Saturday, August 31, 2013

Not much fun in this theme park

Austenland seems more like a goofy costume party than a sharply honed comedy.

Austenland takes place mostly in Britain, but the movie wanders all over the place. It tries to be a spoof about the much-read and still-admired novels of Jane Austen, a moony romance and a broadly conceived comedy that just happens to be about an American woman (Keri Russell) who's only definable character trait involves an obsession with what she apparently views as the dreamy side of Austen's work. Director Jerusha Hess co-wrote the script with Shannon Hale, who also wrote the novel on which the movie is based. But judging by the evidence on screen, this duo shortchanges Austen's observational skills, as well as her trenchancy. Russell plays Jane Hayes, a woman who's so enamored of Austen that she keeps a cardboard cutout of Colin Firth (as Mr. Darcy in the 1995 TV mini-series of Austen's Pride and Prejudice) in her bedroom. Jane decides to visit a British resort -- Austenland of the title -- that promises to provide full immersion in an Austen-like world. Once in Britain, Jane meets a buxom but crude American woman (Jennifer Coolige)and begins to interact with the male staff, notably a stuffed-shirt of a man (JJ Field) who seems to have gotten into the full swing of things and a stablehand (Bret McKenzie), a rough-hewn guy who refuses to pretend to be an Austen character. As Mrs. Wattlesbrook, the owner of a resort that looks as if it costs a small fortune to maintain, Jane Seymour adds a welcome bit of bite, and Russell can look luminous. But the movie -- which isn't particularly funny -- mostly comes across as a costume party with a shortage of memorable guests.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

A visually beautiful 'Grandmaster'

Even with flaws, Wong Kar-wai's martial-arts epic tends to sweep you away.
Director Wong Kar-wai 's second foray into the world of martial arts after 1994's Ashes of Time might be one of the most elegantly mounted martial arts movie yet.*

In telling the story of the great Ip Man -- the martial artist who trained the legendary Bruce Lee -- Wong has made a sprawling, beautiful epic that suffers only because it has been trimmed down for U.S. consumption.

Best known for creating sensual, luciously stylized images in movies such as In the Mood For Love (2000), Wong has met martial-arts material more than half way.

Wong's fight scenes are nicely assembled, pitting various martial arts schools against one another and also helping to anchor a review of Chinese history from the 1930s through the 1950s. The story includes the Japanese occupation of China, frictions between northern and southern China and lots of jockeying for position among various martial arts masters.

Those familiar with Wong's work won't be surprised to learn that Grandmaster also tells an ill-fated love story between two great martial artists, Tony Leung's Ip Man and Zhang Ziyi's Gong Er, a woman who devotes her life to restoring the lineage built by her father (Wang Qingxiang), a master from northern China.

Wong allows Zhang -- who's playing a gifted female martial artist in a male-dominated milieu -- to share the spotlight with Leung as the movie explores themes hinged on fate, skill and honor, often in sequences soaked in heavy rain.

I'm not certain how the staunchest of martial arts fans will react to Wong's movie because the story is told in an operatic style that embraces melodrama and because Wong has aimed higher than the genre sometimes demands.

But Wong doesn't slight the artistry of fighting. Author and boxing aficionado Norman Mailer used to call boxing matches a form of conversation. Wong seems to adopt a similar view, making clear that when skilled opponents face off, they're engaging in an exchange between warring spirits.

To this end, he makes fine use of the work of gifted fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, who stages the fight scenes, a job he also performed for movies such as The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Drunken Master.

Because the movie has been altered for American audiences, Wong adds title cards that offer historical guidance to those of us who come up short on Chinese history and martial-arts lore. These title cards play roughly the same function they would in a silent movie.

Even Wong's detractors will have to admit that the director's collaboration with cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd's has resulted in some of the year's most gorgeous imagery.

And true to the ethos of these movies, the martial arts warriors all exude skill, but only reach the highest levels of achievement when their craft is tempered by a sense of duty and honor.

History turns Ip Man into an exile. He moves to Hong Kong at a time when the great martial artists are less revered than they once were. His commitment to his art isn't always recognized.

The version of The Grandmaster being released in the U.S. includes a few narrative lapses and a protracted ending, but no matter how you react to the story Wong tells, it's difficult not to be swept away by his unashamed commitment to style and rhapsodic displays of visual artistry.

*Ashes of Time was recut and re-released as Ashes of Time Redux in 2008.

A lukewarm serving of 'Passion'

Director Brian De Palma's latest, a sometimes silly thriller.
If you want to understand something about the important differences between Brian De Palma's Passion and the French movie that De Palma has re-made -- Alain Corneau's 2011 Love Crime -- think about the difference between Rachel McAdams and Kristin Scott Thomas.

Thomas projects the sophistication, maturity and canny intelligence required for a Dangerous Liaisons-style battle set in the high-stakes world of corporate intrigue. McAdams doesn't project that kind of depth, at least not in De Palma's overtly kinky version of a movie that even Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier couldn't entirely pull off.

Here's the basic set-up in De Palma's movie: McAdams plays the ambitious head of the Berlin branch of a global advertising agency. Noomi Rapace, the Swedish actress familiar from Prometheus and the original The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, portrays an advertising acolyte who finds herself in a quasi-erotic, intensely competitive relationship with her unscrupulous boss (McAdams).

If McAdams doesn't entirely convince, neither does Rapace, who seems to have difficulty finding the core of a character that never quite computes, and, by the movie's end, De Palma has added the kind of twists that can be as confounding as they are revealing.

The French version focuses on a less-then-glamorous agro-business that's interested in expanding into new markets. De Palma chooses advertising, which affords him ample opportunity to play around with ideas about image, reality and the ways in which sleek surfaces can conceal savage impulses.

The cast is augmented by Paul Anderson, as Christine's lover and accountant, and by Karoline Herfurth, who appears as a loyal assistant to Rapace's Isabelle.

At times, Passion seems to be aiming for the kind of augmented suspense that De Palma has displayed throughout a career that has produced mixed results -- from Carrie (yea) to The Black Dahlia (nay) with stops at movies such as Scarface and The Untouchables in between.

De Palma's work deserves to be taken seriously, but Passion makes for a forgettable (and sometimes silly) entry into the director's expansive filmography. As someone who respects De Palma, I wish it were otherwise. And, yes, I find something a little sad about a late-career movie that's not likely to gain De Palma much traction.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Complicated thriller misses mark

Tangled plot short-circuits Closed Circuit.
When it's clear from the outset that a movie's going bad, one tends to make quick adjustments, accepting failure and allowing any lingering expectations to slip quietly toward the nearest exit. It might be worse when a movie flirts with success for a while, but never really consummates the relationship.

