Saturday, April 27, 2013

A sensualist and a soldier

A beautiful portrait of Pierre Auguste Renoir and his son, Jean.

"What interests me is skin, the velvety texture of a young girl's skin."

I don't know if Pierre-Auguste Renoir actually spoke those words, but he utters them in Renoir, director Gilles Bourdos' intriguing look at the artist in his declining and deeply debilitated final years.

Although Renoir suffered from an excruciatingly painful case of rheumatoid arthritis, he continued to paint. He often focused on nude young women who served as models and who inspired him to capture moments drenched with warmth and sensual pleasure.

As portrayed by Michel Bouquet, Renoir seems to be attempting to go as gently as possible into "that good night." The painter clings to a philosophy that connects him to life through sensory delight that he not only experienced but conveyed to others -- unencumbered by either guilt or second thoughts.

To me, Renoir's paintings are so intimate they constitute near invasions of privacy. In The Bathers, for example, he shows us women bathing in a stream, apparently unaware that they are being observed. Renoir made voyeurs of us all.

In Renoir, the recently widowed painter lives in isolated Colettes on the French Riviera, a retreat where nature, verdant and nourishing, seems to become a co-conspirator in his work, and where a breeze blowing across exposed flesh has the softness of a kiss.

As one of the women who works for Renoir says, in the painter's world, maids became models and models became maids. In his final years, Renoir seems to have surrounded himself with a virtual harem of doting women who tended to his needs. They call him The Boss.

But Pierre-Auguste isn't the only Renoir in the movie. The first Renoir we meet is his youngest son Claude (Thomas Doret), an angry boy who refers to himself as an orphan, presumably because Claude receives little attention from his towering father.

Soon afterward, middle son Jean Renoir (Vincent Rottiers) arrives, a soldier sent home to recuperate from wounds sustained during intense fighting in World War I, a conflagration that seems light years away from Pierre-Auguste's estate.

Equally important to the story is a woman who enters the life of all the Renoirs. Andree (Christa Theret) approaches Renoir as a potential model. Hoping to find new creative nourishment in the presence of yet another young woman, Renoir agrees to allow Andree to model for him.

At the same time, Jean -- very much unaware that he will become the director of such great movies as Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game -- falls for the ambitious Andree, who suggests that Jean make films so that she can star in them. (Renoir did actually make films with Andree, whom he eventually married. They divorced in 1930. Renoir's older brother Pierre, also wounded in the war and seen briefly here, was a screen and stage actor.)

If you want to see what Renoir made of Andree, google Blonde a la Rose.

The painting seems illustrative of Renoir's belief that form derives from color and that the sensual mingling of colors within a painting could be likened to sex.

The affectionate yet troubled relationship between Pierre-Auguste and Jean revolves around Andree, whose presence brings various father/son conflicts into clearer view.

Assertive and bold, Andree resists becoming part of the Renoir support system. At one point, she angrily breaks plates Renoir had hand-painted. She refuses to be cowed by his fame and celebrity. She craves recognition, but it's unclear whether she has the talent and temperament for true artistic achievement.

At age 21, Jean has yet to shape an identity. He thinks of himself as a soldier, a man committed to his comrades in arms. When his injuries keep him from rejoining his infantry companions, Jean decides to become a pilot. His father can't understand why his son would want to expose himself to more mortal danger.

For his part, Jean can't fathom his father's indifference to the loyalty he feels to those with whom he has fought side-by-side.

In some ways, Renoir charts the end of one creative life and the beginning of another. The movie opens at a time when Pierre-Auguste Renoir long had been established as an important, wealthy and appreciated artist. Jean Renoir shows only traces of the cinema artist he would become.

Jean often sits by his father's side while the master paints, at one point, he helps to arrange a composition. Although his sense of loyalty suggests the deep humanism that would inform the director's best work, Jean's artistic development hardly seems inevitable.

Bouquet not only resembles the aging Renoir, but captures the artist's self-absorption, truculence and single-minded intention; Rottiers presents a Jean who's a bit callow, still inflamed by a youthful sense of noble aspiration; and Theret conveys the volatility of a woman who's powerful enough to upset both their apple carts.

Cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee helps make the movie's themes palpable. Renoir's interest in sensuality is felt in nearly every gorgeous frame. The images in Renoir contribute to what amounts to a small, but memorable portrait about a father and son who enriched their respective arts.

Bourdos relies on us to round out the filmmaking career Jean Renoir will have, but clearly presents the elder Renoir as the consummate artist of pleasure, even at a time in his waning life when he no longer could experience much of it.

Friday, April 26, 2013

A transformed Michael Bay? Hmm...

Violence sometimes trumps comedy in Pain & Gain.
As it happens, I'm writing this review in Krakow, while working on a film project. Poland, a land rich in both painful history and cultural gain, seems an odd place to be reviewing Michael Bay's dramatically hyperventilated Pain & Gain, but that's the situation in which I find myself.

I suppose it's not entirely inappropriate. If you follow a diagonal line from the National Museum in Krakow to an opposing street corner, you'll run smack into a colossus of a billboard advertising Tom Cruise's Oblivion. That billboard, I suppose, underscores the oft-made but still unsettling point: American movie culture is ubiquitous.

So, Pain & Gain ...

Basing his movie on an improbable but true story, Bay detours from the crash & smash style he brought to movies such as Transformers, forsaking massive explosions for a hyped-up look at low-level Florida thugs who cook up a kidnapping scheme.

In many ways, Pain & Gain is an odd, even bizarre hybrid -- part comedy, part display of shocking violence and part satire about the distorting powers of the American dream.

Despite its multiple ambitions, the movie works best as a comedy about dopey, violent hoodlums who are too dumb to achieve their felonious ambitions. Bay tries to give the violence as much twisted humor as possible, serving up jolts that cause us to wince even as we chuckle.

