Thursday, July 31, 2014

'Guardians:' Junk and proud of it

Another comic book of a movie from Marvel Studios
Guardians of the Galaxy, another Marvel Studios space adventure, seems to have been cobbled together from diverse genre elements in an effort to achieve a supreme level of silliness -- and that's one of its good points.

You have to give some kind of credit to a movie that asks us to develop affection for a talking tree that does little more than repeat its name: "I am Groot." Voice courtesy of Vin Diesel, who -- as it turns out -- may be better heard than seen.

Then there's Rocket, a talking raccoon (voice by Bradley Cooper) who fills the obligatory wise-ass niche.

2001, this ain't, but Guardians inoculates itself against serious criticism by adopting an ethos that goes something like this: Hey, we know this is crap, but we've gone through a lot of trouble to make the best crap possible.

If that's too pejorative, substitute the word "junk" and you're on your way.

To take the most generous view, it's fair to call Guardians a celebration of genre junk: The movie's director -- James Gunn -- also directed Slither, an unashamed and reasonably well-received B-movie from 2006. Guardians qualifies as a more expensive, but still unashamed leap into B-movie tropes.

Chris Pratt plays Peter Quill -- a.k.a. Star Lord -- a galactic scavenger who steals and re-sells his plunder.

The movie begins with a prologue explaining that Quill was born on Earth during the 1980s, but was abducted by aliens shortly after the death of his mother. The story then leaps ahead 26 years, locating itself in a mixed-species galaxy.

Familiar from TV's Parks and Recreation and from small roles in Moneyball and Zero Dark Thirty, Pratt relaxes into a big screen lead as the mildly cynical hero who, in the end, takes his galactic responsibilities seriously and who clearly evokes memories of Star Wars' Han Solo.

The drama revolves around a stolen object called The Orb, a soft-ball sized gizmo with major destructive powers. Lots of folks want to get their hands on The Orb, including Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace).

Ronan yearns to destroy the planet Xander, which is led by Nova Prime, Glenn Close with a platinum blonde hairdo that curlicues upward like something that plopped out of a Dairy Queen spigot.

Is it possible to care whether Ronan succeeds? Not really: The movie's fight against evil couldn't be more generic: The intention, one presumes, is to keep the characters engaging enough to sustain involvement.

Sometimes it works.

Zoe Saldana plays Gamora, a green-skinned alien who's also trying to take possession of The Orb, but who ultimately joins forces with Quill.

The other fledgling Guardians -- aside from Rocket and Groot -- include Drax (Dave Bautista), a heavily muscled hulk who comes from an alien race that has yet to master the concept of metaphors. No, really.

Then there's Yondu (Michael Rooker), the space pirate who abducted Quill and who since has become his ostensible boss.

Gunn manages a couple of tender moments between Quill and Gamora, but they amount to little more than flirtations. The movie's PG-13 rating derives from violence and language.

Guardians is one of those movies that blurs the line between violence and action. There's plenty of it, although none of it struck me as particularly exciting absent anything more than the most perfunctory of rooting interests.

Gunn has given the movie the kind of borderlne cheesy look that requires lots of effort: Like Star Wars, Guardians tries to capture some of the cheap-looking innocence of a bygone days -- albeit in hipper fashion.

Not your average comic book hero, Quill has a fondness for a mix tape that was given to him by his mother. Gunn uses '70s music from this tape throughout, adding an element that may be foreign to younger audiences who know as much about Walkmans as they do about typewriters.

Will there be another Guardians movie?

Is The Orb round? Is Gamora green? Is Marvel an apparently bottomless well of comic-book characters?

I think you know the answer.

Resurrecting the spirit of James Brown

In Get on Up, Chadwick Boseman gives one of the year's most compelling performances as The Godfather of Soul.
Many intrepid writers have tried their hand at the unenviable task of capturing the complicated essence of the late James Brown. A fabulous showman, a canny businessman, and a martinet who bullied his musicians, Brown was also a wounded soul who managed to transcend a difficult upbringing in an America scarred by the blatant racism of the Jim Crow South.

Never easy to pigeon hole, Brown eventually became one of the rare black superstars to support Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

At the same time, he was the undisputed Godfather of Soul, a performer who understood that talent and celebrity can imbue a man with mesmeric power. He wasn't just an entertainer: He was a force.

During the course of a long career, Brown expanded from the Chitlin' Circuit to the mainstream. Like a wave that couldn't be denied, he broke across the pop cultural shores of a nation that perhaps never knew quite what to make of him, but couldn't help watching anyway.

Now comes Get On Up, an energy fueled big-screen biography that leaps around in time as frenetically as Brown moved on stage.

If you choose, you can find lots about which to quibble in the way director Tate Taylor (The Help) has structured the material and with some of the movie's attempts to broach complicated subjects with sketchy shorthand references.

Mostly, though, you'd be wasting your time. Get On Up stands as a triumphant resurrection of Brown's spirit, an accomplishment for which Chadwick Boseman justly can claim credit.

