Thursday, December 25, 2014

This gamble doesn't pay off

Mark Wahlberg stars in a lame remake of 1974's The Gambler.
The 2014 edition of The Gambler is less a remake of the 1974 Karel Reisz-directed drama than a highly stylized imitation.

In trying to evoke the spirit of 1970s cinema -- if that was the intention -- director Rupert Wyatt has made a movie that seems to include as much posturing as probing.

Working from a screenplay by William Monahan (The Departed), Wyatt tells the story of Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), a college professor and desperate gambler who's trying to pay off a major debt by (what else?) gambling more.

Bennett owes $240,000 to the kind of people who aren't big on forgiveness.

The gambler in the original -- the grandson of a powerful Jewish businessman who built a life from nothing -- tried to prove that he had the nerve to walk on the dark side, that, he too, could be a jungle cat on the prowl. James Caan's Axel Freed courted risk even when he knew he was being stupid about it, and Caan nailed the role.

Wahlberg isn't an actor you'd automatically cast as a college professor, but then -- in 1974 -- neither was Caan, who was still best known for playing Sonny Corleone in The Godfather.

Wahlberg works at conveying a sense of brilliance, defeat and arrogance, but he appears to be fighting an uphill battle, working a little too hard, and you may find yourself wondering whether he isn't sometimes straining to play against type.

Moving the story from New York to California and updating James Toback's original screenplay, The Gambler can't quite make its grit credible, either.

This self-conscious sense of toughness mixed with smarts is nowhere more apparent than in the portrayal of John Goodman's Frank, a bald, decidedly overweight mobster whom Bennett approaches for money.

Goodman stands out as a shirtless Jabba-the-Gangster, but his character is treated as if he were an effect, a big rock dropped into the story solely to make a splash.

The New York gambling milieu gives way to a West Coast environment in which a group of Koreans run an illegal gambling establishment. Bennett loses big money to the Koreans, and the boss of the casino (Alvin Ing) wants it back.

Indifferent to personal safety, Bennett borrows $50,000 from a loan shark (Michael Kenneth Williams) who makes it clear that he'll play rough if he's not repaid.

Bennett also has no qualms about asking his wealthy mother (Jessica Lange) for money, which she reluctantly gives him, prompting a scene at a bank that mimics a similar scene in the original.

Of course, Mom should know better. Will Bennett use the money to pay his debts and walk away? Nah, he'll gamble more.

Bennett isn't exactly Mr. Chipps in the classroom. He berates his students, finding only one of them worthy of literary study, a blonde coed played by Brie Larson. She tries to establish a relationship with Bennett. He resists -- until he doesn't.

Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes and The Escapist) certainly knows how to give a movie visual polish. Overall though, The Gambler seems soulless and synthetic, unlike what felt twisted and real in the 1970s.

I won't give anything away, but if you have the time and interest, compare the way the 1974 and 2014 movies end. That should tell you everything you need to know.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Yes, Virginia, it's really not good

The Interview now can be seen -- but should it be?
For a few minutes, I thought some of the critics I respect might have been wrong about The Interview, which I watched as soon as it became available on-line Wednesday. Sure, it's ridiculous, but for 15 or so minutes, it's also rudely funny. But silliness soon gives way to a plot that sends an annoyingly hammy James Franco and straight man Seth Rogen to North Korea for an assassination attempt arranged by the CIA. Once the plot kicks in, the movie gets progressively worse, building toward an action-oriented finale that goes way over the top, leaving a long trail of anus jokes in its foul wake. Seeing The Interview makes you realize that the absurd story that has surrounded it -- a purported North Korean hack of SONY, withdrawal of the movie and its reappearance in independent theaters and on-line -- has more satiric potential than the movie itself. Yes, Franco's Dave Skylark and Rogen's Aaron Rapaport -- a couple of tabloid TV types -- succeed in killing Kim Jung-un (Randall Park). But Rogen and co-director Evan Goldberg, who find ways to spray lots of blood around, also manage to murder any good will we might have felt toward this comedy in its very early going. I'm glad SONY released the movie and allowed the mystery surrounding it to evaporate, but if this is the best we can do for a free-speech issue, I'd say we're in trouble.

Surviving the hardships of war

Angelina Jolie directs Unbroken, an intermittently powerful effortt.
Louis Zamperini led a large and amazing life. As a runner, Zamperini participated in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. As an Air Force bombardier during World War II, he was shot down and -- along with two others -- spent a grueling 47 days lost at sea.

One airman died at sea: Zamperini and the other airman were rescued when their craft ran into a Japanese war ship.

Additional hardship followed. Zamperini was taken to a Japanese prison camp, where he spent two years being abused, tortured and tested.

Author Laura Hillenbrand told Zamperini's story in a 2010 book she called Unbroken, A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption.

Now, Angelina Jolie has adapted Hillenbrand's book for the big screen, and the resultant movie works best in bits and pieces. Zamperini's story becomes the basis for an inspirational tale, complete with an epilogue about the importance of forgiveness.

That epilogue was inspired by the fact that Zamperini eventually returned to Japan where he met with some of the soldiers who had tortured him, something we're told with end-of-picture title cards and footage of the real Zamperini, who died earlier this year at the age of 97.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

It has taken a quartet of screenwriters (Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson) to whip this sprawling, but slightly one-dimensional material into shape.

The movie proceeds in chunks built around the major experiences in Zamperini's life -- from a mildly wayward boyhood to the end of the war.

Jack O'Connell, an actor of great avidity, gives vibrant life to the adult Zamperini, who came from a tight-knit Italian-American family.

O'Connell, who gave one of the year's most astonishing performances in the British prison drama Starred Up, again uses his physicality and spirit to create a character of near-preternatural focus.

As a young man, Zamperini (played by C.J. Valleroy) didn't begin to find himself until his older brother (John D'Leo) pushed him into track and field competitions. Zamperini subsequently became a high-school track star in his hometown, Torrance, Ca.

We learn about this after an exciting and scary opening combat sequence in Zamperini's B-24, a plane that came to be know as "the flying coffin.''

Jolie and cinematographer Roger Deakins give us a feeling for what it must have been like to fly in one those planes, how terribly exposed crews must have felt when they encountered enemy aircraft.

After his plane is shot down, Zamperini and two surviving comrades (Domhnall Gleeson and Finn Wittrock) drift at sea in a life raft, battling the elements, sharks, hunger and thirst.

The movie's prison-camp section revolves around Zamperini's on-going confrontation with brutal Japanese camp commander played by singer/songwriter Miyavi.

Throughout the torture segment, Jolie underlines Zamperini's heroic status as a man of indomitable will. Half story and half salute, the movie completes Zamperini's conversion from a character into an icon. We start to lose the man behind the symbol.

Unbroken is well-made, but it leaves one wondering precisely why Jolie wanted to tell a story that -- for all of Zamperini's trials -- doesn't really bring a new perspective to material that many other movies already have covered.

Jolie's intermittently powerful World War II drama never quite breaks the mold from which one expects it to be cast. Zamperini lived an amazing life: Jolie's rendering of that life gives us exactly what we expect.

A musical trip 'Into the Woods'

Sure it looks great, but where's the magic?

It has taken 27 years for Stephen Sondheim's 1987 musical -- Into the Woods -- to reach the screen. I wish I could say it was totally worth the wait.

But under the direction of Rob Marshall (Chicago and Nine), this megaton Disney production arrives as a mixed blessing with highlights built around Meryl Streep's performance as The Witch, Anna Kendrick's turn as Cinderella, Emily Blunt's portrayal of a baker's wife and a couple of signature musical numbers.

A mash-up of a story incorporates fragments of various, iconic fairy tales: Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk.

