Thursday, October 31, 2013

A game played mostly on the surface

In Ender's Game adult wisdom has become as rare as nuanced expression.
Orson Scott Card's 1985 novel Ender's Game has acquired a large and devoted following. I'm not an acolyte or even a reader of Card's popular books, so I approached the eagerly awaited movie version of the first novel in the series with an high hopes and open mind.

What I found in Ender's Game is a juvenile helping of sci-fi that wrestles with some big, topical issues, but would require ample applications of intellectual Clearasil® before it's ready to claim an unblemished place in the sci-fi big leagues.

Having said that, I certainly wouldn't dissuade fans of the books from seeing a movie that has been assembled by director Gavin Hood in ways that attempt to maximize action, much of it involving zero-gravity training exercises that pit teams of youthful combatants against one another.

If there's genius in the concept, it probably involves the way that the movie acknowledges that game-savvy youngsters are more easily adaptable to modern warfare than adults. In the future, killer instincts may not be applied at the end of a bayonet but at a digital console. Think drones on steroids.

Hood's kid-centered, tech-laden drama follows 10-year-old Ender Wiggen (Asa Butterfield) through various stages of training in facilities that orbit the Earth. Hood, who also wrote the screenplay, divides the movie roughly into thirds.

In the first (and skimpiest) section we meet Ender and his family, a sister (Abigail Breslin) and an older bother Peter (Jimmy 'Jax' Pinchak). The arrogant Peter quickly vanishes from the story, but Breslin's Valentine crops up intermittently, mostly to serve as Ender's emotional connection to a threatened world.

About that threat: It seems that at some prior time the Earth was attacked by insect-like creatures called Formics. Earth's warriors fought off the Formics, but the threat of another invasion remains.

Early on, Ender falls under the tutelage of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), a military commander who has been searching for a youthful warrior to lead the charge against the Formics.

A militarist to the bone, Graff believes that one big battle can eliminate the threat of future wars. For Graff, preemptive strikes are the quickest route to peace. If he weren't being played by Ford, perhaps Dick Cheney could have auditioned for the role.

Throughout Ender's training -- a combination of boot camp combined with a video-game competition -- Graff pushes Ender hard: He beleives he finally has discovered a kid with the requisite tactical instincts to take on the Formics once and for all.

Graff often is seen in the company of a psychological officer (Viola Davis). Davis's character advocates for Ender's mental well-being, something in which Graff has no interest.

Butterfield, who appeared in Martin Scorsese's Hugo, does an good job combing the geeky and violent impulses that define Ender. From time-to-time, Ender question's the idea that conflicts are best resolved with healthy applications of violence. Butterfield succeeds in making Ender's internal conflicts real.

As he advances through his training, Ender comes into conflict with another cadet (Moises Arias), a young man who seems to have a Napoleon complex. Petra, a cadet played by Hailee Steinfeld, helps Ender learn the ropes.

But the real star of this portion of the movie is a training facility where the cadets face off in a zero-gravity environment. Hood returns to this special-effects well a little too often. Repetition sets in.

The movie's third act offers some redemption. Ender moves into the final stage of his training, which involves preparing to lead the Earth's forces into a decisive battle with the Formics.

At this point, he meets Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), the warrior who lead Earth's forces to victory in the first encounter with the Formics.

Replete with a Maori-style facial tattoo that makes him look like a futuristic Queequeg, Kingsley apes the one-note severity of the other adults in the movie, but projects more depth than Ford, who makes a return to sci-fi. Think Han Solo without a personality.

Hood and his technical team save the best for last, using Ender's final training exercise as occasion to unfurl a series of dazzling special effects that add a level of sensory thrill that should please genre fans.

I won't spoil the ending, but those familiar with the story know that the story probably is intended as a cautionary tale. In truth, though, Ender's Game derives more energy from its staunch militarism than from any other source.

A summary: Ender's Game has been made with enough competence to please fans of the series and perhaps to expand that audience a bit. The entire enterprise has a juvenile flavor, interrupted by occasional bouts of brow furrowing as the story attempts to grapple with Big Questions. Unlike Ender, the movie doesn't emerge at the top of the sci-fi class, but it's nowhere near the bottom. And if sequels loom, there's plenty of room for improvement after what can be called a decent enough start.

The abject cruelty of U.S. slavery

12 Years a Slave is a powerful and necessary look at enslavement
When I was a kid, we learned that the Civil War was fought over slavery -- sort of. Though acknowledged as a cause of the war, the subject of slavery always seemed muted by more generalized issues: The industrial North vs. the agrarian South and states' rights vs. centralized federal concerns.

