Friday, May 31, 2013

Too much plot mars the magic

Laden with characters and plot, Now You See Me -- a caper movie involving four magicians -- is more juggling act than magic show.

At one point during Now You See Me -- a caper movie about four larcenous magicians -- Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are featured in a happily confrontational scene. Caine, as an arrogant tycoon used to getting his way, and Freeman, as a former magician who has built a TV career by exposing other people's tricks, are locked in a toe-to-toe, eyeball-to-eyeball exchange that's fun to watch.

My reperotire of tricks doesn't include mind reading, but I'd like to believe that both Caine and Freeman were thinking, "Take your best shot because no matter how good it is, I'll match it."

I'm not saying that this scene should be added to anyone's list of great movie moments or that it's in a particularly good movie, but it hints at what might have happened had director Louis Leterrier (Clash of the Titans, The Incredible Hulk and Transporter 2) been able to get beyond slick surfaces, brisk pacing and flashy camera work. Now You See Me suggests an anatomical impossibility: It's all pulse and no heart.

The movie begins in promising enough fashion, introducing us to four magicians, each with a distinct skill. Jesse Eisenberg plays Daniel Atlas, a whip-smart master of card tricks. Woody Harrelson portrays Merritt McKinney, a cynical mentalist. Dave Franco is Jack Wilder, a young man who claims to have paranormal mind powers but actually specializes in picking pockets, and Isla Fisher appears as Henley Reeves. Her act consists of trying to unshackle herself in a water tank that's about to be invaded by flesh eating piranhas.

The four magicians are summoned to New York City, where a mysterious and unseen figure involves them in a scheme to use complicated illusions to mask a series of heists -- and to provide the movie with a core of mystery: Just who's pulling the strings here?

This, of course, introduces the opportunity for Leterrier to toss around a variety of red herrings and to stage some glossy show-business spectacles: We see the magicians -- who form a group known as The Four Horsemen -- creating their illusions, most of which eventually are explained.

So long as the movie stays close to the four magicians, it's easy to remain involved, especially if you don't think too much about whether you're watching genuine sleight-of-hand or CGI-assisted magic. But Now You See Me eventually shifts its focus, concentrating on the FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo) who's trying to catch the magicians with help from an Interpol detective played by French actress Melanie Laurent.

Leterrier has been given lots of heavy acting artillery, and any one of the movie's large cast could have provided a compelling center. But instead of conjuring up wily character magic, Leterrier seems more like a juggler who's frantically trying to keep the movie's many plot points aloft.

If you bother to play Now You See Me back in your mind (and there's no compelling reason you should), you'll be hard-pressed to believe that the intricacies of its plot were remotely possible anywhere but in a screenwriter's imagination: Three writers were involved in creating the screenplay and story. They find entertaining moments in what othewise amounts to a self-defeating hodge podge of conceits, ploys and attempted fake-outs.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Two Smiths, one lifeless movie

A dull and derivative After Earth teams Will and Jaden Smith.

In After Earth, Will Smith spends a lot of time trying to remain conscious. He has good reason. His character -- a prime commander in a futuristic army -- suffers two broken legs when an astroid storm causes his spacecraft to crash.

Unfortunately, I, too, had to struggle to stay awake during After Earth, and for equally good reasons. This latest project from M. Night Shyamalan -- a director whose success with The Sixth Sense gave him an elite status that his subsequent work seldom justifies -- is dull, derivative and doomed by a script that displays little by way of inspired imagination when it comes to envisioning a dystopian future. Yes, that again.

For a movie that teams Smith with his son, Jaden, After Death finds surprisingly little emotion in the father/son relationship at the movie's core. Blame here doesn't necessarily fall on the actors' shoulders: Smith worked well with his son in The Pursuit of Happiness (2006), and Jaden has had successes of his own, notably the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid.

One of the movie's major miscalculations involves Will Smith's character, Cypher Raige. Cypher (could there be a worse name for a character?) is a spit-and-polish, no-nonsense general who treats his son more as an army recruit than a young person he loves. To play such a stern father, Smith reduces his performance to a monotonous display of stoicism and military bearing.

The duty-bound Raige has been a mostly absent father: He's been busy fighting aliens, leaving his son in the care of his mom (a badly underutilized Sophie Okonedo). A backstory about about Raige's older daughter (Zoe Isabella Kravitz), makes its way into awkwardly introduced flashbacks and into scenes in which Jaden's character hallucinates about her.

The action begins 1,000 years after people were forced to evacuate the Earth, a planet made uninhabitable by human stupidity and aggression. After the devastation, humans fled to the planet Nova Prime, where they constructed bland futuristic cities and battled hostile alien creatures who evidently didn't appreciate being colonized.

In an effort to create a stronger bond with his son, Kitai, Raige takes the kid on a mission that goes awry with the spaceship crash. Father and son are the only survivors.

The rest of the movie finds the injured Raige using what's left of the craft's equipment to monitor his son's journey through forbidding forests as he tries to retrieve a device that can beam a signal to rescuers. The ship's tail, where the last such functioning device was kept, broke off far from where the main body of the vessel hit ground.

The movie follows a classically mythic structure based on Kitai's maturation. He confronts obstacles, faces his fears, and, finally, must do battle with an alien monster.

No fair picking on Jaden, who's too young to endure any critical scorn, but I was puzzled by the fact that Smith -- who takes a story credit and who serves as one of the movie's producers -- decided that this turgid concoction would make for an exciting father/son vehicle.

The movie's action set pieces -- Kitai confronts a fierce mama eagle, snarling big cats, a group of ferocious monkeys and more -- hardly qualify as edge-of-the-seat entertainment, partly because they're so obviously the result of computer-generated artistry.

If you're a stickler for consistency and credibility in the creation of a sci-fi universe, bring a scorecard: You'll find plenty of missteps to keep you busy.

Smith's character speaks to his son in clipped, lifeless dialogue. He encourages Kitai to carry out certain tasks "ASP," and when the youngster is on the verge of being overcome by panic, dad tells him to "take a knee."

Upon hearing this advice, the youngster drops to one knee and tries to collect himself before moving on to the next uninspired and enervating adventure.

After Earth doesn't qualify as an epic catastrophe, but it's a long way from anyone's best work. In this summer's lineup, it may well wind up being little more than an afterthought.

Sarah Polley's fascinating look at her family

Sarah Polley's documentary The Stories We Tell struck me as a cross between a tabloid expose about a startling piece of family history and a philosophical inquiry into the nature of memory, truth and the importance of stories.

With that kind of broad agenda, Polley's film also (and perhaps inevitably) encourages us to think about the nature of documentaries, a genre that might include re-enactments of key events, old home movie footage and images that remind us that we're watching a film.

