Thursday, January 29, 2015

Ambition, morality -- and oil trucks

Well-acted and smart, A Most Violent Year tackles tough moral issues.
The year: 1981. New York City is in the middle of one of its worst periods for violent crime. Other changes are happening, as well. It's a time -- not entirely unlike our own -- when the line between legitimacy and illegitimacy seems to have blurred, and ethics appear to have become variable.

How bad would it really be if a burgeoning business fudged a bit on its taxes? How far should one go in an attempt to outdo one's competition?

And in the world of urban business, how do things begin to shake out when new ethnic groups start to assert their dominance? Can there be room for new kids on the block?

A Most Violent Year -- the drama that encompasses all these questions -- demonstrates how big issues can be found by narrowing and sharpening one's focus. Directed by J.C. Chandor, A Most Violent Year revolves around a business that delivers home heating oil in New York City.

Within this narrow gauge, Chandor -- aided by a terrific cast -- has made a rare and quietly compelling movie that's willing to examine how people try to reconcile ambition and morality.

Chandor (Margin Call and All Is Lost) focuses on Abel Morales, played by Oscar Isaac. Abel wants to expand his footprint in the heating oil business.

To accomplish his goal, he decides to buy several storage tanks owned by a Hasidic Jewish family that drives a hard bargain. Abel must make a large cash down payment and come up the rest of the money -- another $1.5 million -- within 30 days.

If he can't, he loses his down payment and his business along with it.

The scene in which Abel and his attorney make the deal is a rich one. The sellers are careful to point out that what they're asking could have devastating consequences for Abel. He's set his mind on the purchase, and won't be deterred. He likes to own the things he uses, he says.

As is the case with many scenes in A Most Violent Year, the drama is carefully developed, even understated, and unlike many movies I see, I believed every moment of it.

Chandor allows the tension in Abel's situation to emerge through the performances and through the establishment of a dreary slice of urban winter.

Last seen in Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac proves masterful as a well-dressed businessman who says he's trying to operate in legitimate fashion. It's not always clear where Abel is willing to draw the line that will keep him from felonious behavior.

That's because Abel doesn't arrive on screen in prefabricated form; he's in the process of picking his way through a tough world while keeping as much of his integrity as possible.

A man of pride, composure and impeccable dress, Abel's a commanding figure in his camel-colored overcoat.

In one of her best performances yet, Jessica Chastain plays Abel's wife Anna, the daughter of a Mafia don. Anna wonders whether her husband -- for all his attempts to control everything -- has the right stuff to make his way in a business environment in which someone is hijacking his trucks and stealing his oil.

She wants Abel to bring her family into the mix. Abel refuses.

Abel's nothing if not determined, but Anna seems the tougher of the two. Everything about her suggests that she understands more about the way the world works than her husband. He doesn't want to be defined as a gangster. That's less of a problem for Anna.

The supporting players are all in fine form. Two are especially noteworthy: Albert Brooks plays Abel's morally dubious attorney, a man whose face shows the wear of a career spent making deals that probably were ethically challenged.

David Oyelowo -- currently on views as Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma -- portrays a district attorney who's investigating the heating oil business, using Abel's company as a target.

When you're expecting to borrow big money from a bank -- as Abel is -- a criminal investigation isn't exactly what you want on your resume.

As the story develops, Abel's forced to juggle any number of balls. Drop even one and he could be ruined.

Working with cinematographer Bradford Young, Chandor creates an urban environment that gives A Most Violent Year the feel and texture of a crime drama. Some reviewers have likened A Most Violent Year to a Sidney Lumet movie.

It's an apt enough comparison, although Chandor's style tends to be less teeming and comprehensive than the approach the late Lumet took in movies such as Serpico, Prince of the City, Dog Day Afternoon and Q & A.

Still, the fact that Chandor is continuing this tradition at all strikes me as worthy, honorable and important.

There's nothing mythic about A Most violent Year. The movie takes us into a world populated by strivers, thieves and wannabes, and it sets out an ethic that -- for better or worse -- may be the only one that works in a time of compromised morality:

In the end, the honorable man does what's most right. Maybe that's all he can do.

Tension on a rundown submarine

Jude Law leads a group of rogues on an undersea adventure.
Black Sea, the latest in a long line of submarine thrillers, has the ragged feel of a B movie, not necessarily a bad thing. Once you give up the idea that you're watching another over-hyped thriller, you can relax and enjoy the tension that inevitably builds when men -- especially greedy men -- are jammed into cramped spaces.

Populated by unwashed Russian and British men on a treasure hunt, Black Sea unapologetically dives into action, ratcheting up pressure as the crew faces danger: from the sea and from one another.

Led by a disaffected, unemployed submariner (Jude Law), these crew members bicker, allow greed to conquer their better impulses and deal with a steady stream of life-threatening situations.

The goal: To retrieve a fortune in Nazi gold from a German U-Boat that has been languishing at the bottom of the sea since the end of World War II.

Law's Robinson learns about the treasure from a former shipmate. He then meets with an American (Scoot McNair) who works for a wealthy tycoon who agrees to finance the mission for 40 percent of the haul.

Law's Robinson accepts the terms, but champions equality among the men: He insists that the crew divide its share of the loot equally.

In a movie that takes a dim, genre-appropriate view of human nature, it's hardly surprising that some of the crew members think they deserve bigger shares than others.

It's possible to regard the movie's submarine as another character. A rusty, wreck of a Russian vessel, the sub had been left to rot off the Crimean coast. It has the look of a low-tech, submersible boiler room.

The Russian sailors are jumpy from the outset. They object to the fact that Law's Robinson has brought an inexperienced young man (Bobby Schofield) on board. The Russians think the 18-year-old is bad luck because they believe (incorrectly) that he's a virgin. He is, of course, a novice at sea.

Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland and Touching the Void) efficiently builds tension, particularly in a sequence in which several crew members leave the sub to retrieve a drive-shaft from an abandoned U-boat. This dangerous maneuver is the sub's only hope of getting off the bottom, where it has unceremoniously crashed.

Why isn't Black Sea a perfect deep-sea saga?

Several reasons: Anyone familiar with Ben Mendelsohn, who plays one of the crew members, knows that this edgy Australian actor has cornered the market on loose-cannon characters. To make the matters even more obvious, we often see Mendelsohn's Fraser toying with a knife.

Put another way, the movie can't help but telegraph the moment when Fraser will turn violent.

That bit of predictability aside, the screenplay by Dennis Kelly is burdened by occasional sprays of lame dialogue, and it's not easy to accept Robinson's transition from a down-and-out working man to a kind of crazed Captain Ahab.