Fair to say that slavery didn't come alive as a shocking horror. We read little or nothing about the torments of the Middle Passage, about the cruelties of a system in which people were bought and sold without regard for family connections or about how much of the southern economy was built on the backs of people who were forced to endure humiliation and toil without either rest or recompense.

Movies haven't done much to clarify the picture. From Gone With the Wind to the recent Django Unchained, we've not had a story dedicated fully to describing what the world was like during the time of slavery -- and doing it from the point of view of someone who had been enslaved.

Now comes director Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, written by John Ridley from a book by Solomon Northrup, a free black man who in 1841 was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. and sold into slavery.

Although McQueen has altered some of Northrup's narrative, Northrup's source material gives 12 Years a Slave an authenticity few other historical movies can claim.

This first-person account of America's "peculiar institution" maintains the formality of Northrup's language, but McQueen's images spring to life with troubling urgency.

Built around a solid and moving performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor (as Northrup), 12 Years a Slave hinges on a hideous deception. An accomplished fiddler, Northrup was tricked by a couple of charlatans into traveling with them as a violinist for a circus with which they supposedly were connected.

Once Northrup left his wife and children in Saratoga, N.Y., his fate was sealed. He was drugged and held in a "slave pen" in Washington a few blocks from the Capitol. In order to survive, Northrup gradually learned to hide his literacy (he was an educated man) and to answer to the name a slave trader arbitrarily gave him. He was called "Platt."

Obviously, we're a long way from the devoted slaves of southern fantasy. Mothers and children are viciously separated; brutal whippings are common, as is the sexual abuse of black women. At one point, Northrup is lynched.

His tormentors are driven off, but he's left to hang from a tree, his toes barely touching the ground, a man dancing over his own grave until his then owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) arrives to end his ordeal.

Northrup's life was threatened when he found himself subjected to an overseer's wrath. The overseer (Paul Dano) couldn't abide Northrup's intelligence. Northrup had figured out a way to get his owner's lumber more easily to market. Dano's character -- a man called Tibeats -- deeply resented any initiative on the part of a black man.

After this horrific episode, financial difficulties forced Cumberbatch's character to sell Northrup to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a malicious slave owner who delights in abuse and who is involved in a sexual triangle with his wife (Sarah Paulson) and a slave (Lupita Nyong'o), who also happens to be the best cotton picker on the plantation.

For all of Epps' obvious evils, we probably learn more about southern society from the parts of the movie involving Cumberbatch's "kindly" Mr. Ford. Ford treats his slaves reasonably well, but he obviously accepts the institution of slavery and has profited from it. He's troubled by cruelty, but not enough to reject the system that allows it to flourish.

At times, McQueen presents us with tableaus that might have been inspired by old photographs, perhaps as a way of establishing tension between what we regard as "history" and the urgency of a drama that appears to be taking place before our eyes. A scene in which Northrup encounters a group of Indians might be the film's most mysterious, groups of outcasts who don't know quite what to make of each other.

In 1853, Northrup finally was rescued and restored to his former life. He was able to write a book about his experiences, and evidently helped slaves escape the South via the underground railroad.

As moving as Northrup's reunion with his family is, it can't (and shouldn't) entirely be enjoyed. The story of slavery isn't really about one man's journey back to his home and family; it's about all those who died as slaves, unconsoled by a loved one's touch, distant from the mothers who bore them and regarded as property in an economy built on acceptance of people as chattel.

McQueen, who previously directed Hunger and Shame, allows room for such thoughts. It's also telling (and more than a little sad) that 150 years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a movie such as 12 Years a Slave still qualifies as a rarity.

When the whimsy gets serious

About Time delivers its message with unfortunate directness.
Richard Curtis has what many filmmakers crave, a highly identifiable brand. The 56-year-old writer/director authored the screenplays for much-loved movies such as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill. He also wrote and directed Love, Actually, an ensemble romantic comedy that has acquired Christmas treat status.

If there's a secret to Curtis's success, it might be this: He has been able to temper his tendency toward unabashed sentiment with ample amounts of wit, most of it emanating from cleverly written dialogue delivered by actors who know how to make the most of it.

Now comes About Time, a movie that seems a bit more treacly than Curtis's previous efforts and which virtually bathes itself in end-of-picture sentiment -- all in the service of delivering an exhortative seize-the-day message.

This time, Curtis tries his hand at fantasy, adding a time-travel wrinkle to the usual mix.

Domhnall Gleeson, familiar as one of the Weasleys from the Harry Potter movies, plays Tim, a 21-year-old, aspiring lawyer whose father (Curtis veteran Bill Nighy) shares a family secret with him. It seems the men in Tim's family have the ability to travel backward in time -- but only through their own lives.

