Friday, September 27, 2013

On the road to murder

Two killers build a twisted world of their own in Blue Caprice.
Blue Caprice is loosely based on the lives of real-life killers: John A. Mohammad and Lee Boyd Malvo. Mohammad and Malvo, you’ll recall, were the duo who in 2002 terrorized the Washington, D.C. area with a three-week spate of shootings that was as cruel as it was random.

Director Alexandre Moors concentrates on the events leading up to those murders -- or, more precisely, on the warped relationship that spawned them. John (Isaiah Washington) increasingly takes control of Lee (Tequan Richmond), an abandoned young man he met in the Caribbean.

After a brief prologue that's set in Antigua, Lee joins John in Tacoma, Washington. There, the two forge a weird alliance in which John becomes an impromptu father figure to the impressionable Lee.

Under different circumstances John's approach might have made for a mutually satisfying relationship, but John, we soon learn, has enough anger and resentment to undermine any connections he might make.

Some of John's fury derives his belief that his former wife robbed him of rights involving his children. He sees himself as a victim, someone deprived of an essential part of his manhood. He thinks his fatherhood has been stolen.

For his part, Lee -- perhaps fearing another abandonment -- clings to John, following him on a path of violence that begins in Washington state and culminates in the area around D.C.

In Tacoma, John and Lee stay with one of John's old army buddies (Tim Blake Nelson) and his wife (Joey Lauren Adams). Nelson and Adams may not be portraying an ideal couple, but they represent the last contact with any sort of normalcy for John and Lee.

Washington's John is all the more dangerous because he's learned how to justify his cruelty. At one point, he leaves Lee tied to a tree in the woods, a test of the young man’s resourcefulness and determination that easily could have turned fatal. You get the impression that John believes he's acting in the young man's best interests by forcing him into such dubious character-building exercises.

Hindsight makes John seem like a lost cause, but we can imagine an alternative future for Lee had he not been so badly in need of a male authority figure. Too bad he found the wrong one.

Those familiar with the real-life events that inspired Blue Caprice (the title derives from the car that John buys and which is used in the killing rampage) know how the story concludes.

I don't know whether understanding John and Lee provides insight into the inner lives of the real killers, but Moors' spare and disturbing movie gives us a possible way to look at them -- should we choose to turn our attention in that direction at all.

By taking us deep into the world that John and Lee inhabit, Moors shows us how it’s possible for people to become totally absorbed in patterns that make sense only to them. Such isolation -- when abetted by the twisted logic of paranoia and hate -- too easily become a precondition for unspeakable crimes.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Adrenalin and rivalry mix in 'Rush'

Director Ron Howard opts for excitement over subtlety in his Formula One movie. Why not?
Going to Ron Howard's Rush for subtlety is about the same as heading to a Formula One pit stop in search of contemplative silence. Working from a screenplay by Peter Morgan, Howard takes a no-nonsense approach to race-car competition, focusing on the two things Formula One drivers might emphasize themselves: intoxicating applications of speed and big-time expressions of attitude.

Howard builds his story around the rivalry between real-life drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), top competitors who made a major impact on their sport during the landmark 1976 season.

Hunt liked to defy death, party hard and take risks. Although he was hardly risk averse, Lauda was the more calculating of the two. Decidely less handsome than his counterpart, Lauda was known as "Rat" because his overbite supposedly made him look rat-faced.

For both Hunt and Lauda, driving seems less a sport than an obsession, an activity they had to pursue -- even if it meant, in Lauda's case, paying his way into the sport, something that earned the scorn of other drivers, at least at the beginning of his career. As played by Bruhl, Lauda isn't an easy man to like, but the views of others don't much faze him: He doesn't seem to care what people think about him.

When the story shifts away from the world of racing, it's mostly to focus on relationships between Hunt and Lauda and their wives, played respectively by Olivia Wilde and Alesandra Maria Lara. But Howard's less interested in personal relationships than in fulfilling racing-genre demands.

Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle joins with Howard in an application of technique designed to put us in the driver's seat, to allow us to experience -- in vicarious safety, of course -- the thrill of high-speed driving.

There's some talk of the methodical way Lauda went about preparing his cars and a harrowing look at the accident that put Lauda in the hospital, perhaps because Hunt insisted on racing on a wet track at Nürburgring, the German Grand Prix.

Lauda had lobbied for the race's cancellation because of weather. Hunt, who was chasing Lauda in the standings for the Formula One championship, took the opposite view. According to the movie, Hunt blamed himself for the accident that almost killed Lauda and left him disfigured.