About that working-man angle: Black Sea isn't as convincing as a lower-class anthem as it is as a cinematic pressure cooker, but it does take a swing at working-class resentment.

At the outset, Robinson loses his job on a salvage submarine. His 20-year devotion to a single company cost him his wife (Jodie Whittaker) and young son. Penniless and put upon, he sees himself as a victim of bankers and corporate types made rich by working stiffs who ultimately are played for suckers.

OK, so Black Sea isn't perfect, but it's good enough. Darkly hued and making the most of the sub's claustrophobic chambers, Black Sea offers the kind of thrills that arrive coated with grease, sweat and, of course, desperation.

A racial drama misses the mark

A white grandfather fights for custody of his black granddaughter.
In Black or White, Kevin Costner plays Elliot Anderson, a successful Los Angeles attorney whose 17-year-old daughter died during childbirth. The child's father, a drug-addicted black man, took no responsibility for his daughter, so Elliot and his wife raised young Eloise.

But when Elliot's wife dies in a car crash, the girl's paternal grandmother (Octavia Spencer) proposes that she share custody with Elliot. He rejects what seems like a perfectly reasonable offer.

Her son may be wayward, but Spencer's Rowena appears to be entirely responsible. She cares for her nieces and nephews, presides over a happy household and runs a successful real estate business.

Despite the fact that he's drinking too much and dealing with grief, Elliot finds himself in the middle of a custody fight that dominates what becomes an increasingly unconvincing look at the divide separating an affluent LA lawyer his scrappy opponent.

The problem: Black or White doesn't delve deeply enough into the characters who are upholding different sides of this custody fight.

The movie also stacks the deck against Eloise's father (Andre Holland), a troubled young man who turns up about half way through the movie, claiming that he's reformed.

Holland's Reggie is so obviously ill-prepared for fatherhood that the movie never gives him a chance. He tries to extort money from Elliot, and winds up in a late-picture confrontation that's neither believable nor fair.

Costner does a good job portraying alcoholic denial and the unexpressed anger Elliot harbors about his wife's death, but he's stuck in a scenario that goes where most second-rate dramas land, the courtroom.

There, writer/director Michael Binder cooks up a strategy in which Rowena's brother -- an attorney played by Anthony Mackie -- tries to convince the presiding judge that Elliot's a racist with a bad drinking problem.

Perhaps to keep us from losing sympathy for Elliot, he's portrayed as a somewhat responsible drunk. Elliot hires an unwaveringly earnest math tutor (Opho Koaho) for Eloise. Elliot also asks the young man to double as a driver when he's too inebriated to get behind the wheel himself, which is most of the time.

Black or White doesn't spend enough time with Rowena to make us understand what she wants for Eloise, and it never allows her to articulate a reasonable argument about why a black child needs to be exposed to other blacks.

Elliot seems to be living an all-white life.

The movie tilts that way, too. Black or White spends entirely too much time with Costner as it leads us toward a finale in which one side essentially gives up.

Too often, Black or White misses the opportunity to explore the gray areas that could have shed real and productive light on an interesting problem. The movie concludes as if it has resolved its issues. I'm not sure, though, that it ever really tackled them.

Time for Oscar-nominated shorts

Writing about Oscar-nominated shorts is never easy. We're talking about more than 15 films that range in length from 40 minutes to less than four.

Inevitably, reviewers are bound to give something (you'll pardon the expression) short-shrift. And if I tell you that I found the documentaries to be exceptionally strong this year, it's not because I mean to dissuade you from seeing either the animated or fictional shorts programs.

For the record: In Denver, the animated shorts and short features will be playing in two programs with separate admissions at Landmark's Mayan. The documentary shorts will be playing at the Sie Film Center in one program with one admission.

Of the animated nominees -- eight in all -- several stood out for me:

Norway's Me and My Moulton (photo at left) tells a story about a girl trying to adjust to the tastes of her idiosyncratic parents. Disney's Feast introduces us to a dog who suffers when his master discovers a new girlfriend and nouvelle cousine. Who wants the kind of table scraps that are served with parsley sprigs? The Bigger Picture deals with two adult brothers trying to come to grips with the aging and death of their mother.

The short feature program includes Boogaloo and Graham (photo at right), a 14-minute look at two Belfast brothers who in 1978 become attached to their pet chickens. As ridiculous as it sounds, the film takes place against a backdrop of complex issues. In La Lampe Au Beurre De Yak (Butter Lamp), a photographer takes pictures of Tibetan nomads against faux backdrops that ultimately conceal a disturbing reality, and Parvaneh, from Switzerland, tells the story of the brief, unexpected friendship between two teen-age girls, one from Afghanistan. The Phone Call, a poignant entry from the UK, stars Sally Hawkins as a woman talking to a desperate widower on a suicide hotline.

As for the documentaries, prepare to be devastated -- and I mean that in a good way.

Beautiful and touching, Joanna (from Russia) focuses on the relationship between a cancer-stricken mother and her young son. HBO's Crisis Hotline (which also can be seen on HBOGo) brings us into the only U.S. call center that responds to distraught veterans; and the Reaper (an appropriately grim nominee from Mexico) introduces us to a man who works in a slaughter house where he kills as many as 500 bulls per day.

Our Curse (photo at right) is an honest and touching look at two exhausted Polish parents coping with a newborn who faces a lifetime of mechanical ventilation when he sleeps.

In sum: If you're the sort who complains that too many movies are about nothing, you'll find solace and inspiration in these shorts programs, most of which have ample substance.

'Match' makes its way to the screen

In Match -- a film based on a play -- you'll find meager attempts to disguise the fact that the material is better suited to the stage. Despite a few stabs at opening the drama, Match remains far too theatrical to work as a movie. Taking over the part Frank Langella played on stage, Patrick Stewart portrays Tobi Powell, a famous ballet dancer who -- after an injury -- has become a fabled instructor at Juilliard. Tobi's life is shaken when he's visited by a couple (Carla Gugino and Matthew Lillard) who purport to be doing research on dance history. Written and directed by Stephen Belber, who adapted his own play, the movie's multiple hidden agendas and twists never feel entirely credible. Stewart makes the most of a showcase role, and Gugino and Lillard do their part, but absent the spark of live performance, Match seldom bursts into convincing life.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Julianne Moore's devastating 'Still Alice'

A brilliant professor tries to cope with an Alzheimer's diagnosis.
Julianne Moore is on track to win a best-actress Oscar for her heartbreaking performance in Still Alice, the story of a Columbia University linguistics professor who's diagnosed with Alzheimer's and finds herself slipping into the fog of vanishing memory.