Polley, of course, is both a director and an actress and, as such, understands the theatrical value of certain disclosures that the film makes, even as she exposes the some of the mechanics of her filmmaking: We see the recording of a voice-over, an eloquent and revealing narration by her father, and at times, we even see the camera.

Polley, a Canadian, contextualizes her movie with an opening quote from Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood: "When you are in the middle of a story, it isn't a story at all, but only a confusion. ... It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you're telling it, to yourself or to someone else."

Perhaps inspired by Atwood's observation, Polley does two complicated things at once: She makes us keenly aware of the odd, inherently shapeless nature of experience and she attunes us to the processes by which those experiences are given structure and meaning.

Because of the movie's major revelation (no, I'm not going to disclose it here), Polley also raises the question of story and ownership; at least one of the people she interviews (she calls them storytellers) vies to establish his version of the story as the most valid. He questions the right of others even to tell the story.

This multi-faceted family tale revolves around Polley's mother, Diane, a woman with an out-sized personality. Diane, who died from cancer, was a vivacious woman, an actress who became the center of attention in a large family.

Polley's siblings, her father, aunts, uncles and family friends become the director's main sources of information. For her part, Polley tries to maintain a kind of authorial neutrality, as the story unfolds.

Before Polley concludes this family tale, she manages to tether the movie's more abstract elements to emotional realities that can be quite affecting. Her's is not a dry, theoretical or (heaven forbid) meditative movie, but a story anchored in flesh and blood, joy and pain.

Polley, who directed two features (Take This Waltz and Away From Her) prior to this documentary, is a smart and gifted filmmaker, and although she breaks no ground stylistically, her documentary reminded me of why Errol Morris, who makes wonderful films (Fog of War, Mr. Death, A Brief History of Time) that often are classified as documentaries, prefers to call his work ... well ... films, why he's leery of the term "documentary."

I've seen The Stories We Tell compared to Akira Kurosawa's Rashamon, a movie in which the same basic story was told from a variety of different perspectives, each full of its own vested interests. I didn't see Polley's film quite that way, primarily because the major facts of the story aren't in dispute. What's up for grabs is what those facts might mean, and who's in the best position to construct the story they seem to demand.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A couple takes a bloody road trip

In the exceptionally dark British comedy Sightseers , a nondescript couple takes its first trip together, traveling the British countryside while having sex, bickering and, oh yes, committing a series of murders. If Terrence Malick's Badlands springs to mind, let it spring right out again. Sightseers is one of those strange comedies in which a sense of uneasiness is accompanied by chuckles and in which audaciously violent acts are committed by two people who look as if they might find participation in a cribbage game a bit too stressful. Working from a screenplay by Alice Lowe and Steve Oram -- who also star in the movie -- director Ben Wheatley adds a perverse wrinkle to the idea that it's impossible really to know someone until you make a long car with them. Wheatley presents this journey in a flat, uninflected style that enhances its humorous aspects, but he doesn't skimp on showing us the murders, one of which is carried out when a man is repeatedly and viciously beaten with a stick. The couple's victims -- a litterer, among them -- are guilty of some of the annoying things that irk many but drive few to violence. The generally unimpressive Chris instigates the rampage as he and Tina make stops at northern British attractions that fall a tad short of wondrous, a pencil museum, for example. It's possible to see Sightseers as an extreme look at what happens in a relationship as people reveal themselves, and if Oram and Lowe seem comfortable in these oddball roles, it's probably because they've played these characters before, once in a rejected sitcom pilot. Wheatley builds toward a mordant punchline that puts a fitting topper on this weird road trip, but if you step back from Sightseers, it may reveal its own slightly discouraging truth: The better you get to know it, the more it seems like a limited, one-joke movie.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Furious? Maybe. Faster? Definitely.

Another blur of a movie from the Fast & Furious gang
Here's the thing about the apparently endless string of Fast & Furious movies. As number six gets ready to roar into theaters, I find myself only dimly in touch with the first five. They've all blended into a blur of flexed muscles, macho posturing, revving engines and nitrous-fueled blasts of energy.

I agree with those who've credited director Jason Lin -- at the helm for the last four movies and now bowing out of the series -- with giving the Fast & Furious audience precisely what it wants. (See list above and add a bit of female flesh for spunk and pulchritude for good measure.)

I don't mean to sound totally cynical about any of this. It can't be easy to orchestrate the stunt and special effects work that sells tickets to a franchise that began way back in the Pleistocene days of 2001 with director Rob Cohen at the helm.

Should each sequel fail to escalate the level of excitement, fans easily could revolt. And, yes, some of the action is so impossibly silly that you can't help but smile as you watch. Let the actors pretend that the plot actually matters. There's no compelling reason for us to follow suit.

Adding Dwayne Johnson to the Fast & Furious mix and bringing back Michelle Rodriguez (whose character was supposed to have died) hasn't hurt anything in the sixth edition.

Through all of its chaos, the series has tried (not as successfully this time) to remain true to the street-racing ethos that gave the first movie trace elements of authenticity, but -- for me -- even well-staged action can seem a little routine at this point, and I can't say that either Paul Walker (as one of the leads) and Vin Diesel (as another) are among the actors whose work I deeply admire.

I suppose the filmmakers have come up with a serviceable enough plot. A terrorist (Luke Evans) wants to build some sort of nuclear device. Aiming to stop him, Johnson's character, a cop of some sort, travels to the Canary Islands to recruit Walker and Diesel, outlaws who claim to have abandoned the wild life.

They haven't, of course, and the movie quickly kicks into globe-hopping mode. The explanation for what brings Rodriguez's character back to life is far-fetched, but then again, so is just about everything in a Fast & Furious movie.

The rest of cast (Tyrese Gibson, Sung Kan and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges adds seasoning, and some attempt has been made to show that time has passed.

Walker's Brian and Jordana Brewster's Mia now have a baby, which suggests that the Fast & Furious mantle will be passed on forever, eventually rivaling the age of giant Redwoods.

Oh well, it's better to please the movie's core audience than to rile it. Fast and Furious 6 may not make dramatic history, but it should keep the gear-heads, wannabes and fanboys and girls happy, even as the rest of us wonder if it's not time to slow down.

A look at Frances, who lives in limbo

After a preview screening of the quietly instructive and often amusing new movie Frances Ha, I was chatting with someone who told me that he was about to attend the college graduation of a nephew, and that the young man had absolutely no idea about what to do with with the rest of his life.