This peculiar gift, exercised in closets by clenching one's fists and focusing on the moment one wishes to relive, gives the astonished young man an opportunity for do-overs when he messes up. The awkward, bumbling Tim has only one goal: finding true love, and he sometimes needs more than one attempt to strike up a relationship.

The eventual object of Tim's affections is book editor Mary (Rachel McAdams), an American woman he meets in a restaurant devoted to blind dates -- literally. Willing singles meet in the dark, and don't see each other until they leave the restaurant.

I suppose we're meant to find this and other such scenes charming in a quirky sort of way, but Tim's ability to time-travel turns out to be a bit of cheat: If his first sexual encounter with Mary lights no fireworks, he simply re-does it until both are left limp from shared pleasure.

I chose to see About Time for one reason: Nighy. Nighy who played an unrepentant rocker in Love, Actually, has the ability to make roguishness appealing. He does what he can with the role of a father who has devoted his time-travel to massive bouts of reading. He also enjoys playing ping pong with the son he clearly loves.

It's a bit odd to say, but these father/son dynamics come closer to satisfying the movie's emotional demands than the evolving relationship between Tim and Mary.

But Nighy and some intermittent charm aren't quite enough to push About Time onto the plus side of the ledger -- and I say this as a critic who, unlike many of my colleagues, still falls prey to the charms of Love, Actually.

This time, though, I found the eccentricities a bit forced, the charms, only intermittent and the movie's message (live every day as if it were your last) all too easy.

But wait. Maybe the movie's right. Be kind. Find your soul mate. Seize the day. Enough of this crap, I'm off to spread the love.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A stain on a city's past

Working with archival and news footage, director Jason Osder does a masterful job of reconstructing a horrific chapter in Philadelphia history. In May of 1985, the Philadelphia police force squared off against a small group of radicals who called themselves MOVE. Tensions between the police and MOVE -- a cult-like organization with its own view of "natural" living -- resulted in a tragic confrontation in which a police helicopter dropped a fire bomb on the house that served as the group's headquarters.

The police and fire departments allowed the fire to burn as part of a misguided tactic designed to force MOVE members out of the house. The blaze eventually consumed 62 homes and resulted in the deaths of all but two MOVE members, six adults and five children.

Osder doesn't glorify MOVE, and it's pretty clear that most Philadelphia residents (white or black) wouldn't have wanted MOVE members for neighbors. Besides digging up sidewalks (to be closer to the earth), MOVE members frequently screamed epithets at their neighbors through bullhorns. Their kids often ran around without clothing.

But it's equally apparent that the police over-reacted in an episode located in a what appears to have been a mostly stable lower middle-class neighborhood.

One of two survivors, young Michael Moses Ward is seen giving a deposition that serves as the story's emotional anchor. As a kid, Ward lived in what only can be described as a war zone.

We also hear a variety of testimony given to a commission that was appointed to look into the events leading up to and including one of the city's worst episodes. Philadelphia police previously had had run-ins with MOVE members, but nothing to compare with the destruction wrought in 1985.

The film is all the more powerful for resisting the temptation to inveigh against an uncaring white community. At the time, Wilson Goode, a black man, was mayor of Philadelphia, and throughout this searing documentary we see plenty of evidence of black presence in the City of Brotherly Love.

Osder leaves it to us to draw conclusions about MOVE and the horrible events of May, 1985, one more reason why Let the Fire Burn is entirely gripping from beginning to end.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A 'Counselor' badly in need of advice

A great pedigree can't save this scattered, mildly pretentious thriller.
Tell me you weren't looking forward to The Counselor, a thriller with a screenplay by novelist Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men), direction by the talented if variable Ridley Scott (Gladiator and Prometheus) and acting from a cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz.

That's the kind of pedigree that should excite moviegoers, especially those who are attracted to the spare toughness of McCarthy's worldview. In The Counselor -- McCarthy's first piece written solely for the screen -- the esteemed author creates a world in which toxic mixtures of greed and desperation reap heavy consequences and in which any display of naivety sets one up for an unimaginably dire fate.

The characters in The Counselor are surrounded by forces they can't control: Their only mistake lies in believing that a degree of control might be possible. When things go terribly wrong (as they must in a movie such as this) no amount of improvisation or bravado can spare the hapless. They're exposed for what they are: someone else's prey.

Contrary to its title, The Counselor isn't really about an individual; it's about systemic rot, most of it taking place in lavishly appointed environments where high-class consumption is the rule, much of it funded by money derived from the drug trade.

In The Counselor, drugs support the criminal upper class, an observation that seems a little tiresome for someone of McCarthy's stature. "Drugs again?" we ask ourselves, as we fight to stave off disappointment.

