of these aging felons.

Looking to party after his long prison stint, Val visits a local brothel, only to discover that he's unable to function sexually. Doc proposes a Viagra solution -- which leads the two to break into a pharmacy.

Val has his "party," but even that has its downside. Having consumed too much Viagra, Val winds up at a hospital, where we meet a nurse (Julianna Margulies), who happens to be the daughter of another of their old partners in crime, a getaway driver named Hirsch.(Yes, the script definitely could have done without another joke about a guy whose erection lasts more than four hours.)

Hirsch, we learn, is languishing in a nursing home where he's suffering from emphysema.

To add some proverbial insult to the injury of age-related decline, a vicious mob boss known as Claphands (Mark Margolis)wants Val assassinated. The screenplay eventually gets around to telling us why Val has become a target, while making room for Val and Doc to rescue Arkin's Hirsch from the nursing home where he's pretty much relegated to sitting in his room.

Arkin's Hirsch gets an opportunity to ply his trade as the trio races from the cops and lands in a variety of other jams, not the least of which involves a naked woman (Vanessa Ferlito) they discover in the trunk of the car they've stolen. They become the woman's self-appointed protectors.

They also visit Doc's favorite restaurant where they're waited on by Doc's favorite waitress (Addison Timlin).

I wouldn't say that either Walken or Pacino is in peak form, but they work work well enough together -- with Walken playing the more restrained of the former hoodlums. Walken and Pacino keep the movie watchable, even though the story -- punctuated with well-selected '70s R&B -- doesn't generate much tension.

If you're inclined to think about what might have been accomplished with this kind of cast, Stand Up Guys may prove disappointing. If you're willing to settle for watching Pacino and Walken enact a bromance for seniors, you may be entertained enough to stave off regret. I was.

Oscar shorts: lessons in brevity

In these days, when fluffy romantic comedies can swell to two hours and 10 minutes, it has become increasingly clear that Hollywood has lost much of its interest in concision, never mind brevity. An essentially simple revenge saga such as Django Unchained rattles on for an indulgent 165 minutes, to take only one example. And let's not even talk about Lincoln's 150 minutes or Les Miserables's 158.

Lengthy movies notwithstanding, it's still possible to remember how much can be accomplished in a very short time. Witness the Oscar-nominated short films (live action and animated), which just now are being released for public view. Away from the film festival art ghetto, shorts finally become a main attraction, five films in each category.

Although 10 films (with the documentary shorts to follow next at the Sie FilmCenter next week) can't possibly do justice to all those who made short films in a given year, they at least can serve as standard bearers for moviemaking that stresses both economy and creativity.

I won't comment on each of the films, but will try to provide a sense of what you'll find when the live-action shorts and animated films (shown in separate programs requiring separate admissions) bow this week, in Denver at Landmark's Mayan.


The animated films feature four U.S.-originated entries, and one from Great Britain. These shorts range in length from a succinct two minutes (Fresh Guacamole) to a leisurely 16 (Adam and Dog). Other Oscar-nominated animated films are the delightfully metaphorical Head Over Heels, the whimsical Paperman and the mildly satirical Maggie Simpson in The Longest Day Care.

The two most serious animated shorts are the beautifully rendered Adam and Dog, about the development of the long-standing relationship between humans and dogs, and Head Over Heels, which deals with a marriage in which a husband and wife occupy two different worlds in the same house: he, on the floor, and she, upside down on the ceiling.

I'm glad I don't have to vote in this category. If I did, I'd probably pick Head Over Heels as the most accomplished, witty and resonant, although Paperman , made in black-and-white, has many of the same qualities. But the two films I most enjoyed were the playful Fresh Guacamole, about the ways in which inanimate objects are transformed into (you guessed it) guacamole, and The Longest Daycare, a sweet but slightly mordant look at Maggie Simpson's experiences in a day care center where the gifted children are separated from the ordinary kids.

Live Action:

The live action shorts range from 18- to 28-minutes in length, and include work from Canada and the U.S., as well as co-productions from Belgium and France and South Africa and Afghanistan.

All the live-action shorts are quite accomplished with two films (at least in my judgment) vying for front-runner status as far as Oscar voting is concerned: Buzkashi Boys and Asad.

In Buzkashi Boys, the son of an Afghan blacksmith learns about the price of dreaming. Buzkashi, for those who don't know, is the bizarre Afghan sport played on horseback by riders who must carry a dead goat into a small circle while opposing riders try to stop them.

In Asad, a Somali boy copes with a war-torn environment as he's exposed to the bravado of Somali pirates and the simple virtues of an elderly fisherman.

The other three films are: Henry, about an aging musician suffering from dementia; Death of a Shadow, the story of a WWI soldier stuck in a limbo between life and death; and Curfew, a seriocomic look at a suicidal heroin addict who's called upon by his desperate sister to babysit for his niece.

You can't really go too far wrong with any of these films, which -- in sum -- serve as welcome fresheners for the tired cinematic palate.

A few words with Fisher Stevens

Talk about a dream cast. To make Stand Up Guys, Fisher Stevens was able to cast Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin in principal roles. Each of them plays an aging gangster at a point in life when mortality no longer seems like a distant threat. In an on-line chat with critics, the 49-year-old Stevens, who has acted in more than 85 projects and who has directed three features, talked about his movie, which is just now opening around the country.

Q: Were there any differences in how you approached the job of directing Pacino and Walken??
Stevens: Before we started shooting, I knew Al much better than Chris. I spent a bit more time going over the script at the beginning with him, so I felt more at ease directing Al at first. With Chris, I had to feel my way around at the beginning. But they both welcomed direction. Sometimes they would disagree with me, but ultimately, they would always try one take the way I wanted it.

Q: How difficult was it for you to get Walken and Pacino to agree to the roles each plays? Pacino's Val, a guy who just has been released from jail, is a bit more of a loose cannon than Walken's Doc, an aging gangster who seems to have done a better job coming to grips with his age.