If you're of a certain age, it will be impossible to watch Still Alice without wondering about those little lapses of memory you may from time-to-time experience, moments of disorientation when you walk into a room and have forgotten exactly what brought you there or the frustration of having to dig through mental files to remember the name of someone you know quite well.

Confusion falling across her face like a sudden shadow, Moore evokes the pain of early-onset Alzheimer's; i.e., the prospect of losing everything that her character regards as vital to her identity.

Even worse, the character Moore's playing -- Alice Howland -- is only 50 when she's diagnosed with a rare form of Alzheimer's that's genetic in origin.

To their credit, directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have not made a disease-of-the-week weepie. They resist any temptation to garnish the story with sentiment, and they bring Alice's family dynamics into play in the movie's background.

Alice's husband (Alec Baldwin) also works at Columbia, where he's a biological researcher. The couple have a son (Hunter Parrish) who's attending medical school and two grown daughters (Kate Bosworth and Kristen Stewart).

The Howland offspring must work through their relationships with their mother. They also must decide whether to be tested to determine if any of them has inherited the genetic time bomb that eventually will result in the disease.

The movie's key relationship involves Alice and her youngest daughter (Stewart), a young woman who has moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as an actress. Alice long has wanted Stewart's Lydia to attend college, perhaps to enhance the intellectual luster of what appears to be an exceptionally accomplished family.

As developed throughout the movie, the relationship between Lydia and Alice proves honest and touching. Stewart -- who has taken more than a few lumps for her work as Bella Swan in the Twilight movies -- holds her own as a character trying to chart a path in life while dealing sensitively with her mother's decline.

None of the issues raised by Still Alice are treated melodramatically. They unfold in the quiet, respectful style such a movie demands.

Glatzer and Westmoreland aren't interested in vilifying anyone. They respect their characters, paying some attention to the frustrations and needs of each. Only the son is somewhat neglected.

Still, this is Moore's movie -- and she rises to the occasion.

Without underling or italicizing anything, Moore conveys every bit of the torment experienced by a brilliant woman who's losing her grip. Alice gets lost in the middle of lectures, forgets where she is while jogging and experiences even worse indignities as the disease progresses. She's watching her life be erased.

You may have read that Glatzer insisted on continuing with the movie, even after being diagnosed with ALS. He obviously was able to bring heightened identification to the project, but in their adaptation of a novel by Lisa Genova, Glatzer and Westmoreland avoid sledgehammer emotional effects. Alzheimer's is frightening enough on its own.

This is not to say that Still Alice has been turned into an Alzheimer's horror show. Still Alice takes a well-observed look at the transformation wrought by a terrible disease.

At one point, Alice says that she'd trade her Alzheimer's for cancer. It's to both Moore's and the movie's credit, that we understand exactly what she means. She knows that she's saying goodbye to herself. It's like dying without actually being dead.

'Boy Next Door:' a bad movie neighbor

Jennifer Lopez plays a character who teaches the classics and falls prey to a stalker.

The Boy Next Door qualifies as the year's first genuine addition to the cinematic junk pile, a thriller that's not only ludicrous, but proves an embarrassment for Jennifer Lopez, its star.

Lopez plays Claire Peterson, a woman whose marriage is foundering. Claire evidently isn't stricken by shyness; she's dressed to put her body on display even when she's just hanging around the house.

Not surprisingly, Claire attracts the attention of Noah Sandborn (Ryan Guzman), a high-school senior who's new to the neighborhood and who's taking care of a sick uncle who happens to be Claire's next door neighbor.

It doesn't seem to have bothered anyone that Guzman is 27, and looks it. He's a classmate of Claire's teen-age son (Ian Nelson), a kid who actually looks like he might still be in high school.

You may want to think of Noah as a psychotic version of Eddie Haskell of Leave It to Beaver fame. At first, he's incredibly helpful to Claire, who's trying to get by without the presence of her estranged husband (John Corbett).

Corbett's character knows he made a mistake by cheating on his wife. He wants to return home. Not so fast, says a wary Claire.

In a moment of desperation and horniness, Claire sleeps with Noah, who immediately develops an obsession with her. The filmmakers do everything they can to give the scene some soft-core gloss. All that's missing is a label: MAJOR SEX SCENE IN PROGRESS.

Did I mention that Claire is a high school teacher who specializes in the classics and that Noah worms his way into the class so that he can cement his relationship with Claire and show off his mastery of Homer?

Once Claire comes to her senses, she wants nothing more to do with Noah, but he won't take "no" for an answer. He reveals himself as a manipulative and ultimately violent stalker who threatens to ruin Claire's life.

Eventually, Claire turns for help to her BFF, the schools vice principal played by Kristin Chenoweth.

All of this builds toward a violent showdown that's so preposterously gruesome, it provoked a few laughs at a preview screening.

Despite the addition of a wafer-thin psychological explanation for Noah's behavior, The Boy Next Door offers little by way of big-screen pleasure -- unless you want to ogle Lopez or the hunky Guzman.

The Boy Next Door may be trying to be an over-the-top thriller, but it winds up scraping the bottom of the big-screen barrel.

Jennifer Aniston's bitter piece of 'Cake'

An emotionally scarred woman tries to drive everyone else away.
Toward the end of last year, Jennifer Aniston's name began to surface as a possible Oscar nominee for her performance in Cake, the story of an embittered woman whose life is mired in grief and rage. Aniston didn't get the nomination, but the actress best known for rom-coms and her long-running stint in TV's Friends, shows the kind of range Academy voters often appreciate.

In Cake, Aniston plays a woman with a scarred face, an aversion to make-up and a pill-popping addiction to pain killers. Aniston's Claire clearly has suffered both emotional and physical wounds.

Director Daniel Barnz, working from a script by Patrick Tobin, takes his time letting us know precisely what happened to put Claire into such a miserable state.

And miserable it is.

Claire has been so impossible to live with that she's driven off her caring husband(Chris Messina). Only her housekeeper (Adriana Barraza) seems willing to tolerate Claire's abusive ways -- and, at one point, even Barraza's Silvana is pushed to the brink.

Claire is so difficult that she's kicked out of a therapy group, which she disdains anyway. After leaving the group, she's haunted by visions of Nina (Anna Kendrick), a former group member who committed suicide.

Presented in straightforward fashion, these hallucinatory encounters give Kendrick something to do, but don't add much to the proceedings.

Those who remember The Good Girl (2002) already know that Aniston can play against type. In Cake, she pours on cynicism and bile, but the movie loses credibility when Claire establishes a relationship -- albeit a halting one -- with Nina's widowed husband (Sam Worthington), a man who has been left with a child.