Fassbender plays a nameless attorney whose motivations are so sketchily presented, they're almost irrelevant. The Counselor feels as if his back is to the wall. He's helped a lot of criminals. Now, he wants to cash in by involving himself in a drug deal. He also wants to find a happily-ever-after situation with his wife, played by Cruz as the only character in the movie with any claim to innocence.

Fassbender's character deals with two associates. The wealthy Reiner (Bardem) is a genially sly man with an outrageous, blown-back hairstyle that make him look as if he just put his finger in a live electric socket. Reiner can be comical, but he warns the Counselor that deals such as the one he's contemplating tend to take on a life of their own. If everything sours, the Counselor won't have the slightest idea of how to cope. He'll be dangerously out of his depth.

The Counselor also meets with Pitt's Westray, a relaxed man with a fondness for a white cowboy hat. Westray also issues warnings to the Counselor. The easy-going Westray seems to understand that he may have pushed his luck too far. Perhaps he already should have abandoned crime, but he's playing things out, maybe even egging disaster on.

Diaz is cast in the movie's most mysterious role: She plays Malkina, a woman we first meet when she watches Reiner's pet leopards chasing down prey on an open plane. It doesn't take much by way of intuition to know that Malkina's all business and that when she does business, it will be bad business -- if not for herself, then for those she encounters.

In a bit of self-conscious boundary stretching we see Malkina having sex with Reiner's yellow, convertible sportscar. No, I'm not kidding. I won't describe exactly how this bizarre feat is accomplished. Know only that it involves Malkina doing a cheerleader-like split atop the car's windshield. Scott may be making a point in weirdly literal fashion: This woman gets off on material things.

The world of The Counselor is ripe with intrigue and abundant corruption, and yet, the movie can't be called a success.

To begin with Fassbender's character is never well-enough defined to hold the center of a movie. Bardem, so impressive as the lethal Anton Chigurh in the big-screen adaptation of McCarthy's No Country For Old Men, gives a performance that flirts with shtick, alternating comic exaggeration with a feeling that he briefly has returned to his senses, something like a jazz musician picking up the melody after a wild improvisational riff.

Diaz seems sufficiently jaded as a woman who strives to create a straight line between her intentions and her actions, even if those actions show up on the wrong side of the moral ledger.

And then there's the narrative itself. It takes an awfully long time for the story to lock in, and when it does, we watch less because we care about the outcome, but because we simply want to see the various chunks of story find a semblance of coherence. This is more a formal accomplishment than a deeply felt human one.

It's equally true that McCarthy's dialogue, though sometimes mordantly witty, carries the weight of pretension, so much so that by the movie's end, some of the characters (notably a crime lord played by Ruben Blades) begin to spell out the movie's harsh themes in an approach that's probably too clear, an example of literary obviousness that recursively articulates what we already know.

All of this makes for intermittently intriguing but only partially satisfying viewing experience, a movie in which adornment and opulence are conspicuously displayed as part of Scott's attempt to seduce us, and -- at times -- to show the gap between the upper classes of criminal life and the minions who serve them. We catch glimpses of the lumpen work force that keeps the drug wheels spinning, whether it comes to creatively executed assassinations or the drudgery of moving more product.

Scott and McCarthy put a lot on the table here, trying hard (too hard, probably) to add spice to a fairly routine story that, in its overall arc, looks as if it's trying to punish characters who have lived too large.

Scott and McCarthy have chosen a strange way to fail; their overly complex a story-telling approach makes things too difficult at the outset, and the proffered explanations for what we've been watching make the movie too easy in the end.

It sounds like an odd and perhaps even disrespectful thing to say about a McCarthy-written movie, but The Counselor could have used a rewrite.

At sea with Robert Redford

Can resourcefulness conquer bad luck in All Is Lost?
After this year's festival season kicked off over Labor Day weekend in Telluride, it became increasingly apparent that Robert Redford was en route to a praise-filled fall. Redford, an actor who hardly needs a career boost, stars in director J.C. Chandor's All Is Lost, the story of a self-sufficient man who runs out of resources when the hull of his sailboat is punctured by a stray cargo container loaded with sneakers, trivial cast-offs from a voracious commercial society.

All Is Lost -- a film featuring almost no dialogue -- showcases Redford's ability to play a character who's forced to determine how to deal with impending disaster. The character -- unnamed in the movie and known in the credits only as Our Man -- improvises a series of life-saving tasks that begin with patching the hole in his yacht.

Ultimately, he must determine how (without a radio, cell phone or other equipment that has been wiped out by flooding) he's going to make his way toward a shipping lane where he might be sighted by a passing vessel.

