Thursday, July 25, 2013

Searching for his inner warrior

It may not be a classic, but The Wolverine proves solid.
Moving the Wolverine series to Japan seems to have been good for both Wolverine and for his audience. Efficiently titled and unafraid of an occasional quiet moment, The Wolverine turns out to be a worthy addition to the Marvel Comics gallery of big-screen superhero movies.

Hugh Jackman already has demonstrated his talents as a hero with anger management issues, but director James Mangold (Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma) proves that he's equally adept at creating a big-screen comic book.

As has been the case with most of this summer's "blockbuster" fare, Wolverine can't be called a total success: You'll find segments that sag and drag, but there's still plenty to pull you into a story about this troubled mutant, a character whose pain isn't only inflicted by enemies but by his own turbulent emotional life.

This time, Wolverine -- a.k.a. Logan -- even wonders whether a mutated life that includes immortality is really all that appealing.

If you're the sort of viewer who thinks that one terrific set piece is enough to put a movie over-the-top, then you'll be amply rewarded by a breathless fight staged atop a speeding bullet train.

The story also benefits from a considerable amount of Tokyo-style exoticism. Can any movie that makes room for stealthy Yakuzas be all bad? And what about the impressive, towering Samurai robot that stomps into the finale?

The movie's screenplay -- a Mark Bomback/Scott Frank adaptation of a 1982 comic book by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller -- places Logan at the center of a battle for control of one Japan's leading corporations. To up the dramatic ante, the screenplay contrives to deprive Wolverine of his super powers, making it increasingly difficult for him to kick the requisite amount of butt. He loses the ability to heal his wounds instantly. He may be headed for death.

Wolverine also is having troubling dreams about his late lover (Famke Janssen), a beautiful presence beckoning him to reunite with her in death.

The story moves Wolverine and his razor-sharp, retractable claws from an isolated life in Alaska to the bustle of Japan, forcing him into situations in which he must rediscover his inner warrior and renew his commitment to it.

At the beginning of the movie, Logan's totally fed up with fighting and in full Greta Garbo mode: He wants to be left alone. He lives a hermitic existence in a cave, venturing out for activities such as standing mournfully in the rain. He gets rained on a lot.

Once in Japan, it doesn't take long for Wolverine to wind up as the protector of beautiful Mariko (Tao Okamoto), the granddaughter of Lord Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), a tycoon who owes his life to Wolverine. We learn about the relationship between Wolverine and Yashida in the movie's prologue, a compelling sequence set in Nagasaki at the precise moment when the U.S. dropped its second A-bomb.

The story also introduces a red-headed, punkish Japanese woman (Rila Fukushima), a character who becomes a kind of back-up for Wolverine, who needs all the help he can get to protect him from Mariko's sinister father (Hiroyuki Sanada) and a villainous blonde woman called Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova). Viper is plenty attractive, but kissing her qualifies as a life-threatening mistake.

I wasn't overly impressed by Mangold's use of 3-D, but, in the main, director of photography Ross Emery has made a good-looking movie, taking full advantage of the Japanese settings and, at times, giving the story the feel of a James Bond movie, assuming 007 had hairy mutton chops and a really bad haircut.

Dull spots and all, Wolverine passes muster as one of the more solidly executed of summer's offerings. Thankfully, then, there's no need to sharpen any critical claws.

A shocking, powerful 'Fruitvale Station'

A stunning look at the killing of an unarmed young black man.
If you're looking for a timely movie, I doubt you'll do better than Fruitvale Station, first-time director Ryan Coogler's sad and powerful film about Oscar Grant III, an unarmed, 22-year-old black man who was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit cop on Jan. 1, 2009.

Though different in its particulars, Grant's true-life case inevitably demands comparison with the highly publicized story of Trayvon Martin -- and rightfully so. Both cases point to the vulnerability of young black men who sometimes find tragedy simply because they're young black men.

Coogler's movie leaves us speechless and stunned, even though we know what's going to happen from the outset. The film's power lies in the skill with which Coogler brings us close to a troubled young man, making sure we understand both Oscar's strengths and his weaknesses.

Coogler isn't out to canonize Grant, who had served prison time, smoked and sold marijuana, lost a supermarket job because of chronic tardiness and generally felt at loose ends.

But it's also clear that Grant -- played with a full range of emotions by Michael B. Jordan (Friday Night Lights and The Wire) -- is trying to listen to his better angels. We see this when he's playing with his daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), whom he obviously loves, and we see it again when he finally opens up to the child's mother (Melonie Diaz).

Oscar's also devoted to his mother (Octavia Spencer), a woman who expects him to toe the line. During a prison visit to her son, Spencer's character delivers a heartbreaking dose of tough love.

Although Fruitvale Station includes a few flashbacks, it mostly takes place during the last 24 hours of young Oscar's life. He tries to persuade the manager of the supermarket where he worked to rehire him; he phones his sister; he shops for seafood for his mother's birthday dinner; he debates with himself about the wisdom of trying to generate income by selling marijuana; and he eventually heads out for a night on the town in San Francisco with Diaz's Sophina and a few friends.