Shards from these stories are united by the tale of a baker and his wife. The couple tries to gather ingredients needed to break a spell (cast by the witch, of course) that has left them childless.

Credit Marshall with getting the musical off to a rousing start. The opening introduces the major characters in lively, amusing fashion before all head for the woods on a variety of personal quests that sometimes turn sluggish.

For the most part, the movie is well cast. Under a ton of make-up, Streep brings life to every scene in which she appears. James Corden and Blunt are fine as the baker and his wife, and Kendrick makes for a somewhat different Cinderella, a young woman who isn't entirely star struck by the handsome prince (Chris Pine).

Pine, by the way, brings self-absorbed superficiality to the role of the prince, complementing the movie's desire to upend as many fairy-tale stereotypes as possible.

A high point arrives when Red Riding Hood meets the wolf (Johnny Depp made up like a predatory Zoot-suiter). The wolf leers after Red Riding, displaying a lecherous streak. Depp licks his chops, and then vanishes from the screen with a demonstrative howl.

Carefully designed by Dennis Gassner, Into the Woods has a lavish quality that Marshall supplements with special effects when necessary.

The singing -- a key in a musical without big dance numbers -- seems mostly up to snuff, although I have no standard of comparison, never having seen Into the Woods on stage.

The movie's screenplay -- by James Lapine -- reportedly includes a bit of compression and the filing down of a few rough edges, but I leave all that for Sondheim enthusiasts to sort out.

Into the Woods increasingly darkens as it goes against the grain of the original fairy tales. A faux happily ever-after ending is followed by a lengthy final act which goes to great pains to subvert expectations and which, alas, tested my patience.

I found myself longing for this one to conclude before it had worked its way through all of its 124-minute length, but -- in fairness - I'd have to say that Into the Woods seemed acceptable, if not a candidate for movie musical greatness.

What's missing? Goosebumps and a sustained sense that we're watching something that gets beyond its ever-present cleverness.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Little movie about 'Big Eyes' painter

With able assistance from Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, director Tim Burton creates an offbeat amusement..

We've all seen those big-eyed paintings by Margaret Keane, portraits of angelic-looking waifs who can seem plaintive in a freakish, greeting card sort of way. They're children with the eyes of bewildered Pekingese puppies.

Leave it to director Tim Burton to bring Keane's story to the screen. Big Eyes is a fairly straightforward (for Burton) look at the woman who created those paintings and the husband who, for the longest time, took credit for them.

In addition to the terrific art direction and production design that have defined Burton's best films, Big Eyes features a wonderful comic performance from Amy Adams as Keane, a woman who looks less like a painter than the hostess of a Tupperware party, a near-archetypical '50s figure.

Burton also obtains a fine performance from Christoph Waltz, who plays Keane's rapacious second husband, Walter.

The movie tells us that Walter Keane passed himself off as a painter and took credit for the big-eye paintings, which (shockingly) caught on and began selling for major money.

Although both Keanes profited financially from Margaret's paintings, Walter received most of the credit and adulation. Beneath the movie's slightly goofy surface, you'll find real issues about authorship and exploitation.

Working in a small studio, Margaret became a kind of piece worker, turning out big-eye paintings as fast as Walter could sell them.

The big-eye paintings began to catch on after Enrico Banducci (Jon Polito), the owner of the "hungry i" nightclub in San Francisco, agreed to show some of the paintings. He hung them in a hallway en route to the rest rooms, but they were discovered anyway.

Walter Keane's deception quickly took on a life of its own. He began to feel as if he really had made the paintings. Eventually, Margaret's work was shown in the Keane Gallery, which Walter opened.

Those who fawned over the paintings also fawned over Walter. He loved the attention, something he never could achieve on his own. He also was helped by a San Francisco columnist (Danny Huston), who lavished ink on the eager Keane.

As it turns out, Walter's genius involved marketing and sales. He didn't make the paintings, but he helped Keane become famous, and he knew how to convince people to open their wallets.

In movies such as Burton's look at no-budget filmmaker Ed Wood, the director proved that he had a talent for portraying the lives of oddball figures who live on the margins of creativity. No surprise, then, that he's in fine form in this sideshow of an arena.

The plot leads both Keanes into a courtroom, where (in a pathetic attempt at defending himself), Walter serves as his own attorney.

Burton misses few chances to add offbeat humor, but he doesn't turn either character into a total joke, even after New York Times critic John Canaday (Terrence Stamp) denounces the work as spectacularly unworthy.

I don't know whether Burton has tapped into something essential about American life or simply has introduced us to a small and very odd bit of Americana.

Whatever he's done, Big Eyes makes for an amusingly offbeat time at the movies.

'The Interview' goes indie

The Interview is coming to the Denver area.

Yes, that's the same Interview that set off an international furor when Sony last week withdrew it from a Christmas Day release.

If you want to see the movie that has caused all the uproar, you'll be able to do it at The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema beginning on the morning after Christmas -- literally.

The first show of The Interview is scheduled to take place at Alamo at 12 a.m. on Christmas night.

So if you've got any energy left after a day of presents, dinners and whatever else you do for Christmas, you can head for Alamo's theater at 7301 South Sante Fe Drive -- if the show's not already sold out, that is.

After the initial showing, Alamo plans to show the movie once a day through Jan. 1. Shows are slated to begin at either 9 or 10 p.m. -- not exactly prime time, but that probably won't stop those who are eager to experience what has become one of Hollywood's most controversial releases.

Later in the day (Tuesday), The Denver Film Society announced that it would begin a two-week run of The Interview at the Sie Film Center on Friday, Dec. 26.

The Film Center's web site currently lists four shows a day.

At one point, the Sie had planned to host a preview screening of the Interview with Rogen in attendance. That Dec. 8 screening was canceled, and took place instead at the Oriental Theater, where -- according to news reports -- Rogen poured tequila shots directly into moviegoers' mouths.

Rogen had said (via Twitter) he wanted everyone to smoke marijuana with him at the screening, but Denver's pot laws evidently precluded that kind of public indulgence..

No need to recount the whole Interview saga, but if you've somehow failed to keep up, you can recap at Variety, which reports that the movie -- directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg -- now will play in "several hundred independent cinemas rather than in major chains."

Alamo has one location in the Denver area and about 20 locations in total, according to Variety.

Another article in Variety noted that the major theatrical chains are none too pleased about Sony's decision to go indie, followed by a possible VOD release.

I haven't seen The Interview because a Denver preview screening was cancelled after SONY's initial withdrawal of its Christmas Day release.

The movie deals with a couple of tabloid TV guys who are recruited by the CIA to assassinate North Korea's Kim Jung-un, a premise that has been linked to an embarrassing hacking attack at SONY.

The controversy probably has made The Interview critic proof, but if you're interested in reviews, a quick hits:

Variety's Scott Foundas wrote that the movie was "about as funny as a communist food shortage, and just as protracted ... An evening of cinematic waterboarding awaits."

The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy called the movie "intensely sophomoric and rampantly uneven,'' and rated it well below movies such as Borat or Team America: World Police.

Relying on reviews from cities in which the movie did have preview screenings, Rotten Tomatoes -- an on-line site that aggregates reviews -- awarded The Interview a 52 percent rating.

The movie received some positive reviews, but I'm more inclined to believe those who -- like Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal wrote that the film's "remarkably dismal quality is emblematic of the mind-set that brought the movie, and its attendant crises, into being." Morgenstern evidently laughed a few times, but overall found the movie "torture from almost start to finish."

At some point, I'll see The Interview, but I don't think I'll bother to review it -- unless I happen to be one of those who find the movie uproarious.