The British thriller Closed Circuit falls into the second category. The movie begins well enough, creating an aura of grave seriousness and raising an important topical question: How far should governments go in limiting transparency when facing real security threats?

As director John Crowley's thriller progresses, it becomes clear that Steven Knight's screenplay is weaving such a complicated web that it will be forced to hack its way through an overabundance of detail -- often at the expense of character development that could have nourished greater involvement.

The action focuses on two attorneys (Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall) who are assigned to defend a Turkish immigrant (Denis Moschitto) who has been accused of an act of terrorism, setting off a bomb in a crowded London marketplace.

As advocates handling different parts of the case, Bana's Martin Rose and Hall's Claudia Simmons-Howe decide not to disclose to the court that they had an affair that soured, leaving rose with a ruined marriage.

Although both lawyers represent the same defendant, they have different tasks. Rose has been assigned the criminal part of the case; Claudia's job involves overcoming official resistance to sharing evidence that the government contends could compromise national security.

Both attorneys are on on the same side, but they're not supposed to talk to each other.

There's no point faulting the actors, who receive supporting help from Jim Broadbent, as an attorney general who encourages Rose to get with a program that's more interested in protecting the state than in giving the defendant a fair shake.

Also look for good work from Riz Ahmed as a government spy who's supposed to be helpful to Simmons-Howe, but who may have less honorable motives.

Crowley (Intermission and Boy A) works with cinematographer Andriano Goldman to give the movie a dark, edgy feel. But no amount of craft can justify the screenplay's cynicism, which seems to have been applied in ladle-sized helpings that drown out any honestly arrived at conviction.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

A comedy about a wild pub crawl

The World's End scores in unexpected ways.
One shudders to think what The World's End might have been. Had the movie been made by anyone other than Edgar Wright -- the director of a trilogy of movies that began with Shaun of the Dead (2004) and continued with Hot Fuzz (2007) -- it probably would have been a kind of British knock-off of the Hangover movies, a comedy that attempted to max-out on sleaze and grossness.

Consider the plot: Wildly irresponsible Gary King (Simon Pegg) encourages five reluctant buddies to reunite to finish a pub crawl they began when they were young men eager to escape the confines of their hometown of Newton Haven, a northern English town with a generic look and no discernible distinctions.

For a time, it does seem as if Wright and his cohorts (a list that includes Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan) plan to follow a fairly standard comedy map.

We know, for example, that Frost's Andy, who seems to have buttoned-down his life, will eventually loosen up and abandon his teetotalling ways. But Wright, who wrote the screenplay for The World's End with Pegg, has a stranger, sillier and much more creative movie in mind.

Suffice it to say that the screenplay adds a wild sci-fi twist when the former high-school buddies discover that their hometown has been invaded by aliens who have turned most of the population into robots.

Once this twist has been revealed, the movie becomes increasingly crazier and a lot more inventive, employing some witty and well-executed special effects and adding an appearance by Rosamund Pike, as the sister of one of the men and a love interest for two of them. A game Pierce Brosnan appears in an extended cameo as one of the boys' former teachers.

The World's End, by the way, is the entirely appropriate name of the bar where the pup crawl is supposed to conclude.

As chief instigator, Pegg provides the movie with its centerpiece, sustaining a performance that's at once crazed, gleeful and desperate: The rest of the crew keeps pace.

No point revealing the jokes, but they are plentiful and mostly funny. Wright also manages to infuse the comedy with a sense of abandon without losing control of his movie.

Neat trick: The World's End has just enough trenchancy to keep it from being lost in its own silliness and just enough silliness to keep us from having to take any of it too seriously.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Creativity grows in the desert

If you've never attended Burning Man, a week-long gathering that takes place every August in the parched Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada, Spark: A Burning Man Story will give you more than a passing idea about what makes the event so popular among its many devotees. As many as 60,000 people attend Burning Man, which not only tolerates but encourages what looks like rampant indulgence of both creative expression and unconventional thinking.

Directors Steve Brown and Jessie Deeter have made a documentary that has two major thrusts: One deals with growing pains experienced by an event that began with an impromptu, anarchic spirit, but which (of necessity) has had to adopt a degree of organizational efficiency that some view as a betrayal of the event's founding spirit.

In 1996, safety issues arose. The Burning Man organizers, who sometimes work under highly stressful conditions, had to make difficult decisions about how to manage a small, if temporary, city in the middle of nowhere.

Popularity also has posed problems, so much so that tickets to the 2012 Burning Man had to be distributed by lottery, a process that left many long-time supporters without access.

The rest of the film takes us to the 2012 edition of Burning Man, and, yes, there's something appealingly mad about the idea of assembling massive sculptures that are on display for a week before they're dismantled and carted away or even destroyed. An example: In 2012 A former Marine named Otto Von Danger built a wooden replica of Wall Street and then set it ablaze, much to the delight of a cheering throng.

Judging by the documentary -- which eventually succumbs to the tedium of over-exposure -- Burning Man's 2012 edition offered a mixture of exuberant creativity, lingering infantilism, left-over Hippie exhibitionism and playful countercultural vibes.

Whatever the value of Burning Man, the documentary makes it appear as if attendees work their butts off but have fun.

Is it my idea of a good time? Not really. But now, if anyone asks me (which I doubt they will) whether I have any interest in attending Burning Man, I'll have a ready reply: No need, I'll say. I saw the movie.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A comedy finds its voice

"In a world ... "

Remember when it seemed as if every Hollywood trailer began with those three words.

They were delivered in deep, sonorous and often momentous tones by the late Don LaFontaine , the man who provided the voice-over narration for more than 5,000 trailers. LaFontaine's voice became instantly recognizable to a generation of moviegoers who knew its sound even if they didn't know the name of the man to whom it belonged.

The new comedy In a World -- a debut film from director and actress Lake Bell -- takes a witty, engaging look at the contemporary world of voice-overs. Bell immerses us in a little-known corner of show-business, centering her comedy on a young woman (played by Bell) who's trying to make her mark.

Funny without feeling compelled to put pedal to the comic metal, In A World reminds us that every sphere of human activity -- regardless of how obscure -- tends to produce a hierarchy, an absurd pecking order built on a foundation of rampant egotism.