Boseman, who played Jackie Robinson in 42, finds another role that's physically and emotionally demanding. Mastering Brown's trademark stage moves is challenge enough, but Boseman also had to plumb the depths of a man whose amazing story includes abandonment by his parents, growing up in a whore house, stints in jail and dazzling commercial success.

Throughout all of this, Boseman gives full vent to Brown's unwavering capacity for self-assertion, a drive that manifested itself in music that created a primal groove. Brown's rhythms seized the body and made it dance, a form of musical possession to be dealt with as best one could.

Sometimes, even Brown couldn't keep up with himself. There's a moment in Get on Up in which a needlessly jealous Brown hits his wife. A shaken Boseman faces the camera, revealing flickers of Brown's self-awareness, as well as his fears of crumbling order and loss of control.

Of course, Boseman also captures Brown's bravado, his defiance and the musical perfectionism that frequently tormented the musicians whom he mercilessly rehearsed.

At times Boseman speaks directly to the camera, taking charge of the story as he should. It's a risky ploy, but it works, probably because it never lets us forget who's in charge of the narrative.

Seldom has the term supporting cast been so apt. Every performance in the film defines itself in terms of the commanding center provided by Boseman. Craig Robinson appears as saxophonist Maceo Parker; Nelsan Ellis (of TV's True Blood) plays Bobby Byrd, a Brown loyalist and back-up singer. Jill Scott portrays DeeDee, one of Brown's wives.

Viola Davis isn't in the picture much, but has a terrific scene as Brown's mother. After a show at the fabled Apollo, she turns up for a meeting with the son she hasn't seen in years. It's as painful encounter as you'll see in a movie this year, a star fighting against his own feelings for a woman who abandoned him and that woman, understanding what she'd done, trying to express pride in a lost child.

No point recounting Brown's life here. Those who are familiar with his story probably will find areas where screenwriters Steven Baigelman and Jez Butterworth have taken liberties, but they've also sprinkled the movie with images that amplify Brown's biography.

Examples: As a kid in the South, Brown removes a pair of stylish shoes from a lynched black man whose body still hangs from a tree. A still youthful Brown claims the stage with The Flames (his band at the time) at a club where Little Richard is headlining. And the movie is clear about the ways in which Brown made his manager (Dan Aykroyd) do his bidding.

Sometimes, Brown went too far: Early on, he goes off the deep end with a group of insurance trainees who have gathered in one of his buildings, toting a rifle and demanding to know which of them had the temerity to use his toilet -- not a casual question for someone who understood the demeaning rigidities of segregation.

Taylor and company have no interest in canoizing Brown: They've tried to present him as a man who knew how to take and defend his turf, sometimes when it wasn't even being threatened.

I don't know what Brown would have thought of this movie: But it produces some of the same feelings that Brown's performances generated: excitement and amazement -- about Brown and also about Boseman: Both subject and actor seem to embody a force that comes from some unexplained and unreachable place only they can access.

The rest of us? We're spectators in their worlds.

A visual feast, but is it too much?

Michel Gondry's Mood Indigo amuses and then over-amuses.
Not many filmmakers seem to care about visual comedy these days. You'll find abundant sight gags (generally of a gross nature) in American movies, but true visual wit remains a rarity. Gore Verbinski displayed plenty of intricate visual humor in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but he's an exception to the rule.

The French filmmaker Michel Gondry (The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Human Nature) doesn't always score bulls eyes, but left to his own devices, as he apparently was in 2006's The Science of Sleep, Gondry unleashes his capacity for amusing visual invention.

Gondry's Mood Indigo is based on a 1947 novel -- L'Ecume des Jours -- by Boris Vian. I'm not familiar with Vian's novel, but after seeing Gondry's movie, I have to believe that the director was inspired by a story that allowed him to pull out every visual stop -- with substantial help from Stephane Rosenbaum, his talented production designer.

The story: Colin (Romain Duris) has money and a quirky Paris apartment. Colin's a bit frivolous, having invented a machine that he calls the "pianocktail." This grandly silly instrument mixes cocktails when Duke Ellington's Mood Indigo is played on it.

Colin's chef and chief advisor (Omar Sy of The Intouchables) whips up fantastical dishes for Colin and his best friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh). Turn on the faucets in Colin's apartment and out come eels, an amusing, if less than appetizing, sight.

Love looms. Chick meets Alise (Aissa Maiga) and falls for her. An envious Colin insists on falling in love, as well.

At a party, Colin meets Chloe (Audrey Tautou). They dance together in a scene in which Gondry uses animation to enhance their limbs in rubbery, cartoonish fashion.

Colin and Chloe also date, flying over Paris on a white cloud that looks like a swan and seems to have been borrowed from an old-fashioned amusement park.

Gondry's mix of live action and effects can be amusing and strange: The doorbell that turns into a mechanized insect that crawls the walls of Colin's apartment, for example.

Colin is such a good pal that he offers money to Chick so that he can marry his soul mate. As it turns out, Chick spends most of his time and a lot of Colin's money acquiring valuable editions of the work of Jean-Sol Patre, a goof on ... well ... you know who.

