Thursday, April 24, 2014

Few laughs on this road to revenge

The Other Woman grates more than it amuses.
Three women avenge themselves on a philandering man in The Other Woman, a witless comedy that forces stars Cameron Diaz and Leslie Mann into indecorous displays of physical comedy as they grapple with a contrivance-laden script.

When the movie opens, Diaz's Carly Whitten, an attorney, is ensconced in an affair with a handsome businessman (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Carly thinks she's finally found her soul mate.

It doesn't take long for Carly to learn that the man for whom she's scrapped all other relationships is married to a character played by Mann. The script then labors to inform Mann's Kate that her husband Mark is a serial philanderer and all-around louse.

The twist: Carly and Kate develop an awkward, odd-couple friendship that progresses from one in which Kate drives Carly crazy to one of mutual -- if improbable -- respect.

Lest the men in the audience become bored with all of this sisterly solidarity, Melissa Stack's screenplay introduces another mistress, a bombshell played by model Kate Upton, who nicely fills out a swimsuit, as she did in the recent Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

Upton's playing a character named Amber, and director Nick Cassavetes takes as much advantage of her pulchritudinous glow as possible.

Mann overdoes Kate's whining to the point where it becomes abrasive: Diaz soldiers on as best she can, playing the savviest woman of this trio, a lawyer who's never seen practicing law.

Moderation is not a virtue here: Not content with turning Coster-Waldau's character into a rotten husband, the screenplay also contrives to make him a felonious fraud.

I suppose it's necessary to point out that Don Johnson (remember him?) makes a brief appearance as Carly's pleasure-seeking father, and that a lively Niki Minaj portrays Carly's secretary.

If you believe in any of these characters, you may be able to enjoy a comedy with a jukebox musical score and a sense of humor that turns a laxative joke into a comic high point. Need I say more?

'The Railway Man': off and on track

A compelling story told with sporadic effectiveness.
A young but resourceful British soldier during World War II, Eric Lomax became a prisoner of war, part of the legion of British captives and Asian workers forced to toil on construction of the Thailand to Burma railroad.

The Railway Man -- a movie about Lomax's experiences -- is at its most effective when depicting the brutalizing torture Lomax experienced at the hands of the Japanese after he was caught with a radio and a map.

The Japanese insisted Lomax was trying to communicate with China. In reality, he and his imprisoned pals were listening to war news on a radio that couldn't transmit. Lomax, a long-time train enthusiast, used the map to chart the course of the line.

Colin Firth plays Lomax as a man suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome, a veteran whose experiences -- which included water-boarding -- keep him from fully engaging in his marriage to a Canadian woman (Nicole Kidman). Lomax and Kidman's Patti met in 1980 -- on a train, of course.

Director Jonathan Tiplitzky complicates the story by lacing it with flashbacks -- some springing from Lomax's tormented psyche and some from a recounting of events by one of Lomax's war-time pals, a miscast Stellan Skarsgard.

Kidman's Patti pushes Lomax to share experiences he's kept bottled up since the end of the war. Kidman gives the expected fine performance, but her presence in the film proves a little tangential.

Jeremy Irvine effectively plays the younger Lomax in flashbacks to the war.

Eventually, the post-war Lomax returns to the scene of the Japanese war crimes he endured. He fully expects to kill one of his surviving torturers (Hiroyuki Sanada), a man who's now earning a living conducting what Skarsgard's character refers to as "Bridge on the River Kwai tourism."

The big issue -- no less powerful for being obvious -- involves the conflict between Lomax's understandable desire for revenge and his need for reconciliation.

The big confrontation scene between the British veteran and his Japanese tormenter almost shrinks the movie into a play on film, but Sanada and Firth make it powerful nonetheless.

Kirsten Wiig gets serious

Hateship Loveship proves punchless.
Hateship Loveship -- one of several recent movies that has been available on VOD prior to reaching theaters -- proves a restrained but imperfect attempt to turn an Alice Munro short story into a feature-length movie.

Hateship Loveship surrounds Kristen Wiig -- in a serious role -- with some fine supporting talent, notably Nick Nolte, Hailee Steinfeld and Guy Pearce.

Wiig plays Johanna, a woman who embarks on a new adventure after the elderly woman she has been working for dies. Isolated for much of her life, Johanna becomes a kind of housemaid and nanny to Mr. McCauley (Nolte) and his recalcitrant teen-age granddaughter Sabitha (Steinfeld).

The plot engages when one of Sabitha's friends (Sami Gayle) decides to play a prank on Johanna, setting up an affectionate e-mail correspondence between Johanna and Pearce's Ken, Sabitha's drug-addicted father. Ken's contributions to this dialogue are composed by Gayle's Edith.

Acting on what she believes to be her one chance for love, lonely Johanna travels to Chicago and moves in with Ken, who resides in a rundown motel that he makes noises about renovating.

Half spooky and half sincere, Wiig proves convincing as a woman who knows next to nothing about the world and its rules.

Gradually, Johanna takes over Ken's life: She sees hope where we see nothing but potential doom.

To worm her way into Ken's world, the emotionally underdeveloped Johanna must displace Chloe (Jennifer Jason Leigh), one of Ken's junkie pals.

Director Liza Johnson, working from a script by Mark Poirier, files off the story's rougher edges, which has the effect of making Loveship Hateship entirely too easy to shrug off.

What could have been a tender little movie seems little more than a curiosity: Wiig in a role without a comic side.

