Thursday, October 30, 2014

'Nightcrawler' holds us in its sway

He has a camera, but does he have a soul?

We know little about the background of Lou Bloom, the main character in director Dan Gilroy's disquieting new thriller, Nightcrawler.

An apparent loner, Lou lives in a modest Los Angeles apartment, where he spends lots of time on the Internet. His eyes have the unblinking stare of a surveillance camera in a convenience store. He's definitely weird.

Lou -- a gaunt-looking Jake Gyllenhaal in his best screen performance yet -- appears to have acquired his social skills and stilted speech patterns from a manual, something like "How to Talk to a Prospective Employer."

After a misguided attempt at landing a job, Lou happens upon an automobile accident where a freelance news crew is scurrying to obtain graphic footage.

It's love at first sight for Lou, who understands that he has found a calling that may allow him to abandon minor larceny and enter a world where his lack of inhibition will bring him great success.

In a twisted version of bromides such as "follow your bliss," Lou finds something he truly loves, filming other people's misery.

To launch his career, Lou obtains a cheap camera and a police scanner. He begins to ply his new trade -- at first to the derision of established freelancers such as Joe Loder (Bill Paxton). Loder mocks Lou's amateur equipment and general lack of savvy.

But Lou persists, bringing his first footage to Nina Romina (Rene Russo), a news director at a third-tier local station. Nina knows Lou isn't skilled, but she recognizes that he has the stomach to pursue the "money shot," the gory detail others might avoid.

No spring chicken, Nina's been around the TV block. She's entirely committed to the cliche often used to characterize TV news: "If it bleeds, it leads."

When Nina tells Lou how to approach his newfound craft, she offers this bit of gruesome advice: He should try for images that create the feeling of a screaming woman running down a street with her throat cut.

Fortunately, Nightcrawler isn't another lathered-up critique of the media, although it certainly takes its shots at TV's appetite for sensation-driven content.

No, Nightcrawler is more than an anti-media screed: It's a character study of a man who distorts what might normally be regarded as virtues until they disappear into a haze of amorality. Lou has a preternatural ability to focus and a ravenous hunger for absorbing information that he quickly puts to use.

Joining with cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood), Gilroy works from a dark and gleaming palette that avoids most of the usual LA visual cliches. Almost every shot is alive with the city's worst impulses.

Lou's nocturnal adventures -- some quite grisly -- unfold in near-hypnotic fashion: A shooting that leaves gaping holes in a victim, gruesome car wrecks and crime. Lots of crime. Lou specializes in the kind of brutal material customarily presented by news anchors with a caveat: "viewer discretion advised."

Along the way, Lou acquires an assistant (Riz Ahmed), whom he refers to as an employee.

In a bizarre comic scene, Lou promotes Ahmed's Rick from a $30-per-night intern to executive vice-president of what he regards as his burgeoning video news empire. Lou never acts as if he's running anything less than a big-time operation. Lou, of course, believes everything he says. He smiles, but never jokes.

Much of the movie's tension derives from wondering whether Lou is insanely ambitious or simply insane. At one point, he takes Nina to dinner. He's confident enough about his importance to her that he blackmails her into a sexual relationship. The nerd has become a predator.

When you play Nightcrawler back in your head, you may decide that it's guilty of wild exaggeration and that some of Lou's adventures defy plausibility. But when a movie holds you in its sway, as this one does, there's little point complaining.

Honore de Balzac told us that behind every great fortune, there's a great crime. Nightcrawler tells us that crimes great and small are often committed by those who, like Lou, believe in the absolute necessity of their actions.

Lou's a sociopathic creep, all right, but (heaven help us), he's a happy creep. A creep with a destiny.

Can this marriage be saved?

Set in the Alps, Force Majeure follows a marriage down a very slippery slope.
If a man abandoned his lunch, grabbed his cell phone and fled the avalanche that was roaring toward the deck of the ski-lodge restaurant where he happened to be dining, we'd probably applaud his good judgment and quick reflexes.

But in the case of Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), that very incident raises questions about Tomas's manhood and his commitment to his marriage. Why? When Tomas bolts, he leaves his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and two children to fend for themselves.

As it turns out, the avalanche -- triggered by a controlled explosion of the kind ski resorts use to ward off major slides -- never reaches the restaurant? The episode is a scary false alarm.

Not surprisingly, Tomas has difficulty admitting what happened. But Ebba, who struggled to save her son and daughter, can't put the incident out of her mind.

Although Force Majeure takes place in a French Alpine ski resort, it's hardly a movie about the virtues of the great outdoors. Rather, it's a probing look at a marriage in which a single event exposes what surely must have been long smoldering issues in the lives of this picture-book couple.

As the movie progresses, Swedish writer/director Ruben Ostlund exploits these marital tensions: An ideal vacation -- designed to give Kuhnke's character a chance to spend more time with his kids -- quickly turns into an agonized nightmare.

No matter what Tomas says, it's clear that Ebba isn't going to give him the benefit of any doubt. She finds his behavior abhorrent on two counts: first, that he bolted, and second that he refuses to own up to it.

Things come to a head when Ebba brings the subject up in front of two other skiers, Tomas's divorced friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and the young woman (Fanni Metelius) with whom Mats is vacationing.

In an effort to help, Mats tries to chalk the incident up to natural survival instinct, something beyond Tomas's control. Obviously, Ebba isn't willing to buy into any such a rationalization.

It probably means something that Hivju's Mats has flowing red hair and a thick beard: He's a kind of Viking adventurer who's now plying a sea of younger women. When he and Tomas try to restore a bit of macho camaraderie, the movie takes on comic overtones.

Ostlund's marriage-conscious screenplay also introduces Ebba to a woman in an open marriage. This woman seems entirely relaxed about taking a break from her husband and pursuing sex with strangers.

Ebba may be upset by her husband's behavior, but she doesn't understand open marriage. Her views remain conventional.

The questions raised by Force Majeure are right on the surface. Are we wrong in assuming that men will act bravely in any situation in which their families are threatened? Has the marriage between Tomas and Ebba hinged on a fiction they no longer can be sustained? On an unconscious level, was Tomas trying to shed the weight of family and responsibility? Is there any way to dig out from the avalanche of issues that Ostlund so skillfully raises?

There's a big, emotional scene that I thought might go a bit too far, and a late-picture incident -- which can't be talked about here -- at first struck me as a bit of a copout. But it can be seen as something quite different if you reflect a bit on who these characters are, particularly Ebba.

Sorry to be vague, but how else to talk about a movie that's better discussed with others after they've seen it.