There's a fine line here, of course, and Bay sometimes crosses it. Too much vividly displayed violence can (and sometimes does) steamroll the movie's comic elements.

Muscularity, of course, is what Bay's after with this story about body builders gone terribly wrong. Mark Wahlberg plays Daniel Lugo, a weight lifter who works as a trainer at Miami's Sun Gym. The time: the 1990s.

Fearing that he's stuck in a dead-end life, Lugo attends a self-help seminar. He decides that he should be a doer. For Lugo, this means hatching a scheme to kidnap a successful businessman (Tony Shalhoub).

Lugo recruits two cohorts (Anthony Mackie and Dwayne Johnson) to carry out his ill-conceived criminal plans. He decides to hold Shalhoub's Victor Kershaw as a prisoner, until Kershaw signs over all his property and wealth to Lugo.

This trio of IQ-deprived felons doesn't count on Kershaw's powers of resistance. The victim refuses to acquiesce. Lugo & company then proceed with a variety of crudely conceived tortures.

To say that these guys are ham-handed gives them more credit than they deserve. They're precisely the kind of bungling fools one used to find in old Ealing Studio comedies -- with one exception: They're in a Michael Bay movie that seems intent on channeling some of Quentin Tarantino's taste for irony-laced violence.

Each of the thugs represents a different brand of self-deception. Lugo comes off a flexed muscle of a man whose brawn and ambition exceed his brain power and skill. Since his release from prison, Johnson's Paul Doyle has been struggling to give up a life of sex, drugs and crime. Despite a new-found love for Jesus, Paul has trouble staying a straight and narrow course. Mackie portrays Adrian Doorbal, a young man whose steroid abuse has left him buffed but impotent.

The supporting cast adds additional noir flavor. Rebel Wilson, who scored big time as Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect, plays the woman who falls for Mackie's Adrian. Michael Rispoli has a nice turn as a porn king who's as sleazy as our trio of heroes, but smarter, and Ken Jeong makes a credible motivational guru, the man whose pseudo-philosophy encourages Wahlberg's Lugo to aspire to a future that doesn't involve wearing sweat pants.

Also look for Ed Harris, as a retired Miami detective who decides to help recover Shaloub's character's wealth.

You should take the movie's "R" rating seriously, but it's not always is easy to take the same attitude toward the rest of Pain & Gain, which can feel like drama gone berserk.

Look, Pain & Gain represents Bay's most interesting work in some time, even though its stylized agitation and dim-witted characters can feel increasingly mismatched.

And then there's this: Pain & Gain has some enjoyable kick, but to paraphrase a line from the late Pauline Kael, the movie may make you wonder why you're spending valuable time watching dumb people do a lot of dumb things.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

'Oblivion' has an intriguing look

But Tom Cruise's latest doesn't have a plot to match ...
I saw Oblivion at a preview screening at an IMAX theater. I'd have to say that seeing the movie that way made for a heightened viewing experience. Even at that, I can't say that I'd ever had any desire to see a three-story projection of Tom Cruise's face, particularly in a role in which an awful lot of Cruise's acting consists of open-mouthed staring at special effects.

Maybe Cruise shouldn't be blamed. The effects in Oblivion -- directed by Joseph Kosinski of Tron Legacy fame -- offer a lot to tempt wandering eyes. Here's one post-apocalyptic thriller that doesn't look like every other sci-fi movie you've ever seen.

Set on Earth in 2077, Oblivion revolves around a future in which civilization mostly has been destroyed. The planet's population used nuclear weapons to annihilate an invading army of interplanetary thugs, achieving what may be the ultimate in pyrrhic victories. When the movie opens we meet a two-person mop-up crew that has been left to patrol the war-ravaged Earth before they join the rest of the survivors on Titan, a distant moon of Saturn. The team consists of Jack Harper (Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). The duo periodically checks in with a mission controller (Melissa Leo) who speaks with a folksy southern accent.

Jack and Victoria occupy a home above the clouds that has a spare, ultra-modern look, sort of what you might imagine the creators of the Jetsons would have come up with had they taken themselves seriously.

You'll just about have settled into your seat when Kosinski has Cruise flying around Earth in Top Gun-style, only this time his airborne vehicle looks like a cross between a helicopter, a jet and a drone. Not content with one toy for Cruise, the movie quickly provides Jack with another, a motorcycle that detaches from the body of Harper's aircraft.

And speaking of drones ...

It's just here that Oblivion finds a small measure of topical relevance. Jack's job involves servicing flying weapons the movie calls ... well ... drones. Harper's job: Refuel the drones, which are used to wipe out lingering marauders known as Scavengers or, more familiarly, "Scavs."

The movie's early scenes are devoted to action set pieces, including one that takes place in an abandoned library. Another scene takes us to the top of the Empire State Building, which now sits at ground level. Jack's haunted by memories of pre-war New York City, but doesn't know what to make of them. He knows every detail of the last Super Bowl, which he tells us was played in 2017. He wears a Yankee baseball cap, and evidently has given up shaving on a regular basis.

The plot -- which can be confusing -- takes a strange turn when Harper discovers a crashed ship during one of his Earth patrols. The crew has been scattered about in coffin-like containers where they've been "sleeping" for an extended period, presumably because they were supposed to make a lengthy space flight. Harper is able to rescue one member of the crew.

I guess if you had to pick one crew member to save, you could do worse than the beautiful Olga Kurylenko, last seen in Terrence Malick's To the Wonder. Kurylenko's Julia seems to have some sort of connection with Jack.

Jack, of course, must be portrayed as having a few special traits. Perhaps that's why he savors a book that he finds on one of his missions, a copy of Thomas Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome. Jack's particularly drawn to line about how to die a noble death.

If you've seen the trailer for Oblivion, you know that a cigar-chomping Morgan Freeman appears in the movie. Best not to explain Freeman's role in the story, but his character eventually helps drive the plot toward its muddled and disappointing destination.

