Friday, November 29, 2013

A young woman's sexual awakening

This Cannes winner takes a frank approach to sex and to an evolving relationship.
Blue is the Warmest Color takes almost three hours, and proceeds at a pace that allows scenes as they will. Among the tributes I can pay the movie is to say that I was never bored by it. I say this not because Blue contains one of the lengthiest, explicitly presented sex scenes in movie history or that this scene is between two women.

I say it because in presenting a love story that revolves around the relationship between a 19-year-old school girl (Adele Exarchopoulos) and an older art student (Lea Seydoux), director Abdellatif Kechiche gives his movie a feeling of real life tumbling before us -- not only in its sex scenes (which, I think, could have been shorter), but in the way the movie deals with Adele's evolving life: from her student years to her days as a primary school teacher.

About those sex scenes:
The movie's sex scenes probably stem from Kechiche's desire to present lesbian sex frankly. And like it or not, sex is at the heart of what has attracted these women to each other.

Still, there's a sense in which the movie's sex scenes are sensationalistic or at least an example of erotic overstatement. Decide for yourself.

Now onto other matters:
If you've seen a picture of Exarchopoulos's face and don't like it, Blue is not the movie for you. Kechiche includes so many close-ups of Adele's face that you'll be able to memorize its every nook and cranny: It's as if he reagrds Exarchopoulos's face as a newly discovered planet, ripe for exploration.

The point, I think, is for Adele's abundant emotions to be reflected on screen. Exarchopoulos allows Adele's thoughts and feelings to ripple across her face without censorial intervention, revealing her character's joys, discoveries and many confusions.

It takes a while to see what Kechiche is after. He's telling a story about the ways in which passionate love often fails to sustain. Ultimately, Adele and Emma are quite different. Emma, the artist, discovers that she craves a stability that's threatened by Adele's always rampant passions.

Early parts of the story focus on Adele's sexual awakening and her realization that she's gay. Emma helps Adele make the leap, but the signs for long-term harmony aren't good. Adele comes from a lower middle-class family; Emma's family is more sophisticated. Think spaghetti dinners vs. oysters on the half shell.

Adele confesses to feeling a constant hunger. She's young, formative and eager to devour the world. Emma's palate already has been educated.

Adele's fascination with Emma reaches obsessional proportions, but she seems to know -- though perhaps not fully -- that her's is a doomed love. At a party thrown by Emma, Adele begins to sense that she's not entirely comfortable around Emma's friends. In the end, it's Adele who may be the more daring of the two. Her sexuality is all-consuming, even threatening. Emma wants to play it safe.

Blue is the Warmest Color won the top prize at last spring's Cannes Film Festival. I don't know if it was the best film at Cannes, but I would say that its rumpled informality exposes two women characters (and I'm not talking nudity here) in ways seldom seen on screen. The movie also has something to say about the difficulty of sustaining relationships between people who may not know themselves as well as they think.

Fair to say: Love and lives in flux can make for an extremely volatile mix.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

'The Great Beauty' is aptly named

An Italian film that dazzles the eye -- and doesn't neglect the mind, either.
Like a beautiful river in spring, director Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty overflows with sights that re-awaken our sense of what cinema can accomplish, the way it can startle the eye and activate the senses.

Some critics have viewed The Great Beauty as a descendant of Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960), a look at debauched Roman life that takes place 53 years after Fellini assayed the same subject. Comparisons with Fellini are further fostered by the fact that the main character in both movies is a disaffected journalist.

Sorrentino must have been aware of his film's kinship with La Dolce Vita, but it would be irresponsibly wrongheaded to view The Great Beauty as wannabe Fellini. The movie speaks in its own voice and has its own concerns.

The Great Beauty centers on Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a writer who started his career as a novelist and shifted to journalism, a craft he seems to practice only sporadically.

Jep might be the living embodiment of squandered potential: He wrote one high acclaimed novel, and never wrote another. Instead of developing his art, Jep devoted his life to Rome's near-decadent social scene: He's an unashamed party animal, a man for whom parties can equate with power.

Early on, Jep says that he aspired to be king of the socialites, a man with the power to make parties fail should he choose to do so.

Fittingly, the movie's first party is a doozy. To celebrate his 65th birthday, Jep organizes a teeming gala replete with throbbing, infectious music that seizes the revelers, including his editor (Giovanna Vignola), a dwarf who's as savvy as Jep and who can be as unsparing in her assessments of others.