Meanwhile, I continue to marvel that any set of circumstances could turn a Seth Rogen comedy into a standard-bearer for free speech.

If that doesn't tell you the world has lost its collective mind, nothing will.

He helped win World War II

The Imitation Game may not be the year's boldest film, but it tells a good story.
Alan Turing never put on a uniform, but his efforts went a long way toward helping the Allies win World War II. Turing, you see, was the mathematical genius who cracked the Nazi Enigma code, thereby hastening the end of the war.

If The Imitation Game -- a new movie about Turing's life -- has it right, Turing was an intensely focused man with limited social skills and no idea about how his behavior effected others. He wasn't mean. He was simply oblivious to the demands of almost any social situation.

Played with brilliant eccentricity by Benedict Cumberbatch (expect an Oscar nomination), Turing isn't exactly an inspirational figure. He often displays the kind of insistence that would drive most of us crazy.

The movie's psychology is handled in sketchy fashion. Turing, we learn in one of the movie's many flashbacks, carried a sense of abiding grief from the loss of a childhood love, an older schoolmate on whom he had a crush.

Clearly, we're meant to see Turing as an unrecognized groundbreaker whose life ultimately was destroyed by the British legal system. Turing's work went unacknowledged until the 1950s, and he suffered at the hands of cruelly archaic British laws regarding homosexuality.

Director Morten Tyldum does his most interesting work in Bletchley Park, the estate where Turing developed his so-called Universal Machine. Turing was certain that this early computer would be better at cryptography than any human, a view not shared by all his colleagues.

Turing's principal adversary turns up in the form of Commander Denniston (Charles Dance), an army officer who runs Bletchley with a spit-and-polish attitude that's ill-suited to supervising a bunch of chess-playing mathematicians.

In what the movie treats as an emotional turning point, co-worker Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) rallies support for Turing, who's on the verge of losing his position. Until then, Alexander hadn't been much of a Turing fan.

Keira Knightley plays Joan Clarke, a math whiz recruited by Turing for his project. He proposed to her as a matter of convenience, although the movie makes it clear that Turing had real feelings for her, and she for him.

The Imitation Game has been criticized for taking a middlebrow approach to its source material, Andrew Hodges's 1983 biography about Turing. Some have criticized the movie because Turing's homosexuality is more alluded to than shown.

Fair comments, I suppose, but there are interesting ethical implications in the story.

If knowledge of the broken code had been overused, the Germans would have known that the code had been cracked. As a result, information obtained from code-breaking was employed sparingly.

Sacrifices were made so that the information obtained from the Germans could be put to maximum use.

Tyldum, mistakenly I think, sets the story against an awkwardly employed framing device in which a police inspector (Rory Kinnear) questions Turing after his arrest. The misguided detective is trying to determine whether Turing spied for the Russians.

Because of his homosexuality, Turing was found guilty of "gross indecency." He submitted to hormone therapy as an alternative to prison. He committed suicide a couple of years later. He was 41.

Those familiar with the story will know that the filmmakers have taken a variety of liberties in telling it, but the core of the yarn remains intact.*

At its best, The Imitation Game stands as a fascinating look at the singular accomplishment of a strangely obsessive man.

*If you want to know more about discrepancies between Turing's real story and the movie, this article from the New York Review of Books is a good place to start. But keep in mind that movies long have valued dramatic imperatives over historical accuracy.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

2014: A look back at my movie year

What kind of a movie year has it been? Let's be guided by the spirit of the season and be generous. Call it a year of small triumphs, which means that no gargantuan movie emerged to dominate the big-screen landscape. That's not necessarily a bad thing, unless you happen to be a major studio hungering for the imperial clout of a bona fide blockbuster.

The year in Colorado? That's another story. Film commissioner Donald Zuckerman helped land a Quentin Tarantino production -- with a boost from a $5 million incentive package. Tarantino began shooting his western, The Hateful Eight, in Telluride this month.

No disrespect to Tarantino, but Colorado's real 2014 triumph involved documentaries. In April, four documentaries with deep Colorado roots made their way to the increasingly important Tribeca Film Festival in New York City: Silenced (about whistleblowers), Keep on Keepin' On (about the relationship between jazz musician Clark Terry and a young blind pianist), Beyond the Brick: A Lego Brickumentary (about the Lego phenomenon) and a work in progress about endangered species from the same team that made The Cove, a 2009 documentary about the abuse of dolphins in Japanese waters.

Keep on Keepin' On has made the 15-film short list of documentaries eligible for an Oscar nomination. The five finalists will be announced on Jan. 15.

And, no, you don't have to be a jazz lover to receive a feel-good, inspirational boost from a movie that reminds us of the importance of mentorship in developing young talent and of the rewards of friendship at any age.

To add to the continued aura of importance surrounding Colorado documentaries, two of Colorado's Oscar winning documentarians -- Denver's Daniel Junge and Boulder's Louie Psihoyos -- will have films at 2015's much-watched Sundance Film Festival next month.

Both Junge's Being Evel (about daredevil Evel Knievel) and Psihoyos's Racing Extinction (the film that showed in rough form at Tribeca) will be in competition for best documentary.

A quick reminder: Junge won an Oscar for the 2012 short film Saving Face, and Psihoyos took home Oscar gold for The Cove.

The ascension of documentaries aside, most moviegoers still judge the movie year by what's available at the nation's multiplexes and art houses.

Let me say something about what my 10-best list (see below) isn't. It isn't a slam at movies that aren't on it. I very much admired the work done by Eddie Redmayne (as Stephen Hawking) and Felicity Jones (as his wife) in The Theory of Everything.

Along with just about everyone else, I thought that Benedict Cumberbatch was exceptionally good in The Imitation Game, the story of the gay mathematician who helped crack the German Enigma Code during World War II.

I was swept away by the austere, black-and-white imagery of the Polish film Ida, about a nun who learns she's Jewish before taking her final vows, and I'm still thinking about the performance given by Agata Kuleza, who played Wanda, the nun's Jewish aunt and a fading Communist big-shot.

I wouldn't say that Get On Up was a great movie, but I can't believe that Chadwick Boseman, who played James Brown, didn't get a Golden Globe nomination in the best actor category. Perhaps the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will rectify the situation, but I doubt it.

It's difficult for me to think of a movie that had more visceral charge than Whiplash, the story of an aspiring jazz drummer (Miles Teller) tormented by a driven but sadistic teacher (J.K. Simmons). Director Damien Chazelle gave the movie's musical segments the drive of an action movie.< I loved the work done by James Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan and Jeff Goldblum in Le Weekend, a clear-eyed look at love and failure.

Mathieu Amalric's The Blue Room might have been the most adult thriller of the year. Both James Gandolfini and Tom Hardy were fine in The Drop, an underrated adaptation of a Dennis Lehane short story about men and the mob.

I'm eager to re-visit Listen Up Philip. This look at the life of an arrogant young novelist featured fine performances by Jason Schwartzman and Jonathan Pryce, as well as strong supporting work from Elisabeth Moss as Schwartzman's increasingly independent girlfriend.

Julianne Moore will break the hearts of those who see her as an Alzheimer's afflicted college professor in Still Alice.

The following two movies are likely to turn up on lots of people's year-end lists. Not mine. I remain in a minority as far as Birdman is concerned. It failed to make a believer out of me. I often have trouble relating to Wes Anderson's movies, but The Grand Budapest Hotel was a visual treat and deserves praise for the way Anderson embedded wit in the movie's engaging cascade of images.

When it came to big-ticket, mainstream fare, I had decent enough times at Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Edge of Tomorrow.

Keep in mind that there's nothing a critic does that's more personal than a year-end list, and that not every movie on the list qualifies as perfect.