Because the movie's primary pleasures are visual, it's worth mentioning that cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who also did Life of Pi, contributes to the movie's allure -- although Oblivion's considerable visual pleasures become somewhat repetitive as the action unfolds.

So what goes wrong? The troubles seem to have started at the typewriter; i.e., with the screenplay by Karl Gajdusek and Michael DeBruyn, who based their work on a graphic novel and original story by Kosinski. The various plot machinations often defy logic, and the movie includes an epilogue that struck me as a cheat.

I also wish that Cruise would find something else to do aside from big-budget extravaganzas that can undermine their intelligence with dumb dialogue (Oblivion has its share) and obligatory action. But that, I'm afraid, takes us out of the realm of science fiction and into the realm of hopeless fantasy.

'Disconnect' tries to plug into real emotions

Parts more powerful than the whole in this admirably ambitious look at loneliness, isolation and the pain of daily living.

E-mail, chat rooms, cell phones, laptops, instant messaging, tablets and photos that go viral all become part of the high-tech plot machinery in Disconnect, a drama that attempts (and almost succeeds) to use technology as a gateway to examining the loneliness and isolation that often colors contemporary experience.

Director Henry Alex Rubin, who previously directed the documentary Murderball, takes a somber approach to material that's topical, disturbing and not without examples of cruelty.

A large and well-employed cast helps to overcome an increasingly melodramatic and inelegantly contrived screenplay as Rubin -- working from a script by Andrew Stern -- moves through a variety of story lines, each of which proves more interesting than the ways in which the director ties them together in the end.

Rubin's cast of characters includes a married couple (Alex Skarsgard and Paula Patton) that recently lost a son. They become victims of identity theft. We also meet two teen-age boys (Colin Ford and Aviad Bernstein) who adopt the on-line identity of a teen-age girl in order to embarrass a classmate (Jonah Bobo) whom they regard as geeky and vulnerable.

Bobo's Ben struggles with a range of typical problems faced by kids who are considered "uncool" by their classmates. His parents (Jason Bateman and Hope Davis) don't seem to realize the depth of their son's torment. Nor does Ben's sister (Haley Ramm), a teen who disdains her brother because her friends regard him as a social misfit.

Meanwhile, the ex-cop father of one of the bullying boys (Frank Grillo) is hired to investigate the identity theft experienced by Skarskard and Patton.

If all that weren't enough (and it might well have been) Rubin adds the story of an ambitious TV reporter (Andrea Riseborough) who discovers an on-line site that traffics in teen-age sexual exploitation. Riseborough's Nina tries to persuade one of the teen workers (Max Theiriot) to be interviewed for an expose that's bound to boost her career.

That's enough plot for several movies, but Rubin staves off confusion, as he develops the movie, giving each story a palpable sense of sadness.

Viewers inevitably will compare Disconnect to a movie such as Crash, which also tried to examine lots of interconnected lives. The comparison may be unavoidable, but that shouldn't negate Rubin's accomplishment.

Disconnect is the kind of emotionally charged project that requires actors to dig deep, and Rubin's cast doesn't let him (or us) down. Unfortunately, though, the material ultimately lets the actors down, and we're left with a movie in which some terrific and highly credible scenes don't jell in totally convincing ways.

A boldly conceived fairy tale from Spain

It's always fun to watch a creative imagination at play. You'll get ample opportunity to do just that with the latest retelling of a familiar fairy tale.

In this outing from Spain, Snow White has become a young woman named Carmen. The seven dwarfs appear, but they've morphed into a bullfighting novelty act. In her young adulthood, Carmen also establishes herself as a groundbreaking female bullfighter, a trade she inherited from her father, a legendary matador whose career was cut short when he was gored by a bull.

And, oh yes, Blancanieves -- the movie in which you'll find these imaginative twists -- is also a black-and-white silent film that's set during the 1920s.

Director Pablo Berger's conception of this heavily re-imagined fairy tale is bold, melodramatic and, at times, witty. It's also well-acted by a cast that ably adapts to the vigorous demands of silent cinema. And Berger's employment of silent film tropes proves as deft as that of Michel Hazanavicious, who won an Oscar for his silent film, The Artist.

Macarena Garcia makes a worthy Carmen, but it's the movie's supporting cast that gives Blancanieves its robust and sometimes sharp flavor. Daniel Gimenez Cacho brings lingering sadness to the role of Carmen's debilitated father; and Maribel Verdu proves deliciously (even sadistically) wicked as Carmen's stepmother, the woman who insinuates herself into the picture after the death of Carmen's mother (Imma Cuesta). Cuseta's Carmen de Triana dies giving birth to Carmen after seeing her husband gored by a bull named (what else?) Lucifer.

The scenes involving Carmen's childhood can be sweet, a bit of an idyll in the story's mostly dark trajectory. Carmen has a pet rooster named Pepe, and a grandmother (Angela Molina) who treats her with kindness, a situation that -- in keeping with the doom-struck nature of this tale -- can't possibly last.

Carmen's stepmother works to keep the girl away from her father, and when Carmen is left with no choice but to move onto her father's estate, the conniving stepmother applies her cruelty with exaggerated harshness, unashamed enthusiasm and a taste for sexual perversity. Verdu's Encarna carries on with her chauffeur, frequently guiding him around on a leash.

Berger does an impressive job of balancing the demands of a classic story with the level of wild invention that's necessary to make the movie his own, and he builds toward an ending that's satisfyingly sad and completely in keeping with an approach that's grounded in bold strokes rather than wistful nuance.