Bell's Carol faces major psychological and social roadblocks. She's trying to break into a male-dominated field currently ruled by her father (Fred Melamed), a voice-over actor who has had a major career and an ego to match.

We meet Melamed's Sam in a scene in which he tells Carol that she'll have to move out of his house because his new, 31-year-old girlfriend (Alexandra Holden) will be moving in.

Melamed, whose immense shaggy body is exposed in scenes set in a steam bath, qualifies as one of the most unusual screen presences around. He appeared as overly solicitous home-wrecker Sy Ableman in the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man. Here, Melamed becomes a reigning pasha of the voice-over world, a man so full of himself he believes he can pass his mantle to a younger successor, an equally puffed-up voice actor named Gustav Werner (Ken Marino).

And, of course, Sam enunciates as if careful pronunciation were all that's needed to demonstrate an obvious superiority of character.

Once ejected from her father's home, Carol takes up residence with her sister Dani (Michaela Watkins). Dani lives in a small apartment with her husband (Rob Corddry), a film editor who works at home. Dani works as a concierge in a Los Angeles hotel.

Not only does Bell capture the highly competitive world of vocal acting, but she also has made a smart and funny comedy that includes characters who are colorful, a little odd and mostly good company.

Principal among these is Louis (Demetri Martin), an insecure sound engineer who helps Carol's career and who also has a crush on her.

The movie eventually begins to revolve around a highly sought after voice over job, the trailer for a quartet of movies called The Amazon Games. The promotional plan for Amazon Games calls for revival of the legendary phrase, "In a world."

Bell, who has played secondary roles in movies such as What Happens in Vegas and who has appeared in TV shows such as The Practice, demonstrates talent both before and behind the camera.

In so doing, she's accomplished something commendable: She's made a movie about people whose preoccupations often make them seem silly, but who still refuse to be confined by the rigid borders of caricature.

A western in modern dress

Ain't Them Bodies Saints, grounded in Texas, but aiming for something bigger.
I don't know precisely what director David Lowery had in mind when he titled his Texas-based drama, Ain't Them Bodies Saints I do, however, know that there's something about Texas that inspires certain filmmakers to create characters who parcel out their words cautiously, as if they were hole cards to be turned over reluctantly but with no doubt about their ultimate power.

That's the feeling you get watching the characters in Lowery's movie, which moves to the kind of dreamy rhythms that have marked the work of filmmaker Terrence Malick. Lowery doesn't have Malick's grace, but he knows how to tell a story that's grounded in Texas color but which also strives to reach a mythic plane that transcends any specific location. Who knows? Maybe Texas really is a launching pad from which the mythic stratosphere becomes more readily attainable.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints tells the tale of Ruth (Rooney Mara), a woman who has had a long-standing involvement with Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck), a bank robber who loves her more than he loves just about anything. Bob loves Ruth so much, he takes the rap for her in a post-robbery shoot-out that wounds a deputy; Bob turns his 25-year prison sentence into an act of self-sacrifice so that Ruth can remain free.

Bob writes letters to Ruth from his jail cell, and we know from the start that Bob's only purpose in life is to reunite with the woman who has since had his child, a daughter.

Almost all of this happens in what can be viewed as the film's prologue. The real story begins after Bob escapes from jail, returns to the town where Ruth lives and tries to re-enter her life, a goal that we know he'll never achieve because Ain't Them Bodies Saints is less like a traditional drama than an illustrated story book composed as accompaniment for a doleful country tune about ill-fated love.

With Bob on the loose, Patrick (Ben Foster), a local cop -- the very one wounded by Ruth -- adopts a vigilant attitude toward Ruth and her child. She's also watched over by Skeritt (Keith Carradine), who runs a local store and who evidently had a relationship with Bob and one of his running buddies when both were kids.

The key to the film's mystery is embodied in Mara, who plays a woman capable of reflecting emotion off both hard and soft surfaces. Ruth seldom smiles, and she's clearly not to be trifled with on any level.

If pressed, I'd say that Lowery has made a film about fate and tragedy. Ain't Them Bodies Saints opens with a title card that reads, "This was Texas," perhaps a suggestion that the film takes place in a past governed by the logic of a thousand westerns and that something -- perhaps the flinty, uncompromising integrity of its characters -- has been forever lost.

Lowery's dialog puts an emphasis on conviction: When Carradine's character tells a thug who's looking to settle an old score that he'll kill him if he turns up again, we're supposed to know that Carradine's Skeritt means what he says. The man will not die an accidental death.

With its strange musical score, its improbabilities and its hard-scrabble ethos, Ain't Them Bodies Saintsmay be a bit too self-conscious for its own good. And I often wonder whether these kinds of movies depict credible characters or should be seen more as reflections of how filmmakers wish people were.

But if Ain't Them Bodies Saints is a story about tragic love, it's also a love song, sung to characters who pride themselves on looking even the worst possible news square in the eye.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Artists at odds and in love

Two unforgettable characters make Cutie and the Boxer a rare treat.
When Ushio Shinohara -- now 80 -- was a young man, he probably never dreamed that he'd be scuffling to sell his art, fretting over his inability to pay rent on his tiny Brooklyn loft or stuffing a suitcase with cardboard sculptures he hoped to sell in Japan.

When Shinohara moved from Japan to the U.S. in 1969, he was a young man of intense promise, an artist whose avant-garde approach garnered attention if not financial success. Infatuated with art and with himself, Shinohara kept working, but he also became an alcoholic party-animal who spent far too much time carousing with friends.

Shinohara and his wife Noriko now live in a cramped loft with a leaky roof and very little breathing room. She's also an artist, and at 59, she's just beginning to come into her own with a series of semi-autobiographical drawings built around two characters, Cutie and the aptly named Bullie.

Bullie is an obvious stand-in for Shinohara. If you want to understand Shinohara's attitude toward his wife, consider one of the statements he makes in Cutie and the Boxer, a beautifully crafted documentary about the life of a couple who have stayed together through lives marked by impoverishment, misery and struggle.

"The average one has to support the genius,'' says Shinohara, leaving no doubt about which one he believes himself to be.

Director Zachary Heinzerling, who served as his own director of photography, has made skillful use of scenes in which husband and wife interact. He also uses home movies from the past and a charming but tough-minded bit of animation made from Noriko's drawings about her life with a husband who's 21 year's her senior.

Noriko met her future husband when she arrived in New York at the tender age of 19, an aspiring artist who was wowed by Ushio's dynamism.