Stevens: When I started the movie, Al and Chris told me that they had done a reading a few years earlier of a different version of the script. Al played Doc, Chris Played Val. When I called Chris to say I was directing the film, he expressed interest in playing Doc. He said that as he gets older, he enjoys playing grandfathers.
I went in a round-about way to try and get someone to play opposite Chris, not going to my friend Al Pacino, because I was told he wasn’t interested. I kept striking out until my phone rang one day. It was Al calling me after he had seen a Woody Allen documentary I had executive produced. He asked me to work on a documentary with him. I said, 'No, I want you to read Stand Up Guys again and consider being in it with me directing.' There was a long pause, and Al said, 'You’re directing?' I said, 'Yeah.' He read the screenplay, and said, 'Of course.' Four weeks later we were in pre-production.

Q: How did you decide on who would play Hirsch, the former crony and getaway driver who Doc and Val rescue from an old-age home?
Fisher: The first person I thought of for Hirsch was Alan Arkin. I had worked with him in the film Four Days in September 20 years ago. I guess because Chris and Al were already attached to the film, it peaked Arkin’s interest. Thank God he said yes. It was like a dream come true.

Q: Stand Up Guys is set in the present, but has the feel of an older film. What, if any, films were primary inspirations for Stand Up Guys?
Fisher: Many films from the 1970s including Dog Day Afternoon, Five Easy Pieces, Straight Time, and The Dirty Dozen. I loved the films of the '70s because they were about characters and not so much about big plot points and big set pieces. I made sure there were no cell phones, no computers, nothing very modern in Stand Up Guys except for the car that Pacino steals. Most of the clothes were vintage. The colors were muted. It was like time had forgotten this town and these people.

Q. Can you say a bit more about your approach to material that's both comic and serious?
Fisher: It was important to ground this entire script in reality. That was the only way for it to work. We rehearsed and had long discussions about keeping everything real, even when it comes to hyper-blown situations. Fortunately, I had the greatest actors in the world to work with, and they only know how to do things real. When it felt false, we did another take...It was incredible fun. Sometimes I would get lost just watching them act, and forget I was directing. It was also a lot of work, but I would gladly do it again.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The last days of a long marriage

Beautifully acted and unflinchingly honest, Michael Haneke's Amour goes where few movies have the courage to venture.
The living room is spacious enough to accommodate a grand piano. The walls are lined with books, CDs and LPs, relics of a sort. The stereo equipment looks as if it dates to the 1980s. Georges and Anne, both in their 80s, inhabit this Parisian apartment. They were classical musicians; she taught piano at a high enough level to help some of her students become concert artists.

You can tell by the lived-in look of things, that Georges and Anne have resided in this apartment for a long time. It's quiet, even isolated, filled with a sense of daily life that has settled into comfortable routine.

One night Georges and Anne return home from a concert to discover that their front door has been pried open. Nothing seems to be missing. Let's say that this is more than an attempted burglary; it's a foreboding.

The next day, while seated at the kitchen table and discussing how to get the door repaired, Anne suffers a stroke, the first sign of what will become a labored deterioration, a spreading paralysis that will lead her through various stages of disablement and ultimately to death.

If the story of Anne's final days weren't in the care of Austrian director Michael Haneke, Amour easily could have drifted into movie-of-the-week territory, a smorgasbord of melodrama and sentiment. But Haneke (The White Ribbon and Cache) is not given either to melodrama or sentiment, and he delivers Amour in long slow takes that demand that we consider what it's like to watch someone die. He offers no soothing interruptions. No flashbacks to happier times.

Although punctuated by visits from Georges and Anne's daughter (Isabelle Huppert), a few nurses and the apartment's helpful superintendent and his wife, Amour never feels like anything but a two-hander, a slow dance performed by two amazing actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant (familiar from A Man and A Woman) and Emmanuelle Riva (the girl in Hiroshima Mon Amour). These two icons of French cinema give two of the year's best performances. Riva's has been acknowledged with an Academy Award nomination; Amour has been nominated for best picture and best foreign-language film, and Haneke received a best director nod. And, yes, the overlooked Trintignant deserved an Oscar nomination, as well.

Awards considerations aside, Amour stands as a movie of compelling subtleties and careful refinements, a late-life study that never feels studied.

The solitude of the apartment which Georges and Anne occupy tells us of their slow removal from a more bustling life. One imagines days in which they entertained, dinners full of wine and lively conversation. We suppose that many of their friends are gone: During the movie, Georges leaves the apartment to attend a funeral, one of his few forays into the world beyond what seems to have become a retreat.

The drama centers on Anne's decline. After an unsuccessful surgery, she returns home knowing that her situation is hopeless. Georges assumes a caretaker role, shuffling about the apartment, tending to Anne's needs, being chastised by her when she catches him looking at her too long. Is he wondering whether she's OK? Trying to understand how she's adjusting to the inevitability of her fate? Contemplating life after she's gone? Forming a mental picture that will last?

It matters, I suppose, that Georges and Annes are cultured people. They've lived a life in the arts. They have made and appreciated beautiful music. They have read the latest books. They have kept up with events. Now -- like people in a waiting room -- they anticipate an arrival; they're waiting for Anne to die. Inside their apartment, time seems to have slowed and even expanded, the way it does when waiting becomes a preoccupation.

The title of the movie should not be overlooked. Amour certainly qualifies as a love story. The contours of the relationship between Georges and Anne are well-defined. We can imagine their lives before we meet them, and if you know these actors from their younger days, you sometimes may see traces of their former selves. As it must, what was has become what is.

So what happens? Georges must help Anne in the bathroom; he must help her exercise her withering body; he must watch as she loses control of her bodily functions; he must listen when she's reduced to forcing out bits of sentences that barely make sense. Haneke brings a near-reportorial eye to all of this. And Trintignant maintains a kind of gentle resolve as he tends to Anne.

Georges doesn't want to let Anne go. At the same time, he understands that she's suffering indignities that she finds intolerable. She's not fighting death; she's battling the degradation of illness.