Fearing New Year's Eve mayhem on the roads, Oscar's mother urges him not to drive. She thinks the train will be safer.

It wasn't. Grant met his end on an elevated BART platform when transit cops showed up to deal with a fight on a train, a tussle instigated by a white guy looking for trouble.

Coogler isn't interested in easy moralizing, and we hardly need a lecture to remind us of the deep injustice of what happened to Oscar. The cop who shot Grant was captured on a video made by a passenger with a cellphone -- and used briefly in the movie. The officer, who said he thought he was using a taser rather than his gun, was sentenced to two years in state prison. He served a year.

To its credit, Coogler's film never feels like a screed aimed at the police; it's a clear-eyed view of what happened to one young black man who set out to party with friends and wound up dead.

Coogler makes it clear that Oscar was at a crossroads in his life, and we're left to deal with the grief and bafflement created by so much unfulfilled promise. Jordan's performance -- by turns wary, charming, angry and sincere -- makes us think that Oscar would have turned the corner. The only thing we can know for sure is that he damn well should have been allowed to try.

She wants to lose her virginity

The To Do List reflects a young woman's point of view, but winds up as one more overly crude teen comedy.
Director Maggie Carey's comedy, The To Do List, offers little by way of big revelations as it joins an already long line of sexually obsessed teen comedies.

The movie features an abundance of gross-out humor, including a bit that one supposes was meant to qualify as a hilarious highpoint.

In it, the movie's main character -- played by Aubrey Plaza -- takes a bite out of a turd she finds floating in a swimming pool. Plaza's Brandy thinks she's eating a candy bar placed in the pool as a prank.

It's all part of the hazing that Plaza's Brandy receives as the newest employee at the town pool, where she's landed a job for the summer. It's 1993, and Brandy just has graduated as valedictorian of her Boise high school. We know she's brainy because she gives a graduation speech which her fellow grads greet with vocal derision.

The movie's main ploy revolves around the fact that Brandy remains a virgin. To remedy the situation before the start of her freshman year at college, Brandy composes a check list of sexual experiences that she must complete en route to her deflowering.

Brandy approaches her task with the same kind of single-minded drive one might expect from a gifted student who's intent on learning how to pad a resume.

Although she's forced into a bit of a one-note role, Plaza is good at playing a carnally challenged teen-ager who's making a first visit to Planet Sex.

Brandy's summer project -- more an expression of ambition than desire -- is supposed to culminate in intercourse with a blonde hunk of a college student(Scott Porter), who also works as a lifeguard at the town pool. A loosey-goosey, semi-adult (Bill Hader) presides over the pool, one more big-screen grown-up mired in a swamp of perpetual immaturity.

Carey over-estimates the comic mileage she'll obtain by putting Plaza -- best known for her work on TV's Parks and Recreation -- at the center of a comedy that basically offers variations on formula tropes, but which -- at least for my money -- doesn't turn things upside down. Carey may have missed a great opportunity for some much-needed genre subversion.

The movie's supporting cast adds to the feeling of familiarity. Brandy has two down-to-earth pals (Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele) who seem to have outpaced her when it comes to worldly knowledge. Brandy's snooty but sexually advanced sister (Rachel Bilson) has pinned her hopes on marriage. Brandy also has a clueless father (Clark Gregg), a standard feature in this sort of comedy.

Brandy's socially progressively mother (Connie Britton) isn't much help, either. Late in the movie, Mom provides Brandy with a tube of lubricant to make her first sexual experience less of an ordeal, a kind of family rite-of-passage.

Johnny Simmons plays Cameron, a friend who really likes Brandy and who becomes a major guinea pig in her on-going sexual experiment.

I found The To Do List alternately gross, charmless and only mildly funny, a movie committed almost entirely to the notion that when it comes to sex, young women can be just as crude and insensitive as young men.

The fact that the movie was directed by a woman and features a woman as its main character may be viewed as something of a breakthrough, but derivative teen comedies remain derivative teen comedies, regardless of which gender provides the movie's dominant perspective.

Almodovar's flight remains grounded

When a gifted filmmaker misses the mark, it's best to simply note the failure and move on. That's pretty much how I felt about Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's I'm So Excited!. Although its set almost entirely on a jetliner, Almodovar's new movie barely gets off the ground. After cameo appearances by Almodovar veterans Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas, the movie finds its true focus, introducing us to the pilots, crew and first-class passengers of a Spain-to-Mexico flight that will be forced to make an unexpected landing. Almodovar builds the movie around three gleefully gay flight attendants (Javier Camara, Raul Arevalo and Carlos Areces), the trio that lip-synchs the Pointer Sisters' song that provides the movie with its disco-dizzy title. If you know Almodovar's filmography -- from early works such as Matador to later movies such as The Skin I Live In -- you won't be surprised to discover that the director hasn't lost his touch when it comes to a splashy color palette or vividly realized imagery. But I'm So Excited! proves distressingly short on amusement, despite the efforts of a game cast that includes Cecilia Roth, as a dominatrix, and Lola Duenas, as a woman who's both a psychic and a virgin. Almodovar doesn't skimp on outre sexual high jinx, but this time, his usually buoyant sense of outrageousness feels muted, flat and generally uninspired.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