That's hardly a revelation. A sagging economy has taken much of the luster off the American dream, and many young people seem to spend their 20s marking time, hoping that something -- anything -- will come along and catapult them into adulthood.

Frances Ha is the story of one such (you'll pardon the term) Millennial. The 27-year-old Frances (Greta Gerwig) has been living in a post-college limbo for as much as six or seven years, and her dream is on the verge of foundering. An aspiring dancer, Frances seems a little short on talent, and she's about to lose her position with a small dance company.

Frances' social life doesn't provide much relief, either. Her most enduring relationship is with her roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner). The two have been close friends since college. In an early scene, Frances turns down an offer to live with her boyfriend because she's happy in the Brooklyn apartment she and Sophie share.

The catch: Sophie -- who works for a publishing company -- seems to have had her fill of impromptu living. She's planning to move into a Manhattan apartment. Not long after her departure, Sophie meets a man, and decides to have a serious relationship. She tells Frances that she's moving to Japan, where her new beau has been offered a major career opportunity.

Absent her roommate and confidant, Frances is in a place that can seem a little scary: She's officially and undeniably at loose ends.

Directed by Noah Baumbach (Greeenberg and The Squid and the Whale), Frances Ha would have been impossible without Gerwig, who gives Frances a galumphing walk and a large ration of naive charm. In Gerwig's hands, Frances becomes an amusing and even touching study of awkwardness, the unease that stems from not fitting into much of anything -- maybe even her own body.

After losing her roommate, Frances devotes substantial amounts of time to securing new quarters. She moves in with two men (Adam Driver and Michael Zegen), who charge her close to $1,000 a month for the privilege of sharing their space.

The movie also takes Frances to California, where she visits her parents, played by Gerwig's real parents (Christine and Gordon Gerwig).

Baumbach, who chose to shoot in refreshing black-and-white, makes room for a lonely Parisian interlude and a trip back to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., scene of Frances' college days.

Here's how I understand Frances. She was one of those kids who was raised by encouraging, middle-class parents who most likely supported her dream of being a professional dancer, but who never bothered to wonder whether Frances had sufficient talent for such a demanding and capricious path. She attended a good college, made friends and then moved to New York City, where she and Sophie became co-conspirators in all things.

I don't know if Baumbach hoped that Francis Ha would serve as a generational portrait or whether he simply wanted to introduce us to a character who grows on us, as Gerwig allows her comic abilities to blossom.

Even without giving it any larger meanings, Frances Ha has its rewards, most of them involving Gerwig's performance. At one point, Frances says that she's not yet a real person, her way of telling us that she's unable to make the transition into a settled adulthood. She's aware enough to know that her life isn't turning out as she might have imagined.

It's doubtful that Frances would see herself a representative of her generation, but I'm betting that she has plenty of company among those who currently are stuck in shapeless, ill-defined lives, unsure that they'll ever be able to move on.

Baumbach's movie doesn't entirely transform Frances' life, but it suggests that one way or another, she'll adapt. Gerwig may not be what you'd call a conventional screen presence, but she makes us believe that Sophie won't be defeated.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

'Hangover III': Big finale or big fizzle?

It's difficult for me to call the latest Hangover movie anything but a major disappointment.
Two big-screen money machines are set to invade the nation's multiplexes this week -- the third movie in the Hangover series and the sixth Fast and Furious movie. We begin with the Hangover Part 3, which opens a day earlier than Fast and Furious 6 -- and which is considerably more disappointing than its speed-obsessed competition.

As just about everyone now knows, the first Hangover movie became one of 2009's monster hits, a surprise attack of blatantly crude humor that boosted two careers, those belonging to Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis.

Cooper, of course, went on to earn an Academy Award nomination for his work in Silver Linings Playbook, and Galifianakis has become an indispensable addition to a long line of taste-defying comics who'll step across almost any line.

The series' third -- and apparently final installment -- probably won't hurt either actor, even though The Hangover Part III a half-serious (and none too exciting) thriller plot hijacks most of the laughs.

The movie's first joke (already spoiled by its trailer) involves the decapitation of a giraffe. This bit of animal carnage arrives courtesy of Alan, the proudly stupid character played by Galifianakis. Obviously, the filmmakers did not behead a real animal, but the off-putting joke (one of many) was enough to make me consider becoming a card-carrying PETA member.

The familiar crew (Cooper, Ed Helms and Justin Bartha) returns under the guidance of director Todd Phillips, whose slick approach seems at odds with the ragged spirit of the best Hangover jokes. Putting this kind of production value into a Hangover movie seems as misguided as hiring James Levine to conduct an all-kazoo orchestra -- not that Phillips qualifies as a maestro of movies.

This episode adds a couple of new wrinkles. John Goodman portrays a gangster who's upset about the fact that the sexually dubious Chow (an over-exposed Ken Jeong) has stolen millions in gold from him. Melissa McCarthy appears as the operator of a Las Vegas pawn shop where Chow unloads the purloined gold.

A scene in which McCarthy confronts her cinematic soul mate (Galifianakis) teeters on the edge of being funny without quite tumbling into the expected hilarity.

The story eventually sends our heroes back to Las Vegas, perhaps in hopes of recapturing some of the brazenness of the hard-partying first movie. The strategy produces an insufficient number of laughs while Phillips plays around with thriller tropes and the actors await their obligatory doses of humiliation.

Oddly, there's hardly any drinking in this installment, and the only real hangover stems from whatever residual affection audiences can muster for characters whose unashamed pursuit of pleasure has led them into many drastically compromising situations. Put another way, Hangover Part 3 runs on whatever comic vapors linger from the first installment.

I've never been a big fan of the Hangover movies, but I certainly understood the appeal of the first movie, which pushed the envelope of grossness to what approached genre-breaking limits. I was unimpressed by the overproduced waste of the second and entirely dismayed by a third edition that stops in Tijuana before heading to Vegas.

A sequence following the end credits pays homage to the outrageous spirit of the movie's 2009 predecessor -- but it's a classic case of arriving too late to make much difference. Hard-core Hangover fans who stick around for this epilogue -- which boasts the movie's wildest sight gag -- may think that this is precisely where Hangover Part III should have started.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

No comfort in this 'Pieta'

Here's a fun idea, not to mention one that offers a rare glimpse into the twisted corners of my psyche. If you live in Denver or any other city with art houses, you may be able to devote the better part of a day to watching two films about guys who earn their living by wrecking other people's lives.

Start with the American movie, The Iceman (see review below), and graduate to the Korean movie, Pieta. By the time, you're done with this emotionally crippling double bill, you may be asking your doctor about the advisability of starting a course of anti-depressants. If so, consider it a good thing: You'll be reacting to two movies that -- unlike most of what we see these days -- aren't afraid to land a punch.