Meanwhile, it's worth reiterating that Ostlund has made a film that -- quite atypically -- explores issues of failed manhood, and then goes on to examine the role of illusion in sustaining a marriage.

Mom's gone. Does anyone care?

The best thing about White Bird in a Blizzard: Its title. Very poetic. Otherwise, this arty, semi-sensationalistic effort from director Greg Araki doesn't have much to recommend it -- unless you're intent on seeing every performance given by the talented Shailene Woodley (The Fault in Our Stars, Divergent, The Spectacular Now and The Descendants). In White Bird, Woodley plays Kat, a teen-ager living with her dad (Christopher Meloni). The event that ignites the rest of the story: Kat's bitchy, dissatisfied and often crazed mother (Eva Green) vanishes. Mom's disappearance is normalized over a couple of years while Kat continues with her life. She also has sexual experiences with a neighbor boy (Shiloh Fernandez) and with the detective (Thomas Jane) who's investigating her mother's disappearance. Araki, who's adapting a novel by Laura Kasischke, embellishes the story with arty touches such as dream sequences, but the movie's ending feels as if it has been contrived more to surprise than elucidate.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A scalding look at a writer's life

You might want to read him, but you probably wouldn't invite him over for dinner..
Filmmakers long have struggled when it comes to making films about writers. The problem is as vexing as it is obvious: Who wants to watch someone tapping away at a typewriter or keyboard?

Director Alex Ross Perry understands that the best way to look at a writer's world is by observing what he does when he's not writing.

In the blistering and amusing Listen Up Philip, we meet Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), an insufferably egotistical writer who manages to create misery for just about everyone with whom he comes into contact.

But there's balance here, as well: The caustic wit of Perry's screenplay ensures that Philip also suffers. He's tasted the poison he spews.

After a successful and well-received first novel, Philip is on the verge of publishing his second book. The novel, titled Obidant, seems headed for a less-than-glowing reception.

At the outset, and throughout the rest of the movie, Philip's in a fallow period.

For Philip (played by a gaunt, bearded and relentlessly arrogant Schwartzman), other people exist only to punctuate the loneliness and sadness to which he readily confesses.

Philip's only real soulmate arrives in the form of another writer. He's Ike Zimmerman, brilliantly played by Jonathan Pryce as a kind of older version of what Philip most probably will become.

The older Zimmerman, who hasn't published a novel in six years, takes Philip under wing. He encourages Philip, but also uses him to bolster his waning and perhaps irrevocably depleted energies.

Ike invites Philip to spend time at his country home, where he freely dispenses his wisdom, always wrapped in an all-knowing and often insensitive authoritarianism.

The story is told to us by an unseen narrator (Eric Bogosian) who may actually be reading from one or the other novelist's subsequent works.

In Manhattan, Philip shares an apartment with Ashley Kane (Elisabeth Moss), a photographer who's beginning to find success. You needn't be much of a prognosticator to know that this relationship can't last.

Watching Moss work is its own pleasure. Ashley becomes the focus of the movie in what amounts to an important, mid-picture digression. Haltingly and then with conviction, Moss shows us how Ashley learns to combat Philip's presence, fighting it off like an infectious disease.

Two other women turn up. Krysten Ritter plays Melanie, the acerbic daughter Ike can't help but wound, and Josephine de La Baume portrays a writing teacher at an upstate college where the dispirited Philip does a brief teaching stint.

Perry (The Color Wheel) shoots the movie in what appears to be an informal, hand-held style, homing in for large, uncomfortable close-ups.

I soured on Birdman partly because its main character -- an actor played by Michael Keaton -- was dislikable and because his problems, though monumental to him, struck me as beside any point about which I really cared.

Philip isn't exactly a bundle of joy, either.

But the difference between the work of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu of that of Perry resides in the sharpness of each's satirical gift, and the knowingness that each brings to the world he's trying penetrate.

Perry's characters don't need exaggeration or Inarritu-style exclamation points. It almost seems as if these writers have constructed their appalling egos in the same way they construct their characters. Even when they're trying to be scrupulously honest, they sound as if they're fictionalizing their lives.

Some see Philip as a youthful stand-in for Philip Roth or have seen the story as taking place in a Roth-like universe. Make your own decision about that.

However you approach the movie, Listen Up Philip is like a very sophisticated joke. Either you get it or you don't. And those on opposing sides of this equation probably should skip that after-movie drink.

If you find yourself taken by the movie, stay for the end credits: They include book jackets that have been amusingly designed. These parting shots offer a last, perspicacious comment on the work of characters we've come to see as awful, but who have been intelligently, comically and precisely nailed.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A look at race on an elite campus

Let's face it, ivy-covered walls may not keep out racism.
Dear White People takes place at a fictional Ivy League university, where -- in one way or another -- just about everyone can be considered privileged.

But rarified Ivy air doesn't necessarily shield students from hypocrisy, prejudice and even racism. Education, we're reminded, doesn't automatically equate with acceptance, tolerance and an open mind.

Writer/director Justin Simien may have had that unfortunate reality in mind when he wrote Dear White People, a movie that does a commendable job of introducing audiences to the pressure cooker environment that surrounds young black people at major universities.

Simien runs his finger across racial fault lines, showing us that post-racial bliss remains more dream than reality.

Set on the campus of Winchester University, Dear White People (the name derives from an in-film radio broadcast by one of the students) isn't only addressed to white people.

Simian points a satirical saber at whites and blacks, basing a key event in the movie on recent news reports about real college fraternities that have held parties in which white students mock what they see as black styles of dress and speech.

Episodic in approach, Dear White People focuses on a variety of characters, each dealing with a different level of racial tension and personal expectation.

Brandon P. Bell plays Troy Fairbanks, a black kid who happens to be the son of the school's dean of students (Dennis Haysbert). When we meet Troy, he's dating a white girl (Brittany Curran), who's the daughter of the school's president (Peter Syvertsen).

We also meet Coleandra "Coco" Corners (Teyonah Parris), a young woman of unconcealed -- if not entirely thought-through -- aspirations.

Then there's Samantha "Sam" White (Tessa Thompson), a modern-day militant who wants to return one of the school's diversified houses (club-like places where students gather for meals) to its all-black roots.

Surprisingly, she's elected head of the house, beating out Bell's Troy, a young man who seems to embody acceptability and poise, but who has his own issues.

Sam's also sleeping with a white student, which is less a sign of hypocrisy than a way for Simien to remind us that things usually are considerably more complicated than they appear.

The movie's resident outsider role goes to Tyler James Williams, who plays Lionel, a gay student with a beach-ball sized Afro and a taste for Robert Altman movies. Lionel watches everyone without really fitting in anywhere, until he finds a niche of his own.