Shinohara's work includes what he calls "action paintings,'' paintings made by dipping foam-wrapped boxing gloves into buckets of paint and punching large canvases. Not surprisingly, these paintings acquire a blunt, provocative urgency.

Shinohara's cardboard sculptures -- many of motorcycles -- display equal amounts of wit and invention. He's not a deluded no-talent, and his lack of success doesn't seem to have diminished his opinion of himself.

If you're looking for a Japanese George and Martha, a couple who constantly slam each other verbally, you'll be disappointed. Cutie and the Boxer is not a wannabe Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Noriko tends to be honest, but matter-of-fact about her dissatisfactions, and although his ego, like his boxing paintings, still packs a wallop, Shinohara seems to know when it's advisable to back off.

Heinzerling approaches the competitiveness that inevitably results from two artists living together (they even share gallery space in one show) indirectly, capturing it Noriko's looks or Shinohara's off-hand comments.

Shinohara isn't the first charismatic artist to attract a younger woman, but what's unique about Cutie and the Boxer is the mystery at its core, the complex tie that has kept these two together for more than 40 years.

Noriko proves the more disarming of the two. Her pig-tails give her a pretty, girlish look, but when you see her art (much of it captioned), you begin to understand that she's taking quiet revenge on a husband who has dominated her a life.

The couple's son Alex also paints, but seems to have acquired his father's penchant for alcohol abuse. Noriko understands that the circumstances of her life have not been ideal for parenthood.

Heinszerling punctuates segments about the artists with beautifully rendered views of New York exteriors that provide small breaks from the Shinoharas' insularity.

Both Noriko and Ushio are devoted to art; he frets about what will and won't sell and both seem to understand that that they are bound to each other, just as they are bound to the creative processes that have ruled their lives.

Did Ushio squander his abilities by having far too much fun during the 1970s? Did Noriko indulge him more than she should have? Probably, but Heinzerling's film is less about nagging regret than about the inexplicable bond that keeps these two very distinctive people together.

At one point, Noriko says that they're like two plants in one pot. Sometimes, one gets more nourishment than the other. But, she says, when they both thrive together, the feeling cannot be surpassed.

This joint thriving may not be the norm for Ushio and Noriko, but then nothing seems entirely normal about this rare, intimate and genuinely involving film.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

History served up in bold slices

It takes liberties with the real man's life, but Lee Daniels' The Butler works as a tumultuous summary of the Civil Rights era.

August isn't a bad month for critics to stop paying attention to movies. As we inch toward Labor Day, the releases tend to have the feel of filler. A look at the multiplex schedule makes you wonder whether Hollywood isn't marking time until the Oscar-bound big boys lumber into view.

All of this by way of saying that I've been traveling, and haven't seen my usual quota of movies, a situation that in late August can be seen as more reprieve than deprivation.

Was I bereft that I missed the preview screening of Kick-Ass 2? If so, it was only because airline re-routing had condemned my wife and her quick-to-grumble husband to an interminable day of schedule shuffling, plane delays and airborne discomfort.

Upon my return to Denver, I decided that there was only one movie I needed to see to fill in my otherwise empty dance card: Lee Daniels' The Butler, the story of Cecil Gaines, a black man who served as a butler in the White House from the time of President Eisenhower until the reign of Ronald -- a.k.a. the Great Communicator -- Reagan.

I should confess that I'm not much of a Daniels' fan. I didn't jump on the Precious (2009) bandwagon, and I found 2012's The Paperboy to be mired in excess bordering on hysteria, a wallowing and sweaty movie that, at one point, saw Nicole Kidman's character urinate on Zac Efron's character, one of the few times I hoped that special effects had indeed supplanted any attempt at realism.

I was much relieved to discover that The Butler -- though vividly realized -- represents a toned-down version of Daniels-style drama.

First, my problem:
Too many years in journalism have, I think, stunted my imagination. When I read about the divergence between fact and fiction in a movie that's depicting a slice of history, I tend to feel a bit deflated. Look, I know there can be a crucial difference between truth and fact, but too many years in newsrooms have made me partial to historical drama that limits distortion to mild flirtation.

To the point: Daniels and screenwriter Daniel Strong, who also wrote HBO's Game Change, have taken considerable liberties with their main character, played with admirable reserve by Forest Whitaker.

Gaines was inspired by the real-life story of a man named Eugene Allen, who worked for 34 years in the White House. In the movie, Gaines' oldest son (ably played by David Oyelowo)becomes contemptuous of his father's calling during the Civil Rights era.

Oyelowo's Louis is a convenient fictional creation, a young man who makes the transition from a hopeful freedom rider to a resolute member of the Black Panther party, an arc that describes the historical backdrop against which the story unfolds and which adds a dose of generational tension to the story.

During the movie, Gaines' wife, brilliantly played by Oprah Winfrey, has an affair with a neighbor (Terrence Howard), presumably because she's upset and lonely. Her duty-obsessed husband isn't around much. Evidently, the real butler's wife was loyal and devoted.

In the movie, the couple's youngest son (Elijah Kelley) dies in Vietnam. In real life, the Gaines' only son returned from Vietnam and went on to find employment in the State Department.

I've gotten all of this from an Aug. 16 article in Time; I repeat highlights of that story more to reveal my own bias than to debunk the movie, which -- in the broadest terms -- is successful.

And, yes, I understand the approach. Daniels uses Gaines' personal history as a point of expansion, a spine that allows him to tell a story that's bigger and more important than one man's life.

In taking this fictionalized look at a man who served in the White House, Daniels also charts the sweep of the Civil Rights movement, and he makes effective use of news footage that seems no less shocking now than it did during the heyday of a grassroots movement that changed the United States.

Moroever, only a couple of scenes -- an explosive argument at a dinner table and a pointless interlude involving Mrs. Gaines' dalliance with her neighbor -- push the movie into what looks like familiar, i.e., over-amped, Daniels' territory.

More often than not, though, the rough candor in Daniels' style serves the screenplay, which won't be mistaken for anyone's idea of a finesse job. Right from its start, The Butler makes bold points boldly, which may be precisely what the material demands.

Now, some side comments: It's amazing to me that a personality as identifiable as Winfrey was able to convince us that she's the whiskey tippling, sometimes resentful wife of a man who learned the butler's trade at an early age.

Young Gaines was brought into "the big house" by a racist Georgia woman (Vanessa Redgrave in a small role) who schooled Gaines in domestic servitude after her son raped the boy's mother and shot his father.