Directed by the prolific Kim Ki-duk, Pieta probably is the more difficult movie to watch because Kim is a master when it comes to making you feel the pain that the movie's main character inflicts on his targets. Note: I used the word "feel" intentionally. You'll feel more than you see in Kim's work, which (in my estimation) makes his use of violence even more potent.

Kim sets up each violent episode with an excruciating succession of shots that eliminate the need to show the act itself. For Kim, an off-screen scream becomes as powerful as a gory image might be in the hands of a lesser talent.

Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), a young man who collects money for a loan shark, administers most of the movie's punishment. When people can't pay, Kang-do maims them so that he can cash in on their insurance policies, which name him as the beneficiary. An arm here. A leg there. Maybe a hand or two. It's all the same to the expressionless Kang-do, who lives alone in a crummy apartment in an industrial area populated by small businessmen who eke out their livings in stalls where they operate heavy machinery.

When Kang-do creates a cripple, he's also depriving his victim of the ability to earn a living. He's an enforcer whose stock in trade promises a lifetime of deprivation and misery.

The story begins with the suicide of one of Kang-do's victims, and picks up steam when a strange woman (Cho Min-soo) enters Kang-do's life. She claims to be the mother who abandoned Kango-do when he was a newborn. She blames herself for the sorry state into which he has fallen. She wants to reconnect.

Kang-do brushes the woman off, but she succeeds in making him curious, thereby suggesting that trace elements of humanity may linger in Kang-do's nearly moribund conscience.

But Kang-do is so accustomed to degrading people that the only way he can test the woman's veracity is by degrading her.

And make no mistake: Kang-do is ready for the task. This is a young man who brings home live food (a chicken, say), slaughters it in his bathroom, and leaves the entrails on the tile floor. So it's hardly surprising that it takes Kang-do more than half the movie to entertain the idea that he might be connected to this remarkably persistent woman.

Of course, when Kang-do begins to drop his guard, he's not exactly exposing himself to a full-scale emotional assault. To put the woman to the test, Kang-do cuts off one his toes and demands that she eat it. And that's before he rapes her. Now if that's not enough of a clue, let me say it outright: Pieta is not what you'd call an "easy" film.

But as the movie progresses into its second half, you'll realize that Kim is after something more than exploitative shock. He's exploring the deep human urge for revenge, and also taking a hard look at what some people will do for money in a society where cash seems to have become the very wellspring of life.

Kim deals with these larger issues in somewhat schematic fashion, and although the movie is grounded in a gritty and entirely specific milieu, it also tends to be a bit abstract, a story that may have been written under an umbrella of ideas that Kang-do brought with him to the table.

Still, if you can tolerate Pieta, you'll find a movie with a deliberate style that seldom looks beyond the microcosm of the cruel world that it creates. Pieta breaks down our defenses, exposing us to Kang-do in much the same way as his helpless victims must face him.

And when you're done, you can play a game of compare-and-contrast, using Pieta and The Iceman as your subjects. If you take me up on this challenge, I suggest you begin your undertaking in a bar where you not only can think about two provocative movies, but where you can get yourself a stiff drink.

And here's an FYI you might want to consider: Pieta won the Golden Lion at last fall's Venice Film Festival, and Kim, who has made 18 movies in all, long has been an art-house favorite.

An icy hit man stalks his prey

New Jersey-based hit man Richard Kuklinski reportedly killed more than 100 people during his career as an assassin so cold-blooded, he was called The Iceman. We've seen a lot of movies that glamorize criminal life and plenty that go for hard-core grit. The Iceman -- which tells Kuklinski's story -- falls squarely into the latter category, and were it not for the work of Michael Shannon, the movie might have been another bit of cinematic slumming, one more foray into society's lower depths.

But Shannon, who's carving out a career playing men of intensity and weirdness, brings frightening credibility to the role of a killer who murdered as part of his routine and then went home to his wife (Winona Ryder) and two daughters. Let's just say Richie -- as his cronies referred to him -- must have been good at compartmentalizing.

Director Ariel Vroment surely knew that he had struck gold with Shannon because he works hard to support a performance that creates its own tension and dread. If you're looking fully to understand a Polish-American killer who plied his trade for Italian mobsters, you'll probably have to look elsewhere. A half-hearted reference to abuse Kuklinski suffered at the hands of his father neither justifies nor explains a man who seems to feel that he needs neither justification nor explanation.

That's just what makes Richie so terrifying. Aside from a professed love for his family, he doesn't seem to feel much of anything.

Although the movie clearly belongs to Shannon, the rest of the cast keeps pace. Ryder has her best outing in some time as Richie's wife, Deborah. She sees Richie as a protector, the man who loves her and takes care of her. She doesn't push him too hard about his cover story. Kuklinski accounts for his suburban lifestyle by claiming to be a savvy currency trader.

We've seen Ray Liotta as a tough guy so many times, it's a little disappointing to find him playing that role again, although he's obviously good at it. Here, he's mobster Roy DeMeo, the man who elevates -- if that's the right word -- Kuklinski from his job in a lab that processes pirated porn films to the job of hit man. Roy asks Kuklilnski to audition for his new role by killing a bum, a task Richie carries out without much fuss.

James Franco is convincing in a small role as Marty Freeman, a man who has the misfortune of crossing paths with Kuklinski, and David Schwimmer has a nice turn as Josh Rosenthal, a long-standing friend of Ray's with a talent for getting his mobbed-up boss in trouble.

In a movie such as The Iceman , the look and feel of things can be every bit as important as plot. Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski sees New Jersey at its depressing worst, creating a downcast mood the movie seldom breaks.

Even turns of plot that might have been played for cheap ironies and chuckles pass without much winking humor.
Chris Evans, for example, plays killer Robert Pronge, a hit man with whom Kuklinski forms a seedy partnership when his boss no longer needs his services. Pronge's day job: He drives an ice cream truck. His nickname: Mister Softee.

The plot unfolds pretty much as you'd expect: Vroment laces the screen with double-crosses and betrayals that eventually tighten a noose around Kuklinski's increasingly vulnerable neck. He's desperate to find a way out of the box he's constructed for himself. At a certain point, his occupation and his private life seem destined to collide.

Shannon's chilling performance keeps the movie's wheels spinning. He presents Richie in all of his icy, terrifying stature. But Richie's different than a lot of movie gangsters: He's one cold-blooded devil who never begs for sympathy.