These are the movies that I remember fondly and, in some cases, am still thinking about or (heaven help me) regard as "important" for one reason or another.

Here, then, the list:

1. Boyhood

Director Richard Linklater's 12-year portrait of contemporary childhood offered the best depiction yet of the fragmented lives that define more and more American families. Linklater focuses on Mason -- played by Ellar Coltrane -- from ages six to 18. Linklater obtains great work from Coltrane throughout, as well as equally rich contributions from both Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as Mason's estranged parents.
Linklater shot the movie in 39 days over 12 years, employing the same cast throughout. As a result, we watch young people grow and mature until time deposits them -- uneasily, I think -- on the cusp of adulthood.

2. A Most Violent Year

The third film from director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call and All is Lost) casts Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales, an ambitious and emotionally controlled man who's trying to make his mark in the heating-oil business in New York City. Abel's wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) keeps the books. Unrecognizable after playing a folk singer in the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac gives a singularly focused performance as a businessman who's trying to be as straight as he can in an industry rife with corruption. Chastain makes a major stretch as a Mafia princess who sometimes wishes her husband would play dirtier, and Albert Brooks gives an admirably understated performance as Abel's attorney. A slice-of-life movie set in 1981, A Most Violent Year never resorts to melodrama as it assays the meaning of ethics in a morally compromised world.

3. Leviathan

You'll see the Polish movie Ida on many 10-best lists, and there's no question that director Pawel Pawilkowski's drama -- shot in beautifully composed black-and-white images -- is worthy. Look for it to win an Oscar as best foreign-language film. For me, though, the work of Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return) stood out more. In Leviathan, Zvyagintsev immerses us in a small Russian coastal town that serves as a microcosm of a faltering society. Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) works as a mechanic in a fishing village in northern Russia. A corrupt mayor conspires to take Kolya's property. The land grab sets the stage for an unvarnished portrait of a society in which no amount of vodka can still the pain inflicted by a boundless corruption and betrayal.

4. Selma

Watching director Ava DuVernay's Selma recreation of events in Selma during the Civil Rights era proved moving and evocative, a reminder of a time when moral lines were drawn with unshakeable force. DuVernay builds her movie around David Oyelowo's portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but reminds us that we needn't canonize King in order to admire him. DuVernay also doesn't flinch from portraying dissension within the civil rights ranks, either. The performances -- notably from Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King -- are memorable, and the bravery of those who lived in or traveled to the South to rid the nation of Jim Crow proves incredibly stirring.

5. Snowpiercer

South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho (The Host) whips up one of the wildest and weirdest movies of the year, a dystopian adventure that turns a speeding train into a metaphor for a class-bound society. Finally, an action movie with starkly powerful political overtones, a wild sense of humor and an unrecognizable and ferociously funny Tilda Swinton. Alfred Hitchcock made the classic Strangers on a Train. Bong has made a movie that might be called Strangeness on a Train, and moviegoers are better off for it.


Those who were looking for a Network-style criticism of the sensationalized approach to TV news probably were disappointed, but Nightcrawler was about more than a crime-hungry media. Writer/director Dan Gilroy created one of the year's most memorable characters, a frightening autodidact who gave Jake Gyllenhaal an opportunity to find his inner freak -- and to give his best performance to date. Gyllenhaal plays a freelance TV news photographer who seems to have been assembled from all the worst elements in contemporary society: the bromides of self-help manuals, the instant knowledge provided by heavy Internet browsing and coldhearted ambition. Credit Rene Russo with one of the year's best supporting performances as a news director desperate to boost her station's ratings.

7. Starred Up

Not many performances could come close to challenging what Tom Hardy accomplished in the 2008 movie Bronson, the story of a notorious British prisoner -- at least not until Jack O'Connell hit the screen in Starred Up. O'Connell found himself as the center of a scorching drama about Eric, a 19-year-old prisoner who survives by smashing just about anything and anyone in his path. Ben Mendelsohn plays Eric's father, another prisoner. Psychologically astute and entirely gripping, this prison drama hits home with the force of a cold shiv in the ribs. I'm of course, speaking metaphorically, and not from experience.

8. American Sniper

It's astonishing that Clint Eastwood -- now in his 80s -- would even want to direct a movie as sprawling and difficult as American Sniper, a tautly realized war movie that rips its way through Navy SEAL training and winds up in Iraq. There, Chris Kyle becomes the war's most dangerous sniper with more than 160 kills. The war footage is tense, but Eastwood also explores the impact killing and repeated tours of duty had on Kyle, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. A bulked-up Bradley Cooper -- certainly not the actor I would have imagined in this role -- gives his strongest performance yet as Kyle. Working from a real story, Eastwood doesn't lecture us about the horrors of war, but lets us draw our own conclusions about war, SEAL culture and the toll of combat.

9. Two Days, One Night

Belgium's Dardenne brothers (Jean-Pierre and Luc) are cinema treasures, having given us movies such The Child and Rosetta. Two Days, One Night may not be the brothers' most powerful movie, but it continues the Dardenne's unwavering commitment to telling stories about ordinary people. Marion Cotillard plays a woman who has been laid off from her job after her employer asks his employees to vote: Either they all give up bonuses or one of them will lose a job. Desperate and worried, Cotillard's character asks her fellow employees to reconsider. Once again, the Dardennes have made clear the agonies of people facing difficult situations, crises they did nothing to create.

10. Locke

One man alone in a car? Sounds like a formula for cinematic disaster, but Tom Hardy helped make director Steven Knight's movie into a small treasure by giving us a telling portrait of a British construction manager trying to behave honorably. Hardy's Ivan Locke takes a drive he doesn't want to make -- from Birmingham to London. He abandons his family and the most important job of his career in an effort to do the right thing by a young woman with whom he had an affair. During the trip, Hardy makes and takes calls from his character's BMW's hands-free phone, and Knight and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos defy the odds by keeping the story visually alive.

More to the point: I couldn't let 2014 pass without acknowledging Locke in a significant way. He's capable of embodying ferocity and tenderness into a single character, and he's not likely to win any awards this year. He should.

So that's my story, and I'm sticking to it -- at least until I change my mind. Some of the movies on my list won't be making their way around the nation until January. So stay tuned, and have a happy New Year.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

'Annie' again? Yes -- and updated, too

A wobbly version that too often falters..
The 2014 big-screen edition of the over-exposed musical Annie seems to have been intended as an urban fantasy that's meant to combine the joys of the original with an updated story and a few new songs.

This Annie only occasionally does justice to the original material and, at the same time, fails to stake out enough turf of its own. It's like a third-rate comedy with musical numbers and a spunky 10-year-old kid who wanders through a Manhattan that's imagined with lollipop sweetness.

Annie (Quvenzhane Wallis) now lives in a Harlem foster home. She believes that the parents who left her at a restaurant when she was an infant someday will return.

But Annie isn't only about the need for a girl to shed a harsh Dickensian childhood. It's about the way a plucky waif becomes the instrument by which an ambitious businessman turned politician (Jamie Foxx) can be humanized.

Thanks to some glaring plot contrivances, Annie's taken under wing by Foxx's cellphone billionaire, a corporate baron who also happens to be running for mayor of New York City. Foxx's Will Stark crosses paths with Annie when he keeps her from being hit by a speeding car. Filmed by a bystander, Stark's rescue goes viral.

Why not, asks the billionaire's crass campaign manager (Bobby Cannavale), lift Annie from her hard-knock life and let her live in a gleaming, aggressively modern apartment with a billionaire? Surely, voters will swoon.