Gondry's upbeat tone prevails right up to the time when Chloe contracts a Camille-like cough, a malady that stems from the fact that there's a water lily growing in one of he lungs.

Faced with losing the love of his life and his fortune, Colin drifts toward despair.

Mood Indigo takes place over a fleet 92 minutes, but the non-stop invention inevitably loses some its charm, and the movie's visual bric-a-brac proves so plentiful that it can feel as if it exists purely for its own sake.

I liked parts of Mood Indigo very much, and I respect Gondry's desire to ravish and entertain the eye. But like heavy rain on hot pavement, Mood Indigo tends to evaporate quickly, a victim perhaps of its own immoderation.

Inside a Los Angeles emergency room

Ryan McGarry trained to be an emergency room doctor at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, completing his residency at this bustling, high-volume facility. If professional duties weren't enough to keep Dr. McGarry occupied, he also made Code Black, a documentary about the high-pressure world of emergency room docs. McGarry covered the period from 2008 to 2012, which means his film preceded the onset of Obamacare. But this powerful documentary -- which showed at last fall's Starz Denver Film Festival -- accomplishes many things vital to understanding health care: First and foremost, it demonstrates that young doctors are dedicated, eager to help and devastated when they can't. It underscores the loss of collegiality that accompanies a shift from the hospital's old facility to a better equipped new one. That move is accompanied by an increasing demand for paper work that begins to consume the doctors' time and erode their morale. You'll also get a clear picture of what these doctors actually do, and the excitement it can generate for them. It strikes me that working in an emergency room consists of one adrenalin rush after another -- except that physicians can't afford to be swept away by the unpredictable energies of their often chaotic workplace. Slickly produced, Code Black has the pacing and impact of a thriller, but don't get me wrong: This is a ground zero look at health care in a busy urban setting. You will be both amazed and edified, and better able to understand how physicians deal with frustrating wait times, patients without insurance, immigrants and a host of other problems that go a long way toward defining contemporary health care in such a hot-house setting.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

An amazing portrait of boyhood

Boyhood -- director Richard Linklater's 12-year portrait of contemporary childhood -- stands as a time-capsule-worthy movie about the kind of fragmented family lives that have become increasingly common.

Linklater's movie may not be flawless, but it's brave and thorough, and it may make you realize just how difficult growing up has become. I don't know if Boyhood describes a new normal, but it's an eminently credible look at the realities that confront an awful lot of today's kids.

The story focuses on Mason, following him from the age of six to the age of 18. Mason's the son of parents who married too early and subsequently divorced. He lives with his mother, who has notably bad judgment when it comes to men, eventually entangling herself in a second marriage to an abusive drunk.

During his young life, Mason is forced to change residences and schools. He must also navigate a relationship with his biological father, a good-hearted guy who hasn't really grown up himself.

Linklater shot his movie in 39 days over the course of 12 years, employing the same cast throughout the entire project. As a result, we get to watch the young people in the movie grow and mature, a process that takes them through stages of cuteness and ungainliness and finally deposits them on the cusp of adulthood.

We feel as if we really know these youngsters, and as they get older, we're constantly looking for traces of the children they once were. We live with these characters.

To his credit, Linklater doesn't fill the movie's 2 1/2 hours with wall-to-wall confrontation. Although there are a couple of tough emotional outbursts, Linklater mostly allows his characters to live their lives unhurriedly, often struggling to do the best they can.

In that sense, Boyhood is a movie about the ways in which we learn to live with imperfection, to adjust to it as time passes.

Young Ellar Coltrane provides the glue that holds Boyhood together. He gives the movie a strong center as Mason's moves toward young adulthood.

Linklater's daughter Lorelei, who plays Mason's older sister, is equally good, although her character doesn't get equal time with Mason.

In an early scene, Lorelei Linklater and Coltrane battle in the backseat of a car in ways that will be distressingly familiar to any parent who has lived through similar moments with a contentious set of siblings.

The rest of the cast does strong work, particularly Patricia Arquette as Mom and Hawke as Dad. Marco Perella plays another man in Mom's life, a guy who tries to over-control his kids because he can't control himself. His alcoholism eventually turns mean.

Mom later takes up with an Iraq war vet, another guy who's clueless when it comes to women and kids.

It's fair, I think, to regard Boyhood as a collection of telling moments: a kid watching his parents argue and us knowing that the moment is spring-loaded to have later impact, for example.

Late in the movie, we see Mason's first serious relationship with a girl (Zoe Graham).

As I watched Boyhood, I kept wondering when melodrama would strike, when the dramatic chickens would come home to roost. That never really happens.

Yes, circumstances can be difficult, but the characters muddle on. Some fall by the wayside -- or are pushed. Some grow and prosper. Mom, for example, becomes more independent, although she also sees the hollowness in a life that has left her on her own.

Hawke's character finds a second wife and starts a new family. He puts irresponsibility behind him, and trades his beloved GTO for a mini-van.

Throughout, Dad remains in touch with the kids from his first family. A scene in which he takes them to meet his new wife's parents typifies the way Linklater plays against expectations.