Jeb may not appear anguished, but he knows he's reached an existential dead end. At one point, he says that his crowd knows how to do the best train dance in Rome. Why the best? Because it goes nowhere.

As the movie unfolds, Jep learns that the woman he first loved has died. He then begins an often wry examination of what many might regard as a wasted life. He also meets two women. Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli) is a stripper who continues to work even though she's in her 40s; Giusi Merli plays a woman many regard as a saint, an impoverished, toothless nun who sleeps on floors and who has a startling otherworldly presence.

Servillo makes a charming host; at moments when the movie feels a bit confusing, he's there to remind us that we're watching a meditation about Rome, about the city's strange juxtaposition of ancient ruins (Jep's apartment overlooks the Colosseum) and chic modern design, about the city's sensory appeal and about the sybaritic pleasures to which Jep has devoted much of his life.

No matter what else you get out of The Great Beauty, it will reward your senses with carefully chosen music (from techno pop to Henryk Gorecki), with the ravishing imagery cooked up by Sorrentino and his cinematographer Luca Bigazzi and with Serville's engagingly worldly performance.

In a way, Jep's a connoisseur of the senses. Servillo doesn't so much walk as he glides. He makes it clear that Jep wears his sophistication easily. There doesn't seem to be an ounce of strain in him.

Sometimes, I forgot about trying to make anything much out The Great Beauty, but feasted on imagery that continues even through the movie's end credits. In an age of 3-D and comic-book blockbusters, I'd almost forgotten what magnificent visual imagery can do for a movie.

The only special effects in evidence here are Sorrentino's and Bigazzi's incomparable eyes, their unsurpassed sense of composition and color. The Great Beauty is a cinematic temptation: The movie plays like a brilliant, witty conversation that's loaded with intriguing asides.

I was once on a train in Italy; the man sitting next to me asked where I was headed.
"Rome," I said.

"Ah, Roma,'' he responded, putting much color and commentary into the word. There was admiration, cynicism, respect, perhaps even a touch of world-weariness in his tone.

After watching The Great Beauty, I thought about that voice again.
"Ah, Roma," indeed.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Engery thaws Disney's 'Frozen'

It may not be a classic, but this animated feature offers the season's most kid-friendly entertainment.
Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, Frozen -- the latest 3-D animated feature from Disney -- boasts obligatory splashes of humor, aggressively showy musical numbers and good voice work, all abetted by impressive visuals and the trendy theme of female empowerment.

Although it falls short of Disney's best, Frozen should generate plenty of PG enthusiasm in a season otherwise lacking in entertainment for kids.

The story involves Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel), a blonde beauty whose magic touch turns everything to ice. To protect her adoring younger sister Anna (Kristen Bell) from being turned into a frozen ice statue, Queen Elsa retreats to a palace that's far removed from the kingdom of Arendelle -- but not before encasing the whole country in the perpetual frost of an endless winter.

Bell's Anna, who's being pursued by a handsome prince (Santino Fontana), refuses to accept her sister's rejection.

With help from the hardy Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his trusty reindeer Sven, Anna sets out to find her sister and persuade her to return to her throne. A reindeer named Sven? Yeah, I liked that, too.

Surely, there's a way for the two sisters to reunite so that Elsa can rule without converting her kingdom into a year-round ice rink.

Every animated feature needs a cute comic character: In Frozen, that duty falls to a snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad), who adds a bit of humor. Olaf faces an inherently existential problem: He longs to see summer, the season would spell his quick demise.

Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, Frozen makes room for friendly trolls, as well as a bit of action. And only the most sensitive of youngsters will be traumatized by a hulking snow monster that defends the queen's ice palace.

The movie's musical numbers were written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, and, like Frozen, they can be a little heavier on energy than enchantment.

If you're looking for resonance and fairy-tale subtext, you'll have to search elsewhere. Frozen's pleasures are pretty much on the surface. But that's no reason to discount kick the that you probably will find.

'Oldboy:' Reworking a cult classic

Spike Lee tries hand at a story that attempts to bring the shock of a South Korean movie to American multiplexes.
I wasn't a major fan of director Chan-Wook Park's Oldboy, but I admired its shocking audacity: Park's revenge saga featured the kind of violence that tends to delight certain genre enthusiasts. Among other things, the movie's main character ate a live octopus and extracted an adversary's teeth with a claw hammer.