So, "Ole!" to Berger -- for a version of Snow White that's at once idiosyncratic, thematically dark and visually striking.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Reality television -- Italian style

What could be better than a slot on Italy's version of Big Brother?
At first, director Matteo Garrone's Reality may seem a little passé, an amusing if predictably satirical look at the ways reality television can encourage even the most obscure among us to crave celebrity. In this case, the reality show is the Italian version of Big Brother (Grande Fratello) and the celebrity-craving man who wants to become part of it is Luciano (Aniello Arena), the operator of a fish stand in an open-air market in Naples. Perhaps because he does a well-received female impersonation at family weddings, Luciano sees no reason why he shouldn't leave the friendly confines of his Neapolitan marketplace and become a hot commodity in the national media marketplace. After he auditions for the show, Luciano begins spending capital he has yet to earn. Luciano (and everyone he knows) begins to act as if his anointment as a bona fide celebrity already has taken place. He carries this to an extreme that ultimately frustrates his wife (Loredana Simioli) and his large and blunt-spoken extended family. Luciano even sells his business on the theory that he'll soon be cashing in on his Big Brother fame. Luciano's unrelenting obsessiveness, artfully conveyed by Arena, rescues what could have been a middling comedy. Garrone made a splash with Gomorrah (2008), an entirely different and unremittingly harsh crime drama, also set in Naples. Garrone's comic touch makes Reality easy to take, although -- in its way -- this comic fable is colored by an undertow of strenuous criticism of those for whom reality television means losing all touch with reality -- and that includes both those who participate and those who watch.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Technique rules in stylized 'Trance'

Director Danny Boyle's new thriller misses the mark.
Is it possible for a director to put too much skill on display? I wondered about that while watching Danny Boyle's new thriller Trance, an over-produced hunk of intrigue that revolves around an art theft.

Boyle seems to be trying for a dizzying head trip of a movie, but in Trance, technique doesn't always translate into mind buzz; instead, technique seems to breed more technique.

Here's the story: A worker at a London auction house (James McAvoy) helps orchestrate an art heist in which a valuable painting by Goya will be stolen. The theft is successful, apart from one detail: During the theft, McAvoy's Simon is conked on the head. He loses his memory, and can't recall where he stashed the stolen painting.

The chief thief (Vincent Cassel's Franck) tries torture as a memory aid, pulling out several of Simon's fingernails. When that doesn't work, Franck switches gears, hiring a hypnotist (Rosario Dawson) to help unlock McAvoy's lost memories.

Nothing more than a classy MacGuffin, the painting quickly recedes in importance as Boyle plays with issues of betrayal, loyalty, desire and obsession. The result: An overly complex story that remains watchable without totally engaging on either an emotional or intellectual level.

Because Trance blurs the line between what's apparent and what's real, it's constantly playing games with us. We invest attention in scenes that we take as real only to discover that we're watching one of Simon's hypnosis-induced hallucinations.

McAvoy trades on his lively, nice guy image. Rosario, who at one point appears fully naked -- as in full-frontal nudity -- projects a sense of calm control, and Cassel manages a fair amount of mobster menace.

Known to audiences for movies such as 127 Hours, 28 Days Later and the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle may have been betting that the journey rather than the destination would carry the day -- that along with McAvoy's avidity, Dawson's sexiness and Cassel's brutish force.

It's not an entirely good bet. Once you break through the visual trickery, flashbacks and hypnotic falderal, Trance isn't especially difficult to out-guess.

Those familiar with Boyle's work won't be surprised to learn that Trance has its share of vividly realized scenes and moments. Boyle keeps our eyes and his camera busy, but that's not ultimately enough.

Jackie Robinson, American hero

This big-screen bio-pic offers an old-fashioned mix of baseball nostalgia and social conscience.
Almost everyone agrees that Jackie Robinson -- the man who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947 -- was a genuinely heroic and important American figure.

Robinson, who died in 1972 at the age of 53, was an intense ballplayer and an intense public figure. He rightly has been lionized and honored by professional baseball -- the sport that took an ungodly amount of time getting around to allowing black players onto its fields. The grass may have been green, but the sport remained lily white, as many have observed.

42 -- a movie focused on Robinson's early career -- turns out to be a solidly conceived look at the former Brooklyn Dodger, a historical highlight reel served up with a generous helping of baseball nostalgia and some feeling for the turbulent racial climate of the period.

Written and directed by Brian Helgeland, 42 does a decent job of showing some of the difficulties faced by Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) after Dodger president and general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) decided that it was time to expand baseball's diversity, as well as its market share.

42, of course, is not the first movie to focus on Robinson. The actor played himself in a corny 1950 biopic which you can watch in its entirely on You Tube. After I saw 42, I watched The Jackie Robinson Story again. It, too, provides some of the highlights of Robinson's ascent from the old Negro leagues to the minor leagues (he broke in with the Montreal Royals), as well as his early and often difficult days with the Dodgers. When it comes to baseball prowess, both movies emphasize Robinson's speed, base-stealing abilities, power and competitive fire.

Obviously, production values have taken a quantum leap since 1950: It's now possible for filmmakers to recreate some of the long-vanished ballparks in which Robinson plied his trade: Ebbets Field (in Brooklyn), the Polo Grounds (in Manhattan), Crosley Field (in Cincinnati) and Shibe Park (in Philadelphia). As a kid, I was a rabid New York Giants fan, so it was an exquisite pleasure to see the Polo Grounds resurrected for a fleeting moment -- even as a CGI-created phantom.

The two principal characters in Helgeland's traditionally conceived -- if abbreviated -- bio-pic are Robinson, well-played by Boseman, who physically resembles the first black Major Leaguer, and Ford, who portrays Rickey as a jut-jawed, cigar-smoking executive who minced few words and who deftly balanced both profit and social motives.

Nicole Beharie plays Robinson's wife Rachel, a woman portrayed as ceaselessly supportive of her husband during his time of trial, frustration and achievement.

As is the case with many baseball movies, Robinson forms a relationship a with newspaperman. As a black man writing for a black-owned newspaper in Pittsburgh, Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) was denied admission to the Baseball Writers Association of America. I've read that it was Smith who first suggested to Rickey that he consider Robinson.