A very creepy haunted house

A better-than-average movie about demons who go bump in the night.
For all the supposed progress we've made since 1973, there's still no better movie about demonic possession than William Friedkin's The Exorcist. Having said that, it's worth noting that The Conjuring qualifies as a tense and creepy addition to the "demon" genre, a movie notable for a strong cast and for director James Wan's willingness to continue moving away from the digustingly graphic displays that marked his torture-laden breakthrough, 2004's Saw.

That's not to say that this amped-up funhouse of a movie is without its quota of silliness -- only that Wan, who also directed 2011's Insidious, creates enough gut-tugging tension and palpable disturbance to lift his movie out of the horror doldrums. Although the "thrills" in Wan's horror show -- purportedly based on a true story -- are as jolting as they are scary, they're delivered with a seat-rattling force that works on you.

The creepiest effect: a game called "hide and clap" that inovlves blindfolds, hand-clapping and increasing amounts of dread.

The story focuses on the Perron family -- mom (Lili Taylor), dad ( Ron Livingston) and five daughters. The Perrons move into an old Rhode Island farmhouse only to find that the place is full of bad smells, unexplained noises, a super-creepy basement and sudden unexplained drops in temperature.

The nightmare escalates to the point at which the desperate Perrons seek the help of Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson), demonologists (hey, everybody has to be something) who have a history of ghost busting.

Lorraine is acutely sensitive to paranormal phenomenon, and Ed has assisted in exorcisms. To the movie's credit, it takes an hour and half to introduce a priest, a character who needs Vatican approval before he can help a family that includes unbaptized children. Church bureaucracy forces Ed into a DIY exorcism that gives the movie its screeching finale.

Although Wan keeps the gore quotient under tight control, he relies heavily on a rumbling sound track and special effects when it comes to the major jolts. The more we see, the less effective the movie becomes, but as Ed and Lorraine chase the demon they've identified as Bathsheba, Wan whips up a fair measure of creep-out chills.

The screenplay even tries to include a bit of recognizable behavior. The Warrens are portrayed as a couple accustomed to being greeted by skepticism. Both Farmiga and Wilson -- neither working at particularly deep levels -- do their best to humanize the Warrens, who are presented as a normal husband and wife, aside from their ability to hunt demons. Did I mention that they also keep a collection of eerie artifacts in their home?

The stories of the Warrens and the Perrons don't always mesh, and The Conjuring seems to work a little too hard at trying to convince us that there really are demons and devils in the world. A better movie would have felt no need to lobby for the paranormal.

But as haunted-house horror goes, The Conjuring should give audiences pretty much what they asked for as it finds high intensity ways to put us on edge with a ton of ploys that have become obvious horror standards: Characters open doors we know they shouldn't; they go down basement stairs that clearly should be avoided, and otherwise put themselves in the path of a demonic force that's out to wreak as much havoc as possible. Damn those demons, anyway.

A bomb goes off in a doctor's life

Compelling and thoughtful, The Attack sheds light on what it means to live with soul-wrenching conflicts.
Amin Jaafari is on a roll. An Arab living in Israel, Amin is a prominent physician who has received a prestigious Israeli award, the first Arab ever to do so. Self-satisfied and apparently secure in his status, Amin lives in a modern home in Tel Aviv, and despite some annoyances -- the occasional sarcasm of a colleague, for example -- he seems to have found a niche in which he (and his wife) can find fulfillment: or so he thinks.

Those last four words are essential if there's to be a story, and The Attack, the movie in which Amin is the central figure, has an amazing story to tell, a complex tale that's less about who's right when it comes to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict than about what can happen when people are thrown into situations that seem beyond navigation.

The Attack revolves around an irreversible shock to Amin's system. He learns that his wife of 15 years is suspected of having conducted a suicide bombing in which 17 Israelis died, including 11 children.

To further sharpen the irony, Amin helped administer medical aid to many of the victims of the bombing, which took place while he was lunching in the cafeteria of the hospital where he works.

And, yes, Amin sees the bombing as appalling and senseless.

Based on L'Attentat, a novel by Yasmina Khadra, and directed by Lebanese filmmaker Ziad Doueiri, The Attack is one of the best movies I've seen about what happens to an assimilated member of a minority who's forced to look at problems he thought he'd left behind.

The movie is also about the astonishing distance that can develop between a husband and a wife. Awakened by a middle-of-the-night phone call, Amin must go to the morgue to identify his wife's body, which was blown in two by the explosion. Amin's wife Siham (Reymond Amsalem) may have found a cause she prized more than personal comfort and even love.