Released in 2003, Oldboy was not a movie for the squeamish: It appealed mainly to those who were caught up in Park's revenge trilogy, which included Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005). Personally, I liked Lady Vengeance best.

I have no idea how Spike Lee's remake will play with those who are unfamiliar with the original. But for those of us who know Park's movie, watching Lee's version becomes little more than an exercise in comparative viewing.

Lee doesn't skimp on shock or violence as he brings Mark Protosevich's screenplay to life. The remake offers a mixture of new wrinkles and familiar ploys that should keep fans of the original guessing right up until the finale.

In this version, Joe (Josh Brolin) -- the main character -- is a hopelessly crude advertising executive whose offensive behavior is matched only by his alcoholic intake. After a particularly awful drunken binge, Joe awakens in what appears to be a shabby motel room. He has no idea how he got there. It eventually dawns on Joe that he's being held prisoner, although he has no idea why. He remains in this state -- being fed nothing but dumplings from Chinese takeout -- for 20 years.

While imprisoned, Joe -- whose room has a television set that mostly broadcasts advertisements for exercise equipment -- sees a newscast in which he learns that his estranged wife was murdered. His three-year-old daughter has been placed in the care of others.

Poor Joe: He's the only suspect in the crime.

When Joe's finally released, he dedicates his life to proving his innocence and wreaking vengeance on his captors. Of course, he must first find out who his captors are.

It's difficult to say more without spoilers, but it's worth knowing that Lee and Protosevich (I Am Legend) approach Park's story by offering variations on many of the same issues that concerned Park: namely perverse sex and brutal violence. Like Park, Lee gradually doles out revelations that are intended to rock Joe's already shaky world.

Lee brings an eclectic approach to casting. South Africa's Sharlto Copley (District 9) plays Joe's nemesis; Elizabeth Olsen portrays a social worker and former drug addict who tries to help Joe after his escape; and Michael Imperioli signs on as a bartender who has known Joe since the days when they both attended the same prep school.

Lee also finds a role for Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the man in charge of Joe's imprisonment. He also works in one of his trademark dolly shots lest we forget who's behind the camera.

Fans of the original will want to know that Lee replicates the hammer fight that became a signature of the original. The way Lee tweaks the story may be slightly more preposterous than the way in which Park brought it to its chasenting conclusion. The American version also has a tendency to over-explain things that remained more beneficially murky in the original.

But the main thing missing from this American version is the soulful, agonized performance of Choi Min-shik, who played the imprisoned man in Park's movie. The other actors don't compare as well, either. It's not that they give bad performances; it's more that the raw quality of the original (as difficult to take as the outré violent touches) isn't always in evidence.

What's left is a weird plot and dreary atmospherics as Lee dips into waters that reminded me not only of Park but of Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg.

It would be wrong to deem Oldboy a total failure: I was interested in how Lee and Protosevich approached their task, but I never figured out why they wanted to take on the job in the first place.

Judi Dench triumphs in 'Philomena'

An aging woman tries to locate the son that was taken from her.
Philomena, a new film from director Stephen Frears, deals with the legacy of the Magdalene laundries that blighted the Irish landscape until deep into the last century. In this case, an asylum located in an abbey staffed by nuns, took in girls who had the misfortune to become pregnant. These young women were forced into difficult physical labor and were treated with the kind of scorn the outwardly pious often aim at those whom they regard as sinners.

The girls toiled in laundries under sweat shop conditions, were shown little compassion and only were allowed to see their kids for an hour a day.

We've had other movies about women who found themselves in Magdalene asylums, notably 2002's The Magdalene Sisters, a tough drama written and directed by actor Peter Mullan. But this one is different, a movie that derives its tone from its main character, Philomena Lee, a woman who was not defeated by terrible early experiences.

Working from a script by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope (based on The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith), Frears tempers outrage with comic elements and with the resolved but gentle spirit of his main character, played with tenacity and humor by Judi Dench, an actress whose gifts are well known.

In 1952, the pregnant Philomena was placed in a Magdalene laundry by a father who rejected her and who regarded her as a fallen woman deserving of eternal shame. To make matters worse, Philomena -- played in early scenes by Sophie Kennedy Clark -- had to endure the agonies of unwanted separation from her three-year-old son after the boy was adopted by a well-heeled American couple.

Most of the story takes place some 50 years after this emotionally devastating event. Philomena -- now in her 70s -- wants to locate the son who was taken from her. All she knows is that the boy was brought to the U.S.