Many presidents appear during the course of the story, some effectively portrayed, some less so. Robin Williams plays Eisenhower, although he looks like a dead ringer for Harry Truman. James Marsden capture's JFK's voice, but looks too much like a frat boy to be entirely convincing. Alan Rickman makes a surprisingly good Reagan. Ditto for Liev Schreiber as the blunt Lyndon B. Johnson.

Whoever had the idea of casting John Cusack as Nixon probably thinks Silicon Valley is best known for its fine macrame. Perhaps Jane Fonda's inevitably ironic appearance as Nancy Reagan makes up for it.

So what the hell am I saying here? Yes, I felt a bit of a letdown when I began reading about the real White House butler who inspired the movie and whose life was first written about by Washington Post reporter Wil Haygood.

But watching The Butler is another story. Daniels evokes a strong feeling for the chaotic blend of horror and idealism that marked a period when some of the best people in the country were -- as Martin Luther King famously said -- trying to bend the moral arc of the universe toward a higher plane of justice.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Skimming through Steve Jobs's life

Ashton Kutcher isn't bad, but this bio-pic doesn't dig deep.
Put expectation aside, Ashton Kutcher's not bad as Steve Jobs. But Jobs -- the movie about the late icon's rise in the world of business -- is to biography what skimming is to reading, a gloss rather than a deeply revealing look.

What's missing from this uptempo view of Jobs's life has less to do with a refusal to portray Jobs's darker side than with a deficiency of interpretive thrust, the kind of spin that could have lifted the movie out of a familiar, bio-pic groove.

Director Joshua Michael Stern sticks pretty close to the surface, tracing events in Jobs's life and charting the sometimes precarious rise of Apple, the company that's credited with changing the way we compute, make phone calls, listen to music, take photos and use apps for purposes that range from ridiculous to sublime.

In truth, Jobs is less a bio-pic than half of one.

The movie charts Jobs's life from his college days to the time when the ousted genius returned to Apple to guide the company to astonishing levels of success in the world of iPhones, iPods, iPads, as well as personal computers. It's arguable, that Jobs ends just when the best part of the story is starting.p>
To its credit, the movie doesn't attempt to white-wash Jobs: It offers abundant examples of Jobs's arrogance, his cruelty to subordinates, his refusal to acknowledge a daughter, his willingness to shortchange those who supported him early on, and his sense -- as one of the characters puts it -- that the world began and ended with him.

But rather than make a Citizen Jobs-like cautionary tale, Stern balances negatives with an equal number of positives: Jobs's unwillingness to settle for second best, his insistence on accomplishing what others deemed impossible and his commitment to changing lives with technology.

Early on, Stern employs a sketchy montage to show how Jobs toyed with an education at Reed College, dropped out of school, took acid trips, traveled to India and eventually landed a job with Atari, where he quickly established himself as iconoclastic but unpleasant personality. While at Atari, Jobs relied on hardware whiz and pal Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad) to help build his reputation as a tech genius.

Jobs and Woznaik started Apple in Jobs's parents garage, and -- as the saying goes -- the rest is history.

Much of the movie is devoted to corporate intrigue within Apple, which outgrew its humble origins once it expanded into its Cupertino, Calif., headquarters. The company went public, acquired stockholders, a board of directors and eventually hired CEO John Sculley (Matthew Modine), a skilled marketer who found himself at odds with Jobs's idiosyncratic approach.

Jobs evidently behaved like a movie director who wasn't about to let a little thing like budget stand in the way of his vision.

Kutcher looks a lot like the young Jobs, and the supporting cast does reasonably good work with Dermot Mulroney portraying Mike Markkula, the first outsider to sink major money into Apple.

Though briskly paced, Jobs offers little or nothing by way of breakthrough filmmaking, and it can play like a compilation of greatest hits from Jobs's already well-chronicled career: How he named the company, how he developed the Macintosh computer line and how he made the transition from a young man with counter-cultural interests to a Silicon Valley titan.

If Jobs hadn't made his mark with computers, the movie could have been a show-biz bio-pic about a temperamental star who annoyed lots of people and made oodles of money, but actually did what many other arrogant people couldn't: He delivered.

Listen, I'm an Apple guy. I'm writing this on an Apple computer, and I use other Apple products. I'm susceptible to the Apple glow. Apple makes it, and, yes, I tend to want it.

But Jobs could have been a far more insightful drama. The movie shows us a character who does plenty of acting out, but it does far too little digging in.

Finally, a worthy teen movie

Before The Spectacular Now, I wondered whether I'd ever want to see another film about adolescence, but director James Ponsoldt's addition to the genre qualifies as a remarkable achievement, a movie full of real feelings and real problems -- in short, a film about young people that refuses to pander.

Adapted from a novel by Tim Tharp, The Spectacular Now reflects Ponsoldt's desire to find a bit of truth in a genre that doesn't always value honesty.

Ponsoldt’s cast earns some of the credit. Miles Teller) plays Sutter, an underachieving kid who's flirting with alcoholism. Sutter lives with his mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh), works part-time at a men's clothing store, parties hard and seems committed to a philosophy he calls "living in the moment."

Immersion in the present is well and good, but it's pretty clear that Sutter might be on the verge of throwing his life away. College? No. A future? Why bother? We know that Sutter’s spectacular present eventually will give way to the mediocrity that often results from squandered potential. How long will it take before the flask Sutter carries ceases to be a sign of rebellion and becomes a badge of dishonor?

Sutter is smart, amusing and glib in ways that can seem off-putting at first, as if Teller has been instructed to do a Vince Vaughn imitation. Don't give up on the kid, though; as the story progresses, he reveals depths that go beyond the surface of his clever retorts. He begins to question his views, in part because he forms relationship with Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a classmate who's not at the center of high-school party life and who’s a bit more substantial than the girl (Brie Larson) who dumps Sutter in the movie's early going, although she's no ditz, either.

Aimee and Sutter meet in an early morning scene in which Sutter awakens on Aimee's lawn. Drunk as usual, he forgot where he left his car. An exchange develops: Sutter asks Aimee to help him learn geometry; he basically schools her in how to have a better time in high school.

Lurking in the background is Sutter's father (Kyle Chandler), a heavy drinker who Sutter hasn't seen in years. His mother won't even tell Sutter where his dad lives. When he learns his father's whereabouts from his sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Sutter decides to visit. Dad, we soon learn, is a preview of coming attractions for what Sutter easily could become, an irresponsible jerk.

Spectacular Now provides Teller with a breakthrough role. Woodley -- familiar as George Clooney's teen-age daughter in The Descendants -- continues to impress.

