Thursday, January 30, 2014

'Labor Day' asks us to take a big leap

It might be the most congenial hostage situation ever.

I'm talking about the premise of director Jason Reitman's Labor Day, a movie about an escaped convict and the mother and son he takes as hostages.

Reitman isn't interested in a situation that grows increasingly bizarre, but in one that becomes more ordinary as the movie unfolds. I guess that qualifies as a counter-intuitive approach, but it results in a movie that strains credibility.

Those familiar with Reitman's resume -- Thank You For SmokingJuno, Up in the Air and Young Adult -- will realize that with Labor Day, the director has taken new direction. He has turned his attention to a drama that's cleansed of the kind of quick-witted ironies that have characterized his best work.

Beautifully photographed by cinematographer Eric Steelberg, everything about Labor Day suggests a movie that demands to be taken seriously -- everything that is except a story that derives from Joyce Maynard's 2009 novel.

Reitman, who also wrote the screenplay, takes us to a small New Hampshire town in 1987. There, we meet Henry Wheeler (Gattlin Griffith), a teen-ager who lives with his depressed and isolated mother Adele (Kate Winslet).

During a shopping expedition to a local store, Henry and Adele are confronted by an escaped convict (Josh Brolin).

Brolin's Frank forces himself into the lives of mother and son, insisting that they take him to their home. He needs a place to hide until he can figure out his next move.

But here's the twist that challenges both expectation and perhaps common sense. Nice guy Frank, quickly assumes the role of father figure to Henry, who badly needs one. He also develops a slow simmering relationship with the love-starved and sexually deprived Adele.

The escaped con becomes an idealized savior: handsome, sexy and totally competent at household repairs. Frank even knows how to bake a peach pie. In a sensuously photographed sequence, Frank shares his baking artistry with Adele, who (to borrow a phrase from T.S. Eliot) eventually dares to eat a peach. She falls for Frank.

Movies have a way of creating their own realities, which is to say that they needn't be entirely credible to keep us involved. That's why it's possible to go along with Labor Day, which features an attractive cast and pulls us into the lives of its characters. I guess I'm saying the movie is never less than watchable.

Some of the credit for that accrues to the actors. Brolin conveys Frank's anxieties as well as his boundless capacity for being a helpmate. Winslet is convincing as Adele, a woman whose pain isolates her from the world, and Griffith makes a credible adolescent, a young man who has become an accomplice in his mother's insistent isolation.

Once Reitman aligns our sympathies with Frank and Adele, the movie's major tension revolves around whether Frank will be caught. Will the couple be able to continue their strange romantic idyll, preferably beyond the reach of the law?

I won't spoil the ending, but there's another sort of tension here: the unease that derives from our knowledge of other films and maybe even from the real world. Suffice it to say that few films could take this kind of scenario and turn it into an affirmation of family, devotion and the power of love.

Reitman rounds out the stories of Adele and Frank with flashbacks that can be a bit confusing, and a couple of side trips turn out to be unimpressive: Henry meets a new girl in town (Brighid Fleming). Trouble arises when a neighbor leaves her handicapped son in Adele's care.

Look, families and other tightly knit groups have a way of manufacturing their own realities. Labor Day understands that, but -- in the end -- I had trouble buying a story about a likable convict and the woman whose emotional life he saves.

When the lights came up, I found myself asking whether what I'd been watching -- though well-crafted -- really made sense.

Short films are long on creativity

A great time to catch all the short films nominated for Oscars.
This year's Oscar nominated short films will be playing in many parts of the country beginning Friday, Jan. 31. In Denver, features and animated films will be shown at Landmark's Mayan; the documentary shorts will play at the Sie FilmCenter.

It's not possible for me to review all of the 15 nominated short films here, but I will tell you that while watching them, I was buoyed by what the entire effort says about the vitality of film culture. This year's crop of shorts -- which seems particularly strong -- ranges from the whimsical (the delightful animated feature Room on the Broom) to the emotionally devastating documentary (Facing Fear).

-- Room on the Broom -- which includes voice work by Gillian Anderson, Sally Hawkins, Timothy Spall and Simon Pegg -- tells the story of a witch who teaches a quartet of jealous creatures that they really all can get along.

-- Facing Fear tells the story a chance meeting between a reformed Neo Nazi and the gay man he nearly beat to death 25 years previously. It's a powerful film about reconciliation.

In the animation category, I was most taken with Shuhei Morita's Possessions, a beautiful and imaginative look at a folk legend based on the notion that objects that last for 100 years acquire souls and are able to play tricks on people.

But don't discount Disney's Get a Horse!, which mixes Mickey Mouse nostalgia with clever new twists. Disney showed the short prior to its full-length animated feature Frozen, which also has been nominated for an Oscar.

A new wrinkle has been added to the features program. Between each film -- they range in length from 13 to 30 minutes -- you'll find brief comments from filmmakers, some of whom have won Oscars for short films.

These comments can feel repetitive, but they offer welcome breathing room between features that can have plenty of impact.

Among the features, I suppose my favorite was The Voorman Problem, which tells the story of an imprisoned man (Tom Hollander) who claims to be a god and who meets with a psychiatrist (Martin Freeman) who has been charged with determining whether Hollander's Voorman is insane.

But that doesn't negate the value of the other short features. The French entry -- Just Before Losing Everything -- introduces us to a woman who's trying to escape (with her two children) from the clutches of her physically abusive husband. Director Xavier Legrand builds enough tension to stock two features as the woman (Lea Drucker) literally runs for her life.