To help her, Philomena enlists the services of Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), a journalist who lost his job as a PR man in the Blair administration. At professional loose ends, Coogan's Sixsmith initially resists any involvement with what he considers a potentially mawkish human interest story.

Obviously, Sixsmith ultimately signs on, his interest fueled by a sense of anger at the injustice suffered by Philomena. Sixsmith is a fallen away Catholic, an atheist and a staunch critic of the church.

Ironically, Philomena, who has far more reason to be bitter about religion, hasn't forsaken her faith. She seems to have accepted the fact that the world of her girlhood mostly has vanished. She even makes a point of telling Sixsmith that some of the nuns she encountered were kind.

Moreover, Philomena's attitudes about sex are surprisingly relaxed. She remembers her early encounter with the young man who got her pregnant as entirely pleasurable.

In a telling image, Philomena looks at a suggestive billboard in an airport: Dench's face registers recognition of the impossibly wide gap that has opened between what Philomena experienced as a girl and contemporary norms regarding sexual behavior. Had she been born 50 years later, her story would have been impossible.

Coogan, who normally plays comic roles, brings welcome restraint to his portrayal of a journalist who eventually finds the spark that ignites his indignation. Unlike Philomena, Sixsmith has no interest in forgiving the nuns who once made her life a living hell and who continued to deceive her as an adult.

Frears lightens the mood with odd-couple contrasts that emerge when Philomena and Sixsmith travel to the U.S. in search of her son. Sixsmith greets Philomena's devotion to romance novels with eye-rolling elitism. He's also put off by her lack of taste, expressed by her delight in watching movies such as Big Momma's House.

There's much more to the story than I've suggested here. But for those unfamiliar with the tale, it's best to allow its various contours to emerge in a theater.

Know, though, that Frears -- in workman-like fashion that serves the material -- offers a cinematic essay on tolerance, compassion, forgiveness and the way unjustifiably stern judgments can echo throughout a life long after the cruelty has stopped.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

More (and better) Hunger Games

The series continues with a strong second helping.
At the conclusion of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, I felt as if I'd been watching an old-fashioned serial -- only one that had been playing for two hours and 26 minutes. Even at this excessive length, the second big-screen adaptation of novelist Suzanne Collins's popular series, left me wanting more.

Much of the credit for this goes to Jennifer Lawrence , the fine actress who gives Catching Fire its conscience and its heart.

Moreover, the movie's visual environment -- skillfully created by director Francis Lawrence and a capable effects team -- enhances what amounts to an upgraded second helping of a franchise that's gaining both momentum and seriousness as it moves toward its finale.

Lawrence (the director) has a distinct advantage over his predecessor, director Gary Ross. Because he doesn't need to establish the world in which the action takes place, Lawrence is free to advance the story, and he wastes no time belaboring the obvious: The Hunger Games that define the movie have a disturbing contemporary relevance, reality TV carried to perverse extremes.

This edition finds Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen as haunted as she is determined: In the last installment Katniss killed to survive: She now suffers the burdens of post traumatic stress disorder and lingering guilt.

The twist in the story finds Katniss and Josh Hutcherson's Peeta thrown back into competition as part of a ploy by the evil Capitol to extinguish any flames of rebellion that might be sparking in the various districts into which the country of Panem has been divided.

This particular competition -- staged to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Capitol's victory over an earlier rebellion -- pits previous Hunger Games winners against one another in what promises to be an even more brutal fight to the death. There's only one winner in a Hunger Games competition; i.e., one survivor.

There's a hitch in the plan, though. This time, combatants are much more likely to ally with one another because they all feel betrayed. Victories in earlier editions of the Hunger Games were supposed to guarantee the winners and their families lives of peaceful ease. The Capitol has reneged on its promise.

It doesn't take much familiarity with the Collins's novel to know that currents of rebellion flicker beneath the fascistic, authoritarian order that the Capitol ruthlessly enforces. Public floggings and arbitrary punishments makes us root for revolution.

The returning cast includes Donald Sutherland as President Snow, a man whose cunning is as thorough as his crisp enunciation. Liam Hemsworth returns as Gale, Katniss's old flame. Katniss's heart may belong to Gale, but she's forced into a phony romance with Peeta -- mostly to amuse the ever-observant powers-that-be in the Capitol. Will the sham become real?

