Friday, March 29, 2013

On trying to turn exploitation into art

Spring Breakers is full of energy -- and maybe full of something else as well.
I finally caught up with Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, a propulsive hunk of cinematic energy that has been hailed in more than a few quarters for its willingness to go wickedly against its genre grain.

It's difficult not to see the movie as a kind of perverse trick. The title seems to have been calibrated to lure unsuspecting teens into an entertainment that they think will serve up screenfuls of scantily clad women, wild gross-out humor and outrageously dopey behavior. For better (and sometimes for worse) that's not the film that Korine has made, which is precisely what you'd expect from the director who wrote the screenplay for Kids (1995) and who has directed movies such as Gummo (1997), Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) and Trash Humpers (2009). If you've seen any of those movies, you know that Korine's work tends to polarize even the most tolerant of viewers.

Werner Herzog praised Gummo at a long-ago Telluride Film Festival. I didn't see Gummo at that festival, but I knew people who had and who were appalled by it. That's understandable. The movie opened with a scene of a boy drowning a cat in a garbage can.

Spring Breakers isn't quite in that mode, and it might be Korine's most accessible movie yet. Glutted with bare-breasted women, the movie begins by indulging itself in collegiate excess, a beach bacchanal that serves as a prologue to a story about four college girls from Kentucky (Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens and Rachel Korine) who head to Florida for spring break.

Korine turns the girls' Florida romp into an orgiastic riot of shoulder-to-shoulder partying that leaves you feeling woozy, sort of in the same way that an amusement park ride that initially looks like fun can leave you feeling slightly nauseous. The movie more than earns its "R" rating with nudity, cocaine snorting and scenes of sexual abandon.

Just about everyone will notice that two of Korine's actresses are associated with shows that are the antithesis of what he's after here: Gomez (Disney's Wizards of Waverly Place and Hudgens (Disney's High School Musical).

In case we had any doubts about his intentions, Korine quickly injects a shot of malignancy into the party-hardy swells that break over St. Petersburg's packed beaches. To finance their spring break, the girls stage a robbery at a roadside diner.

Their new-found criminality provokes giddy excitement, although Gomez's Faith (a young woman with religious impulses) has reservations about all the bad-girl high jinx.

As Spring Breakers unfolds, it becomes clear that Korine wants to turn his sybaritic romp into a form of contemporary horror. He suggests that a flirtation with danger can turn into a full-scale love affair; it's as if he's presenting his characters with a series of twisted challenges, pushing them to see just how far they're willing to transgress.

As a result, it's difficult to watch Spring Breakers without experiencing a burgeoning sense of unease.

The introduction of hard-core danger starts when the girls hook up with wannabe gangsta (James Franco in a strangely effective turn.) Cornrows and a metallic grill make Franco almost unrecognizable; he's playing a character named Alien, a figure who's both ludicrous and menacing. Alien says he grew up among blacks, and learned a black gangsta style. Alien shrieks with pride at the stuff he's been able to acquire as the result of his drug dealing. He's part menace and part clown, a character who teeters on the edge of self-parody.

Franco's Alien becomes involved with the girls when he bails them out of jail after a drug bust, presumably one of many conducted by the St. Petersburg police during spring break.

As the story develops, Korine allows two of the girls to fall by the wayside. Faith realizes she's out of her depth and heads for home. She starts talking about how uncomfortable she is in the gangsta milieu, giving the movie an infusion of jitters that would be right at home in an after-school-special. Later, another girl is forced into inaction when she's wounded in a drive-by shooting.

Perhaps to keep Spring Breakers from turning into a finger-wagging cautionary tale about the dangers of consorting with thugs, Korine adds a tables-turning finale that's as excessive in gunplay as the early picture scenes are excessive in skin.

I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that a movie in which the female characters spend most of their time in bikinis begins to feel as if it's less interested in saying something than in standing a variety of archetypes on their ear, and, in the process, doling out punishment to the gangsta world.

Spring Breakers is not without interest, but Korine is able to carry his colossal goof of a movie only so far before he stretches credibility way beyond the breaking point.

Spring Breakers practically bursts with end-of-picture violence. Korine's bloodbath of a finale takes Godard's famous axiom -- all that's needed for a movie is a girl and a gun -- and restates it as, "All you need for a movie is a couple of girls and many guns."

To take pleasure in any of this, you probably have to enjoy watching Korine trample the archetypes of a thousand vapid beach movies. But by the end, I wasn't sure that Korine knew what to do once he and his characters had transgressed. In the end, it's the same old story. When in doubt, break out the heavy artillery and open fire.

Korine hits some wild notes in what amounts to a bona fide oddball of a movie, but for all its willingness to subvert expectation, Spring Breakers, ultimately, is not to be believed -- or, I think, taken as a coherent look at anything.

No, it's not the usual teen tripe, but it's not necessarily anything else, either.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

'Family Weekend' feels so much longer

In the preliminary telecasts leading up to last month's Oscar broadcast, host Kristin Chenoweth was so bubbly, I thought her fizz might spill out from the TV, adding to the many issues created by our recently departed and much loved dog who -- in his old age -- hadn't always been kind to the carpeting in the TV room.

Considering Chenoweth's unregulated supply of pre-Oscar effervescence, I was delighted to see that in the overly screwy new comedy Family Weekend, Chenoweth plays against type -- way against type.

Chenoweth portrays Samantha Smith-Dungy, a harried, workaholic mother of four who -- along with her artist husband (Matthew Modine) -- is taken hostage by her 16-year-old daughter (Olesya Rulin).

Rulin's Emily is upset because -- as a champion high-school jump-roper -- she has had to perform without benefit of family support. Her relatives either are too busy or too distracted to attend her competitions.

Emily's older brother (Eddie Hassell) occupies himself by pretending to be gay, a strategy he hopes will win his father's attention. What artist father wouldn't appreciate a son's "gay" sensitivity? Or so the young man thinks.