Helgeland, who directed A Knight's Tale and who wrote the screenplays for movies such as L.A. Confidential and Mystic River, doesn't flinch from the racial ugliness that Robinson faced, concentrating much of it into a single game. Phillies' manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) crudely hurls racial insults at Robinson. Rickey insisted that Robinson not fight back, that he have the courage not respond to the abuse.

Interestingly, the movie covers only Robinson's first year in the Majors, stopping short of the rest of his 10-year career and the life that followed baseball. By his second year in the Majors -- or so I've read -- Robinson began responding to those who taunted him. I'd have liked to see some of that.

Helgeland populates the movie with names familiar from that now-hallowed period in baseball. We meet pitcher Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater), manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni), shortstop Pee-Wee Reese (Lucas Black) and right fielder Dixie Walker (Ryan Merriman). Reese, an acknowledged Dodger leader, made a point of accepting Robinson, as did Branca. Walker was less tolerant, as were the many other Dodgers who signed a petition protesting the fact that they were being asked to take the field with a black player.

In many ways, 42 is an overly burnished bit of socially-conscious baseball hagiography. Helgeland makes little attempt to deliver Robinson in his entirety.

Looking at Robinson's time in baseball through a rear view mirror, the racism of the period can seem as blatant as it was detestable, an obvious target for today's audiences. Robinson, of course, knew that his battle with racism didn't end when he left the playing field, where in his first season he took Rookie of the Year honors and helped the Dodgers win the pennant.

Although it falls short of Golden Glove movie status, 42 succeeds within the parameters it sets for itself. Helgeland seems to have wanted to give his movie an old-fashioned spin that didn't allow for much of the righteous anger about racism that Robinson had no trouble expressing. The movie is about Robinson; it isn't made from his point of view.

If we're lucky, though, 42 will familiarize a new generation with one of the enduring figures of American life, a hero whose discipline, dedication and courage far exceeded whatever virtues we associate with the comic-book characters who seem to have taken over American movies these days. 42 may be an idealized portrait, but that could be precisely what Helgeland wanted and what he thought Robinson deserved.

'To the Wonder:' A master mumbles

From its intriguing title to its trancelike beauty to the half-mumbled thoughts of its characters, everything about Terrence Malick's To the Wonder suggests that the director wanted to follow his masterful Tree of Life with something equally meaningful.

This time, though, Malick -- whose visual skills are never in question -- seems to be looking for deep meanings within a thin, schematically presented story that may have had little chance of taking him where he probably wanted to go.

The story, which whispers its way through the movie, involves a romance between an American engineer (Ben Affleck) and a woman living in France (Olga Kurylenko). Affleck's Neil makes an apparent move toward commitment when he brings Kurylenko's Marina to Oklahoma, along with her 10-year-old daughter (Tatiana Chiline).

"If you love me, there's nothing else I need,'' Marina says, perhaps to herself. Malick's characters are locked inside lives in which disappointment and yearning echo like cries in a lonely canyon. Who's listening? Maybe no one.

Marina better be right about not needing anything more than love because what we see of Oklahoma doesn't offer much to sustain interest, and it should go without saying that the ache of poetic romance is better felt in France than in the bleak Oklahoma subdivision where the story settles.

Malick presents Marina as a nymph-like creature who spins and dances around Neil's sparsely furnished house. She says she's happy, but it doesn't take long for her isolated daughter to begin longing for home. Who could blame her? I, too, was yearning for Paris the moment Malick set his cameras onto the desolate Oklahoma plains.

Malick eventually introduces another major character into this quietly desperate mix. Javier Bardem portrays the troubled Father Quintana, a priest who wanders around visiting the poor and talking to God, who (sad to say) isn't talking back. Father Quintana hasn't exactly lost his faith, but he's mired in some sort of spiritual fatigue. He's doing what's expected of him, but he's not feeling the priestly vibe.

At one point, a dispirited Marina returns to Paris with her daughter. While she's away, Neil strikes up a relationship with an old friend (Rachel McAdams), a practical westerner who seems well-suited to an Oklahoma-based lifestyle. Later, Marina returns to the U.S. in hopes of obtaining a green card. Her relationship with Neil resumes.

During one of her Oklahoma visits, Marina meets Anna (Romina Mondello), an Italian woman who tells her to get out of Oklahoma and seek a better life. Good advice.

To the Wonder is not plot-driven. It's not character-driven, either. It's driven by some nearly ineffable yearning that always seems to find its way into Malick's work -- for love, for spiritual renewal, for finding meaning in a world that can be beautiful photographed and still feel deeply alien.

Kurylenko and McAdams both play characters who, in this muted endeavor, surpass Affleck's Neil by a mile -- at least when it comes to interest. The deadpan and empty nature of Affleck's character make it difficult not to wonder what either woman sees in him.

At first I wondered whether Affleck had the resources to fill out this kind of vaguely defined character -- and then I began to wonder whether any actor could have brought Neil fully to life. As the cliche goes, there's no there there.

To describe To the Wonder as uneventful seems as superfluous as saying Hip-Hop music has a beat. We spend most of our time watching Malick exercise his cinematic chops, often to a heavy-duty musical sampler that includes work by Wagner, Berlioz, Hayden, Respighi, Tchaikovsky, and Gorecki.

Look, I have admired much of Malick's small but powerful body of work. And I gave To the Wonder the benefit of as much doubt as possible -- right up until the moment when my desire for anything resembling drama no longer could be suppressed. I wanted Malick to stop poeticizing and start dramatizing.

Granted, Malick always seems to be looking for something deep, and it's possible that the sadness in Malick's work stems from the somber realization that the world never fulfills our deepest longings. Few filmmakers are able to make boredom feel quite so exquisite; vacancy, quite so suggestive.