This year's documentaries are equally strong, embracing subjects as far ranging as the lethal attempt to squelch a 2011 protest in Yemen's Change Square (Karama Has No Walls) to the life of a 109-year-old Holocaust survivor (The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life).
The Lady in Number 6, perhaps the favorite for an Oscar in this category, tells the story of Alice Herz Sommer, a pianist whose musical skills kept her alive in Theresienstadt, the concentration camp where the Nazis made hideously fraudulent propaganda films about how wells Jews were being treated.

And if you're looking for a documentary about a strange pursuit, try Cavedigger, the story of New Mexico artist Ra Paulette, who digs caves and turns them into art environments.

For tough film, try Prison Terminal -- The Last Days of Private Jack Ryan, a 40-minute documentary about a World War II vet's last days in a prison hospice. Ryan was serving a life sentence for murder. The documentary airs on HBO on March 31.

I'll stop there, but I encourage you to see all of these programs. Not only are they individually worthy, but together, they serve as a tonic for filmgoers who still want to believe in the transformative power of cinema. Put another way, the shorts programs are a great way to refresh jaded cinema palates.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

'The Past' brings a complex present to life

The director of A Separation returns with a keenly observant movie about the complexities of contemporary relationships.

I've seen few better movies about the way people respond to tangled domestic pressures than director Asghar Farhadi's The Past, a revealing look at characters trying to negotiate an impossibly complicated, but entirely plausible situation.

Most of us never receive a get-out-of-jail-free card that distances us from our tangled histories. It's not just that we tend to see the world through the gauzy filters of memory, but that, as we live, our actions build layer upon layer of consequences that ripple through our lives and the lives of others.

Keep this in mind when you meet Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), a man who makes the trip from Tehran to Paris to meet his estranged wife (Berenice Bejo) and finalize their divorce.

At the airport, Bejo's Marie tries to get the arriving Ahmad's attention by pounding a glass partition that separates travelers from those who have come to meet them. Clearly, Farhadi -- who directed the great Iranian movie A Separation -- wants to say something about the difficulty of communication.

Despite this symbolic beginning, communications problems in The Past aren't caused by physical obstacles; they're lodged in the psyches of characters who, for a variety of reasons, aren't accustomed to putting their cards on the table. Put another way, they behave like real people.

When Ahmad arrives at Marie's house -- a chaotic residence in a low-rent Parisian suburb -- he learns that Marie's teen-age daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) has been acting out, that her youngest daughter (Jeanne Jestin) still remembers him fondly and that another boy, the recalcitrant and difficult Fouad (Elyes Aguis), is now living with Marie.

As the story develops, we learn that Fouad is the son of Samir (Tahar Rahim). Samir, who owns a dry cleaning store, and Marie plan to marry.

Not complicated enough? Try this: Not only is Marie not officially divorced, but Samir's married, too. Samir's wife has fallen into a vegetative coma after a suicide attempt. Doctors are unable to say with certainty whether she'll ever regain consciousness.

To keep us from being as overwhelmed as his characters, Farhadi reveals all of the movie's entanglements gradually, allowing us to learn about these characters at roughly the same pace as Ahmad.

Underlying all of this (and dealt with without undue attention or didacticism) are cultural conflicts that may arise from the differing ethnic backgrounds of characters who find themselves in the middle of a melting pot that includes French-born women and Iranian emigre men.

This divide, we'll learn, may have had something to do with what made Ahmad leave France in the first place.

The acting -- from both young and old -- couldn't be better. Mosaffa earns great sympathy as a man trying to maintain his balance as he walks into Marie's life, which -- of course -- means that he's walking into an undigested chapter from his own past.

Rahim's Samir seems remote, a man whose defenses constantly are up. And Marie's daughter Lucie -- both her daughters are from a marriage that preceded Ahmad -- has gone into sullen revolt against her mother's impending marriage.

As much as I've told you about the plot, I've also told you very little about the movie. Every character in The Past has a complex and justifiable viewpoint about what's happening. They're all right, and they're all wrong, and perhaps that's the point. No one lives free of contradiction and ambiguity.

For those who know Bejo only from her turn as a silent movie star in The Artist, she may offer the movie's biggest surprise. In The Past, she plays a working mother who can't always control her temper. Marie can be obstinate, even though she doesn't always know her own mind. The state of Marie's disordered home -- stray paint cans for an on-going refurbishing project and a yard that badly needs attention -- suggests that she's heaping too much on an already full plate.

There may be times when you may become aware of the structure that Farhardi imposes on this domestic mess, and he can't entirely avoid stumbling over a few melodramatic trip wires. But the authenticity of these characters -- the children are amazing -- keeps the movie feeling credible.

Critics frequently (and sometimes with good reason) complain about not being able to care about the characters in movies. It's a rare movie, however, in which we develop concern about all the characters and try to understand them.

That's why, for me, Farhadi is as important as any other contemporary filmmaker. He's interested in the kinds of people who might actually see his movies, and he's not judgmental about the fact that most of us can't get through life without having to live through at least a couple of major messes.

Two very different teen stories

Anyone who regularly attends movies has more than a passing familiarity with adolescence, but Maidentrip -- a documentary about the round-the-world solo sailboat voyage made by 14-year-old Laura Dekker -- brings a new dimension to adolescent adventure. After Dekker and her father won a court battle aimed at stopping the youngster's journey, she set sail in her boat, Guppy. Director Jillian Schlesinger, working with footage that Decker took during her voyage, presents a somewhat fragmented chronicle of Decker's travels. To be fair, Dekker had plenty of other things on her mind during her 17-month-long journey besides recording her trip. Mostly, Dekker was isolated, but during her trip, she spent time with an older couple on their own sailing expedition. She also toured various ports in which she stopped for breaks. Of course, she sometimes was called upon to navigate treacherous waters. Would I allow a 14-year-old embark on such a voyage? No. I think 14 is too young to decide to risk one's life. Did I think that Schlesinger may have been a little too accepting of Dekker's mission? Yes. Was I caught up in the story, even though I already knew its outcome? You bet. The sheer audacity of Decker's achievement makes Maidentrip worth seeing.