If you're schooled in the differences between Ferraris and McClarens, you'll probably get even more out of Rush, but be assured: Howard hasn't made a movie only for racing aficionados or wannabes. He's made a general-audience slice of entertainment that seldom spills the oil of complexity on its sleek, mobile surfaces.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A thriller under heavy thematic weather

Prisoners is one of the most effectively grim thrillers in a long time.
Denis Villeneuve's new thriller, Prisoners, brings an alarming shiver to the screen, not only because its story generates a dire and escalating sense of creepiness and dread, but because cinematographer Roger Deakins's corroborating imagery tends to be dark, damp and as unforgiving as the hard-driving rains of a Pennsylvania winter.

The French-Canadian Villeneuve (Incendies) has made a movie that sometimes feels as if it's happening in an alternate reality, one in which moral rot has penetrated the heart of a small Pennsylvania city.

That may sound more like the basis for a horror movie than a thriller, and it's worth knowing that Villeneuve -- working from a script by Aaron Guzikowski -- stirs suggestions of horror into the movie's intensely dour mix.

The title is apt in many ways, not the least of which is the way in which Villeneuve and Deakins depict the American landscape as one imprisoned by gloom, almost as if nature has become an accomplice in some ill-defined decline.

The story could have been inspired by any number of real-life crime scenarios. Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a struggling carpenter whose life -- and that of his wife (Maria Bello) -- receives a terrifying jolt when his young daughter is kidnapped along with the daughter of a neighboring couple (Viola Davis and Terrence Howard).

Dissatisfied with the work of a local detective (Jake Gyllenhaal), Keller takes matters into his own hands, kidnapping a prime suspect, a young man (Paul Dano) who hasn't progressed beyond the mental age of 10. After being questioned by police, Dano's Alex Jones is released for lack of evidence.

Davis and Howard gradually slip from view as the script concentrates its moral ambiguities in the hands of Jackman (fierce and uncompromising) and Gyllenhaal (a cop with an eye twitch and a bad haircut).

Believing that only Jones can lead him to his daughter, Keller proceeds to imprison and torture the mentally challenged man, and the screenplay begins introducing a near-barrage of red herrings.

The initial disappearance of the children takes place during a Thanksgiving dinner that's being shared by Jackman and Bello and Howard and Davis. It's clear that the two families -- each of which also has an older child -- are accustomed to spending time together, but as the story progresses, it also becomes clear that Jackman's Keller is the most extreme member of this quartet; he's a recovering alcoholic, a hunter and an amateur survivalist who's deeply schooled in the notion that men take care of themselves and that society -- with its wafer-thin veneer of laws -- cannot be trusted.

The screenplay doesn't overemphasize Keller's dissatisfaction, but he's the kind of blue-collar guy who easily could feel that the system -- however he defines it -- might, at any moment, betray him.

Sporting gray hair and the shuffling walk of a woman aged beyond her years, Melissa Leo plays Alex's aunt, the woman who helped raise him.

Of course, we feel the anxiety of parents who aren't sure that their children remain alive. Of course, we feel the brutal effectiveness of torture scenes that take place in an abandoned apartment building that Keller owns but can't afford to renovate. And the film holds our attention through its 2 1/2-hour length.

It's difficult to discuss much more without spoilers, but know that Prisoners -- though encompassing, well-acted and morally ambitious -- includes a bit of overreaching in its finale, perhaps an attempt to underline the movie's thematic seriousness. at times, the screenplay loses credibility amid Villeneuve's thickening applications of tension and mood.

Unlike more traditional thrillers, Prisoners does not offer a totally cathartic sense of relief. It wraps things up, but the physical and moral dampness that pervades everything feels as if it might never dry.

She talks to a man who can't hear

A defenseless young woman (Golshifteh Farahni) tries to care for her comatose husband (Hamidrez Javdan) in The Patience Stone, a war-torn drama set in the middle of a nameless country that looks a lot like Afghanistan. Unable to move, speak and shuttered in deep unconsciousness, Javdan's chararacter becomes a kind of implied presence in the woman's life. In its most unusual and provocative scenes, The Patience Stone finds Farahni's troubled character talking to her husband, at times loathing him, at times imploring him not to abandon her, always painting a picture of the man who lies unconscious before her and once towered over her life. The point: Even if this much older man were suddenly to awaken, he wouldn't spend much time listening to his young wife. Unnerved by bombings and forced to deal with a lack of food and water, Farahni's character -- referred to in the credits only as The Woman -- takes her kids to live with her aunt (Hassina Burgan), a woman who lives in a brothel. The Woman then returns home to tend to her husband, nourishing him with an impromptu IV mix of sugar and water that drips into his mouth. The movie deals with the ways in which this woman begins to find her voice and also her sexual power -- in an affair with a young soldier. Director Atiq Rahimi , who wrote the novel on which the film is based, works from a screenplay by Jean-Claude Carrière. The Patience Stone may not entirely speak to the plight of all oppressed women, but it effectively closes us into one woman's dangerous, narrow world.