As played by Ali Suliman -- in one of the year's best performances -- Amin is a man searching for a truth he may not want to find; he's also a man caught in a conflict that not only changes the circumstances of his life but challenges his view of himself. If his wife did commit this heinous act, how could Amin not have seen it coming?

Doueiri thoroughly penetrates Amin's shattered world while also revealing the social and ethnic layers that characterize life in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv and in the West Bank, particularly the city of Nablus.

As the story develops, Amin is put through a wringer in which the personal and the political become irrevocably conflated. He's lost the woman he loves, and also must begin to come to grips with the past he'd thought he'd outgrown when he moved from the territories into an Israeli society that afforded him considerable opportunity.

Doueiri, who wrote the screenplay with his wife, Joelle Touma, isn't interested in playing judge and jury: The story doesn't punish Amin for his shortcomings, and Amin doesn't abruptly alter his entire value system to embrace suicide bombings.

He also must grieve. In a series of tender flashbacks, Doueiri depicts the deep love that Amin felt for his wife. We see the woman he thought she was -- and who, for much of the time, she actually was for him.

Contrary to what its blunt title suggests, The Attack takes a nuanced and thoughtful approach to emotionally volatile material. When Amin travels to Nablus to reunite with family members he hasn't seen for years and to learn more about his late wife, he's brought to an agonizing point that many face, but few with such unbearable clarity. He must learn to live with the irresolvable contradictions that now will define him.

Put another way, Doueiri's movie asks a deeply disturbing question: What happens when a man fully awakens -- only to discover that he's living in a nightmare?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Before the computers took over

Yesterday's high tech looks awfully low when seen through a rearview mirror.
In a season full of big-screen bombast and special-effects bloat, it takes more than a bit of counter-programming confidence to release a movie titled Computer Chess. Don't be fooled, though: Director Andrew Bujalski -- a stalwart of the no-budget indie movement known as Mumblecore -- has directed a small comedy about a big subject: the uneasy alliance between humans and digital technology.

Set in the early 1980s, the movie has been photographed mostly in black-and-white using video equipment of the time. In short, no one's going to mistake the images in Computer Chess for 35 mm film.

Audiences should, however, marvel at the performances in Computer Chess. Bujalski's group of no-name actors give spot-on performances as 1980s-style geeks, a catalog of the kinds of people we once thought of as brainy tech types.

The premise: A gathering of A-level computer nerds (the group includes only one woman) assemble for an annual tournament in which programmers pit computer against computer in games of chess. A chess master (played by film critic Gerald Peary) presides over the contest, vowing to take on the winning computer.

Don't get the wrong idea. Bujalski isn't interested in the trumped-up theatrics of a contest. He's interested in reminding us how far technology has come since the Pleistocene days of the 1980s when computers were as big as crates and had yet to become part of everyday life for even the most technologically challenged among us.

Looking at the equipment used in Computer Chess, one can't help but feel a bit of nostalgia for what appear to be outmoded antiques, machines that generate a kind of amused nostalgia for what we once regarded as the cutting edge.

Fair to say that Bujalski has made one of the worst dressed movies of the year -- and that's part of the amusement, as well. The story takes place in a drab hotel that also happens to be playing host to a retreat of people who are engaging in a mixture of anxiety soothing pseudo-therapies and sexual high jinks.

If these are the two poles of human aspiration -- something the movie encourages us to consider -- both come off as stunningly absurd.

Bujalaski allows the humor to arise from situation and character; he doesn't force laughs on us, but seems to understand that a straight-faced presentation of totally plausible people who are deeply immersed in their own worlds constitutes an inevitable pathway to comedy.

I'm not sure that Computer Chess is a movie for all tastes, but that's precisely what it makes it worthwhile. It's a truly idiosyncratic and quietly bizarre piece of work set in the time before we all woke up in a world where too many of us feel naked should we happen to leave home without our cell phones.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

He comes of age in a water park

I recall reading somewhere that a single caring adult can alter the whole trajectory of a kid's life, particularly if that adult shows up at a critical point in a young person's development.

I thought about that while watching The Way, Way Back, a comedy about a dejected, angry teen-ager who blossoms under the mentorship of the owner of a Massachusetts water park called Water Wizz.

Fourteen-year-old Duncan (Liam James) seems entirely uncomfortable in the world until he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), an adult who senses the boy's loneliness and encourages him have a little fun.

For Duncan, loosening-up is no easy task. He's stuck on a month-long beach vacation with his divorced mother (Toni Collette) and the new man in her life (Steve Carell). To make matters even worse, Carell's Trent and Collette's Pam are in the early stages of their relationship and have yet to settle important territorial issues.

Just to add a little more insult to the already festering pile of Duncan's injuries, Trent's daugther (Zoe Levin) is a stuck-up, socially conscious teen who's totally condescending toward the dweebish Duncan -- at least when she's not entirely indifferent toward what she perceives as his worthless existence.