Another kind of teen story

The movie Gimmme Shelter tells another kind of teen story. In it, Vanessa Hudgens, who worked against her High School Musical image in Spring Breakers, continues to chart grungy new territory. This time, Hudgens plays Agnes, an unruly 16-year-old who's pregnant and at odds with her drug-addicted and abusive mother (Rosario Dawson).

On the run, Agnes seeks out her biological father, a well-heeled stock broker played by Brendan Fraser, who seems entirely baffled about how to deal with the daughter he abandoned.

Fraser's character is now married to prim and proper Joanna (Stephanie Szostak), and has two additional children. Joanna has difficulty accepting Agnes, who goes by the nickname Apple.

Director Ron Krauss hasn't exactly made an overt piece of pro-life propaganda, but his movie suffers from a lack of character nuance and it certainly stacks the deck in favor of Apple having a baby.

Apple, who refuses to have an abortion despite Joanna's urging, eventually finds her way -- with help from a clergyman (James Earl Jones) -- to a home for pregnant teens. There, she gradually sheds her punk image and turns into a potential mom. Say goodbye to the nose and lip rings.

The shelter is run by Kathy (Ann Dowd), a Catholic woman whose pro-life position (thankfully) isn't over-emphasized.

Best part of the movie: A convincing Dowd (based on a real-life character) and the young women Apple meets at the shelter.

Hudgens' performance tends to be unmodulated, and at times, the movie sounds like an ad for the shleter. Some of the scenes -- particularly those involving Dawson -- are rendered in a harsh, bruising style that struck me as attempts to sell us on the movie's commitment to realism.

A better drama would have found room for scenes that amplified Apple's plight, possibly adding a real discussion between Apple and her father about the wayward 16-year-old's ability to be a competent parent. The movie also might have addressed questions about how Apple -- who seems intelligent but has no demonstrable skills -- intends to support her child. And the fact that Hudgens is 25 -- and doesn't look 16 -- makes it easier to accept the idea that she's ready for motherhood.

Although it isn't pedal-to-the-metal propaganda, Gimme Shelter didn't strike me as a movie that wants us to give any thought to alternatives for Apple.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Another set of year-end awards

With some divergence from the Golden Globes, The Broadcast Film Critics Association Thursday dispensed its 19th annual Critics' Choice Movie awards. I don't know if the BFCA awards clarify anything for the Oscar race or simply add to the confusion.

The Broadcast Film Critics Association's 280 members represent TV, radio and online outlets in the U.S. and Canada. And, yes, I'm a member.

Take a look:

Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave
Best actor: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Best actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Best supporting actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Best supporting actress: Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
Best young actor/actress: Adele Exarchopoulos, Blue Is The Warmest Color
Best acting ensemble: American Hustle
Best director: Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
Best original screenplay: Spike Jonze, Her
Best adapted screenplay: John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave
Best cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity
Best art direction: Catherine Martin (production designer), Beverley Dunn (set decorator), The Great Gatsby
Best editing: Alfonso Cuarón and Mark Sanger, Gravity
Best costume design: Catherine Martin, The Great Gatsby
Best hair & makeup: American Hustle
Best visual effects: Gravity
Best animated feature: Frozen
Best action movie: Lone Survivor
Best actor in an action movie: Mark Wahlberg, Lone Survivor
Best actress in an action movie: Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Best comedy: American Hustle
Best actor in a comedy: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Best actress in a comedy: Amy Adams, American Hustle
Best sci-fi/horror movie: Gravity
Best foreign language film: Blue Is the Warmest Color
Best documentary feature: 20 Feet From Stardom
Best song: Let It Go, Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Frozen
Best score: Steven Price, Gravity

Jack Ryan lives -- again

Chris Pine tries to breathe new life into an old franchise.
I wish I had $5 for every improbable plot twist in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, a new thriller starring Chris Pine as author Tom Clancy's famed CIA agent. I might not be rich, but I'd sure as hell be eating at more upscale restaurants.

Still, it's January, and you take your movie pleasures where you find them.

Credit Pine for bringing welcome emotional vulnerability to the role of Ryan in an action-oriented movie directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also plays the movies arch villain, a misguided Russian patriot named Victor Cherevin.

Trying to reboot a Cold War series for present-day action spawns a plot that pays too little attention to veracity, stranding the movie somewhere between hard-core realism and James Bond fantasy -- with a little Mission Impossible tossed in for good measure.

No surprise there. David Koepp, who co-wrote the screenplay with Adam Cozad, also wrote the 1996 version of Mission Impossible and has a variety of additional action movies under his belt, including Spider-Man and Jurassic Park.

Shadow Recruit begins by explaining how Ryan becomes a CIA operative. A student at the London School of Economics when 9/11 hits, Ryan immediately joins the Marines. After being gravely injured in Afghanistan, he returns to the U.S. to recuperate and to be recruited by the CIA's Thomas Harper, Kevin Costner in full stolid mode.

Unlike other spies, Ryan is no womanizer. During his painful rehab, he falls for his physical therapist (Keira Knightley), a woman who soon becomes a doctor and who moves with Ryan to New York, where he works undercover as a financial analyst for a big Wall Street firm.

There's no sense trying to summarize all of the intricacies of a plot that advances both a terrorist threat and a Russian scheme to undermine the U.S. dollar.

Branagh's Victor Cherevin masterminds the plan. Ryan is sent to Moscow to thwart it. Perhaps to add more menace, the screenplay finds Knightley's Cathy following Ryan to Moscow to surprise him with her presence.