The super-rich Stacks has political ambitions, but he's not much of a people person. He keeps himself emotionally isolated, and has a Howard-Hughes-like obsession with germs.

In this version, Wallis takes over from the red-headed dynamo type that usually plays Annie, something the movie accomplishes in an energetic opening sequence that finds Annie pushing a red-headed schoolmate off center stage so that she can present a lesson on FDR to her classmates.

Wallis impressed just about everyone by playing a Louisiana six-year-old named Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Here, she may be working a little too hard.

Director Will Gluck makes room for the adult cast members, but saddles them with material that's straining to shed its Depression origins.

Cameron Diaz does everything she can to overact as Miss Hannigan, an embittered show-biz reject who takes care of foster children -- for the money, of course.

Both Diaz and Cannavale give the kind of out-sized performances you might expect to see in a children's theater production, and, at times -- though not consistently -- the movie seems to be aimed at the youngest audience segment.

Rose Byrne never quite finds a niche as Stack's assistant.

Look, I like the idea of a multi-ethnic Annie. And why not update material that's been done to death? It's just that Gluck hasn't been able to do it in a truly meaningful and exciting way.

You know the filmmakers have run out of imaginative gas when, toward the end of the movie, they add a helicopter chase sequence. It saves Annie, but not a movie that's too wobbly to ensure that it finds a place in the sunshine -- either today or (as Annie optimistically promises) tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A not-so-innocent children's book

It's interesting that two of the year's more intriguing movies involve elements of horror. Why not? We don't exactly live in times without terror.

Both movies, by the way, drew attention as part of The Film Society of Lincoln Center's 43-year-old New Directors/New Film series. I'm talking about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and The Babadook, both films directed by women.

More about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which was directed by newcomer Ana Lily Amirpour, at a later date. Suffice it to say now that it's an Iranian vampire movie filmed in Los Angeles. I know, you're sick of vampires, but Amirpour's film, shot in black-and-white, is too eerily unnerving to dismiss.

This week, though, we'll turn attention to The Babadook, a movie that's beginning to make its way around the country after its debut on VOD.

Australian director Jennifer Kent accomplished what I'd begun to think was impossible: She's made a good horror movie; i.e., one that doesn't shortchange scary thrills, but is also rife with ambiguity and psychological subtext.

The Babadook involves a children's book about a strange figure named The Babadook. He wears a top hat, and almost always is seen in silhouette. He's scary, ominous and perhaps unstoppable. He's dread personified.

The story begins when the widowed Amelia (Essie Davis) reads this strange pop-up book to her six-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). It takes Amelia a while to realize that the book, which seems to have appeared from nowhere, isn't exactly a cuddly, bedtime tale.

From that point on, The Babadook begins to mix horror with parental frustration while raising troubling questions: Is Amelia losing her mind? Is Samuel a demon child? Is a real demon terrorizing both of them?

I won't say much more about the plot except to tell you that Amelia became a widow when her husband died in a car crash. He was driving her to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. How's that for a large can of psychological worms?

But here's the thing -- or at last a thing -- with which you'll have to come to grips. Samuel is an obnoxious, impossible kid. He's prone to tantrums. He's mildly precocious. And he's dangerously aggressive. At one point, he pushes a cousin out of a tree house.

So naturally, we sympathize with a mother who's at the end of her rope. But Kent shifts that focus after we begin to wonder whether Amelia is losing her grip.

Perhaps all the horror we're witnessing in Amelia's home -- lots of things that go bump in the night -- is a creation of her mind, flowing from her badly damaged psyche.

When it comes to creating tension and keeping us off balance, Kent is no slouch.

But here's where the movie distinguishes itself: Almost everything we see is anchored to the real exasperation of a single mother who's being pushed to limits that are carefully delineated in Davis's increasingly unhinged performance.

I suppose The Babadook can be classified as a haunted-house movie, but it's more than that. It will rattle you and also give you something to think about as it moves toward its provocative and psychologically intelligent conclusion.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Five armies battle. Boy, do they ever

Final chapter of The Hobbit passes muster, but I'm glad it's done.
I give up. Why resist director Peter Jackson's final installment of The Hobbit; a.k.a., The Battle of the Five Armies.

If there were a quiz, I confess that I wouldn't be able to name the five armies nor would I be able to say I deeply cared about which one of them prevailed at the end of Jackson's massive, three-part Tolkien extravaganza.

A sense of proportion pushes me into agreement with those who argue that The Hobbit might have been more admirable if Jackson had made one movie instead of three -- or at most, say, two.

It seems unfair to have asked us to spend almost six hours on the two previous movies that set up this final chapter, which clocks in at a fleet two hours and 24 minutes, almost a short when it comes to Jackson and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Say this, though: Jackson certainly hasn't underestimated Tolkien's audience appeal. He has given the Tolkien fan base ample reason to support his efforts, which are chock full of CGI marvels, complex storylines and -- in this case -- a battle that becomes the big-screen equivalent of the 100 Years War. That's a snarky way of saying that the damn thing lasts for about 45 minutes.

Now, if that battle -- which follows a bravura opening in which an entire city is burned by a fire-breathing dragon -- weren't something to see, Jackson would deserve to be scorned. But in both its larger and smaller fights, Jackson presents battles that have the power to awaken those who have suffered through mid-picture torpor.

The movie begins with an attack by the dragon Smaug on peaceable Lake-town. Smaug is well on his way to torching the entire place when Bard of Bowman (Luke Evans) figures out how to slay the dragon.

Bard (or is it Bowman?) then leads the survivors to a mountain redoubt to seek shelter from a pending attack by the Orcs, who are marching as relentlessly as only Orcs can toward the same mountain fortress.

Meanwhile, other groups also are en route to the mountain, and Jackson introduces us to a variety of familiar Tolkien characters -- of interest to the faithful and of no consequence to anyone else.

Now, the dwarves already have occupied the mountain, which also contains an ungodly amount of treasure. Thorin (Richard Armitage) has taken charge of the dwarves and is busy orchestrating things for his own, ambitious ends.

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) continues to be a "can't-we-all-get-along" kind of Hobbit, and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) shows up to add the customary gravitas.

It takes a while for all of the various factions to realize that they must join forces against the Orcs.

Enough about the plot, which the uninitiated might best approach with a scorecard listing all the various players.

Here's what redeems Jackson's opus: Significant characters die, and we feel the sorrow of their passing. The tone of the final segment is full of nobility, and, at times, a tragic sense of heroism.

The great battle is followed by a kind of idyll in which Bilbo returns to the Shire, where he attempts to resume normal life. Suddenly, the movie's dark palette is flooded with lush greens.

Personally, I'm happy that the whole business has concluded, and I hope that Jackson finds other ways to express himself. I was touched by this operatic finale, but I've had all I can stand of Hobbits, Orcs, Dwarves, wizards and trolls.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Critics' Choice nominees announced

The Broadcast Film Critics Association has announced its nominations for its 20th annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards.

As a member of the BFCA, I usually print a list of the nominees, which don't in all cases represent my votes. The Critics' Choice winners will be announced on Jan. 15, the day that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces its Oscar nominations. The show will be broadcast on A&E, beginning at 7 p.m. MST.

Birdman led this year's list with thirteen nominations. It was followed by The Grand Budapest Hotel, which garnered 11 nominations.

My 10 best-list will be published soon, but I offer the Broadcast Film Critics nominees, which cover more ground than the Oscars, as a way of getting you started on your own year-end thinking.

