Thursday, February 28, 2013

Turn 21, drink until you drop

What? You expected more than a raunchiest from the guys who wrote The Hangover?
I was still in college on the day I turned 21. I remember walking into a bar near campus and finding a seat. I secretely hoped that the bartender would look at me suspiciously so that I could whip out my driver's license and demand the service to which my new maturity entitled me. Instead, I got a half-hearted request for an ID, followed by an even more indifferent, "What'll you have?"

So went my unceremonious entry into the world of legal drinking.

The new comedy 21 and Over revolves around the events accompanying one young man's 21st birthday. He's Jeff Chang (Justin Chon), and his friends always call him by both his first and his last names. On the eve of an interview for admission to medical school, Jeff Chang veers from the straight and narrow. The reason: He's visited by two long-time friends (Miles Teller and Skylar Astin) who insist on helping him celebrate his birthday.

They don't much care that Jeff Chang's demanding father (François Chau) is scheduled to pick up his son for the interview in the morning.

Now, you'd have to be entirely blotto not to realize what's about to happen. Jeff will engage in an epic bout of binge drinking that will bring him to a near comatose state while the comedy turns into the expected ruanchfest.

Written and directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, the writers of The Hangover, 21 and Over continues a streak that thus far has been based on partying, substance and alcohol abuse, sexual humiliation and male nudity.

In some ways, 21 and Over simply drops the Hangover formula onto a college campus, a move that presents ample opportunity for bar-hopping, parties and co-ed ogling. Judging by this and other movies, no one who attends college in a comedy ever has seen the inside of a library. In fact, college looks like a libidinous playground for young people who face adult life as if it were a prison sentence.

But about that raunchfest. At one point, Jeff Chang stands on a bar and urinates on the gathered crowd. Projectile vomiting? Of course. And before the night is done, Jeff Chang will eat a tampon.

Maybe you consider those comic spoilers, but you probably should know just how raunchy some of the raunch gets.

Early on, Jeff Chang's two companions (who remain relatively sober) walk across campus nude, except for the white socks that cover their penises. The movie then proceeds to tell us how they got that way, a story that involves retribution for a sorority invasion.

Comedies such as 21 and Over stagger from one ribald set piece to the next, but have become so familiar that I couldn't work up much by way of disgust. Besides, Astin's character proves reasonably likable, and the movie isn't nearly as mean-spirited as it could have been.

Still, 21 and Over provided me with few laughs as I waited for the inevitable interjection of some supposedly redeeming drama.

As it turns out, the stressed and depressed Jeff Chang doesn't really want to be a doctor; the more reserved of the trio (Astin's character) loosens up when he meets a blonde co-ed (Susan Wright); and the wild man and instigator in the trio decides to turn over a new leaf, but not until the actor who plays him (Teller) gets to practice sounding a lot like Vince Vaughn.

In a way, reviewing movies such as 21 and Over is pointless. The audience for this kind of movie is not review driven, and, as the saying goes, people who like this sort of thing probably will like this particular thing. They may also tend to overuse the word "awesome."

21 and Over is one more comedy that satisfies adolescent cravings for moments of pseudo-transgression. So if it's your keg of beer, I'll leave you with one simple and heartfelt thought, "Party on, dude.

Beanstalk scales few new heights

Jack the Giant Slayer comes up short on magic.
Fee Fi, Ho Hum!
That pretty much sums up my response to Jack The Giant Slayer. This spiffed-up retelling of the Jack and Beanstalk fairy tale boasts a strong cast, a host of giants (one with two heads), a spunky princess and a beanstalk capable of putting Giant Redwoods to shame.

Director Bryan Singer, who tried to restart the Superman franchise with 2006's regrettable Superman Returns;but who has done better with the X-Men movies, seems to be looking for another franchise. In the process, Singer turns a fairy tale into a Medieval adventure (in 3-D, of course) that tries for mythic reach with a beanstalk that connects to a mysterious region where giants have dwelled since being banished from Earth.

Exactly how a land full of cliffs, rocks and forests remains suspended five miles above the Earth qualifies as a mystery, but why quibble about the laws of gravity in a fairy tale?

The appealingly modest Nicholas Hoult portrays Jack, a poor lad who's sent to market to sell his uncle's horse. Jack winds up trading the slightly emaciated horse for a handful of beans that results in the skyward growth of the mythic beanstalk, an impressive enough CGI creation.

In this sometimes awkwardly structured telling of a familiar tale, Jack must climb the beanstalk to rescue Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson). Jack meets the princess in the town market, where she's trying to escape the overly regulated confines of the palace. On a later such foray, the princess winds up being transported (via beanstalk) to the land of the giants.

To accomplish his rescue mission, Jack joins a search party dispatched by King Brahmwell (Ian McShane), Isabelle's father. The courageous Elmont (Ewan McGregor), a knight in Brahmwell's court, leads the expedition, which is joined by Isabelle's conniving finance, the melodramatically duplicitous Roderick (Stanley Tucci).

The movie begins by introducing us to parallel stories, one about Jack as a young boy, and the other about Isabelle, as a girl. Both characters lose their loving mothers. To add to Jack's misery, he also loses his father. He's then pressed into farm labor by the uncle (Christopher Fairbank) who takes him in.

Last seen the surprisingly engaging Warm Bodies, Hoult proves well-cast as a young man who falls for a princess who's far above him in social station. Jack's farm-boy status isn't the only obstacle to love: Isabelle's father has promised his resistant daughter to Tucci's Roderick.

