Thursday, March 27, 2014

'Noah' didn't totally float my boat

Darren Aronofsky makes an intermittently arresting Bible movie.
Early on, director Darren Aronofsky's Noah looks as if the director of movies such as The Black Swan, The Wrestler and The Fountain wants to turn a familiar Bible story into a bit of second-rate sci-fi.

What else to think when watching Aronofsky reprise the Genesis story in bite-sized visual chunks. If that weren't enough, Aronofsky later introduces giant rock creatures called Nephillim, fallen angels who stomp about the Earth like refugees from a Michael Bay movie.

Part spectacle, part attempt to wrestle with Big Questions (capital letters intentional) and part the story of a family in crisis, Noah provides Aronofsky's take on a tale in which God -- always called The Creator in the movie -- decided that mankind was too corrupt to preserve.

You pretty much know the story. Noah (Russell Crowe) is the last good man in a rotten world. Here, he's presented as a kind of proto-environmentalist who suspects that the world is doomed. Noah doesn't speak directly to God, but he reads signs and omens -- flowers that sprout magically in an instant, for example.

Understandably troubled by the prospect of global annihilation, Noah gathers his family, and sets out to visit his great-grandfather Methuselah, Anthony Hopkins as a kind of Old Testament Yoda. Perhaps Methuselah will know what to do.

Noah's accompanied on his journey by his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and this three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth (Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman and Leo McHugh Carroll).

En route, the family picks up a young woman whose life Noah saves, Emma Watson's Ila.

Religion aside, the movie gods must be served. Perhaps that's why we're only about 10 minutes into the movie when Noah finds himself wielding a cudgel against barbaric bad guys.

Noah, we learn, is a descendant of Seth, Adam and Eve's third son: The murderous Cain, a better-known son of the first couple, also produced offspring, a group of carnivorous, self-serving louts led by Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone).

Needless to say, Noah pours on the special effects when it comes to the flood (death by CGI) and the arrival of the animals that Noah has been charged with saving.

The creatures show up on their own, proving that Noah was the first to understand the now-popular bromide: Build it, and they will come.

Aronofsky is at his most daring when dealing with the post-flood Noah.
Motivated by his faith, Noah goes off the deep end, turning into a zealot who (like most zealots) goes too far.

Noah thinks God has appointed him as the man responsible for wiping out all humanity and restoring the universe to its original purity; i.e., a place with no people.

Other themes rise with the flood waters: The movie pits humanity's boundless hubris against a vegetarian Noah's deeper understanding of man's more humble place in the universe.

In an attempt to bring this already obvious conflict into even sharper focus, Aronofsky's speculative screenplay -- written with Ari Handel -- finds Tubal-Cain stowing away on the ark, and trying to involve Noah's resentful son Ham in a mutinous plot.

Tubal-Cain functions as the proponent of the dark side: The Creator has abandoned the world. He and man no longer are on speaking terms. Man, therefore, is justified in grabbing anything he can. It's not the heavens that rule the world, but man's will.

Noah, on the other hand, understands that man can't despoil the planet without consequences, and at one point, he even wanders through what look like the ruins of an industrialized society, demonstrating that Noah is not taking place in what we might commonly call "the real world."

Those who have seen The Fountain shouldn't be surprised that Aronofosky frequently attempts to operate in full visionary mode. He shows us Noah's prophetic dreams, the snake that tempted Eve and even summarizes the evolution of humanity in a segment that seems a heady mixture of Cosmos and the Bible.

The movie does attempt to answer several nagging questions:

Q: How did Noah care for all those animals?
A: He put them to sleep by waving incense-like smoke over them.

Q: How did humanity continue if Noah had only three sons?
A: Enter Watson's character, who has a romance with Shem. (In the biblical account, Noah's three sons all were married and took their wives on the ark.)

Q: How did Noah build the massive ark, which looks like a giant floating shoe box?
A: Those massive rock creatures helped.

We know from the outset that a message awaits: The movie finally pronounces that mercy and love are important balancing virtues to justice. A dejected Noah finds renewed hope.

The acting doesn't amount to much. An increasingly grizzled Crowe does what he can with Noah. He's playing a character who must read the divine tea leaves. Noah finds himself in a frenzy as he approaches a pivotal incident that seems to have been inspired by the story of the sacrifice of Isaac.

A little Bible story here? A little Bible story there? What's the difference?

Oddly, the only character who seems to operate with palpable conviction is Winstone's Tubal-Cain. But he's also mildly extraneous. With God wiping out almost all of humanity, did we need a big-screen bad guy for added melodrama?

I get the problem, though. Without a little something extra what would Noah and his family do once the Earth -- made as bleak and forbidding as possible -- is flooded? Play canasta and wait for the waters to subside?

Overall, Noah stands as a decidedly mixed achievement, less a compelling story than an attempt by Aronofsky and cohorts to illustrate cosmic ideas.

And sometimes, even Aronofsky's considerable visual skills fail him, as when he references The Creator by tilting his camera skyward.

Oh well, this strange mishmash of a movie considerately shortens the purported 40 days and nights of rain, and certainly doesn't feel like any other Bible movie. Maybe I'd have felt better about the whole thing had it begun with these words, "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."

Cesar Chavez unionizes farm workers

Cesar Chavez, a truncated bio-pic about one of the country's most famous labor organizers, offers a step-by-step look at the hard work of winning decent working conditions and reasonable wages for migrant laborers in California.

Director Diego Luna, who starred in Y Tu Mama Tambien and who previously directed a small movie called Abel, does a solid job of refreshing memories about Chavez's landmark efforts during the 1960s.

Working from a script credited to Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton, Luna concentrates on the five years in which Chavez (Michael Pena) helped organize the workers who picked grapes for California wine growers.