The movie's brief prologue establishes enough of a backstory to give All Is Lost an allegorical aftertaste. We hear our man reading a note that no one else may ever see. He apologizes -- presumably to his family -- for badly over-estimating how much of the Indian Ocean he could navigate by himself. He's failed, and, this time, his failure might be irredeemable.

Our Man is an independent fellow of obvious means (who else has a sailboat and the time to sail it?), and, if there's a larger thematic point to this seaborne fable, it probably revolves around the ways in which the screenplay methodically deprives Our Man -- perhaps he should be seen as a floating ego -- of every possible support. When there's nothing material left to keep him afloat does anything else remain? Is this the story of an adventure gone wrong or a chronicle about the death knell of male movie stars?

Credibility is mildly disturbed by the fact that Our Man seems to find time to shave everyday, although we only see him shaving once. It also seemed to me that even the most self-possessed of men eventually would start talking to themselves, a la Tom Hanks in Cast Away or Piscine Patel in Life of Pi.

Worse yet, Alex Ebert's distracting score should have been scrapped; the movie is most effective when it's making use of the natural sounds created by the ocean, the foundering ship and the occasional storms that beset it.

Although it never comes up in the film, I wondered about calling the main character "Our Man." Unless there's irony intended, the guy we meet in this voyage isn't a character easily linked to everyone's delusions about self-sufficiency in the face of mortality.

We all may be victims of the kind of self-deception that tells us that we know how to make our way through the perilous storms and yawning vastness each of us eventually confronts. But the guy in this film isn't Our Man. He's a member of a privileged class in which few of us claim membership.

You might argue that this makes his plight (and the movie's point) all the more poignant. Even the most skilled and most affluent among us can't protect themselves from the vicissitudes of fate and from the potentially lethal flotsam of a supremely careless society.

But I watched Redford's character from the outside. All Is Lost isn't a movie of high identification, but of studied observation.

Still, it takes plenty of directorial and acting skill to keep us involved in a one-character drama -- especially if that drama is taking place on a 39-foot yacht, where a lone man faces extinction.

For his part, Chandor has taken a totally opposite direction from his talky but effective debut, Margin Call. And you have to credit both Chandor and Redford with doing what we critics always seem to be insisting on: Trying something new and a little daring.

I leave it to you to decide whether All Is Lost should be seen as a stripped-down story with universal applications or a cinematic curiosity that's notable mostly for bobbing bravely on a sea that's otherwise cluttered with escapist junk.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

No one deserves a prom like this

Updated remake of Carrie misses the mark.
It has been 37 years since the release of Brian DePalma's iconic adaptation of Stephen King's Carrie, a movie that made the most of a young Sissy Spacek's capacity to convey near-spectral weirdness.

I can't think of many ways in which director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry) matches DePalma with her version of the story, an updated, over-cooked remake.

Revamped to include cell phones and a vicious case of cyber-bullying, Peirce's movie centers on 16-year-old Carrie, played by Chloe Grace Moretz with only occasional effectiveness.

In this version, Moretz becomes less the ultimate outcast than an advocate for acceptance of those who are different, but who simultaneously yearn for peer-sanctioned normalcy.

Julianne Moore proves even weirder as Carrie's guilt-ridden, insanely religious mother, a role played by Piper Laurie in the original.

The movie begins with a scene in which Moore's Margaret White gives birth to Carrie, a baby she believes to be the embodiment of evil. Only Carrie's newborn cuteness saves her from mom's murderous knife.

The movie then leaps ahead to Carrie's high-school years. By this time, the love/hate relationship between mother and daughter has settled into its own horrific pattern. When Moore's Margaret believes the teen-aged Carrie needs a dose of discipline -- pretty much whenever the kid does anything normal -- Mom locks her in a closet and insists that she prays.

Not surprisingly, Peirce ups the special-effects ante from the 1976 version, presumably to make Carrie's telekinetic skills all-the-more convincing. You remember, right? Carrie has ferocious mental powers.

The movie's amped-up effects backfire, creating a visual environment that can seem more suited to generic horror than to a movie that's trying to break through genre constraints: Carrie seems to want to explore the dangers of adolescent cruelty, the perils accompanying a young woman's emerging sexuality and the twisted but powerful bond between mother and daughter.

The pivotal event in the movie involves Carrie's first encounter with menstruation, which terrifies her and also provides her schoolmates with an excuse for mocking expressions of scorn, mostly orchestrated by the sadistic Chris (Portia Doubleday).

The movie conflates Carrie's hormonal maturation and the dawning of her increasingly powerful ability to use her mind to manipulate objects in the external world.