Shot in Athens, Georgia -- where Ponsoldt grew up, The Spectacular Now is more than a good teen movie; it's a good movie, a look at characters we come to care about right up until the film's mildly ambiguous conclusion.

Mass murderers with few regrets

A powerful look at an atrocity in Indonesia.
Is it possible that some people have the ability to rationalize anything? You may find yourself wondering about that as you watch The Act of Killing, an extraordinary and deeply disturbing documentary about men who committed mass murder.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer focuses on Indonesian massacres that took place in 1965 and 1966. Under the guise of providing a service to the state, street thugs slaughtered anyone they decided belonged to the Communist Party. Precise numbers are difficult to come by, but at least 500,000 people were murdered, and some have set the total as high as three million.

Whether the victims of these killings actually were Communists seemed to matter little to those who brutally slaughtered them, not that membership in the Communist Party should have been sufficient reason to be killed.

Oppenheimer’s film, which includes reenactments of the killings by some of the men who did the dirty work, has an eerie and unsettling quality, in part because of the extent of the violence and in part because of the attitude of those who did the killing.

The killers reunite with a sense of bonhomie that puts you in mind of college alumni recalling past pranks. That’s one hell of an attitude for men who made murder commonplace.

To make matters even stranger, these men are forthcoming about what they did. Some participate in the Pancasila Youth, a staunch group of paramilitary zealots who gather for self-congratulatory rallies and what appear to be alarming expressions of chauvinism.

Oppenheimer hasn't made what you'd call a "traditional" documentary. The centerpiece of his movie involves staged re-enactments of murders by those who committed them. You’ll see no archival footage from the ‘60s; instead, you’ll meet Anwar, a gangster who brutalized ethnic Chinese, as well as purported Communists.

Like others in the film, Anwar willingly discusses past deeds. He also approaches moviemaking with enthusiasm, as well as with a sense that the film should be entertaining. At one point, the men even come up with the idea of a musical number staged in front of a waterfall. They sometimes wear make-up to simulate the effect of beatings? (See photo above.)

Yes, everything in the film feels bizarre. But how else should a film such as this feel?

At one point, Anwar -- a grandfather with a taste for sharp gangster dress -- talks about how he learned to kill effectively, opting for strangulation with a wire rather than beatings. He's happy to demonstrate (in simulation, of course) what he seems to regard as an innovative discovery.

The re-enactments are convincing and horrifying, small spectacles of unspeakable cruelty.

Perhaps because of cultural peculiarities, not everything in The Act of Killing is easily understood -- why one of the men frequently dresses in drag, for example.

Several of the men tell us that the word “gangster” means “free man.” I don’t know how any of them arrived at such a meaning, but for these men, freedom seems to involve taking life and experiencing no consequences.

Anwar becomes a bit reflective at the end of the film, but, for the most part, Oppenheimer’s approach allows these men to emerge in full and frightening detail. Movie reviews don't usually require psychic weather reports, but in this case one may be necessary: Expect to be haunted by bad dreams.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Blanchett brilliant in 'Blue Jasmine'

First the simple good news: Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine finds the director in fine form.

Now, a work inspired by figures as disparate as Tennessee Williams and Bernie Madoff seems like an impossible, perhaps even ludicrous, concoction. But in borrowing elements from both reality and drama, Allen has given Blue Jasmine a voice all its own.

The movie also serves as a dazzling showcase for an actress who hardly needs one. Cate Blanchett is brilliant, funny and fiercely scattered as the wife of a fallen Wall Street wheeler-dealer named Hal (Alec Baldwin). Jasmine has hit bottom since her philandering husband was jailed for a massive fraud that prompted the government to seize everything the couple owned.

Mercurial, rueful and sophisticated -- at least when it comes to matters of style -- Blanchett's Jasmine draws on Blanche DuBois from Williams's famed A Streetcar Named Desire, a role she played in New York in 2009 to much acclaim.

Bereft of resources, Jasmine arrives in San Francisco to live with her sister (Sally Hawkins), a divorced woman whose former husband (Andrew Dice Clay) was one of Hal's victims. And, yes, Clay -- someone I had no desire ever to see again -- acquits himself well here. It's an interesting bit of casting.

Like Stella in Williams's play, Hawkins's Ginger is involved with a boisterous and sometimes crude mechanic (a fiery Bobby Cannavale). I'm not entirely sure Cannavale's Chili makes a great deal of sense, but the character doesn't detract, either. The same can be said for Michael Stuhlbarg who shows up as a dentist who hires Jasmine as a receptionist, and then tries to force her into a sexual relationship.

Happily, Allen hasn't attempted an updated replication of Williams's play; he uses Streetcar as a launching pad from which he can examine what happens when the nouveau riche suddenly become the nouveau poor.

Those who prefer Allen with laughs should know that he hasn't stripped the proceedings of humor, but -- at least for me -- there was considerably more pain than hilarity in Jasmine's precipitous decline.

In some ways, Blanchett is the movie. She fills Jasmine with a mixture of disdain and anxiety: This -- Allen seems to be saying -- is how we arrive at Blanche DuBois in 2013. Tossed off the Wall Street planation, Jasmine has been left for near-dead.

We see glimpses of the person Jasmine once was when she meets Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a San Francisco businessman with political ambitions. Dwight understands that Jasmine is the kind of woman he proudly can drape over his arm. She knows how to behave herself around money, an asset for any politician's spouse. And, when she's on her game, she looks great.

Of course, Dwight eventually must discover how wrong he is about Jasmine. It's a bit of a stretch to think that the wife of a notorious Wall Street criminal wouldn't instantly be recognizable to someone like Dwight, but this lapse of plausibility also proves forgivable in light of Blanchett's bravura turn.

Baldwin's Hal, whose criminality fuels the story, is seen in flashbacks that put both his arrogance and indifference to conventional morality finds on display.

In what seems a digression as much as an enrichment, Louis C.K. shows up as an alternative suitor for Ginger, someone who gives the so-called "lesser" sister a chance to attain a new, more confident sense of her self. Don't expect a happily-ever-after.

By the time, Blue Jasmine concludes, Jasmine's personality has shattered. She's left talking to herself, one of those sad, anonymous people you see wandering the streets of some cities. It's a sobering moment, and it makes you wonder: Has Jasmine been talking to herself for her entire life? Has she ever been able to step outside the kind of delusions that make her so appalling, so human and so deeply tragic?

Strong start, then collapse for 'Elysium'

Elysium could have been so much more than it is.