A 5,000-mile journey on a raft

When I was a kid, a librarian in the New Jersey town where I grew up, suggested that I read Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific On a Raft, Thor Hyerdahl's account of his death-defying journey across the Pacific. Hyerdahl, who died in 2002, was a Norwegian adventurer whose trip was meant to prove that ancient people could have travelled by sea from Latin America to the Polynesian islands. Hyerdahl was eager to challenge existing theories about great human migrations, which deemed such a journey impossible. Hyerdahl's conclusions were not universally accepted -- and still aren't. But when it comes to movies, scientific truth and adventure needn't converge. Whether Hyerdahl was right or not proves less interesting than the fact that he set out on a 5,000 mile journey to Tuamotu Island, using a raft that he believed was constructed in precisely the same way that ancient people would have built one. Hyerdahl made the trip from South America with five companions, each of whom brought a different but vital skill to the journey. I can't say I was as enthralled by the movie version of Kon-Tiki as I was by the book, but I'm older (by a lot) now. Besides, directors Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg have taken what amounts to a straightforward approach to a tale that they presumably felt needed little by way embellishment or interpretation. Pal Sverre Hagen portrays Hyerdahl as a Boy Scoutish figure who sometimes ignored his responsibilities as a husband and father to prove his point. But Hagen's Hyerdahl is no obsessed Ahab; he's more of a robust nerd with a point to prove. The directors allow for some tension among crew members during the voyage, as well as encounters with sharks and whales. And if the result isn't always pulse-pounding, the story remains interesting enough to carry us along with Hyerdahl as he defies conventional wisdom and puts himself at risk.

'Star Trek' sets its phasers on heavy fun

There's plenty of entertainment in this edition of Star Trek -- right up until a finale that features more destruction than the movie needs.

Watching the abundantly entertaining Star Trek Into Darkness, it sometimes seems as if we're seeing a spot-on replication of the original series -- only one that's been invaded by a new set of actors. Credit a cast led by Chris Pine (as Captain Kirk) and Zachary Quinto (as Spock) with working hard to keep their much-loved characters on track.

Made familiar by director J.J. Abrams as younger versions of the characters we knew from the venerated TV series, it's Kirk and Spock who keep the The Enterprise aloft -- with help, of course, from their ever reliable crew mates.

I'm not sure how fanboys will react to this mega-helping of Star Trek -- shown to many critics at 9 p.m. on the Wednesday night the movie was set to debut at a variety of midnight shows -- but it seemed to me that for most the picture, Abrams did a reasonably good job of balancing the fabled Star Trek ethos with lots of boldly conceived action.

Although everything in Into Darkness takes place in the time before the TV series began, the movie keeps the door open for as many prequels as Abrams is willing to make.

Is Into Darkness as good as 2009's Star Trek? Probably not, but Abrams & company can't be accused of hitting the sophomore skids, either. Messy plotting seldom detracts from the proceedings, although it's worth pointing out that the movie owes a major debt to the well-reviewed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, released in 1982.

As is the case with the better Star Trek episodes, this edition places an ethical issue at the story's core: Should Starfleet stick to its mission of exploring space while allowing alien civilizations to develop without interference or should it militarize and prepare for endless battles with threatening civilizations, say the ferocious Klingons?

I'm not saying Star Trek Into Darkness astonishes you with its philosophical depth and thoughtful nuance, but at least it's trying to be about something more than warp speed and explosions.

The screenplay also reprises a reliable Star Trek tension, the perpetual tug of war between emotion and logic, played out in the evolving relationship between an overly impetuous Kirk and an amusingly impassive Spock. Both characters still are feeling their way toward maturity.

Abrams' second Star Trek movie derives significant benefit from its villain, a super strongman played by British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who projects (boy, does he ever) enough piercing menace to keep him from being overwhelmed by the movie's special effects. How impressive is he? Sometimes, the guy seems even smarter than Spock.

The rest of the Enterprise crew is on board and in decent form: Zoë Saldana as Uhura, John Cho as Mr. Sulu; Simon Pegg as Mr. Scott, and Anton Yelchin as Chekov. It's of some interest that Uhura and Spock are still lovers, although it takes a while for them to kiss and make-up after a spat. Karl Urban makes a fine Dr. McCoy or more familiarly "Bones," the character responsible for providing home-spun comic relief.

Most audiences probably will forgive Abrams for kicking Star Trek into the kind of action-oriented overdrive that defines summer at the movies -- especially during its finale. Me? I won't describe it here, but I could have done without a destructively indulgent climax that takes a terrorist-like wrecking ball to yet another vulnerable cityscape.

You'd think after 9/11, this kind of devastation would long have fallen into disrepute. Sadly, it hasn't.

Thankfully, though, Abrams' movie has more to offer than late-picture carnage and crumbling concrete. If you're looking for summer enjoyment, Into the Darkness provides it in ample measure through most of its 132-minute running time, and -- just as important -- it leaves you ready to sign on for the Enterprise's next voyage.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

A 'Gatsby' full of razzle dazzle

Baz Luhrmann goes way over the top to tell a classic American story.

Director Baz Luhrmann has accomplished something close to extraordinary in his vivid, dizzying and ultimately misguided version of The Great Gatsby. He has taken F. Scott Fitzgerald's iconic 1925 novel -- a classic of American literature -- and turned into as glossy and colorful an extravaganza as might have been seen in the days when big-screen spectacles were drenched in three-strip Technicolor.

Put another way: Luhrmann's Gatsby has the glamour-laden production values of a musical -- only one in which somebody forgot to write the songs.

Luhrmann, who already has proven himself a maestro of overstatement in works such as Moulin Rouge! and Romeo & Juliet, has added 3-D to this version of Gatsby, presumably to give the movie a sense of immersive depth. The 3-D images might be the only depth you'll find in this showy, anachronistic and occasionally cartoonish version of the Gatsby story.

In Luhrmann's hands The Great Gatsby has become a frenzied display of technique, much of it devoted to creating the bacchanalian delirium that turned Gatsby's fabled parties into a magnet for New York's high-living crowd. Are we talking Gatsby or outtakes from the Playboy Mansion? You be the judge.

Fitzgerald, of course, told the story through a narrator named Nick Carraway, a Midwesterner who travels to New York and rents a small cottage next to Gatsby's ostentatious Long Island mansion. Nick meets Gatsby because of Gatsby's long-standing and unquenchable love for a woman named Daisy, who happens to be Nick's cousin. Nick is supposed to serve as a go-between for Gatsby and Daisy.

When we meet Daisy, she's already married to Tom Buchanan, Yale graduate and certifiable lout who indulges his libido with Myrtle (Isla Fisher), a low-class mistress from Queens.

Luhrmann uses some of Nick's narration (i.e., Fitzgerald's prose), even allowing pieces of it to wander across the screen in the form of typescript that floats above the fray.