Grandma and Grandpa are Bible-toting churchgoers, and Grandpa's a gun enthusiast, but they're also people with a natural sense of generosity.

When Grandpa (Richard Andrew Jones) gives 15-year-old Mason one of this prized shotguns (his father gave it to him), the moment becomes truly touching.

Shifting cultural references pop up as we go. We get scenes during the height of the Harry Potter craze. Cell phones crop up. Musical tastes evolve. Mason changes hair styles, and eventually dons earrings.

But Linklater seems significantly less interested in shifting styles than in the substance of the lives he's observing.

When Mason begins to mature, he becomes interested in pursuing a career in art photography. It's clear that he's dealing with adolescent confusion, but also that he's smart and sensitive.

Besides, there could be a good side to the emotional distance that Mason learns to maintain, a hint of wariness that should serve him well in a world that's not always waiting for us with open arms.

In its later stages, Boyhood begins to feel like a talk-heavy Linklater movie in the Slacker and Waking Life vein: Characters reveal themselves (or not) through conversational riffs. And the movie overstays its welcome with a prolonged final act.

But taken as a whole, Boyhood represents an impressive achievement, a beautifully observed portrait of contemporary life, rooted in Texas but not confined to the peculiarities of the Lone Star state.

For all of its difficult detours, Boyhood qualifies as an optimistic movie, expressing Linklater's belief that most of us survive, get along and do our best keep going. We try.

Another helping of John le Carre

In A Most Wanted Man, author John le Carre shifts his espionage focus to Hamburg and Berlin. With the Cold War receding into memory, le Carre continues to find other milieus in which he can examine the chilly world of men and women who earn their living plying history's back channels.

Director Anton Corbijn tries to respect the tone and intricacies of le Carre's informed imagination, immersing us in a complex story built around German spy Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

As head of a special unit, Bachmann spends his time keeping tabs on Hamburg's radical Muslims. He hopes that he can uncover terrorist plots as he moves through a shadowy world that he doesn't always understand. Who could?

We're in a post 9/11 environment: The movie begins several years after Hamburg played home to Mohamed Atta, one of the leaders of the World Trade Center attack.

Not without reason, Bachmann considers himself a savvy guy. He's seen plenty, and he's not likely to be bested by anyone. He's a bit disheveled, but he's knowing and efficient, and has a deep mistrust of bureaucracy -- anyone's.

The movie starts when Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen/Russian arrives in Hamburg. A devout Muslim, Issa may be dangerous or maybe he's merely a pawn in someone's plan to lure and catch a bigger fish.

A German immigration lawyer (Rachel McAdams) tries to help Issa gain permanent residency in Germany. They approach a German banker (Willem Dafoe) to gain access to a substantial bank account left by Issa's father, a bad actor in the Russian criminal world.

The movie's cast of characters also includes Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a high-profile spokesman for the German Muslim community, and a cagey CIA agent (Robin Wright), who tries to work her way into Bachmann's plans.

Corbijn (Control and The American) doesn't totally conquer le Carre's complicated plot, the movie's pacing can become turgid, and the story might have been better served with a German actress in the role played by McAdams.

Still, the payoff perfectly reflects le Carre's cynical intelligence, a rueful defeatism that emanates from too keen a knowledge of the many ways in which people betray one another.

I wish it weren't so, but, for me at least, the fact that Hoffman's no longer with us imbued A Man Most Wanted with unintended eeriness, a sense that perhaps, in the end, life trumped any performance the gifted actor could give.

Put another way, it's difficult not to mourn the fact that A Man Most Wanted should have been one more Hoffman movie among many more to come.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Roger Ebert's life -- as it was

Life Itself -- director Steve James's revealing look at the life of film critic Roger Ebert -- is difficult to watch. This isn't because Ebert's life had its bad patches (which it evidently did), but because in his post-cancer, post multiple-surgeries days, Ebert's face became unrecognizable.

Even before filming started, Ebert was left with a flap of a jaw that didn't always conceal the holes created by cancer of the thyroid, salivary glands and the surgeon's knife.

I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that there were times when I had to look away from the screen.

Those who knew Ebert -- and who didn't feel as if they knew him after his lengthy career on TV's Siskel & Ebert and the Movies -- were accustomed to seeing him looking a good deal more robust, and it's shocking to see him inching toward his last days.

Still, if Ebert didn't shrink from showing us how he looked, we must respect his choice. Even before James's film, Ebert had released photos of himself that were enough to take the wind out of anyone's sails.

Those of us who knew Ebert from the festival circuit (which is to say that some of us were acquainted with him) knew him as an indefatigable worker, an astonishingly prolific writer, a good journalist and an adventurous critic who was willing to attend events that sometimes were not as well known as he was.

I don't know if anyone's movie reviews will (or even should) stand the test of time, but Ebert's interviews with actors and directors remain some of the best ever written.

More than a cancer chronicle, James's biography is also a sketch of an amazing career. The movie begins with Ebert's childhood, covers the budding journalist's college years and his early newspaper life at The Chicago Sun Times.