Directed and written by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash -- actors and screenwriters who won an Oscar for adapting The Descendants for the screen -- The Way, Way Back can't entirely overcome the familiarity of what amounts to yet another teen reclamation project. But the movie offers interesting wrinkles en route to a predictable -- if slightly attenuated -- finale.

To begin with, The Way, Way Back allows Carell to play to a jerk. Carell's Trent declares his jerkhood from the movie's outset, and does little to change our opinion of him as the story develops.

In Pam, Trent seems to have found a woman so desperate to hold onto a potentially stable relationship that she'll put up with a lot. Trent seems more than willing to take advantage of the situation. He shows far more interest in socializing with another couple (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet) than in testing the waters of stepfatherhood -- or even in spending time with Pam.

Duncan's shot at self-affirmation arrives in the form of Rockwell's Owen, who becomes a kind of surrogate father for Owen. Not only does Owen offer Duncan a job at Water Wizz, he knows how to relate to a kid, in part because he still is one. In a way, the movie is Owen's coming-of-age story, too.

The cast is further bolstered by Allison Janney, who plays Trent's garrulous neighbor and Anna Sophia Robb, who appears as Janney's daughter, a girl who's smart enough to take an interest in the dejected Duncan, who suffers one indignity after another. An example: He's forced to explore the beachfront Massachusetts town where the story unfolds on a pink girls' bicycle he finds in Trent's garage.

Maya Rudloph appears as one of Sam's employees, and both Faxon and Rash play small roles as water-park workers.

To their credit, Faxon and Rash provide some shading, even for the dislikable Trent, and they belatedly give Collette a chance to dig more deeply into a character with an alarming tendency toward over-dependence.

For all of this, The Way, Way Back may leave you shrugging, perhaps because we've been down this road too many times, perhaps because the movie tends to be a bit bland and perhaps because the adult conflicts -- though sketchily presented -- are more interesting than Duncan's problems.

Let me backtrack a bit, though. It's convenient, but a little inaccurate to classify The Way, Way Back as a coming-of-age story. In truth, neither the movie's teens nor its adults fully mature.

Rather, they're brought to the brink of important life changes. Faxon and Rash keep the movie's ending upbeat, but allow us just enough room to speculate about whether these characters really will be able to sustain new and better versions of themselves.

More monsters from the deep

Giant robots, ugly sea monsters and a robust comic-book spirit stave off disaster for Pacific Rim.
In what has been a largely disappointing summer -- at least in the blockbuster department -- director Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim comes as a refreshing surprise -- at least for a while. Taking his cue from classic Japanese horror movies such as Godzilla, del Toro imagines a time when hideous sea monsters called Kaiju are terrorizing the planet.

For reasons that aren't entirely clear, humanity has decided to battle these monstrous creatures with giant robots called Jaegers (German for hunters). It's also not clear why these 25-story tall behemoths need to be operated by two humans who work inside the machines and who must coordinate their movements through a symbiotic mind melding technique called "drifting." Wouldn't batteries have been just as good? Hasn't anyone heard of remotes?

If you haven't gotten the idea by now, let me make it clearer: Pacific Rim isn't about real-world logic; it's about putting a big-money charge into monster-movie tropes that once were considered indispensable components of second-tier entertainments.

Del Toro's movie is also about actors delivering uninspired dialogue with a straight face, about the wanton proliferation of special effects (some very good) and about a fair amount of well-conceived dystopian set design.

Put another way: The impressively scaled world del Toro creates is probably more interesting than what takes place in it: At its best, Pacific Rim brims with the kind of comic-book monumentalism that the lingering adolescent in me still finds impressive, epic-proportioned battles staged in a virtually created vastness.

I don't think del Toro, who has directed Hollywood movies such as Hellboy and more idiosyncratic fare such as Pan's Labyrinth, would object to anyone saying that he has tried to play with every toy he can find in hopes of creating a movie that will boom and bash its way through a couple of hours of clangorous action, semi-interesting exposition and unadulterated genre kicks.

I saw Pacific Rim in IMAX and 3-D, and the experience was overwhelming, particularly in the noise department. There's enough metal-on-metal clanging to stock a couple of Transformer movies. Moreover, some of the action seemed repetitive, particularly as seen in cinematographer Guillermo Navarro's darkly hued images.

You won't find much by way of stand-out acting here, but Pacific Rim is the kind of movie that can get by on performances that are servicable. British actor Charlie Hunnam portrays Raleigh Beckett, an ace figther who -- along with his brother (Diego Klattenhoff) -- has earned a reputation as a premier Kaiju killer.

But when Raleigh's brother dies (in the movie's gripping prologue), a dispirited Raleigh quits fighting and takes a job building walls to keep out the sea monsters. You needn't have seen a ton of movies to know that the commander of the Jaeger force (Idris Elba) will summon Raleigh back for one last battle against the rapidly proliferating Kaiju.

This task acquires increased urgency because the Kaiju invasion is about to intensify and because the Jaeger force, which thus far hasn't succeeded, is about to be disbanded.