Not everyone in Carrie's life is a total jerk. Pretty-girl Sue (Gabriella Wilde) initially goes along with the cruel crowd, but eventually displays a little conscience. Sue's popular boyfriend Tommy (Ansel Elgort) has a good heart. Judy Greer portrays Carrie's sympathetic gym teacher.

Of course, Peirce includes the famous prom scene, now a staple of many horror movies about teen-agers. She dumps the obligatory amount of pig's blood and adds enough vengeful, Carrie-initiated fury to flood the screen with carnage.

But for me, the sight of a blood-drenched Moretz wreaking havoc on her classmates generated neither fear nor pity. It made me wonder whether Moretz was lost as Carrie or at sea in an ill-fitting role?

Fragmented 'Fifth Estate' lacks focus

Cumberbatch excels as Julian Assange, but movie about him falters.
Going into The Fifth Estate, a hyperbolic but hollow account of the work of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, I wondered whether I'd learn anything new. We've already had a daunting stream of newspaper accounts about Assange and WikiLeak's landmark 2010 publication of U.S. State Department cables, as well as director Alex Gibney's documentary, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks).
Could anything be left in a story that already has dribbled much of its juice down a graying, over-exposed chin.

Let's begin at the center -- or, rather, at what should have been the center of a movie that's more confusing than illuminating.

British actor Benedict Cumnberbatch not only dyes his hair white, but captures much of the elusive charisma that allowed Assange to focus his efforts on lifting heretofore impenetrable veils of government and personal secrecy.

Cumberbatch makes for a near-ghostly presence in the film, a man on a mission who regards just about everything else in the known universe as too trivial for his keen attention.

Cumberbatch's performance could have been the centerpiece of a compelling story about an avid crusader who tried to use technology to bring protest into the 21st century, but who was not without egotistical pitfalls.

Unfortunately, Cumberbatch's work is largely wasted by director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Kinsey, Dreamgirls and a couple of Twilight movies). Condon tries to spice up a badly fragmented narrative with graphics that presumably are intended to bring the digital age to life. The tricks include a semi-surreal depiction of Assange's workspace, one of many quasi-outre touches in a movie that badly needed to plant its feet on firmer ground.

It's possible that the best part of The Fifth Estate arrives in the form of opening credits that offer an incisive summary of how media has evolved from the industrially rooted print model to the digitally driven world of the Internet.

Not content with this fine overture, Condon keeps piling on the visual gimmickry. Witness the frenzied editing or the overlays of printed messages that show us what characters are typing on their laptops.

Any screenwriter tackling this kind of complex material faces a major problem: how to give a human center to a story built around ethical and political issues, as well as tech savvy. Screenwriter Josh Singer addresses the issue by focusing on the relationship between Assange and his Berlin-based cohort Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl).

Currently on view as Formula One driver Niki Lauda in director Ron Howard's Rush, Bruhl's intensity holds us at arm's length, and you needn't know much about the real story to guess that Berg's devotion to Assange eventually will sour.

Besides, Assange is by far the more interesting character.

Condon doesn't do much with the movie's supporting cast, most of whom seem like cast-offs from a different movie. Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci appear as State Department workers. David Thewlis and Peter Capaldi play editors at The Guardian, one of the newspapers that published WikiLeaks massive 2010 revelations.

I left the movie without being forced to rethink anything about Assange. And for all the movie's fancy visual footwork, I had no better handle on issues raised by hacking, whistle-blowing and governmental secrecy.

Mostly, I was tired of sorting through the barrage of narrative bric-a-brac that The Fifth Estate keeps throwing at the screen -- perhaps because it doesn't quite know what it wants to say about Assange or about the practical and ethical issues his activities raised.

Two new docs merit attention

Remembering George Plimpton

George Plimpton, the famed participatory journalist, approached life with a patrician's bearing and a marketer's savvy.

Plimpton's best-selling book, Paper Lion, became a sports classic. Published in 1966, Paper Lion told the story of Plimpton's experiences with the Detroit Lions during the team's 1963 training camp. Plimpton pretended to be trying out for the less-than-glamorous position of third-string quarterback. He took his lumps, and the resultant book helped establish a long career as a magazine writer, book author and essayist.

Some critics branded Plimpton, who died at the age of 76 in 2003, as a dilettante, and I suppose it's true that he made himself famous by attaching himself -- as a kind of literary barnacle -- to other people, most of them more famous or more renowned in their pursuits than he.

But Plimpton also could write, and he understood that there was a place for entertaining storytelling in the world of journalism. Want to write about the circus? Well, then, run away and join one, which he did at one point.