But fidelity to text is hardly the point here: Luhrmann hasn't recreated America of the 1920s. He has invented a dreamscape all his own; the movie -- which mixes rap and Gershwin on its sound track -- isn't so much an evocation of the past, but a visit to an alternate universe stocked with jiggling flappers, feverish jazz musicians and a Jewish gangster played by an Indian actor (Amitabh Bachchan) who seems to have wandered into the story from some multi-cultural universe of the 21st century.

Luhrmann's Gatsby is a bold, vividly realized and distressingly literal retelling of a story that has been put on film before, but never with so much loudly trumpeted artifice and self-conscious daring; the soundtrack arrives complete with musical contributions from Jay Z and Beyonce.

Of course, Luhrmann has made alterations to the story (Nick tells the tale from some sort of rehab facility where he's struggling with alcoholism and regret), but changes to Fitzgerald's story are the least of the problems. Most of those center around the fact that Luhrmann has taken the events of the novel -- always secondary to Fitzgerald's prose -- and added so much technologically created upholstery that everything collapses into it.

Only those who do not own television sets can have escaped prior knowledge that Leonard DiCaprio portrays Jay Gatsby, the hopeful and deluded man who spends a lifetime trying to recreate his past so that he can become a suitable suitor for Daisy, a member of the upper classes to which the low-born Jay longingly aspires.

Looking as if he's posing for a fashion ad in the Sunday New York Times magazine, DiCaprio projects the calm of a man who's willing to create a storm to attract the beautiful Daisy who lives across the bay from him. And, yes, Gatsby spends an inordinate amount of time staring across the dark waters of Long Island Sound at the luminous green light that glows on dock of the Buchanans' East Egg home. The symbolism is inescapable: The light represents everything that remains visible but out of reach for Gatsby.

Gatsby is one of those amorphous figures who tries to create a new version of himself, but only can achieve it by associating with and profiting from the corruption and crime that leads to quick wealth. He has obscene amounts of money, but his affluence never can equal the more seasoned wealth that people such as the Buchanans have come by as a birth right.

Daisy is played by Carey Mulligan, who seems entirely too grounded for the part of a dreamy fantasy girl. A scowling Joel Edgerton portrays her husband Tom, polo player and former Ivy League jock, a man with a smash-mouth personality. In Luhrmann's hands, these pivotal characters seldom seem like plausible people; they move through the movie carrying the weight of the literary archetypes that they seem to represent.

As for Nick, the narrator ... well ... let's just say that Tobey Maguire rises to the challenge of making him as uninteresting as most narrators are, the man who floats outside the story, fascinated by it but unattached to its core.

Of all the characters, only Daisy's friend Jordan Baker -- played by Elizabeth Debicki -- seems to fit into a recognizable universe.

By now, I'm sure you've caught my drift; Luhrmann's movie is more about production design than about the distorting powers of the American dream. Its rewards have more to do with vintage cars, sprinting camera movements and glitzy overstatement than with the tragic undertow of Fitzgerald's story.

A confession of sorts: I watched The Great Gatsby with a sense of sustained amazement at Luhrmann's capacity for emotional amplification, but presenting an entire movie in an over-the-top style doesn't leave much by way of wriggle room.

I suppose sales of Fitzgerald's much-purchased novel will enjoy an inevitable boomlet because of Luhrmann's movie, but I'd be willing to bet that this Gatsby has more influence on American fashion than on the country's intellectual, emotional or cultural life.

In that sense, Luhrmann may have found the key to bringing Fitzgerald's film-resistant novel to the screen. Luhrmann may not get at much that feels real or substantial, but his Gatsby sure as hell is dressed for success.

A grisly mix of shock and schlock

If you know anything at all about contemporary horror movies, Eli Roth's name on a project tells you a lot. In the case of the Chilean-based Aftershock, Roth served as co-writer, producer and as one of the movie's principal actors. Roth (Hostel and Cabin Fever) has established a brand that stands for horror punctuated by nauseating displays of gore and ample helpings of sadistic torment. Both ingredients work themselves into Aftershock, a movie that begins as if it has no idea what it's about. A sextet of bickering American and Chilean pals -- three man and three young women -- hop from one Chilean club to another in search of sybaritic pleasures. At just about the time when you've deemed the movie pointless, director Nicolas Lopez shifts gears. A severe earthquake -- perhaps a precursor to a tsunami -- strikes Valparaíso with devastating force. The gorefest begins. We're talking severed appendages, crushed bodies and more. And if all that weren't enough, the screenplay eventually contrives to throw in a pack of roaming escapees from the local prison. Why not augment natural destruction with a little rape and murder? Bravado and a certain kind of gruesome creativity are hallmarks of this kind of cinema, but occasional flashes of grisly imagination can't redeem Aftershock, which I increasingly came to regard as another helping of exploitation, maybe even Aftershlock.

Student and teacher, but which is which?

Imagine that you are a man in your 50s, and that you once aspired to being an important novelist. Time has passed, and you find that your life has devolved into teaching uninterested (and mostly ungifted) students in a French town where your wife runs an art gallery. You know -- without question or doubt -- that your dreams have turned to ash.

If you can imagine such a man, you already know quite a bit about Germain, one of the main characters in director Francois Ozon's In the House.

Fabrice Luchini -- an actor who knows how to lose himself in the deluded self-seriousness of the characters he plays -- portrays Germain, a man we meet while he's grading papers and waiting for his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) to arrive home from work.

Germain's life begins to change when he discovers 16-year-old Claude (Ernst Umhauer), a student who takes care of his invalid father and who has been deserted by his mother. Germain quickly learns that Claude may have writing talent, although judging by the assignments Germain gives ("What I Did Last Week"), it's small wonder that most of his students don't give a damn.

It's just here, though, that Ozon begins to reveal his subject: the way we can become ruinously absorbed in other people's fictions.

In this case, the teacher plunges into the student's work. Claude decides to write about Rapha (Bastien Ughetto), a classmate who likes basketball and who appears to live an ultra-normal life with his mother (Emmanuelle Seigner) and father (Denis Ménochet).

Claude finds fascination in the apparent normalcy of Rapha's family. Germain encourages his pupil to immerse himself in the lives of this "typical" family. For his part, Claude needs little encouragement to become aroused by Seigner's Esther.

Ozon shows us what Claude is experiencing with his "adopted" family, but here's the tricky part. We see everything through Claude's eyes. Is he telling us the truth or is he inventing most of what we're seeing? Is he a perceptive documentarian or a budding novelist or, perhaps, a bit of both?