Younger brother (Robbie Tucker) doesn't seem to be particularly busy, but he's stuck with the task of remembering everything that everyone else in the family keeps forgetting. As for Emily's sister (Joey King), she often can be found prancing about the house pretending to be the kiddie prostitute Jodie Foster played in Taxi Driver.

A comedy about a subject as fraught as hostage-taking needs a lot of laughs to make itself palatable. Unfortunately, laughs are not found in abundance in director Benjamin Epps's treatment of a screenplay by Matt K. Turner.

Moreover, the story is not without its annoyances. Rulin's Emily, for example, can be hard to take. She's an aggressively organized young lady who wants her family to return to the normalcy it reflected before Dad disappeared into his room to paint and smoke dope, before Mom had to work constantly to maintain life in what appears to be an exceptionally nice home, and before her siblings all veered out of control, victims of lack of attention or of lax progressive parenting.

Too much of the time, Family Weekend plays like the pilot for a failed sitcom, but it does offer an alternative view of Chenoweth, who in this outing, seethes more than she bubbles. I'd call that progress.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

'Olympus' falls into a dumb, violent heap

The White House is under attack, along with all credibility
At one point during a preview screening of the woeful Olympus Has Fallen, I wrote these two words in my notebook: "Ridiculous tripe."

That may not represent the deepest analysis, but then depth isn't exactly at issue when it comes to a thriller that's more interested in carnage than commentary. Olympus Has Fallen probably has the late and often great John Frankenheimer spinning in his grave. Frankenheimer put Washington under threat in movies as intelligent and varied as The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May. Olympus Has Fallen puts Washington under threat with a barrage of CGI-created rubble, rampant gunfire and laughable turns of plot.

Director Antoine Fuqua, working from preposterous script by Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, creates a film that slams its way toward a simple-minded mano-e-mano finale between a lone Secret Service agent (Gerard Butler) and a rogue terrorist from North Korea (Rick Yune).

Fuqua (Training Day) is not without talent, but a movie about a terrorist attack on the White House either needs to stake a claim in the world of fantasy or pass a rudimentary test of realism: Olympus Has Fallen does neither.

And rather than lending the movie an air of topicality, recent bellicosity on the part of North Korea struck me as little more than an unfortunate coincidence.

If Olympus attracts a crowd, it may be because audiences are willing to regard it as an example of enhanced mayhem, an accepted form of entertainment these days. I'd blame our endless capacity to find joy in watching things and people destroyed, as well as the presence of a strong but ill-used cast that includes Aaron Eckhart (as the president), Morgan Freeman (as Speaker of the House and eventually acting president), Melissa Leo (as Secretary of Defense), Angela Bassett (as the head of the Secret Service) and Radha Mitchell (as the wife of Butler's character, one Mike Banning by name).

That's an impressive line-up, but acting hardly matters as Fuqua pours on enough mind-numbing action to swamp the movie's opening scenes, which at least are novel, if not entirely believable.

In the middle of a blinding snowstorm, the president is being driven from Camp David to the home of one his major donors for a Christmas party. The president's limo veers off the road, resulting in the death of the First Lady (Ashley Judd).

Judd's character dies despite Banning's efforts to save her. The grieving president, who also has a young son, decides that Banning should be shelved. Stuck in an office job at the Treasury Department, Banning doesn't reactivate until a visit from the Prime Minster of South Korea goes terribly awry.

As part of the attack, Yune's Kang -- a terrorist who leads a small army against the White House -- works his way into the underground fortress where the president and his team are hidden once the attack begins.

An even bigger (and, of course, world threatening) plan lies beneath all the surface pyrotechnics, but that scheme proves as dumb as everything else about a movie that relies on lame dialogue, rote performances and the willingness of audiences to make gargantuan suspensions of disbelief.

Olympus Has Fallen isn't the first movie to litter the screen with violence, but this one makes an apologetic attempt at self-justification by wrapping itself in the America flag.

In so doing, the filmmakers suggest that the old adage had it all wrong: Patriotism isn't the last refuge of scoundrels. It's the last refuge of hack work. I don''t know how you'll feel, but I'm not saluting.

College-based 'Admission' has little to say

Fey and Rudd can't save a movie that too often flatlines.
I wasn't exactly trembling with anticipation about a comedy that revolves around the agonies associated with Princeton University's admission process -- even when I learned that the movie stars the gifted Tina Fey and the affable Paul Rudd.

The new movie Admission marks one of those rare times when my initial expectations proved right. As directed by Paul Weitz from Karen Croner's adaptation of a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, Admission offers little by way of fresh insight and even less reason for us to get heavily involved.

Why? Consider: Although anxiety about college admissions has become a national pastime for hordes of high school seniors, the incoming class at Princeton is limited to 1,248 students, or at least that's what the movie tells us at the outset. Those privileged few are culled from a stack of applications numbering more than 26,000.

Even at that, we're talking about a small number of youngsters who aspire to (or even think about) Princeton. Moreover, it's probably reasonable to assume that many of Princeton's applicants are the offspring of the exceptionally well-heeled.

Put another way: Finding a rooting interest when it comes to admission to one of the nation's most elite universities is not exactly a slam dunk.

Even if you discount my state-school bias, Admission still doesn't hold up, mostly because it doesn't really have a whole lot to say.

Fey plays Portia, a career-minded woman who works as an admissions officer at Princeton. And work she does. Portia's burdened with a fair number of those 26,000-plus applications, each representing the dreams of the young, hopeful and bright.

Portia also aspires to replace her boss (a very credible Wallace Shawn), an administrator who's on the verge of retirement. Portia is one of two leading candidates for the dean of admissions job, the other being a woman (Gloria Reuben) who seems more adept when it comes to office politics.

The story -- and eventually Portia's future -- hinges on the fate of one high school student (Nat Wolff), a youngster whose grades are terrible but whose test scores are off-the-charts. Wolff's Jeremiah attends New Quest, an experimental school where Rudd's character teaches.