Woody Harrelson reprises his role as Haymitch, an older former Hunger Games winner. Elizabeth Banks returns as Effie Trinket, the big-haired fashionista who presides over the public image of Katniss and Peeta. Lenny Kravitz is back as Cinna, Katniss's super-creative costumer; and Stanley Tucci again turns up as Caesar Flickerman, the host of the Hunger Games broadcast whose smile is as big as a billboard. A little of Tucci's over-the-top, parodic take on game show hosts goes a long way, even when used judiciously, as it is here.

The movie benefits from the addition of a few new characters: Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a game designer and master schemer, becomes the brains behind President Snow's malignant schemes. Plutarch has been charged with designing this edition's electronically controlled Hunger Game: It's called The Quarter Quell and includes poisonous fog, vicious baboons, swooping birds and a storm surge.

Also joining the fray are Jeffrey Wright, as a technically savvy warrior, and Sam Claffin, as an arrogant combatant, who turns out to be less selfish than we initially anticipate. Jena Malone has a nice turn as a Hunger Games participant who makes no attempt to hide her fury at having been drawn back into combat.

From the outset, the movie's effects team has ample opportunity to impress -- in the sleek imperial Capitol, on speeding trains and in decaying District 12, home to Katniss and Peeta, and, of course, in the action-packed games. (Oddly, the games might be the movie's least interesting achievement.)

The movie builds to a climax that neatly sets the stage for the final chapter, Mockingjay, which is scheduled to be released in two installments next year.

Unlike some franchises, Catching Fire isn't afraid to put some breathing space between its action set pieces. And this time, the movie seems more serious about immersing us in a class-divided society in which the misfortunes of the impoverished many support the decadence of the privileged few.

A cracked journey across Nebraska

Bruce Dern's somber performance anchors director Alexander Payne's latest foray into the Midwest.
Director Alexander Payne's Nebraska practically begs to be admired by cinema buffs and critics. To begin with, the movie -- set in bleak towns of the Midwest -- was shot in black and white, a retro move that can be seen as a defiantly bold stroke.

Just as significant, Nebraska boasts a fine and flinty performance from a 77-year-old actor, Bruce Dern. The plus: It's always nice to see a sagging career reinvigorated.

To further add to its cinematic bona fides, Nebraska exudes a sense of wistful melancholy, emerging as a slightly cracked ode to a vanishing America. The story takes place in towns made sparse by the absence of everything from tempting upscale malls to well-stocked big-box stores. The landscapes and towns in Nebraska seem to have slumped into a state of spiritual and material exhaustion.

It's hardly surprising that the characters who inhabit these landscapes can feel similarly depleted.

I guess I'm saying that there's plenty to admire about Payne's latest road movie, but I'm not totally on board with the effort.

Look, Nebraska has significant rewards (Dern's performance, surprising jolts of humor and a quietly moving father/son finale), but the movie also can feel burdened by a sideshow quality that makes some of its characters seem as if they've been imprisoned in a grotesque Midwestern diorama.

The story centers on Woody Grant (Dern), an aging alcoholic who receives a magazine promotion in the mail, and believes he has won $1 million. No longer in a possession of a driver's license, Woody sets out to claim his prize by walking from Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb. Clearly, Woody's running short on mental acuity. He's quiet, withdrawn, perhaps a bit demented, a man whose good old days probably never were all that good.

And that's part of what makes Dern's performance so convincing. He captures the hollow vacancy of a man whose memory has begun to fail. It's as if half of him already has left the planet.

After unsuccessful attempts to talk his father out of a perilous journey, Woody's son Dave (Will Forte of Saturday Night Live fame) decides to drive his dad to Lincoln. Dave knows the "sweepstakes" prize is a bogus come-on designed to sell magazine subscriptions, but he indulges the old man's fantasy.

Maybe Dave hopes that an extended road trip will provide an opportunity to bond with his emotionally remote, sometimes cruel father. Besides, Dave's at loose ends, having just lost his fiancee.

Thankfully, Woody and Dave don't spend the entire movie in a car. They make an extended stop in Hawthorne, Neb., the bleak town where Woody grew up.

Woody's family -- the folks who remained in Hawthorne -- acquires traces of freak-show distortion, particularly his two nephews, bestubbled dolts whose entire conversational repertoire consists of mocking the length of time it has taken Dave to drive from Billings to Hawthorne.

Once word gets out that Woody has won $1 million, the covetous Hawthorne townsfolk cozy up to him. Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), a former business associate, insists that Woody owes him a substantial sum. Just about everyone wants to feed at the trough of Woody's supposed good fortune.