After a few adventurers fall by the wayside, the rescue party reaches the land of the giants -- and the movie tries to whip up some menace. Bill Nighy (with a stop-action assist) portrays the evil General Fallon, who not only has a malicious head on his shoulder; he's got two. A character listed only as General Fallon's Small Head resides on Fallon's right shoulder and is voiced by John Kassir.
The rest of the giant crew looks appropriately motley. But this gaggle of Shreks gone bad doesn't inspire much real fear -- unless you happen to be very young, and although the giants (all male) feed on humans, I don't remember much gore.

I do, however, recall what felt like a excessively protracted finale. Singer builds toward a big battle sequence that takes place long after the movie's central conflict has been resolved. The movie's tumultuous ending plays like a special-effects add-on in which the destructive giants stage an earthly comeback, hoping to dine on lots of human prey.

Aside from a scene in which a haggard, nose-picking giant gives new meaning to the idea of "pigs in a blanket," Jack seems to be caught in an uncertain limbo: It's neither totally serious nor a major goof.

Bit by bit, Jack is seldom awful, but taken as a whole, the movie's too easy to shrug off. Maybe that's because Jack the Giant Slayer has been engineered for a blockbuster-sized splash this familiar story can't deliver.

No matter how much tinkering has been done to a classic tale, Jack seldom seems nimble or quick. But wait, that's a whole other Jack. As yet, no word on whether Hollywood plans to turn nursery rhymes into action adventures, but in these days of diminished expectation, I wouldn't rule it out.

Injustice in West Memphis, Ark.

The documentary West of Memphis continues and embellishes work begun by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky in their well-received documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. Berlinger and Sinfoksy followed their initial film with two more documentaries about the gruesome Arkansas child murders. Now comes director Amy Berg's take on the subject, which joins movies such as last year's The Central Park Five in calling much-needed attention to the troubling issue of false confessions. Working with producer Peter Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh (of Lord of the Rings fame), Berg (Deliver Us From Evil) presents a telling and often disturbing look at a case that began with the 1993 murders of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark. The murders, accompanied by hideous mutilations, initially were thought to be the work of a satanic cult. Three teen-agers -- Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley  and Damien Echols -- were convicted of a crime that shocked the small community of West Memphis. Echols faced a death sentence, based mostly on a confession by Misskelley, a developmentally challenged young man.  Like its predecessors,  Berg's film does a fine job demonstrating that the three teen-agers were victims of the legal system in which they became ensnared. I won't dwell on details, but know -- as mentioned earlier -- that West of Memphis can be viewed as a harrowing companion piece to Sarah and Ken Burns's The Central Park Five. Although the milieus of the two films differ radically, both deal with what can happen when growing public hysteria conflates with a lust for punishment. West of Memphis is bound to give you pause about abuses in the American judicial system. It's worth noting that Echols, who spent 18 years on death row and who married while in prison, receives a producers credit, along with his wife Lorri Davis. And, unlike the photo above, West of Memphis was not shot in black-and-white.

A moving look at hunger in the U.S.

There's much that's alarming in the documentary A Place at the Table, a movie that deals with hunger in America, much of it found in the group sometimes referred to as "the working poor." A Place at the Table may be of special interest to Coloradans because it devotes considerable attention to Food Bank of the Rockies, and highlights the story of Rosie, an 11-year-old Colorado girl struggling with hunger. The movie also has plenty to say about "food deserts," -- urban areas where lack of access to healthy food is endemic. To their credit, directors Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson don't shy away from political observations, examining problems related to the U.S.'s big-time food industry and its on-going preoccupation with processed foods. For me,  Jeff Bridges -- who founded the non-profit End Hunger Network -- makes the film's major statement. Bridges lauds charitable efforts, but points out that a problem of this magnitude -- one in four American children lacks healthy food -- only can be addressed by government. It's an interesting point to ponder at time when concern about government spending seems to be dominating the news. There's little question that it would take a massive exercise of national will to address this persistent problem. Do all of us care enough to demand that our government do something about hunger -- and food insufficiency (not knowing where the next meal is coming from)? Or are we content with the way things are? After watching A Place at the Table -- which gets for more specific and detailed than anything I can offer -- you may well wonder whether it's time that we decided.

Monday, February 25, 2013

This time, the awards steal the show

Seth MacFarlane is the latest sacrificial lamb ... er ... I mean host to be tapped as Oscar's savior. To my way of thinking, MacFarlane came up way short. Too bad because 2012 was a terrific year for movies, and deserved a better Oscar telecast than the one that aired on ABC Sunday night. The humor ranged from mediocre to deadly, and when it wasn't being tasteless, the show suffered from a near-terminal case of the blahs.

Considering that this year's awards were hobbled by serious omissions (notably Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow) in the best-director category), the Academy managed to do a reasonably good job of spreading its love around. In accepting the Oscar for best picture, the snubbed Affleck, said it would be wrong to hold grudges.

Generally I agree, but maybe we should make an exception for the guys who produced this year's show.

For once, the awards actually were the most interesting thing about the Oscar show. Maybe Hollywood should take a cue from that, maybe winners should be allowed to do something more than recite hurried lists of thank-yous. Maybe it's time to rethink the need for a host.

Oh well, it's past time that we said bye-bye to 2012. I'm doing it by serving up a selection of my tweets from last night's ... I hesitate to use the word -- "festivities."