Simien includes a fair amount of what you might call cultural confusion. Black students reject stereotypes, but often find themselves attracted to things they may think they should be avoiding.

At one point, Sam -- a film student who made a satirical short called Rebirth of a Nation -- is called out for listening to Taylor Swift.

Kyle Gallner plays the most obnoxious character, another child of the school president. Gallner's Kurt Fletcher also heads the campus humor magazine.

It's a little difficult to believe that two of the school president's kids are involved in the plot, but Simien uses these young people to point out disparities (some petty, some not) between black and white students.

Simien probably takes aim at too many targets, including mainstream cinema, which doesn't make much room for black stories that aren't either historical or hood-based, but this is a first feature and you can forgive Simien's need say as much as he can.

The story culminates with a fight at a costume party at which white students don blackface and mimic black styles (or their idea of black styles) which they seem to find amusing.

Although all of the main characters have their own arc, it's pretty clear by the end of the movie that the circumstances in which they're struggling with identity issues haven't changed much.

Watching Simien's Dear White People, I couldn't help thinking back to Spike Lee's School Daze, which dealt with students at a black college. That movie came out in 1988.

Twenty-six years later, along comes another talented filmmaker to take our racial pulse, and remind us that it's still subject to an irregular beat -- sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hurtful, but one we definitely shouldn't ignore.

'Birdman' tries to ruffle lots of feathers

A vibrantly presented world, but what's there to care about?.
If you've been following this year's film festival news, you know that director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman -- or more pretentiously Birdman: The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance -- has taken flight in critical circles.

Michael Keaton, who hasn't occupied center stage in a movie for a while, has received raves for portraying a washed-up movie star trying to make a comeback on Broadway.

And even those who've objected to Inarritu's cacophonous, multi-story approach in 21 Grams and Babel seem to regard Birdman as a striking improvement.

I begin this way because Birdman arrives with a cache that proclaims the film a brilliant riff on celebrity, movies, stardom and heaven knows what else.

Obviously, I wouldn't have mentioned any of this unless I intended to take a different -- and less effusive -- tack.

Creative, willing to plunge into fantasy without apology or explanation and sharply acted, Birdman resembles, as someone has pointed out, a high-wire act -- except (and here's the rub) the wire might be located no more than two feet off the ground.

Put another way, Birdman has its virtues, but revovles around a less-than-riveting question: Can a movie star we don't particuarly like and with whom we may not identify earn a reputation as a credible actor?

Keaton portrays Riggan Thomas an actor who made his mark playing a superhero called Birdman. Thomas ditched the franchise, but eventually fell into hard times. Now, his money and self-respect are running out.

To redeem his reputation, Riggan has written a play, an adpation of a Raymond Carver story called What We Talk About When We Talk abokut Love. What rides on the play's success? For Riggan: Everything. For us? Much less.

Keaton does a fine job playing a man who's plummeting even as he's trying to take flight. Riggan is tormented by the blatant commericalism of his past success; his box-office triumphs drag on him like an anchor.

But even in a comedy this caustic, it would be nice to give a damn about whether Riggan saved himself or not. I can't say that I did.

Riggan fights an internal battle, even as he faces various obstacles that threaten his play. He often hears the voice of his Birdman character, either berating him for his failures or reminding him that he could (and should) reclaim his place as a bona fide movie star who doesn't need the pipsqueak acclaim of the New York theater crowd.

Working with the gifted cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity and The Tree of Life), Inarritu employs a ferociously mobile camera as he attempts to make it seem as if the entire story is unfolding in a single take, an approach that's augmented by Antonio Sanchez's solo drum score. It's a feat of sorts, but put to what end?

OK, so Keaton played Batman, and stopped playing Batman. For some, this shard of show-business reality adds resonance to Inarritu's movie, but I can't imagine anyone confusing Keaton with the character he's playing.

Most of the story takes place in the tumultuous days before the play's opening: Among Riggan's problems: A cast member has been struck on the head by a stage light that detached from its moorings.

Riggan, who's both starring in and directing the play, hires a replacement, an apparently well-regarded theatrical actor (Edward Norton), a performer whose attempts to find realism in everything he plays reaches ludicrous levels.

Norton finds comedy in the self-inflation of a talented actor who believes that he's fighting a lonely battle to save the culture.

Also along for what's mostly a backstage ride is Riggan's daughter (Emma Stone). She's fresh from rehab and almost always in couldn't-care-less mode.

Stone has a power moment when her character tells her father that nothing about him matters, and he'd best get used to it. Stone then shows us -- as anger drains from her face -- that she realizes she may have gone too far.

We also meet an actress who's finally realizing her dream of appearing on Broadway (Naomi Watts).Zach Galifianakis plays Riggan's attorney and principal advisor, a mostly exasperated fellow who's constantly trying to save Riggan from himself.

Low-grade contempt runs through the entire movie -- for Hollywood and its blockbuster lust, for actors who either are portrayed as deeply insecure or phenomenal twits and for the audience, which is left to ponder the meaning of realistically presented images in which Riggan moves objects with his mind. Power fantasies from a man who seems to control nothing?

The screenplay tosses in some additional characters, notably Thomas' former wife (Amy Ryan) and his actress girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough). Early on, she tells Riggan that she's pregnant, the last bit of news someone in his precarious position needs to hear.

Much of the movie is marked by scorn, but Inarritu really forces his point when we meet the drama critic for The New York Times (Lindsay Duncan). She insists that she's going to destroy the play, even though she hasn't seen it.

Why? Because she detests everything that Riggan stands for; i.e., Hollywood commercialism. Even in a movie with satirical aspirations, it's just another cheap shot.

Look, Inarritu's clearly trying to push his movie out of the usual big-screen comfort zones. But I found Birdman to be marching to a drumbeat of self-absorption, and for all of its agitated craft, it's not without dull spots.

Birdman is about the ways in which artists risk everything and bystanders (and critics) risk nothing. With all humility, I'd say that real risk takers don't feel the need to point out that they're laying everything on the line. They just do it.

You can spend a lot of time deconstructing Birdman, but you may find that once you've done with the exercise, you haven't arrived anywhere that deeply matters.

Drumming to beat the band

Whiplash has enough energy to stock 10 movies.
I've always thought of jazz as an art form that allowed skilled, disciplined musicians a great measure of freedom. But jazz -- like just about everything else -- has been transformed by time and social change.

Music once was mastered in clubs and learned from other musicians now can be studied in conservatory-like situations where highly motivated young people pursue jazz with the zeal and determination you'd expect to find among a group of Harvard MBA candidates.