The movie also charts Ebert's rise on television, which -- we're reminded wasn't meteoric. Siskel and Ebert began on Chicago public TV long before either of them expected to attain a national profile.

Later, Ebert would fill his popular web site with reviews, interviews and more.

Perhaps eager to avoid an exercise in hagiography, James tries to show that Ebert could be less than pleasant -- less in his reviews than in his personal life. I should say that Ebert always displayed generosity toward me.

In hindsight, all of Ebert's missteps (the alcoholism he overcame; his egotism; his purported bad taste in women during his younger days) seemed to lead him toward a kind of personal redemption that culminated with his marriage to his wife Chaz.

I suppose that the rivalry between Gene Siskel and Ebert will interest those who are fascinated by the wave of pop-cultural oomph they created, their thumbs turning up and down for our amusement and occasionally, our edification.

It's possible that Ebert's life as a journalist was unique. I doubt whether a career such as Ebert's ever will happen again. Newspapers have declined. Movie critics with stable positions are more difficult to find.

TV still creates personalities, but it's difficult to imagine that one of TV's lights ever again will shine so brightly on another film critic.

Once, at a Telluride Film Festival, I asked Ebert if he planned to retire. As near as I can recall, Siskel already was dead, and Ebert had partnered with Sun Times columnist Richard Roeper to preserve the show's down-to-earth informality. The TV show wouldn't last forever, Ebert said.

But, said Ebert, he thought his Web site would allow him to continue writing no matter what else happened. He was right about that. He continued watching movies and writing as long as he could, turning a blog into a kind of personal and philosophical journal.

I don't mean this as a sick joke, but even now, I sometimes half expect Ebert to weigh in on a current release. He was a critic who became a touchstone. There always will be good -- even great -- film criticism, but it's unlikely anyone will take Ebert's place in the national conversation. With his passing in the spring of 2013, that sun has set.

Zach Braff's soggy sitcom of a movie

Aidan Bloom (Zach Braff) is not religious, yet he's sending his daughter and son to an Orthodox Jewish school. Aidan's kids are receiving a Jewish education because Aidan's father (Mandy Patinkin) wants them to understand their heritage. Just as important for the financially pressed Bloom family, Aidan's father picks up the tuition tab.

This, unfortunately, makes Aidan a bit of a hypocrite, a Los Angeles man so fearful of public education, he's willing to put his kids in an environment he doesn't take seriously.

Aidan is the main character in Braff's sometimes irritating Wish I Was Here, a movie about an aspiring actor (Braff) who's struggling economically, but won't consider giving up his dream of becoming a working performer.

Aidan's half-Jewish wife (Kate Hudson) holds the family together financially with a job she hates. Aidan's kids (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon) are ... well ... kids.

The twist that sets a sitcom-like story in motion occurs when Zach's father announces that his cancer has returned, that he's probably terminal and that he's going to spend all his money on what he hopes will be a miracle cure. Money for private school tuition suddenly vanishes.

Aidan's son is delighted to be free of the strictures of religious school. Hs daughter takes her religion seriously; she's also upset about losing touch with friends.

Improbably, Aidan takes on the responsibility for home-schooling his kids, a decision that leads to scenes more painful than funny. Besides, a guy like Aidan has no real reason to believe that he can teach his children math, science or anything else.

And that's the rub: In trying to be clever, the movie often seems to trash anything resembling comic or dramatic truth.

Braff, who financed Wish I Was Here with a much-discussed Kickstarter campaign, seems to be engaged in a hodgepodge of a project: part sitcom and part melodramatic tearjerker.

Just when you think the movie couldn't get worse, Aidan's defiantly geeky brother (Josh Gad) decides to attend a Comic-Con event dressed as a space man. And, yes, that's a definite turn for the worse.

Braff, who wrote the screenplay with his brother Adam, also includes fantasy sequences in which Aidan imagines himself as a kind of comic-book hero, a ploy that provides one more reason to wince.

Hudson brings a sense of reality to her character, and Patinkin makes a convincingly doctrinaire former professor who must, of course, soften his heart before he bids the world adieu.

Braff, who made his directorial debut with 2004's Garden State, attempts to humanize some of the fringe characters: The religious Jews, for example, begin as stereotypical figures, but eventually display a bit of recognizable humanity.

By then, though, the movie has dissolved into a soggy river of sentiment. Braff obviously wants to move us, but Wish I Was Here struck me as a self-absorbed exercise in failed cleverness that doesn't deserve its tears.

In case I haven't been clear enough: I didn't like it.