-- The show ended with Kristin Chenoweth and MacFarlane singing a tasteless song about the night's losers. Why upstage the best picture? What ever happened to quitting while you're ahead?
-- President Clinton spoke about Lincoln at the Golden Globes. Oscar tried to top the Big Dog with Michelle Obama, who presented the Oscar for best picture.
-- Michelle Obama did a nice job, but I'm not sure the White House needs to inject itself into the Academy Awards.
-- With the band rudely playing Oscar winners off the stage with the theme from Jaws, it was damn near impossible for anyone to give an entertaining acceptance speech.
-- The exception to the night's lousy-acceptance speech rule: Daniel Day-Lewis did everything right, and actually put some wit into his remarks.
-- Loved Day-Lewis's goof on Meryl Streep, saying he was slated to play Margaret Thatcher while she was Spielberg's first choice to portray Lincoln.
-- Jennifer Lawrence's Oscar (best actress for Silver Linings Playbook) elevates a gifted young actress into Hollywood's top ranks.
-- Ang Lee (Life of Pi) has an incredibly diverse filmography; it made me happy to see him win the Oscar for best director.
-- I'm not a big fan of Django Unchained, so wasn't buoyed by Quentin Tarantino's win for best original screenplay. He seemed pretty happy with himself, though.
-- I blew it on best supporting actor. I predicted Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook) would win; prize went to Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained).
-- As he listened to Waltz's acceptance speech, Jack Nicholson, caught in a reaction shot, looked like someone hearing Ukrainian for the first time.
-- Adele showed some of the night's only real emotion, accepting the Oscar for Skyfall, the best song.
-- When Argo won the award for best editing, I figured it was on track to take best picture.
-- As just about everyone predicted Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables) won for best supporting actress. As she left the stage, the orchestra played the theme from The Godfather. Huh?
-- Hathaway tried to say something relevant about Fantine, the character she played in Les Mis. Made me think that if I see poor Fantine on the street, I should give her some spare change.
-- Just when I thought the show couldn't get worse, MacFarlane did a Nazi joke.
-- Wondered whether Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln) would demand a recount in the best supporting actor category after there was a tie for best sound editing. Both Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall won.
-- Might have been better if Ted, who appeared with Mark Wahlberg, had hosted the entire show.
-- Ouch. In the show's big Les Mis production number, Russell Crowe again proved that he was miscast in Les Mis.
-- Director Michael Haneke kept his acceptance speech short and sweet. Amour's win for best foreign-language film surprised no one.
-- Throughout it all, MacFarlane kept smiling, but I began to wonder: Didn't someone have Ricky Gervais's cell number?
-- I admit it. Barbra Streisand's Memories got to me.
-- No surprise that they didn't show the controversial water-boarding scenes from Zero Dark Thirty.
-- Searching for Sugar Man won best documentary, as most Oscar watchers had predicted.
-- Oscars look at 50 years of James Bond was mediocre until Shirley Bassey showed up to sing Goldfinger, which she pronounced Gold-fingah.
-- Les Mis won for best make up and best hair styling. Hair styling? The film was a bad-hair-day festival.
-- The Oscar for best animated feature was unfortunate. Wreck it Ralph and Frankenweenie were robbed. And to make matters worse director Mark Andrew wore a kilt in accepting the award for Brave.
-- Paperman, the winner of the best animated short, was a lovely little picture.
-- Want to know how deadly most of the night's humor was? Even Paul Rudd and Melissa McCarthy were awful.
-- The Flying Nun bit with MacFarlane and Sally Field was not funny.
-- Neither was MacFarlane's musical number, We Saw Your Boobs.
-- Same pretty much goes for William Shatner's Captain Kirk bit.
-- And what was up with all the veneration for Chicago? Too much. Too much.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Trying to outguess Oscar 2013

I'm betting Argo takes home Oscar gold.

Yes, folks, it's Oscar time. Sunday evening (Feb. 24), the mysteries of Oscar will be revealed, and we'll know how the Academy's 6,000 voting members managed to sort through such bafflements as who gave the winning performance as 2012's best supporting actor: Tommy Lee Jones, Robert De Niro, Alan Arkin, Philip Seymour Hoffman or Christoph Waltz. We'll also know whether Ben Affleck, snubbed for best director, gets the last and possibly best laugh when he leaves the stage with an Academy Award for best picture as one of Argo's producers.

We'll probably see lots of reaction shots, and it's a good bet that ABC's cameras will find several occasions to embrace Quvenzhané Wallis, the nine-year-old star of Beasts of the Southern Wild and a surprise nominee in the best actress category.

Here's the odd thing about Oscar, at least for me. Of the nine pictures nominated for Hollywood's top honor, I had qualms about three (Django Unchained, Lincoln and Les Miserables), but thought all had something to recommend them. And in the midst of a year that includes pictures I genuinely admired and even loved (Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook and Zero Dark Thirty), I find myself unable to muster anything close to a genuine rooting interest.

My indifference goes beyond an untreatable case of award fatigue. Like you, my experiences with the movies I loved are mine to keep, and have little or nothing to do with who walks away with a statue that reportedly costs $400 to manufacture. If David O. Russell fails to win an Oscar as best director, it will do nothing to diminish my affection for Silver Linings Playbook, a movie that managed to weave and unify a variety of tones (serious and comic) while demonstrating that it's still possible to make a great romantic comedy.

But prior to Oscar, only one thing seems to matter: wins and losses. So that's the question of the hour. What and who will gather Oscar gold? Unlike some years, 2013 harbors enough uncertainty to make predicting dicey.