That's the environment we find ourselves in Whiplash, an exciting and sometimes disturbing debut feature from Damien Chazelle, a director who obtains fine performances from Miles Teller as Andrew, an aspiring jazz drummer, and from J.K. Simmons as Fletcher, an unapologetically judgmental and sometimes sadistic teacher.

Simmons, who portrays Fletcher as if he were a Marine Corps drill instructor, hasn't had this kind of a badass role since he portrayed white supremacist Vern Schillinger on HBO's Oz.

If ever a teacher could create performance anxiety in his charges, it's Fletcher. He leads the school's prestigious first-string jazz band, and takes pride in its ability to win just about every competition it enters.

Teller's Andrew desperately wants to find a place in Fletcher's world. He's the kind of driven kid who'll practice until his hands bleed. He sweats and drums himself to the point of exhaustion. When Andrew plays, it feels as if we're watching an action movie.

Fletcher specializes in pushing his students' buttons, learning about their personal lives and using information he acquires to test their ability to withstand public humiliation. He's quick to make fun of Andrew's English teacher father (Paul Reiser), calling him a failed writer, for example. Simmons sarcastic tirades include a repertoire of homophobic slurs, delivered by him without an apparent second thought.

All of this makes Fletcher frightening. He can be sympathetic when he chooses to be, but he'll turn brutal in a minute, presumably to spur his charges to higher levels of performance.

In a way, Fletcher is a second and much tougher father than Andrew's biological father, who raised the boy alone and seems to display (heaven help him) a degree of sensitivity. Andrew's mom left when he was quite young.

Teller shows us some of Andrew's vulnerability, but he also can be cocky. Andrew grows in confidence as the movie progresses, even dumping his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) because he knows she'll want more from him than he's willing to give. Nothing takes precedence over drumming.

Of course, there would be no movie if Chazelle didn't build toward a major clash, and when it arrives, it hits the screen with near-explosive force.

I don't know exactly what Chazelle intended, but it's striking to see jazz as a kind of competitive, striver's pursuit for young men, most of them white.

Whatever the movie's messages (intended and unintended), the duel between Simmons and Teller proves mesmerizing, as is the music of Justin Hurwitz, who wrote original numbers for the movie, which also makes use of such jazz classics as Duke Ellington's Caravan.

The idea that artistic excellence can't be achieved without this kind of torment may be baloney. The movie's notion that greatness can be tortured out of students isn't likely to win many converts.

But I wouldn't miss the battle waged by Andrew and his mentor. It's not just about musicians pushing themselves; it's about actors pushing themselves and about the desire to stand-out from the anonymous crowd.

When it's done, you may find yourself arguing with Whiplash, but you won't be able to ignore a movie that feels every bit as driven as its characters.

Bullets fly in 'John Wick'

Keanu Reeves seeks a mega helping of vengeance in John Wick.
In the movies, hitmen seldom retire to lives of leisurely bliss.

So we're not especially surprised when John Wick -- an assassin and the newly widowed title character of a new movie starring Keanu Reeves -- is pushed back into action.

We are a bit surprised, though, when (and I include this spoiler for the benefit of pet lovers), the dog his late wife gave him to help with grieving is killed by the sadistic son (Alfie Allen) of a Russian crime czar (Michael Nyqvist).

You can do a lot to a guy, but kill his dog? That's a major no-no.

John Wick, which was directed by Chad Stahelski, is a movie aimed at piling up box-office receipts as fast as falling bodies -- and lots of bodies bite the dust in a frenzied helping of violence that harkens back to some of the Hong Kong bloodbaths of the '80s and '90s. Think John Woo, only without as much style and without Chow Yun-Fat.

Reeves has been surrounded by a supporting cast that knows how to sell this kind of brutal gruel. Nyqvist has fun as the apparently judicious father of a son who believes he owns the world, and Willem Dafoe shows up as another hitman.

Plentiful fight sequences are well-orchestrated by Stahelski, who knows how to fulfill genre obligations.

John Wick is the kind of guilty pleasure that takes us back to grindhouse days, and I have no problem with that.

A wish, though: I wish that Reeves could bring at least a hint of subtext to the role. His character may triumph in the end, but the actors playing the bad guys have Reeves beat by a mile.

Things go topsy turvy in this asylum

A great cast tackles melodrama in Stonehearst Asylum.
Taking its cue from an Edgar Allan Poe story, Stonehearst Asylum makes literal use of an oft-posed question: What might happen if the inmates took over the asylum?

Although the movie's answer hardly qualifies as profound, its high-grade cast -- particularly Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine and David Thewlis -- seems to be having a good time with a Gothic tale set at the dawn of the 20th Century.

The movie wastes no time establishing a creepy atmosphere. Dr. Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) arrives at spooky Stonehearst Asylum to serve a residency as a staff psychiatrist, known in this movie as an "alienist."

Thrown off guard by caretaker Mickey Finn (Thewlis), Newgate is further flummoxed by the asylum's weirdly imperious superintendent, Dr. Silas Lamb (Kingsley).

Dr. Lamb believes that it's better to allow patients to follow their madness than to treat them abusively.

I doubt you'll be surprised when Dr. Newgate discovers that the patients have revolted and thrown the real staff into the asylum's dungeon.

The point: 19th century methods for treating the insane constituted a cruel and inhuman form of punishment. The staff, led by Caine's character, deserves to be punished.

That message plays second fiddle to the mixture of melodrama and macabre comedy that director Brad Anderson serves up -- with particular help from an acerbic and slightly unhinged Kingsley.

Also clear from the outset is Northgate's infatuation with a supposedly dangerous but beautiful patient (Kate Beckinsale), a hysteric who freezes when touched.

The movie's over-the-top and self-consciously melodramatic approach (cue the thunder!) works well enough, until final scenes engulf the screen in flames.

Warning: Caine's role is small. Same goes for Brendan Gleeson, who appears at the movie's beginning and at its end.

If you're looking for horror, look elsewhere: Stonehearst Asylum isn't particularly scary, but its production values are strong, and there's something to be said for watching a grade A cast take a bumpy journey through B-movie terrain.

He's caught in a trap

A challenging French thriller with passion at its core.
Sometimes, a movie should be welcomed for what it doesn't say as much as for what it articulates.

That may be the case with The Blue Room, an uneasy and ambiguous thriller starring and directed by Mathieu Amalric, the French actor who may be best known to American audiences for his performance in 2007's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

You'll find none of the insistent daring that marks a movie such as The Birdman. Nor will you find the kind of sharply obvious ironies that were etched into much of Gone Girl.

But Amalric's movie struck me as every bit as daring as either of those movies.