Georges tells his daughter, who wonders whether Anne shouldn't be put into a home, that he will not allow it. He promised Anne he wouldn't let her die in an institution. For Georges and Anne, life no longer has much to do with outsiders, even their daughter.

At one point, Anne looks at the family photo albums, and decides that life has beauty. But Georges and Anne seek no refuge in the past; they're firmly fixed in the present -- and, for them, the present is challenging because they know that they're no longer in control of much of anything -- if, indeed, they ever were.

Georges and Anne have their own ways of reacting to the situation in which they find themselves. I think it's possible to tell, for example, what they might have argued about when they were younger and more vital.

Among other things, Amour is a portrait of a long marriage, a snapshot taken during love's final act. Sans a musical score, sans visual embellishment, Haneke contemplates life's end. For many that may sound like a daunting, discouraging and unsatisfying.

I found Amour to be none of those things, but saw it as a carefully distilled and pared down portrait of a marriage that involves us in the lives of Georges and Anne, as those lives are near their end.

Honest as it is spare, Amour asks us to wonder what we would want if we were Georges and Anne, to acknowledge that if we're lucky enough to live long enough, we will become Georges and Anne -- and it will not be easy. If we're really fortunate, we may be able, as Anne does at one point, to acknowledge the beauty of what we've experienced.

'Quartet' plays nice -- too nice

Quartet is noteworthy for being Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut. Little else about the movie deserves pressing into one's book of cinema memories. Treating its aging characters as colorfully humorous, Quartet puts its mountain of cliches into the hands of a collection of British actors who earn respect simply by showing up. The movie takes place in an estate-like home for aging musicians as they prepare for a fund-raising gala that (yes) is needed to save the institution from bankruptcy. Faint ripples of drama emerge when Maggie Smith's Jean Horton shows up, much to the consternation of her ex-husband Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay), another of the home's residents. Reginald never has forgiven Jean for a long-ago dalliance. Moments of sentiment bump up against the movie's comic core. The screenplay by Ronald Harwood, who adapted his own play, specializes in broadly drawn characters. Michael Gambon is the imperious impresario who's trying to pull the gala together; Pauline Collins plays the addled, memory-challenged Cissy; and Billy Connolly portrays the obligatory dirty old man. It's difficult to argue with the abilities of a cast of established veterans. But the movie's poignant moments veer toward the maudlin, and there's not a lot of drama in wondering whether Smith and Courtenay will reach some sort of rapprochement or whether four singers can be put together to perform a quartet from Rigoletto. Smith, in fine form, plays a reluctant diva; Jean must be persuaded to participate in the quartet. For all the fuss about the gala, it looks far too modest to support the estate and grounds where most of the movie takes place. A scene in which Courtenay's character lectures to a group of rap-oriented youngsters about the glories of opera seems neutered of any bite. And a movie about serious music surely could have done better than Dario Marianelli's warm bath of a score. Oh well, perhaps it's fitting accompaniment for such a middle-brow massage of a movie.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

'Broken City' touches familiar bases

A thriller that may be OK for January, but isn't as good as its cast..
A justice-seeking cop takes matters into this own hands. A long-time New York City mayor works the system and might on occasion dip into his hand into vats of corruption. An opposition candidate says he wants to bring the fresh air of reform to the city. These are some of the ingredients in Broken City, a thriller steeped in so much urban malfeasance that it feels like the recurrence of a chronic disease. To moviegoers, the symptoms are drearily familiar.

Starring Mark Wahlberg as a former NYPD lieutenant who has taken up work as a private investigator, the movie's strong supporting cast includes Russell Crowe (as the reigning New York City mayor); Catherine Zeta-Jones (as his wife); Jeffrey Wright (as New York's police commissioner) and Barry Pepper (as a reform candidate who's opposing what appears to be the mayor's umpteenth run for office).

In this outing, director Allen Hughes (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents and The Book of Eli) makes his first solo effort, operating without his brother, Albert, with whom he usually collaborates. Like the screenplay by Brian Tucker, Hughes's direction isn't always vice-tight, and although his movie qualifies as decent January fare, its characters and observations seem to have fallen off the library shelf marked "Urban Rot."

Wahlberg is the kind of actor who can occupy the center of a movie with an ordinary-guy vibe, and he does that here. His Billy Taggert is a hot-headed ex-cop and struggling alcoholic who left the police force after being acquitted of murder. A court ruled that Billy acted in self-defense, but an unexpected development threatened to cloud the waters, and Billy was forced to take one for the team.

Seven years after leaving the force, Billy has been reduced to taking surreptitious photos of philandering spouses, and trying to collect back fees from deadbeat clients.

Billy returns to mainstream action when Crowe's Mayor Hostetler hires him for a hush-hush job. Billy's told the city's First Lady is having an affair. The mayor wants to know who's poaching on his territory -- and that's only the beginning of what turns into a festival of back-stabbing.

A plump-looking, pumpkin-faced Crowe doesn't quite conquer a New York accent, but he tries to jam as much color as possible into an off-the-rack urban character. Zeta-Jones brings cool beauty and intelligence to her role; and Wright, always good for an off-balance performance, makes the police commissioner difficult to pin down.

Alona Tal impresses as Billy's sassy secretary, and Natalie Martinez appears as Billy's actress girlfriend. Martinez finds herself at the heart of a mostly unnecessary script detour.

The plot can feel as dense as New York traffic, and at one, point, Hughes even tries his hand at a New York City car chase. Let's just say it doesn't measure up to the standard set by William Friedkin in the French Connection.

If you sit through the end credits, you'll notice that some of the movie was filmed in New Orleans. Whether this had anything to do with a nagging sense that something's missing from this New York City-based drama is anybody's guess. Broken City tries hard to be gritty and savvy, but we've seen enough movies to already know what it spends considerable energy discovering.

Bullets, blood -- and Arnold

Schwarzenegger's older, but still ready for action. Are we?
Arnold Schwarzenegger continues his big-screen comeback with The Last Stand, a zealously violent and gleefully preposterous explosion of dramatic cliches and gun violence.