Once again, Ozon (Under the Sand and Swimming Pool) gives us a thriller unburdened by the need for conventional thrills, a drama in which tensions transfer from the characters to us as we try to work our way through the maize that Ozon constructs.

All of this takes place against an intellectual backdrop that explores the processes by which fiction is created and the consequences that can result from the conspiratorial bond between writer and reader.

Luchini is perfectly cast as a teacher who increasingly falls under the sway of a wily student, and Umhauer, who flashes an ambiguous smile, plays his part with malicious aplomb.

All of this builds to one of the most memorable concluding shots you'll see in any movie, a beautiful depiction of Ozon's themes. In fairness to Ozon, I won't describe the shot here. Discover it in a theater.

In the House deals with serious issues, but Ozon's touch is mostly light, and the story is not without humor, much of it rooted in the story's smart and devious fascinations.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Young, radical and French, circa 1970

There's something inherently absurd about watching privileged French high school students arguing about whether they should be Maoists or Trotskyites. But such are the questions debated by some of the characters in director Olivier Assayas's Something in the Air, an appropriately discursive look at radical student life in France during the years following the student revolutions of 1968. Story is not Assayas's strong suit; his strengths have more to do with the way in which he recreates a moment that seems to have history-making momentum, but which (as we know) ultimately fizzled. The story revolves around Gilles (Clement Metayer), a young man at loose ends. One minute, he's throwing Molotov cocktails at his school; the next, he's mooning over a girlfriend (Carole Combes) who won't commit. Gilles's father works in movies, and it's clear that a path in film is open for the young man if he decides to focus on cinema. Gilles may do just that, once he gets over some of the political and romantic turmoil in his unformed life. Christine (Lola Creton), another of Gilles's romantic interests, wants to devote her life to making Marxist films. We also meet Alain (Felix Armand), a student who aspires to be a writer and who has taken up with an American girl (India Salvor Menuez). There's something loose and insubstantial about all these relationships, a sense of youthful transiency. Assayas -- who directed Carlos, the remarkable three-part series about Venezuelan revolutionary Ilich Ramírez Sánchez -- never imposes a compelling structure on a movie that ultimately needs one. Still, insights accumulate as the story unfolds. Although these kids fancy themselves as revolutionaries, it's never entirely clear what grieves them. And you can't shake the sense that just about everyone in the movie will "mature'' into lives in which they're amply rewarded by the system they so vehemently oppose. Not entirely satisfying and often frustrating, Something in the Air, nonetheless, brings a fleeting, youthful moment to life without sentimentalizing or lionizing the people who lived through it.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The fireworks of 'Iron Man 3'

The finale is explosive, but this installment of Iron Man is not without dull spots.
What must Iron Man 3 accomplish? Must the flawed superhero of Marvel Comics fame save the world from the evil machinations of terrorism-prone villain? Must he somehow reconcile the fragility of his humanity with powers bestowed on him when he dons his protective iron suit? Or must he navigate his way through an early summer mega-movie that might be deemed a dud if it doesn't outdo its predecessors at the box office?

Iron Man 3 seems to want to accomplish all of the above goals, throwing in an explosion that demolishes Grauman's Chinese Theatre in the bargain. A metaphor for the way the movie's supposed to explode at the box office or a bit of bad-taste, post-Aurora pyrotechnics? Decide for yourself.

So, the plusses: The action set pieces of the movie's finale are scaled to impress and include CGI work that leaves you marveling at its undisguised audacity.

The minuses: Iron Man 3 makes you suffer through some significant longueurs before it crosses its 130-minute finish line. The movie's end-of-picture rewards are tempered by mid-picture sags and talky stagnation.

Robert Downey Jr. does everything you'd expect of him in his third Iron Man outing. Iron Man -- who spends a lot of time out of his suit in this episode -- is lightning fast with a retort. He's amusing, especially to himself.

In the movie's early scenes, Iron Man, a.k.a. Tony Stark, is mired in a personal crisis. He can't sleep. He's having anxiety attacks. He's puttering around his laboratory with obsessive fervor, trying to figure out how to make parts of his Iron Man suit leap from the ground and attach to his body. He's also neglecting his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

Director Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) has been assigned the job of following Iron Man through his psychological malaise. Black, who also wrote the Lethal Weapon movies, assumes the franchise's helm to mixed effect, perhaps because he has limited experience with the heavy-lifting required to direct an effects-laden mega-movie.

Still, there are sights to be seen. A prime example: The finale includes a spectacular airborne rescue in which Iron Man saves 13 officials who've been jettisoned from a plane. Good stuff, but the main enticements of this third installment arrive in the form of tasty side dishes.

Ben Kingsley plays a terrorist called The Mandarin, a villain who evokes scary echoes of Osama bin Laden. Rebecca Hall, not the first actress who springs to mind when you think about franchise movies, makes a nice addition as one of Tony Stark's former girlfriends. And Iron Man finds a bit of temporary companionship in an eight-year-old kid (Ty Simpkins), who joins him for mid-picture plot duties.

Guy Pearce signs on as Aldrich Killian, an evil entrepreneur who mutates into a scorching, fiendish Iron Man foe. Pearce seems to be having as good a time as can be had with a sadistic -- if slightly off-the-rack -- villain.

One thing's sure: After this installment, Iron Man's going to need a new home. Early on, he's blasted out of his cliff-hugging Malibu home. This can't sit well with Paltrow's Pepper Potts, the woman who shares Iron Man's residence. Perhaps she's consoled by being Iron Man's main squeeze, although Paltrow's straight-shooting Potts seldom proves as interesting as Hall's morally ambiguous Maya Hansen.

Iron Man 3 is one of those critic-proof movies that has enough successful bits and pieces to keep general audiences and fanboys reasonably well-satisfied.

For me, the movie proved enjoyable in the same way that fireworks are fun. Moments of waiting are punctuated by vivid bursts of action and color that vanish into the night sky leaving only wisps of smoke to grasp at as we await the arrival of the next blockbuster. Iron Man 3 makes plenty of noise, but its pleasures are spectacularly insubstantial.

The radicalizing of a Pakistani

It's probably impossible to discuss The Reluctant Fundamentalist -- director Mira Nair's big-screen adaptation of Mohsin Hamid's 2007 novel -- without at least mentioning the recent bombings at the Boston Marathon. I mention this because Nair's movie poses a topical and eerily relevant question: What might make a highly educated and apparently assimilated Pakistani immigrant wind up opposing everything about the U.S.?

Nair tells the story through a framing device. Changez (Riz Ahmed), a Pakistani professor, meets with a self-described American journalist (Liev Schreiber) in a Lahore cafe. Schreiber's character believes Changez may be able to help locate a kidnapped American.