Of course, she doesn't know that he's in the CIA, and her impromptu visit complicates his mission. Not only must Ryan save the Western world, he must keep his girlfriend alive, as well.

Thankfully, the script doesn't turn Knightley's Cathy into a total cipher; it's clear that she's capable of thinking for herself. She even plays a real role in advancing the plot.

Branagh does a serviceable job with the movie's action, which takes an unsuspecting Ryan by surprise. While in Moscow, he's learning the ropes of being a CIA operative, a far more dangerous job than he initially expected.

Fortunately, Ryan's a remarkably quick learner. One minute he's fretting about not knowing his way around Moscow; the next, he's driving a car at breakneck speeds through the city's streets. The script doesn't allow much time for Ryan to make the transition from brainy analyst to lethal operative, but Pine does his best to make the leap as convincing as possible.

The same can't be said for the movie's wrap-up, which finds Ryan, Cathy and a CIA team flying to back to the U.S. and figuring out the rest of the plot at astonishing speeds. Oh well, what's the point of logic when the fate of the world's at stake?

Pine makes a better Ryan than his predecessors, which include Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck. If the series continues, he'll be able to put another franchise on his resume, already having landed the role as Captain Kirk in the revived Star Trek series.

Shadow Recruit mostly holds its own, but it could have been a lot better. No one asked me, but next time out, I hope the filmmakers opt for a plot that allows Ryan to ply his trade in more credible fashion.

'Ride Along' goes nowhere new

Riding in the same car, Kevin Hart and Ice Cube cover old ground.
Late in the new comedy Ride Along, Laurence Fishburne shows up in a small role. For those who seek out this mid-January formula job, I won't tell you exactly what Fishburne's doing in the movie.

His presence, however, has an unintended consequence: Oops, you may find yourself thinking, a real actor has arrived in what amounts to another variant on an odd-couple, bromance, cop movie junker that tries to make something out of flying bullets, fiery explosions, dumb car chases and predictable gags.

The set-up: A likable Kevin Hart plays Ben Barber, a guy who desperately wants to land a position on the Atlanta police force. Ben's engaged to Angela (Tika Sumpter), a woman who happens to be the sister of hot-shot Atlanta detective James Payton (Ice Cube).

Protective of his sister, tough-talking James is predisposed to hate Ben, and refuses to approve the impending nuptials -- unless Ben passes a test. He must ride along with James for one day, and prove that he has the right stuff to be a cop.

A murky and mostly irrelevant plot (something about Serbs and gun running) results in a seasonal throwaway that relies almost entirely on Hart's frenetic approach to comedy.

As the disapproving James, Ice Cube scowls his way through another performance, frequently mocking the notion that Ben's skill at video games will help him excel on Atlanta's mean streets.

There's not much help from a supporting cast led principally by John Leguizamo and Bryan Callen as Atlanta detectives who work with James.

You don't have to be a super-sleuth to know that the gags will be plentiful enough to provide even the skeptical with a couple of chuckles. For the most part, though, Ride Along remains distressingly unremarkable, another movie that tries to blend laughs and thrills and comes up short on both counts.

Charles Dickens has an affair

Ralph Fiennes acts in and directs The Invisible Woman.
The most compelling reason to see The Invisible Woman -- a look at a long-running affair between author Charles Dickens and actress Nelly Ternan -- has less to do with the lure of illicit romance than with Ralph Fiennes' engaging portrayal of Dickens, an author of abundant talent, indefatigable energy and dazzling complexity.

In what might be his must spirited performance ever, Fiennes (who also directed) reminds us that Dickens was a self-dramatizing celebrity with an enviable capacity for work. Not only did Dickens write his often lengthy novels, he directed plays, acted, spoke frequently at public gatherings, fathered 10 children and conducted a busy, extracurricular personal life.

When Fiennes reads Dickens' prose to the author's adoring fans, he makes it clear that Dickens keenly understands the drama in his own work. In fact, drama -- sometimes even melodrama -- might be the most important thing to Dickens, both in his writing and in his private life.

The movie's title suggests that Ternan (Felicity Jones) was forced to subordinate herself to the demands of the great man's image. The 45-year-old Dickens was married when he met Ternan, who was 18 at the time of their first encounter. Dickens discovered Ternan while he was directing and acting in an amateur production in Manchester.

According to the movie, Dickens eventually separated from his wife, but never publicly acknowledged his 13-year relationship with Ternan, a woman who (in the movie's view) understood and appreciated him in ways that his staid, portly and mostly resigned spouse (a fine Joanna Scanlan) never could.

In one of the movie's best scenes, Scanlan's Catherine gently concedes the race to Dickens' heart, but warns Ternan that no woman ever will be as important to the great man as his adoring and voracious public.

Working from a script by Abi Morgan -- who adapted a book by Claire Tomalin -- Fiennes alternates between Ternan's life as a married school teacher and her youthful days with Dickens. The structure emphasizes the fact that Ternan -- often seen taking brisk walks on a lonely Margate beach -- is struggling with her past.

Jones tempers youthful enthusiasm with growing unease. Ternan, we learn, is a mediocre actress whose mother (a fine Kristen Scott Thomas) takes on a difficult task: She angles to advance her daughter's prospects while also protecting her.

At one point, Dickens' friend and fellow author Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander) tries to convince Nelly that she's duty bound to break with convention and accept the role of perpetual mistress. Men, Nelly says, can afford to be sexual pioneers: Victorian women can't.

Toward the end of the movie, Nelly has a conversation with a sympathetic cleric (John Kavanagh), and the movie proceeds to a redemptive finale. Nelly apparently has digested her past, and is ready to move on.