But To the Wonder may disappoint even Malick's more ardent fans. It does more to make us wonder what Malick's after than to help us experience the somber mystery of a world that seldom -- if ever -- wants to requite our love.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Teen-agers, sometimes at their worst

For the longest time, I found myself wondering why I was watching Michel Gondry's The We and the I, a boisterous look at a group of rude and rowdy Bronx teen-agers riding a bus home from school. In one sense, Gondry has gone an amazing job; his movie makes you feel as if you're actually on a bus with kids who were busy bullying one another, trading insults and disrespecting any adult who has the misfortune of wandering into their midst. That's the issue: You'll have to endure a fair amount of abuse before these youngsters begin to drop their guards and expose some humanity. Gondry, whose movies (The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) usually include more playful helpings of artifice, plays things mostly straight in what sometimes looks like a sociological exercise about the way teens behave when the only authority figure in sight is a bus driver. The title suggests what Gondry is after, a lively examination of the tensions between individual and group imperatives, a particularly strong subject with teen-agers who often experience intense peer pressure. Gondry's actors -- recruited from The Point, a community center in the Bronx -- do a good job of acting naturally in an extended bus ride through the South Bronx. As the unnaturally long ride evolves, Gondry defines the various individuals and cliques that create laughs, tensions and a bit of empathy, particularly for those who are picked on. By the movie's end, Gondry brings his themes into sharp (even poignant) focus, but The We and the I can be difficult to take, mostly because Gondry refuses to shy away from the meanness that kids use to shield their vulnerability.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

'The Sapphires' has some real sparkle

Why complain about a movie that makes you tap your toes and puts a smile on your face?
When it comes to movies as engaging as The Sapphires, resistance seems pointless. This feel-good, crowd-pleaser from Australia features exuberant performances, infectious helpings of R&B and enough social awareness to keep it from turning into total fluff.

Director Wayne Blair tells the story of three Aboriginal sisters and a cousin who hone their girl-group skills in Vietnam. The women are selected to perform for war-weary GIs, under the guidance of their shambling white manager, a funny and charming Chris O'Dowd, familiar from Bridesmaids.

Perhaps realizing that his movie is going to survive on energy, as well as on the winning personalities of his cast, Blair keeps the story simple, quickly defining the women's personalities.

Deborah Mailman plays the woman who takes charge of any situation; Miranda Tapsell portrays the boy-crazed sister; Jessica Mauboy plays the group's determined lead singer, and Shari Stebbens appears as Kay, a cousin who was taken from her village in the outback to become a member of Australia's Stolen Generation.

As a result of an outrageous (and now discarded) government policy, light-skinned Aboriginal children were seized by the government and given to white families, a cruel policy that was supposed to foster integration into the larger society.

O'Dowd's Dave Lovelace proves an appealing -- if initially skeptical -- manager. Dave helps shift the group -- which began life as the Cummeraganja Songbirds -- from country western music to R&B. He encourages them to produce polished covers of such songs as Marvin Gaye's Heard It Through the Grapevine and the Staple Singers I'll Take You There.

By the time, the Sapphires start performing, they no longer sound like amateurs. Blair and his cohorts must have realized that it would be a grave mistake not to make the music slick and effective. Even in its Vietnam scenes, which strive for a bit of battle-scarred realism, the music never loses its toe-tapping drive.

The screenplay gives each of these young women a bit of background, but it's Mailman's Gail who dominates. Gail's no-nonsense demeanor is supported by her frankness and determination. She's formidable, but not without vulnerabilities.

The Sapphires is the kind of movie about which there's not a whole lot to say, other than, "See it and enjoy." And to borrow a line from the Staple Singers, if you like this kind of music -- 70s R&B -- The Sapphires definitely will take you back.

Roger Ebert: newspaper guy

At some now-forgotten Toronto Film Festival, I stopped to say hello to Roger Ebert, who I knew from the film festival world, mostly Telluride. Ebert was sitting in the back of a theater in the Varsity, a multiplex that at the time hosted most of the what the festival called "press and industry" screenings.

Roger had a spot in the upper right hand side of the theater that he seemed to favor, almost a perch.

We talked for a few minutes. Roger (I don't know why, but it seems odd to call him "Ebert") got up. I figured he was off to the bathroom.

Instead, he turned me around, and said, "I want to introduce you to someone."

He guided me toward a row even further back than his, and introduced me to Brian De Palma, who was in Toronto watching movies. De Palma didn't have a film in the festival. He was there as a fan and lover of movies.

So Roger tells De Palma that he should meet me because I'm a critic he should know about, and I sheepishly look at the floor. I'm embarrassed because I'm in no way convinced that Brian De Palma needs to know anything about me.

Still, it was a nice gesture from someone who certainly didn't need to introduce me to anyone.

I'd met Roger even before I became a film critic. For a feature in the now defunct Rocky Mountain News, I interviewed Ebert about his TV show, which was just beginning to catch on. It was still on public TV.

Like most newspaper people, Roger was a good gossip. He always seemed to know things about people, and I was happy when, in one Telluride encounter, I was able to tell him something he didn't know about an editor who had worked in Chicago.

I don't want to give you the impression that Roger Ebert was a friend. He wasn't. Like every other critic who worked for a newspaper and who covered film festivals, I knew him a little. That's all.

On one level, he was another guy on the circuit, although -- of course -- he wasn't. He was famous. Everyone knew who he was. Everyone wanted to talk to him.

At one Sundance Film Festival, I was talking with a colleague about Ebert's inexplicably prodigious output.

"I asked him about it,'' said my friend. "He said the key to covering a film festival is to make sure you get enough sleep."

I wondered how the hell Roger managed that since he wrote a lot and seemed to be everywhere.

As I thought about Ebert's death, I remembered seeing him sitting on the ground in a park in Telluride, taking notes as he talked to Richard Widmark, who was receiving a Telluride tribute that year.

Widmark already was part of an older generation of actors, but Ebert wanted to spend time with him. He knew he'd get a good story out of it.