Polanski and the battle of the sexes

Roman Polanski tries his hand at another stage play in Venus in Fur, a mini-movie that represents a definite improvement over 2011's Carnage, a movie also based on a play. This time, Polanski translates David Ives's Broadway production into French, turning it into a claustrophobic power struggle between a playwright/director (Mathieu Amalric) and a mysterious actress (Emmanuelle Seigner) who's trying out for a part in the director's adaptation of a novel by real-life, 19th-century author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Polanski's remarkably fluid opening and closing shots are enough to justify the price of admission. Better yet, the performances are intriguing, perhaps because they totally embody the movie's deeper meanings. Seigner's character wheedles her way into an audition. Amazingly, she already knows her lines, and she's quite good. Amalric's character reads with her, playing the part of an aristocrat. As the story unfolds, director and actress begin jockeying for position. Seigner's character becomes increasingly bold, often taking aim at the director's judgment. In Seigner's capable hands, the play becomes a sharply observed study of acting, pretense and sudden shifts in direction. Polanski's two-character drama is limited only by the material itself: It can seem more tricky than profound, but Polanski knows how to stage a battle between the sexes with the advantage, in this case, tipping toward Seigner's wily, alluring and seldom predictable chara

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Man vs. ape: Can there be a winner?

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes makes for a smart, involving sequel.
The screenplay for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is smart enough to make you wonder whether the movie's intelligent apes didn't have a hand in writing it. This sequel maintains the overall arc of the revitalized series, pitting man (or at least some men) against ape (or at least some apes).

But if we take the apes as metaphors for the natural environment, the one which we tend to intrude upon and despoil, the movie becomes deeper, more resonant.

Director Matt Reeves not only peppers his screenplay with ideas, he tells a story that can be enjoyed on the most rudimentary of levels.

So where exactly are we in the evolutionary saga of the human and ape populations? We're in the near future just after a terrible Simian Virus has wiped out a substantial part of humanity.

A group of survivors -- perhaps numbering in the hundreds -- has assembled in a ruined quarter of a devastated San Francisco.

The apes, who have attained various levels of intelligence and some of whom have developed the ability to speak, live in the Muir Woods, where they've constructed an elaborate wooden village and are in the process of developing an ethos: Apes don't kill apes.

The apes do, however, kill deer: They hunt for food with spears and evidently are carnivorous. They also have family structures and a form of governance.

The apes are led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), a leader devoted the ape population. Caesar has strength, but also a reflective sense of sadness about where the world has been and where it seems to be headed.

The potential for additional trouble arises when the San Francisco humans launch an expedition into the Muir Woods. They hope to reactivate a power plant that's badly needed to maintain the city's supply of electricity and to keep matters from returning to total barbarity.

The mission includes a trio that has formed an impromptu family in the wake of the virus that has taken away husbands, wives and children. There's Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his girlfriend (Keri Russell) and Malcolm's son (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

The apes reluctantly agree to allow the mission to proceed, but Koba (Toby Kebbell) objects. It's understandable, maybe even justifiable: Koba -- a victim of cruel human experiments in the last movie -- has no reason to trust mankind.

Eventually, Koba sets himself up in opposition to Caesar, and we know that an eventual battle looms. The clash between Koba and Caesar allows Reeves & company to serve up some strong action while also examining the role of guns in building a civilization, as well as what happens when a society is fractured by two opposing narratives.

That conflict, of course, inevitably pits Koba and his marching minions against Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), a human who takes responsibility for wiping out the apes and protecting humanity.

Reeves (Cloverfield and Let Me In) handles the action, effects and story with great aplomb, developing a sense of mystery and awe from the outset -- with help from Michael Giacchino's powerful score.

The San Francisco-based battle sequences don't disappoint: They're even coherent.

To its credit, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which follows 2011's Rise of Planet of the Apes, doesn't entirely resolve the conflict between all its warring impulses. The movie does what few blockbusters would dare: It leaves us with a lingering, sorrowful feeling about the possibility of resolution.

This Berlin isn't for tourists

I like a film about slackers as much as the next indolent wretch. Still, I wasn't quite sure how to feel about director Jan Ole Gerster's A Coffee In Berlin, a film that focuses on Niko, a young man (Tom Schilling) whose life is going nowhere. Although Niko has dropped out of college, he still collects money his father sends him for tuition. That's how he lives. While vainly looking for a cup of coffee, perhaps thinking it will pull him out of his stuporous existence, Niko has mini-adventures with an actor pal (Marc Hosemann). Niko meets an attractive woman (Friederike Kempter) he knew and evidently teased in high school. She used to be fat. If you've been thinking of Berlin as one of Europe's most dynamic and culturally vibrant cities, A Coffee in Berlin may change your mind. Gerster's camera takes an anti-touristic, black-and-white approach to a city he obviously knows well. The film flirts with making a point when Niko visits the set a World War II movie. There, he meets a jovial actor who's playing a Nazi who has fallen in love with a Jewish woman, an extraordinarily bad idea for a movie. Gerster carries the idea of Germany's indigestible Nazi past further when Niko, dejectedly planted on a bar stool, meets an aging man who remembers the horrors of Kristallacht. All of this is set to a jazz-laden score, which seems to suggest that Gerster has lots of stuff whirling around in his mind and may someday make a movie in which some of it coalesces in a more impactful way.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

All aboard for a compelling ride

A wild, weird dystopian journey that demands to be seen.
Lately, I've been wondering why we can't seem to get enough of dystopia? I don't need to recount all the ways in which the world's a mess, but it's intriguing that just about every tentpole movie (from Edge of Tomorrow to Transformers: Age of Extinction to The Hunger Games) mires itself in the gloomiest possible vision of a future we once saw as endlessly bright -- or at least that's the story we tell ourselves about the past.