Great photos that almost weren't seen

Finding Vivian Maier examines the strange life of a gifted street photographer.
A central question haunts and enriches the new documentary Finding Vivian Maier. Why would Maier, a brilliant street photographer who spent much of her adult life working as a nanny, never show anyone her work?

Directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel build their documentary around a discovery made by Maloof. In pursuit of photographs for another project, Maloof spent $400 at an auction. He wound up owning a box containing 30,000 of Maier's negatives and prints. He later acquired more of her work.

Maloof couldn't find out much about Maier, but when she died in 2009, he began to pursue his interest in her, based on his assessment that her work -- much of it done in the 1950s and '60s -- was both significant and amazing.

Maloof learned that Maier worked as a nanny in the Chicago area, that many of the children she supervised did not particularly like her, that she had an international upbringing and that she was a compulsive hoarder.

When Maloof put some of Maier's work on the Internet, interest began to mount.

At its best, Finding Vivian Maier raises interesting questions about what conditions must be met in order for photography to be regarded as art. Maloof argues against those who contend that "genuine" photographic art -- the kind taken seriously by museums -- must be printed by the photographer.

Obviously, the departed Maier no longer can print the hundreds of thousands of negatives she left behind. She seemed to have no interest in establishing herself as an artist during her lifetime.

Maloof's obsession with Maier's work rivals her penchant for secrecy, but I knew nothing about Maier's photography prior to seeing this documentary, and was happy to learn about it.

Maybe we're better off for being able to see these amazing photographs without having to know the woman who took them: Maier does not come off as the most amiable of companions.

Siskel and Maloof learn plenty about Maier, but in the end, it's her beautifully composed and revealing slice-of-life photographs that prove memorable -- that and the strange realization that Maier never will know that we've seen them.

Some of Maier's work can be seen by clicking here.

Seeking paradise in the Galapagos

It's doubtful that you'll find a wackier story than the one told in The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, a documentary centered on a German couple that moved to the Galapagos Islands prior to the rise of Hitler.

Directors Dayna Goldfine and Daniel Geller began their efforts after finding black-and-white footage of Friedrich Ritter and Dore Strauch, the original settlers on the unpopulated island of Floreana in the southern Pacific.

According to the movie's web site, the footage was shot during expeditions by Captain Alan Hancock to the Galapagos Islands, a desolate spot that seems better suited to lizards and giant tortoises than to human beings.

Ritter, a physician who fancied himself a philosopher, was aggrieved when a few other intrepid souls followed him to Floreana, including a purported baroness who seemed to become sexually involved with most of the men on the island.

Life on Floreana wasn't easy, and much of the footage shows Strauch and Ritter working to sustain life by cultivating crops to support their vegetarianism.

Ritter's goal was to forsake the individuality-crushing confines of civilization and community. Naturally, the arrival of other people only fueled Ritter's belief that contact with others meant conflict.

The newbies on Floreana included another German couple and the aforementioned baroness -- one Eloise von Wagner Bosquet -- who brought a couple of lovers with her. The baroness planned to build a hotel on the island.

The story, which includes a possible murder and assorted other mysteries, is carefully assembled with a variety of name actors reading from correspondence by all the participants.

Voices are provided by Cate Blanchett (Strauch), Diane Kruger (as the female member of the second couple) and Connie Nielsen (as the baroness). Thomas Kretschmann reads the words of Ritter.

Interviews with some of the offspring of the handful of people who lived on the Galapagos Islands add a bit of contemporary spin to the proceedings.

The German newspapers wrote about Ritter and Strauch as a new Adam and Eve. It doesn't take much by way of imagination to know that a paradise never found can't be lost.

The Galapagos Affair is an interesting and bizarre story about the way in which noble dreams so often lead to folly.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Johnny Depp dwells in a computer

Transcendence: a muddled look at the perils of artificial intelligence
I don't know exactly what's in the hearts and minds of director Wally Pfister and screenwriter Jack Paglen when it comes to the perils humanity faces as mankind inches closer to a time when artificial intelligence threatens to undermine the biological basis of life.

And that's the trouble.

I should have left Transcendence, which purports to deal with just that subject, feeling a sense of outrage -- or at least brooding concern. I'd gladly have settled for glimmers of hope that we'll come to our senses and cling to the flesh-and-blood quality of our lives.

Instead, I left wondering what the hell Pfister was trying to say and whether too much A-line pap has diminished Johnny Depp as an actor.

I also wondered whether whether Pfister, an excellent cinematographer who has worked on almost all of director Christopher Nolan's movies (e.g., The Dark Knight and Inception) forgot that the main job of the director has less to do with cinematic flourishes (of which Transcendence boasts many) than with with storytelling.

The longer Transcendence goes on, the more it feels as if the story hadn't been thought through or perhaps had been tinkered with by a committee. Don't you think we need a love story? How about adding hybrids? No, not cars, but zombie-like folks ready to form an automoton-like army.

Depp plays Will Caster, a brilliant computer scientist whose work in the field of artificial intelligence has established him as a global genius. Caster's wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), runs the business side of Will's life, raising money for his work in league with Max Waters (Paul Bettany), another computer scientist.

Early on, Will is attacked by a radical anti-technology group called RIFT. He survives a gunshot wound only to learn that he was struck by a radioactive bullet.

With death looming, Hall and Bettany contrive to salvage Will's consciousness by uploading it into a giant computer. They succeed, and the trouble starts.

Will's humanitarian impulses become distorted. With all the world's information at his disposal through the Internet, he becomes power hungry -- for the good of mankind, he says.

