Thursday, February 26, 2015

'Focus' can't con us into believing

Will Smith and Margot Robbie are entertaining enough, but Focus falls apart even as we watch.

Some movies try to succeed by mixing star power, glamor and gimmickry. That's pretty much the case with Focus, a con-artist/caper movie starring Will Smith and Margot Robbie.

In case it's not already clear, Smith provides the marquee allure, and Robbie, the glamor. A plot full of twists and turns accounts for the gimmickry.

Smith, of course, needs no introduction, although his last movie, After Earth, hardly set the world on fire. You may remember Robbie as the knock-out Australian actress who played Leonardo DiCaprio's wife in The Wolf of Wall Street.

Focus puts me in a position that comes up often enough, especially during a time of year when Hollywood isn't firing its big artillery.

The movie by no means qualifies as a painful experience. Focus proves sleek and seldom boring, and both Smith and Robbie are plenty watchable.

But while its flaws aren't entirely off-putting, Focus is burdened by too many scenes that leave us thinking,"Did anyone really expect us to believe this?"

Now, for the plot: Smith's Nicky is a con man who takes an aspiring con woman -- Robbie's Jess -- under wing. After giving Jess a few quick lessons in how to be a pickpocket, Nicky heads to New Orleans to work a major sporting event that looks an awful lot like a Super Bowl.

Wanting in on the action, an uninvited Jess follows Nicky to New Orleans, where he has assembled a large staff of felons that deals in a high volume of stolen merchandise. Nicky's minions pilfer on the streets of New Orleans, raking in more than $1 million in loot during Super Bowl week.

We see all this in an energetic sequence that illustrates the movie's title. Skilled thieves employ misdirection; i.e., a victim focuses attention on one thing while a wily thief makes off with another.

The highlight of the New Orleans trip arrives when Nicky and Jess attend the big game. Nicky gets into an escalating betting contest with a rich and apparently reckless Chinese gambler (BD Wong).

Although the scene builds tension, the explanation of what has happened -- revealed in a series of fleet flashbacks -- goes way beyond far-fetched.

It doesn't require much foresight to predict that Nicky and Jess will ignite romantic sparks, but Nicky abruptly puts the kibosh on love, explaining that there's no room for feeling in his line of work.

Once his business in New Orleans concludes, Nicky gives Jess the cold shoulder. He tells her to move on.

The movie then leaps ahead three years. Nicky is working a new con in Buenos Aires. He's being paid by the wealthy owner of a Formula One race car (Rodrigo Santoro) to sabotage a rival owner.

So, guess who shows up in Buenos Aires? If you said Jess, you're a winner. Predictably, her presence complicates Nicky's life.

In the movie's smaller roles, Gerald McRaney stands out as an enforcer who works for Santoro's character. Adrian Martinez is equally good as one of Nicky's cohorts, a disheveled, curly haired mess of a man who provides comic relief.

Focus -- from the writing/directing duo of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa -- does an OK job of making us wonder who's conning whom, but earns no real genre distinction.

That may result -- at least in part -- from the fact that those who are conned in this movie aren't necessarily deserving targets. Are we supposed to enjoy watching ordinary people become the victims of pickpockets?

And unlike The Sting -- considered by some to be the greatest of all con movies -- the writing isn't nearly intricate or spry enough to leave us smiling. Smoothly assembled but negligible, Focus doesn't have a whole lot of weight.

Russian society in microcosm

Leviathan : a scathing and sorrowful critique of an ailing society.

Leviathan is one bitter pill of a movie, but it's definitely worth swallowing.

Director Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return, Elena) underscores the woes of a Russian society that's mired in corruption, greed and betrayal as he probes the darker corners of human nature.

Zvyagintsev sets his story in the vodka-soaked environs of a small fishing village in northwest Russia, the sort of backwater that seldom sees a tourist. The landscapes are rocky and imposing.

This somewhat forlorn town on the Barents coast is home to Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), a hardy mechanic who repairs the villagers' cars.

Kolya lives with his attractive wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova)and his teen-age son from a previous marriage (Sergey Pokhodaev). Lilya works at a local fishery, putting in hardscrabble days on an assembly line where fish are gutted.

Under the best of circumstances, life for Kolya and Lilya would be far from blissful, and they're hardly living through the best of circumstances.