If you've seen a few indie movies, you won't have much trouble guessing what has driven Claire to near distraction.

I've not been a fan of Aniston's endless string of rom-coms, but acting in romantic comedies is still acting, and Aniston deserves praise for taking a chance on a small, indie movie in which she's required to keep the audience at a distance.

Let's hope Cake helps push Aniston out of the rom-com ghetto. But taken strictly on its own somewhat attenuated terms, Cake needed to be better, as well as bitter.

Making money without scruples

A been-there-done-that aura limits Americons from the start. In taking aim at subprime lenders, Americons evokes memories of movies such as Boiler Room, Margin Call and The Wolf of Wall Street, but the movie is neither as good nor as entertaining its predecessors. Beau Martin Williams plays Jason Kelly, a former NFL player who's working as a doorman at a Los Angeles night spot when he meets Devin (Matt Funke). Devin offers to help Jason get rich quick and introduces him to a dubious endeavor, getting people into homes they can't afford, thus setting them up to go bust. Jason doesn't quite know how unethical he's being, so he arranges a home purchase deal for a former college teammate (Trai Byers). You don't need to be a financial wizard to know the deal will go bad. Director Theo Avgerinos makes the most of an attractive -- if unknown -- cast, although he spends too much time showing how hot-shot young men with money amuse themselves: drugs, gambling and generalized debauchery. Americons doesn't really break enough fresh ground for big-time impact. I don't know when the movie was conceived, but if it had arrived earlier, Americons might have had a better shot at capturing some attention.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

'Boyhood' wins best picture at BFCA awards

The Broadcast Film Critics Association also honored Julianne Moore as 2014's best actress. Moore played a professor suffering from Alzheimer's in Still Alice.
Look, I understand that the awards season can feel interminable. But as a member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association, and as someone who always posts the Association's nominees, I feel I should share this year's winners with you.

The Critics Choice Awards were given out Thursday evening in Los Angeles, the same day as the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced its nominees. You'll note a few differences.

Here are the winners:

Best Picture – Boyhood
Best Actor – Michael Keaton, Birdman
Best Actress – Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Best Supporting Actor – J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
Best Supporting Actress – Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Best Young Actor/Actress – Ellar Coltrane, Boyhood
Best Acting Ensemble – Birdman
Best Director – Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Best Original Screenplay – Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., Armando Bo, Birdman
Best Adapted Screenplay – Gillian Flynn, “Gone Girl”
Best Cinematography – Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman
Best Art Direction – Adam Stockhausen (Production Designer), Anna Pinnock (Set Decorator), The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Editing – Douglas Crise, Stephen Mirrione, Birdman
Best Costume Design – Milena Canonero, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Hair & Makeup – Guardians of the Galaxy
Best Visual Effects – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Best Animated Feature – The Lego Movie
Best Action Movie – Guardians of the Galaxy
Best Actor in an Action Movie – Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Best Actress in an Action Movie – Emily Blunt, Edge of Tomorrow
Best Comedy – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Actor in a Comedy – Michael Keaton, Birdman
Best Actress in a Comedy – Jenny Slate, Obvious Child
Best Sci-Fi/Horror Movie – Interstellar
Best Foreign Language Film – Force Majeure
Best Documentary Feature – Life Itself
Best Song – Glory, Common and John Legend, Selma
Best Score – Antonio Sanchez, Birdman

A few notable divergences from Oscar: The BFCA's best animated feature -- The Lego Movie -- was overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which didn't nominate it in the animated feature category. Although he didn't win, David Oyelowo (also snubbed by Oscar) was a BFCA nominee for best actor. Oyelowo portrayed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. Selma director Ava DuVernay (overlooked by the Academy, as well) was nominated by the BFCA for best director. She didn't win, either, but made the short list. The BFCA honored Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) for writing the best adapted screenplay. Flynn, who adapted her own novel, was ignored by Oscar, too.

If you're one of those folks who enter Oscar contests, you may want to peruse the BFCA list as you begin to decide where you'll be casting your votes.

Eastwood's poweful 'American Sniper'

Chris Kyle's story speaks of battle and the toll it takes.
Navy SEAL Chris Kyle was credited with 160 confirmed kills in Iraq. If "probable" kills -- those without a witness -- are added, Kyle's number rises to 255. He has been called the most deadly sniper in U.S. military history.

In director Clint Eastwood's America Sniper, a sobering big-screen version of Kyle's autobiography, Kyle says he felt no remorse about those unlucky enough to find their way into his rifle sights.

He tells us his regrets involve an inability to protect even more American combatants. Other SEALs and marines called him "Legend." They felt safer when Kyle was on the job.

I don't know how you'll feel about Kyle's warrior ethos, but I do know that Eastwood -- with Bradley Cooper hitting a bullseye in the starring role -- tells Kyle's story without doing much by way of moral posturing. By giving us Kyle's story straight, Eastwood puts the burden on us.

We must decide what we think about SEAL culture, the combat mission in Iraq, and the toll that combat takes on the those who fight and the loved ones who support them.

American Sniper is that rare action movie that rivets our attention while leaving us with plenty to think about.

It's also staggering to realize that Eastwood -- now 84 -- took on the arduous task of making an intensely realistic combat movie. As he often has done in recent work, Eastwood skillfully explores the impact of violence on the spirits of those who inflict it.

Although, American Sniper doesn't exactly break new ground, it's a powerful, unflinching look at the life of a committed warrior operating under especially difficult circumstances. Kyle completed four tours in Iraq. He shuttled back and forth from the U.S. In the process, he lost his taste for ordinary life.

Kyle became increasingly isolated from his wife (Sienna Miller) and kids. When he was home, he felt guilty for not being with his comrades in arms. The problems of civilian life seemed embarrassingly trivial to him. He missed the high-stakes atmosphere of combat.

As a patriotic man, he felt that as long as shots were being fired at Americans, he should be there.

Eastwood portrays the fight in Iraq with a ground-level realism that only a gifted director could achieve. Disciplined and tense, American Sniper is another summary work for a star whose movie career seldom has strayed far from violence.

Make no mistake, American Sniper is not Unforgiven, Eastwood's 1992 anti-revenge saga. American Sniper fully immerses in Kyle's point-of-view, which reduces the world to those who prey on others and those who need protection.

Kyle believes that being a protector qualifies as a high calling, perhaps the highest calling, something he learned from his dad during his Odessa, Texas childhood.