After deciding he needed to be closer to the workers he was trying to help, Chavez moved his family to the agricultural town of Delano, Ca., and began the arduous work that resulted in the formation of the Farmer Workers Union.

Chavez and coworker Delores Huerta (Rosario Dawson) ultimately found themselves leading a lengthy strike, which the workers ultimately won.

The rest of the supporting cast doesn't make much of an impression. A grower named Bogdanovitch (John Malkovich ) becomes the movie's main bad guy. Wes Bentley makes a brief appearance as a lawyer who helps Chavez. We also see Robert Kennedy (Jack Holmes), who turned up to support Chavez during a 25-day hunger strike that he staged.

Please, a moratorium on actors playing Kennedys. It almost always a distraction.

Chavez's wife Helen (America Ferrera) proves a woman of independent spirit, and, at times, Chavez's devotion to the farm workers causes him to spend less time with his oldest son than he'd like.

Pena portrays Chavez as a regular guy who believed in non-violence and who had no doubt that the farm workers were being exploited. His convictions seem almost inbred, an inseparable part of his being.

At times, Cesar Chavez can feel too routine, and the use of news footage doesn't do much to expand the movie's reach. We don't learn much about Chavez's eight children, and if Chavez had deep personal failings, the movie isn't interested in finding them.

Still, Cesar Chavez is represented as a tireless leader who wrought major changes and whose story deserves to be told. Viewed as an expansion of the voices represented in American movies, I'd call it a start. Let's hope it's not the finish.

An eerie drama about look-alikes

Jake Gyllenhaal teams with Canadian director Denis Villeneuve for Enemy, an atmospheric look at troubling issues involving identity.

Gyllenhaal, who worked with Villeneuve on last year's Prisoners, plays two roles: He’s Adam, a psychologically repressed history professor, and Anthony, an actor with a big personality. The professor seems disconnected from things; the actor is more outgoing.

The movie kicks off in earnest when Adam rents a movie called Where There's a Will, There's a Way. While watching this minor cinematic effort, he notices a background character who looks exactly like he does.

Adam then begins an obsessive search to find and meet his doppelganger.

Both men are involved in relationships. Adam occasionally sees a girlfriend (Melanie Laurent). Anthony’s wife (Sarah Gordon) is pregnant.

The movie invites us to play a mind game. Are we really looking at separate lives or at different aspects of the same life?

Did I mention the spiders? Images of spiders crop up throughout, seriously augmenting the movie’s creepiness.

Gyllenhaal handles both roles effectively, and Villeneuve and cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc get plenty of mileage out of the movie’s well-selected Toronto locations: Faceless apartments suggest an alien landscape in which anonymity borders on estrangement.

Enemy sustains interest, but never seems quite trippy enough to be entirely satisfying. Imagine the same material in the hands of a director such as David Cronenberg, and you’ll know what I mean.

As befits such a purposefully ambiguous effort, Villeneuve’s surprising final shot is open to interpretation — perhaps too much so.*
*Enemy has been available on VOD, where I saw it, and is now beginning a theatrical at the Sie FilmCenter.

A trip to Cambodia's killing fields

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took over the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, and the years of the killing fields began. Filmmaker Rithy Panh deals with the rise of Pol Pot and his murderous cohorts in a way that, at first blush, seems a total mismatch of style and subject. To make The Missing Picture, Panh mixes news footage, photographs and most surprisingly, dioramas made with clay figures carved by Sarith Mang. Mang's crude but tender mini-sculptures illustrate the fate of those who suffered and died under Pol Pot -- among them, Panh's family. Panh was 13 when his family was expelled from Phnom Penh. Panh's mixed-media approach works to heighten the sense of loss that prevades the movie. A narration -- delivered by Randal Douc and written by Christophe Bataille, who also co-wrote Panh's memoir -- further personalizes the story. Panh, who now lives in France, uses immobile clay figures to create scenes of happiness that quickly dissolve into horror as his family is sent to a labor camp. Panh's father ultimately chose starvation over submission to his tormentors, something the movie's narration calls an exercise of "free will." The Missing Picture carries us on a journey that not only contributes to a redefinition of the word "documentary," but takes us to the wounded heart of a genocide that never should be forgotten.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

'Divergent' has a derivative feel

Latest young adult sci-fi has limited payoff.
If we hadn't seen any of The Hunger Games movies, Divergent might have felt fresher, less like a medium-grade helping of dystopian sci-fi built around a young female character who learns to kick butt.

The fact that we have seen The Hunger Games may explain why Shailene Woodley, as the star of Divergent, sometimes seems to be standing in for Jennifer Lawrence, star of The Hunger Games.

It also may help us understand why a test that divides 16-year-olds into factions based on personality seems to be substituting for the lottery in Hunger Games.

You get the idea. It's difficult to watch Divergent, an adaptation of a 2011 novel by Veronica Roth, without making comparisons to The Hunger Games, the big-screen version of Suzanne Collins's 2008 novel.

Both books involve a rigidly divided society, a strong female main character and an oppressive social order. The stories, of course, are different, but on screen, Divergent has trouble staking out new turf.

To make matters worse, this first adaptation of Roth's trilogy of novels takes a long time reaching what feels like too paltry a payoff.
Set in a dystopian Chicago of the future, Divergent focuses on Beatrice Prior (Woodley), a young woman who has reached the age at which she must decide which of five factions she wants to join.

Youngsters are asked to choose one of five factions: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless or Erudite, depending on whether they're judged to be self-sacrificing, friendly, honest, brave or smart.

A rare case, Beatrice doesn't fit into any category. That classifies her as a Divergent, someone who doesn't belong.