We quickly learn that Rudd's John Pressman went to Dartmouth with Portia, which is one of the reasons he tries to persuade her to give Jeremiah special consideration. He understands that the kid might be a bit of a project, but he wants to help the young man -- an orphan who was adopted by a hard-working couple that runs a convenience store.

It's just here that you might be asking yourself a few pertinent questions. Wouldn't a really concerned teacher suggest that Jeremiah might flourish in at least one other school besides Princeton, that he ought to aim high but also hedge his bets?

Rudd's character comes off as too much of a benevolent cliche, a do-gooder with an adopted Ugandan son named Nelson (Travaris Spears). John teaches at a school where the students get involved with such unconventional pursuits as caring for farm animals, but he hankers to roll up his sleeves, get back to a developing country and lift more of the world's lost souls out of the mud of impoverishment.

Throw Lily Tomlin into the mix as Portia's feminist mother and you've got the makings of a movie that never finds a believable groove and in which character traits are drawn with a very broad brush.

Tomlin's character, for example, can't just be a feminist: She has to have a tattoo of Bella Abzug on her right shoulder. She insists that Portia call her "Susannah" instead of "mom." Perhaps to bolster her bona fides, we're told that she's written a well-regarded book entitled The Masculine Myth.

Everyone knows (or should) that Fey is a brilliant comic actress, but -- like the movie itself -- she seldom clicks, perhaps because the screenplay keeps throwing curves at her character. An example: Portia's significant other (Michael Sheen), an English professor, dumps her for a "hot" new scholar in the English department.

Admissions makes room for a couple of plot twists that you may not see coming, but they can't elevate a college-centered comedy in which Fey and Rudd don't generate enough romantic sparks to fire material that obviously wants to bring them together.

Admission doesn't seem to have much awareness that it might have used its story to say something unexpected and sharp about elite schools, college craziness, boiling ambition and love.

At the risk of pushing a college simile to the breaking point, I'd say that Admission is a lot like the student who enrolls in a whole lot of courses -- a few potentially interesting -- but can't find a way to excel at any of them.

An unexpected coming-of-age story

Elle Fanning sparks complex coming-of-age story, Ginger & Rosa
In Ginger & Rosa, British director Sally Potter delivers a story that relies as much on character as on burnish and style.

Putting aside the dizzying style of movies such as Yes and Orlando -- the director lends her considerable talents to a complex coming-of-age story that's bolstered by its political backdrop (the world trembles in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis) and its principal performance, an open-hearted look at troubled adolescence from the gifted Elle Fanning.

Fanning allows us to peek behind the walls of adolescence, to see a girl who's struggling with a boatload of issues.

No point being coy: Fanning's Ginger must come to grips with the fact that her iconoclastic father (Alesandro Nivola) refuses (in nearly every way) to conform to the contours of parenthood.

Nivola's Roland seems to regard fatherhood as a socially imposed inconvenience. He became a conscientious objector during World War II and went to prison. Now, he tries to encourage every spark of radicalism he sees in Ginger. As played by Nivola, Roland comes across as sincere -- if keenly lacking in self-awareness.

It's hardly surprising that Roland doesn't get along with Ginger's beleaguered mother, nicely played by Christina Hendricks of Mad Men fame. She's the one who has had to hold down the fort while Roland lives by principle.

In the early going, it seems as if the story is going to focus solely on the friendship between Ginger and Rosa (a convincing Alice Englert). The girls both were born in 1945, and their mothers went into labor at the same time.

They're bonded British babies in the age that began with the explosion of nuclear bombs in Japan, an event Potter uses -- somewhat portentously -- to start the movie.

Fanning and Englert play teen-agers who are forced to think about the seriousness of the world's situation while trying to navigate choppy adolescent waters. At one point, they soak in a bathtub together, reading tabloids and trying to shrink their jeans into form-fitting tightness. Ginger fancies herself a poet. Rosa's less inhibited, more of a free-spirit.

Both girls essentially are rudderless, but they deal with their drift in different ways. Ginger seeks solace from her mother's gay friends (Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt), a couple that's visited by a staunchly political American buddy (Annette Bening).

Absent a father in her life -- he split long ago -- Rosa becomes infatuated with Ginger's dad to a disastrous and disturbing degree.

Roland moves out of the house he shares with Hendrick's Natalie and sets up shop in a garret. He never seems to understand that his devotion to principle masks a stunning level of irresponsibility.

All of this builds to the inevitable dramatic blow-up, which hits like that early-picture nuclear explosion, a histrionic blast set off by the conflicts Potter implants in her story.

It's difficult not to wonder whether Potter's screenplay hasn't put a little too much on both its and Ginger's plates. The threat of global annihilation coupled with a host of daddy issues suggests nothing if not an over-reach. But a strong cast keeps Ginger & Rosa from losing its moorings, and Fanning gives the movie an emotional life so credible, it's safe to call it a rarity.

Selling the overthrow of a dictator

No offers a telling look at how Pinochet was ousted.
In 1988, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet presumed that he had the muscle to survive a plebiscite on his rule, a victory that would squelch opposition while creating the illusion that the Chilean strongman had popular support. As we now know, Pinochet's rule came to an end. To his and many other people's amazement, Pinochet lost the plebiscite.

The movie No tells the story of that momentous vote through an unusual and narrow perspective, the ad campaign that was mounted against the Chilean strongman.

No was shot video-style (more on this later) in an apparent effort to match some of the original advertisements that were used by the campaign to oust Pinochet, ads that appeared on TV during a 15-minute, government-dictated time slot.

The story centers on Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), a young hotshot in Chile's advertising business. Rene more or less stumbles into the "No" campaign. For the most part, he's apolitical, a mindset that seems to have contributed to his estrangement from his more politically oriented wife (Antonia Zegers). The couple's young son lives with Rene, but he wishes that his wife would return home.

To the credit of director Pablo Larrain , the story doesn't morph into the expected tale of personal transformation: Rene's mind seems to expand a bit as the movie progresses, but he's no Che in waiting.