Many of the scenes in Hawthorne are played for laughs as Dave becomes increasingly protective of his father's sad fantasy, a tacit recognition that his father's hope -- though built on a false foundation -- might be all the old man has left.

The movie receives a considerable boost when Woody's wife (June Squibb) shows up in Hawthrone to spew some venom and speak unforgiving truths about the town's residents, both living and dead. Squibb's Kate Grant adds one of the movie's livelier touches, although some of her dialogue can be seen as the kind of cheap trick you'd find in lesser movies: the supposed shock of hearing an older person use profanity, for example.

Forte holds his own, as does an underutilized Bob Odenkirk (familiar from TV's Breaking Bad). Odenkirk plays Dave's brother. As an anchor on a local TV news show in Billings, Okenkirk's Ross seems to have trumped his brother's meager professional accomplishments. Dave works in a stereo store.

For me, Nebraska felt like a backward step from Payne's work in movies such as The Descendants, Sideways and Election. Falling more into an About Schmidt mode, Payne -- working from a script by Bob Nelson -- tries to alleviate some of his comedy's bitter sting with an ending steeped in sentiment.

At times, Nebraska feels as flat and uninflected as the landscape over which it travels, but fortunately for Payne, the movie's small-triumph ending pretty much works. That puts Nebraska in a weirdly incongruous class of its own: It's a dreary crowd-pleaser of a movie.

'The Book Thief' gets it all wrong

It's not often that a movie gets just about everything wrong, but that's the case -- at least in my view -- with The Book Thief, an adaptation of a popular 2006 young-adult novel by Australian author Markus Zusak.

Director Brian Percival, known for directing six episodes of Downton Abbey, turns a World War II Holocaust story into a kind of fairy tale that also wants to celebrate the power of the written word.

This resultant tone -- radically misguided, I think -- turns The Book Thief into a preposterously sanitized portrait of hardship and war, all built around an achingly pretentious gimmick: The story is narrated by Death (the off-screen voice of actor Roger Allam).

Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse) provides the story with its center. Liesel's mother, a leftist threatened by the rise of Nazism, allows her daughter to be adopted by a German couple: Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). Rush's character is a kindly older man who soon begins teaching Liesel how to read; Watson's Rosa is a gruff woman whose good heart gradually is exposed.

Liesel's best friend is Rudy (Nico Liersch), a boy who looks as if he could serve as a poster child for Aryan supremacy, but who is good-natured, loyal and infectiously likable.

A pivotal plot twist kicks in when Hans and Rosa decide to hide a young Jewish man named Max (Ben Schnetzer) from the Nazis. Hans feels he must give Max shelter because the boy's father saved Hans's life during World War I.

As Liesel becomes an increasingly voracious reader, the movie seems to be proclaiming the saving power of words, the transcendental elevation that literature often promises. Needless to say (but I'll say it anyway) no words saved the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust and who received little support from their neighbors. Of course, that's not the stuff of fairy tales.)

Steeped in faux German accents and making haphazard use of subtitles, The Book Thief has an accomplished enough look, but still stands as a big-screen misstep. To buy into this movie, you have to believe that it's possible for people to be in a building that suffers a direct hit by Allied bombs, and, moments later, be displayed in the streets, their dead bodies totally unmutilated.

I can't say that The Book Thief represents a case of good intentions that simply didn't pan out; for the life of me, I couldn't figure out exactly what the movie's intentions were.

Perhaps The Book Thief worked as a novel; as a movie, it tends to be as guileless as a grade-school primer -- and no more revealing.

The Book Thief occasionally has its English-speaking cast spouting a few German words. I'll add to the multi-lingual babble by saying, "Nein." "Nein." And, "nein" again.