Fair to say that Plimpton become his own major subject -- and at a time when journalists were supposed to keep themselves out of the story.

Directed by Tom Bean and Luke Poling, the documentary Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself chronicles the career of a writer who spent much of his adult life trying things on and letting the rest of us know how they felt: Among other endeavors, Plimpton attempted baseball, basketball, tennis, boxing and symphony conducting.

The theory was that by attempting to do what others could do better, Plimpton (and by extension, his readers) would gain insights that were unavailable in other ways. We'd all become insiders.

Plimpton also edited The Paris Review, a literary quarterly that published work by Philip Roth, William Styron and many others. He was a friend and campaigner for Bobby Kennedy, one of those people who seemed to know everyone.

Sprinkled with a fair sample of Plimpton's prose, Plimpton! pays fitting (and at times mildly critical) tribute to the writer and also offers us glimpses of the famous people with whom he associated. The documentary is, thus, not only a look at a writer's life, but at the world he inhabited. As such, Plimpton! makes for an entertaining 89 minutes.

They made music history

I don't know whether George Plimpton ever visited Muscle Shoals, Ala., but I'd bet that he would have liked to have traveled to this deep South recording mecca.

Muscle Shoals, a documentary by director Greg 'Freddy' Camalier, takes us to this small backwater where an unlikely impresario named Rick Hall began recording artists such as Percy Sledge and Aretha Franklin. Hall's Fame Recording Studios became an R&B hit factory.

Many of the studio's artists -- backed by a group of white musicians known as The Swampers -- made R&B history.

Hall later faced competition from The Swampers, who opened their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound. Hall's rags-to-riches story is fodder enough for any documentary, but Camalier -- perhaps unwisely -- tries to cover all of Muscle Shoals music.

In his effort to review history and pay homage, Camalier includes interviews with artists as diverse as Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Percy Sledge, Clarence Carter, Etta James, Alicia Keys and Bono, all of whom understand the legendary powers of the place.

Beautifully shot -- if overly long -- Muscle Shoals makes a nice companion piece for 20 Feet From Stardom, a recent documentary about back-up singers.

I got tired of Muscle Shoals before its 111 minutes had expired, but the documentary stands as a valuable look at an indispensable part of American popular culture.

Monday, October 14, 2013

'Captain Phillips' shows Hanks at his best

A tense depiction of the hijacking of a cargo ship.
Tom Hanks plays Captain Richard Phillips, the title character, in the latest thriller from director Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, United 93 and a couple of frenetic Bourne movies). Greengrass has a well-deserved reputation for presenting real-life dramas in a kinetic, dizzying style that can be energizing or off-putting, depending on your ability to tolerate quick edits and tipsy camera work.

In Captain Phillips, Greengrass churns up plenty of gut-wrenching tension, but expresses it within a framework that allows for a decent amount of emotional and moral weight. And unlike many thrillers, this one avoids the kind of flag-waving cliches that could have turned it into another muscle-flexing drama, an overly robust look at a cargo ship that's taken over by a quartet of Somali pirates.

With Hanks in the lead role, there's no doubt about where our rooting interest lies, but Greengrass' rendition of this true 2009 story also shows the desperate humanity of the Somali pirates, hijackers who never entirely master the inherent messiness of a trade run by warlords who tend to observe from afar.

Working from a script by Billy Ray, Greengrass certainly doesn't condone hijacking, but he's clearly aware that a hijacking can take on a life of its own, trapping the hijackers as well as those whom they wish to victimize.

After some brief introductory material, Greengrass gets down to the business at hand, a fraught confrontation between Phillips and his chief captor, a Somali pirate named Muse, played by newcomer Barkhad Abdi with an uncompromising blend of desperation and ferocity. Abdi enhances our understanding of a man who believes he has no other option but to make a big-money play. Muse is misguided enough to say -- with a bit of serious, I think -- that he'll be able to use his ill-gotten money to move to the U.S.

This kind of fantasy can seem ridiculous to American viewers, but if you've traveled in materially deprived parts of the so-called developing world, you may have encountered young people who see the U.S. as a giant ATM, where cash is readily available to everyone. A tiny minority of these youngsters might not imagine that asking for $10 million from a U.S. company to ransom hostages could be in any way preposterous. By some estimates, annual per capita income in Somalia is around $600.

Making sparing use of a New England accent, Hanks doesn't try to turn Phillips into a blockbuster-style hero. As captain of the Maersk Alabama, Phillips works to protect his crew, but he's a civilian in a situation that ultimately calls for a military response. That response, complete with war ships and Navy SEALS, arrives toward the end of the film, and allows Greengrass to put pedal to the metal in terms of action.