Fiennes has directed before (Coriolanus), but I'm not sure that he's mastered the art of being on both sides of the camera. In The Invisible Woman, his work in front of the camera surpasses what he achieves behind it, despite able assistance from cinematographer Rob Hardy and production designer Maria Djurkovic, who team to create a finely detailed 19th Century environment.

For all of its achievements, The Invisible Woman seems a small potatoes drama, a minor and sometimes sluggish portrait of Victorian womanhood into which the character of Dickens breathes most of the movie's life. I can't know Fiennes intentions, but I find it difficult to believe that's what he had in mind.

A few reactions to the Oscar nominations

American Hustle turns out to be an Oscar triumph for its cast.
Game on.

The Oscar nominations for 2014 have been announced. It's time to seek cover as the onslaught of laudatory advertisements begins in earnest. While studios angle for every possible advantage, the rest of us can wonder whether a particularly impressive slate of best-picture nominees will so divide voters that a surprise winner emerges.

Conventional wisdom has it that we're looking at a three-picture race with Gravity, American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave leading the field. Still, it's tantalizing to imagine the uproar if The Wolf of Wall Street -- also nominated for best picture -- managed to sneak past the competition. Doubtful, yes, but a Wolf win would re-ignite debate about the movie's carnal excesses and launch an unprecedented display of cultural hand-wringing.

Nearly everyone agrees that the big news about this year's nominations involves omissions. Among the more notable:

-- Robert Redford. Beginning with his Telluride Film Festival tribute during the Labor Day weekend, Redford was being touted as a sure bet for a best-actor nomination and perhaps even as the year's inevitable winner. Redford gave a critically admired, dialogue free performance in All is Lost, but the movie's title proved prophetic: Redford did not receive a nomination in the best-actor category. Maybe the Academy voters thought one old-guy nomination -- Nebraska's Bruce Dern -- was enough.

-- Inside Llewyn Davis. The Coen brothers look at the '60s folk scene didn't work its way onto the best-picture list, and its star Oscar Isaacs was passed over in the best-actor category. Maybe Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) took Isaac's place. It's possible that the downbeat Inside Llewyn Davis was too idiosyncratic to impress Academy voters. The movie received barely compensatory nominations for best cinematography and best sound mixing.

-- Oprah Winfrey. It would have come as no surprise had Winfrey received a best-supporting-actress nomination for playing the wife of a White House butler in Lee Daniels' The Butler. I'd have considered Sally Hawkins from Blue Jasmine a bit of a long shot, but there's little point arguing with a list that also includes Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), Julia Roberts (August: Osage County), Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave) and June Squibb (Nebraska).

-- Paul Greengrass. The director of Captain Phillips was snubbed at a time when his movie was nominated for best picture and best adapted screenplay.

-- Tom Hanks. The best actor category is difficult one, but I'd have voted for Hanks (Captain Phillips) over DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street). I'm in no way sorry to see Christian Bale (American Hustle) receive a nomination, even though he was considered a bit of a dark horse. Ditto for Amy Adams (American Hustle) in the best- actress category.

-- Daniel Bruhl ranked as a strong candidate for a best-supporting actor nod for playing Formula One driver Niki Lauda in Rush. He didn't cross the finish line.

Most of the other nominations followed expectation, although I'd rather have seen the late James Gandolfini (Enough Said) nominated in the best supporting actor category: I'd have placed him higher than either Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) or Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street). Oh well, guess Hill found a role he could sink his false teeth into. I know. Terrible joke.

I'd say Spike Jonze (Her) deserved a best-director nomination more than Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street). Have we reached the point where Scorsese is like the Meryl Streep of directors, always on every list?

And speaking of Streep...She received her 18th nomination, turning up on the best-actress list for her performance in August: Osage County. Was Streep good? Yes, but I never could totally shake an awareness that I was watching Streep act rather than watching her character unravel. Streep played Violet, the mean-spirited matriarch of the Weston clan.

I can't say I'm upset that Emma Thompson -- considered a strong candidate for best actress -- wasn't nominated for Saving Mr. Banks. I wasn't a fan of the picture, and I believe Thompson has done better work.

To my delight, Cutie and the Boxer turned up on the list of best documentary nominees. I doubt that it can surpass The Act of Killing or some of the other heavy hitters, but I'd say that this off-beat look at "boxing" painter Ushio Shinohara has a puncher's chance. And don't count out 20 Feet From Stardom, a fan favorite that also made Oscar's short list.

Most years, I have a strong feeling about who's going to win the major awards the minute I learn the nominees. Apart from Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) as best actress, I have no such inclinations this year.

That means watching the Oscar telecast on March 2 might really be fun. You'll find a complete list of nominees at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences web site.

Monday, January 13, 2014

More from the awards front

You watched the Golden Globes? If so, you saw The Hollywood Foreign Press Association spread its love across a broad range of films. It named 12 Years a Slave as the year's best movie, while failing to recognize it in any other major category. Funny how some movies write and direct themselves.

Fortunately, the actual awards tend to be the least interesting part of the Globes, which are best known for their party atmosphere and as an opportunity for Tweeters everywhere (myself included) to indulge their inner snark monsters.

Oh come on, what the hell else are the Globes for?

This year's Globes didn't fail us: Tweeters and bloggers were given a steady supply of fertile material:

-- Jacqueline Bisset won an award for her work in the BBC drama Dancing on the Edge, and then proceeded to show why she needs someone to write her lines.

Diane Keaton ended her tribute to Woody Allen with a song that sounded as if it might have been more at home in Mr. Rogers Neighborhood than at the Golden Globes.

-- Leonardo DiCaprio won an award for his acting in Wolf of Wall Street, but seemed to puzzle about finding himself in the category, "Best actor in a motion picture, musical or comedy." (I can hardly wait for the right creative team to bring Wolf of Wall Street, the musical, to Broadway.)