The mayor of the town (Roman Madyanov) is using his power to try to take over the home that has been in Kolya's family for years. Kolya resists the mayor's rapacious onslaught, receiving help from an old army pal (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), an attorney who shows up for a visit.

If Leviathan were a Frank Capra movie, the attorney would stand up for the little guy and the corrupt politician would be sent packing. But Zvyagintsev takes us into a world that's more Putin than Capra.

That means you shouldn't expect Kolya to emerge triumphant, even when his buddy seems to have gotten the upper hand by threatening to expose an unsavory part of the mayor's past.

Leviathan, which recently lost out in its Oscar bid for best foreign-language film, lacks the formal rigor of Ida, the Polish winner in that category. But the film is every bit as deep, and it spares no institution, including the Russian Orthodox church.

Everything in the town seems to have been corrupted, a point that's driven home when some of the locals gather for a picnic at which bullets are fired at portraits of former Soviet leaders such as Brezhnev and Andropov.

The villagers may be rejecting the Soviet past, but they have no vision of the future, perhaps because they have no moral compass to guide them toward it. They're all adrift, scrambling to survive.

It should be clear by now that Leviathan is not happily-ever-after, escapist fare. It hardly qualifies as a spoiler to tell you that its characters, particularly Lilya, are not headed for greener pastures.

The movie's title derives from Thomas Hobbes' 17th century musings on man and government and from a massive beast that has washed ashore and has been rotting away so long, its mammoth skeleton has been exposed. Symbolic readings definitely are encouraged.

After seeing Leviathan, you may wonder whether the profound spiritual yearnings of the Russian soul have been taken over by more venal concerns. If so, no one seems better off for it.

Leviathan isn't devoid of comic touches, but it's a serious and important work from an artist who's unwilling to ignore the hard truths that drive his often powerless characters deep into the vodka bottle -- or worse.

Another look at a morally bankrupt LA

Director David Cronenberg visits the land of palm trees, money and greedy ambition.

It's impossible for a director as talented as David Cronenberg to make a movie that doesn't boast a few interesting wrinkles.

The opening of Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars -- a movie written by novelist Bruce Wagner -- has an eerie, otherworldly dimension that lets us know that the guy behind the camera has an edgy gift.

We feel a bit dislocated by the sight of passengers riding a bus at night. Who are they? Where are they headed? We feel as if the movie is about to awaken from a dream.

It does -- and that's the trouble.

The promise of Cronenberg's opening quickly evaporates as a muddled series of LA-based story lines emerges.

We begin to realize that Maps is taking aim at Hollywood with all the trappings such a project suggests: amorality, rampant egotism, wanton sex, obscene amounts of money, half-baked guru figures and, yes, even incest.

Meeting the movie's characters can feel like paging through a yearbook of sickos, the presumed intention here.

Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) is a child actor who starred in a monstrously successful hit TV show. At 13, Benjie's already a veteran of rehab. He's also an obnoxious little tyrant and one of the least likable characters I've seen in a film in some time.

Benjie's parents (John Cusack and Olivia Williams) aren't much better. Mom manages Benjie's career, and endures the humiliations her son heaps on her. Dad writes self-help books and also does the kind of body work that's supposed to release buried pain with a push here or a contortion there.

Actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) is trying to restart her career by vying for a part in a remake of a movie originally made by her late mother, now something of a Hollywood cult figure. In what amounts to one more perverse twist, we learn that mom sexually abused Havana as a kid.

Perhaps Cronenberg wanted to find the truth in these characters by pushing them to extremes. They are capable of showing traces of humanity, but they seldom stray too far from their inner monsters.

The ingredients in Cronenberg's pot eventually are brought together by the arrival in Los Angeles of Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a character whose role in the drama gradually reveals itself.

Craziness seldom needs embellishment, but that doesn't stop this story from showing us that at least two of its characters (Benjie and Havana) are haunted by ghosts. They are unsettled by dead people.

Cronenberg's collage of tawdry ingredients has some sharp and telling moments -- the faux chumminess between Havana and a rival actress, for example -- but the movie never really rises to the level of strong satire or true trash.

Maps to the Stars wanders instead through a haze of developments that feel as if they're being dragged across the screen in hopes of leaving an indicting stain.