From the disturbing asymmetry of its images to a collection of characters who won't be pinned down, The Blue Room qualifies as one of the year's stand-out entertainments.

The story begins in a hotel where Esther (Stephanie Cleau) and Julien (Amalric) are having an apparently torrid affair.

To emphasize the ferocious physicality of their attraction, Esther bites Julien's lip. A drop of blood falls on a white sheet. I can't remember whether this was before or after Esther opened her legs and briefly revealed her public mysteries to the camera.

The term "Hitchcockian" has suffered from critical over-exposure, but it's appropriately applied to a movie in which otherwise banal sights can be made to feel creepy or at least unsettling.

Among those sights: Julien's sleek modern home in the French countryside where he lives with his wife (Lea Drucker) and his daughter (Mona Jaffart).

Yes, both Julien and Esther are married, which adds a discomfiting element to their affair.

Esther, we learn, is married to the town pharmacist, a wealthy fellow who we never meet, but who will turn up dead before the movie's done.

Amalric keeps us off guard by parcelling out the story in the form of flashbacks that are revealed as Julien is questioned by the police and later by a judge (Laurent Poitrenaux) about his wife's death.

Esther and Julien are being charged with murder, making us wonder whether they contrived to eliminate both their spouses so that they could live together.

Take special note of the dismissive deftness with which Amalric handles the late-picture courtroom scenes; they're dispatched with briefly, almost as if he's sweeping them past us with a broom.

That's as it should be: The Blue Room isn't about guilt or innocence -- at least not the kind that can be determined in courtrooms.

Both Esther and Julien's wife Delphine remain mysterious. We wonder if Esther might be cunning or even insane. Delphine always seems to play her cards close to the vest. We're not sure how much she knows.

Julien, on the other hand, seems increasingly exposed, a confused man who -- like many film noir figures -- doesn't quite know how he ended up where he is.

I can help: He's in the middle of a thriller that poses more questions than it's willing to answer -- and is all the better for it.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Stuck in the mud of war

Brad Pitt leads a tank crew in a movie full of harrowing war imagery.
By April of 1945, U.S. troops had advanced deep into German territory. For Germany, the war already was lost. Humiliation and surrender loomed.

Despite being set on the eve of the impending Allied triumph, the mood of director David Ayer's Fury remains forbidding and dark. Seldom has victory looked quite this grim.

If there's freshness in Ayer's approach, it's found just here: It doesn't really matter whether soldiers are fighting on the first or last day of a war: Many will die. Brutality doesn't stop just because the end is near.

The opening image of Ayer's movie has a haunting, nearly surreal quality. A German soldier rides a white horse onto an open field. We don't know where the soldier's headed or why he's on horse back.

Seconds later, a lone figure springs from a U.S. tank. Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt) leaps on the German officer, pulls him off his horse and stabs him to death.

In one image, Ayer vanquishes any thoughts we might have had about the romance of war.

Fury offers lots more unsettling imagery, sights presumably intended to make us see the war with fresh eyes, to absorb its intensity and fear in ways that we haven't yet experienced. To say Fury has a kind of bleak power may sound like a turn-off, but that's precisely what we're supposed to feel with a movie such as this.

Pitt's performance as an Army sergeant in charge of a war-weary tank crew inevitably will remind audiences of the character he played in Inglourious Basterds, but Pitt's Collier is more complex than Lt. Aldo Raine.

A hardened veteran, Collier parcels out his human impulses sparingly, almost as if he's afraid of tapping out an already depleted supply.

The rest of Collier's crew consists of Boyd "Bible" Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Trini "Gordo" Garcia (Michael Pena) and Grady "Coon Ass" Travis (John Bernthal). Scott Eastwood portrays Sergeant Miles, another member of the crew.

The plot -- hardly a groundbreaker -- begins when a newbie (Logan Lerman) joins Collier's tank crew in what seems a desperate or possibly haphazard move by the Army.

Lerman's Norman Ellison has spent most of the war as a clerk typist. He has no tank training, and makes a reluctant warrior, someone whose unwillingness to kill is seen as a threat by his comrades in arms.

Much of the story involves the ways in which Lerman's character is toughened -- at first against his will and later with vengeful relish.

In Ayer's world, the members of the tank crew are bonded, but they're not always admirable. Bernthal's Travis can seem like a borderline sadist. So does Collier, at times.

The point, of course, is that the savagery of war tends to turn men into brutes regardless of what uniform they happen to be wearing.

The actors all mold their performances to fit the dreary, mud-soaked landscapes that become another character in the hands of cinematographer Roman Vasyanov.

The movie offers up equal amounts of combat and desperation, although there's an interlude in which Collier and Ellison enter the apartment of a couple of German women (Anamaria Marinca and Alicia von Rittberg). The soldiers are in a town that just has been taken. Some of them are looking for sex and spoils.

At first, the scene humanizes Collier, but there's a terrible, growing tension when the rest of the tank crew shows up, wondering why they've been excluded from what appears to be a moment's pleasure and respite.

Ayer made his cinematic bones with viscerally charged movies such as End of Watch, which focused on cops in South Central Los Angeles. He makes full use of his talent for violent immediacy here, bringing it to scene-after-scene.

Fury also reminds us that shocking sights can become routine if seen in abundance: Dead bodies are flatted by tank treads, and the ugliness of war unfolds under dark, apprehensive skies.

The movie's finale involves a terrible battle in which Collier's crew (unbelievably, I think) decides to face an entire SS battalion, a decision that's tantamount to a death sentence. Is it courage or a death wish from soldiers who know they'll never again adjust to normal life? Will anyone survive?

When stripped of all its grim atmospherics, Fury may not seem radically different from lots of other war movies that follow small groups of men into the teeth of war.

But story arc may not be the point here: Ayer seems to be trying to give us a more vividly disturbing picture than the one sometimes associated with the so-called Greatest Generation.

With hindsight, idealism may be possible. On the battlefield, it's a forgotten luxury.

The salvation of a nasty old man

Bill Murray is at his scuzzy best in St. Vincent, but too much sentiment diminishes his accomplishment..
When we talk about movies that canonize their characters, we're usually talking metaphorically. Although St. Vincent, which stars Bill Murray, doesn't actually confer sainthood on the character Murray plays, it comes as close as possible without submitting its case to the Vatican, complete with two certified miracles.

Murray, who can look disheveled even when he's standing still, plays a man on the verge of dereliction. Financial troubles have put Murray's Vincent in danger of losing his Brooklyn home. But it doesn't look as if Vincent would need much by way of external pressure to have him heading for the local saloon or the race track.