Depp doesn't inhabit a computer as well as Scarlett Johansson did in Her. (A better title for Transcendence might have been Him.)

And the supporting cast is largely wasted.

Hall does what she can as a woman whose ideals increasingly are betrayed. Bettany brings hand-wringing sincerity to his role, but the rest of the cast -- Morgan Freeman (as a scientist), Cillian Murphy (as an FBI agent) and a grim looking Kate Mara (as a RIFT activist) is largely wasted.

It's depressing to watch an actor as gifted as Freeman playing a non-character in a sea of non-characters.

Maybe that's the rub: A movie that wants to remind us of our connection to the Earth and of our precious humanity might have made more of an effort to include a few interesting human beings.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Jude Law goes gangster

He's brutal and vulgar, but he fills the film.
In playing a low-level thug desperately trying to find his footing after a 12-year-stint in prison, Jude Law pulls out every stop he can find.

Law's Dom Hemingway -- the title character of director Richard Shepard's foray into the world of cockney criminals -- gives us a main character who's mesmerizingly vulgar.

Dom's a brutal man without impulse control, a stocky, angry mess of a fellow who refused to rat out his partners in crime while in prison.

For that, Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir) -- the crime czar who profited from Dom's silence -- has a debt to pay. So Dom and his buddy Dickie (Richard E. Grant) travel to the south of France to visit Mr. Fontaine's estate and collect Dom's reward.

One assumes that Shepard, who splashes title cards over bright red screens and adds other pop-oriented flourishes, gave Law all the room he needed to find his inner beast.

Law obliged by putting as much physicality into the role as possible. When Dom gets out of prison, he looks as if he's going to burst the seams of his dated double-breasted blue suit.

Dom's post-prison life isn't easy. He runs into a problem with Mr. Fontaine's larcenous lover (Madalina Diana Ghenea).

When he returns to London, a thug threatens to slice off his ... well ... you know. I suppose it's appropriate since the priapic Dom opens the movie with a soaring, ferocious monologue proclaiming the glories of his penis.

For all his bravado, Dom's a magnate for bad luck. He probably doesn't expect to be greeted warmly when he tries to reunite with the daughter (Emilia Clarke) who grew up without him. Clarke's Evelyn resents Dom deeply -- and probably justifiably.

By the time, Dom locates Evelyn, she's living with a Senegalese musician with whom she's had a son.

In trying for too much (the movie's episodic story elements create a cascading slice of contemporary British life), Shepard may have achieved too little. Dom Hemingway becomes the movie's story, a pretty big burden for any character -- even one as out-sized as Dom.

A scattershot collection of low-life bits and pieces, Dom Hemingway mellows with the unfortunate emergence of some late-picture sentimentality.

Still, Law's performance has too much raw energy to ignore: He's playing a man who doesn't know whether there's anything about himself that's worth salvaging. Dom rails at others, at an uncaring universe and perhaps at himself.

If Dom has any charm, it derives from his naive determination not to let the universe win.

Living in an alien world

Under the Skin tells a different sort of tale.
Under the Skin, a deadpan helping of sci-fi, turns out to be an exceptionally strange affair.

Director Richard Glazer's movie brims with stylistic and thematic flourishes that give it an other-worldly aura -- an achievement of sorts because the movie is set almost entirely on Earth.

Glazer achieves this unsettling effect by showing us Earth -- mostly the Scottish city of Glasgow -- from the detached viewpont of an extraterrestrial.

Scarlett Johansson portrays a character who -- after the film's spacey beginning -- travels around Glasgow in a van. In a black wig and fur jacket, Johnanson looks attractive and remote, an alien who seems to be following a set of programmed instructions about how to relate to the men she encounters.

The mood is one of extreme alienation. The people walking Glascow's streets may think they're headed somewhere, but to us they appear purposeless, maybe even superfluous.

Johansson's character can be friendly when she needs to be; i.e., when she's luring men (some of them non-actors who reportedly didn't know they were being filmed) into her van.

We quickly come to regard this woman as a kind of deep-space femme fatale. She never delivers on her sexual promise, but takes her prey to a rundown hideout and then sinks them into a dark, fathomless murk from which they'll never return.

Glazer's adaptation of a Michel Faber novel keeps every scene dimly lit, making it feel as if we must fight our way into the movie.

If you've seen enough sci-fi, you'll probably surmise that Johansson's character is on an aien mission. What mission? Where does she come from?

Glazer leaves it to us to fill in the blanks or, more likely, to push such questions aside as irrelevant.

The movie's purposeful ambiguity suggests that Glazer wants to keep our minds working overtime, which isn't always easy because his uninflected style can tend toward monotony.

That's not to say that there aren't amazing sequences here. A rescue on a beach leaves a terrifying, pitiless aftertaste, particularly in the way it concludes.

I won't say more, but if you're troubled by the idea of watching a toddler in jeopardy, Under the Skin will provide you with material enough for several nightmares.

The images at the end of the movie put Johansson's earlier nudity (of which there's a fair amount) into a new and provocative light, turning Under the Skin into a meditation on the body. The movie's title encourages us to look deeper.

Johansson's playing a predatory creature who, at various times, explores the humanity that she has assumed, less with wonder than with stunned curiosity.

At one point, she even seems to take human emotion for a test run: She feels sorry for a man with a facial deformity, and later becomes sexually aroused with a man she meets at a bus stop.