Earlier this week, I conducted a Cinema Salon program at Denver's Sie FilmCenter. My fellow panelists -- including Denver Post film critic Lisa Kennedy, Starz Denver Film Festival director Britta Erickson and 2012 Film Society Oscar contest winner Will Dupree -- sometimes gave me solid reasons to rethink earlier positions.

In short, I've gone back and forth in my own mind any number of times, and can't guarantee that I won't second-guess myself even after I post this piece.

My predictions in the major categories:
Best Picture
The nominees:
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Les Misérables
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty
And the Oscar will go to...
Comments: Put me in the group that thinks Argo has surpassed Lincoln, which began this year's awards season as the frontrunner for best picture. I don't suppose that Lincoln is a lost cause, but Argo has been gobbling up awards since early January and steadily has built momentum. Besides, it's a picture both audiences and critics have embraced. Why not the Academy, too?

Best Director
The nominees:
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Michael Haneke, Amour
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg,
Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild

And the Oscar will go to ...
Ang Lee
Comments: The unforgivable absence of Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) in this category throws the entire race out of whack. Most years, the winner of the Director's Guild of America's top honor also walks away with Oscar. This year, Affleck won that award, robbing the DGA's selection of any predictive value. It's certainly possible that Spielberg will emerge as the safest choice, and I thought that he would win until I sat down to write this piece. What changed my mind? Lee beautifully translated Yann Martel's immensely popular novel for the screen, and it just feels better to me to pick Lee over Spielberg, who seems too much like an officially sanctioned choice. Honesty compels me, though, to say that I definitely wouldn't bet the rent on any prediction in this category.

Best Actor
The nominees:
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Hugh Jackman, Les Misérables
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Denzel Washington, Flight
And the Oscar will go to ...
Daniel Day-Lewis
Comments: Call me crazy, but if I had a vote in this category, I'd cast it for Bradley Cooper, who showed me something I didn't know he possessed as a mentally disturbed former teacher in Silver Linings Playbook. As Pat Solatano Jr., Cooper displayed a fierce, nearly obsessive intensity. But consensus has it (and it's probably right) that Day-Lewis, a great actor and a credible Lincoln, has a lock on this category. The thinking goes like this: Day-Lewis took the marble solemnity out of the towering figure we associate with the Lincoln Memorial and created a life-sized man of the world.

Best Actress
The nominees:
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts, The Impossible
And the Oscar will go to ...
Jennifer Lawrence ... no ... make that Emmanuelle Riva ...
on second thought (or is it third) I'm going back to Lawrence.
Comments: No arguing that Riva gave a tremendous performance as a dying woman in Amour. And if the voters know that Riva will turn 86 on the day the Oscars are awarded, they may give her one of the best presents of her life. Both Chastain and Lawrence are strong contenders in this category, too. If Lawrence and Chastain split enough votes, Riva, wins. But it should be pointed out that Chastain may suffer from controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty , particularly the furor concerning scenes in which CIA agents torture al-Qaeda captives. And, yes, this is another category in which I belatedly changed my mind, leaning toward Lawrence at the last minute because she gave the most purely entertaining performance of all the actresses on the list.

Best Supporting Actor
Alan Arkin, Argo
Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained
And the Oscar will go to ....
Robert De Niro
Comments: This is one of the most difficult categories to predict, but I'm going with De Niro because he cried in an interview with Katie Couric, because he was exceptionally good as a frustrated father and Philadelphia Eagles' fan in Silver Linings Playbook, because he's due for a little Hollywood love and because Tommy Lee Jones (perhaps his major competition) seems to be one Hollywood's biggest sourpusses. Is it possible that De Niro, a.k.a. Mr. Raging Bull, has become this year's sentimental favorite? Maybe so.

Best Supporting Actress
The nominees:
Amy Adams, The Master
Sally Field, Lincoln
Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook
And the Oscar will go to:
Anne Hathaway
Comments: Most folks believe that Hathaway is a sure thing. We know from previous years that the Academy really likes Field, but this year, they'll like Hathaway more. Singing your heart out while looking haggard carries major Oscar weight. Look, I'd vote for Adams who was commanding and arch in The Master, and I also thought Field was fine as Mary Lincoln, but Hathaway, as Fantine, put everything she had into singing I Dreamed a Dream in Les Miserables . That probably should count for something.

Best Original Screenplay
Amour, Michael Haneke
Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino
Flight, John Gatins
Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola
Zero Dark Thirty, Mark Boal
And the Oscar will go to ...
Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty
Comments: I know that Tarantino is considered the frontrunner in this category, but the Writers Guild of America went with Zero Dark Thirty , and I'm tagging along. Yeah, I know. Taking a cue from writers is probably a mistake, but I'm predicting victory for Boal. He made a complex story comprehensible and suspenseful, but he'll have to combat resistance from those who think his screenplay misrepresented some key facts.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Argo, Chris Terrio
Beasts of the Southern Wild, Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
Life of Pi, David Magee
Lincoln, Tony Kushner
Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell
And the Oscar will go to ...
Comments: The Writers Guild went for Terrio and Argo; I think the movie stands the best chance of winning, although Terrio could be challenged by either Kushner or Russell.

Best Foreign Language Film
Amour, Austria
Kon-Tiki, Norway
No, Chile
A Royal Affair, Denmark
War Witch, Canada
And the Oscar will go to ...
Comments: Amour is nominated in a variety of other categories, but this is the one in which Michael Haneke's picture will triumph. Case closed.