TV, of course, has joined the vigorous march toward doom. This week, I watched the opening episode of HBO's The Leftovers, which (happily) is not another cooking show. The jury may be out on the show's merits, but it brings dystopian flavor to a present in which a third of the population has vanished -- for no apparent reason. The great disappearance seems to have resulted in a thorough demoralization of those who remain, the leftovers of the title.

That shows airs at the same time as The Last Ship, a TNT production about the lone surviving naval ship in a world vanquished by a plague-like virus.

As a culture, we seem to be wallowing in mass depression -- and even if the box office has flagged a bit -- we seem to be enjoying our gloom immensely.

Me? I've grown weary of the dystopian thinking that has burdened the artistic imagination. But maybe even that attitude reflects the general malaise. What the hell's wrong with me? I'm having trouble enjoying mass destruction.

Now comes Snowpiercer, an international hybrid of a movie from Korean director Bong Joon-ho (The Host), and it may help restore my faith in hopelessness.

Perhaps because its director is Korean and perhaps because Bong bases his movie on a French graphic novel called Le Transperceneige, Snowpiercer has become an art-house offering.

Don't be misled. Snowpiercer is an action movie wrapped in an iron-clad vision of a society in which survival depends on brutally enforced class divisions that may have resulted from an intense competition for limited resources.

Bong's refreshingly preposterous movie takes place on a train that circles the globe. The lives of those on board are maintained, but the train goes nowhere. The whole idea of destinations seem to have vanished.

How did this happen? Global warming was heating the planet to intolerable levels. Someone figured out how to cool the planet, but the solution went too far, turning the entire Earth into a snow-covered wasteland. The only survivors are on the train to nowhere, lurching endlessly through sub-zero temperatures.

As can happen when a group is totally suppressed, the lower classes who occupy the rear of the train are becoming restless. Curtis (Chris Evans) and his friend Edgar (Jamie Bell) decide it's time for a revolt.

This means organizing their fellow sufferers and fighting their way to the front of the train, where people haven't been reduced to living in squalor and eating nothing but protein bars that look as if they're made from a combination of recycled rubber and Gummy Bears. They're not.

A mysterious figure we don't see until the film's final act presides over the train and its regimented inhabitants.

Bong creates plenty of excitement as the rebels attempt to traverse the train's length, exposing the train's social structure as they go, and pouring on plenty of revolutionary violence.

Bong obtains fine performances from a cast that includes Octavia Spencer as the mother of a boy who's taken to the front of the train for unknown reasons, and John Hurt, as a sagacious old man who became a peon when he was banished from the front of the train.

We also meet Mason (an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton), a bureaucrat who travels the length of the train making announcements for the purportedly revered leader and doling out punishments to those who express dissatisfaction.

Alison Pill has a wonderfully exuberant turn as a school teacher who instructs young people and who also leads them in insanely cheerful devotions to the unseen leader.

Korean actors Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko, play a father/daughter team of drug addicts who join the fray.

Intricately realized and totally unhinged, Snowpierecer can't be watched without feeling a bit of trepidation, probably because much depends on what happens when our revolutionaries finally reach the front of the train, where actor Ed Harris becomes a presence.

It pains me to say that the finale is a bit of a letdown. How could it not be? Harris doles out a bits of expositional and philosophical dialogue that don't quite deliver the hoped-for payoff.

But don't let that stop you from seeing one of the most creative, strange and propulsive movie's of the year. Flaws and all, Snowpiercer -- like its perpetually moving train -- takes us on one hell of a trip.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Melissa McCarthy's summer stumble

Tammy's as crude as you'd expect, but not as funny as you might have hoped.
Few things are more painful than being stuck in a moving vehicle with people who you find annoying. That's exactly how I felt watching Tammy, a movie that puts Melissa McCarthy and Susan Sarandon on the road.

Painfully misguided, Tammy is the result of a collaboration between McCarthy and her husband Ben Falcone, who co-wrote the screenplay with McCarthy and who also handled the directing chores.

Tammy finds McCarthy playing the title character, the wayward granddaughter of an aging alcoholic (Sarandon).

After being fired from her job at a fast-food franchise, McCarthy's Tammy sets out on a road trip with her grandmother, who supplies the car -- an aging Cadillac -- and the money that supports a journey toward Niagara Falls, a stop on grandma's bucket list.

All of this takes place over the objections of Tammy's mother (Allison Janney), who understands that grandma is both a diabetic and a drunk, and shouldn't be let loose on an unsuspecting world.

Sarandon may be game for anything, but she's given scenes that struck me as embarrassing: carrying on in the backseat of a car with a guy (Cary Cole) she meets in a bar or having a drunken outburst at a Fourth of July party thrown by her lesbian cousin (Kathy Bates).

McCarthy's luckier: Her previous comic roles have immunized her against embarrassment. Here, she plays a foul-mouthed woman whose husband (Nat Faxon) is having an affair with a neighbor (Toni Collette).