When Raleigh rejoins the Jaeger fighters in Hong Kong, it's clear that he's going to need a new partner with whom he can "drift." Enter Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi of Babel), a serious fighter who wants to battle monsters. Elba's character doesn't want Mako to fight for reasons that are revealed during a preparatory drifting exericse.

The screenplay by Travis Beacham raises and drops issues at speeds that rival the movie's action set pieces. It's not the most elegantly conceived piece of work, although it makes room for a few complications about the Kaiju and for a couple of dueling scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) who provide comic relief.

There's also a cameo from Hellboy stalwart Ron Perlman, who plays a character with the strangely evocative name of Hannibal Chau, a Hong Kong criminal who lives in a Blade Runner-like portion of the city, where he sells the body parts of slain Kaijus.

I wish I could say that the movie -- entertaining for roughly three quarters of its length -- hadn't worn out for me, but the combination of noise and action eventually took its toll on both my ear drums and nervous system.

That's not to say that Pacific Rim isn't fully loaded for summer. Del Toro knows how to make a comic book movie, and -- even when the material lets him down -- he does his best to keep the movie's dark world spinning as furiously as possible.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

On blending comedy and drama

After winning an Oscar for their screenplay for The Descendants, Jim Rash and Nat Faxon take a shot at directing.
If you don’t remember that Jim Rash (left) and Nat Faxon (right) won an Oscar for adapting the screenplay for The Descendants -- the 2011 big-screen version of Kaui Hart Hemmings's much-acclaimed novel -- you may know them as actors. Rash plays a community-college dean on NBC's Community; Faxon worked on the late Fox sitcom, Ben and Kate.

Graduates of the famed Los Angeles improvisational troupe, The Groundlings, Faxon and Rash took their first shot at directing with The Way, Way Back, a coming-of-age story about a 14-year-old who begins to hit his stride under the mentorship of the owner of a Massachusetts water park called Water Wizz.

Rash and Faxon wrote the screenplay for The Way, Way Back before they were hired by Payne to work on The Descendants. Their movie went through a variety of incarnations before the writing duo decided to direct it themselves. In all, The Way, Way Back -- now opening around the country -- took eight years to reach the screen. On a recent visit to Denver, Faxon and Rash discussed their movie.

Q: Can you talk a little about why we seem so endlessly fascinated by coming-of-age stories?
Rash: I would argue that we all probably had some kind of rite of passage -- either big or small -- when we were kids. There’s something about looking back at that that’s almost therapeutic. Inevitably, people are going to connect with those moments because there’s a promise of hope in a coming-of-age story, a promise of growth. We all tend to look back on our lives and think, ‘That was a tough time. I’m glad I survived it.’

Q. You (Rash) have said that there’s a scene in the movie that came directly from your own life. Early in the film, Steve Carell’s character -- a guy who might wind up as the stepfather of the movie's 14-year-old main character -- asks his potential stepson to rate himself on a scale of one to 10. When the kid hesitates, Carell’s Trent gives him a three, an obviously cruel slap for any adolescent.
Rash: My stepfather did do that, but we had to heighten it a bit. When I look back at that time, I don’t really think, ‘How dare you?’ I don’t believe in rating people by numbers. I’m not saying that’s right. That said, I understood the message. He was telling me to suck it up, to get out there and meet people.

Q: Devoting eight years to getting a movie made shows real perseverance. The movie went through a bunch of false starts before it actually got rolling.
Rash: The Way, Way Back took a while to get made, but it did open a lot of doors for us. It got us in the door to meet with Alexander Payne, and we got to adapt The Descendants. Coming off that success, we were able to get some momentum. We used it to come back to this script.

Q: For a small movie, The Way, Way Back has a big-name cast that includes Steve Carell and Toni Collette. How did the cast come together?

Rash: We went after actors we loved. Allison Janney (who plays one of Carell's neighbors) is someone we both knew. She signed on first. After that we met Sam Rockwell (who plays the owner of Water Wizz) and then Toni Collette (who plays the mother of the movie's 14-year-old protagonist).
It wasn’t only the material that attracted these actors, but the chance for them to work with great actors who chose the movie for the right reasons.
They knew it was a small, independent movie, and there probably wasn’t a huge financial gain for them. But creatively, it fulfilled something -- not only in their individual roles -- but in the opportunity to work with one another.

Q: You finally got to make the movie, but you also bit off a lot -- writing, directing and even playing small roles in the film. How did you handle all that?
Faxon: It was fun, but a lot of stress, close to overwhelming. Most of that was the result of a tight shooting schedule .... It rained the first days, and we immediately got behind, so the stress level shot through the roof.
But we were comforted by the fact that we were surrounded by actors who were all great talents and great people. We never had to worry about any diva type moments. We also were surrounded by an incredible crew. Being first-time directors we knew we needed experienced, veteran hands.