Whether you agree with Kyle doesn't matter. Had Eastwood made a different movie (one that spent more time wringing its hands about the futility of the war), he could not have taken us so deeply into Kyle's world. It's a place we need to visit, and we have a responsibility, I think, to sort through our feelings about it.

Eastwood puts us on rooftops with Kyle as he waits for targets to emerge. He's poised for kills that he believes are absolutely essential. In the context of vicious combat, he's most probably right.

The first of Kyle's kills involves targets that immediately put him on a strange moral edge: He shoots a kid who's carrying a bomb and a woman who picks up the same bomb after the kid is killed.

Not surprisingly, Kyle wonders whether this is what his harsh SEAL training was all about. He's quickly assured by a fellow SEAL that the bomb he kept from exploding surely would have killed at least 10 marines.

The calculus of war can be that simple. But warriors are also human, and even when they're not aware that it's happening to them, the toll of combat settles on their shoulders.

Toward the latter part of his career, Kyle began to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. An incident at a backyard barbecue in Texas proves harrowing, and it takes Kyle a while to decide that he wants to rejoin society, something that he accomplishes by using his marksman's skills to help others scarred by war.

If I had read Kyle's autobiography prior to knowing he was to be the subject of a film, Cooper might have been last person I'd have thought of for the lead role.

Cooper, after all, is the guy from the Hangover movies, an actor who only began to emerge as a major talent in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Here, Cooper bulks up to play a good-ole Texas boy whose emotions can't always support his view of the world as a place where bad people prey on the weak.

Cooper keeps Kyle likable throughout, and does an exceptionally fine job of showing that Kyle's patriotism was real and sincere. Kyle believed he was acting for his country. He couldn't imagine doing otherwise. You probably wouldn't want to argue with him about that.

Still, a bit of shading creeps into Jason Hall's screenplay. One of Kyle's colleagues in combat eventually begins to question the war. When he's killed, Kyle tells his wife that the man's doubts about the Iraqi enterprise caused his death. He lost focus. He entertained doubt.

To me it sounds as if that man was coming to his senses, but not everyone will see it that way. Kyle certainly didn't.

Kyle's story clearly establishes the gulf between those who've been fighting the U.S's wars and those who've been pursuing normal life at home. These days, war is a specialized warrior's enterprise. Much of the home front remains oblivious to it.

For those who don't know how Kyle's story ends, I won't say more. But the conclusion of Eastwood's movie vividly demonstrates that for many soldiers, war doesn't stop when they leave the battlefield.

Eastwood knows that when doors of violence swing open, they never entirely can be shut. In American Sniper, he again brings us face-to-face with that disturbingly important truth.

Topical subject turns tedious in 'Blackhat'

Michael Mann's latest suffers from a bland performance by Chris Hemsworth and an insistently one-note tone.
We're in that January moment when last year's prestige releases still are making their way around much of the country, boosted by this week's Academy Award nominations. Put another way, January is not exactly prime time for new movies.

No wonder, then, that director Michael Mann's misbegotten Blackhat has slipped into the mix.

A numbed-out thriller about computer hacking, Blackhat promises topical urgency, but winds up feeling disconnected from a reality we've come to know all too well from recent headlines. (See stories about the great SONY hacking).

Working from a screenplay by Morgan Davis Foehl, Mann delivers a one-note effort that matches most of the movie's one-note performances.

Chris Hemsworth -- the Australian actor of Thor fame -- plays a master hacker who's furloughed from prison to help the U.S. and Chinese governments catch a mysterious super-hacker. The mystery hacker caught the world's attention by blowing up a Chinese nuclear facility and then wreaking havoc on the world's soy markets.

From that point on, the U.S. and China become reluctant collaborators. Hemsworth's Hathaway joins with a former MIT pal (Leehom Wang), a Chinese military officer who does high-level tech work. Wang's character brings along his sister (Wei Tang), who provides technical assistance and serves as a perfunctory love interest for Hathaway.

Who wouldn't fall in love while discussing the intricacies of RATs (remote administration tools)? Yes, the screenplay mentions RATs.

Viola Davis, who gives the movie's only interesting line reading, plays an FBI agent. She's trying to keep tabs on Hathaway, who's supposed to have rogue tendencies.

Why does the FBI even need Hathaway? It seems he created the malware used by the fiendish intruder as a digital springboard for his cyber crimes.

Mann shows us this computer hackery with images that explore the innards of various and assorted chips en route to their felonious destination. I guess we're supposed to be impressed.

Mann also uses many shots of people working at keyboards. If you don't believe that watching someone type is boring, come over some time. You can watch me tap away.

Mann, of course, includes the requisite chases and action set pieces, all set against a backdrop of massive indifference. Who really cares about any of this?

Hemsworth doesn't bring much to Mann's party: He seems to have given up on facial expressions in a performance that's as pulseless as the movie itself. Strands of hair dangle over Hathaway's face like inverted windshield wipers, some sort of fashion statement one supposes.

Maybe the whole idea of the Hathaway character was doomed from the outset: He's a guy who can write code and kick butt. The movie might have been more intriguing had Hathaway been shown to be better at using his brain than stomping his opponents.

Blackhat does its share of globe hopping, traveling to Hong Kong, Indonesia and Malaysia, but you may be too busy watching the screenplay trample logic to enjoy the movie's travelogue pleasures, many of which tend to be blood-splattered anyway.

Mann -- whose filmography (Heat, The Insider, Collateral and Manhunter) includes a fair share of strong work -- finds some energy in the movie's home stretch. It's too late. Blackhat already has established itself as a forgettable helping of January mush.

Oscar veers toward niche fare

The nominations have been announced, let the caviling begin.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences once again has struck. Nominations for the 87th annual Academy Awards were announced in Los Angeles Thursday at the ungodly hour of 5:30 a.m., a sure way of guaranteeing that the hoopla will have faded before the news cycle reaches 4 p.m.

Oh well, that's the way Hollywood does it. Why change?

It didn't take long for commentators to circle the wagons. Variety was quick to point out that this year's Oscars played an anthem to white men, neglecting both women and people of color in key categories.

Ava DuVernay, whose Selma received a best-picture nomination, headed the list in this regard. DuVernay was not nominated in the best-director category.

Perhaps Bennett Miller took her place on the list. Surprisingly, Miller was nominated for best director for Foxcatcher, which -- focus for a minute -- did not receive a best-picture nomination.

Or maybe it was Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) whose nomination in this category pulled the rug from under DuVernay.

Wes Anderson, a markedly idiosyncratic director, cracked Oscar's code with a nomination for directing The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Clint Eastwood was shut out despite the fact that American Sniper received a nomination for best picture. Maybe skittish voters were concerned that if Eastwood won, he'd make his acceptance speech to a chair.