A comedy about sex addiction?

After director Steve McQueen's riveting Shame (2011), it's difficult to imagine why anyone would want to make another movie about sex addiction. Think of Thanks for Sharing -- a comedy into which grenade-sized helpings of drama occasionally are tossed -- as a lukewarm attempt to deal with a searingly hot subject. Despite the presence of a strong cast -- led by Mark Ruffalo and Tim Robbins -- director Stuart Blumberg's foray into controversial material plays like a manual about 12-step programs, complete with sex addicted men who refer to their recovery as "sobriety." The always watchable Ruffalo plays Adam, an environmentalist who's five years away from his worst addiction, which consisted of countless one-nighters, constant masturbation, Internet porn and sex with prostitutes. Robbins plays Mike, a contractor who seems to have won the battle against both alcohol and sex addiction and now serves as Adam's mentor. Josh Gad joins the ranks of the sex addicted as a doctor whose compulsive ways threaten his career. Two story revolves around two main events: Adam's budding relationship with a woman he genuinely likes (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Mike's relationship with his son (Patrick Fugit), an addict who insists he's finally cleaned up. The difficulties of those suffering from sex addiction can feel more illustrated than dramatized, and the movie attempts too much: It wants to be a genial romcom, a cautionary tale about addiction and a comedy about extreme male attitudes about sex. It's hardly a compliment to say that too much of Blumberg's look at a serious and debilitating problem proceeds pleasantly.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Laughs slim in this mob comedy

De Niro, Pfeiffer and Jones. No, it's not a law firm; it's the cast of another superfluous Mafia comedy.
Unimaginative, far-fetched and unable to establish a consistent comic tone, The Family -- the story of the Manzonis, a mob family hiding in France -- feels as stale as a two-day old croissant.

Director Luc Besson's attempt to connect explosive violence with comedy doesn't exactly fizzle, but it's surely not as funny as the filmmaker, who co-write the script with Michael Caleo, must have intended.

The movie's main joke hinges on the fact that the entire Manzoni family has severe anger management issues. Insult mom (Michelle Pfeiffer), and she might blow up your business. Attempt to put one over on dad (Robert De Niro), and he'll try to beat you to death with a baseball bat. It doesn't take much kindling to bring the Manzoni temper to a violent boil.

The two Manzoni kids also seem to have inherited the mobster gene. Warren (John D'Leo) is a conniving high-school student and budding crime czar: His sister, Belle (Dianna Agron) shows no mercy when dealing with a male student who who makes boorish advances.

Safe to say that De Niro, behind a bushy beard, breaks little new ground. Pfeiffer, who made her mob-comedy bones in Jonathan Demme's 1988 Married to the Mob, makes a strong impression, but -- like her compatriots -- can't entirely overcome Besson's tone-deaf approach to humor.

Credibility is not the movie's strong suit. With a $20-million price on his head, De Niro's Gio Manzoni -- a mobster turned snitch -- has been assigned his own personal FBI agent (Tommy Lee Jones). And speaking of not breaking new ground, the always intimidating Jones once again does his "Mr. Severe" act.

The movie builds toward a violent finale that will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Besson's work (La Femme Nikta and The Professional), but the humor and violence tend to cancel each other out, and the whole project comes across as something that may have out-lived its shelf life even before the curtain rose.

Did we really need another comedy about the Mafia? Is it plausible that so many people would speak English in a dreary and obscure French town? Would the U.S. government really spend big money to send an FBI agent and two assistants to a small French town to protect the Manzonis from vengeful American mobsters.

At one point, Gio discovers a typewriter in the rubble around the rundown house the family has been given. He decides to write a book about his experiences. Maybe his memoir would have been more interesting than a comedy that tries to shuffle the mob-movie deck, but deals a losing hand.

Engaging the work of literary legend

Mood takes us only so far in this adaptation of a Roberto Bolano novella.
There's no denying that Il Futuro, the big-screen adaptation of the late Roberto Bolano's novella, A Lumpen Novella, pulls you into a strange world, but director Alicia Scherson's approach to the material left me mostly unmoved.