Lives the screen usually neglects

Credit director Laurie Collyer (Sherrybaby) for trying to illuminate a corner of American life that usually evades the shining light of cinema. In her new movie Sunlight Jr., Collyer focuses on a couple (Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon) trying to eke out a living in Central Florida. Watts's Melissa works at Sunlight Jr., a convenience store that gives the movie its title, and Dillon's Richie -- in a wheelchair after a motorcycle accident -- collects disability checks. In this world, nothing is easy. Melissa's lecherous boss (Antoni Corone) makes her life needlessly difficult. She's also being stalked by a drug-dealing ex-boyfriend (Norman Reedus), who happens to own the home that Melissa's mom (Tess Harper) rents. Melissa and Richie's minimal-hope existence shows signs of promise when Melissa becomes pregnant. The couple begins to see a future. Still, we know it's unlikely that Melissa and Richie -- well played and nicely shaded by both Watts and Dillon -- will be able to break the low-wage and dependency cycle in which they're mired. Sunlight Jr. is not a perfect movie, and it can feel as if Hollywood stars are slumming when they take on this kind of project, but Collyer's drama never dehumanizes Melissa or Richie, allowing them to emerge as feeling human beings whose need for each other might have a chance of surviving perpetual hard times.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Indigestible chaos in Romania

In Charlie Countryman, first-time Swedish director Fredrik Bond tosses off some interesting images, even when he's trying to keep things looking seedy. Fair to say that Bond and his director of cinematography, Roman Vasyanov, prove they have eyes for unusual shots. Storytelling? That's another matter. Chaotic to the point of confusion, the movie casts Shia LaBeouf as a young man adrift after his mother's death: Bond can't find a groove that makes sense of the journey LaBeouf's character takes: from Chicago to Bucharest. Why Bucharest? Charlie's recently departed mom (Melissa Leo) appears to her son in a vision and instructs him to head for Romania. On his flight to Bucharest, Charlie meets Victor (Ion Carmitru), a warm-hearted Cubs fan who dies before the plane lands. Once in Bucharest, Charlie looks up the daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) Victor told him about before his unfortunate demise. It shouldn't surprise anyone that Charlie falls in love or that his romantic pursuit is not problem free. Charlie's interest in Wood's Gabi upsets Nigel (Mads Mikkelsen), a handsome but vicious thug who was once Gabi's lover. As he wanders around Bucharest, Charlie also meets Darko (Til Schweiger), a gangster who -- like Nigel -- is looking for a videocassette that seems to have some importance in advancing what little story can be found. Adopting a Ratso Rizzo-like shuffle and a haggard look, LaBeouf becomes the naive tourist in a city inhabited by bizarre, sometimes dangerous characters. He also meets a couple of companions at a youth hostel (James Buckley and Rupert Grint). Working with a less-than-convincing accent, Wood doesn't seem quite tantalizing enough to justify Charlie's willingness to die for love, and Charlie Countryman (originally titled The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman) emerges as little more than a pop pastiche that travels an awfully long way to go nowhere.

Food, yes, but character, as well

One restaurant specializes in dishes such as squab inspired by the artist Miro. Another offers down-home country fare. And a third features Mexican cuisine derived from dishes the chef's mother makes. These restaurants are located, respectively, in Chicago, Iowa and Arizona. For a time, it seems as if director Joseph Levy's documentary, Spinning Plates, is going to be a study in contrasting cooking styles -- from arty to the point of refinement to basic, stick-to-the-ribs fare.

But as Levy's movie progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the human stories behind these restaurants constitute the real main course: I won't spell out every twist and turn, but I will tell you that difficulties experienced by the movie's main characters range from stage four cancer to destructive fires to devastating economic woes.

The movie focuses on three characters: Grant Achatz operates Chicago's acclaimed Alinea; Mike Breitbach is the sixth Breitbach to operate Breitbach's Country Dining in Balltown, Iowa, and Gabby Martinez is the chef at La Cocina de Gabby, an Arizona restaurant she runs with her husband, Francisco.

Levy's movie emerges as a display of American diversity across a variety of economic and social situations.

Although the movie's shifts between the three stories can seem a bit arbitrary, you can tell what Levy -- a former Food Network producer -- seems to have in mind. I think he wanted to show that cooking involves passion and commitment, and so does living through adversity.

Spinning Plates would have benefited from a bit of commentary that at least wondered why high-priced Alinea thrives while a Mexican restaurant like La Cocina struggles. Spinning Plates misses the kind of interpretive perspective that could have tied the movie's three stories -- each quite compelling -- together.*

*With all due respect to Achatz, whose culinary methods blend science and art and who has confronted more than a normal share of personal difficulties, I couldn't help wonder what a meal at Alinea might cost. On the day I checked the restaurant's Web site, a fixed-price meal was set at $210. Devotees of the restaurant -- according to enthusiastic reviews found on Yelp -- note that a meal might run between $300 to $600 per person after drinks, tax and tips. The restaurant sells tickets, usually two-to-three months in advance.(The movie points out that preparation for a single course might require as many as five people to spend 12 hours in the kitchen, which I suppose is part of the reason that the restaurant is so pricey.)