As for the rest, you're on your own. Searching for Sugar Man probably will win for best documentary. It tells an amazing story about '70s singer Sixto Rodriguez, who spent most of his life languishing in obscurity without knowing that he had attained cult-figure status in South Africa. How to Survive a Plague, about the battle against AIDS, could be a dark horse finisher.

So enjoy your evening with Oscar, and, by all means, contribute your predictions. In a year with this much uncertainty, just about everyone has a chance of emerging as an expert.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

From Siberia -- with happiness

In the popular imagination, few places seem as forbidding and remote as Siberia. Many of us think of Siberia as a place where the banished languish in extreme poverty and numbing cold, an area where the comforts of civilization no longer soothe the troubled spirits of society's outcasts.

Filmmaker Werner Herzog, who always has been fascinated by extremes, finds something unexpected and quite different in Siberia: happiness.

Herzog's latest documentary -- a collaborative effort called Happy People: A Year in the Taiga -- is set in a massive stretch of Siberian land (one-and-a-half times the size of the U.S.) that's accessible only by helicopter in the winter and by boat via river during the summer months.

Herzog shares directorial credit with Russian filmmaker Dmitry Vasyukov, who shot the film's footage for a much longer documentary that played in serialized form on Russian TV. Herzog trimmed Vasyukov's four-hour documentary to one hour and 34 minutes. In the process, he exposes to us to the difficult lives of the hunter/trappers who live in a tiny village in the Taiga.

Herzog and Vasyukov focus on the village of Bakhta, home to hunters who set out in the winter months to trap sable. Although we meet other hunters (including a relative of the late Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky), Happy People's main character is a bearded, good-humored bear of man named Gennady Soloviev. He becomes our guide through the harsh existence of the Taiga.

Herzog provides a voice-over narration that eventually tips his hand about why he might have been attracted to material that he did not personally film. With the exception of such modern intrusions as snowmobiles and chainsaws, the trappers of Bakhta live starkly primitive lives. They are free and happy, Herzog insists, because they are entirely self-sufficient. For the most part, government is irrelevant to their lives. They catch their own food (mostly river pike), and they know how to survive extreme winters that find temperatures dropping to 40 and 50 degrees below zero.

Happy People should prove fascinating even for those who don't share Herzog's view, which struck me as a slightly romanticized take on lives of incredible hardship -- albeit hardships that the trappers accept voluntarily and which they sometimes seem to relish.

Herzog immerses us in life in the Taiga, illuminating such matters as the relationships between trappers and their dogs. To the hunters, dogs are more than pets; they're allies, hunting partners and companions. Presumably, Soloviev would scoff at the way Americans pamper their pets.

We see the hunters building their traps and constructing the huts that serve as home during their lengthy hunting forays into the forests beyond Bakhta. And however you feel about trapping sable (remember sable fur -- tails specifically -- is used for the highest quality artists' brushes, as well as for coats) you'll likely find yourself caught up in this rough world.

Soloviev himself articulates the ethos of the best hunters, expressing disdain for those who are motivated by greed and who lack of respect for the natural surroundings of the Taiga.

The documentary also introduces us to some of the original inhabitants of the Taiga, the Ket people, a vanishing tribe whose members seem to have lost touch with their own past, sometimes in hazes of alcohol-induced forgetfulness.

For the Russians who live and work in the Taiga, almost everything must be geared toward survival. The village of Bakhta has no telephones. A few lonely street lamps defy the vivid darkness of long winter nights. Summer presents a short window for the cultivation of vegetables.

We owe Herzog a debt of gratitude for discovering this footage and deeming it worthy of global distribution. In our insulated, technology-driven worlds, it's nothing less than chastening to remember how hard much of the world once labored just to survive.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Those British kids are now 56

If you've been following director Michael Apted's landmark Up documentaries, you'll certainly want to catch 56 Up, the latest in a series that has been chronicling the lives of 13 British school kids since 1964. Checking in for fresh reports at seven-year intervals, Apted has managed to fit the Up films into a career that has seen him work in TV and feature films. The most notable of the latter have included Coal Miner's Daughter (1980), Gorillas in the Mist (1988) and Thunderheart (1992). Made for BBC television, the Up series began playing in the U.S. with 1984's 28 Up. Each new chapter -- including 56 Up -- includes enough footage and background from the previous films to fill in essential background and keep us in touch with the continuum of the lives Apted has been following. On the most superficial level, the most interesting thing about 56 Up involves physical appearance, observing how the various participants have aged. Watching Apted's documentary is a bit like attending your high school reunion and looking for traces of people's younger selves in their matured faces. Apted, who set out to see whether British class differences proved definitive in determining the arc of a life, finds his subjects in a generally reflective mood -- with a good deal of their reflection focusing on what it has meant to participate in a widely viewed cinematic experiment that has turned them into minor celebrities in Britain. No point reviewing all the lives we see here, but know that Neil -- seen in photo at right -- remains a bit of a lonely oddball, although he seems to have a handle on the life that has turned him into a small-town politician. Without a degree, one of the women has become an administrator at a university. Tony, who once aspired to be a jockey but wound up driving a London cab, now has a home in Spain where kids and grandkids gather. And so on. If we didn't know the history of these particular folks, I'm afraid we wouldn't find them all that fascinating. But we do -- and that makes all the difference. If Apted, who just turned 72, makes the next installment, the participants will be 63. Barring deaths -- of which there have been none so far -- I'd bet that things won't really start to get intriguing until everyone has reached the age of 70, and mortality has crept even closer. But for fans of the series (and I'm one) every installment is essential viewing, which means 56 Up is not to be missed.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Another day, another 'Die Hard'

A strong-performing series seems to have lost most of its cleverness.