In general, though, Johansson suppresses the user-friendly charms she brought to Her, a movie in which she was never seen. Here we see plenty of her -- and nothing at all.

Under the Skin marks Glazer's third movie, after 2000's Sexy Beast and 2004's Birth. He's definitely a talent, although one that's not easy to pin down.

Those who are so inclined can read all sorts of things into Glazer's movie -- and probably will. Others will find it interesting -- even trancelike -- but unrewarding overall.

I think I lean more toward the latter category. Murky, ambitious and remote, Under the Skin can be very much like its main character: serious and intriguing, but lacking a human core.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

'Heaven' is best when earthbound

A best-selling book finds its way to the screen.
If a four-year-old boy awoke from a coma and told you that he had just visited heaven, seen Jesus, met his long-departed great grandfather and had experiences that banished all his fears, would you have the heart to suggest that the boy wait until he's old enough to investigate what neurobiologists might have to say about his story?

Neither would I. I'd smile, and wish the boy well.

Of course, there was just a such a boy, and his Nebraska-based family made his experiences the subject of Heaven Is for Real, a blockbuster best-seller that helped establish a publishing mini-trend: cheerleading for the afterlife.

Those seeking adult affirmation about heaven may wish to try Proof of Heaven: A Doctor's Experience With the Afterlife by Eben Alexander. A movie based on Alexander's book reportedly is being developed.

As Variety reported on April 14, Hollywood is displaying a growing faith in Christian movies. Put another way, Hollyood's always eager to find another lucrative niche market.

Stripped of some of the boy's more apocalyptic declarations -- the coming war between Satan and Jesus that will destroy the world, but vanquish evil forever -- the movie version of Heaven Is for Real has been carefully crafted to keep its tone down-to-earth.

Greg Kinnear's Todd Burpo -- a pastor in a small rural church -- provides the movie's entry point. Todd struggles to come to grips with what his son Colton (a cute Connor Corum) tells him, information about heaven disclosed casually and sporadically by Colton -- almost in time-release fashion.

Colton's visit to heaven takes place while he's in a coma after emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix.

When Todd thinks that his son may be dying, he fumes at God. Later, he's taken aback by the boy's account of things he only could have seen if he had an out-of-body experience.

The movie includes some transparently obvious skepticism -- not so much to question the authenticity of young Colton's story but to give the proceedings an aura of objectivity.

And an end-of-picture speech by Kinnear - the movie's Frank Capra moment -- suggests that the boy's vision of heaven may have been tailored by God to match the expectations of a four-year-old; i.e., Colton sits on Jesus's lap, sees other kids and meets a second sister he would have had had his mother (Kelly Reilly) not miscarried.

Colton has one older sister (Lane Styles), but the story doesn't pay much attention to her.

Director Randall Wallace probably knew that he couldn't make the movie without showing Colton's heaven.

We see Colton's grassy version of heaven, his vision of angels and even a full-faced picture of the Jesus Colton encounters, which arrives like an exclamation point at the end of the movie.

For the most part, though, Wallace's approach is less ethereal than earthly, which I suppose is in keeping with the matter-of-fact attitude Colton displays toward heaven.

Such a tone suggests -- at least to me -- that significant commercial calculation went into how this material would be presented by Wallace, who had a hand in writing the screenplay and who is best known for having written the screenplay for Braveheart. Wallace tries not to overplay the movie's heavenly hand.

At times, Heaven Is for Real plays like an after-school special. At other times, it grapples (albeit gently) with the community's attempts to decide what to make of Colton's story.

Not all of Todd's congregants are willing to accept the boy's story, and one woman (Margo Martindale) sees it as a potentially destructive to the church over which Todd presides.

We're not exactly entering spoiler territory if I tell you that Todd does not loose his job over any such dissension or that the movie's most touching scene is one in which Kinnear and Martindale share their grief.

Kinnear, of course, operates at his likable best. He and Reilly create a convincing portrait of a couple struggling with financial issues in a rural community that seems to lack for rich benefactors.

Heaven Is for Real isn't likely to gain much audience beyond those looking for family entertainment with a Christian spin, presumably a sizable enough group to keep turnstiles spinning through the Easter holiday. Other religions are left out of this particular heaven.

Colton's story also includes a couple of pivotal trips to Denver, where the family visits the Denver Butterfly Pavilion. Colton eventually overcomes his arachnophobia and holds a tarantula named Rosie in the palm of his tiny hand.

I'm not sure why I feel compelled to share this detail, perhaps only as a way of saying that it's one more localized element in a movie that presents what appears to be a decidedly middle-American vision of life on Earth and of the world to come.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Football drama doesn't hit hard enough

Kevin Costner returns to sports, but Draft Day doesn't score big.
I suppose it was only a matter of time until Kevin Costner -- having dealt with baseball (Bull Durham, Field of Dreams and For Love of the Game) and golf (Tin Cup) -- turned his attention to football.

In Draft Day -- an Ivan Reitman-directed story set in Cleveland -- Costner plays Sonny Weaver, general manager of the beleaguered Cleveland Browns.

Sonny's struggling to establish his legitimacy. He's the son of a late Browns coach who was revered by one and all, but who was fired by Sonny toward the end of his career.

Sonny, who has the number one pick in the draft, has his eye on a great defensive player (Chadwick Boseman) and a running back with a troubled past (Adrian Foster).

The team's owner (Frank Langella) and just about everyone else wants Sonny to draft a hot-shot quarterback (Josh Pence).