Recently, I was riding my bicycle through one of the Denver area's more expensive neighborhoods, the kind in which once modest homes have been conquered by mini-mansions that probably are priced in multiples of millions. Who, I wondered, can afford to live in such places? What do the residents of these palaces do that enables them to take literally the old axiom that a man's home is his castle?

The growing divide between the rich and the rest of us is the basis for Elysium, a sci-fi spectacle from director Neill Blomkamp, who made waves with his gritty first feature, 2009's District 9.

Set in the late 21st century, Elysium imagines a time when the rude and scoffing multitudes live on devastated planet Earth. Those with major money have moved to Elysium, a giant, circular space station that orbits the Earth. Think of Elysium as the ultimate gated community, a refuge from hardship.

Elysium's residents live well, and have access to medical technology that can cure just about anything.

Of course, someone eventually was bound to crash the high-end party. Enter Matt Damon as Max, an Earth-bound factory drone who receives a massive dose of radiation at work. Max is given five days to live. The only way he can save himself is to sneak into Elysium, and avail himself of its life-saving technology, machines that look like CAT scans, but can diagnose and cure a person in one go-round.

Max's predicament brings him into contact with Spider (Wagner Moura), a criminal who knows how to smuggle folks into Elysium. Of course, there's a condition: Max can go to Elysium only if he agrees to a scheme in which he'll download data from the brain of a wealthy businessman (William Fichtner).

This requires Max to have a coding device of some sort implanted directly into his skull. Spider wants to use the data Max obtains to undermine the two-tier system that has separated humanity into two major groups -- the super-rich and everyone else.

On his initial visit to the hospital after he's radiated, Max reunites with Frey (Alice Braga)) a doctor who had been a childhood pal. As it turns out, the doctor has a terminally ill daughter (Emma Tremblay). Frey hopes that Max will take her child to Elysium, where she can be saved.

Blomkamp does a better job depicting an earthly dystopia than in showing Elysium's abundance, but he does outline the political structure of Elysium. The place has a president, but the real power lies with a ruthless security official (Jodie Foster).
I didn't keep precise track, but I'm guessing that for about an hour Elysium really clicks. At its best, the movie qualifies as an unusually smart helping of sci-fi, a convincing picture of an economically fractured future.

The visual environment (Max lives in a ravaged Los Angeles) is vividly imagined, and, in general, the special effects have top-of-the-line appeal.

Once the movie reaches Elysium, though, it starts to fall apart, sacrificing its intelligence for a more typical payload of futuristic gunplay and violent mayhem.

The performances are uniformly good, although Foster's character is so one-dimensional that she tends to come off as brittle, a woman with a close-cropped haircut and a disapproving look, as if an impudent journalist has dared to ask Foster about something she'd rather not discuss.

Damon does a good job as the sort of everyman who has special qualities of character and a bit of soul.

By its conclusion, Elysium leaves you disappointed and bemused; there's plenty of talent on display and enough obvious intelligence to have elevated the film had the obviously gifted Blomkamp -- who also wrote the screenplay -- been able to follow his best instincts to the finish line.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

'Europa Report' puts premium on credibility

Ever since 2001: A Space Odyssey wowed audiences in 1968, moviegoers have been wondering what it might be like to make a long-distance journey into the deepest recesses of space. We're not talking about Star Wars, Star Trek or any other of the popular sci-fi franchises that zip around space as if it were an extension of some earthbound freeway. We're talking about movies give audiences a feel for the rigors, loneliness and dangers of space travel.

The latest -- and one of the best of these -- is Europa Report, a carefully designed movie about a manned mission to Europa, the moon of Jupiter where scientists (real ones) recently discovered water under an icy surface. Ecuadorian director Sebastian Cordero has made a movie in which a committed crew sets out to learn whether the presence of water also means the presence of life.

If Europa Report had been a typical helping of sci-fi, hideous aliens would await the movie's crew. But Cordero, his actors and production team are more interested in creating a sense of authenticity than in providing cheap thrills -- or even expensive thrills. Europa Report is not a no-budget movie, but it's not a lavish out-pouring of special effects, either. Cordero builds his movie around the realistically designed and very cramped quarters of a spacecraft that's on a long journey away from Earth, the farthest any humans have ever traveled from their home planet.

None of this is to say that Europa Report is uneventful. Nine months into the mission, the crew loses its ability to contact Earth, and we brace for the worst.

When I read that Europa Report was going to try to convince us that we're watching a story assembled from footage recovered from the voyage, I shuddered. I'm sick of the kind of found-footage conceits that have pushed too many horror movies toward woozy incoherence. Europa Report feels different, probably because it tempers deep-space adventure with intelligence and because the actors aren't forced into cliched bickering and faux displays of bravado.

Some of the story is told by a representative (Embeth Davidtz) of the company that sponsored the mission. The movie's crew -- which dominates the proceedings -- may not played by marquee names, but a diverse cast convinces us of its devotion to science and to its responsibilities. Crew members don't have amped-up battles with one another over trivial matters. The men don't flirt with the women. And the women don't try to convince us that they're more macho than the men. Everyone focuses on the mission, and, as the story develops, the crew deals with a variety of tense situations, some of them reaching crisis proportions.

Cordero had the good sense to employ Enrique Chediak (127 Hours) as his cinematographer and Eugenio Caballero as his production designer. This duo deserves as much credit as the actors for creating a bit of science fiction that encourages us to feel the enthusiasm of a crew on a historic mission, the awe of traveling the vast distances of empty space and the loneliness that derives from moving farther and farther from the planet we all call home.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

'2 Guns:' watchable but empty

Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg have violent fun as reluctant allies.
Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg are the headliners in 2 Guns, a thriller about two reluctant allies who find themselves at odds with Mexican drug lords, the CIA, the DEA and just about any other individual or agency the screenplay decides to throw at them.

Warming to their buddy movie chores, Washington and Wahlberg more than hold their own, but the overly convoluted 2 Guns wallows in the dirt of governmental and criminal corruption without having much to say about either.

For all its attempts at winning the summer movie grit-stakes, 2 Guns stands as a lightweight drama punctuated by heavy gunfire, bursts of sadistic violence and familiar action elements such as car-crushing collisions and fiery explosions. The movie might have been better had it paid more attention to its title: Two guns would have been plenty.