A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth movie in the Die Hard series that kicked off with style and high tension in 1988, suggests that Bruce Willis -- like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone -- won't surrender his action-movie cred without a fight -- in fact without lots of fights.

Throwing plausibility to the winds, A Good Day to Die Hard brings a steady spew of cartoonish violence to Russia, where Willis's John McClane joins his estranged son (Jai Courtney) in a battle to head off a possible terrorist threat -- or something like that.

Ripe with dimly written father/son banter, Willis's one-liners (a repeated assertion that he's on vacation, for example) fall flat, and when McClane finally gets around to his signature "Yippee Ki Yay" line, even Willis seems to have lost interest in trying to put some real punch into it.

Rather than develop a credible plot, director John Moore (Max Payne) invests his energy in a cascading series of action set pieces that are as notable for their noise as for the finesse with which they're executed. In Moore's hands, the action has the jarring blatancy of a car crash, which may be precisely what genre fans crave, particularly in an obvious piece of Valentine's Day counterprogramming.

Moore wastes little time getting started. As soon as McClane arrives in Moscow, he's involved in a clangorous chase sequence that hits the city with wrecking-ball force. And it's hardly surprising that before the movie's done, Moore has broken out enough artillery to arm several small countries.

The movie tries for a little emotion with a woeful father/son reconciliation that follows McLane's admission that an over-emphasis on work caused him to neglect his son's formative years. The neglect doesn't seem to have had much effect on Courtney's Jack McLane, a CIA agent who's referred to by his skeptical father as the "007 of Plainfield, N.J." Dad arrives in Russia hoping to find out what's going with his supposedly wayward son, and doesn't learn that Jack's in the CIA until the action is well underway.

Jack's mission: To smuggle a man named Kamarov (Sebastian Koch) out of the country, along with a secret file. The imprisoned Kamarov has been set-up by another Russian (Sergei Kolesnikov). Although the story boasts a few more twists, none of them come as much of a surprise.

Aside from a cameo appearance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (as McClane's daughter), Yuliya Snigir, who plays Kamarov's daughter, provides the only other female presence.

A Good Day wrings most of the cleverness and suspense out of the series, substituting as much brashly stated action as it can find. The movie is all pulse and no smarts, the father/son theme falls flat and explosions serve as blaring punctuation marks in a story that eventually finds its way to the ruins of Chernobyl.

If I had to guess, I'd say that A Good Day to Die probably will out-perform Schwarzenegger's recent The Last Stand and Stallone's Bullet to the Head, and it does take a bit of twisted imagination to set some of the action in a place as ravaged as Chernobyl and make it worse.

But based on A Good Day to Die, I'd say it's past time for Willis to put McLane to rest. It's not only the weapons in A Good Die to Die Hard that fire automatically, so -- for the most part -- does this rampaging blur of a movie.

This teen romance goes South

Beautiful Creatures comes on like a Twilight wannabe, but turns into lushly photographed drivel.
A small-town southern boy, he yearns to experience the world beyond the stultifying, church-dominated confines of Gatlin, South Carolina. New in town, she's more worldly than any of her high school peers. Oh, and by the way, she has supernatural powers that, at age 15, have yet to be harnessed.

Despite their differences, these two -- Ethan Wate and Lena Duchannes by name -- are kindred spirits. We know this because they both read books that the have been banned from the town's library. He's into Kurt Vonnegut. She carries a Charles Bukowski paperback with her, a signifier that underlines her status as an outsider with a capital "O."

Together, Ethan and Lena try for epic romance in Beautiful Creatures, an apparent Twilight wannabe that asks the now-familiar but still preposterous question: Can humans and fantasy beings find true and maybe even lasting love?

In this case, the fantasy beings aren't vampires; they're witches who prefer to be called "casters," as in spell casters. Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) and Lena (Alice Englert) try to make a go of it, he with his curiosity, sensitivity and aw-shucks grin and she with a protective layer of teen superiority.

Ethan is easy-going. Lena, on the other hand, is not one with whom one wishes to trifle. When she's angry, she's liable to furrow her brow and create a psychic vibe that shatters every window in her high school classroom.

Lena's mysterious uncle, Macon Ravenswood (Jeremy Irons), has brought his niece to Gatlin to protect her from a family curse dating back to a Civil War battle.

For Lena, the stakes couldn't be higher. When she turns 16, she stands a chance of being claimed by the dark forces that claimed her mother Serafine (Emma Thompson) and her flirtatious cousin (Emma Rossum).
Yes, you read right. This lush bit of young adult blather features appearances by Irons and Thompson, both of whom sport southern accents. Irons brings out his inner aristocrat; Thompson seems to be enjoying herself as an arch and malicious "caster" who's able to inhabit the bodies of otherwise upstanding folks. Rossum, too, seems to have found a way to remain lively amid the story's Southern Gothic moodiness.

If the presence of Irons and Thompson weren't cause enough for concern about possible cinematic decline, the movie also makes room for the gifted Viola Davis, who plays Amma, the town librarian, a woman who has been looking after Ethan and his reclusive father since the boy's mother died.