Rene learns what it's like to find himself on what many of his advertising pals view as the "wrong" side an issue, but he never entirely gives up the benefits that derive from his skills as an adman. It's almost as if the "No" campaign takes Rene from happy indifference to troubled ambivalence, hardly a radical leap.

Rene's boss -- played by Alfred Castro -- continually seeks to remind his talented young employee about where his bread is buttered, and Rene's hopped-up approach to advertising doesn't always play well with the political types behind the "No" campaign. They want to emphasize Pinochet's worst abuses.

Rene, whose immaturity is suggested by the fact that he likes to zip around on a skateboard, thinks the best way to sell "no" is by getting people to think "yes." Put another way, he's selling folks what most ads promise, a happy future.

One drawback: Larrain reportedly used video equipment of the period to make his film. I'm enough of a visual snob to say that I would have preferred a better-looking production, and the ads themselves can begin to feel repetitive.

Having said that, it's still worth noting that No manages -- through storytelling and the use of real ads and recreations -- to encapsulate part of the story about how the Pinochet regime received the boot.

I don't know enough about Chilean history to know whether the movie is spot-on. But Bernal's appealing performance and Larrain's view of the ways in which people can be manipulated combine for an intriguing take on how well-applied grease can help the wheels of history to turn.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Faith and love in Romania

Beyond the Hills looks at conditions that are destined to breed heartbreak..
Romanian director Cristian Mungiu broke onto the world stage with the searing abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Now comes Beyond the Hills , an equally stark film in which the director explores another -- though entirely different -- situation, but one that's also destined to provoke heartbreak.

Set in a Orthodox monastery that's inhabited by a priest and a small group of nuns and novices, Beyond the Hills focuses on a relationship forged by two women in an orphanage that offered them something considerably less than an idyllic childhood.

The movie begins when Alina (Christna Flutur) returns to Romania after trying her hand at employment in Germany. Alina desperately wants to reunite with Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), the girl with whom she grew up at the orphanage.

Mungiu purposefully refuses to define the precise parameters of the relationship between Alina and Voichita, who now lives in the monastery. It may have been sexual or, at minimum, full of sexual undertones. One thing becomes clear, though: Alina desperately wants to renew the relationship. She can't seem to imagine how she can continue if Voichita won't return to Germany with her.

Unfortunately for Alina, Voichita has found fulfillment in religious life, not to mention a sense of family that she never experienced as a child. The nuns refer to the priest and head nun as "papa" and "mama." A spartan but clearly familial environment prevails at the isolated and very meager monastery where the nuns live.

In less capable hands, Beyond the Hills easily could have pitted Alina's secular outlook against the more rigid dictates of religion. But Mingiu, whose movie was inspired by a real story, provides so much shading that it becomes impossible for an audience to indulge in simplistic moralizing.

The priest and nuns don't always understand Alina, but they genuinely seem to care about her. They mistakenly diagnose her condition as demonic possession, a judgment that's enforced when a hospital returns Alina -- who's prone to violent outbursts -- to the care of the nuns.

As Alina's behavior becomes more threatening (to herself as well as to others), the nuns implore the monastery's priest (Valeriu Andriuta) to perform an exorcism. He ultimately agrees, and Alina is put through an experience that looks very much like torture -- although neither the priest nor the nuns see it that way.

When they say they're trying to help, they mean it. Besides, they have no idea what else they can do.

For her part, Voichita is deeply conflicted. She's been told that if she were to leave the monastery with Alina, she would not be allowed to return. She obviously has deep feelings for her long-time friend -- a girl who served has her protector in the orphanage -- but she can't easily abandon a group that has provided her with the only security she's ever known.

These young women have hopelessly conflicting ideas about what's required to make each of them feel safe.

It's difficult (and perhaps unwise) to see Beyond the Hills as anything but a sobering indictment of much of Romanian society. Mungiu hints at the awful upbringing the girls received at the orphanage, reveals the less-than-noble motivations of the people who, at one point, took Alina into foster care, and offers a clear depiction of obvious failures at a local hospital.

All of this takes place against a forbidding backdrop. The environment at the monastery goes way beyond what many of us would recognize as religiously inspired poverty. Unadorned in summer and snowbound during the winter months, the monastery has no electricity and little by way of creature comforts.

The nuns sometimes interact with townsfolk, although it's clear that their isolation, as well as their reliance on a single priest for religious instruction, has badly skewed their judgment.

As the story develops, we meet people who behave sanely, although everyone seems to be laboring under the heavy weight of knowledge that few things in life ever work out well; even the most stable of the movie's characters seem to have grown accustomed to greeting disaster with a knowing shrug.

Both actresses are fine, but Flutur makes an exceptional Alina, and Beyond the Hills reinforces Mungiu's status as an important filmmaker on the world stage. I doubt whether you'll see anything quite like Beyond the Hills any time soon.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

'The Call' generates tension, but ...

It works on the gut, but this thriller is not to be believed..
No question: Answering 911 calls for a living has to be one of the world's toughest jobs. For a time, it seems as if the new Halle Berry thriller, The Call, is going to use such high-stress 911 work as the basis for a tautly conceived, high-tension movie.

Too bad The Call -- which initially succeeds at keeping us on edge -- quickly shows its low-caliber hand. Much of the movie's gut-wrenching fervor stems from watching a teen-ager being subjected to varying degrees of torment -- by being abducted, shoved in the trunk of a car and finally stowed in an underground hideout where ... well ... vile things are intended.

Berry plays Jordan, a Los Angeles-based 911 operator who's traumatized by an early picture call in which she overhears a young woman being murdered. A deeply shaken Jordan, who made a mistake that may have contributed to the girl's death, takes a break from her 911 duties, opting to train others in the art of answering high-stakes calls.