Though rooted in a potent emotional reality -- two young people struggle after the death of their parents -- events in the movie tend to feel slightly abstract, neither entirely subjective nor vividly concrete.

The story centers on two young Chileans who are orphaned in Rome after their parents die in an automobile accident. Nineteen-year-old Bianca (Manuela Martelli) adopts a quasi-parental posture toward her younger brother Tomas (Luigi Ciardo).

Despite an early-picture visit from a social worker, brother and sister are left to their own devices, trying to sustain existence on their father's meager pension and on money Bianca earns washing hair at a beauty salon.

Not surprisingly, the apartment in which Bianca and Tomas live becomes increasingly unkempt, a reflection of their newly unmoored lives.

Scherson has a facility for creating moods that encompass both distance and dread, as she flirts with evocative themes, the way accidents release universe-altering energies into the atmosphere, the way Bianca's vision is altered so that she sees only daylight -- even at night, the way a sudden disruption of routine tosses two young people into a centerless limbo.

The story moves forward when Tomas, who helps out at a local gym, falls under the sway of two brothers who eventually pull Bianca into their ill-conceived plans. They want to rob a former Mr. Universe and B-level movie star named Maciste (Rutger Hauer). Bianca's supposed to prostitute herself to the blind Masciste, win his trust and then burglarize his safe.

Hauer's presence has come to signal weird eccentricity, much in the way that Klaus Kinski's appearance functioned in some of Werner Herzog's movies, although Hauer is like Kinski thrown into reverse, a purveyor of more muted intensity.

In this outing, Hauer's character remains a kind of symbolic figure, a reclusive has-been who functions as a combination father figure and seducer in Bianca's life. He likes to oil her body before sex, as if he wants nothing to stick.

Scherson pours on major helpings of atmosphere, but her movie's weighted by ideas and thematic suggestions in ways that tend to deaden emotional involvement. Il Futuro is less a story than a description of a condition, life thrown badly out of whack.

I appreciated the effort, but about three-quarters of the way through, I simply wanted Bianca and Tomas to clean up their apartment, and begin acting as if there really could be a tomorrow.

Faith never looked this bad

Paradise Faith is the second film in a trilogy by Austrian director and provocateur Ulrich Seidl. Seidl's first film -- Paradise Love -- followed several portly, middle-aged German women on a visit to Africa where they indulged themselves in the distasteful pleasures of sex tourism. This second film in Seidl's insistently strange trilogy centers on Anna Maria (Maria Hofstatter), the sister of the main character in the first film. Anna Maria, we quickly learn, is a zealous Catholic, who beats back her desires by mercilessly flagellating herself and by mortifying her flesh with a cilice. The only thing that seems to be missing from Anna Maria's arsenal of self-torment is a hair shirt. Anna Maria also talks to the Jesus. Warning: The crucifix on Anna Maria's bedroom wall is used in a masturbation scene that carries Anna Maria's love for Jesus to a bizarre carnal extreme. Anna Maria's life is disrupted when her paraplegic Egyptian husband (Nabil Saleh) returns to her after an unexplained absence. He wants to reclaim his sexual rights as a husband. Anna Maria resists, and the movie becomes a kind of domestic war story. A twisted battle between two opposing faiths, Muslim and Catholic? A look at the badly distorted life of a religious zealot who spends her vacations knocking on the doors of strangers so that she can introduce them to the Virgin Mary in the form of a statue she carries with her? Or any number of other things? I have to admit that some of the movie's bizarre carryings-on can be funny, but when all is said and done, Paradise Faith doesn't cohere into a mature work. Are we meant to think that Anna Maria -- because of her blind and absurdly literal faith -- deserves to suffer? You're guess is as good as mine.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Three from the indie side

Three independent films arrive in Denver this week, each operating in a sphere that might be difficult to inhabit in the mainstream.* Two of the films (Adore and Afternoon Delight) were directed by women, and attempt to explore subtle and not-so-subtle aspects of the female psyche. None of this trio of films qualifies as stylistically groundbreaking, but Short Term 12 -- a clear-eyed drama about life in a foster-care facility -- stands out because of its heartfelt power. So a look at all three:

A tough look at a home for teens

Short Term 12 debuted at last March's South By Southwest Film Festival (SXSW), and stars Brie Larson as Grace, a young woman who works at a group home for troubled teens.

As the movie unfolds, we discover that Grace -- now in her 20s -- may be especially qualified for her job: As a teen-ager, she got slammed around plenty, experiencing her own version of a troubled life.