OK, bad joke. Eastwood did a masterful job with American Sniper.

David Oyelowo, who played Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, also was snubbed. No best-actor nomination for him.

Earlier in the week, prognosticators were saying that the spot that Oyelowo might have occupied would go instead to Bradley Cooper for his performance in American Sniper.

I like the surprise nomination for Cooper, but (prepare for a bit of heresy here) would have put Oyelowo ahead of either Michael Keaton (nominated for Birdman) or Benedict Cumberbatch (nominated for The Imitation Game).

That's not to say that those actors weren't deserving, but when it comes to degree of difficulty, what could be more challenging than playing a civil rights icon known to the entire world -- and pulling it off.

And while we're on the subject of snubs of actors, let me mention another performer who should have received consideration: Jake Gyllenhaal for his work in Nightcrawler, a movie that earned only one nomination. Writer/director Dan Gilroy was nominated in the best original screenplay category.

Not surprisingly, the Academy tilted British with nominations for Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything).

Both, of course, are deserving, but Gyllenhaal's performance as a morally challenged freelance news photographer pushed him onto a ledge that none of the other nominees had to walk -- and that includes Steve Carell, nominated for playing the devastatingly peculiar John du Pont in Foxcatcher.

Of course, not all Brits were honored. Timothy Spall, once considered a likely candidate for his work in Mr. Turner, won't have to buy a new tux.

And Tom Hardy, perhaps the best British movie actor of the lot, was ignored for his work in Locke, a movie that required Hardy to hold the screen as he drove alone in his BMW from Birmingham to London to deal with a situation that threatened to upend his character's life.

Meryl Streep received another Oscar nomination in the best supporting actress category for playing a witch in the musical Into the Woods.

Let's have a collective sigh here. Neither Streep nor the rest of the world benefits from her 19th nomination. Of course, Streep's a great actress, but let's just put her face on Mt. Rushmore and get it over with.

Streep's spot could have gone to Rene Russo, for playing a ratings-hungry news director in Nightcrawler) or to Carmen Ejogo (for playing Coretta Scott King in Selma).

And perhaps he most egregious of all snubs in this category: Jessica Chastain, who was brilliant as the daughter of a New York mobster in A Most Violent Year.

I suppose it was a bit of a surprise that Laura Dern was nominated for best supporting actress for Wild. She played the mother of Reese Witherspoon's character, a woman who went on a 1,000-mile, solo trek on the Pacific Crest Trail. Witherspoon was nominated for best-actress for her work in Wild.

Maybe Witherspoon occupied the spot that some thought would go to Jennifer Aniston, who did image-shattering work in Cake, a movie that has not yet been widely seen.

Perhaps the loudest snub was the one that was noticed first. The Lego Movie -- critically acclaimed and popular with audiences -- was not nominated for best animated film. I'm guessing that clears the way for How to Train Your Dragon 2 to take home a statue.

As Hollywood continues its march away from the cultural center ring, it's hardly surprising that The Grand Budapest Hotel tied Birdman for the most nominations (nine for each picture).

No matter what you think of them, these indie-leaning nominees offer further proof that Oscar is out-of-synch with the moviegoing public -- a sign of an industry that's faltering.

Take that comment on two levels: Hollywood isn't producing pictures that create waves of national excitement and audiences are so fragmented that it's almost almost impossible for anything but big action pictures to cut across niche boundaries.

Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, which was had mass appeal and a bit of intellectual patina, was relegated to best score and nominations in a variety of technical categories.

Angelina Jolie's Unbroken should have fit Hollywood's bill, an accessible movie that honored the Greatest Generation by focusing on the heroic life of Louis Zamperini. Alas, Jolie's World War II epic went so heavy into the torture of Zamperini at the hands of a sadistic Japanese officer that it might have taken itself out of the running.

Gone Girl, another popular movie, produced a best actress nomination for its female lead, Rosamund Pike, but was overlooked in the best-adapted screenplay category, where it was expected to score. Gillian Flynn wrote the screenplay from her own novel.

As for the documentaries: I was surprised that Life Itself -- the documentary about film critic Roger Ebert -- didn't make the cut. Perhaps voters thought that if they put it on the list, Ebert's popularity would have shut out all other contenders.

If I had a vote, Keep on Keepin' On would have made the final five. It's a great, moving documentary about the relationship between a young blind pianist and jazz titan Clark Terry.

Here's a truism: Trying to adapt a Thomas Pynchon novel for the screen is difficult, perhaps impossible. Still, it's a bit surprising that Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Inherent Vice received a nomination for best adapted screenplay. Strong in parts and often funny, the movie nonetheless is marked by an overall incoherence.

Oh well, I'm sure there's more to complain about, but what does it really matter. The Academy always does as it wishes. It's their world. We just live on its outskirts.

So congrats to those nominated, condolences to those snubbed and good luck to those stuck with the task of predicting winners in what may be a difficult year.

A complete list of nominees can be found on ABC's web site. The Oscar's will be awarded on Sunday Feb 22.

And if you want a warm-up for Oscar, The Critics' Choice Movie Awards, bestowed annually by the Broadcast Film Critics Association, airs Thursday evening (tonight) on A&E at 7 p.m. Mountain Time.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A stirring moment for civil rights

David Oyelowo's performance as Martin Luther King anchors director Ava DuVernay's look at a landmark demonstration.
A few observations from the fine new movie Selma: Martin Luther King sometimes ate ravenously. He had difficult conversations with his wife, a woman forced to deal with matters as ominous as death threats while wondering about his relationships with other women. Like many busy men, he spent too much time away from his family, and he became the symbol for a movement that would have gone nowhere without the hard work of many others. On occasion, he smoked cigarettes.

All that's tactfully shown by director Ava DuVernay.

DuVernay's movie also makes it clear that King's rhetoric soared and inspired a nation, that he often put his body on the line to advance the cause of justice and that he understood how to move public opinion. He was the prophet who stood outside the gates of power, urging the powerful to help the long arc of the moral universe bend toward justice, as he might have put it.

For all that, Selma isn't a King biopic: It's an entirely absorbing look at the landmark 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. Stirring and sobering, Selma enables us to feel the urgency and complications of a moment when the wheel of history definitely was turning.

DuVernay surely knew that Dr. King already has been enshrined in the sacred pantheon of American greats. She's interested in the man who fought for civil rights, not the icon created by a self-congratulatory culture that belatedly lauds him.