Desperate for money, Vincent agrees to babysit for a kid who just has moved next door (Jaeden Lieberher). Newly separated from her husband, the boy's mother (Melissa McCarthy) knows no one in her new neighborhood and must rely on the acerbic Vincent for help.

So will a cute and very bright boy worm his way into Vincent's cold heart?

Come on, it's a movie, and no matter how gruff Murray plays Vincent, we know from the outset that he'll eventually prove himself to be a decent enough fellow.

The movie wastes little time reassuring us that hard-ass Vincent has a good side: Fairly early on, Vincent is shown visiting his wife in the upscale nursing facility where he's struggling to keep her.

Murray makes it touchingly clear that Vincent loves this woman, who's evidently stricken with Alzheimer's. Perhaps Vincent's life started its down-hill plummet when his wife was institutionalized.

Occasionally, Vincent has sex with a pregnant Russian pole-dancer and prostitute (Naomi Watts). He treats her with scorn, but we know that when the chips are down, he'll come through for her, too.

Late in the movie, Vincent suffers a stroke, which pushes him into disability territory, and perhaps opens an Oscar path for Murray.

It's clear that Murray, who knows how to play nasty, could have made a sentiment-free movie about a man who's going to spend the rest of his life stewing in his beer.

But director Theodore Melfi doesn't have the stomach for flat-out misery, and he pushes the film toward an ending that shamelessly tugs at happily-ever-after heart strings.

Murray keeps St. Vincent watchable, and it's refreshing to see McCarthy play a character who's not cut from the same crude cloth that seems to have characterized most of her work since Bridesmaids (2011).

Still, the main reason to see St. Vincent is to savor of the bitter tastes Murray brings to this character and to imagine the hard-bitten movie that could have been.

In the end, though, St. Vincent's sweet-and-sour mix doesn't totally compute: It's like getting a sappy Valentine's card from Charles Bukowski.

The Internet made them do it

Jason Reitman's Men, Women & Children grabs a techno tiger by the tail.
In Men, Women & Children, director Jason Reitman tries to latch onto something juicy and topical: the ways in which technology can push us apart rather than bringing us closer together.

Although hardly an astonishing insight, this caution about technology works its way into nearly every corner of Reitman's densely populated adaptation of a novel by Chad Kultgen.

Set in a Texas suburb, Men, Women & Children ups it creative ante by employing a large and talented cast, a bit of technological gimmickry (we read texts on the screen as characters type them) and a wry narration delivered by Emma Thompson , who's never seen on screen.

Thompson's narration offers an ironic reminder that the movie's collection of narrow, in-grown stories -- so feverishly important to most of its characters -- take place against a background of vast cosmic indifference.

That's an awfully grand reach for an essentially small movie that tends to focus on sexual relationships -- or the lack of them -- and which, one presumes, is intended as a snapshot of a contemporary reality in which we all are subject to distraction.

Tell me you've never been tempted to look at your phone while watching a movie or even during a face-to-face conversation with someone.

Following on the heels of Reitman's disappointing Labor Day, Men, Women & Children bounces from one story to another as if following links during an Internet browsing session.

The best of these stories involves a sexually dysfunctional family. Adam Sandler plays a husband who has substituted Internet porn and masturbation for a sex life with his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt).

As the story unfolds, Sandler's Don Truby seeks out (via the Internet, of course) a high-priced call girl. His wife, who very much wants to feel desired, uses an Internet site to arrange a sexual liaison with a stranger (Dennis Haysbert).

Meanwhile, the couple's teen-age son (Travis Tope) spends so much time with Internet porn, he can't respond sexually to the advances of a willing cheerleader (Olivia Crocicchia).
Crocicchia's Hannah has preoccupations of her own. Encouraged by a stage-managing mother (Judy Greer), Hannah's the star of a Web site created by her mom in hopes of establishing her daughter as a celebrity and an actress, probably in that order.

Hanna isn't the movie's only cheerleader. Allison (Elena Kampouris), also a cheerleader, visits pro-anorexia websites and engages in acts of self-sabotage, allowing herself to be used by a football player who doesn't give a damn about her.

To say that the plot further thickens doesn't quite do justice to Men, Women & Children's complexity: Dean Norris (who played Hank on Breaking Bad) appears as a father who's upset that his son (Ansel Elgort) has decided to quit playing football. The young man apparently has reached a point of familiar adolescent despair: He has concluded that life is meaningless.

Elgort's Tim becomes involved with Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), the daughter of an obsessively over-protective mother (Jennifer Garner), who charts her daughter's every on-line move.

Amidst the story clutter, Reitman obtains some fine performances. A surprisingly effective Sandler channels his inner mope to play a guy of quiet dissatisfactions; DeWitt is fine as his frustrated wife; and watching Norris made me hope that he'll find his way into more movies.

A word more on DeWitt: In a late-picture scene, her character faces her husband at a pivotal moment in their relationship. Watch DeWitt's face. She manages one of the most emotionally shattered expressions I've seen in a movie.

Reitman, who also directed Juno, knows how to work with young actors, and the film's many teen-agers acquit themselves well.

Men, Women & Children seems intended as a cautionary tale. I don't think it has the sharpness and brio that has characterized Reitman's best work (Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air, and not all of the movie's accumulated moments are as telling as must have been intended.

The subject of technological tyranny in ordinary lives isn't quite as compelling as the filmmakers may think, and Reitman, who co-wrote the screenplay with Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary) sometimes skim reads the movie's characters and situations.

Fair to say, I think, that Men, Women & Children doesn't always see deeply, but credit Reitman for trying to touch the sadness that seems to have descended on so many lives.

Surviving the Sudanese Civil War

Forget Reese Witherspoon; it's the story of war and its ramifications that matters.
Although sometimes burdened by a by-the-numbers approach, The Good Lie tells an important story about a group of young Sudanese refugees trying to start new lives in the U.S.

I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone from seeing The Good Lie, primarily because it humanizes the consequences of a tragic civil war that raged in the Sudan from 1983 to 2005. The movie also boasts a level of sincerity that's almost startling when compared to most movies.

Reese Witherspoon, who plays a woman assigned to helping Sudanese young men find employment in the U.S., is the only recognizable face in a movie that's at its best when she's not around.

Nothing against Witherspoon, who doesn't show up until the picture has been running for 45 minutes. She's fine, but the story of how these young people -- emblematic of some 20,000 refugees in all -- fled their village, hiked hundreds of miles in search of safety, languished in refugee camps, and ultimately developed into war-scarred young adults is far more interesting.

Canadian director Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar) introduces us to two brothers (Arnold Oceng and Femi Oguns) and their sister (Kuoth Wiel). We also meet another set of refugees (Ger Duany and Emmanuel Jai).