Q: How did you select Liam James to play Duncan, the teen-ager who occupies the film's center?
Rash: We had a number of sessions with our casting director. Liam came somewhere in the middle. We’d seen lots of kids. There are a lot of kid actors who work professionally. They come in. They know how to work a room. They’re like adults. ... Liam came in pretty much as himself. He was slumped over and pale. ... He’s natural and very believable.

Q: How do you find the balance between drama and comedy? That seems like a pretty tricky business.
Faxon: We received our training from The Groundlings (the fabled Los Angeles improv group). We were taught early on about character and character development. There’s always a fine line between the very serious moments and the ones you laugh about later -- or even during.

Rash: The writing process starts more dramatic and then comedy seeps into it as opposed to trying to write a comedic thing and then realizing in the third act that it doesn't have any heart, and you have to make something happen. That’s a trap. You see it in a lot of big comedies. .... As people, we’re always in some kind of weird head space. We’re conflicted with anger and sadness and stuff, but some funny things can come out of that. We find humor in those type of moments. ...

Friday, July 5, 2013

They're old, but they still sing

In Unfinished Song, Vanessa Redgrave proves impressive as an indomitable woman who refuses to allow terminal cancer to keep her from participating in the amateur choir that meets in the community center of the small British town where she and her husband reside. A more mannered Terence Stamp keeps pace as her grump of a husband, a retiree who desperately tries to shelter his ailing wife. Stamp's Arthur is afraid that Redgrave's Marion will hasten her demise by attending too many choir practices. Of course, he's even more afraid of losing her. Writer/director Paul Andrew Williams can't entirely avoid sentimentality, and the movie's choir sounds anything but amateurish as it works on unlikely tunes such as Salt-N-Pepa's Let's Talk About Sex. I suppose we're meant to find humor in the fact that aging singers would tackle such youth-oriented material, but it's an awfully cheap joke. Gemma Arterton, also on view this week in Neil Jordan's Byzantium, plays the militantly cheerful music teacher who leads the choir and who eventually persuades Stamp's grieving character to participate. In a scene that doesn't quite mesh with the rest of the movie, the screenplay suggests that Aterton's character may be hanging around with older people as a form of emotional protection from serious involvement with people her own age. An underdeveloped subplot puts Arthur into conflict with his son James (Christopher Eccleston). Some audiences will find Williams's movie moving (Stamp's solo rendition of Billy Joel's Lullaby seems intended as a tear-jerker), but too much about Unfinished Song seems pre-packaged for seniors, and too little of it feels as if it involves any sort of genuine discovery.

A look at the imperiled world of bees

Swiss filmmaker Markus Imhoof sets off a variety of alarms with his amazing documentary More Than Honey, a look at the endangered life of the world's bee population. To provide context, the film introduces us to an industrial-level honey producer who struggles with major market forces and a Swiss beekeeper from Imhoof's family who clings to older ways. As the film progresses, Imhoof takes us to California, where we learn about the importance of bees to the state's almond crop. We also visit China, where we meet workers who are forced to pollinate flowers by hand because bees have all but vanished from local life. This pro-bee documentary may even change your mind about African "killer" bees, creatures that might be doing more for humans than you previously knew. Whatever you think about the film's cautionary tone, you should be more than wowed by the amazing work of cinematographer Jorg Jeshel, who not only takes us inside hives but also captures bees in flight. If Imhoof wanted to renew our respect for bees, he certainly succeeds, bringing us closer to hives, explaining the ways in which colonies are organized and making us appreciate the vital role bees play in nature. He also emphasizes that a combination of harmful factors -- more than a few of them man-made -- could wind up stinging us in ways that more of us need to understand.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A vampire movie with little bite

The new season of HBO's True Blood is well under way, adding yet another helping of vampire mayhem to an already crowded field. These days, vampires seem to offer something for everyone, including, of course, the avid tween hordes who adored and supported the commercially successful Twilight movies. Can vampires for pre-schoolers be far behind?

Although, director Neil Jordan's Byzantium can't be accused of sinking its fangs into the same old vein, a case of vampire fatique (maybe mine) keeps it from drawing fresh blood. I'm too sick of vampires to go for this downbeat, time-fractured story about a sexy vampire (Gemma Arterton) and her resentful teen-age companion (Saoirse Ronan).

When the movie opens, Arterton's Clara's is working as a lap dancer to support Ronan's Eleanor. A vampire with a conscience, Eleanor only will feed on people who regard death as a comfort. Her vicitims tend to be old and sick.

The movie takes its time clarifying the exact nature of the relationship between Eleanor and Clara, which I won't reveal here. Of the two, Clara is by far the more enthusiastic vampire.

Written by Moira Buffini, Byzantium gets lost in a gloomy, noirish fog as the story vacilates between the present and the 200-year-old story of how the two women became vampires.

Best known for movies such as Mona Lisa, The Butcher Boy , The Crying Game, Jordan makes his second foray into the world of vampires, following 1994's adaptation of Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire.