-- Bono reminded us that he has a social conscience -- just in case we'd forgotten. (U2's Ordinary Love from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom won best song.)

-- Emma Thompson (bless her) held on to her martini glass but threw away her Louboutins, which somehow struck me as an apt metaphor for the entire evening. (And, yes, I needed someone to inform me about the kind of shoes Thompson was wearing.)

As the winners made ridiculously long walks to the stage, you may have wondered why the nominees weren't seated in the same building as the awards ceremonies.

Enough snark. I'm already over the Globes.

If you care, you'll find a complete list of Golden Globe winners at the Hollywood Reporter web site.

But I digress.

The reason for this post has less to do with the Globes than with the Denver Film Critics Society, which has announced its winners. I vote in this election, and present the winners here, just in case you haven't had enough awards, 10-best lists or year-end encomiums.

By the way, the Broadcast Film Critics Association's Critics Choice Awards telecast airs on the CW network at 8:00 PM Eastern Time (check local listings) this Thursday, Jan. 16. I vote in that election, too.

The Oscars? Remember them? Nominations for the 2014 Academy Awards will be announced Thursday, Jan. 16.

Now for the DFCS winners:

Best picture: Gravity
Best director: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Best actor: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Best actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Best supporting actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Best supporting actress: Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Best animated film: Frozen
Best sci-fi/horror film: Gravity
Best comedy: This Is the End
Best original screenplay: David O. Russell and Eric Singer, American Hustle
Best adapted screenplay: Terence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street
Best documentary: The Act of Killing
Best song: Let It Go, Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Frozen
Best score: Gravity, Steven Price
Best foreign-language film: The Grandmaster

Thursday, January 9, 2014

A thought-provoking 'Her'

Director Spike Jonze's movie about love in the time of artificial intelligence.
Other people can be so much trouble, particularly those with whom we have intimate relationships. They can shatter the images we have of them. They sometimes leave unexpectedly -- or we do. And then what? Conflicts vanish only to be replaced by a sense of vacancy, an emptiness that feels encompassing and hollow.

It's that kind of loneliness that makes director Spike Jonze's Her so strangely affecting, a movie set in a near future in which person-to-person communication has become increasingly difficult.

So it seems for Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who earns his living writing intimate letters for others. He composes these letters on his computer. He then prints out versions that look "authentically" hand-written and puts them in the mail.

Theodore's like the ultimate greeting card. He expresses sentiments that elude those for whom he writes. He takes his work seriously. He's good at. His letters aren't trite.

Theodore -- let's continue to call him by his first name -- is an odd duck. He lives in Los Angeles and wears what seem to be the fashion of his times, pants worn high around the waste. He has a mustache, and resides in a sleek, sparsely furnished high-rise apartment where he plays holographic video games while city lights twinkle in the distance.

In early scenes, Theodore walks slowly. Each step seems a bit of an ordeal: Theodore's body understands what his mind may not yet comprehend. No new destination beckons. He's in the middle of getting divorced from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), a woman he has known since he was a child.

Jonze gradually turns Her into love story in which a dispirited Theodore falls for a woman with whom he shares a new intimacy. Her name is Samantha.

Did I say that Theodore falls in love with a woman? I need to amend that. Samantha (voice by Scarlett Johansson)is a computer operating system, the personalized representation of something called "OS1," which offers a breakthrough in artificial intelligence. Samantha is Seri on steroids, and she's capable of developing an evolving personality.

Smart, unflappable, flirtatious and sexy, Samantha turns Her into a romance, but one that, by definition, can't be fully consummated. In this case, the obvious problem probably needs stating: Theodore has a body: Samantha is pure, unrestricted consciousness.

At one point, Samantha tries to cope with the predicament by asking Theodore to have a sexual relationship with a willing surrogate (Portia Doubleday). Theodore can't handle the strangeness such an encounter requires, a bizarre sort of threesome in which Doubleday's character generously clears out her personality for Samantha.

It's not that Theodore never tries to have relationships with other humans. At one point, he goes on a date with an enormously appealing young woman (Olivia Wilde). They have a great time over dinner, but before the evening's over, Wilde's suddenly wary character sabotages any hope for continued connection.

Theodore also has a friendly relationship with a neighbor in his building (Amy Adams in another impressive performance, this time as a woman who designs video games).

Jonze emphasizes the isolation that stems -- at least in part -- from our increasing interaction with user-friendly machines, but Her never plays like a Luddite's diatribe against rapidly advancing technology.

Jonze offers us what seem like provisional realizations. A fundamental sense of consternation permeates everything: We no longer can be sure whether life is mostly defined by consciousness or flesh-and-blood physicality. And if machines develop consciousness do they represent a new species of being?

Her allows us to pose such questions for ourselves. The movie primarily works as a sweet, sad love story, as a deadpan look at where we might be headed and as a character study of a man living in a convenient but anonymous future.

Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and production designer K.K. Barrett combine to create a visual environment that's never threatening, the future as a kind of agony-free zone.

On camera almost every second, Phoenix's everyman performance reveals Theodore's deep vulnerability. He's responding to a voice and to how he imagines Samantha to be.

Johansson, whose voice blends chuckles, sexiness and intelligence, makes a totally convincing Samantha. Mara excels in a small role as Theodore's estranged, angry wife, and Adams adds rumpled charm as Theodore's neighbor.

Jonze's take on things seems strikingly original because he isn't attacking an ominous new system or exploiting the future to make a sweeping political statement about the present.>p>
He uses artificial intelligence as a springboard for examining what happens to relationships when one partner evolves beyond another. He wonders whether we really fall in love with others or with phantoms of our own making.

Technology or no, those questions likely will persist into the future. Credit Jonze with finding an artful, intriguing and pleasurable way of restating them.