Oceng's character becomes the group's leader after his older brother makes a sacrifice that saves the other kids from being taken captive.

When the Sudanese refugees reach the United States, they're forced to split up. The boys -- young men by now -- are sent to Kansas City. Wiel's character is assigned to a Boston family.

Once in the U.S., much of the story depicts the cultural adjustments demanded of young men who have grown up in refugee camps and who know little about American life. It's all a bit predictable, but the plight of these youngsters -- drawn from real stories -- lingers.

The Good Lie may not be quite the powerhouse that was intended. It tries to raise the emotional stakes with a last-minute development that seems overly contrived, but -- at minimum -- reminds us that not all refugee stories ended happily in Kansas City.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Verdict on 'The Judge:' A disappointment

It has been 42 years since Robert Duvall played the impossibly tough Lt. Col. "Bull" Meechum in The Great Santini. In that movie, Duvall set a high standard for big-screen fathers who couldn't be pleased.

Duvall, who's now 73, plays another difficult father in The Judge, an shamelessly manipulative movie that's unsure whether it wants to be a taut courtroom drama or an emotional story about a strained relationship between a father and his son (Robert Downey Jr.)

David Dobkin, who has directed such regrettable comedies as The Change-Up and Fred Claus, scatters effective dramatic moments throughout, but his movie bites off more than it should chew, and the residue dribbles down its chin, often pooling into puddles of cliche.

After so many effects-laden movies -- from Iron Man to The Avengers to Sherlock Holmes -- you'd think that Downey would be eager for a role that allows him to keep his feet planted on realistic ground.

But in playing a slick, ethically dubious big-city attorney, Downey trods familiar ground as a glib, fast-talking character -- one Hank Palmer -- who returns to his Indiana hometown to attend his mother's funeral.

There, he reunites with his two brothers -- baseball wash-out Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio) and mentally challenged Dale (Jeremy Strong).

The brothers are a side trip, though: Hank's relationship with his father -- a man everyone calls The Judge -- drives the movie.

Watching a grown man try to come to grips with a hard-ass father seems like drama enough for any movie, but The Judge contrives to have Duvall's character charged with murder in what appears to have been a hit-and-run accident.

There's a corpse and incriminating blood on the bumper of The Judge's car, but Duvall's Joseph Palmer doesn't remember hitting anyone. Is he lying? Is he suffering from dementia?

Not surprisingly, Hank eventually takes over his father's defense. In the process, he rediscovers a sense of humanity that he lost in a career that has focused on defending high paying clients, most of them guilty as charged.

To add yet another unnecessary level of complexity to the movie's two hours and 20 minutes, Hank is estranged from his trophy wife, but trying to maintain a relationship with his button-cute daughter (Emma Tremblay). About midway through, she visits Hank.

Hank also tests the waters of romance with an old flame (Vera Farmiga), who now owns a local bar and grill.

When the courtroom elements kick into high gear, a stoney-faced Billy Bob Thornton shows up as prosecuting attorney Dwight Dickham.

The idea of a movie starring actors as good as Downey and Duvall must have seemed irresistible, but The Judge trips over too many of the bases it tries to touch. Moreover, the trial fails to score high in the credibility department.

The cast is too good totally to be defeated by material that seems to plead for our tears, but The Judge can't overrule the deep mediocrity of its many conceits.

When a hero becomes the goat

A terrific Jeremy Renner plays a reporter who fights to get the story and then battles with the journalistic establishment in Kill the Messenger.
Though not entirely satisfying, Kill the Messenger has enough energy and intrigue to earn its place on a list of movie's that rightly give us pause.

In yet another electric performance, a terrific Jeremy Renner plays a newspaper reporter who rose and, then, fell with his story.

Renner's portrayal of mayor Carmine Polito in American Hustle was a small classic, and he's done fine, even scary, work in such tough-minded movies as The Town (2010) and The Hurt Locker (2008).

An actor of exceptional edge, Renner creates the impression that his characters could tilt in a hundred different directions. We're never entirely sure which way they'll jump.

In Kill the Messenger, Renner plays Gary Webb, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury who, in the 1990s, wrote a highly controversial story about Nicaraguan rebels who were smuggling drugs into the U.S. while the CIA apparently looked the other way.

Webb's story started strong and then got blurry: Major journalistic institutions -- notably The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times -- tried to poke holes in Webb's reporting. Even his own paper eventually said Webb had over-reached.

As shown in the movie, Webb persisted in his quest because he understood that the story, which tracked events that unfolded during the 1980s, had had devastating, on-the-ground impact: Drugs were being funneled into South Central Los Angeles, where a crack epidemic was ruining lives.

Director Michael Cuesta (L.I.E.) doesn't canonize Webb, who we learn had a devastating incident in his past, a tragic episode that caused him to leave the Cleveland Plain Dealer and head for California.

When Webb's story -- entitled Dark Alliance -- broke on the Internet, it pointed to a tarnished part of the recent American past and, subsequently, raised interesting questions about whether some in the journalistic establishment were being motivated by timidity and envy.

Although the movie encourages us to side with Webb, it doesn't entirely settle the issue of whether he dotted every "i'' and crossed all his "ts."

If it's a bit indecisive, pacing and intrigue keep the story humming, as does a large and powerful supporting cast.

A seductive Paz Vega plays Coral, a woman who pulls Webb into the story. Tim Blake Nelson portrays an attorney for a crack dealer (Michael Kenneth Williams) who knows the real story of how cocaine is reaching the ghetto, and Barry Pepper appears as a prosector who doesn't seem devoted to finding the truth.

We're also introduced to Webb's editors. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Webb's immediate supervisor, and Oliver Platt portrays the paper's editor. Andy Garcia has a nice, small turn as an imprisoned drug lord who becomes one of Webb's sources.

The movie supplements its main story by showing the toll Webb's work took on his family, notably on his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) and the older of his two sons (Lucas Hedges).

Unfortunately for Cuesta, this may be a case where the arc of the drama, derived from real events, diminishes its power: Triumph precedes a downward spiral. Webb's story trades victory for defeat, and winds up knocking the air out of itself.

Still, I wouldn't dismiss Kill the Messenger. We may not always be able to find our moorings in this complicated tale, but two things seem clear: Major institutions -- the government and the press -- can be tainted by self-interest. And no matter where you look, heroes probably will be in short supply.