By that time, Phillips has been taken prisoner in a lifeboat that looks like a space module created by a country with no budget for technology. Inside the cramped, overheated yellow lifeboat, we begin to see heightened dissension among the four hijackers, one of whom is a still a teen-ager.

When Phillips tells the kid that he has no business being involved in something as dangerous as high-seas piracy, he's not just working the young man. He's serious. The youthful hijacker may not grasp the full meaning of Phillips' remark, but it's clear that the kid is scared and out of his depth when it comes to this level of violence.

That's a clue about what makes Captain Phillips tick. It's an action movie that wants to bring believable humanity into a situation in which just about everyone's destined to lose something.

Nothing embodies this spirit of devastation more than the movie's final scene. The way Hanks handles the movie's conclusion is so stunningly realistic that it lifts Captain Phillips above the military triumphalism that could have marked a lesser movie. I don't think Hanks ever has worked this close to the emotional bone before.

And when you think about the military power that was required to save Phillips from four scrawny pirates with automatic weapons and big-money dreams, you can't help but feel the sickness of the pressure-cooker world in which too much of the planet lives.

Note: I've been traveling and out-of-touch with the movie scene for nearly three weeks. This review of Captain Phillips is part of my catch-up effort.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

'Gravity' and the loneliness of space

Director Alfonso Cuaron makes us feel as if we're tumbling through space.
Seen from our minuscule perspective, space is a lonely place, a void that leaves us awestruck at its vastness and perhaps terrified about the possibility of its unending lifelessness. At various points in the new movie Gravity, we're made to feel the solitary magnitude of a depopulated universe.

The key word in the previous sentence is "feel." Director Alfonso Cuaron and his technical team have made a movie in which zero gravity becomes the norm. We not only observe what's happening, we experience it in sensorially powerful ways.

All movies do this to an extent, but because Gravity takes place in space -- even with Earth in full view of the movie's orbiting astronauts -- nothing feels typical. We tumble through the movie like an untethered astronaut somersaulting through space. And when things go wrong, the agony is felt more deeply because the astronauts still can see the Earth.

Unlike what happens in many sic-fi movies, the characters are not embarked on a journey to some forbidding planet. They've put a toe in the inky waters of space. No more.

Thematically and for sheer grandeur, Gravity is not the equal of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it rivals that movie in its insistence on creating -- with help from effectively used 3-D photography -- the experience people in space might actually have.

As astronauts, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are first seen working on the Hubble Telescope. Even though they're encumbered by bulky space suits, they're like space babies floating in the amniotic fluids of the universe.

The dialogue in a script by Cuaron and his son Jonas, doesn't try to create poetry; it's unnecessary. We see the poetry, as Gravity offers us looming views of the planet we all call home.

Despite its apparent lack of mystical fervor, Gravity should not be seen as a cinematic amusement park ride, space like you've never seen it before. Cuaron has a simple story to tell, one involving grief and possible renewal.

Clooney's Matt Kowalski is the mission's captain. Clooney tempers the captain's all-business approach with jaunty humor and confidence; he has the poise of a man who has faced danger many times and who knows how to remain unrattled, or at least how to pretend that he's calm.

The two astronauts are threatened when they're bombarded by debris from a Soviet satellite, putting them in the middle of a terrifying shower of flying metal.

At that point, Gravity becomes a story of survival, simple under any other circumstances, but not in this case because everything we see is taking place in space. To further augment the tension, the astronauts lose radio contact with Earth. They're on their own, Robinson Crusoes without the benefit of an island on which to seek refuge.

Bullock spends a lot of time on the screen alone. She's climbing in and out of space suits, at times floating inside a space capsule in her underwear. Humans are a talkative lot, and in moments of isolation and near-panic, Bullock's Ryan talks to herself -- trying to hold steady, reviewing things from her past and working as her own counselor.

Gravity is the kind of masterful movie that stands as a triumph of contemporary moviemaking craft, using sound and the lack of it to great advantage. Cuaron may have made the most astonishingly representative movie of his time, a film in which the technical achievements are unparalleled and entirely intrinsic to the story's meaning.

As an experience that puts you into space, Gravity has few real rivals. We feel unmoored, dislocated and, most of all, vulnerable in the dark beauty of space, Earth glowing in the distance, a beacon of luminosity in an otherwise empty universe.

Most of the time, Gravity, which unfolds over an economical but absorbing 90 minutes, thrives on the intensity of situations that force its characters to react quickly. Every moment seems to involve a life-or-death decision.

In the rare moments when we catch our breath, Gravity gives us productive pause; its setting makes us wonder whether -- like Bullock's Ryan -- we all aren't really talking only to ourselves, even as we reach for the stars.