Instead of turning her in, Beatrice's tester (Maggie Q) tells her to pick a faction and do her best to fake it. Beatrice opts for Dauntless, the warrior faction that serves as the city's army and police force.

Beatrice's choice surprises her parents (Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd), well-meaning folks who are part of Abnegation. Once part of Dauntless, Beatrice takes the name Tris.

Beatrice's brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) also raises eyebrows. He chooses Erudite, a faction that the Prior parents suspect is plotting to take over the city, all that's left after a war that devastated the rest of the country.

The Erudite faction is led by Jeanine Matthews (a blonde and icy Kate Winslet). Matthews tells young people to choose freely, but is so obviously authoritarian that there's little suspense about her character. We know from the start that she's to no damn good.

The movie focuses primarily on Beatrice's training to become a full-fledged member of Dauntless. She does this under the tutelage of the handsome Four (Theo James) and the mean-spirited Eric (Jai Courtney).

Setting all this up requires a fair amount of less-than-thrilling exposition. Although the early training sequences can be exciting, the three-stage development of Dauntless recruits doesn't generate enough episode-to-episode tension.

Most of the training seems to involve throwing recruits into sink-or-swim situations. We seldom see anyone receiving anything resembling instruction. The point may be to create a survival-of-the-fittest atmosphere, but it hardly seems the best way to develop future combatants.

Those who wash out of the Dauntless program, by the way, are relegated to living in the streets, part of the mass of folks who are factionless and, therefore, excluded from society's largess.

Woodley ably hints at Beatrice's delight in discovering her new aggressiveness and physicality, but isn't entirely convincing when she swings into action. James's character tends to be a trifle bland.

A prolonged finale is compromised by obvious dialogue about individual freedom and conformity that restates points director Neil Burger (Limitless) already has made.

Now that Divergent has broken the ground with this two-hour and 19-minute version, it's possible that the big-screen adaptations of the next two installments will be fleeter and deeper. Let's hope.

An Indian romance -- with great food

A story built around a contrivance -- but one that works.
The Lunchbox -- a first feature from Indian director Ritesh Batra -- may well leave you an appetite for two things: home-cooked Indian food and the possibility of bridging the loneliness gap.

Batra, who also wrote the screenplay, builds his movie around deliverymen who bicycle their way through Mumbai, some of them delivering hot lunches to a regular clientele. Some of these lunches are prepared by restaurants and some by spouses.

Nimrat Kaur) is one such wife, a woman who makes lunches for her mostly unappreciative husband (Nakul Vaid).

Ila wants to recapture the heart of a husband who has grown indifferent. With advice from an upstairs neighbor who yells instructions out her window, Ila begins putting special effort into preparing her husband's lunches.

Given the complexity of Mumbai's delivery system -- depicted by Batra in near-documentary style -- it's a wonder that anything arrives at the right place at the right time.

The story hinges on the fact that mistakes do happen. Thanks to a mix-up, Ila's delicious lunches wind up awakening the wrong palate. The recipient of Ila's culinary efforts is Saajan (Irrfan Khan), an older widower who works as an accountant and who is on the verge of retiring.

At first reluctantly and then with a bit more enthusiasm, Saajan begins to train his replacement (Nawazuddin Siddiqui).

When Ila learns that it's not her husband who's receiving the lunches, she begins enclosing small notes in the lunch boxes that are returned to her after each meal.

Saajan responds to the notes, and we become ensnared by the movie's big question: Will the two ever meet?

Beautiful and warm, Kaur is perfectly cast as Ila, and Khan projects a calm and steady presence. He's playing the kind of character we don't often see in films, a really good guy.

There's another refreshing thing about The Lunchbox. Like many movies, it's built around a contrivance. This time, though, the contrivance works to challenge the characters rather than to simply kick the story forward.

Batra seems to understand that a bustling, vital city either can revivify the spirit or drown it in loneliness. He has found an engaging way to spin a tale about two burdened hearts longing for fulfillment.

Lars Von Trier's sexual odyssey

Part I of a two-part film prompts a mixed reaction.
An older man discovers a woman lying in an alley. She's been badly beaten. He takes her home, puts her in his bed and begins nursing her back to some semblance of health and stability. She, in turn, tells him her story.

The set-up is nothing if not conventional, but when you know that I'm describing the opening of director Lars Van Trier's Nymphomaniac: Volume I, you'll understand that the movie has no intention of following a familiar arc.

As best as can be gleaned from Volume I -- reviewers have not yet had access to Volume II -- Von Trier has decided to explore female sexuality by pushing one woman's story to nymphomaniacal extremes.

We soon learn that Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the bruised woman from the alley, has taken an aggressively pro-active approach to sex, taking up with what seems a never-ending stream of men. Joe's relationships are brought to us in a variety of flashbacks in which Stacy Martin plays Joe as a young woman.

This being Volume I, we're left to surmise what might have brought Joe to her moment of degradation in that damp back alley.

The screenplay makes Joe her harshest critic; her rescuer (Stellan Skarsgard) seems a man of infinite patience. He steadfastly refuses to judge Joe. Instead, he gives her quasi-philosophical pep talks as they sit around his monkishly spare apartment.

Skarsgard's Seligman rambles on about fishing and other matters. He loves Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler, and tries to connect fly fishing to Joe's story.

This gives Von Trier an opportunity to create some beautiful fishing and stream imagery, which adds a sense of mystery, but doesn't exactly prove revelatory in terms of our understanding.

Principal among Joe's relationships is her intermittent connection with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf). As a girl, Joe asks Jerome to take her virginity. He obliges. She then runs into him at various times during the story.