As is often the case with this kind of thriller, we have to look to the supporting cast for additional color. Although he's playing a character who defies plausibility, Bill Paxton registers as a brutal CIA agent with a sadistic streak, a southern accent and a cowboy look. Edward James Olmos plays a drug kingpin who greets almost any situation with a world-weary attitude. He's like a drug-dealing grandpa who occasionally orders up a few murders.

Paula Patton is mostly wasted as a DEA agent who provides an opportunity for a sex scene.

Although, 2 Guns seldom proves boring, it's ultimately an inconsequential helping of action that comes equipped with car chases and gun battles that seem to function as safety devices, elements that feel as if they've been included to make the story palatable for summer audiences for whom seriousness is about as welcome as a case of West Nile Virus.

Director Baltasar Kormákur, who directed Wahlberg in 2012's Contraband, has has made a pseudo-adult movie in which scenes of considerable brutality have momentary shock value, but don't really add up to much of anything.

Watching Washington work is never difficult and Wahlberg certainly keeps pace, but 2 Guns feels awfully scattered. The movie tries to touch so many bases, it almost forgets what game it's trying to play.

A Danish town without pity

A teacher is falsely accused of molesting a child.
Big-screen horror usually involves stomach-turning amounts of blood and gore, much of it resulting from paranormal invasions into ordinary life. Even when applied with skill, the chills of contemporary horror tend to cast other-worldly shadows.

A different and far more unsettling form of horror derives from events that unfold without the presence of demonic forces. We're talking about the kind of nightmares that result from recognizable behavior.

The Hunt -- a Danish movie from director Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration) -- is one such movie, a serious and powerful demonstration of what can happen when a man is falsely accused of child molestation.

Focusing on a kindergarten teacher (Mads Mikkelsen) in a small Danish town, Vinterberg tells a story in which a lie told by a child threatens to ruin the lives of the teacher and his teen-age son.

The Hunt can't be classified as a thriller because there's never any question about the teacher's innocence. Rather, The Hunt shows how the town's residents -- fueled by righteous indignation -- quickly turn against a friend and neighbor.

Mikkelsen has appeared in mainstream cinematic efforts such as Quantum of Solace and in last year's A Royal Affair. Here, he plays a bespectacled teacher who looks more like Clark Kent than Henry Cavill, the actor who portrayed Superman in the recently released Man of Steel.

Mikkelsen's Lucas has been teaching in a kindergarten because the high school where he taught closed. Before he becomes the object of the town's scorn, he enjoys hearty friendships with the men of the town, who like to hunt and drink. They're a beefy crowd, guys who revel in a the kind of camaraderie that involves taking verbal jabs at one another.

Lucas also is fighting with his ex-wife about the amount of time he's allowed to spend with Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom), his teen-age son. He'd like the boy to live with him, something Marcus also wants.

What's frightening about Lucas's story is the way in which he becomes isolated. Even a new girlfriend (Alexandra Rapaport) expresses a bit of doubt about him.

In the absence of proof that Lucas molested anyone, the case comes down to Lucas's word against the word of an angelic looking schoolgirl (Annika Wedderkopp). Wedderkopp's Klara acts out a childish and vengeful game, prompted by a pornographic image her older brother briefly (and thoughtlessly) showed her.

I don't know whether Vinterberg was inspired by the current tendency to put children on a pedestal, but the town's people and, more importantly Lucas's boss at the school, tend to believe the girl's story. Children don't lie, the principal insists.

The head of the school doesn't simply investigate, which she's obligated to do. She and others connect the dots in a story that Klara not only invents but later recants.

To add to the complexity of the situation, Klara is the daughter of Lucas's best friend (Thomas Bo Larsen).

The Hunt takes a harrowing look at small town dynamics that threaten to turn a good man into a pariah. To me, that's far more terrifying than most of the demons that haunt today's multiplex screens. What's frightening about Lucas's plight is that it's an all-too-possible ordeal.

A marraige in its twilight years

Still together -- and still in love.
At least two unforgivable sins can be committed by movies that have been made with an eye on the box-office. One involves telling a story about older people. In a youth-oriented culture, that's a definite "no-no." The second: making a movie about aging without resorting to artery-clogging expressions of sentiment.

To its credit, Still Mine avoids the traps that snare too many movies about aging. A straight-forward and modest piece of work, Still Mine offers a clear-eyed but tender view of a marriage that has lasted more than 60 years.

Director Michael McGowan tells the story of a Canadian husband and wife who have reached their late 80s, and are dealing with the inevitable ravishments of advanced age, most notably the wife's increasingly severe loss of short-term memory.

James Cromwell gives a fine and steady performance as 87-year-old Craig Morrison, a farmer whose wife (Genevieve Bujold) is slipping mentally.

To add to the couple's problems, the farmhouse in which the they raised their seven children is becoming too much for either of them to handle. Aware of their decreasing ability to cope, Craig decides to build a smaller, one-story house on his property, a task that becomes more urgent when Bujold's Irene falls and breaks a hip.

Enter a low-key plot: Morrison's construction efforts put him at odds with a persistent building inspector (Jonathan Potts), a bureaucrat who insists on enforcing code regulations that mean little to Morrison. He knows how to build a house, and can't understand why he can't do whatever the hell he wants on his property, a spacious 2,000-acre piece of land in New Brunswick.

To Cromwell's credit, Morrison doesn't come across as one more grumpy old man, a cantankerous standard bearer for outmoded values. Just when you think that Morrison might fly off the handle, Cromwell reigns in his emotions. Morrison does on occasion become angry, but Cromwell refuses to deprive him of intelligence, balance and wit.

Neither Cromwell nor Bujold looks old enough to be in deep into their 80s, but it doesn't much matter because the two actors create a touching portrait of people who've spent nearly their entire lives together. Craig and Irene know each other's moves, moods, shortcomings and strengths.

As the movie progresses, Morrison must watch as his wife endures further mental deterioration: He reaches a point at which he no longer can cover for her. One of the couple's sons (Rick Roberts) does his best to convince his father that his mother needs help, but McGowan doesn't push the family dynamics to aggrieved extremes.

The story of a determined man facing an inflexible bureaucracy is serviceable enough to move the movie along, but Cromwell and Bujold are responsible for putting the noodles into what otherwise could have been a very thin broth.

Filmed with clarity and precision that respects the Canadian landscape without romanticizing it, Still Mine -- which is based on a true story, stands as a portrait of a marriage that has sustained two people. This husband and wife may not be at their peak, but their feelings for each other still run deep.

That's good news here for those of us who, by the minute, are getting longer in the tooth. Age can't be avoided, but it needn't rob one of love.