When another teen-ager (Abigail Breslin) is kidnapped at an upscale mall, Jordan must re-don her headset to confront a wily and sadistic criminal, as well as lingering doubts about her own effectiveness. Of course, she's after the same killer who threw her off her game in the first place.

Director Brad Anderson (The Machinist) knows how to work an audience over, but the screenplay for The Call becomes increasingly implausible, forcing Berry's character to behave in risible ways and leading to an ending that threatens to turn the movie into a Silence of the Lambs knock-off.

The movie's at its best when Jordan's trying to communicate (via cell phone) with Breslin's character who has been locked in the trunk of a car that's barreling down one of LA's freeways.

The movie's ending plays like a formulaic afterthought that makes a mockery of verisimilitude while pandering to an audience's lust for vengeance.

The supporting cast doesn't much matter here, but Morris Chestnut is mostly wasted as an LAPD cop who's also Jordan's love interest, and Michael Imperioli (of Sopranos fame) has been given what may turn out to be the year's most thankless role. I can't describe it here without including a major spoiler, but those who venture into this often distasteful thriller will know exactly what I'm talking about.

Magical? Not really. Funny? Often

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone conjures up laughs.
Silly, sloppy and totally lacking in trenchancy, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has something richer comedies often lack -- a decent supply of laughs.

Steve Carell joins forces with Steve Buscemi, Jim Carrey, Alan Arkin and James Gandolfini for a comedy about a couple of fading magicians (Carell and Buscemi) who have overstayed their welcome as Las Vegas headliners.
In their prime, Burt Wonderstone (Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Buscemi) were good enough to have a hotel theater named for them, but they've stagnated: Their act hasn't changed in years.

The movie opens with a nice little prologue in which two geeky elementary school kids form an alliance built around magic. It all starts when young Burt is given a magic set for his birthday. Rance Holloway's Magic Kit transforms his life, stimulating him to learn a variety of rudimentary tricks. He thinks magic will enhance his popularity.

Burt and Anton grow up to conquer Las Vegas, where they work for a hotel owned by Gandolfini's Doug Munny, whose name signals his undisguised capacity for greed.

Director Don Scardino (of 30 Rock fame) may not be the greatest of stylists, but what he lacks in visual chops, he makes up for by giving the movie an affable and sometimes dippy spirit.

The story's principal development involves the introduction of another magician, Carrey's Steve Gray. Gray, who becomes an instant rival for Burt and Anton, doesn't exactly do magic tricks. Rather than creating illusions, he puts himself through a series of physical tortures -- like spending a night screaming on a hot bed of coals. He's his own reality show.

The complex illusions cooked up by Burt and Anton seem passe when compared to Gray's death-defying stunts, which -- the movie suggests -- are precisely what a thrill-hungry public craves.

A bewigged Carrey -- he looks a little like Fabio on a bad day -- brings his customary intensity to the role of a crazed performer; it's a one-note performance, but the note is so strikingly manic, it almost sustains itself for the entire movie.

The script may be trying to for a bit of satirical edge with Carrey's character, but members of the pretension police can relax: No one's likely to accuse The Incredible Burt Wonderstone of trying to make any kind of statement.

Carell begins the movie as a self-absorbed, womanizing egoist with long hair, the biggest bed in Vegas, a tan that looks as if it came out of a bottle and an act so transparently showy, it borders on self-parody. Carell smartly tones down his performance as the movie progresses, bringing a little normalcy (and a better haircut) to his portrayal. He also picks up a love interest (Olivia Wilde) along the way.

Buscemi mostly plays second fiddle to Carell as the beleaguered Anton. Not surprisingly, the partnership between Burt and Anton becomes increasingly shaky, slipping into its final collapse with a disastrous trick called "The Hot Box." Eager to compete with Gray, the two suspend themselves in a class cage and wait for the Vegas sun to fry their brains.

Once he's on his own, Burt's career founders. He's eventually reduced to working assisted living facilities. At one such facility, he meets the aging Rance, who long ago abandoned his career as a magician. Burt and Rance develop a friendship that helps revive both their spirits.

It hardly needs to be said that Arkin fulfills his comic obligations with sarcasm, rue and what -- in this movie -- passes for wisdom.

The movie doesn't do much with other supporting characters. Jay Mohr (as the wonderfully named Rick the Implausible) adds little, to cite one example.

Of course, the movie builds toward the inevitable reunion and resurgence of the Wonderstone/Marvelton act, arriving at its destination in awkward but funny fashion.

It's possible that The Incredible Burt Wonderstone will become little more than a footnote in the careers of a lot of talented folks, but it's an amusing footnote -- and that counts for something.

Lots of menace with no place to go

A talented Korean director shows off his skills but Stoker still falters.
Generally, I have mixed feelings when directors from other countries -- particularly those with distinctive styles and edgy concerns -- travel to the U.S. for English-language productions. I root for the their success, but can't help wondering whether something vital will be lost in translation.

In his first U.S. movie, the often brilliant and always provocative South Korean director Park Chan-Wook (director of movies such as Oldboy and a trilogy of Vengeance films) completes about three-quarters of the journey to a new culture. Park's Stoker can't quite provide the rich payoff his movie promises -- but that's not to dismiss the film's early going, a virtuoso display of style in which Park creates an atmosphere chilled by impending, perhaps inevitable doom.

Working from a screenplay by Wentworth Miller, Park seems to be riffing on Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. Both movies make room for an ambiguous character named Uncle Charlie, Joseph Cotton in Hitchcock's movie and Matthew Goode in Park's version of a story about an uncle who shows up after his brother dies in a car accident.

Uncle Charlie works to establish a bond with his niece (Mia Wasikowska), a young woman he's never met before. In fact, she never knew her father (Dermott Mulroney) even had a brother until Charles turns after Dad's death.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that both mother (a convincing Nicole Kidman) and daughter (perhaps to a lesser degree) are falling under the sway of the preternaturally helpful Uncle Charlie, played with cagy confidence by Goode.