To make matters worse, writer/director Richard LaGravenese (evidently intent on trying to provide a new big-screen fix for withdrawing Twilight addicts) seems to take his adaptation of Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl's young-adult novel seriously. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot follows suit with lots of lush imagery -- at least when the movie's functioning in its idea of the real world. The special effects associated with the world of casters prove considerably less captivating.

But back to our young lovers. Ehrenreich lays on as much charm as he can muster; Englert (the daughter of Australian filmmaker Jane Campion) sometimes seems to be channeling whatever sullenness Winona Ryder left behind when she exited her teen years, but softens enough to keep her character from curdling.

Ehrenreich and Englert do not make for the most memorable big-screen couple. Whether you consider it a low bar or not, they're no Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, the last actors to try to find happiness as characters from different dimensions.

I suppose there are some pleasures here, though for me they were mostly inadvertent. Macon Ravenswood lives in a vine-covered derelict cliche of a mansion that's modern and spare on the inside. At one point, Davis' Amma brings food to the gravesite her late Uncle Abner and asks for guidance. LaGravenese even manages to work a Civil War re-enactment into the movie's inflated finale. All of this might have been more fun had LaGravenese spiked the entire concoction with more daffy spin.

I don't know if young adults will turn out for Beautiful Creatures. If they do, perhaps more of these books will find their way to the screen. As for me, I was happy as barbecue sauce on a well-cooked rib to say goodbye to Gatlin, where it seemed as if I had spent far too much time and found far too little reward.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

'Side Effects,' an intriguing thriller

Seven Soderbergh's latest movie (and possibly his last) proves involving right up until its less-than-credible last act.
Director Steven Soderbergh has said that the thriller Side Effects will be his last big-screen venture. The 50-year-old, Academy Award-winning director recently told New York Magazine that he plans to spend much of his time painting. Soderbergh didn't rule out theater or a television series, but said that he wouldn't continue as a filmmaker while he felt as if he were "running in place."

In place or not, Soderbergh certainly has been running; he has made 26 features since rocking and transforming the independent film world with 1989's Sex, Lies, and Videotape. As it progressed, Soderbergh's career seemed to divide between star-driven mainstream movies and more idiosyncratic fare. He has had franchise success (the Oceans Eleven movies), won a best-director Oscar for Traffic (2000), and challenged commercial wisdom with Che (2008), a four-hour, two part look at the revolutionary life of Che Gueverra. Most recently, he scored a box-office victory with Magic Mike, an upbeat look at the world of male strippers.

Intriguing and deftly made, Side Effects doesn't always tell the most believable of stories, but it's easy to overlook plausibility issues, right up until the movie's unfortunate and less-than-credible last act.

It may be stretching the point, but Side Effects struck me as a middle-ground helping of Soderbergh, a movie lodged somewhere between the director's mainstream and more specialized efforts. This time, Soderbergh roots his thriller in a culture that frequently over-uses or abuses prescription drugs. All of us are bombarded with drug advertising, and we've read about doctors who receive consultancy money from pharmaceutical companies looking to steer patients toward one drug or another.

At the outset, Side Effects looks as if it's going to be an expose -- perhaps even a heavy-handed one -- about the social and personal perils of America's drug obsession. But Soderbergh quietly shifts gears on us, moving his movie into more classical thriller terrain.

Early on, the story centers on Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a young woman whose husband (Channing Tatum) has just finished a four-year prison sentence for insider trading. Once a Wall Street golden boy, Tatum's Martin Taylor tries to rehabilitate his professional life, but soon realizes that he has other problems.

Emily seems severely depressed. She has trouble relating to others, and at one point, she drives her car into the wall of a parking garage. This apparent suicide attempt brings her into contact with a British psychiatrist (Jude Law), who lives in New York City with his wife (Vinessa Shaw) and young stepson.

Law's Dr. Jonathan Banks eventually puts Emily on a new antidepressant called Ablixa. The drug seems to work -- until it doesn't. The potentially dangerous side effects of Ablixa help put the thriller elements of screenwriter Scott Z. Burns's story into motion. Burns, by the way, wrote the screenplay for Contagion, also directed by Soderbergh.

It's impossible to tell more without tipping the movie's hand, so I'll simply say that Soderbergh increasingly concentrates on Law's character as the psychiatrist finds himself foundering in troubling ethical and legal waters.

It takes time to understand why Mara, last seen in the American version of Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, seems a bit drab. Stick with her. Law excels as an empathic psychiatrist who also needs money. He's taken a $50,000 consulting fee from the company that manufactures Ablixa.

At one point in the story, Dr. Banks meets with the psychiatrist who previously treated Emily, a crisply efficient Catherine Zeta-Jones. Zeta-Jones's character ultimately has more to do with propelling the plot than with creating insight into any of the ethical or psychological issues the movie raises.

If Side Effects really is Soderbergh's swan song, it stops short of qualifying as a totally triumphant conclusion. I don't think I'd rank it as one of the best movies in a career that frequently has balanced entertainment with social significance (Erin Brockovich and The Informant) and that has seen the director employ a dazzling variety of approaches in movies such as Kafka (1991), King of the Hill (1993), Schizopolis (1996) and Bubble (2005).

Obviously, it's not easy to fit Soderbergh into any pigeon hole, which is part the reason I hope he doesn't remain a retired filmmaker.

Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra, the story of Liberace, will play on HBO later this year. But if Side Effects really does turn out to be Soderbergh's final theatrical release, I can understand why.