The movie evolves over the course of one draft day, leading up to the moment when general managers must make their picks.

The big question: Will Sonny follow his instincts or try to appease Cleveland's discontented fans?

Sonny's personal life adds further complications. His girlfriend (Jennifer Garner) -- who handles the team's salary cap -- happens to be pregnant.

No faulting Costner who's convincing as a man trying to navigate a difficult course. But Draft Day could have used more kick.

In what appears to be an overzealous search of authenticity, Reitman populates Draft Day with NFL types, ESPN stalwarts and anyone else who can make the proceedings feel real.

It's possible that screenwriters Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph wanted to give Draft Day inside-football appeal, but at times the movie seems to be looking for the NFL's seal of approval. This is not football's Moneyball.

The GMs wheel and deal, and try to out-maneuver one another, but there's little in Draft Day that can be read as critical of the NFL, an organization that doesn't exactly welcome criticism.

It has been 15 years since Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday (1999), but it's almost as if Draft Day was conceived as an antidote for Stone's cynicism.

Cynicism among players in Draft Day proves equally scarce. For that, you'll have to go back to North Dallas Forty (1979), possibly the best football movie yet.

The supporting cast doesn't have a lot to do except try to look savvy. Denis Leary signs on as the coach of the Browns, another guy who wants Costner to draft a quarterback.

And if you're looking for incongruity try this: Ellen Burstyn -- hardly an actress you expect to see in a sports movie -- plays Sonny's mother.

I don't know how wise it is to make a football movie in which the bulk of the action takes over telephones. But for me, it wasn't the grunt of hard-hitting that I missed, but the high, lofty spiral of critical analysis that might have made Draft Day more socially relevant.

When it comes to attitude and a strong point of view -- invaluable in a contempoary sports movie -- Draft Day fails to put enough spin on the ball.

Avoiding the worst horror pitfalls

Oculus tries for more than jolts and gore
The idea is both creepy and familiar: A 300-year-old mirror might be the home of an evil spirit that destroys the lives of anyone who owns it.

Oculus -- a movie that director Mike Flanagan expanded from a 2006 short film -- revolves around just such an antique mirror. But Flanagan's movie has sense enough to create mild ambiguity about whether a brother and sister are encountering demonic evil or are simply out of their minds.

Happily, Flanagan avoids many of the worst genre traps, and if his movie doesn't quite scale the highest peaks of terror, it can be seen as a legitimate attempt to add heft to a genre in which the currency of imagination too often is squandered on special effects.

Early in the movie, Tim (Benton Thwaites) is released from a mental institution. He's a young man who experienced a terrible trauma when he was 10.

Upon re-entering the sane world, Tim reunites with his older sister Kaylie, played by Karen Gillan of Dr. Who fame.

Kaylie acquires the mirror that once belonged to her father, and brings Tim to the home where their parents (Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackoff) died. Better to discover the rest in a theater.

Tension arises because Tim, having been prepped by his psychiatrist, thinks everything has a rational explanation. Kaylie, on the other hand, is determined to prove that the mirror was responsible for the violence that became part of her family's increasingly twisted life.

To make her case, Kaylie sets up cameras in the home where the mayhem occurred. She hopes to capture the evil spirit on tape.

From that point on, Flanagan mixes scenes from the past and present. Vivid flashbacks spring to life as Tim and Kaylie remember their earlier lives.

Flanagan doesn't entirely eschew gore, but he earns props for leaving some of the horror to our imaginations and for gaining increasing command over the movie's flashbacks -- segments from the past in which Garrett Ryan and Annalise Basso play young Tim and Kaylie.

If you're bothered by seeing children in danger, Oculus may not be the horror movie for you.

The idea of using demonic forces to explain evil can be comforting. Demons put evil outside the human realm, creating an opportunity for supernatural rationalization: "The demon made me do it."

I'm not sure that Oculus moves far enough away from that sort of thing to make it truly distinctive, but much of the time, it's headed in the right direction.

A few words with Mike Flanagan

Q: Oculus represents your second horror movie after 2012's Absentia. What's the attraction of the genre?

Flanagan: For a movie to really connect with a wide audience, it has to tap into something universal. There's hardly an emotion that isn't present in horror.

Also, when we look at the world and experience evil, we have an intense need to try to explain it.
We mediate evil in our fictions. That's what appeals about horror. It's a safe laboratory in which to explore these kinds of issues. We need that space. At the end of the day, it's more about feeling safe than feeling scared.
Q: How difficult was it to expand a short into a full-length feature?
Flanagan: It was incredibly daunting. It took us seven years to get rolling on the feature.
Q: Can you say something about influences on your work?
Flanagan: For me, it was The Shining and The Ring. I'm a big fan of The Eye (a 2008 thriller about a woman who begins seeing supernatural phenomenon after an eye transplant.) That movie used sound to great effect.
Q: In this movie, the parents eventually pose a threat to their kids. I don't want to give away too much, but could you comment on what seems to be a total reversal of the current tendency to indulge children?
Flanagan: Inverting something that's so protective and safe (parenthood) creates a sense of discomfort that goes against our basic instincts. That's way more frightening than torture and gore.
Q: Did dealing with siblings -- both as kids and adults -- and with their parents make for difficult casting?
Flanagan: The first person we cast was Gillan and that made for a red-head requirement with the girl who would play her character in the flashbacks and with the mother. We wanted them to look like a plausible family, but that didn't take precedence over performance.
Q: Was working with kids difficult?
Flanagan: You hear people talking about the difficulty of working with child actors. I didn't have that experience at all. These kids blew me away in their auditions. Intuitively, they snap into a fearless commitment to make believe.
Q: Are you planning to make more horror movies?
Flanagan: I want to play around with other genres, but I think I'll always find my way back to horror.