Two additional comments:
-- Robert Pattinson, who appeared in Cronenberg's Cosmopolis -- another movie that didn't really work -- plays a chauffeur who aspires to be a screenwriter and actor.

-- Moore holds nothing back in her portrayal of an actress whose life is marred by desperation, psychological torment and character flaws. Did anyone think the recent Oscar winner couldn't give this kind of performance?

Maps to the Stars seems to want to tell us that Hollywood is less a place than a contagious disease. But spending time with the folks who've caught this disease isn't as revealing as you might imagine.

Look, I'm a Cronenberg fan. I consider him to be one of the smartest directors I've ever met, and I've admired much of his work. I look forward to seeing his next movie, and plan to regard this unrewarding Day of the Locust descendant as a detour.

They're just fun-loving vampires

On the list of things that have overstayed their pop-cultural welcome: Vampire movies and faux documentaries. We've had enough of both to last several lifetimes. But as with all rules, there are exceptions, and What We Do in the Shadows -- a deliciously gory comedy from New Zealand -- ranks as one of them. The vampires in this New Zealand import can seem all too human as they try to live together in a chaotic house in the capital city of Wellington. The movie begins when the preposterously suave Viago (Taika Waliti) tries to work out a schedule for his slovenly roommates. Somebody, after all, has to do the blood-stained dishes. Viago lives with Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and Vladisav (Jemaine Clement), neither of whom is keenly interested in housework. Oops. I nearly forgot. An old and more frightening looking vampire named Petyr (Ben Fransham), resides in the basement. These vampires are soon joined by newbie Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), who has very little respect for vampiric decorum. The vamps also exploit a woman (Jackie van Beek)who does their chores, albeit with increasing amounts of resentment. Before the proceedings are done, Waliti and Clement, who co-directed, add a few werewolves to the mix. The comedy is served up by actors who seem totally at ease with one another and who understand how to get the most out of the material. What easily could have been as painful as another bite to the jugular happily gnaws on the funny bone.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Another mediocre night with Oscar

Here are some things I'd hoped never to see:

-- A Birdman parody in which Oscar host Neil Patrick Harris appeared on stage in his tighty/whiteys.

-- An Oscar show in which Boyhood won only one award, Patricia Arquette 's statue for best supporting actress.

-- A purported celebration of movies in which the high points belonged to three singers: Lady Gaga, John Legend and Common. Lady Gaga nailed a medley of songs in a tribute to The Sound of Music, and Legend and Common brought the audience to its feet with Glory, the song from Selma that went on to win an Oscar.

With their win, Legend and Common found a platform to give one of the night's best acceptance speeches, even managing to mention the appalling rate at which young black men are being incarcerated.

So what kind of night was it?

You don't need me to tell you that it seemed endless, that an affable Neil Patrick Harris got off to a great start with a rousing musical number and then sank under the weight of a ton of lamely written material.

I'm not an ardent Birdman supporter, so Oscar's finale didn't buoy my spirits, either.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu won best director. Birdman won best original screenplay, and, of course, took home best-picture honors.

I felt sad for Boyhood and Richard Linklater, an indie-oriented director who may not get another shot at an Oscar. I'd have felt better if the Academy had split its votes, giving Birdman best picture and Linklater, best director.

Despite complaints about this year's lack of women and people of color, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does seem to be changing.

Time was movies such as The Theory of Everything (British and a bit middlebrow) and Selma (socially powerful) would have been frontrunners for best-picture honors. Neither was.

And Oscar seems as removed from popular tastes as ever. Julianne Moore's victory as best actress was well-deserved, but I wonder how many people saw Still Alice, a heartbreaking movie about a brilliant college professor forced to deal with early onset Alzheimer's.

Was I upset that Eddie Redmayne, who played physicist Steven Hawking in The Theory of Everything, beat Michael Keaton (Birdman) in the best-actor category? Not really.

I've always liked Keaton, but thought Redmayne had the more difficult role. Despite Hawking's debilitating ALS, Redmayne never failed to show us the man's brilliance, arrogance and wit.

What else but random thoughts are possible during a telecast that tended to stagger under the weight of its own mediocrity?