Some of the movie has a near-comical tone. At one point, Joe and a girlfriend take a train ride. They compete over who can score the most conquests on the train.

Given her rampant sexual activities, it's hardly surprising that Joe becomes something of an expert on penises. Perhaps that's why Von Trier includes a series of shots of penises of varying types and description.

Is he suggesting that, for Joe, men have been reduced to this essential bit of equipment? Is he mocking male genitalia by calling attention to their strangeness when abstracted from the rest of the body?

We also learn about Joe's upbringing as the movie progresses. She tells us her mother was emotionally frigid. Her father (Christian Slater) seems to have been an understanding fellow who introduced his daughter to the wonders of nature. Von Trier punishes his apparent decency with a cruel death scene.

Von Trier also makes room for an appearance by Uma Thurman, who plays the wife of a misguided husband who believes that Joe's in love with him. Thurman's character arrives at Joe's apartment moments after her fleeing husband, who thinks he's about to move in.

To make matters even more bizarre, Thurman's character -- named in the credits as Mrs. H -- brings her two sons on her journey of revenge. How else to complete the humiliation of this poor sap, a man who apparently has misread everything about Joe?

Did Volume I leave me as eager for Volume II as I was for the next episode of Breaking Bad? Hardly. I'll certainly watch Part II, but I can't say I'd feel deprived if I didn't.

The movie's provocative title, its occasional obtuseness and its artful visual gestures may well create a mixed reaction for those who aren't entirely put off by the excessive nudity, sex and blunt language.

For me, though, the most shocking thing about Nymphomaniac, Volume I is that I didn't have a stronger reaction to it. Perhaps Volume II will light a stronger fire.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

'Veronica Mars' stalks the big screen

A TV series becomes a movie. The result is middling.
Whether you embrace Veronica Mars, the big-screen adaptation of a popular TV series that ended in 2007, may depend on whether you were a fan of the show to begin with.

At a preview screening, a knowing audience laughed appreciatively when familiar characters made their entrances. I think that's because they knew what these characters were about and didn't need much by way of back-and-fill explanation.

The film, by the way, begins with a short reprise of what happened on the TV series, persumably to allow for a bit of audience expansion.

If you're not a fan of the series, you may find the movie to be flat and unexceptional. If I knew nothing about Veronica Mars, the $5.7 million Kickstarter campaign that brought it into existence, and the obvious devotion of its fans, I would have had trouble understanding why this movie was even made.

Look, a 108-minute feature is not a TV series, and that may be the trouble. A TV series puts the emphasis on characters we get know over time. We live with these characters over entire seasons.

A movie, on the other hand, is a self-contained entity that needs a strong story. Veronica Mars doesn't really have one.

For those who need a quick primer, it's worth pointing out that Veronica (Kristen Bell) started out as a teen sleuth who worked with her private investigator father (Enrico Colantoni) to solve crimes and to penetrate the veil of corruption that surrounds law enforcement in Neptune, Ca., Veronica's fictional hometown.

Throughout three seasons of TV, Veronica displayed a keen gift for mockery and contempt that made her both a participant and a commentator on the show's developments. She could pretty much burst anyone's bubble.

In the movie version, time has marched on, and Veronica just has graduated from law school. She's interviewing with a prestigious New York City firm when she's summoned back to Neptune.

There, she's drawn into the investigation of the murder of a rock star, a young woman with whom Veronica attended high school. Veronica's former boyfriend Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) -- now a Naval officer -- has been accused of the murder.

In traveling to Neptune, Veronica leaves her current boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell) behind. Early on, you get the feeling that the Veronica/Piz romance is doomed. Veronica isn't one to be tied down.

At one point, the mystery takes Veronica into Hollywood, where she encounters James Franco, who's playing himself in a cameo that has an unfortunate in-joke quality.

Rob Thomas, who created the TV series, does a good job of keeping some of the high school dynamics alive, working a 10th anniversary class reunion into the proceedings.

And there's no faulting Bell, who maintains the smart, wise-cracking abilities that made Veronica so distinctive.

Usually when I see a movie, I have some idea about its box-office prospects. I have none with Veronica Mars, which will be made available on VOD at the same time as its theatrical release. The movie's success probably depends on how big a fan base it actually has.

I hope those fans find what they're looking for. As for the rest of you? I can't give you many compelling reasons for adding Veronica Mars to your moviegoing vocabulary -- unless it's to catch up on another pop-cultural phenomenon.

Speed? Yes Everything else? No

I wasn't going to bother with Need for Speed until I realized the movie starred Aaron Paul, best known as Jesse Pinkman, the young man who made meth on TV's Breaking Bad.

Meth. Speed. I thought maybe Paul had found a new drug on which he could pin his career hopes.

OK, I'm kidding. I knew that Need for Speed was developed from a popular Electronic Arts video game, but I'm not kidding about Paul. I wanted to see what he could do on the big screen.

The answer: If Need for Speed is any indication (and I hope it isn't), not much.

Paul plays Tobey Marshall, a blue-collar guy from Mt. Kisco, New York. Thanks to a few contrivances Tobey joins with Julia (Imogen Poots) on a cross-country trip. The goal is for Tobey to reach San Fancisco so that he can compete in a high stakes race sponsored by a former racer named Monarch (Michael Keaton).

Guess what? It's not all about racing. Tobey wants to defeat his arch rival Dino (Dominic Cooper), the immoral rich guy responsible for the death of Tobey's best bud (Harrison Gilbertson).

Dino forces Gilbertson's Pete into a lethal crash during an early-picture race, but the wrongly accused Tobey spends two years in jail for the crime.

Joining Tobey on his four-wheeled adventures are his pals Benny (Scott Mescudi), Finn (Rami Malek) and Joe (Ramon Rodriguez).