Another adaptation of a Highsmith novel

I'm not sure where The Two Faces of January ranks in the work of novelist Patricia Highsmith, whose work has enriched the movies with the Ripley stories and also with Strangers on a Train. In the hands of director Hossein Amini, the Iranian-British writer who's making his directorial debut, the big-screen adaptation of Two Faces comes off as a mixed achievement. Amini tells the story of an older man (Viggo Mortensen) who's traveling in Greece with his young wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) in 1962. There, they meet a knock-about tour guide named Rydal (Oscar Isaac). Mortensen's Chester MacFarland has a dubious financial history. Rydal, whose morals aren't rock solid, either, begins to fall for Colette. Cinematographer Marcel Zyskind does right by locations in Athens, Crete and Istanbul, but the movie probably needed more volatility beneath its surface. Amini, who wrote the screenplays for Snow White and the Huntsman, Drive and Wings of the Dove, proceeds intelligently enough, but never brings the movie to sufficient boil. The performances, particularly from Mortensen are a plus.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

She's gone -- but to where?

Director David Fincher takes on a bestseller with lots of trashy but entertaining twists.
In the beginning, the marriage seems idyllic. An attractive young magazine journalist teams up with a gorgeous woman who earns her living writing quizzes for magazines. They live in New York City, and appear to be clued to a power-couple track.

Then, comes the derailment.

He loses his job: She doesn't have a whole lot happening in her life. They decide to abandon New York City and head for his hometown in Missouri. There, he'll run a neighborhood bar, and she'll have entirely too much time to wonder what happened to her life.

So goes the setup for director David Fincher's eagerly awaited adaptation of Gillian Flynn's 2012 best-seller, Gone Girl, which stars Ben Affleck as the husband and Rosamund Pike as his wife.

Gone Girl is the kind of movie about which much can't be said. To discuss the plot in any detail puts one knee deep into spoiler territory.

For those who haven't read Flynn's book, all that really needs to be known is that Affleck's Nick Dunne arrives home from work on the day of his fifth anniversary to discover that his wife is missing.

Signs of violence suggest that he should call the cops: The rest of the movie concerns the search for Pike's Amy as Fincher provides us with various views of the marriage at the film's tricky heart.

After a slow and somewhat awkward start, Fincher eventually gets down to business, playing with our sympathies as Nick comes under suspicion in his wife's disappearance.

One minute, we feel Nick may be getting a raw deal. The next minute, we're leaning toward Amy's version of things and wondering whether Nick isn't a monster who killed his wife.

Each character gets a turn at narrating the story. We hear Nick in voice-over fragments: Amy's view is presented in the form of excerpts from her diary (read by Pike).

Affleck's performance isn't showy, but it's effective. He's playing a guy whose life is spinning out of control. Affleck's Nick does his best to cope and to combat what seems to be a long-standing depression.

Pike confronts a different problem: Amy tends to be more of a sketch than a fully drawn character -- albeit the sketch gets more interesting as the movie progresses.

The supporting cast is first rate. Kim Dickens, familiar from HBO's Treme, does nice work as a detective in the Francis McDormand, Fargo mode, and Patrick Fugit (who starred in Almost Famous as a kid) plays her skeptical sidekick, Officer James Gilpin.

Tyler Perry nails his role as an attorney whose confidence stems from his unquestionable slickness. He specializes in defending accused husbands. Neil Patrick Harris portrays one of Amy's former boyfriends, a preppie type who never gave up his crush on her.

Carrie Coon deserves special mention: She plays Nick's twin sister, a woman who's entirely devoted to him, but who also knows his weak spots.

Fincher (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network, Zodiac and Se7en) is not a breezy director: He moves deliberately, and he may be guilty of letting an hour and half's worth of movie stretch into two hours and 25 minutes.

But in the end, Gone Girl's many twists and turns -- Flynn wrote the screenplay -- carry the day, turning the movie into fun with a trashy tilt.

Beyond that, Fincher lands some nice -- if obvious -- satirical blows to the media solar plexus: In the 24-hour news cycle, commentators often treat crime stories as morality plays that demand constant blameworthy targets.

To be honest, I wasn't sure that Fincher didn't take the material more seriously than is warranted: In some ways, Gone Girl struck me as glorified and bloodier version of some episodic TV shows, and it's probably unwise to generalize about the state of marriage from what see of Nick and Amy.

Still, Gone Girl provides enough mordant humor and intrigue to keep us engaged right up until the movie's provocative and, I suppose, cynical finale. It's a movie for anyone who's ever said the words "I love you" through clenched teeth.

The chaos surrounding Saigon's fall

Director Rory Kennedy goes back in time to recapture a particularly painful moment in the history of American failure, the chaos that followed withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. The movie tells us it was assumed that the North Vietnamese, fearful of a devastating Nixon response, would not invade the South. Watergate took care of that fear, and the North began marching toward Saigon. As the North Vietnamese approached Saigon, South Vietnam went into full panic mode: Many of those who had aided the American war effort sought an escape route. Kennedy (Ethel and Ghosts of Abu Ghraib) masterfully combines newsreel footage and interviews to tell a story full of pain and betrayal. We meet Americans who worked hard to help their Vietnamese associates, many of whom had become friends. Some of these Americans took matters into their own hands, throwing policy aside to do what they thought was morally right. Some of the stories are chastening: Having lost a son in combat in Vietnam, U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin couldn't bring himself to admit that Vietnam had become a lost cause. Kennedy chronicles the last day of evacuations with sequences that are as tense as any you'll find in most thrillers. Kennedy remains true to her story: She never suggests that what happened in Vietnam in any way corresponds to any current situation in which the U.S. finds itself, but it's difficult not to wonder about the fates of Iraq and Afghanistan as you watch this revealing documentary.

Terrible secret, routine movie

Stephen King's A Good Marriage runs high on concept and low on psychological depth.

An intriguing premise isn't enough to make the movie fully credible. Instead of fearing for a wife (Joan Allen) who discovers a devastating secret about her husband (Anthony LaPaglia), we spend too much time wondering whether she's behaving in credible fashion.

Director Peter Askin presents the material in reasonably straightforward fashion, raising a bit of doubt about the sanity of Allen's Darcy. Is she right in thinking that her husband of 25 years actually is a rapist/serial killer who goes by the name "Beadie?"

The screenplay adds a bit of needed ambiguity by introducing a mysterious character (Stephen Lang) who seems to be stalking Darcy.

A Good Marriage belongs to Allen with LaPaglia chipping in what he can. He's playing Bob, a successful accountant, proud father of two grown children and a possible killer.

Neither Allen nor LaPaglia elevates material that lacks sufficient heft, and the movie turns into a bit of a tease, promising more than it delivers.

I'd call A Good Marriage a minor addition to King's big-screen oeuvre, a movie that might have been invigorated by a whopping and unexpected last-minute turn, but which fails to drum up enough dread -- or, more important, believability.