-- Notable acceptance speeches came from Graham Moore (who won the best-adapted-screenplay Oscar for The Imitation Game) and from Patricia Arquette, who used the stage as a platform to call for wage equality for women.

Moore, who mentioned that he attempted suicide at age 16, encouraged those young people who feel different or alienated to hang in. Their day, he said, will come.

-- I was happy for Alexandre Desplat, who won best original score for The Grand Budapest Hotel, his first Oscar win after eight nominations. Desplat is a great composer of movie music.

-- I wondered if Clint Eastwood applauded when Laura Poitras won the best documentary Oscar for Citizen Four, her movie about Edward Snowden.

-- I was surprised that Whiplash won the Oscar for best editing, but upon reflection remembered that the movie's editor, Tom Cross, made a story about a jazz-obsessed drummer (Miles Teller) feel like an action movie.
Cross did a fine job, but Boyhood, which was shot over 12 years, must have been the more difficult movie to edit.

-- The In Memoriam section put a lump in my throat.

-- It struck me that the best visual effects category consisted of movies that a majority of viewers might actually have seen: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy, Interstellar and X-Men: Days of Future Past. Interstellar won.

-- Wouldn't the telecast have been better if Harry Belafonte, Maureen O'Hara, screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere and animator Hayao Miyazaki had been honored at the big show rather than at a separate Governor's Awards program.

I'd rather have seen them than the chaotic Everything is Awesome production number. The tune -- from The Lego Movie -- was nominated for best song.

-- And who thought it was a good idea that director Pawel Pawilkowski, whose Ida won best foreign-language film, had to compete with the band to finish his acceptance speech?

-- The set? It was arcade gaudy. Maybe that's why Harris occasionally wandered into the audience, a move that mostly fell flat. So did a running gag about Harris's Oscar predictions, which supposedly were being kept under lock and key.

Still, maybe some good came out of the evening. Best supporting actor winner J.K. Simmons (of Whiplash) told people to call their parents.

With Simmons on the case, who needs Jewish mothers?

So what are you waiting for? Go ahead. Put Oscar behind you, and call home.

For a complete list of Oscar winners, click here.

Friday, February 20, 2015

It's almost over -- Oscar season, that is

Birdman and Boyhood in tight race for best picture.
Current wisdom has it that 2015 has given us one of the tightest Oscar races in years. Clear frontrunners have yet to emerge in several important categories, namely best picture, best director and best actor.
That may be true, but I have to confess that even several tightly contested races haven't gotten me psyched for Sunday's Oscars. In truth, the moment I'm most eagerly anticipating is the end of what feels like another interminable awards season.
Having said that, I suppose it's incumbent on me to make a few Oscar predictions, so here goes:

Best Picture
Birdman will win.
The competition has narrowed to a battle between Boyhood and Birdman. It's entirely possible that Boyhood will prove victorious, but Birdman seems to have received a boost of inevitably from victories at the Producers and Directors Guild awards, where it won best picture and best director honors respectively.
Besides, I know moviegoers whose judgment I respect who believe Boyhood doesn't quite live up to its reputation. A little underwhelming, they argue.
I'm going against my gut by picking Birdman, but my gut often finds itself out of alignment with Hollywood thinking.
I hope I'm wrong. I hope Boyhood takes best picture, but I'm prepared for Birdman to fly.
Best possible upset: Selma surprises everyone and wins best picture.

Best director
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
It's not unreasonable to expect a split vote for best picture and best director with Birdman winning best picture and Richard Linklater (Boyhood) winning best director.
A favorable outcome for Linklater might depend on whether the Academy decides that this well-regarded indie director -- who spent 12 years making his movie -- can't go home without some recognition.
But ...
It may be difficult to stop Inarritu since he's already won the Directors Guild award and because his movie bowed much later in the year than Boyhood, which had its premiere more than a year ago last month at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
Of course, there's yet another possibility: Inarritu wins best director, but Boyhood snags best-picture honors.