Korean director Kim Jee-woon certainly does his best to bring super-charged kick to a tired story about a small-town sheriff (Schwarzenegger) who faces off against an escaped Mexican drug czar (Eduardo Noriega). After out-foxing his FBI captors, Noriega's Gabriel Cortez heads for the border. Along the way, he's helped by a small army of brutal loyalists.

Where FBI agents -- led by Forest Whitaker -- fail, Schwarzenegger's Ray Owens is bound to succeed, hardly a spoiler in a movie that appropriates key plot points from every Western in which lawmen face impossible odds. What? You thought Arnold would come off as a chump?

Arnold's Sheriff Owens receives support from his deputies (Luis Guzman, Jamie Alexander and Zach Gilford). Johnny Knoxville provides what passes for comic relief as an oddball collector of exotic weapons, some of which figure in the movie's final showdown.

We know from the start that Cortez and Sheriff Ray will cross paths in a last-ditch effort to keep Cortez from crossing the border.

The movie's purposefully far-fetched approach finds Schwarzenegger playing things straight in a part that occasionally requires him to refer to the fact that he's growing older. Not to worry. At 65, Arnold's still capable of turning himself into a human assault weapon.

When someone is blown away in this cartoonish bloodbath of a movie, they're really blown away, blasted into oblivion amid flashing sprays of blood. Witness what happens to poor Harry Dean Stanton, who spends a hot minute on screen as a farmer who's murdered by one of the drug czar's henchmen (Peter Stormare).

To up the ante, Cortez takes a female FBI agent (Genesis Rodriguez) hostage as he barrels toward the border in a sleek black sports car that's capable of hitting speeds of 197 miles-per-hour. He thinks he's invincible.

Kim (The Good, The Bad, The Weird) doesn't skimp on action or allow much time for soul searching. On at least one occasion, he's able to strut his stuff. A set-piece built around a car chase in a cornfield qualifies as the movie's imaginative high point.

Although The Last Stand certainly isn't meant to be taken seriously, it sometimes made me uneasy. How many more movies do we need in which artillery speaks a lot louder than any of the dialog? Fair to say, The Last Stand does its share of cheer-leading for weaponry and blood.

Perhaps to make sure that we know Arnold still has what it takes, Last Stand also offers a number of "Schwarzen-liners," the kind of one-liners that have defined Arnold's career. "I'm the sheriff,'' says Ray, as if his job title contained a Ulysses-sized biography. "My honor is not for sale."

Ray creaks a little after a fight -- and so does The Last Stand, which (either wisely or foolishly (depending on how you look at it) tries to cover its paucity with Kim's visual pyrotechnics.

Oh well, you can't say that the former governor of California isn't trying to restore his box-office primacy. Early in the movie, we learn that Ray deserted Los Angeles crime-fighting for a quieter life in small-town Arizona. He's had his fill of the big time. Unlike Ray, I don't think that's the direction Schwarzenegger wants to head.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A look at an Oakland ER

A documentary takes us inside the emergency room of a public hospital -- and there's not a single George Clooney in sight.
The doctors are thorough, compassionate and composed. The nursing assistant who manages the traffic-flow is good-humored, likable and patient. Understandably, the patients -- many of whom wait hours to be seen -- are often frustrated.

We're talking about the emergency room in Oakland's Highland Hospital, which is where director Peter Nicks spent five months in 2010 shooting his emotionally devastating and deeply revealing documentary, The Waiting Room.

Nicks introduces us to the population of the ER, focusing on several patients -- a long-haired young man with a tumor that needs removing, a frightened girl with strep throat and a low-wage carpet installer with back problems that may require surgery. All of them are being buffeted by economic, as well as health issues.

The Waiting Room, which creates the illusion of a long day in the ER, makes a strong case for single-payer medical insurance. That's not Nicks's conclusion; it's mine. Without adornment or editorializing, Nicks shows us -- at ground zero level -- what it's like to seek care in the over-crowded emergency room of a public hospital.

Nicks also introduces us to cross-section of Alameda County residents, most of whom are in the ER because they have no other options. They all need help, but the movie clearly demonstrates that ERs shouldn't be functioning as the only points of care for people who are uninsured, tied to minimum-wage jobs, unemployed and otherwise stressed.

Nicks captures a couple of dramatic, trauma cases (the film includes one death), but most of the people who visit Highland probably would be happy to be treated elsewhere. And although the physicians work hard to treat those in need, they know that ERs are ill-suited for long-term or follow-up care. They're designed to deal with crisis -- not to provide on-going health coverage.

Meticulous and non-judgmental, The Waiting Room accomplishes at least two things: It gives us a real-life slice of ER medicine with all its pain, fear, triumphs, tedium and frustration, and makes real the struggle that many face as they fight to stay healthy.

The movie leaves us wondering whether the situation will change with The Affordable Care Act. An expansion of Medicare should help, but if doctors decline to treat Medicare patients or if there are too few doctors to meet growing demand, it's possible that burden on ERs will not be lifted, and for many, scenes like those at Highland Hospital will remain a staple of daily life.

Friday, January 11, 2013

'Argo' tops Critics Choice awards

Overlooked by Oscar for his direction of Argo, Ben Affleck received a bit of consolation Thursday night (Jan. 10) when he was voted best director at the 18th annual Critics Choice Awards, a presentation of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Earlier, I gave you the BFCA nominees, so it's only fair that I let you know who won.

And if you're not sick of year-end awards yet, there's still the Golden Globes on Sunday (Jan. 12) and, oh yeah, the Oscars, which air on Feb. 24.