To further complicate matters, Wasikowska's India Stoker is going through the weirdness of her own sexual awakening; the gifted Wasikowska is up to conveying every bit of that weirdness. India displays the normal recalcitrance of an 18-year-old but augmented by something that seems significantly creepier.

There's little question that Park has control over the movie's imagery, its performances and its eerie soundscape, all of which heighten the sense of uneasiness he skillfully creates.
Park tries to maintain ambiguity as he builds toward what should be (but isn't) a whopping and intelligent finale.

Park and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung find plenty of opportunities to show off their mastery, but the screenplay -- which seems rooted in India's fantasy life and dark capacities -- ultimately doesn't reward our patience.

Park's stylistic flourishes (India likes to arrange shoeboxes in horseshoe shapes) seem designed mostly to keep us off balance. They do, but the danger in this kind of approach (violent but less so than some of Park's Korean movies) is that it sets a high bar for the movie's payoff.

Without going much further, I'll just say that Park doesn't vault over the bar he sets for himself, and many will conclude that, in this case, the result is a little too frustrating, a carefully prepared meal that offers too little by way of real nourishment.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Yes, but what does it mean?

An Iranian director films in Japan to sometimes baffling -- but always intriguing -- result.
Like Someone in Love -- the latest film from Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami -- may strike you as one of the most meaningful films you've seen in a long time or, if you're resistant to it, one of the more meaningless.

I'm beginning this way because a Kiarostami film requires a good deal of patience, as well as some willingness to speculate about the veiled targets at which Kiarostami and his characters have taken aim.

Ambiguously developed around an exceptionally skimpy story, Like Someone in Love offers two pleasures for the viewer who takes to it: The first involves Kiarostami's visual approach, which makes heavy use of glossy reflections and distorted views as seen through the glassy surfaces of Tokyo. It's almost as if the director wants to double and triple the meaning of everything, while also making the case that the commonplace has its own intricacies.

The second pleasure involves the mental probing that Kiarostami's images demand as we try to penetrate their purposeful ambiguity.

Kiarostami's last film -- Certified Copy -- was equally ambiguous. Set in Italy, that film seemed less intriguing to me than Like Someone in Love, which takes place in Japan and makes use of an all-Japanese cast. (Kiarostami seems to have, at least temporarily, abandoned filmmaking in Iran, a country that's not always hospitable to his kind of art.)

As is often the case with his movies, Kiarostami isn't so much interested in telling a story as in exploring the minute corners of a situation in which a college girl (Rin Takanashi) works as a prostitute, presumably to earn money for school. Early on, the young woman reluctantly submits to her pimp's pleading and takes a taxi to the home of an elderly professor (Tadashi Okumo).

Rather than pursuing a sexual encounter, Okumo's Takashi offers to serve the young woman a meal. Takanashi's Akiko declines, deciding that she'll take a nap instead.

After the professor gives the attractive young woman a ride back to campus, her possessive boyfriend ( Ryo Kase) latches on to both of them. He assumes that the professor is the young woman's grandfather. The professor does nothing to disabuse the young man of the notion. Rather, he demonstrates an increasingly protective attitude toward Akiko. By pretending to be a grandfather, he begins to act like one.

For her part, Takanashi's Akiko spends a lot of the movie in a state of irritation. She's clearly sick of her boyfriend. She has an independent streak. She's willful, and apparently tired of being ordered around by the pimp who arranges her assignations.

The movie takes place in the bar where Akiko hangs out, at the professor's book-lined apartment and in his Volvo, which he uses to drive Akiko around, and which, at one point, Kase's character generously offers to repair. Why not do a favor for his girlfriend's grandfather?

Maybe I'm making this all sound more eventful than it is. Kiarostami's cinema is one in which he invites us to explore moments that brim with suggestion.

In an odd and perhaps even disturbing way, Kase's Noriaki becomes a kind of surrogate for the audience as he tries (mostly in vain) to pin down the emotions and motivations of the two other characters. At minimum, Like Someone in Love deals with the price that comes from making assumptions about others.

All I can say is that I found myself caught up in Kiarostami's film and that includes its shockingly abrupt ending, a shattering bit of action that you sense coming only seconds before it arrives. The ending adds considerable weight to what may seem a series of artfully conceived puzzles. It does precisely what an ending should do. It demands that we continue the story in our heads. More than the end of one story, it's the start of another.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Murky plot sinks 'Dead Man Down'

A disappointing thriller from a strong collection of talent.
If you're interested in movies, Dead Man Down seems difficult to ignore. The movie marks the U.S. debut of Danish director Niels Arden Oplev, who directed the Swedish edition of the enormously popular The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. On top of that, the movie stars Noomi Rapace, the gifted actress who worked with Oplev to create the pivotal (and unforgettable) character of Lizbeth Salander in the original Dragon Tattoo series.

The rest of the movie's cast -- Colin Farrell, Terrence Howard, Isabelle Huppert, F. Murray Abraham and, very briefly, Armand Assante -- suggests we're in for a movie with strong performances and a multi-national flavor.

But Dead Man Down -- which was written by J.H. Wyman and which is set in New York City -- proves to be a murky affair, an overly complex story that revolves around Manhattan real estate, mobsters (domestic and Albanian), explosive violence and an odd, evolving relationship between Farrell's Victor and Rapace's Beatrice, a beautician whose face has been badly scarred in an automobile accident.

Dead Man Down puts a variety of revenge-driven forces into play, turning itself into a puzzle of a movie that bets that we'll stick with it until its loose-ends are tied at the end. But in this case, we're asked to make our way through a thick pile of narrative sludge as Dead Man Down heads toward its ultra-violent resolution.

Part of the problem involves the characters. Farrell, who's in almost every frame, portrays an emotionally withdrawn, recessive man who works for a mobster named Alphonse (Howard). It takes time for the screenplay to get around to explaining what Victor really wants, and Farrell can seem as inert as he is mysterious.