The intense reality of combat

Courage amid chaos in Lone Survivor.
For the most part, the war in Afghanistan has taken place beyond the view of news cameras. In near-Orwellian fashion, most Americans have been insulated from the painful realities of sustained combat. Because of that, it's difficult not to admire the intense authenticity of director Peter Berg's Lone Survivor, a movie about four Navy SEALs sent on a 2005 mission to kill a Taliban leader.

Lone Survivor follows the rigorously trained and highly motivated SEALs from their base camp to a remote area in the mountains. Everything seems under control until an unexpected obstacle compromises the mission: An accidental encounter with a trio of goat herders threatens to expose the SEALs' position.

The SEALs then confront an ethical issue. Should they protect themselves and the mission by killing their captives? Should they tie the herders up, possibly leaving them to succumb to the rigors of the wild? Or should they let them go and abort the mission?

The rules of engagement seem to argue for the latter position, but ethics and extreme pressure don't always mesh, and every possible decision harbors potentially disastrous consequences.

Beyond that, the SEALs are fully aware that a wrong choice could result in a torrent of unwanted after-the-fact attention from a press that doesn't take kindly to the killing of civilians.

All of this makes for the most interesting part of the movie, but it seems like only a few minutes before the SEALs release the shepherds and begin to evacuate the area -- which seems like the right choice. The downside, of course, is that the SEALs quickly are exposed to small army of Taliban fighters.

The result: a vicious battle for survival that's presented with all the harrowing realism Berg can muster.

In a moment when SEALs are credited with many successes, it's interesting to see a movie about a mission gone terribly wrong. No matter how well-planned a mission is and no matter how good the SEALs are at their jobs, there's always a chance that something unpredictable will happen. In all, 19 men were killed, the bulk of them during an attempted helicopter rescue of the four stranded SEALs.

Lone Survivor isn't easy to watch; it's unsparing in its presentation of the bloodshed of combat and the physical and emotional hardships faced by Americans stationed in a country where a good part of the population hates them.

As played by Mark Wahlberg, Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell gradually emerges as the central figure in a band-of-brothers exercise that acknowledges and respects the warrior code that has been imbued in men whose bravery is beyond question.

The men taking part in this mission include Marcus, Matt Axelson (Ben Foster), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch). There's a hierarchy here, but the SEALs work mostly as a team, and Berg makes it clear that the main motivation for the men involves their loyalty to one another.

Berg understands how to maximize cinematic impact. An example: He films the death of team leader Murphy in agonizing slow motion, a self-consciously cinematic touch but one that works to expand the moment to the point at which it's almost unbearable.

In the heat and confusion of combat, other emotional moments can be found. It's impossible not to be moved when a severely wounded Axelson tells Luttrell he wants his wife to know that he loved her, that he died with his brothers and that his heart was full.

In casual, almost off-handed ways, Berg lets us know that these men have lives away from the alien world of Afghanistan's battlefields -- wives, girlfriends and children. It's almost as if their jobs take them into an alternate universe.

The movie's title makes it clear from the start that three of the men aren't going to make it, and we also know that the lone survivor of the title will be Luttrell, who -- along with Patrick Robinson -- wrote the book on which the screenplay (also by Berg) is based.

After a ferocious combat section, the movie slows a bit as Luttrell tries to survive on his own, receiving assistance from friendly villagers, one of whom keeps him from being executed in a scene that's as traumatic as anything else in the film.

Viewed strictly in movie terms, Lone Survivor brims with relentless action and nerve-wracking tension. Berg, who has directed movies such as Battleship (awful) and Friday Night Lights (better), knows how rub our noses in the dirt of war, giving us as little time to reflect as the SEALs themselves have.

It's not the job of the SEALs, who sign up for particularly hazardous duty, to decide whether their sacrifices are absolutely necessary, certainly not during the brutalizing heat of battle. Lone Survivor leaves it to us to struggle with that question. We should.

Great cast puts 'Osage' on the map

A family that goes way beyond dysfunctional.

The big-screen version of Tracy Letts's Pulitzer Prize winning play -- August: Osage County -- may not reach the cinematic stratosphere, but it mostly holds it own. Credit several stand-out performances in the movie's large (and talent heavy) ensemble.

Trimmed from three to two hours, the movie version of Osage County also benefits from the tart humor in Letts's screenplay.

Moreover, director John Wells, known mostly for great TV work such as ER and The West Wing, wisely recognizes that his cast and Letts's writing constitute the movie's strongest suit.

A slight alteration to the movie's ending takes a bit of the sting out of Letts's drama, but Wells and cinematographer Adrinao Goldman add at least one dimension that's difficult to capture on stage.

They make it clear that the drama emanates from the flat desolations of the Oklahoma landscape. This sense of place serves as sturdy foundation for a caustic view of an American family steeped in bitter discord.

The story begins when the family's poet father Beverly (Sam Shepard) vanishes from home, leaving his embittered, pill-popping wife Vi (Meryl Streep) to browbeat the three grown daughters she summons in the wake of her husband's unexplained absence.

Julia Roberts's Barbara arrives with her estranged husband (Ewan McGregor) and her teen-age daughter (Abigail Breslin). Julianne Nicholson plays Ivy, the daughter who stayed behind and has become her mother's caretaker. Juliette Lewis portrays Karen, the wayward daughter who brings her fiancé (Dermot Mulroney) with her for the visit.

Additional characters include Vi's Sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale); her husband Charles (Chris Cooper); and their grown son, known to the others as Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Streep provides the centerpiece for this deranged family table. Her Vi, a woman suffering from mouth cancer, spews vitriol along with cigarette smoke. She's one of those cruel people who views her venomous attacks as necessary examples of truth telling.