Telling the story from the point of view of its women characters proves vaguely interesting, but the tale isn't developed in the most convincing ways with Ronan's Eleanor trying to figure out how to have a "responsible" relationship with a young man (Caleb Landry Jones) she meets in the crummy town where the two women flee after Clara decapitates one of her victims.

There's also a running backstory about male vampires who harbor a long-standing grudge against Clara, who evidently broke their manly rules.

Byzantium leans more toward the Swedish movie, Let the Right One In, than toward more traditional vampire fare, but it's nowhere as creepy, resonant or memorable.

A ride too long for this Lone Ranger

Director Gore Verbinski's latest has its moments -- but his story about an American icon tries to do too much while dragging on for nearly two-and-a-half hours.
I've long regarded director Gore Verbinski as one of the few filmmakers working today who understands visual comedy, somewhat in the same way that the masters of silent film understood it. It takes nearly all of the intermittently exhausting 149 minutes of The Lone Ranger for Verbinski (of Pirates of the Caribbean fame) to put his best talents on display in an action set piece that, though not quite as fleet or nimble as expected, begins to deliver the summer-movie goods.

Until that point, Verbinski -- who in 2011 won critical and audience approval for the animated Rango -- seems caught in a suffocating trap. He is at once presenting a revisionist view of The Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) that makes Tonto (Johnny Depp) into a dominating presence. He's also making winking fun of westerns, paying homage to native Americans and throwing in splashes of block-buster level action.

Does it work? Only in fits and starts. The Lone Ranger becomes a mixed bag of ploys that's evidently supposed to be elevated by Depp's head-liner performance. Depp, of course, is caught in a trap himself. He can't give an over-the-top Jack Sparrow-like performance without trashing Tonto nor can he play the role completely straight.

To steer the movie away from condescension, Depp portrays Tonto as an equal (or perhaps even superior) partner to Hammer's character.

No stranger to oddball costumes, Depp this time coats his face with white paint -- evidently cracked from years of baking in the Western sun. He also wears a dead crow head dress. He's the antithesis of Jay Silverheels, the well-groomed Canadian Mohawk who played Tonto on TV and who talked in clipped, cliched sentences.

In the 2013 edition of The Lone Ranger, Tonto seems like one more weird-ass Depp creation, and, yes, I think it's time that Depp made a real movie, something that didn't have to be released between May and August.

Working with a team of Pirates writers, Verbinski employs a mostly distracting framing device to tell an origins story about America's favorite masked man. During the 1930s, a boy -- dressed in a Lone Ranger costume -- visits an Old West diorama at a carnival.

Before you can say, "Kimosabe," an aged Indian from the diorama ("The Noble Savage in His Native Habitat") comes to life, evidently to tell the real story of the white man who, by the 1930s, already had attained mythic status as The Lone Ranger. The Indian, of course, is Tonto.

The plot is an uninspired amalgam of Western tropes that pits a tenderfoot (Hammer's John Reid, the man who becomes The Lone Ranger) against the ruthless Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), an outlaw who has fallen under the sway of a greedy railroad tycoon (Tom Wilkinson).

John Reid, a devotee of the law who refuses to carry a gun, becomes inspired to capture Cavendish after John's lawman brother (James Badge Dale) falls victim to Cavendish's brutality. Not content with mere murder, Cavendish rips the man's heart out of his chest and eats it. Now, it's true that my memory isn't what it used to be, but I don't think the old TV show featured many instances of cannibalism.

In this outing, Cavendish's foul ways turn Dan's wife (Ruth Wilson) into the widowed mother of a young son.

At times, The Lone Ranger -- shot with plenty of big-vista style by cinematographer Bojan Bazelli -- feels like a serious revival of a classic Western. At other times, the movie plays like a goof on those same westerns. At still other times, it's a surprisingly mournful look at the exploitation of Native Americans.

Hammer makes a decent Lone Ranger, a good foil and straight man for Depp's Tonto, but no actor could have unified the movie's wildly disparate parts, which drag their collective way to the action set piece that provides the movie with its near-rousing finale.

You will learn why The Lone Ranger wears a mask. You'll discover how Tonto came to be estranged from his tribal roots. You'll see how the Lone Ranger acquired Silver, a horse that seems to have magical powers.

Will you care about any of this? Not so much, to borrow an anachronistic phrase Tonto overworks. The Lone Ranger tends to be increasingly enervating right up until the time that Verbinski breaks out an amped-up version of the Ranger's signature tune, the famed William Tell Overture.
Verbinski tries to return us to (and debunk) what the original radio show and, then, the TV version called "the thrilling days of yesteryear," but in this version too much of the thrill is gone.

"Hi ho, Silver!," the cry that defined the character played by Clayton Moore on TV, could just as well have been "Oh no, Silver!"

The Lone Ranger probably should have remained a relic, a bit of cherished radio and TV nostalgia -- and not much else.*

*For the record: The Lone Ranger is better than 1981's The Legend of the Lone Ranger, but then so is almost everything -- and that includes most street busking.