When Finn leaves his day job, the movie adds some gratuitious nudity to the proceedings. Eager to rejoin his racing pals, Finn shocks his office mates by stripping off his clothes, baring his butt and returning to the world of vroom-and-zoom.

En route to San Francisco, Tobey and Julia are chased by cops and by other enemies who want to stop them.

And just in case you don't think cars are enough, the directors add a Cessna that serves as a traffic reporter for the speeding Tobey and, later, a couple of helicopters.

The action (yes, there's plenty) sometimes seems more like vehicular homicide than racing with overturned cars and fiery crashes that look as if no one possibly could survive them.

Nothing makes a great deal of sense here, and as shocking as it is to say, the movie makes the Fast & Furious films -- at least the better ones -- look like masterpieces.

Based on his work in Breaking Bad, I'm thinking there's more to Paul than Need for Speed allows him show. I hope I'm right.

Wes Anderson checks into a grand hotel

Evoking a bygone era -- or a director's carefully realized vision of it.
Watching Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, I wondered whether the Marx Brothers wouldn't have fit right into the visual intricacies and loopy grandeur of Anderson's impressive production.

It's not that Anderson's nostalgic comedy has an antic spirit or that it's full of rapid-fire word play, it's more that Anderson has concocted a fantasy that embodies the feeling of European culture at a certain moment, perhaps the interval between two world wars.

Anderson creates a time full of aristocratic pretension, ornate elegance and formal manners. The Marx brothers probably would have trashed this world, created by Anderson in the fictional Eastern European country of Zubrowka.

Anderson may not embrace everything about this bygone environment, but he establishes it with astonishing precision. At times, it almost seems as if the entire production belongs inside a snow globe.

Anderson's great strengths center on production design, color and visual wit. Even a young woman's face can't be presented without adornment. Saoirse Ronan's Agatha, for example, has a swooping red birthmark on the right side of her face. A young lobby boy at the once stately Budapest Hotel draws a pencil thin mustache under his nose.

Considerable pleasures can be found in Anderson's mixture of artifice and art: Anderson creates a charmed atmosphere in which the principal characters are introduced along with the main story line, a tale told by Zero Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham ) to a writer (Jude Law) who's visiting the Grand Budapest.

Mustafa explains how he came to own the Grand Budapest, which -- at this point in the tale -- is in a near-fatal state of decline.

Thus begins a flashback. As a young lobby boy, Mustafa found a mentor in Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). Gustave becomes the movie's most memorable character, a concierge so well-schooled in the arts of service that he has sexual liaisons with many of the hotel's elderly women guests. They adore him, even though Gustave may have been a homosexual.

What ever his sexual preference, Gustave embodies all the surface qualities necessary to create the illusion of taste and distinction so vital to a certain segment of European civilization.

By the time, the movie is over, Anderson deepens his definition of what it means to be civilized, particularly when one realizes that life is short, brutish and subject to violent intrusions by war and other catastrophes.

Anderson's complicated, story-within-stories plot eventually comes to revolve around a supposedly priceless painting called "A Boy with Apple." The painting is left to Gustave by Madame D. (an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton), one of his aging fans.

Madame D's son Dimitri (Adrien Brody) wants the painting back. A tangle of betrayals and murders ensue. At times, the plot -- which includes a prison break -- has the over-stuffed feel of excess baggage.

That bothered me a bit, but with this kind of movie, the icing tends to be far more important than the cake, a fitting comparison because elaborately decorated pastries play a key role in advancing the plot.

Although Grand Budapest Hotel is small and highly polished, it boasts a large cast that includes Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Mathieu Amalric, Tom Wilkinson, Edward Norton and, in passing, Owen Wilson.

The heart of the story belongs to Fiennes and newcomer Rivolori. The two create a relationship in which Gustave -- a man known for his "liberal" use of perfume -- develops a genuine fondness for his young charge. If there's a love story here, it's between Gustave and Mustafa.

The movie ends with a title card that pays homage to Stefan Zweig, an Austrian writer credited with inspiring the script and who seems connected to some of the sensibilities that seem to interest Anderson. Overwhelmed by a rising barbarity in the world, Zweig committed suicide in 1942.

In a way, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a movie about sensibility. Gustave's refinements of speech (broken by the occasional epithet) contrast with Demitri's bluntness: Brody sounds as if he arrived in Zubrowka after a stop in one of New York's outer boroughs.

I can't say that Grand Budapest proceeds without sometimes losing steam. But there are enough rare sights to make the journey worthwhile: An elevator with a shocking red interior, the pink grandeur of the hotel's facade, and the changing aspect ratios that Anderson uses to evoke times past.

Moreover, the overplayed gentility of the characters remains quietly amusing throughout.

But there's a problem in all this: Anderson's sensibilities are so refined that he sometimes seems to lose sight of the audience. I enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel enough, but also sometimes saw it as a kind of art object, something too far removed from recognizable experience to encourage connection.

By now, though, most audiences have come to regard Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom, The Darjeeling Limited, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Rushmore) as an acquired taste.

The taste here? Call it bittersweet.

Elaine Stritch -- a force of nature

She’s crusty, disturbingly honest and full of irrepressible energy. She’s also 89, and has spent most of her life in show business.

Younger audiences probably know Elaine Stritch as Jack Donaghy’s mother on 30 Rock, but Broadway aficionados are well aware that Stritch has had a long stage career with lots of TV appearances ( Law & Order, The Ellen Burstyn Show, Two's Company, and My Sister Ellen) and a few side trips into movies, including two Woody Allen movies: September and Small Time Crooks).