Victor and Beatrice live in separate but neighboring apartment buildings. She watches him from her balcony and decides -- with encouragement from her mother (Huppert) -- that she ought to meet this mysterious fellow. As it turns out, Beatrice has a vengeful agenda of her own, which can't be described here without adding significant spoilers.

Suffice it to say that the movie's dreary mood extends to the performances. Rapace fares better than the others, remaining interesting despite the fact that she's playing a character that doesn't compute, but Howard, whose work I almost always enjoy, never seems to find a handle on his character.

Huppert portrays a happy woman who speaks more French than English, Assante is limited to one scene, and an equally underutilized Abraham pops in an out of the story as Victor's uncle.

The movie tries to make use of the fact that Victor -- a native of Hungry who was trained as an engineer -- has technical skills, but little about the character sticks, and in the end, Oplev resolves the plot's many conflicts with an overblown and preposterous display of violence.

Although Dead Man Down generates a bit of visual interest, it's noir musings mostly come off as leaden, unbelievable and more than a little confusing.

Disappointing as it is, Dead Man Down does boast at least one distinction: It may be the first neo-noir movie to figure out a way to work Tupperware into its plot.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

This journey to Oz misses greatness

A prequel to the Wizard of Oz has its enchantments -- but flaws, as well..
It takes more than a little moxie to revisit the big-screen world that was so beautifully created by director Victor Fleming in The Wizard of Oz. To go "all-in" with a big-budget, 3-D extravaganza takes even more guts. So no faulting Disney or director Sam Raimi for an lack of daring.

Raimi -- perhaps best known for his contributions to the Spider Man series -- attempts to serve up a visually ambitious prequel to the 1939 classic, a movie that still attracts viewers when its shown on TV and which still scares adults and kids some 76 years after its 1939 release, thanks mostly to those hideous flying monkeys.

Moxie aside, Oz the Great and Powerful turns out to be a hit-and-miss affair with some serious drawbacks, not the least of which revolves around James Franco, the likable actor who begins the movie as a two-bit carnival magician named Oscar Diggs.

Franco flashes a toothy grin to convey the phony sincerity of a small-time con man, but doesn't do much more with his character. Early on, Diggs is swept by a tornado from Kansas to the magical world of Oz. There, he's greeted as the living fulfillment of a prophecy that calls for a wizard to save Oz from tyranny.

But Franco's performance isn't the only issue. There's also a notable lack of characters to provide the level of entertainment associated with The Tin Man (Jack Haley), the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) and the Cowardly Lion (Burt Lahr).

I know. That's an awfully high bar, but what's the point of flying off to Oz without trying to match or jump over it? On top of that, Dorothy (Judy Garland) was a more interesting and involving character than a crackpot magician who must kill a wicked witch in order to save Oz and, not incidentally, gain access to its piles of golden treasure.

Having said all that, I don't want to leave you with the impression that Oz the Great and Powerful is a total disaster. It's a medium-grade helping of fantasy enhanced by some skillful animation, a few spectacular sets, some decent set pieces and dollops of humor.

Raimi wisely begins by following in the footsteps of the original with a black-and-white prologue that's presented in the old-fashioned 1:33 aspect ratio. When the story reaches Oz, Raimi expands to wide-screen and color.

Look, it's clear that Raimi (and a vast special effects team) was trying for a feeling of sustained enchantment, and when Franco's character discovers the land of Oz or gets his first glimpse of the Emerald City, Raimi seems to be on the right track.

The new movie gives the emerging wizard some new companions, a flying monkey named Finley (voiced by Zach Braff) and a China Doll -- she's called China Girl -- voiced by Joey King. Finley, who's dressed as a bellhop, becomes a beast of burden, carting the faux wizard's bag all over Oz. Although he manages some cuteness and humor, Finley simply doesn't have either the weight or memorability of any character from the original.

And China Girl might have been more affecting had the character been played a real girl instead of a CGI stand-in.

All of those flaws might have receded into obscurity had the witches (there are three in this edition) provided more kick. Mila Kunis portrays Theodora, a young woman who begins as a good and trusting witch but transforms into the Wicked Witch of the West. Michelle Williams appears as Glinda, the irrevocably good witch, and Rachel Weisz plays Evanora, the witch responsible for handling much of the movie's villainy.

None of them are as frightening or as commanding as the great Margaret Hamilton, the original (and in reality the "only") credible Wicked Witch of the West. Raimi and screenwriters David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner pay brief homage to Hamilton and try to create a variety of other (mostly minor) connections to the best-known big-screen adaptation of L. Frank Baum's classic story.

Now, about those flying monkeys. This version offers a more obviously fearsome version of the airborne simians, but employs them to lesser effect. These razor-toothed creatures fly at the audience, generating more by way of jolts than creepiness. The monkeys may be emblematic of the way Raimi employs 3-D throughout, more for thrill-ride impact than for the subtlety and depth that has marked the best recent 3-D, notably Life of Pi.

The mix of live-action and effects isn't always convincing, either. Too often, we're aware that animation is being employed, although some of it is beautifully colored and alluring.

I appreciated the gargantuan effort that went into Oz the Great and Powerful, and the movie may please younger audience while giving them a few scary kicks in the pants.

But "not bad" is not what we expect from a movie of this magnitude and with this lineage.

Oh, and by the way, Oz the Great and Powerful makes room for Munchkins, but not for Toto or any other dog. Pity.

The men in charge of Israeli security

The Gatekeepers takes a powerful look inside the Israeli defense establishment.
The ringing phone startles you out of a deep sleep. You look at the clock on the nightstand. Two a.m. You barely have time to mutter to yourself and shake off any lingering traces of grogginess when the voice on the other end of the line tells you that an extremely reliable suspect has been caught and that this suspect has knowledge about explosives that have been planted in a densely populated neighborhood.

The explosives are timed to go off at 5 a.m., which means you have less than three hours to learn where the bombs have been hidden.

The question: How far would you go to obtain information about the location of those bombs, information that could save hundreds of lives?