Best Picture
Best Director
Ben Affleck, Argo
Best Actor
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Best Actress
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Best Supporting Actor
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Best Supporting Actress
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Best Original Screenplay
Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained
Best Adapted Screenplay
Tony Kushner, Lincoln
Best Cinematography
Claudio Miranda, Life of Pi
Best Art Direction
Anna Karenina
Best Editing
Zero Dark Thirty
Best Costume Design
Jacqueline Durran, Anna Karenina
Best Makeup
Cloud Atlas
Best Visual Effects
Life of Pi
Best Animated Feature
Wreck It Ralph
Best Comedy
Silver Linings Playbook
Best Actor in a Comedy
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Best Actress in a Comedy
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Best Ensemble
Silver Linings Playbook
Best Foreign Language Film
Best Documentary Feature
Searching for Sugar Man
Best Song
Skyfall, from Skyfall
Best Score
John Williams, Lincoln
Best Action Movie
Best Actor in an Action Movie
Daniel Craig, Skyfall
Best Actress in an Action Movie
Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games
Best Sci-fi/Horror Movie
Best Young Actor/Actress
Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild

Thursday, January 10, 2013

'Zero Dark Thirty,' one the year's best

Director Kathryn Bigelow takes us into a shadow world as the CIA hunts for Bin Laden.

The trouble with reviewing a movie that's already opened in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago -- particularly one that has generated a fair amount of controversy -- is that informed viewers already may have burned out on all the surrounding arguments. In the case of Kathryn Bigelow's riveting Zero Dark Thirty, heated discussion has centered on early picture scenes in which a prisoner is tortured in hopes that he will reveal information leading to the capture of Osama Bin Laden.

A trifecta of senators -- Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- have accused the film of being "grossly inaccurate." Others have chimed in, saying the movie wrongly suggests that waterboarding and other forms of extreme interrogation led to information vital to locating Bin Laden.

I leave it to you to decide whether the film makes an argument for the efficacy of torture. I didn't think so. The captive who's being humiliated, waterboarded and shoved in a box only begins to spill the beans when he's treated well, fed decently and not humiliated. Is this a case of good cop trumping bad cop? I don't really know. Maybe the movie doesn't, either.

If I were going to quibble with Zero Dark Thirty, which I found seriously compelling and generally provocative, I'd say that it's most vulnerable for not taking a moral stance about many of the events that it depicts.

When I first saw the movie, the absence of such a clearly defined position bothered me; I kept wondering what Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal thought about the events they were depicting in the complex narrative they've assembled with skill and finesse.

But the more I thought about it, the more I began to feel grateful that Bigelow presents the material in ways that allow us to reach our own conclusions. I certainly didn't leave the theater thinking it was commendable that the U.S. tortured people -- and, yes, waterboarding certainly looks like torture.

Remember, though, the CIA's use of waterboarding was endorsed by some pretty high level politicians in the immediate wake of Sept. 11, 2001. Maybe you even felt that extreme measures were justifiable if they helped to prevent another attack.

For my part, I viewed Zero Dark Thirty mostly as a backstage drama to history. Bigelow won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker (2008), a film about a small squad that disarmed explosive devises in Iraq. Like that movie, Zero Dark Thirty presents us with a slice of reality that remains remote for most of us. It reminds us that in our consumer-oriented, mall-driven lives, few of us pay attention to the brutal realities that preoccupy some Americans, in this case numerous CIA operatives.

The movie's credit, it doesn't lionize its main character. Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a CIA agent whose persistence -- often in the face of stiff opposition -- leads to the killing of Bin Laden. Chastain's Maya, a CIA newbie, enters the movie when she's thrust into an interrogation that's not easy to watch. The session is being led by a seasoned CIA agent (Jason Clarke), a man who seems to believe that a certain amount of "dirty" work comes along with the job, but that not everyone can (or should) try to do it.

Loose limbed and comfortably informal, Clarke's Dan maintains that no prisoner will talk until he accepts the fact that his position is entirely hopeless.

Chastain has the good sense not to turn Maya into a conventional heroine. She's often at odds with others; she's insistent when she believes she's got the goods; and she seems to have no life beyond her CIA duties.

Instead of dwelling on Maya as a character, Bigelow makes her a lynchpin in a story that hopscotches the world, prying open the lid that normally keeps CIA activities under wraps.

Throughout, Chastain receives able support from a large cast. Stand-outs include Kyle Chandler, as the head of CIA operations in Islamabad; Jennifer Ehle, as a CIA veteran who, unlike Maya, has a family and a less obsessive view of her work; and James Gandolfini, as the head of the CIA.

Boal's narrative compresses the 10 years that preceded a SEAL team's foray into Pakistan, where Bin Laden was killed. Such concision is bound to result in omissions and maybe even some misrepresentations. But both Boal and Bigelow say that the movie has been thoroughly researched. And even if Zero Dark Thirty isn't 100 percent accurate, it serves as an intriguing catalog of the complex and often-troubling responses that have developed in a post 9/11 world.

To provide context, Bigelow begins with a dark screen. We hear snippets of real phone conversations from people trapped in the World Trade Center. We don't need to see the twin towers fall to be reminded that the grief and panic that followed 9/11 helped create the atmosphere in which the rest of the movie unfolds.

Don't get me wrong. Zero Dark Thirty is no faux documentary or even a ''docudrama." It's a dramatic recreation of events that provides an involving and detailed look at how the CIA worked to find Bin Laden.

It spoils nothing to tell you that Bigelow doesn't trump up the killing for extra kick, although the raid on Bin Laden's Abbottabad compound is plenty tense. After 10 years of sleuthing, interrogating, bribery, conniving, obsession, stretched ethics and internal CIA bickering, we wind up with one guy in a body bag. It's not exactly a triumphant moment, in part because just about everybody looks smaller when they're dead.

So, you decide whether it was all worth it. You decide how you feel about this shadow world of espionage, namely what you think of some of the means employed to achieve the goal of finding Bin Laden. As I've said, Zero Dark Thirty won't tell you how to feel, but it will, I think, demand that you ask some difficult questions.