Her theater credits include a one-woman show Elaine Stritch at Liberty, the original Broadway production of Company and the 1955 production of Bus Stop.

A new documentary, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, follows Stritch as she prepares for a final cabaret show in Manhattan. The movie concludes with Stritch's retirement: She recently moved from New York City to her home state of Michigan.

Stritch’s life has not been problem free: She has diabetes and has struggled with alcoholism. But she remains a vital and captivating presence.

In her film, first-time director Chiemi Karasawa, who worked for many years as a producer, gets up close and personal with Stritch. Her documentary revels in Stritch's talent and personality, but doesn’t flinch from showing that growing old isn’t easy — even for Broadway stars.

It's difficult to imagine that anyone could watch this entertaining documentary and not be charmed by Stritch. Trying to ignore her would be like trying to keep your hat on in a wind tunnel.


Q. Watching your film, it’s difficult not to think that you might have had a tough time filming someone who’s so strongly opinionated.
A. Initially, it was pretty tricky. It’s tricky for anyone to get used to having a camera around all the time. ... Elaine knows what she likes, and she knows what she feels comfortable doing. Once she began to see the cameraman as a human being, it was like she didn’t care anymore. She wanted the camera around because she wanted us around. That happened in the first couple of weeks.
Q. Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of stories about how films began. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a documentary that was born in a hair salon.
A. I was in a hair salon on 57th street. I saw Elaine crossing at the color station. My hairdresser said she was a long-time client. He suggested that I make a documentary about her. I went home, did some research and wondered why I didn’t know more about her.
Q. What would you say is her most essential characteristic?
A. Whenever I’m with her, she’s always the hippest person in the room. I took her to Lincoln Center to see a performance by my composer. As soon as we stopped for a coffee, there was a crowd around her. She’s not a very well known actress, but she always attracts people’s attention. ...
She fell off the truck as a different kind of person. She’s so candid and honest. She does and says what she wants to. ...
To this day, she’s the most unpredictable person I’ve ever met. That’s one of the joys and frustration of dealing with her. It also makes her a fascinating documentary subject.
Q. You began financing your film with a crowd-source campaign. Can you tell us about that?
A. We did an Indiegogo campaign. I raised 40 percent of the money for development that way, and it brought us a lot of attention. But the movie also brought us to the attention of Alec Baldwin. (He plays Stritch's son on 30 Rock and is interviewed in the film.) He asked how much we needed, and helped us to finish the film. He became the film's executive producer and hosted our premiere in New York City.
Q. Do you still see Elaine?
A. Yes. She was just in New York City for the press tour. She moved back to Birmingham, Mich. I’ve probably been to see her four times in the last year. She’s a close person and friend in my life.
Q. Why did she leave New York, a place with which she's so identified?
A. It was becoming increasingly difficult for her to live alone. The cost of living in New York with a full-time care giver was a concern. But she also recognizes that her life is winding down and that she needs to take more time for herself. To her, New York always represented a workplace. Her idea was to be closer to her family. She wanted to reach out to them and live in an environment that was about family than career.
Q. How has she reacted to the film?
A. I showed her a rough cut on a laptop on her bed in the Carlyle Hotel. (Stritch lived there for years.) She was really compelled by it. She watched herself in third person, as if she didn’t know what would happen next.
When I showed it on the screen with a small audience, she was nervous and unsettled. She didn’t know how her fans would take it. Seeing her in a vulnerable state, I had to reassure her that people’s responses were favorable.
But it wasn’t until the premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival that she really believed it. She got an incredible ovation. She was blown away. I think the film shows a triumph of spirit and an incredible survivor’s story. ...
Thankfully, she gave me the honor of making the film I wanted to make. That’s the greatest gift she could have allowed.
Photo of Elaine Stritch and Chiemi Karasawa courtesy of Erick Grau.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A German take on World War II

A mini-series reaches the big screen, bringing lots of questions with it.

In general, I don't believe in holding grudges. But when it comes to Nazis, I'm more than willing to make an exception. That's part of the reason I had difficulty with Generation War, a German mini-series that has been brought to U.S. screens, four hours and 39 minutes worth of movie shown in two parts.

Like most mini-series, Generation War (an attempt to show the war from the viewpoint of ordinary young Germans) catches you in its melodramatic rhythms. It's certainly not a borefest. But, there's a big "but" here, and I'll get to it shortly.

Although few of the characters in Generation War are Nazi supporters, they're all initially caught up in optimism generated during the early days of the war, a mood that diminishes dramatically as it becomes clear that Germany has lost the war and that casualties on the Russian front are nothing less than devastating.

The screenplay focuses on five friends. Viktor (Ludwig Trepte) is a young Jewish man who's in love with Greta (Katharina Schuttler), a young German woman who aspires to a singing career. Wilhelm (Volker Bruch) and Friedhelm (Tom Schilling) are brothers who are about to begin their tours of duty.

Whilhelm, an officer in the Wehrmacht and the movie's narrator, is the more gung-ho of the two. The sensitive Friedhelm, scorned by his harsh father, seems reluctant to take up arms. By the movie's end, he has become emotionally numb. He can kill without blinking, and seems to have surrendered to the belief that life is one big slaughterhouse.

Charlotte (Miriam Stein) is a nurse's aide who's eager to serve on the Eastern front, partly because she's in love with the reserved and dutiful Whilhelm. He seems intent on avoiding any emotional entanglements for fear that he won't survive the fighting.

The movie's most developed ambiguity centers on Greta, who takes up with an S.S. bigwig in order to secure Viktor's safety and to advance her career. Her Nazi lover helps turn Greta into a celebrity, and then betrays her.