As is the case with many crude comedies, Tammy feels the need to sentimentalize its main character before it's done, something like an boisterous drunk who ends the evening crying in his beer.

Tammy 's told -- via lame dialogue Bates delivers with unnecessary conviction -- that she needs to take control of her life and stop wallowing in self-pity.

She's supposed to do this even though her drunken aunt has grabbed a microphone and told the partying lesbians that Tammy's a fat loser worthy of the nickname "cheeseburger."

Sarandon has been made to look as old as possible, even to the point of donning artificially swollen ankles, but she's never convincingly dissolute.

In what may have been intended as a comic high point, Tammy puts a paper bag on her head and robs a fast-food outlet after fashioning another paper bag into a pretend revolver. She needs money to bail grandma out of jail.

If this was intended as the movie's comic high point, it's not much of one.

Mark Duplass plays the son of the man who picked up grandma in a bar and a potential love interest for Tammy, the movie's lone representative of normalcy.

Tammy tries to get by making lame jokes about old folks, dishing out crude humor and toying with the image McCarthy has created in previous comedies such as Identity Thief, The Heat and, of course, in Bridesmaids, the movie that provided her with a breakthrough role.

Maybe because it's summer, Tammy even finds an excuse to blow up grandma's car. If only that had happened before grandma and Tammy had had a chance to get into it.

Begin again? -- not exactly

Director John Carney, who gave us the irresistibly charming quasi-musical Once, trods on familiar turf with Begin Again, a movie about two characters seeking rebirth and authenticity in the often brutal music business.

Mark Ruffalo provides the most compelling reason to see Begin Again -- which represents a mild falloff from its predecessor, which went on to become an award-winning Broadway play.

Ruffalo mixes rage and ruin in his portrayal of Dan, a down-on-his-luck music producer who once had a big career.

After Dan, who's drinking his way toward total failure, is fired from the record company he helped found, he hooks up with Gretta (Keira Knightley), a singer/songwriter who's trying to recover from a broken relationship with her boyfriend (Adam Levine), a singer whose career is on the rise.

Gretta, we fear, may become a cliche, the totally supportive girlfriend who's left behind by her boyfriend's success.

Dan's marriage already is in the tank. His former wife (Catherine Keener) seems chilly toward him, and his teen-age daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) isn't wowed by him either.

A cheerfully amusing James Corden plays Gretta's only real pal, a street musician.

There's no shame in gimmickry in a movie such as Begin Again, so it didn't bother me that Dan decides to make a record with Gretta. Improbably, all of the tunes are recorded on location in Manhattan using lots of ragtag equipment.

Begin Again was screened a while ago, and, frankly, I don't remember much about the tunes, something that wasn't true of Once.

Carney deserves credit for avoiding the worst romantic cliches, but Begin Again feels ever-so-slightly corny and out of tune. I wouldn't expect to see another Broadway musical, but then who'd have thought the Dublin-based Once -- which had the advantage of taking us by surprise -- would become a theatrical hit?

An exercise in diminishing returns

Pieces of puzzle don't fit together well in Paul Haggis's latest.

Director Paul Haggis's new movie, Third Person falters, but boasts an unusually watchable cast led by Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, Adrien Brody and Israeli actress Moran Atias.

Perhaps best known for the over-rated Oscar-winner Crash (2004), Haggis tells three related stories that don't cohere until the movie's unsatisfying conclusion.

Third Person has not been particularly well reviewed, but as flawed as I believe the movie to be, I was happy to see a film that, at least, attempted to deal with adult concerns.

In the film's best performance, Neeson plays a stalled novelist who's living in a Paris hotel, where he's trying to finish a book. He's left his wife (Kim Basinger) at home in the U.S., perhaps so that he can carry on an affair with his mistress (Wilde), a journalist who's also trying her hand at fiction.

Brody plays a businessman who steals other people's fashion designs and sells them to manufacturers of knock-offs. On a trip to Rome, where it's practically impossible to eat badly, he becomes an ugly American in search of a hamburger.

Dubious taste aside, Brody's character finds himself involved with a Romanian immigrant (Atias) who pulls him into a web of possible deceit.

In the third story, Mila Kunis plays a New York actress who's working as a maid while trying to win visiting rights with her young son, who lives with his artist father (James Franco). Kunis's character has been accused of abusing the child.

The actors give the enterprise their best shot. I especially enjoyed seeing Neeson in a role which didn't require him to wield a gun. Wilde's performance as a woman of mercurial moods proves alternately alluring and alarming, and Kunis pushes her character far out on an emotional ledge.

Third Person -- which deals with issues of trust and betrayal and also with the loss of children -- is too transparently tricky and, at times, too willing to push matters toward strained extremes. As a result, many of its twists tend to take us out of the picture's flow.

By trying so hard to describe a world of unrecognized connections, Haggis -- who also wrote the screenplay -- loses the battle between life's real complexities and those dreamed up by a writer who's capable of intriguing us one minute and making our eyes roll with disbelief, the next.