Gone Girl
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game
Ralph Fiennes – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler
Michael Keaton – Birdman
David Oyelowo – Selma
Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything

Jennifer Aniston – Cake
Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night
Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore – Still Alice
Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon – Wild

Josh Brolin – Inherent Vice
Robert Duvall – The Judge
Ethan Hawke – Boyhood
Edward Norton – Birdman
Mark Ruffalo – Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons – Whiplash

Patricia Arquette – Boyhood
Jessica Chastain – A Most Violent Year
Keira Knightley – The Imitation Game
Emma Stone – Birdman
Meryl Streep – Into the Woods
Tilda Swinton – Snowpiercer

Ellar Coltrane – Boyhood
Ansel Elgort – The Fault in Our Stars
Mackenzie Foy – Interstellar
Jaeden Lieberher – St. Vincent
Tony Revolori – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Quvenzhane Wallis – Annie
Noah Wiseman – The Babadook

The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Into the Woods

Wes Anderson – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Ava DuVernay – Selma
David Fincher – Gone Girl
Alejandro G. Inarritu – Birdman
Angelina Jolie – Unbroken
Richard Linklater – Boyhood

Birdman – Alejandro G. Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Armando Bo
Boyhood – Richard Linklater
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness
Nightcrawler – Dan Gilroy
Whiplash – Damien Chazelle

Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
The Imitation Game – Graham Moore
Inherent Vice – Paul Thomas Anderson
The Theory of Everything – Anthony McCarten
Unbroken – Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, William Nicholson
Wild – Nick Hornby

Birdman – Emmanuel Lubezki
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Robert Yeoman
Interstellar – Hoyte Van Hoytema
Mr. Turner – Dick Pope
Unbroken – Roger Deakins

Birdman – Kevin Thompson/Production Designer, George DeTitta Jr./Set Decorator
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Adam Stockhausen/Production Designer, Anna Pinnock/Set Decorator
Inherent Vice – David Crank/Production Designer, Amy Wells/Set Decorator
Interstellar – Nathan Crowley/Production Designer, Gary Fettis/Set Decorator
Into the Woods – Dennis Gassner/Production Designer, Anna Pinnock/Set Decorator
Snowpiercer – Ondrej Nekvasil/Production Designer, Beatrice Brentnerova/Set Decorator

Birdman – Douglas Crise, Stephen Mirrione
Boyhood – Sandra Adair
Gone Girl – Kirk Baxter
Interstellar – Lee Smith
Whiplash – Tom Cross

The Grand Budapest Hotel – Milena Canonero
Inherent Vice – Mark Bridges
Into the Woods – Colleen Atwood
Maleficent – Anna B. Sheppard
Mr. Turner – Jacqueline Durran

Guardians of the Galaxy
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Into the Woods

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Edge of Tomorrow
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Big Hero 6
The Book of Life
The Boxtrolls
How to Train Your Dragon 2
The Lego Movie

American Sniper
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Edge of Tomorrow
Guardians of the Galaxy

Bradley Cooper – American Sniper
Tom Cruise – Edge of Tomorrow
Chris Evans – Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Brad Pitt – Fury
Chris Pratt – Guardians of the Galaxy

Emily Blunt – Edge of Tomorrow
Scarlett Johansson – Lucy
Jennifer Lawrence – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1
Zoe Saldana – Guardians of the Galaxy
Shailene Woodley – Divergent

The Grand Budapest Hotel
St. Vincent
Top Five
22 Jump Street

Jon Favreau – Chef
Ralph Fiennes – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Michael Keaton – Birdman
Bill Murray – St. Vincent
Chris Rock – Top Five
Channing Tatum – 22 Jump Street

Rose Byrne – Neighbors
Rosario Dawson – Top Five
Melissa McCarthy – St. Vincent
Jenny Slate – Obvious Child
Kristen Wiig – The Skeleton Twins

The Babadook
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Under the Skin

Force Majeure
Two Days, One Night
Wild Tales

Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me
Jodorowsky’s Dune
Last Days in Vietnam
Life Itself
The Overnighters

Big Eyes – Lana Del Rey – Big Eyes
Everything Is Awesome – Jo Li and the Lonely Island – The Lego Movie
Glory – Common/John Legend – Selma
Lost Stars – Keira Knightley – Begin Again
Yellow Flicker Beat – Lorde – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

Alexandre Desplat – The Imitation Game
Johann Johannsson – The Theory of Everything
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross – Gone Girl
Antonio Sanchez – Birdman
Hans Zimmer – Interstellar

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Escaping bondage -- with help

Ridley Scott directs, Christian Bale plays Moses and the Hebrews flee.
If I were able to talk to Ridley Scott, who directed Exodus: Gods and Kings -- a 3-D rendering of one of the best-known Bible stories -- I'd ask him what on Earth (or under the heavens) attracted him to the material.

It's a question the movie itself never entirely answers.

Cecil B. DeMille's Ten Commandments combined gaudy spectacle with an Americanized freedom agenda as the benighted children of Israel -- with a snarling Edward G. Robinson in tow -- fled 400 years of bondage in Egypt.

Scott downplays the story's religious/spiritual aspects, but doesn't find enough by way of replacement. I'm no literalist when it comes to Bible stories so I have no problem with an artist using the Bible's rich and venerable stories as a springboard for an interpretive statement.

But in skipping some of the key ingredients of the story -- serial confrontations between Moses and Pharaoh, for example -- Scott not only makes an interpretive choice: He abandons some of the story's most fertile dramatic ground.

Gods and Kings makes masterful use of CGI to create great battles (Egyptians vs. Hittites), the fabled plagues -- frogs, boils, rivers turned to blood, etc. -- and, of course, the parting of the Red Sea. It would be shocking if a 21st Century filmmaker couldn't outdo DeMille in the effects department. Scott clearly does.

But then there's the rest of the movie ....

I suppose the movie's most controversial element involves Scott's depiction of God, the prime mover in the Exodus narrative. Turns out that Moses sees God as a shepherd boy (Isaac Andrews) with a close-cropped hair, a British accent and a confrontational attitude.

This vision -- it should be noted -- may be a hallucination, an image resulting from a rock slide that beans Moses and leaves him buried under a ton of mud.

Hallucination or not, the relationship between God and Moses sometimes gets testy. They argue about such details as whether God has gone too far over the top with the plagues, particularly the final one which takes the lives of the first born of all the Egyptians, including Pharaoh's son.

Are we supposed to find irony in the fact that mighty Pharaoh is undone by a child whose voice has yet to change?

Then there's Moses himself. Poor Christian Bale. Any actor who tackles this kind of iconic role must pit himself against the cumulative weight of centuries of western art and kitsch -- from Michelangelo to Charlton Heston.

Bale opts for a contemporary interpretation, aided by language in a script by a quartet of credited writers (Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian) that does its best to avoid any trace of poetry. The movie treats Moses as a warrior/general and early action hero.

Moses's greatest internal struggle seems to revolve around his initial inability to accept his ethnic origins as a Hebrew, but even that conflict lacks much by way of urgency.

Joel Edgerton plays the movie's other key figure: Ramses. With a bulbous shaved head, Edgerton more resembles Kojack than a king.

Perhaps in an effort to give Ramses a bit of shading, he's presented as a cruel man, but one who loves his son and who sometimes seems confounded, particularly when his own priests and priestesses are unable to stem the tide of so many vicious plagues.

What's a Pharaoh to do? Grumble and, on at least one occasion, play with his pet snakes.

The rest of the cast largely is reduced to non-entity status. That would include Aaron Paul as Joshua, and Andrew Tarbet as Aaron, key figures in the story who are reduced to ... well ... almost nothing.

John Turturro makes an interesting Seti, Rhamses's father, a god/king who prefers Moses to his own son. Blink and you'll miss Sigourney Weaver as Seti's duplicitous wife.