Best Actor
Eddie Redmayne will win for The Theory of Everything.
Lots of folks think Birdman's Michael Keaton will take home Oscar gold for his portrayal of a desperate Hollywood actor trying to make a comeback on Broadway.
Keaton, who hasn't starred in a movie in a while, certainly makes for a better Hollywood story than Redmayne: Veteran actor re-emerges to wow voters or something like that.
But the Screen Actors Guild award went to Redmayne, and actors make up the Academy's biggest voting bloc. Ergo, my pick.
Besides, Redmayne was terrific as physicist Steven Hawking; he deserves credit for keeping Theory of Everything from falling into disease-of-the week sentimentality. He portrayed Hawking's ALS-related disabilities with alarming accuracy, but never lost sight of Hawking's wit, brilliance and humanity.
If there's a dark horse here, it's Bradley Cooper. How could a Cooper victory happen? If Redmayne and Keaton wind up splitting voters, Cooper has a chance.
Besides, even people who don't admire American Sniper concede that Cooper gave one hell of a performance as Navy SEAL Chris Kyle.

Best Actress
We're now crossing into safer terrain for predictions.
Julianne Moore wins the best actress Oscar for her portrayal of a college professor battling a rapidly advancing case of Alzheimer's. This is a strong category, but Moore deserves to win -- not only for her performance in Still Alice, but for a career geared toward excellence -- with a few digressions, of course. Let's not talk about her first movie of 2015: The misbegotten Seventh Son.

Best Supporting Actor
The Oscar goes to J.K. Simmons. Why go against the wave of support Simmons already has received with Golden Globe and SAG awards?
If you think Simmons was scary and intimidating as a sadistic music teacher in Whiplash, you've forgotten his portrayal of a white supremacist in 56 episodes of HBO's Oz.

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette will win.
Arquette may not have quite as much support as Simmons, but she'll have enough to win an Oscar for her work as an often-frustrated single mother in Boyhood.

Now for some quicker hits:
Look for The Imitation Game to emerge victorious in the best adapted screenplay category. I'm betting that The Grand Budapest Hotel will win best original screenplay for Wes Anderson , although -- for my money -- the movie is more a brilliant display of visual wit than anything else.
I'm going to skip most of the so-called technical categories, except to note that Birdman will win a cinematography Oscar for Emmanuel Lubezki, who also won in that category last year for his work on Gravity. Talk about being on a roll.
As for documentaries: It doesn't look as if anything can stop Citizen Four from taking home an Oscar, although I can't help but wonder whether Academy voters have at least some mixed feelings about Edward Snowden, the film's subject.
I'm thinking the Polish film Ida will win best foreign-language film, although this category can (and has) produced upsets. If I had a vote, it would have gone to Leviathan.
I'll be watching and Tweeting Sunday evening, contributing to the great snarkfest that now accompanies every awards show.
I believe the annual gathering at which Hollywood celebrates itself is fair game for snark.
Let's face it, the lengthy telecast seldom proves entertaining, and the results don't necessarily reveal anything essential about the cultural moment in which we're living.
We watch because ... well ... because we do.
Let's face it, being movie lovers often necessitates putting ourselves in the position of rejected lovers who refuse to take a hint. No matter how many times the Oscar show bores or disappoints us, we always seem to return for more.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A movie about running for distance

Kevin Costner stars in a movie about an underdog cross-country team.
In many ways, McFarland, USA is a typical sports movie. You know the drill: A committed coach leads an underdog high school team to a state championship, and -- as cliche has it -- the crowd goes wild.

Typical, yes, but McFarland, USA separates itself from the pack by taking time to develop the social milieu surrounding the triumphs of McFarland High School's first cross-country team.

That's another way of saying that the movie brings us into the world of poor Mexican-American field workers who are stuck in a cycle of hard work for limited rewards.

Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider and North Country) provides the requisite sports inspiration, but also creates a realistic social context in which a downtrodden coach (Kevin Costner) can't succeed until he develops a real understanding of the California community in which he and his wife (Maria Bello) have landed.

Costner's Jim White begins the movie on a downward spiral. An explosive temper has gotten him fired from his job as a football coach at an Idaho high school. If he fails in McFarland, his career probably is over.

White must adjust to being one of the few Anglos in a solidly Mexican-American community where working the fields is regarded as more important than running in cross-country competitions.

That's not a statement about class preference, but a reflection of harsh economic realities. Struggling families need all the hands they can get, and kids often awaken at 4:30 a.m. so that they can put in a morning's work as pickers before school starts.