As many have pointed out, you could learn a lot about newspaper work by watching Roger Ebert, and I think it's more than nostalgia that makes me say that he remained a newspaper guy until the end, 46 years of reviewing movies for the Chicago Sun Times.

That's one hell of an accomplishment in a time when a newspaper career that lasts 46 months might be enough to make you an old-timer.

I don't know that anything more needs to be said, although it seemed only right to say something.

Roger was lucky enough to be part of the raucous days of Chicago journalism, to work for the Sun Times when it was a vital newspaper -- brash, muscular and home to some great writers.

Sure, he became an Internet presence and a TV celebrity. As for me, though, I'm more envious of the fact that he knew Mike Royko than that he appeared on the Johnny Carson Show.

And if you don't know who Mike Royko was, well ... you may not know who Roger Ebert was either.

A gory (what else?) ' Evil Dead' remake

Everything feels amplified in this new edition of a 1981 cult favorite.
In 1981, director Sam Raimi made a small splash with a cultish horror movie called The Evil Dead. Raimi followed with a 1987 sequel that added more humor to what had become a landmark mix of shock, gore and murderous invention.

I'm not sure that The Evil Dead deserves to be enshrined in anyone's horror hall of fame, but it clearly demonstrated that Raimi -- who reportedly made the movie for a meager $50,000 -- had serious chops.

Raimi, of course, went on to enlarge his sphere of influence with several Spider Man movies and most recently with the commercially successful Oz the Great and Powerful.

Now comes another rendition of The Evil Dead with Raimi serving as one of the movie's producers. Directed by Fede Alvarez and written by Alvarez and Diablo Cody of Juno fame, this edition follows the basic arc of the original.

You know the drill: Five young people travel to a secluded but rundown cabin in the woods, where they begin to confront an unseen evil force that turns them into hideous zombies.

The special effects have been updated for the kind of maximum impact that technological advance and a larger budget allow. In an odd (and perhaps telling) way, this version of The Evil Dead isn't better than original: it's only louder, more amplified in every regard.

The unsuspecting need to know that The Evil Dead movies are designed to flood the screen with gore, which means they're not for the squeamish.

In the case of the new movie, we're talking about severed limbs, severed heads, geysers of spewed blood and copious projectile vomiting. There's more, of course, but I think I've given you "taste" enough to get the idea.

And let's be real here. Audiences who enjoy this kind of entertainment are prone to evaluating the level of gory creativity that the filmmakers are able to bring to their efforts. And when a chainsaw appears, the presumption is that you know the jagged history that links chainsaws to big-screen horror, that you'll smile to yourself about the way the movie is connecting to its big-screen horror lineage.

In general, the acting in this installment surpasses that of the original, although it should be noted that we're not talking about a high bar. It's worth a passing mention that Bruce Campbell, who starred in the original, joins Raimi in serving as one of the new movie's producers.

In this outing, Jane Levy plays Mia, the character whose drug addiction prompts her cohorts to gather at the cabin in the first place. They've all pledged to help Mia kick a long-time heroin habit.

Mia's brother (Shiloh Fernandez) emerges as the main character in this gruesome ensemble with Lou Taylor Pucci portraying Eric, the young man who discovers the book that contains the incantation that jump starts the gory proceedings. It's often said that one shouldn't judge a book by its cover. An exception might well be made in this case: The cover of this eerie book of the dead is made out of human skin.

Jessica Lucas and Elizabeth Blackmore round out the cast, mostly in the role of victims.

The 2013 edition of The Evil Dead contains a fair sampling of the kind of obviously dumb behavior that allows audiences to feel superior to every character. An example: Everyone who has ever seen a horror movie knows that exposure to risk increases exponentially if one stupidly ventures into a basement. You don't necessarily want to be wandering around a fog-shrouded forest, either.

For the most part, Alvarez directs with more seriousness than humor, although certain parts of his gore fest drew laughter at a preview screening.

With some updating, a few alterations of plot and a modest bow to the Exorcist movies, the new Evil Dead resists becoming a precise rehash of the original, and its final encounter with evil is so luridly bloody, it demands to be watched with a certain stunned amazement.

Was there any reason to make another Evil Dead movie? Not really.

And that's the rub: This one's been amped-up, revamped and super-charged for contemporary tastes, but it can't possibly replicate the giddy (if certifiably guilty) sense of discovery created by its 1981 predecessor.

Put anther way, The Evil Dead is unredeemed and unashamed trash. One presumes its audience wouldn't want it any other way, but that may not be enough to kick it onto the plus side of the ledger.

Fathers and sons in Upstate N.Y.

The Place Beyond the Pines has powerful moments, but doesn't always add up.
Just about anyone who sees director Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines should agree that Cianfance is a talented and ambitious filmmaker. Cianfrance's third feature -- a look at three generations of men in downtrodden Schenectady, N.Y. -- has moments that pulsate with the energy of a filmmaker driven to infuse his story with vividly realized life.

If you had a chance to meet Cianfrance (as I have on several occasions dating back to 1998), you'd know that he's a principled filmmaker who tries (and often succeeds) to wring hard-won truth from every moment in this films.

Co-written with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, Cianfrance's latest movie has plenty to recommend it, even though it can't quite match the ambition that went into creating what the director calls a "triptych," a look at the impact of fathers on sons in three loosely related acts.

The movie's shortcomings can be attributed to a bit of imaginative depletion in its second act, to a casting misstep in its third, and, perhaps to a generalized over-emphasis on authenticity of milieu, sometimes at the expense of enduring insight.

That's not to say that Cianfrance's achievement is negligible. There's enough good work in The Place Beyond the Pines (the Mohawk name for Schenectady) to make it a worthy follow-up to Cianfrance's widely praised Blue Valentine. For the most part, Cianfrance finds ways to encourage his cast to plunge headlong into risky emotional terrain.