As played by the gifted British actor David Oyelowo, Dr. King never wavers about his goal -- in this case gaining voting rights for black people in the Jim Crow South. He strategizes, looks for the best ways to dramatize each protest and bring repression to the forefront of American consciousness.

On occasion, he's beset by doubt, not about the cause, but about what he's asking others to sacrifice.

The first attempt to cross the bridge, of course, resulted in brutal attacks on 600 peaceful marchers by state and local law enforcement officials. DuVernay doesn't flinch from that violent reality, either.

These bridge scenes are mini-masterpieces of tension in which DuVernay makes terrific use of silence to create a sense of fearful anticipation. She allows us to feel what it must have been like for the marchers to see armed men -- some on horseback -- awaiting them on the other side of the bridge.

In Washington, a frustrated Johnson expresses annoyance with King for insisting on a voting rights bill so soon after Johnson had pushed a Civil Rights Bill through Congress. Eventually, the movie suggests, Johnson unleashed J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI (Dylan Baker) in an attempt to embarrass King with a purported recording of a sexual encounter. The recording was delivered to Mrs. King.

You may have read that this Johnson/Hoover alliance, along with other matters concerning LBJ, has been disputed by some. Don't let these criticisms sway you from the movie. Selma recognizes the scope of a movement that climbed the ladder of power. It shows disagreements that sometimes tore at the civil rights movement from within, but also how its force rippled all the way to the White House. I'd argue that DuVernay appreciates the difference between a president and someone who's pushing that president to act.

History, of course, is seldom as tidy as we'd like in to be. Young black activists from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee had been working in Selma before King and his Southern Christian Leadership contingent arrived. Initially, they viewed King as a celebrity interloper, a man who wanted to cash in on the grunt work they'd been doing.

King knew they had a point, but also understood that the movement needed a figure head and a voice. He thought he and his colleagues were best suited to calling attention to a movement based on a three-part approach that already had produced results: negotiation, demonstration and resistance.

The days leading up to Selma were full of stark contrasts. Perhaps that's why DuVernay begins in 1964 with Dr. King receiving the Nobel Prize in Oslo. He shares a fancy hotel room with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo).

Oyelowo's subtly tuned performance picks up the irony of the situation -- he's enjoying comfort in Norway while many were suffering at home. Oyelowo lets us know that King realizes that his work isn't finished. His eyes are on a bigger prize than any that could be awarded in Europe.

DuVernay takes us from Stockholm to the Birmingham bombing that resulted in the death of four black girls. She then shows us obstacles put in the way of Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), a black woman who's trying to register to vote in Selma. Cooper is given a ridiculous qualifying test in which she's asked to name every county judge in Alabama.

Working from a screenplay by Paul Webb, DuVernay evokes a potent feeling for the time -- its ugliness, its idealism, its internecine battles, its heroism and breadth.

King may have endured his dark nights of the soul, but he also was a great man, and his speeches (adapted here from originals) still produce goose bumps. It doesn't take a perfect man to speak to the conscience of a nation. It takes a man who's brilliant, brave and right about the justness of his cause.

Many of the supporting performances are spot on. Tim Roth, for example, makes a convincingly appalling George Wallace, the Alabama governor who thought he just might be shrewd enough outfox Lyndon Johnson.

Selma also introduces the supporting cast that surrounded Dr. King, figures such as Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson), Rev. Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce) and John Lewis (Stephan James).

As you look at DuVernay's images of the march, you'll be reminded of an important truth. Prominent figures are seen leading marchers across the Pettus Bridge. But when demonstrators finally headed for Montgomery, it wasn't the people in the front of the line who turned a protest into a movement. It was everyone who marched along -- taking the rest of the country with them.

Selma serves as a look at a fascinating collection of real-life characters, as an ultra-dramatic rendering of a tumultuous moment and perhaps as a goad: The march may not look the same today, but there's still much to overcome.

Inherent confusion in 'Inherent Vice'

Paul Thomas Anderson tackles a Thomas Pynchon novel and ... well ... er ... that is ...
Director Paul Thomas Anderson has gone where no director has gone before; i.e., he has attempted to bring a novel by the reclusive Thomas Pynchon to the screen.

Those familiar with Pynchon's work immediately will understand why this is such an audacious endeavor on Anderson's part. Pynchon's novels aren't plot-driven, and frequently veer off into clouds of digression as he watches the social order break into bizarre fragments.

If a Pynchon novel doesn't always make sense in conventional terms, well, look around you. What really does?

When I was in college during the '60s, we were all devouring Pynchon's V., a debut novel that revolved around a character named Benny Profane.

Pynchon provided a counterweight to the formalized rigor of academic reading. We were smitten. We congratulated ourselves for getting "it," whatever "it" was.

In Inherent Vice, Anderson dips into Pynchon's 2009 neo-noir fantasy, an LA-based story that introduces us to a character named Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). Doc's 1970s life unfolds in a pot-induced haze that keeps him wandering through post-Manson, hippie detritus in a fictional town called Gordita Beach.

If the private eye was staple of 1940s Hollywood, he's reduced to blood-shot eye by Anderson, less a savvy guy with his own moral code than a bemused idler.

The movie opens when Sportello is visited by a former girlfriend, the elusive Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). It seems Shasta Fay has become the lover of real-estate magnate Michael Z. Wolfmann (Eric Roberts).

Wolfmann has disappeared and Shasta Fay wants Sportello's help to locate him, presumably to save him from those who would put him in a sanitarium -- or something like that.

At this point, I'm going to let the ship that's carrying the Anderson/Pynchon plot sink. No more attempts to recount what can't be recounted. The plot is a blur of dodges, gestures and noir mimicry. Trying to follow it is a bit like getting lost in a new town without benefit of a map or GPS. You either panic and scream or you decide to enjoy the strange sights.

For me, these sights are embodied in the form of characters who enter the movie like figures from a pop-up book.

A sampling:

-- Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro). He's Sportello's lawyer, a guy who seems like a refugee from a Hunter Thompson story.

-- Lt. Detective Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), an LA cop who specializes in civil rights violations.
-- Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short), a dentist who wears purple suits and heads a mysterious ring called Golden Fang.

-- Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), a saxophone player who's presumed to have died, but whose wife (Jena Malone) thinks he's still alive.

You can tell by the character names that Pynchon's universe is one of broad comedy carved with a satirist's knife.

I'm putting off my assessment for a bit because (as a matter of public service) I want to share with you the way that I watched the movie.

I tended to drift in and out of the various episodes. While each was unfolding, it held my attention, but as Anderson shifted from one bit to the next, I had difficulty remembering exactly where I'd been.