In reality, Vi isn't quite so courageous: She's a woman with a mean streak as wide as the Oklahoma flatlands, one of those people who feels cheated by life and refuses to take it lying down.

Sporting a wig that covers Vi's chemo-assaulted hair, Streep gives the kind of showy performance that demands attention, but her's is not the best work in Osage County.

For that, you need to look to look to Martindale, whose Mattie Fae has a totally lived-in feel. The same goes for Cooper: His Charles is given one of the play's more moving moments. In the face of so much craziness, he becomes a spokesman for simple decency.

Equally good are Roberts as the daughter with guts enough to stand up to her mother, and Nicholson, whose character acquires unexpected strength as the movie progresses. Lewis might be the weakest of the sisters, but when the material calls for Karen to have her moment, she delivers.

Misty Upham appears as the Native American housekeeper hired by Beverly to care for Vi. She's used by Letts as the play's one stabilizing presence.

Wells finds touching moments amid the comic clangor, which -- on screen -- tends to be overwhelmed by a slew of late-picture revelations. There's screwed-up, and then there's "too damned screwed up," a condition of which Osage County becomes an unfortunate example.

Still, a lunch scene packs plenty of comic punch, and there's enough fine acting here to keep August: Osage County on the map -- if not to make it one of the year's most highly regarded destinations.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Two from the art-house circuit

For those of us who write about film, the holiday season offers a welcome hiatus. While moviegoers are gobbling up (or passing on) the latest releases, critics are taking advantage of a pause in the action to recharge over-taxed batteries and enjoy a life free of crowded preview screenings, deadline demands and the rigors of keeping up with an industry in which quantity has been known to outweigh quality.

On a more optimistic note, I'd add that the period between Christmas and New Year's also offers a chance to reflect on and savor the year's best achievements, particularly in a year that finishes strong -- as 2013 did.

Despite the lull, a couple of movies tend to find their way into view. In Denver, they can be found at the Sie FilmCenter, which also plays home to the Starz Denver Film Festival. If you don't live in Denver or another city with decent art-house representation, each of these movies probably belongs on your DVD wish list for the new year.

Paradise: Hope:

I wasn't a fan of the first two movies in Austrian director Ulrich Seidl's woman-centered trilogy. The first movie, Paradise: Love, focused on a portly woman who sought out the pleasures of exploitative sex with young African men during a vacation to Kenya. Paradise: Faith -- the second movie -- explored the perverse regions of religious zealotry by centering on the life of a woman who tried to flagellate her way toward redemption.

Now comes Paradise: Hope -- the best and least dispiriting of Seidl's trilogy.

This time, Seidl introduces us to Melanie (Melanie Lenz), an overweight 13-year-old whose mother sends her to diet camp. Although the camp atmosphere features near-parodic levels of regimentation, the spontaneity of the movie's young cast provides Paradise: Hope with welcome moments of believable humanity.

By its very nature, the film becomes a meditation on the contemporary obsession with perfect bodies, but Paradise: Hope also takes an off-kilter look at adolescent insecurity.

True to Seidl's sensibilities, the movie crosses the line into potentially volatile sexual territory when the virginal Melanie develops a crush on the camp's doctor (Joseph Lorenz), a man who's 40 years older than she. For his part, the doctor struggles with an obvious attraction to this plump, flirtatious teen-ager.

Because youthful desires and teen-age playfulness are set against the rigid camp backdrop, it's reassuring to watch these young people respond more to one another than to the adults who attempt to discipline them into fitness and acceptability.

The young people in Seidl's film make plenty of mistakes, but they're a mostly likable group. At minimum, they make us hope that they won't turn into the adults who are taking responsibility for them.

It adds something to know that Melanie's mother is the main character in Paradise: Love, the woman who joined friends on a sex vacation in Kenya. Melanie's aunt is the religious woman of Paradise: Faith.

You needn't have seen either of those movies to appreciate Paradise: Hope, which charts its own course, creates concern for its characters -- and even a bit of the hope promised by the title.

Having said that, it's necessary to caution unwary viewers that we're talking about emotional involvement within a context of weirdness that will not appeal to everyone.

A Touch of Sin

As 2013 drew to a close, director Jia Zhang-ke's A Touch of Sin found its way onto a variety of 10-best lists. I didn't include it on mine, but I certainly understand why others did. A Touch of Sin is courageous and unsparing in its view of life in contemporary China.

Jia divides A Touch of Sin into four loosely related stories, each derived from a real incident.

In the first episode, a man named Dahai (Jiang Wu) stages a personal revolt against a village bureaucracy that has stolen profits that should have belonged to the collective. In his old army coat, Dahai seems to represent the bitter dissatisfactions of those who feel betrayed by China's tilt toward unchecked capitalistic greed.

The second story focuses on Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang), a young man who arrives in Chongqing, a "modernized" city in the Three Gorges region. Zhou's interest in guns would be right at home in a lot of American movies.

In the movie's third section, we meet Xiao Yu (Zhao Tao), a young woman who's having an affair with a married man and whose frustrations turn violent when another man mistakes her for a prostitute.

Jia's final section introduces us to Xiao Hui (Luo Lanshan), a young man who flees the factory economy in vain hope of finding a better life. We may think of China as an unstoppable power with a growing economy, but Xia's story makes it clear that a rising tide does not lift all boats. Some even drown.

Although each story has a resolution, the movie's impact is one of cumulative realization as Jia takes us into a world in which prostitutes entertain visitors at a luxury hotel, in which violence never seems far from the surface and in which the feeling is one of disdain for the new capitalism that makes a mockery out of the old bromides.

Don't misread A Touch of Sin as an expression of longing for the restricted days of Maoism, but as a powerful lament for a society that's leaping forward in ways that leave some chocking on the dust of others' so-called "progress."