Ben Kingsley makes a bit of an impression as Nun, a wise old Hebrew slave who knows Moses's true identity.

The always interesting Ben Mendelsohn brings a seamy twist to the role of Hegep, a conniving Egyptian who exposes Moses as a Hebrew, the development that pushes Moses into exile where he meets his wife (Maria Valverde), a woman made to look like a Bedouin princess.

Beset by structural flaws, including a tendency not to build toward the story's key events, Scott's Exodus shortchanges both the spiritual and political relevancies of a story that still resonates on many levels. The movie doesn't exactly break new ground as an action/adventure, either.

Most memorable shot: An upward look at the corpses of Egyptian soldiers floating in the Red Sea after the Hebrews have reached safety.

So what are we left with? At times, Moses seems like an actor who can't quite find a center for his portrayal -- or maybe that's Bale. Ramses can come off as a bit of a schlub, and God seems like a cosmic spoilsport.

When Moses reunites with his wife after his Egyptian exploits, she quite reasonably asks about the throngs who are traveling with him.

Who are they?

My people, says Moses, demonstrating that he finally has accepted his true identity.

What else to say but, "Mazel tov, Moses." Or maybe, where's Mel Brooks when we need him?

Chris Rock on the streets of New York

In Top Five, a talented comedian finds a movie that he truly makes his own.
Chris Rock comes close to hitting his stride in Top Five, a new comedy about an alcoholic comedian who's trying to establish himself as a serious actor.

In his third directorial effort after I Think I Love My Wife (2007) and Head of State (2003), Rock finally finds a vehicle that brings some of the smarts, raunch, social insight and bravado of his stand-up routines to the big screen, along with enough vulnerability to protect him from accusations of undue vanity.

In this outing, Rock -- who directed and wrote the screenplay -- portrays Andre Allen, a stand-up comic who finds a niche (and an enlarged bank account) in Hollywood playing a character called Hammy the Bear, a cop in a bear suit who mows down criminals with his automatic weapon.

The Hammy movies are enormously popular, but Allen's sick of making them. That's why he ignores the advice of his agent (Kevin Hart) and pushes himself into a new arena with a serious movie called Uprizing!, the story of a 1791 Haitian slave revolt. The poster features a bearded Allen brandishing a machete.

Of course, Uprizing! is on track to bomb, thus thwarting Allen's attempts at reinvention.

Rock's screenplay mostly follows Allen around New York City as he meets with a variety of indignities on his film's opening day. Rock doesn't miss the opportunity to take a few nicely placed shots at movie-biz hype -- an easy but ever-ripe target.

Rock's character's last name is Allen, and his fans want him to return to his funny stuff. Sound like anyone you can think of? Allen spends a fair amount of time walking and talking in Manhattan, but the humor and tone of Top Five is light years away from Woody Allen, who never got down and, yes, dirty the way Rock can.

A fair amount of the movie's humor tends toward the raunchy and ribald, notably a bit in which a Houston hustler (Cedrick the Entertainer) introduces a visiting Allen to couple of hookers. The encounter devolves into what Allen describes as the low point that finally got him off the sauce.

I won't give away any of the other gags, but there's an amusing bit that suggests an even better movie, one that's more conversational than crude. Visiting the Brooklyn neighborhood that spawned him, Allen meets up with Tracy Morgan and a variety of others who create the riffs that give the movie its title. They're trying to name the top five hip hop artists.

Rock builds his slender story around a running bit: A New York Times reporter (Rosario Dawson) wants to write a profile about Allen, who hates the Times for having panned all of his movies. Pressured by his manager, Allen reluctantly agrees.

Rock and Dawson generate sparks of antagonism and potential romance that suggest something more than a reporter/source relationship with Dawson matching Rock step-for-step.

Did I mention Allen's engaged? Gabrielle Union orbits the New York story: She's in LA, a blatant striver who has arranged to marry Allen as part of a reality show to be aired on Bravo.

Draw your own conclusions about the hot sauce gag, which is better discovered in theaters. Many will regard it as a comic high point. I didn't.

But rapper DMX singing his version of Smile made up it.

There's also a moment in which Allen finds himself in a choke hold administered by a New York Cop, an unintended evocation of recent events.

Don't look for a structural masterpiece: Rock builds his loose-limbed comedy around a variety of bits with a few serious moments added to make Allen's struggle with alcohol and desperation more plausible.

Although Rock appears in nearly every scene, he bolsters the movie with lively cameos from Kevin Hart, JB Smove, Whoopi Goldberg, Adam Sandler and Jerry Seinfeld.

Judging by the movie's cameos and by its ending, it's safe to say that Rock has a deep respect and love for stand-up and the people who do it.

It's tempting to wonder where Rock's movie career goes from here. Like his main character, Rock might be most comfortable with an audience in front of him and a mike in his hand.

In that environment, he's sharp, smart, savvy about pop culture, and unworried about giving offense. He's a comic with honesty and conviction, and in Top Five, he frequently comes across that way.

Brief looks at two worthy docs

In wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion
Director Margaret Brown's The Great Invisible skillfully details the lingering impacts of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 men and pumped 176 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico. Brown's documentary makes it clear that profits trumped safety concerns on the massive rig. The film also introduces us to a variety of people who were devastated by the explosion: a father who lost a son, fishermen who've lost their livelihoods and a chief engineer whose life has been shattered. It's interesting to hear from Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer who ran the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster Victim Compensation Fund. He doesn't come off as an ogre. And, of course, Brown touches on our unwavering commitment to fossil fuels as part of the problem. The Great Invisible covers lots of ground, mixing tough issues with a variety of personal views that do justice to the human side of a story that brought out the best in some people, most notably a selfless church volunteer who distributed food to those in need.

A documentary about living and working in Antarctica

The best reason to see director Anthony Powell's Antarctica: A Year on Ice involves some of the spectacular sights Powell captures: mysterious skies illuminated by the southern lights, glacial-looking landscapes and the perpetual, starry nights of a long winter. Powell also takes a look the daily lives of the people who work in this forbidding world, the several thousand who arrive for summer research and the 700 or so brave souls who stay for the winter. We meet the people who keep McMurdo Station, where the U.S. conducts research, in shape; they're folks who bring a work-a-day attitude to their unusual surroundings. Thanks to Powell, who met and married his wife at McMurdo, you don't have to test yourself against the Antarctic elements. Or if for some reason, you feel the need -- you'll know a lot about what you're letting yourself in for after seeing A Year On Ice.

Looking for renewal in the wilds

Reese Witherspoon carries Wild across the finish line.
Mired in a downward spiral that included drugs and promiscuity, Cheryl Strayed avoided the obvious. Rather than following the customary 12-step path to recovery, she took many thousands of steps.

In an attempt to quiet her demons, Strayed embarked on a 1,000-mile solo trek on the exceedingly difficult Pacific Crest Trail, which runs through California, Oregon and Washington.

To hike the Pacific Crest, one must adjust to sea-level altitudes, as well as to heights of more 13,000 feet -- not to mention the threat of snakes, wildlife, wild swings in weather (heat and snow) and scary isolation.

The resulting trek, which Strayed made in 1995, transformed her life and led to the publication of Wild, a best-selling 2012 memoir about her shattered life and restorative wilderness journey.

Actress Reese Witherspoon joins with director Jean-Marc Vallee (The Dallas Buyers Club) to bring Strayed's story to the screen, presenting Strayed's inner and outer journeys -- both of which resound with hardship.

The resultant movie allows Witherspoon to seize an opportunity to appear sans make-up and, at times, without psychological defenses. She's certainly up to the challenge.