The Raid 2: Too much butt kicking?

I probably should be ashamed of myself, but I couldn't totally resist a brutal action film with a brother/sister team of assailants called Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man.

If you know that director Gareth Evans' martial arts-oriented thriller is set in Indonesia and you're familiar with The Raid: Redemption (also directed by Evans), you don't need much by way of information about this bruising second helping of physical mayhem.

In The Raid: Redemption, a Jakarta SWAT team stormed a building occupied by ruthless killers. Here, the action spreads across the whole city.

It's impossible to watch The Raid 2 without feeling as if you've been beaten up yourself. The flying fists and lethal kicks arrive with so much fury that it would be a gross understatement to call the action "over the top."

The main character in this frequently savage concoction is Rama (Iko Uwais), a cop who we met in the first installment. This time, Rama is coerced into taking an undercover assignment as a soldier in the army of a gang lord named Bungun (Tio Pakusodewo).

To accomplish his task, Rama -- sent to prison to establish his gangster cred -- must win the confidence of Bungun's son Uco (Arifin Putra).

An ambitious hothead, Uco thinks it's time for him to replace his father, a crime lord who has fostered an era of peace with his Japanese rival Mr. Goto (Kenichi Endo).

A third gangster, the oily Bejo (Alex Abbad) also wants a piece of the action.

Raid 2 chalks up assaultive accomplishments with piston-like efficiency.

Among its more memorable battles: a fight in a muddy prison yard and a subway confrontation with Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle).

Much of the action is well done, but at a two-and-a-half hour length, it's difficult not to wonder whether even martial arts fans will find Raid 2 excessive. Alternately bracing and bruising, Raid 2 can be impressive without always being fun.

Put another way: I frequently found myself unsure whether to applaud or beg for mercy.

A worthy Nicolas Cage performance

Joe takes us into a world of southern misery.
Joe has spent time in prison, drinks way too much and earns his living working for a lumber company that poisons trees to make room for more lucrative growth.

It should come as no surprise that Joe lives in a rural southern backwater where trouble breeds like mosquitos and staying on the good side of life's ledger requires effort.

Joe is the title character of a new drama in which Nicolas Cage finally finds a character with an internal conflict big enough to fill several of the actor's recent junkyard movies, say Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Trespass or Drive Angry.

Like Cage, director David Gordon Green also appears to be reconnecting with his artistic past in this grit-laden adaptation of Father and Son, a 1991 novel by the late Larry Brown.

Green began his career with the much-admired George Washington (2000) and other smaller movies, digressed with big-ticket comedies such as Pineapple Express (2008) and The Sitter (2011) and went indie again with last year's Prince Avalance.

It's always dicey to separate a role from the movie its in, but I'd say that Cage scores higher than Green, which is another way of saying that the performance proves more memorable than a movie that can feel derivative and in which the squalid elements seem belabored.

Cage's every move embodies Joe's conflict, which goes something like this: Joe tries to be decent, but keeps tripping over himself, mostly because of an anti-authoritarian streak that seems almost inbred.

The story in Joe centers on the relationship between Cage's Joe and Gary (Tye Sheridan), a teen-ager who idolizes the older man.

Joe may be dissolute, but he prizes physical labor, and he appreciates young Gary's desire to work his way out of his miserable surroundings, to earn his redemption with sweat.

When Gary joins Joe's tree-poisoning crew, he begins looking to Joe for the kind of guidance his own dad (the late Gary Poulter) can't supply.

Poulter's Wade is irredeemable, a drunken degenerate so cruel he tries to pimp his own daughter to another of the town's mean bastards (Ronnie Gene Blevins), a character with whom Joe finds himself at constant odds.

Joe probably falls into the realm of raw-boned movies that, like their literary counterparts, might be dubbed "grit lit," say last year's Mud or 2010's Winter's Bone.

Those two movies were significantly better than Joe, but Joe can be viewed as a sign of progress for Cage, who last gave a great performance in 2009's little-seen Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.

I hope the actor, who won an Oscar for 1996's Leaving Las Vegas, plans to make room for more of these kinds of roles in the future, if only to balance his work in movies such as the National Treasure films, another of which apparently looms.

Oh well, one always hopes.

Rumsfeld passes in review

Director Errol Morris focuses on another secretary of defense.
Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris seems to like interviewing secretaries of defense.

In 2003's Fog of War, Morris focused on Robert McNamara, highlighting McNamara's role as secretary of defense during the Vietnam War.

The Unknown Known -- which shines Morris's spotlight on Donald Rumsfeld -- might well have been called Defense Secretary 2, an attempt to peer into the mind of another powerful man.

Rumsfeld, of course, presided over the U.S. defense establishment during president George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

A mistake? A waste of lives?

Only time will tell, says Rumsfeld, whose ambitious career often intertwined with that of Dick Cheney.

Rumsfeld is quite different than McNamara, who acknowledged that Vietnam was a mistake, even though his admission arguably qualified as too little, too late.

Less removed in time from Iraq than McNamara was from Vietnam, Rumsfeld remains supremely confident about his decisions. He's never riled by Morris's attempts to catch him in contradictions or lies.