In a filmed interview conducted at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, director Dror Moreh described just such a scenario as he discussed the mindsets of the subjects of his Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers.

Moreh was trying, I think, to help us understand something about the world inhabited by six former members of the Shin Bet, men whose experiences provide the backbone of what turns out to be a revealing and vitally important documentary.

It's equally important to understand that although The Gatekeepers may be viewed as critical of many Israeli policies, the criticisms are not coming from naive, placard-carrying peaceniks from the Israeli left. They are coming from men who sat at the heart of the Israeli, anti-terror establishment and who have made decisions with life-and-death consequences -- for Israelis, as well as for those who have been targeted by the Shin Bet.

Moreh says he was inspired by Errol Morris's The Fog of War, a documentary in which former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara reflected on his controversial past, particularly with regard to the Vietnam War. The mere existence of both films qualifies as a small wonder. In Moreh's case, former heads of Shin Bet were persuaded to discuss their careers with surprising candor and to opine about the apparently endless conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians as it has unfolded since the 1967 war in which Israel took control of the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

Not surprisingly, on-going tensions in the West Bank have created a lot of work for the Shin Bet.

Each of the men interviewed in the film's seven sections is different, but the collective impression is one of stark pragmatism mixed with sober reflection. Yaakov Peri -- who led the Shin Bet from 1988 until 1994 -- says that retirement tended to make him "a bit of leftist." To me, this suggests that a look back can alter anyone's perspective.

All of the men are fascinating and bright, but the most interesting of them might be Avraham Shalom, who resigned after a notorious 1984 bus hijacking. Shalom looks the part of someone's beloved uncle (see above photo), but his reputation hardly fits the image.

There's no getting around the fact that these men have been hardened by what they have viewed as the demanding necessities of their work. To do their jobs, they have had to make decisions involving collateral damage. They also have had to live with the gnawing realization, expressed by nearly all of them, that Palestinian rage is not only understandable, but perhaps even justifiable.

Tellingly, one of them talks about how considerations about the viability of a Palestinian state have all but vanished amid a consuming preoccupation with terrorism.

Moreh skillfully uses archival footage to bring events to life. The Gatekeepers is no dry exercise for policy wonks; it's a gripping foray into an often secret world.

It's sobering (and in a way encouraging) to hear the men charged with protecting Israel's security express reservations about whether the sum total of their efforts has created a better, safer Israel. Argue with their conclusions if you want, but it's difficult to dismiss these voices from the depths of Israel's "inner sanctum."

"Consider the source." Isn't that what skeptics always say when shying away from supposedly biased assessments? In this case, the bromide doesn't apply. Damn right, we need to consider the source. Who's in a better position to reach some of the film's alarming conclusions than these six men?

A kid on the losing side of war

The child of Nazi parents faces an uncertain and perhaps harrowing future.
The artistic imagination is such that it frequently wants to push into dark corners. It's possible for a writer to wonder what it might be like to be accused of a terrible crime or how it might feel to inherit and then squander a fortune. Director Cate Shortland, working from the middle section of Rachel Seiffert's 2002 novel The Dark Room, has taken such an unsettling journey. In her new movie Lore, Shortland tries to show us what it might have been like to be the child of an SS officer in the days just prior to the end of World war II.

This unusual and instantly provocative perspective gives Lore its compelling strangeness, a strangeness that sometimes leaves us unsure what to think. Can any suffering these children endure compare to the massive death and trauma inflicted on so many?

Fourteen-year-old Lore (the gifted Saskia Rosendahl) is the oldest child in a family of five: a sister, two twin brothers and an infant boy. As the war winds down, Lore's father (Hans-Jochen Wagner) and her mother (Ursina Lardi) begin to flounder. Dad heads off on his own. Her nervous system ravaged by stress, Lardi's character decides to surrender to the allies. She then instructs her children to travel to their grandmother's home, a 500-mile journey to Hamburg that they will make mostly on foot.

Shortland, an Australian, plunges into a story that takes place against the chaotic, war-ravaged backdrop of Germany's defeat. Frightened German farmers who know what Lore's parents did during the war won't have much to do with the kids. Many of the adults the kids meet along the way are living in shock. One woman thinks the German people tragically let the Fuhrer down, a terrible failing because he loved them so much.

Unlike her siblings, Lore is old enough to have been intensely schooled in Nazi propaganda, including its rabid anti-semitism. Not surprisingly, she believed what she was told, but she's beginning to awaken to another reality, one stirred by photographs the advancing allies have posted, pictures of Nazi death camp victims. Some of the Germans react to these photos with disbelief, claiming that they have been staged. But Lore's wall of certainty begins to crack.

In what could have been an overly didactic contrivance, Lore meets Tomas (Kai Malina), a young man who's traveling across the country with Jewish identity papers. The irony, of course, is that such papers now ensure his safety rather than threaten it.

Tomas' arrival also sets the stage for Lore to begin exploring her awakening sexuality, which she (and the movie) don't really know how to handle. Her body is awakening at the same time as her mind.

Tomas becomes an important part of the youngsters' lives because he's good at procuring food and because he's evidently accustomed to defending himself against predators, violently if need be.

Lore functions on many levels. One one hand, it's a portrait of a teen-ager who's forced to take on responsibilities that are far from age appropriate. To complete her coming-of-age journey, Lore must not only fight physical hardship, but the encroaching knowledge of who her parents were. Viewed from another angle, Lore can be seen as a troubling look at the mentality of ordinary Germans in the immediate aftermath of a devastating defeat.

As is the case with many intriguing movies, we're left to wonder just how far Lore has come when her journey ends. Has she transcended the limits of an ideology that had become second nature to her? Whether she has or not, it's clear that she has led her siblings across difficult terrain -- both geographically and psychologically.

Whatever else happens in Lore's life, it seems certain that she'll never fully reconcile with her parents past, which -- of course is also her country's past. Denial won't work for Lore, just as it won't work for her shattered, defeated country.