Because Strayed traveled alone, her story has been taken as a statement of feminist triumph. Strayed entered a male domain and proved that she could survive the arduous hardships of the trail. Viewed that way, the story acquires additional heft.

Although not without its tensions, Strayed's wilderness adventure is presented in straightforward fashion. She began with a ridiculously heavy backpack and boots that were too small. Gradually, she learned how to keep herself going.

Strayed met men along the way, and Vallee treats most of these meetings as friendly and helpful, although one proves potentially threatening, something along Deliverance lines.

Strayed's plunge into a wanton life began with the death of her 45-year-old mother (Laura Dern) from cancer. That blow was followed by estrangement from her husband (Thomas Sadowski), who made several futile attempts to rescue her from self-imposed degradation.

Vallee chooses to deal with Strayed's torments by replicated the way our minds tend to be flooded by unwanted thoughts. It's a valid approach, but the movie's many flashbacks don't always work, perhaps because they often feel abrupt and fragmentary, as if they've been shot out of a cannon.

As Strayed hikes, she's constantly confronting images of sexual abandon and heroin addiction. She also recalls happy times with her loving mother (Laura Dern), a woman who had a bad track record with men. We learn about Strayed's relationship with a younger brother, who had his own difficulties accepting his mother's death.

British novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby (About a Boy and An Education) seems to dispense with a third act. The hike ends, Strayed tells us that everything in her life (good and bad) may have been necessary for her to reach the purifying moment with which the film concludes.

That's a triumphant ending on the page; somehow -- or so it seemed to me -- it didn't seem quite so moving on screen.

When Strayed finally has her big emotional catharsis, she drops to her knees and weeps after an unexpected encounter with a boy and his grandmother. Vallee shoots this scene from behind Witherspoon. We see only her back and that ever-present backpack, prominent though reduced in size from the movie's early going.

Something about that image didn't feel right to me. I don't know exactly what I wanted so see at that precise moment, but it sure wasn't that damn backpack.

Still, Witherspoon's performance, the range of scenery captured by cinematographer's Yves Belanger's camera and the amazing fact of the story -- a brave soul with no-previous experience conquered the Pacific Crest trail on her own -- prove sufficient fuel to keep the movie marching forward.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Learning jazz from a master

Keep on Keepin' On is one of the year's most affecting documentaries.
Movies that buoy the spirit without insulting our intelligence aren't easy to come by. That's part of the reason why Keep on Keepin' On proves so special. This documentary about the relationship between jazz great Clark Terry and a young blind pianist stands out as one of the year's most affecting movies.

At last, a movie that's inspiring without drowning us in the gooey sap of sentiment, a story that reminds us of the importance of mentorship in developing talent and of the nourishing powers of friendship.

As jazz fans know, Terry is recognized as one of the world's great trumpet players, having plied his trade with Count Basie and Duke Ellington. No less a light than Miles Davis paid homage to Tracy.

Terry also became the first African-American musician to work with the National Broadcasting Company orchestra, famed as the Tonight Show band under Johnny Carson.

Although the movie scans Terry's career, its real subject is Terry's relationship with budding jazz pianist, Justin Kauflin, who was 23 when filming began.

Terry offers Kauflin advice and wisdom when the young man visits Terry's Arkansas home. Terry instructs Kauflin about how to play a variety of musical licks, often scat singing them for his eager protege. He encourages Kauflin to find his own voice.

Terry, who'll be 94 later this month, is not in the best of health. He has lost both legs to diabetes, and has begun to lose his eyesight, as well.

Yet, throughout the filming, his spirit remains undiminished. Even during a hospital visit, Kauflin receives instruction from Terry. The two always seem to talk well past midnight, neither being eager to end their encounters.

First-time Australian director Alan Hicks, who's also a drummer and a student of Terry's, has hold of a story with a strong emotional core. Wisely, his film never loses touch with it.

The story, of course, has its low points. A jittery Kauflin suffers from stage fright. He loses an important jazz competition. And, yes, it's painful to watch Terry's health -- frail at the outset -- deteriorate ever further.

Keep on Keepin' On includes an appearance by Quincy Jones, who credits Terry with having given him his start. A reunion between Jones and Terry is expectedly touching, but, then, so is almost everything in this engaging documentary.

It's worth knowing that Keep on Keepin' On has some serious Colorado connections. It was edited by Denverite Davis Coombe, who also received credit for the movie's screenplay, and produced by Paula DuPre Pesmen, who resides in Boulder.

Both Davis and Pesmen have serious credentials, Coombe having edited many of director Daniel Junge's films -- including the Oscar-winning documentary short Saving Face -- and Pesmen having worked on several Harry Potter movies, as well as important documentaries such as The Cove and Chasing Ice.

Equally important: Keep on Keepin'On last week made Oscar's short-list for documentaries, 15 films from which five final nominees will be selected. Look for an announcement on Jan. 15.

But when I tell you that I was moved by Keep on Keepin' On, it's not because I feel compelled to support the home team or because I'm overly impressed by possible Academy Award nominations. It's because I'm grateful to these filmmakers for having given us the opportunity to hang out with Terry and Kauflin, two men who go a long way toward proving that when it comes to music, there's no such thing as an odd couple.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

How Paris survived the war

A German officer and a diplomat go head-to-head.
Before leaving Paris in defeat, the German army was prepared to blow-up 33 of the city's bridges, along with Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, the Paris Opera and the Eiffel Tower.

Hitler evidently surveyed a ruined Berlin, and, in a fit of Nazi pique, decided Paris had to be leveled, as well.

General Dietrich von Choltitz, the military governor of Paris, was ordered to carry out the destruction of a city that Hitler's forces had occupied from 1940 until the summer of 1944.

In Diplomacy, director Volker Schlondorff (The Tin Drum and The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum)) creates a speculative drama that focuses on the confrontation that kept von Choltitz from obeying the Fuhrer's order.

In the bargain, Schlondorff obtains memorable performances from Niels Arestrup, as von Choltitz, and Andre Dussollier, as Raoul Nordling, the Swedish diplomat who tries to persuade von Choltitz to do the right thing for western civilization -- not to mention for the thousands of Parisian civilians who would have perished had German bombs been detonated.

Von Choltitz and Nordling meet in von Choltitz's office in the Hotel Le Meurice in late August of 1944. There, they engage in a lengthy conversation that hones in on a variety of disturbing moral questions. The screenplay is based on a play by Cyril Gely, who co-wrote the movie with Schlondorff.

If you know the 2009 movie A Prophet, you'll recognize Arestrup as having played the powerful leader of a prison gang. Dussollier is familiar from a variety of French films, many directed by Alain Resnais.

Arestrup acquits himself well as a military man who takes pride in following orders. A soldier's ethos -- or von Choltitz's idea of one -- allows him to maintain his self-respect, even though he participated in the annihilation of the Jews of Sevastopol.

Von Choltitz knows that the German cause is lost, but sees no reason for forsaking his duty, and he's contemptuous of the French for not fighting to the last man when the Germans took over Paris.

Dussollier portrays a worthy advisory, arguing with a man who is not used to having his authority questioned. Nordling must balance pleas to reason with a modicum of respect (real or feigned) for von Choltitz's position, which is revealed to be increasingly complex. As the story unfolds, Nordling proves himself a man of great guile.

This subject was tackled previously by director Rene Clement in Is Paris Burning (1966), but Schlondorff gives us a gripping little drama about men who hold the fate of a great city in their hands. They thrust, parry and calculate as they work their way toward the movie's conclusion.

Of course, we know from the outset that Paris won't be destroyed, but Schlondorff uses an epic encounter to assay the character of men facing the extreme pressures of an unfolding -- and then undetermined -- piece of history.