Hey, I like fine dining as much as the next person, but isn't it possible to view Alinea as an alarming expression of culinary elitism? OK, so maybe a meal can be a bona fide art experience, an occasion replete with creative displays of food and abundant visual wit, but when you remember that the average recipient of food stamps receives about $134 per month* -- less than $1.50 per meal -- it's difficult not to bypass sticker shock and go directly to depression. I presume that not everyone who eats at Alinea is super-rich: Dedicated foodies may save as long as necessary to support an evening's splurge. More power to them.

But don't let any of my reservations about dropping $600 for a meal -- not matter how amazing -- stop you from seeing Spinning Plates: The people behind the food make the movie worthwhile, no matter what other conclusions you draw.

*According to the Feeding America web site.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A club no one would want to join

Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto give Dallas Buyers Club its heart and soul.
Dallas Buyers Club -- the real-life story of a dissolute Texas homophobe who in 1985 was diagnosed with AIDS -- has been written about almost exclusively in terms of its two stars: Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.

McConaughey plays rodeo cowboy and electrician Ron Woodroof, and Leto plays Rayon, a transvestite who becomes an unlikely friend to Woodroof, as well as a business associate of sorts.

The fact that most of the writing about the movie has focused on McConaughey and Leto -- and the truly amazing performances each gives -- is understandable.

It's impossible to write about Dallas Buyers Club without mentioning that the movie caps a transition in McConaughey's career -- from promising pretty boy to a full-fledged character actor who can be eccentric, fearless and unnervingly immersive. McConaughey's engine always seems to be running at high speeds, even when he's idling.

To play Woodroof, McConaughey reduced himself to skeletal weight, unflinchingly embraced the ugly side of Woodroof's character and wound up offering a piece of performance-art caliber acting that poses a seldom-debated question: How much can experience really change a person?

Can a good-ole Texas boy, with a proclivity for drugs and hookers, develop unexpected sensitivities? How far in that direction could he possibly go? How would it look if he did begin to see the world through different eyes?

To McConaughey's and the film's credit, Dallas Buyers Club never totally files away Woodroof's rough edges: His bigotry, his boundless capacity for hustling and his unapologetic self-absorption remain constant throughout.

If you're familiar with Leto -- i.e., if you know what he looks like -- you'll find him unrecognizable as Rayon, a transvestite who forms an initially uneasy alliance with Woodroof.

Woodroof and Rayon meet in a hospital, after both have been diagnosed with AIDS. Rayon approaches the wary Woodroof, and as the movie progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Leto has put himself as far out on an emotional limb as McConaughey. He's playing a good-hearted character whose AIDS leads him down a path of heightened self-destruction.

Woodroof develops a personal connection to Rayon, but he also sees an opportunity to cash in on other people's troubles.

After he visits a rogue doctor (Griffin Dunne) in Mexico, Woodroof finds a way around U.S. law. He sets up a club that allows him to import and provide vitamin concoctions that Dunne's character dispenses. Club members pay dues: The drugs are free.

Woodroof initially was told he could expect to live another 30 days. The movie suggests that abandoning AZT and switching to an entirely different drug regimen allowed Woodroof to live another seven years.

Not surprisingly, Woodroof's new business venture puts him in conflict with the DEA, FDA and other government agencies. It also allows him to find a measure of unexpected fulfillment as a drug entrepreneur.

McConaughey amply conveys Woodroof's delight in running a burgeoning business. He might be the only person in the world whose disease resulted in an ego boost.

Two major figures represent the medical community. Denis O'Hare plays a doctor in charge of AZT trials at a Texas hospital. Jennifer Garner portrays another doctor, a physician who begins to understand that rules promulgated by the medical establishment may actually be harming patients.

Dallas Buyers Club seems to want to give us insights about AIDS, about the perils of early treatments with AZT, about the blind recalcitrance of the FDA, about the bureaucratic foolishness of the DEA and about the ways in which helpful potentially alternative medicines have difficulty finding their way into the mainstream.

I don't know what director Jean-Marc Vallé intended, but his actors tend to overwhelm the medical issues at the movie's core. I have no problem with that: Some of those issues have been explored elsewhere. Besides, McConaughey and Leto have done what movies do best. They've given us a couple of unforgettable characters.