Some of The Unknown Known is devoted to the estimated 20,000 or so memos Rumsfeld wrote while in office. These memos -- called "snowflakes" -- reflect the way Rumsfeld parsed various issues, fretting over "definitions" and "terminology."

Morris persuaded Rumsfeld to read passages from these memos aloud. They'll either strike you as the work of a thoughtful official or a strangely revealing exercise in obfuscation, a man fiddling with language while Iraq burned.

It's pretty clear that Morris remains unimpressed by Rumsfeld's explanations and musings, but Rumsfeld manages to sidestep the intent behind most of Morris's questions. It's also clear that Morris and Rumsfel occupy two different worlds.

Morris, of course, knows how to give a "talking heads" movie pulse. Here, he uses news footage, graphics and a Danny Elfman score as punctuation, a way of keeping the movie from being duller than one of Rumsfeld's memos.

What you think of The Unknown Known may depend on how much time you want to spend trying to figure Rumsfeld out.

He certainly can be cagey: Rumsfeld conveys the impression that Morris (and perhaps all of his critics) have little understanding of the realities he confronted as secretary of defense. He seems to see himself as a well-meaning and thoughtful man whose actions were geared toward accomplishing worthwhile ends in a difficult world.

So why did Rumsfeld want to be in an Errol Morris film anyway?

Rumsfeld tells Morris he has no idea why he agreed to participate in a film with a title based on a Rumsfeldian analysis of what it's possible to know in any given situation and where that knowledge stops.

Maybe Rumsfeld just wanted to prove that he's immune to criticism and that he can't be shaken.

What emerges is a portrait of the ultimate insider, a man of reasonable bearing, who -- many would argue -- presided over unreasonable policies, some of them based on false information.

I'm guessing that most of the audience for The Unknown Known will not be composed of Rumsfeld supporters. I'm also guessing that Rumsfeld probably couldn't care less.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Another helping of 'Captain America'

The Winter Soldier adds a bit of grown-up flavor.
Let's start with the conclusion: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a mostly welcome addition to the apparently endless stream of movies derived from Marvel Comics.

Winter Soldier, which follows 2011's The First Avenger, boasts abundant action, some amazingly vertiginous special-effects sequences and a conspiratorial plot that gives this massive comic-book movie a bit of an adult tilt.

Fans already know that a buffed Chris Evans makes a stalwart Captain America, the clean-cut World War II soldier transported into superhero status in the present.

As one-time KGB agent Natasha Romanoff -- a.k.a. Black Widow -- Scarlett Johansson breathes additional life into the proceedings. Same goes for Anthony Mackie, who plays Falcon, a veteran of recent wars who flies with pop-up metal wings. More importantly, Falcon recommends that Captain America familiarize himself with the music of Marvin Gaye.

More about that later.

Samuel Jackson does reliable duty as Nick Fury, the head of S.H.I.E.L.D., the spy agency that uses its real-world savvy to keep America safe.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo -- known for TV's Arrested Development -- handle the major action set pieces well, giving them body-slam impact: The finale -- though typically protracted -- doesn't skimp on thrills.

Others have made this point, but it's worth reinforcing: Over-editing can ruin fight sequences by substituting frenzied cutting for a clear view of the combat, a sin Winter Soldier too often commits.

Some scenes, though, are more driven by dialogue than CGI, which brings us to Robert Redford, who appears as Alexander Price, a S.H.I.E.L.D. official so virtuous he once turned down the Nobel Peace Prize. Price also heads the World Security Council, a group devoted to maintaining global security.

Can we let Winter Soldier pass without at least wondering about Redford's presence? What exactly is the man behind the Sundance Film Festival, which each year supports the independent spirit in film, doing in a mega-budget, comic-book blockbuster?

I leave it to Redford to answer the question, which is provocation enough for the moment. Maybe he just wanted to play against his image as a liberal savior.

The screenplay tries for complexity by creating confusion about the motivations of Price and Nick Fury, but Winter Soldier isn't exactly over-flowing with edge-of-the-seat suspense.

And, of course, there's the Winter Soldier of the title, an unstoppable warrior played by Sebastian Stan. Not surprisingly, the Winter Soldier is employed by HYDRA, the organization that opposes S.H.I.E.LD. and which happily would sacrifice human lives to maintain order.

But back to Marvin Gaye.

I don't know if the late Gaye ever imagined that his music would find its way into a comic-book movie, but can there be any doubt that the world would be a better place if all comic-book heroes spent more time listening to Gaye and less time kicking butt?

'Rob the Mob,' an entertaining heist

The story of two robbers who can't read the danger signs.
Rob the Mob may not be a classic, but it's made enjoyable by a bizarre, reality-based story that focuses on two characters too dopey to understand that they've put themselves in danger; i.e., they think robbing Mafia hangouts will be a breeze.

Why worry? Can Mafia guys call the cops?

Director Raymond De Felitta had a minor hit with City Island. Less of a crowd pleaser (but more entertaining for my money), Rob the Mob offers a comic immersion in the small-change world of Queens, N.Y., during the 1990s.

When I first saw American Hustle, I didn't think I'd ever see a performance with as much New York bravado as Jennifer Lawrence's. I was wrong.

Nina Arianda's performance as Rosie Uva is almost as funny and so full of sass, it's irresistible.

Known mostly for stage work, Arianda plays a woman who works for a debt collection agency and who joins with her ex-con boyfriend Tommy (an equally good Michael Pitt) in conducting a series of ill-advised robberies of the social clubs at which mobsters spend their idle hours.