Heavy gunfire, but 'Gangster Squad' misses

A great cast can't salvage and over-stylized look at LA crime in the late 1940s.
Sitting through Gangster Squad is a bit like watching a bad Brian DePalma movie, maybe a low-grade version of The Untouchables. I felt cheated. If I'm going to watch bad De Palma, I'd prefer that it be directed by De Palma rather than by Ruben Fleischer , best known for 30 Minutes or Less and Zombieland.

Perhaps because he's dealing with so many familiar elements, Fleischer relies heavily on style to spiff up the story of a small squad of LA cops who use rogue methods to take down famed gangster Mickey Cohen. Gangster Squad, we're told at the outset, was inspired by a true story, but the movie's shamelessly enhanced dramatic oomph made me wonder whether inspiration hadn't trumped accuracy.

According to the movie, Cohen attained so much power in post-war LA that he threatened to take control of the city, a feat he accomplished by showering the police and select judges with equal amounts of bribery and threat. In defiance of the Chicago mob, Cohen also attempted to corner the market on all West Coast bookmaking. He might have succeeded, too, had it not been for the Gangster Squad, a group of LA cops who worked deep undercover, never receiving credit for their efforts.

In telling what could have been a rewardingly sleazy LA tale, Fleischer and screenwriter Will Beall put a lot of second-rate dialog in the mouths of many thinly drawn characters. The movie is so pulpy, the Tommy Gun blasts practically scream out for "blam! blam!" exclamation points.

If you've read anything about Gangster Squad, you already know that the movie was scheduled for earlier release, but was delayed because it once contained a shooting scene at the famed Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Not surprisingly, such a scene (now gone) seemed in poor taste after the Aurora multiplex shootings, although I wonder if it would have been in any better taste had that execrable bit of real-life violence never occurred.

Offensive levels of violence aside, Gangster Squad represents a significantly wasted opportunity, mostly because Fleischer has assembled an impressive cast.

A sneering Sean Penn plays Mickey Cohen. Josh Brolin leads the Gangster Squad of the title. He's joined by Ryan Gosling, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Pena, Robert Patrick and Anthony Mackie, all of whom play cops recruited to put Cohen out of business.

That's a strong enough roster to make the movie's by-the-numbers script even more distressing. It's like asking a professional all-star team to play pick-up games in the park.

Emma Stone joins this heat-packing boys' club as Cohen's girlfriend, a woman who falls for Gosling's character, a jaded cop who doesn't sign up for the Gangster Squad until he sees an innocent shoe shine boy gunned down in the streets. Hey, even the most cynical cop has his standards.

The Gangster Squad is formed when the LA police chief (a bearish Nick Nolte) decides that the only way to topple Cohen is to fight fire with fire, an idea as unoriginal as the way I've just expressed it. Nolte's William Parker encourages his squad of renegades to step outside the law and wreak havoc on a Cohen empire built on profits from prostitution and gambling. Essentially, this means that they smash a lot of furniture, kick in doors and stuff like that. When they're about to shoot a bunch of bad guys, they say things such as "Light 'em up."

Fleischer seems to have encouraged over-the-top acting, particularly from Penn, who turns in one of his least interesting performances as the rapacious, sadistic Cohen. Fully embracing Cohen's darkest impulses, Penn makes the gangster seem so repulsive, you wonder why his own men don't bump him off.

There's no skimping on violence with the number of bullets almost matching the number of cliches in a script that scrambles film noir and western conceits while making a feeble attempt to raise an embarrassingly obvious moral question: Is it OK for cops to turn to savagery in pursuit of a good cause? Adjustment issues faced by World War II vets -- notably Brolin and Gosling's characters -- receive short, simplistic shrift.

Little about the dialog is subtle or nuanced, so the actors are forced to work awfully close to the surface. Brolin rages; Gosling does cool; Ribisi (as the 1940's-style techno geek) raises issues of conscience; Patrick acts as if he's just wandered in from the set of a B-western; Mackie remains calm under fire; and Pena is stuck in the tag-along role.

Fleischer may have wanted to make a movie in which everything comes across as pure and unadulterated -- a clash of boldly drawn big-screen archetypes. It mostly doesn't work, and Gangster Squad earns its stripes as the year's first disappointment. I suspect it won't be the last.

Oscar speaks. I listen and react

Another year. More Oscar nominations.

And guess what? Overall, it's not a bad crop.

Although there's plenty to complain about (see below), this year's crop of nominations were, for the most part, well deserved and showed a surprising amount of diversity. From Beasts of the Southern Wild to Django Unchained to Zero Dark Thirty to Life of Pi (best picture nominees along with frontrunner Lincoln), this year's nominations argue against the idea that Hollywood turns out nothing but formula and pap, which is not the same thing as saying that Hollywood always aspires to artistic excellence, but still ...

For a complete list of nominees, click here:
A few quick reactions to this year's nominations, some favorable, some not.

Nice Surprises:
Silver Linings Playbook. After The Directors Guild of America omitted David O. Russell from its list, I expected the Academy to follow suit. It didn't, and I'm glad. Not only was Russell nominated for best director, but Silver Linings Playbook scored in every major category: picture, actor (Bradley Cooper), actress (Jennifer Lawrence), supporting actor (Robert DeNiro), supporting actress (Jacki Weaver) and adapted screenplay. Very cool. And for all the Lincoln hoopla, I'd have no objection to seeing Silver Linings Playbook win best picture. What's wrong with "enjoyable" anyway?

Beasts of the Southern Wild earns Oscar nominations for best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay and best actress. Nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis received a best actress nod for playing Hushpuppy, a strong willed six-year old living in the Louisiana bayou. I'd be really shocked if Beasts won in any of its categories, but I was surprised to see it so strongly represented the early going.

Wallis, who's now nine and the youngest person ever nominated in the best actress category, auditioned for Beasts at the age of five. So what exactly does her nomination say to all those striving actors studying, auditioning, hoping and praying for a chance to be seen?