I enjoyed the music -- both Jonny Greenwood's score and the tunes selected by Anderson to accompany various segments. I chuckled. My mind wandered. I chuckled some more. My mind wandered some more.

When Reese Witherspoon showed up as Deputy DA Penny Kimball, I was amused to see her. She's one of Sportello's sexual companions and informed sources.

I felt a sense of alienated indifference as the characters exchanged information that seemed important to them, but left me shrugging.

The movie's narration -- delivered by Joanna Newsom as a character named Sortilege -- sometimes approaches Pynchon's eloquence, but doesn't necessarily clarify much of anything.

Two performances are of special note. Phoenix, who appeared in Anderson's The Master, brings stoned integrity and his own level of confusion to the role of Sportello.

He's best in scenes in which he squares off with Brolin's Bigfoot, a character who becomes a bold parody of a quintessentially starched Los Angeles detective. Bigfoot has a crew-cut and a fondness for phallus-shaped popsicles. Unashamedly brutal and a man of porcine appetites (he's always eating), Bigfoot stands as a kind of one-man satire of law enforcement at its worst.

Now, what to make of all this?

You can probably tell from the tone of this review that I'm not ready to rip into Anderson's movie. I hope you also can tell that it's an experience to which not everyone will take. The old adage -- it helps if you're stoned -- may be applicable here, an observation I offer not as an encouragement for pot smoking, but as a guidepost to the experience that awaits you.

I enjoyed some of the movie's asides, watching Bigfoot in a non-speaking role in Adam 12, for example. On top of everything else, the guy wants to be on TV. Martin Short made me smile, as did Sportello's visit to a massage parlor in the middle of nowhere.

I'm sure I'm leaving something out. The neo-Nazis who guard Wolfmann perhaps? I'm not sure it matters.

Was a time when I might have gotten more pleasure from this meander through a lost moment in the counterculture moors. I suppose in the end, Anderson didn't totally convince me that Pynchon's work should be brought to the screen, even with the help of the gifted cinematographer Robert Elswit who coats each scene with downside lacquer.

If you're an Anderson fan (and I mostly am), you probably owe it to yourself to give this one a try. If you're a Pynchon fan, you're already used to plots that leave you scratching your head.

Everyone else? I'd say that the movie unfolds as a series of digressions from ... well ... let's talk.

Did I feel hostility toward Inherent Vice? Not really.

Did I like it? Sometimes.

Was I bored by it? Occasionally.

Would I watch it again? Not immediately. Probably someday. Who knows?

Portrait of the artist as a troll

Mike Leigh's Mr Turner introduces us to a character without a single patrician impulse.
When the painter J.M.W. Turner dies at the end of director Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner, we feel a sense of vacancy, an acute absence that's not to be confused with sadness.

The reason for this lack of familiar emotion may be twofold: To begin with, Leigh has no taste for melodrama. Just as important, Timothy Spall's performance as Turner has been so full of grunts, muttered-asides and vivid physicality that it dominates nearly every scene, even when Turner's listening to someone else talk.

Spall creates a Turner who's part troll, part genius, and part emotionally crippled creature who was capable of incredible callousness. In short, Spall so fills the screen with his portrayal of Turner that when the great painter breathes his last breath, we almost feel the air escaping from the screen.

The director of movies such as Another Year, Vera Drake, Topsy-Turvy and Secrets and Lies can be spot-on or off-putting. In Mr. Turner, he's both.

Masterfully acted, Mr. Turner is no cinematic museum piece: It's an interpretive portrait of a man who lived in harsh times -- and seemed entirely up to the task.

Falling into provocative mode, Leigh shows us that great art (of which we see too little in the film) can spring from a harsh, even boorish source. Art and exemplary character do not necessarily go hand-in-hand, Mr. Turner leads us to believe. An artist can commit many sins, so long as delusion about his efforts is not one of them.

When we meet Turner, he's already a well-regarded artist. Upon returning from a trip to the Netherlands, Turner sets to work, and his household begins adjusting to his presence.

Turner's jovial father (Paul Jesson) has retired from his business as a barber so that he can fetch paints for his son and provide a hardy form of love and companionship.

Turner's even more devoted servant (Dorothy Atkinson) waits on him tirelessly, hoping that the great man might one day leave a few crumbs of affection on her meager plate. Occasionally, she serves as the target of Turner's sexual aggressions.

Turner also has an embittered former wife (Ruth Sheen) who cannot persuade him to acknowledge the two children he's had with her.

Turner's most normal relationship arrives when he travels to the seaside town of Margate. There, he strikes up a convivial affair with his landlady (Marion Bailey). He's actually kind to her. In return, she cares for him when they're together and at the end of his life. Think of it as a twilight alliance.

Bailey's Mrs. Booth doesn't seem to understand Turner's art, but she displays a natural acceptance of the man, no small feat. Turner died at the age of 76.

The movie doesn't so much advance a plot as it gathers scenes. At one point, Turner is visited by Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville), a woman whose scientific inclinations and observations about color fascinate him.

He sometimes visits the Royal Academy of Art, where he seems on amiable -- if gruff -- terms with his fellow artists, aside from John Constable (James Fleet). In on of the movie's best moments, Turner one-ups Constable in a major way.

Turner's also pestered from time to time by a financially challenged artist Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage), a painter of lesser talent. Haydon rages against his misfortunes by condemning those who refuse to exalt his work.

Although the movie covers about 20 years, Leigh does little to mark the passage of time. He simply moves from one scene to the next. It's Spall -- with his harsh and grunting ways -- who gives the movie a center.

Everyone else becomes a kind of bit player, small planets revolving around Turner's glaring sun. John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) championed Turner's work, but comes off as an effete snob who has taken cultural superiority to appalling extremes.

Relying on the exceptional cinematography of Dick Pope and the careful production design of Suzie Davies, Leigh creates a period piece that takes us from the high point of Turner's success to a time when his work -- which began breaking the ground for Impression -- was derided by the public, his colleagues and even Queen Victoria.

True to his contradictory nature, a sales-conscious Turner bequeathed many of his paintings to the British public, turning down a major sum of money for them.

Pope's images of seascapes and landscapes suggest Turner paintings, and the movie makes it clear that Turner was a great student of light -- although it doesn't necessarily do justice to the remarkable sense of drama Turner brought to what were called his "marine" paintings.

I wish Leigh had spent more time showing us how Turner's artistic vision developed, but he seems to want to meet Turner on his own ground and without explanation. He compels us to spend time with an often disagreeable fellow.

I suppose that makes Mr. Turner a movie with a pugnacious attitude: It juts out its jaw, as if loudly to grunt, "Here he is. Make what you will of him."