As directed by Philipp Kadelbach, Generation War weaves its five stories into a coherent whole, although -- by the end -- Stefan Kolditz's screenplay begins to rely on a preposterous number of coincidences.

The genocidal plans of the Nazis are acknowledged, but the focus of sympathy here is with soldiers and civilians ensnared by forces bigger than themselves.

The film is skillfully enough made to create sympathy for characters who are put through war's wringer. The combat footage is suitably harrowing.

But the message may be boil down to something along the lines of a bromide: Everyone suffers when the bombs begin falling.

But there are those who have insisted that the movie's separation of characters into good and bad Germans tends to encourage a form of national absolution. Those voices shouldn't be ignored.

Others have complained that the movie's portrayal of Polish resistance fighters as anti-Semitic dishonors those Poles who opposed the Nazis.

Those are just a few of the "buts'' that limit Generation War's accomplishments.

The best you can say is that the needle on Generation War's moral compass tends to wobble. It's interesting to see how some Germans might view the war years, but it's equally difficult to watch this epic production without being bombarded by second thoughts.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

It's definitely not in the bag

The Bag Man continues the apparently endless attempt to bring film noir back to life.

I've had it with neo-noir, particularly when the attempt turns hollow and pointless, as is the case with the new thriller The Bag Man.

A battered-looking John Cusack stars as Jack, a hitman who's sent on a mission by a mysterious and apparently powerful man named Dragna (Robert De Niro). Jack's asked to travel to the Louisiana bayour, pick up a bag, hide out in room 13 of rundown motel, and wait for Dragna to pick up the bag. Jack will be richly rewarded for his efforts, but there's one catch: He's not allowed to look in the bag.

En route to the movie's less-than-surprising finale, Jack also must kill a variety of folks who are trying to kill him.

At the motel, he finds himself increasingly entangled with a woman named Rivka (Rebecca Da Costa), who may be plotting against him or who may just be an innocent bystander in Jack's murky drama that, too often seems to be trying to be weird only to establish some sort of strange bona fides.

The motel, for example, is managed by an unkempt and freakish looking man in a wheelchair (Crispin Glover).

Director David Grovic seems to be trying to leaven the proceedings with splashes of humor, but this dreary, derivative thriller can't compensate for Cusack's one-dimensional performance or for a story that gives us almost nothing about which we're able to care.

And the bag trick? We've seen this sort of thing before in Robert Aldrich's 1955 Kiss Me Deadly and in Quentin Tarantino's 1994 Pulp Fiction. Both Adlrich and Tarantino used it to better effect. Here, it's just one more detail in a movie of very little consequence.

Sex, a lake and murder

Full of male nudity and explicit gay sex, Stranger by the Lake -- a gay-themed thriller set in the world of cruising -- puts audiences in an odd position: The movie goes so far in its sexual frankness that occasional flourishes may remind you of a porn film.

It's fair to think, then, that in addition to spinning an intriguing tale about death and desire, director Alain Guiraudie wants an audience to confront its own attitudes about what's being shown.

In an interview with Slant magazine, Guiraudie has said that his decision to put sex and genitalia in the film's forefront had a political basis: He wanted to show that sex and sex organs are part of "desire and great love."

(You can read an interview with Guiraudie in Slant magazine.)

Set by a lake in the French countryside, Stranger by the Lake revolves around a young man played by Pierre Deladonchamps. Deladonchamps Franck strikes up a relationship with a mustachioed hunk (Christophe Paou) who frequents the lake.

Franck begins the affair knowing that Paou's Michel has murdered a previous lover. Deladonchamps' Franck witnessed the murder, a drowning at the lake that's depicted in an eerie long shot.

Is Franck willfully flirting with danger? Is he putting desire before his responsibility to the larger community? What are responsibilities to a larger community in an atmosphere geared toward anonymous hook-ups? In such an environment, is there really any community at all?

Franck also has conversations with a portly, dispirited man (Patrick D'Assumcao) who avoids the heterosexual side of the lake, but isn't interested in sex with men.

Guiraudie works in style that, with a few exceptions, seems almost without affect. But for me, what Guiraudie describes as a "political" decision -- i.e., the movie's nudity and explicit sex -- didn't help bring the story's more interesting concerns into any sharper focus.

Guiraudie also told Slant that he used body doubles in some of the "non-simulated" sex scenes: The actors evidently didn't want to go quite that far. That made me wonder: If the actors weren't prepared totally to immerse, why should we?

Stranger by the Lake would be easier to dismiss if it weren't a serious movie that finds menace in an idyllic setting. It is a kind meditative exercise in contradiction, at once languid and tense, observant and rash, subtle and blatant.

But how much did we really need to see in a movie that wonders how much its main character is able -- and perhaps willing -- to see? How you answer that question may well determine your response to Stranger by the Lake.

A hopless tangle in the West Bank

People living in extreme situations deal with complexities that can drive them to the edge of madness. Director Hany Abu-Assad's Omar -- which recently lost Oscar's best foreign-language film race to Italy's The Great Beauty -- does a convincing job of presenting these complexities in a movie that brims with personal betrayals, political protest, violence and suppression -- not to mention the hurts and pleasures of ordinary life.

Moviegoers who remember Abu-Assad's previous two films -- Paradise Now and Rana's Wedding -- know that this Palestinian filmmaker has serious chops. In Omar, he again mingles political observation and high-stakes drama in a story that focuses on Omar (Adam Bakri), a Palestinian baker who's constantly negotiating barriers between Israel and the West Bank.

A pivotal event arrives when Omar joins with a couple of childhood friends to stage a violent assault on Israeli soldiers. Tarak (Iyad Hoorani), Amjad (Samer Bisharat) and Omar mount their three-person assault on an Israeli military outpost, but only Omar is captured.