Directing can become an exhilarating but exhausting exercise in cunning and craft. And every movie presents all sorts of steep challenges -- funding and logistics, to name but two. On top of that, Soderbergh often serves as his own cameraman.

No wonder he's tempted to seek the nourishing solitude of an artist's studio, where he can tend to his creativity in ways that keep it from -- in his words -- "running in place."

'Identity Thief' can't steal a laugh

Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy in a formulaic road comedy that mines a garbage heap of gags..
Just when I thought things couldn't possibly get worse or less funny, the abysmally contrived Identity Thief introduced a car chase, a move for which the phrase "insult to injury" surely was invented.

Identity Thief wastes both Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman in a road-trip comedy that produces more grimaces than laughs.

Maybe McCarthy (Bridesmaids and This is 40) is best in small doses. Here, she comes close to wearing out her welcome as Diana, a Florida-based thief who steals other people's identities and uses their credit card info to finance wanton spending sprees.

A woeful script has Diana stealing the identity of Sandy Paterson (Bateman), a Denver-based husband and father. Threatened with bankruptcy and the loss of a new job, Sandy decides to travel to Florida to corral his nemesis, bring her back to Colorado and save what's left of his crumbling life and shattered reputation.

The cross-country trip is supposed to be excruciating for Bateman's Sandy, but it's equally painful for us as director Seth Gordon wades through a large pile of gag garbage, which includes car carnage and Diana's encounter with a horny widower named Big Chuck (Eric Stonestreet). Meanwhile, Diana is being pursued by a sleazy skip tracer (Robert Patrick) and two assassins (Genesis Rodriguez and T.I.) who operate on orders from a guy in prison.

Don't ask whether any of this tracks. Like just about everything else in this brashly distasteful comedy, very little makes sense.

You can tell the movie will flounder right from the start. Sandy, who's supposed to be a financial guy, improbably and foolishly falls for an obvious ruse. He gives his name and Social Security number to Diana, who poses as an official who calls to tell him that someone's trying to mess with his credit.

How likely is it that a guy who manages the finances of an investment company wouldn't do a bit of investigating before turning over his Social Security number?

Of course, credibility wouldn't matter if Identity Thief produced sufficient laughs as Diana and Sandy work their way toward Denver.

McCarthy can be very funny, and she certainly knows how to steal a scene, but her one-note truculence gets old when spread over 111 minutes. Poor Bateman. He winds up in the thankless job of straight man, as well as the butt of dumb jokes about his character's masculinity.

Not unexpectedly, this mess of a road trip takes a few sentimental turns that are supposed to make us like Diana, despite the fact that she's a pathological liar and felon.

Vulgar jokes, crashed cars and sentiment? McCarthy and Bateman, two actors who know how to be funny, deserved better.

Oscar docs not short on emotion

Don't let this teen-ager's smile fool you, the Oscar nominated shorts contain lots of tough material -- and a fair measure of inspiration, as well.
If you're looking for an emotional workout, you'd be hard pressed to do better than the five documentary shorts that have been nominated for this year's Oscar. From the loneliness of aging to the difficulties of coping with breast cancer to problems faced by the impoverished in New York City, the five nominated shorts are as emotionally demanding as they are rewarding.

Although these movies don't qualify as standard-issue escapism, they make for an involving look at issues that shouldn't be ignored. And at least two of the films -- Inocente and Open Heart -- are not without inspirational uplift.

Because each of the films averages about 40 minutes in length, the program runs long. All five films will show in one program at the Sie FilmCenter, making for a three-hour and 26-minute viewing time.

Here's quick look at all five:

Kings Point. Director Sari Gilman takes a refreshingly clear-eyed look at a Florida retirement community where a variety of refugees from New York City are living out their golden years. At first, it seems as if Gilman's movie is going to be a real-life version of a Seinfeld episode. But as the movie progresses, it develops a sad undertow. The people in Gilman's film face the problems of aging with equal amounts of determination and resignation and -- at least in one instance -- plenty of spunk.

Mondays at Racine. Director Cynthia Wade follows a group of women who are struggling with breast cancer and related issues. Wade finds a focus for her film at Racine, a Long Island salon that sets aside the third Monday of every month to help cancer patients dealing with hair loss as a result of chemotherapy. The movie shows how cancer can fracture a marriage, but also introduces us to a family that bravely copes with possible loss. Psychologically astute and undeniably moving, Mondays at Racine, affirms the importance of shared experience while pulling no punches.

Inocente. Directors Sean Fine and Andrea Nix tell the story of a homeless San Diego teen-ager who finds salvation in art. Inocente is at once a story of a trauma and triumph, a look at how a young woman survives a family broken by an abusive father. Inocente, who likes to paint her face, as well as canvases, paints her way into an art show, and, more importantly, develops a powerful sense of self.

Redemption. No this is not a religious documentary. Directors Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill document the lives of unemployed New Yorkers who have turned to redeeming cans and bottles for small amounts of money. Redemption offers a fascinating look at people on society's fringe, all of them engaged in an exhausting scuffle to survive.

Open Heart. If you're a kid with heart disease in Rwanda, you'll probably have trouble finding help. Director Kief Davidson introduces us to eight Rwandan children who are fortunate enough to be flown 2,500 miles to the Sudan, site of the only cardiac surgery hospital available to them. These young people travel with Rwandan translators, enduring separation from kith and kin as tireless doctors and dedicated doctors -- working with inadequate funding -- try to save their lives.