When we meet Grace, she's living with co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), a sensitive young man who's attuned to the needs of his charges and to those of the woman he clearly loves.

Loving Grace isn't always easy. Grace knows how to mix discipline with kindness at work, but tends to keep her inner life walled-off from Mason.

Something has to happen to move the story forward, and it does when the particularly difficult Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) arrives at the group home carrying a carload's worth of adolescent attitude and hostility.

It may not be immediately apparent, but Jayden's presence will have a profound effect on Grace, who gradually begins confront the demons that haunt her own past.

Writer/Director Destin Cretton, who once worked in a group home, also introduces us to Marcus (Keith Stanfield). A young man who's about to turn 18, Marcus soon will outgrow the group home that has provided him with shelter from the stormy life that drove him there in the first place. Marcus knows a lot about rejection.

Cretton probably rounds off his screenplay a little too neatly, but by setting his story in a world where emotions never are far from the surface, he takes a big risk. His movie easily could have become sloppy and overly demonstrative, the dramatic equivalent of an oil spill. It doesn't.

The relationship between Grace and Mason adds additional richness. Early on, Grace learns that she's pregnant: She battles with herself about the wisdom of keeping a baby in a world that can deeply scar young people who receive the worst of things.

Larson's tough but vulnerable performance anchors the film, and Gallagher (familiar to those who've been watching HBO's Newsroom) grounds Mason in the kind of bedrock decency we don't often see on screen.

Cretton understands the difficulties of trying to provide a safe and reasonably stable environment for kids who live in unsafe and uncertain worlds. That understanding -- obviously shared by all involved -- makes Short Term 12 truly special.

Too annoying for redemption?

Short Term 12 has no shortage of heart-felt urgency. It's difficult to say the same about Afternoon Delight, a movie mired in the off-putting boredom and cynicism of its main character, a Los Angeles woman named Rachel (Kathryn Hahn).

Director Jill Soloway's movie makes the perilous journey from comedy to drama as it tries to digest a whopping contrivance. In the dramatic equivalent of bomb-throwing, Rachel invites a wildly uninhibited stripper, lap-dancer and prostitute (Juno Temple) into her home. Rachel's disenchanted husband (Josh Radnor) wonders whether this is the best arrangement for the couple's five-year-old son, but doesn't put up much of a fight.

So why would Rachel invite a prostitute into her home? The screenplay flirts with a lesbian attraction and with the possibility that Rachel really wants to help Temple's McKenna get her life on track. Of course, McKenna shows little or no interest in personal reformation. She doesn't consider herself to be a victim of exploitation, and she's more in control of her life than Rachel.

As a young woman who lives way beyond the judgment of others, Temple shines, and Hahn ably handles both the movie's comic and serious moments, including an emotionally challenging scene that casts a harsh light on Rachel's anger.

Still, it's difficult for Soloway and Hahn to overcome resistance developed in the movie's first half, and Afternoon Delight doesn't dig deeply enough to get past a feeling that Rachel might just be battling with her own superficiality.

It's no day at the beach

I would have thought that a movie starring Naomi Watts and Robin Wright and stemming from a novella by Doris Lessing would have ranked among the year's better works.

But Adore -- a French/Australian co-production directed by Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel) -- revolves a conceit that's proves provocative but hollow: Two lifelong friends may be sublimating sexual feelings for each other when they start affairs with each other's sons.

The movie opens when Watts' Lil and her young son attend Lil's husband's funeral. Penn's Roz offers support during her friend's time of grief.

The story then leaps ahead to a time when Lil and her grown son (Xavier Samuel) and Roz and her grown son (James Frecheville) are living what appears to be an idyllic life in a secluded Australian coastal town.

The young men -- described by Roz as "young gods" -- surf, swim, languish on a raft and enjoy what looks like a convivial familial relationship with each other and with their mothers.

Only Roz's husband (Ben Mendelsohn) seems like an intruder, and the screenplay -- credited to Christopher Hampton -- quickly disposes of him, leaving the movie's mothers and sons to deal with sex, love, jealousy and everything else arises as these near-incestuous, sexual relationships take hold.

Originally titled Two Mothers, Adore ends with all four characters sprawled on a raft, looking a bit like squashed bugs. They're wrung out, and so are we.

Oh well, crossing psychological and sexual boundaries can be exhausting, if not especially illuminating.

*I somehow failed to pay attention to an e-mail revising the opening date for Short Term 12. The movie doesn't open in Denver until next Friday. Consider the above review an early heads-up.