Like Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines benefits from the presence of Ryan Gosling, who this time plays Luke, a heavily tattooed motorcycle stunt rider who -- during an annual visit to Schenectady with a carnival -- learns that he has a son with a woman (Eva Mendes) with whom he had a fling.

With the movie's bravura opening shot, Cianfrance makes it clear that Luke's life is going nowhere. We follow Luke into a metal cage where he rides his motorcycle in circles, a death defying carnival stunt that serves as a metaphor for a life of trapped fury.

When Luke learns that he has a son, he quits the carnival and commits himself to taking care of the boy, a task for which he's ill-suited.

At a loss about how to function in "normal" life, Luke's future changes when he meets Robin (a scary Ben Mendelsohn), a mechanic who introduces Luke to the fine art of bank robbery. Luke enters banks, robs them and speeds away on his motorcycle. He eludes police by driving his bike into Robin's waiting truck, and disappearing from the roads.

Cianfrance, who likes to work in comfort-shattering close-ups, keeps this section of the movie percolating, right up until its violent conclusion.

This portion of movie benefits in no small part from Gosling's trademark edginess, as well from strong work by Mendelsohn (familiar from the brilliant Australian neo-noir Animal Kingdom). Equally good are Mendes and Mahershala Ali, who plays the man who lives with Mendes's Romina. Unlike Luke, Kofi has more than fantasy ideas about how to care for a son.

The movie's second section features a strong performance by Bradley Cooper, most recently seen in Sliver Linings Playbook. Cooper, who made Beyond the Pines prior to Silver Linings Playbook, plays a Schenectady cop who becomes a DA and who later runs for the office of New York attorney general. A confrontation with Luke brings him into the story.

Bradley's good, but the movie loses imaginative steam as it immerses itself in what seems an overly familiar story about police corruption that features an appearance by a menacing Ray Liotta, who portrays Deluca, a cop who introduces Cooper's Avery to the world of corruption.

In this second segment, the screenplay raises issues of betrayal, ambition and guilt that don't break much new ground, but allow Cianfrance to sustain a mood of encroaching dread.

Some of the late-picture problems result from a crucial piece of miscasting. In the third act, Emory Cohen portrays Avery's son AJ, a high school kid who has adopted the linguistic style of a wannabe gangsta. It's not easy to believe that he's the son of an aspiring politician and of his mother, a minimally seen Rose Byrne. Cohen's performance proves distracting enough to undermine some of the movie's credibility.

Cianfrance does better with Luke's son, played by the gifted Dane DeHaan, who you may have seen in a segment of HBO's In Treatment. DeHaan captures the turmoil of a high school kid who's beginning to confront difficult truths about his family history.

It would not be fair to say that The Place Beyond the Pines unravels in the late going. But it can't afford the loss of credibility that accompanies its melodramatic and somewhat self-conscious conclusion.

Cianfrance can't entirely sustain the movie's intensity over its two hour- and 20-minute length, and the screenplay probably could have benefited from a healthy dose of nuance. I hope, by now, you've gotten the point: The Place Beyond the Pines is far from perfect, but when Cianfrance connects, he tends to connect in a big way.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A creepy thriller from Germany

The German film The Silence qualifies as an above-average thriller that puts more stock in psychological tension than cheap manipulation. Director Baran bo Odar makes his feature debut with the story of a janitor (Ulrich Thomsen) who rapes and kills an 11-year-old girl he finds bicycling on a lonely country road in the middle of a wheat field. Wotan Wilke Möhring plays the skittish Timo, a man who was riding with the murderer at the time of the killing. After the initial crime, which takes place in 1986, the movie leaps ahead 23 years: The murder remains unsolved, and Timo is now a father with a wife and two kids. When another girl is murdered in exactly the same spot as the first victim, the story takes on a host of new and residual psychological burdens. The mother of the first victim (Katrin Sass) remains tormented by the unsolved crime. She begins an affair with the retired detective (Burghart Klaussner) who worked on the case and who refuses to let it go. Another detective (Sebastian Blomberg) stays involved, but has lost his edge as the result of the recent death of his wife. Odar stirs this pot well, keeping us off balance and building toward a conclusion that, to its credit, doesn't follow the same old script. Creepy when it needs to be, The Silence is full of characters who suffer the kind of pain for which there can be no remedy. By extension, it's possible to wonder whether such pain isn't a necessary ingredient in the unsteady process that continually refines our humanity. The character who seems to feel the least amount of pain is also the movie's most despicable.

A comforting animated tale

Co-written by the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki and directed by his son, Goro Miyazaki, From Up on Poppy Hill takes us to Yokohama in 1963. There, we meet Umi (voice by Sarah Bolger), a high school girl who's taking care of her grandmother's boarding house while Mom is in America studying. Dad, we learn, was a sea captain who lost his life on a supply ship during the Korean War. Umi not only cooks meals at the boarding house, but watches over two younger siblings and her grandmother. The story begins to develop when Umi joins forces with Shun, a fellow student (Anton Yelchin) who spearheads an effort to save the Latin Quarter, a derelict old mansion that's devoted to a variety of school clubs: philosophy, literature, science, etc. The clubhouse is being threatened with demolition to make room for the 1964 Olympics. (These clubs and the academic ardor displayed by the students who join them may make some parents drool with envy.) A budding romance between Umi and Shun hits a major obstacle, and it's not at all certain that the ramshackle clubhouse will be saved from the wrecking ball. The story -- which deals with the need to balance tradition and modernity -- may not keep you on the edge of your seat, but Miyazaki's creation of the post-war Yokohama has so much story-book allure that you won't mind lingering. Miyazaki does a terrific job with the movie's look, so much so that ordinary life begins to feel like the visual equivalent of comfort food. I mean that as a high compliment. Sometimes, an artist gains more by affirming the small rhythms of life than by looking for whopping helpings of magic.