We soon discover that the story is less interested in the captured American than in allowing Changez to explain how he made the journey from a hot-shot investment banker with a premier Wall Street firm to a radicalized college professor in Pakistan. Changez, we learn, not only lived in the U.S., but availed himself of its greatest opportunities. He graduated from Princeton, and quickly landed on the fast-track to wealth.

Changez tells Schreiber's Bobby the story of events that transformed him from a ruthless takeover artist to an academic who sees a link between the brutalities of capitalism and the world of religious fundamentalism.

If such a connection makes sense, The Reluctant Fundamentalist doesn't succeed in convincing us: The screenplay seems to find some sort of moral equivalence between capitalist ravishments and terrorist slaughter. The idea seems more like a fatuous reach than a devastating insight.

Having said that, it also should be noted that Ahmed gives a terrific performance as a young man learning the American ropes, which at first pull him upward and then threaten to strangle him. Ahmed's avid, intelligent performance holds the movie together, even as the story takes some less-than-credible turns.

The most notable of these unfortunate detours involves the relationship Changez establishes with a photographer named Erica, a mousey looking Kate Hudson. Erica eventually mounts an exhibit of photographs that she believes to be personal and revealing, but which mostly put her post 9/11 bigotry on display.

September 11 and the subsequent change of American attitudes give rise to prejudices that can't help but impact Changez. He's strip-searched at an airport. He's wrongly questioned by the New York City police. He begins to understand that no matter how assimilated he believes himself to be, he can't overcome the bigoted assumptions of those who identify him with terrorism.

Ahmed's fine performance is supplemented by equally strong work from Kiefer Sutherland, as Changez's boss and mentor at the investment banking firm. And it's always nice to see the fine Indian actor Om Puri, even when he's underutilized. He plays Changez's father.

Nair (Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake) keeps the story flowing. She's good at mixing milieu and character and giving material the involving sweep of a novel.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist offers some -- if not all -- of the richness of a novelistic story. But in the end, political reductionism undermines the story's human richness, and Nair manages to give us only flashes of the major work The Reluctant Fundamentalist might have been.

Ken Loach walks on the lighter side

Even when he's not at his best, director Ken Loach remains a treasure.

Loach's new movie -- The Angels' Share -- proves lighter and more amusing than much of Loach's work, but to say that a Loach movie is funny doesn't automatically mean that it's void of realism.

Loach, the 76-year-old director of movies such as The Wind Shakes the Barley and Riff Raff, possesses a great feel for life among the lower classes, and Angels' Share is no exception to the Loach rule: Make movies about real people experiencing real problems.

This time, Loach heads for Scotland for a story that mixes hard-scrabble authenticity with comedy and even a bit of caper-movie high jinks. Although the blend isn't seamless, Angels' Share hits enough of the right notes to serve as a much-needed antidote to the tyrannies of the summer mainstream which already have begun to sweep over us.

This time, Loach focuses on a hot-tempered Scot (Paul Brannigan) who can't seem to stay out of trouble. Charged with administering a severe beating to a sympathetic stranger, Brannigan's Robbie gets a break from a judge. Believing that Robbie has promise, the judge assigns community service rather than a prison term.

The judge may be prescient: Robbie finally has a reason to get right with the law and with himself. Robbie's pregnant girlfriend (Siobhan Reilly) insists that she'll dump him the moment he strays. She wants Robbie to be a father to their child, not an example of everything the kid should try to avoid.

Robbie insists that he'll try, and when he holds his infant son for the the first time, you believe him.

Loach begins to add comic elements when he introduces the group with whom Robbie performs his community service. This small collection of misfits falls under the tutelage of a compassionate but serious supervisor (John Henshaw). When Hensaw's Harry -- a man with a connoisseur's fondness for good whisky -- takes his charges on a field trip to a distillery, Robbie begins to discover that he has a nose for whisky. He's a natural-born connoisseur of taste and aroma, not a bad skill to possess in country that produces some of the world's premier spirits.

Robbie's newfound interest gives him a chance to develop a skill that promises a way out of a vicious circle that pits him against a foe who's determined to draw Robbie into a battle, mostly because of some long-simmering family feud.

I loved the fact that Loach included lots of information about malt whisky, even taking us on a guided tour of a distillery. Watching Loach turn his movie into Malt Whisky for Dummies may be a showstopper for some. For me, it was an intriguing introduction to the skill, obsessiveness and knowledge required to produce a fine whisky. I don't drink the stuff, but I'm always fascinated by displays of expertise.

Now, some of the comedy might be a little too broad, and, of course, the thick Scottish accents would defy comprehension if The Angels' Share didn't come equipped with subtitles.

Brannigan makes an entirely credible Robbie, a young man at war with his own violent propensities. In one of the movie's most affecting scenes, Robbie meets with the family of the man he has beaten. Robbie's coke-crazed outburst has left him speechless and shamed.

Robbie's cronies add comic color, but as much as I admire Loach, I'd have to say that the movie's caper antics don't exactly mesh with Loach's more serious intentions or with the movie's comic byplay.

Still, I'd recommend The Angels' Share. Named for the bit of whisky that inevitably evaporates during production. The Angels' Share may not go down as smoothly as you'd like, but it's no rot gut, either.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Brothers on London's mean streets

Opening against the artificial pleasures of Iron Man 3, My Brother the Devil offers an opportunity to watch a talented new director -- Sally El Hosaini -- make a worthy addition to a long line of movies that have tried for mean-streets authenticity. Set in London's East End, My Brother the Devil tells the story of two young British-born Arabs dealing with gang life in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood dominated by council flats and drugs. Rashid (James Floyd) runs with a gang, making money selling dope. His younger brother Mo (Fady Elsayed) seems like more of a straight arrow. Described in biographical material as Egyptian/ Welsh, Hosaini brings visual flourish to the story, which delves deeply into the lives of brothers who face intense peer pressures, as well as environmental obstacles. A key question: How far is the infuriated Rashid willing to go to avenge a murdered pal? Floyd's Rashid begins to glimpse alternatives to gang life when he meets a photographer (Saïd Taghmaoui) who's able to look at street life without falling into its traps and who awakens Rashid to a new view of his sexuality. For his part, Mo spirals in the opposite direction, joining the gang DMG, which stands for drugs, money and guns. Gritty when it needs to be, My Brother the Devil deals with a host of issues faced by young people as they try to evolve beyond gang-dominated lives. If the story takes some less than credible turns, Hosaini more than makes up for it by capturing the language, rhythms and dangers of the street. Her characters seldom seem anything less than real.