Michael Haneke is nominated in the best director category. Haneke (The White Ribbon, Funny Games and Cache) is a brilliant, uncompromising director, but in many ways, his Amour is an actor's movie. Still, any time the Academy recognizes a talent such as Haneke, it's cause for celebration. Amour is nominated for best picture, best foreign-language film and best original screenplay with its lead actress, Emmanuelle Riva, earning a nomination as best actress.

Alan Arkin. OK, it's not really a surprise. I expected to see Arkin's name on the list of best supporting actors, but this is one instance in which I'm happy to see the Academy do the predictable thing. Arkin was great as a fading, cynical movie producer in Argo.

And, no, I wouldn't have been disappointed to see Matthew McConaughey on the list for his performance as a Texas prosecutor in Bernie, perhaps replacing Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained) on that list.

And now for some Oscar missteps:
John Hawkes is bypassed for best actor. In The Sessions, Hawkes played Mark O'Brien, a writer who's confined to an iron lung. Not wanting to miss out on one of life's great pleasures, O'Brien hired a sex surrogate to help him fulfill a dream of experiencing life to its fullest. Hawkes's performance? No pandering for sympathy, lots of humor and a thorough physical transformation. I might have bumped Hugh Jackman, nominated in this category for Les Miserables. To make matters worse, Helen Hunt, who played the sex surrogate, received a well-deserved nomination in the best supporting actress category.

Dark Knight Sinks. No nominations for Dark Knight Rises. Not one. Director Christopher Nolan brought his Batman trilogy to a conclusion with style and with hints of ambiguity that are unusual for a big-ticket summer movie. It should have been the 10th nominee in a nine-movie, best-picture field.

Ben Affleck. Affleck was bypassed in the best-director category, which must have left him shaking his head. Entertaining, relevant and boasting some of the year's tensest scenes, Argo should have earned Affleck a nod. I might have dropped surprise nominee Ben Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) from the list. Zeitlin's movie about a six-year-old girl's struggle for survival in the Louisiana bayou country was a critics' darling and a strong movie. To make it, Zeitlin had to overcome a major difficulties (heat, mosquitos, a cast of non-actors, and a limited budget by Hollywood standards). I understand why he made the cut. But I think Affleck has grown as a director, and if someone gave me a choice of which movie to rematch, I'd pick Argo, which did make the best-picture list and also was nominated for best adapted screenplay, where it will compete against Beasts and three other movies.

Kathryn Bigelow is bypassed in the best-director category. Zero Dark Thirty was nominated for best picture, and also earned a best-actress nod for Jessica Chastain, as well as a nomination for best original screenplay. Oscar nominations are always full of anomalies, but did the Academy think that an actress and a screenplay were sufficient to produce one of the year's most compelling and provocative movies?

Paul Thomas Anderson. No best-picture nomination for The Master. No best director nomination. No best original screenplay nomination. Odd because all the principal actors from The Master (Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams) received nominations in acting categories. Of all the directors on Oscar's list, I'd say that none is as consistently creative and daring as Anderson. And while we're at it, how about Jonny Greenwood's score for The Master? No nominations there, either.

Jean-Louis Trintignant was shut out of best-actor category as one half of an aging couple in the brilliant Amour. Look, I'm happy that Amour is receiving a lot of recognition, a best picture nomination, a best foreign-language film nomination, a best actress nomination for Emmanuelle Riva, who played Trintignant's wife. But he was every bit as good as Riva, maybe better.

I could go on, but I think I'll call a halt to carping and return to the original thought that, overall, the Academy did a decent job.

If you're awards crazy, don't forget to tune in for The Critics' Choice Awards of the Broadcast Film Critics Association this evening (Jan. 10) on the CW network (8 p.m. MT) and, of course, The Golden Globes will be broadcast on NBC Sunday at 6 p.m.

One more thing: Denver may not be the center of the film universe, but it does have a critics' association: For the record, here are the 2013 winners as selected by the Denver Film Critics Society:
Best Film - Argo
Best Achievement in Directing - Ben Affleck, Argo
Best Lead Performance by an Actor, Male - Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Best Lead Performance by an Actor, Female - Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Best Supporting Performance by an Actor, Male - Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Best Supporting Performance by an Actor, Female - Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Best Animated Feature - ParaNorman
Best Original Screenplay - Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom
Best Adapted Screenplay - David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Best Documentary Feature - Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Best Original Song Skyfall, Adele, Skyfall
Best Original Score - Hans Zimmer, The Dark Knight Rises
Best Non-English Language Feature - Amour

Monday, January 7, 2013

Awards season has arrived

Critics' Choice Awards kick off busy awards season this week.
Awards freaks may find themselves in a blissful mood this Thursday (Jan. 10). At 6:30 a.m. MT, Emma Stone and Seth MacFarlane will kick off the day by announcing the nominees for the 85th Academy Awards, which will be handed out Sunday, Feb. 24.

The announcements should give awards mavens ample time to fret about who was dissed by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, who received an unexpected career boost, and who fell into the we-knew-it-all-along category.

But wait. There's more. Really.

Later that evening -- at 7 p.m. MT Jan. 10 -- the CW network (check local listings) will broadcast the 18th annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards, which recognize the year's best film achievements as voted by members of The Broadcast Film Critics Association.

Unlike the Oscars, the BFCA gives awards for comedy, sci-fi and horror and action movies. Still, the main categories -- best film, best actor, best actress and best director, etc. -- tend to garner the most attention, especially from those looking for Oscar bellwethers.

This year, Lincoln lead the BFCA voting with 13 nominations; Les Miserables came in second with 11 nominations and Silver Linings Playbook took third place with 10.

All of the nominees in the major categories will be in attendance for the Critics' Choice Movie Awards, which should make for interesting television, particularly if some of those nominees are overlooked by Oscar.

You can find the full list of BFCA nominees by scrolling through this site or by visiting the BFCA web site.

As a member of the BFCA, I've already filled out my ballot. It wasn't easy because -- at least in the year's final quarter -- we saw a lot of good films.