The Israelis release him when he agrees to help locate Tarak, the group's leader. But will he?

A love triangle further complicates the proceedings. Both Amjad and Omar are taken with Tarek's sister Nadia (Leem Lubany). This conflict echoes throughout the movie, resulting in an emotionally tangled mess in which personal and political issues disastrously overlap.

Abu-Assad spends a fair amount of time developing the relationship between Omar and an Israeli intelligence officer (Waleed Zuaiter). At times, Zuaiter's Rami seems sympathetic to Omar; at other times, he bullies him. It's never entirely clear whether Omar can trust anything that he hears from Rami.

There's enough sincerity in the performances from Abu-Assad's mostly non-professional cast to keep us involved and encourage us to sympathize with Omar's mounting torment. By the movie's end, he's left with no good options.

I didn't find Omar quite as compelling as either Paradise Now (about suicide bombers) or Rana's Wedding (about a young woman's search for her lover in occupied Jerusalem). But the movie definitely adds to the body of Middle Eastern literature that helps us understand why solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remain so elusive, and why this apparently endless struggle breeds so much sadness.

Monday, March 3, 2014

It's over! Let ordinary life commence

Yes, I watched.

And, yes, I thought it was a mostly lackluster show in which Ellen DeGeneres -- after a decent beginning -- went progressively downhill. Say this, though, DeGeneres seemed relaxed throughout, which is a relief from the usual straining for laughs that torments most Oscar hosts.

I tweeted during the show. Thankfully, the world only lost a few minutes of my wisdom when DeGeneres attempted to show that she too could tweet, and crippled Twitter in the bargain.

The pizza bit? OK, I get that the Oscar show is a bit of an ordeal. Stars can build powerful appetites carrying all that jewelry around, and it's never wise to pass up a chance to make fun of Harvey Weinstein. But very few jokes get better with repetition.

But wait, the pizza gag did have one abiding virtue. Tell me you haven't always wanted to see Brad Pitt handing out paper plates.

It definitely was weird watching Gravity collect award after award while 12 Years a Slave waited in the wings, ready to pounce on the big prize, best picture.

I noticed a definite decline in wit from fellow tweeters this year, and I, too, fell prey to what amounted to a mostly boring evening in which, for me, the most touching moment came from seeing James Gandolfini in the one place I never wanted to see him: Oscar's "In Memoriam" section.

Stupidity? There was some: Only Hollywood could assemble a montage dedicated to ordinary heroes that managed to put Lincoln, Muhammad Ali and Mel Gibson in the same segment. No further comment is necessary.

There seemed to be no purpose to a second hero montage, other than to demonstrate that Hollywood sometimes makes movies that lots of people actually see -- not always the case with the Oscar-nominated movies.

Here, to wrap up the endless awards season and with no gloating that my predictions were all on the money, a few of my favorite tweets:

-- It was great to see Steve McQueen jumping up and down with happiness after 12 Years a Slave won best picture. The hell with restraint.
-- Jared Leto, winner of the Oscar for best-supporting actor, gave a great acceptance speech, showing big-time improvement since his appearance at the Golden Globes.
-- American Hustle was one of my favorite movies of the year, and I was sorry that it didn't win a damn thing.
-- Matthew McConaughey's acceptance speech for best actor proved to me that if there's ever an Elmer Gantry remake, he's the man for the job.
-- If I ever win an award, I'm going to ask Darlene Love to accept it for me. She appeared with best documentary winner, 20 Feet From Stardom.

-- This was a strange year. It was difficult to find a movie on the best-picture list that didn't have some detractors. I've met folks who didn't like any of the frontrunners: Gravity, American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave.
-- Good to see Spike Jonze win best original screenplay for Her. What a concept. An original script that really was ...well... original.
-- I can't think of anything to say about Kim Novak that doesn't sound cruel.
-- Someone decided to put typewriters on the set when they handed out the awards for best screenplay. Bold imaginative touch, no?
-- Just to prove that Oscar knows how how spread the largess, even The Great Gatsby won two Oscars, best costumes and best production design.
-- Whenever I hear someone sing Over the Rainbow, I think of Margaret Hamilton and those terrifying flying monkeys. Yes, I'm sick that way.
-- Lupita Nyong'o -- winner of the award for best supporting actress -- should be en route to a long career. Let's see if Hollywood finds ways to make good on her promise.
-- Maybe it's just me, but I think there's a hidden meaning in the fact that Ellen DeGeneres put on a white tuxedo to introduce Brad Pitt. Don't think about it.
-- Congrats to the Starz Denver Film Festival for shining an early spotlight on The Great Beauty, winner of this year's best foreign-language film award.
-- Wouldn't it have been wonderful to see Kevin Spacey host the Oscars as Francis Underwood, the conniving character he plays in House of Cards? Could have taken snark to new heights.
-- The band mostly resisted playing people off the stage, but intruded on the recipients of the short film awards, the one group that truly needs a moment in the spotlight.
-- About midway through, I had an alarming thought. "Horror of horrors, the damn show is trying to be tasteful."
-- In introducing the best-picture montage that included Wolf of Wall Street, Harrison Ford said the movie was a cautionary tale. What was the warning? Don't get caught?
-- Jimmy Kimmel turned up in a pre-Oscar skit that made me wince.

If you watched the warm-up to Oscar and the show itself, you spent a long day journeying into what seemed an even longer night. You deserve an award for sticking with a show that proved entirely predictable to those who -- for whatever reasons -- pay attention during awards season.

So how do I finish this ramble and get to sleep? I'll offer this: I've seen worse Oscar shows, and -- optimist that you know me to be -- I hope one day to see better.