Rosie drives the getaway car, and Tommy barges into clubs wielding an Uzi he barely knows how to use.

All of this takes place against the backdrop of the trial in which mob boss John Gotti is about to be convicted of murder, and in which New York gangsters are taking a major hit from law enforcement.

Pitt and Arianda receive able support from Andy Garcia (as a mob boss), Ray Romano (as a New York newspaper columnist), as well as from Burt Young, Frank Whaley, Cathy Moriarty, Michael Rispoli and Griffin Dunne.

You won't find a bad performance in the lot: Rob the Mob is one of those movies that feels as if everyone embraced the project with enthusiasm and love.

Working from a script by Jonathan Fernandez, De Felitta gives his movie a beating tabloid heart. We're won over by the genial stupidity (and innocence) of some of the characters, by the true love between Rosie and Tommy and by unexpected sentiment, some of it stemming from Garcia's Big Al, a mob boss who once made his living cooking rice balls (actually, risotto). In a tender scene, Big Al encourages his grandson to avoid the pain of gangster life.

Rob the Mob -- a story of doomed lovers -- may have difficulty finding a niche when pitted against some A-line competition, but this small gem of a movie about feckless denizens of a small-time world shouldn't be missed -- either now or when it finds its way to DVD.

Nymphomanic: Volume II, the punishment

Lars Von Trier continues the torment.

Not content with one sexually explicit movie, Danish director Lars von Trier has issued the provocatively titled Nymphomaniac in two volumes.

Volume 1 dealt with a nymphomaniacal woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who told her story to an older man (Stellan Skarsgard) who adopted an Olympian view of her sexual history.

Seen in flashbacks, the young Joe (played by Stacy Martin) learned to express her power through sex, a risky business to be sure.

Together both volumes total more than four hours, making Nymphomaniac a contender for the longest sex movie yet -- if, indeed, it's really about sex.

In Volume II, the adult Joe takes over the story, and von Trier more clearly marks his territory by pushing her toward punishing extremes.

What happens? Joe -- who has lost all sexual sensation -- submits to torment from a sadist (Jamie Bell) who ties her down and beats her up. In the process, Joe proves that she's a careless mom and renounces those who would judge her at a meeting of sex addicts.

She also sleeps with two black men who face each other naked in what looks like a duel of semi-erect penises.

Toward the end, Joe hooks up with an extortionist (Willem DaFoe) and acquires a wily protege (Mia Goth).

All this is recounted in flashbacks as Joe finishes telling Skarsgard's Seligman how she wound up bloodied in an alley, which is how he discovered her at the beginning of Volume I.

In Volume I, Von Trier punished some of the characters: He does so again, but this time, the torment extends to the audience.

The shock of explicitly presented sex having been depleted in the first volume, we're left to watch Gainsbourg's Joe demean herself, take a prideful stance toward her activities and ultimately commit one final act of self-assertion.

Whatever von Trier had to say seems to have been said in the first movie. Volume II doesn't add much, except for those who want to speculate about von Trier's aims with yet another movie that seems designed to provoke without explanation.

As for what motivates Joe: It may be nothing more than von Trier's desire to put her through a variety of degrading situations and then try to defend himself by glossing it all with a feminist veneer.

As my grandmother might have said, "Oy."

Paris, beautiful; their marriage, rocky

Acting lifts Le Week-End to higher level
Meg and Nick Burrows are too young to be preoccupied with the prospect of imminent demise and too old to entertain delusions about where their lives are headed.

After 30 years of marriage, they've decided -- perhaps because Nick pushed for it -- to celebrate their anniversary weekend in Paris.

That sounds romantic, but Meg (Lindsay Duncan) and Nick (Jim Broadbent) are in a marriage that has lost much of its sparkle.

Their grown son has become a human barnacle, sponging on their fragile finances. A professor at a second-rate college, Jim has just lost his job for running afoul of the PC police, and Meg, also a teacher, has given up on sex.

Written by Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Launderette) and directed by Roger Michell (Notting Hill), Le Week-End is not an exercise in Bergman-like despair: It's a comedy -- albeit one that tastes bitter around the edges.

The Paris trip sours from the start. The couple checks into a hotel that depresses Meg. She instantly detests its brown decor. Nick tries to keep up her spirits, but Meg stalks out, forcing the couple to take a budget-busting suite at a luxury hotel.

Duncan's Meg can be cruel and remote; Broadbent's Nick tries to solider on as he weighs the inescapable failure of a life that never fulfilled its promise.

In a clear-cut case of insult-to-injury, the couple runs into Morgan, an American who knew Jim from shared days at Cambridge. Le Week-End offers Goldblum an opportunity to do some his best acting in years.

He's playing an arrogant academic who has just published a book. He lives in Paris with the adoring wife, the young woman for whom he left the U.S. and his first wife. His hippy son (Olly Alexander) has arrived for a weekend visit.

Morgan enjoys his status -- even though he's aware enough to know that there'll come a point when his young, pregnant wife (Judith Davis) runs out of adoration, and he'll be left exposed, a pompous, self-absorbed man.

Kureishi is a smart writer who pushes his characters into one uncomfortable situation after another, some of them leavened by the wit of the dialogue.

A dinner party scene at which Nick makes a startling speech almost goes over the top, but Nathalie Durand's cinematography, Michell's generosity in putting Paris on display (its beauty may be a taunt to Meg and Nick) and the wit and candor of the performances make Le Week-End a trip well worth taking.