And just so that you can mark you calendars, more on Oscar: I'll be hosting an Oscar preview at the Sie Film Center, 2510 E. Colfax Ave., at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 19. If you live in the Denver area you can join me (and my guests) as we ruminate, predict and, in a few instances, gnash our teeth over Oscar. And unlike other Cinema Salon programs that I conduct at the FilmCenter, this one's free.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Watching an artist at work

I love learning about people who make a life out of doing things that seem highly impractical, perhaps even ill-advised. Photographer Gregory Crewdson is such a person, an artist whose highly composed photographs require as much logistical effort as it takes to make a small movie. Whether working on a set or on a location, Crewdson is accompanied by a crew, by the people who appear in his photographs and by a willingness to massage reality until it conforms to the mysteriousness of the moment or mood he's trying to convey. The documentary Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters focuses on work the artist did for a series entitled Beneath the Roses, shot over a six-year period beginning in 2002. I suppose it's possible that Crewdson, the son of a psychiatrist, could capture some of the same feelings by photographing scenes that he happened upon. But why leave things to chance? Crewdson, who's more in the tradition of still-life painting than photo-journalism, creates resonant, suggestive images that feel as if they've been distilled from time and that take us to places that hover ever so slightly beyond anything we can articulate. It's as if we glimpsed a moment that seemed especially rich, turned to look again, and, then, got caught in that moment's strange undertow. If you've never heard of Crewdson, director Ben Shapiro will show you a lot about how he works -- with painstaking attention to detail -- and more importantly, you'll be exposed to an important and haunting body of work.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

'The Impossible' hits with real force

Naomi Watts takes a beating in a harrowing movie about a real-life disaster..
For 25 or so early-picture minutes, The Impossible is as compelling as moviemaking gets. Credit Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona with presenting a full-blown and entirely harrowing recreation of the Indian Ocean tsunami that struck Thailand on the day after Christmas, 2004.

The movie begins with a title card telling us that it's going to focus on the tsunami -- which claimed more than 200,000 lives throughout the Asian region -- so even its placid opening scenes keep us on edge. And in case we weren't already uneasy, Bayona -- who directed the horror movie The Orphanage -- provides a few ominous forebodings of what's to come as a family flies to Thailand for a Christmas vacation.

Using CGI and a variety of other techniques, Bayona has made the most convincing depiction of a natural catastrophe that I can recall seeing on screen. (If you want to know more about how Bayona accomplished this impressive feat, you can read an article about it in the New York Times. For my purposes, I'd simply say that you'll feel the full force of the tsunami, and you may have difficulty watching the havoc it wreaks.

Bayona's movie is based on the true story of a vacationing family that was stuck in the tsunami. That Spanish family has been converted into an English family for the movie with Naomi Watts playing the mother and Ewan McGregor, the father. They're Maria and Henry, parents of three sons (Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast).

The heart of the movie belongs to Watts and Holland. Watts portrays a physician who set aside her career to tend to her children. As the movie unfolds, she takes a major beating, and whoever did Watts's make-up deserves credit for making her look increasingly like someone with a foot on death's doorstep.

Separated from the rest of the family by the tsunami, Holland and Watts wind up together. Their ordeal is ... well ... just that, an ordeal, and it moves from devastated Thai landscapes to a makeshift hospital, where suffering has reached unbearable proportions and injuries are shown with a graphic realism that's not for the squeamish.

Watts gives a strong performance as an injured woman desperately trying to hang onto life, exhibiting strength of spirit even when lying in a hospital bed. Holland keeps pace as the oldest son, a kid who's forced to deal with a full plate of woe and who rises to the challenge.

Bayona does his best to suggest the scope of physical and human destruction that surrounds a family that was dealt a stunning blow by nature and then left to deal with the rampant confusion that followed.

Having said all that, I'm of two minds about The Impossible, which includes one sequence that seems too obviously manipulative for a film that's dealing so much death. I can't describe it without adding a spoiler, but you'll know it when you see it because you'll probably be rolling your eyes.

I also wondered whether a movie such as The Impossible isn't trafficking in a kind of weird and troubling voyeurism by flooding us with so much powerfully portrayed pain and suffering.

Then there's the other of those two minds, the mind that felt emotionally wrung out by The Impossible, which brought me as a close to an epic natural disaster as I ever want to get -- and which told me a truly remarkable story.

Chasing rock 'no' roll dreams

Soprano's creator David Chase returns to New Jersey, but his film loses its way.
Writer/director David Chase -- the estimable and obviously talented creator of HBO's The Sopranos -- returns to his native New Jersey to tell the story of a group of young men who form (what else?) a rock band.

Looking back on the movie, I'm not sure whether it's more accurate to classify Chase's Not Fade Away as a movie or as an illustrated sound track.

Chase may have wanted to remind us that for every E-Street Band -- Bruce Springsteen's legendary Jersey group -- hundreds of talented wannabes were destined to fade into obscurity. He has hold of a strong idea, but doesn't find quite enough dramatic focus to make it click.

Set during the 1960s, an episodic story centers on Doug (John Magaro), a young suburban drummer who joins a band. Doug hits his stride at a party when he unleashes his version of Time Is on My Side. Doug also becomes involved in a romance with a girl named Grace (Bella Heathcote), but his jealousy and judgments eventually cause the relationship to falter.

Chase's approach to the material makes room for occasional forays into heavy-handed drama. An example: Doug's working-class father (James Gandolfini) can't believe that his son has abandoned college to pursue rock 'n' roll dreams.

The band experiences ups and downs as Chase loads the sound track with music from the Kinks, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Bo Diddley, the Beatles and more. (Chase presumably received an assist in the music department from E Street Band veteran and Sopranos regular Steven Van Zandt, who served as the movie's executive producer.)

A narration provided by Doug's younger sister (Meg Guzulescu) may have been intended to hold things together. But the movie remains a loosely assembled collection of scenes and ideas that never coheres into much of anything, a sketchbook of the '60s.

Let me add a quick p.s.: Although I'm not sure what it had to do with anything, I loved the movie's final shot, which takes place after Doug and Grace have traveled to Los Angeles.