The proverbial fish out of water, White quickly gets crosswise with McFarland's head football coach, and loses his position as an assistant.

He begins to look even more depressed than usual. But during physical education classes, White notices that some of the school's young men have both speed and endurance. The inevitable lightbulb lights. White tries to interest his students in forming a cross-country team.

It requires time for White to persuade these young runners to take the sport seriously and for them to indoctrinate him into the ways of their community.

Costner isn't afraid to appear clueless. Having never coached cross-country before, White's feeling his way into a new arena. He's also learning from his charges, even as they learn from him.

At one point, White goes into the fields to discover precisely what his students contend with on a daily basis. Later, he decides to throw a quinceanera for his oldest daughter, who's turning 15.

Inspired by a real-life story, McFarland, USA grounds itself in dusty realism and also boasts appealing performances from its youthful cast.

McFarland, USA may not find its way into anyone's sports-movie hall of fame, but it's a well-intended and modest entertainment that appreciates the value of life in a close-knit community and has the decency to present its moments of triumph without beating us over the head -- at least not too hard.

A worthless dip in a hot tub

I don't regard the original Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) as a comedy classic, but I did laugh at some of the movie's gross-out humor and its ridiculous time-travel conceit.

Now comes Hot Tub Time Machine 2, a witless sequel that traffics in blatant sexism and homophobia without creating enough laughs to justify its knee-jerk assault on propriety.

Absent John Cusack from the original, the movie staggers through a time-travel journey made by three characters from the last installment: Nick Webber (Craig Robinson); Jacob (Clark Duke); and Lou (Rob Corddry).

As the massively insensitive Lou, Cordrry dominates the proceedings, but his character's offensiveness quickly proves tiresome.

We're asked to believe that Lou capitalized on the time-travel advantage he gained in the last movie, and became the founder of a high-tech company called Lougle. He's a rich, crude and mean.

Duke's Jacob is Lou's nerdy but rebellious son. Jacob is abused by his father, aside from moments when this ungainly reprise (with director Steve Pink again at the helm) indulges in sickening sentiment.

Robinson's Nick has become a soul singer in the Barry White mode. Robinson comes closer than any of his fellow cast members to doing anything that might be called funny.

This edition's twist: The trio of time travelers winds up in the future rather than in the past.

Transported to the year 2025, the trio meets the son of the character Cusack played in the last installment, a cheerfully sincere fellow portrayed by Adam Scott.

The movie's comic high point involves a TV show called Choosy Doozy, which features a segment in which male participants are forced to have sex with one another.

I neglected to mention an early picture moment when Lou is shot in the groin, and loses his ...

You get the idea, I'm sure. This is one hopeless mess of a movie. How hopeless? Let me put it this way: I got more laughs out of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Recent Soviet history on ice

Red Army tells the story of the great hockey teams of the Soviet era

We've all heard stories about tough coaches, but there aren't many athletes who've plied their trade for a dictatorial coach who developed his style while working for the KGB. You'll meet just such an athlete in Red Army, a documentary in which the chill of the cold war reflects glaringly off hockey ice.

Director Gabe Polsky builds his documentary around Slava Fetisov, the gifted Soviet defenseman who played much of his career for Viktor Tikhonov, a former KGB agent who became head of the USSR's national hockey team during its heyday.

A stern taskmaster, Tikhonov alienated many who played for him. But aside from one stunning Olympic loss to the US in 1980, the Soviet team maintained extraordinary levels of excellence.

A patriot who ultimately was treated poorly by his country and by Tikhonov, Fetisov was introduced to the Red Army team under the tutelage of a kinder, more cerebral coach, the legendary Anatoli Tarasov.

A portly man who looked more like a happy grandpa than a brilliant hockey coach, Tarasov was credited with developing the team-oriented style of Soviet play that the Kremlin used as a basis for global propaganda.

A highly skilled and generally unselfish team became a symbol for the success of Soviet collectivism. Unfortunately, Tarasov eventually offended upper echelon Soviet leadership and lost his job.

Polsky's interviews with Fetisov quickly establish the defenseman as an imposing figure, someone who doesn't take kindly to anything he deems as BS. Fetisov immediately asserts his control over Polsky, who's smart enough not to argue about it.

Fetisov's story -- from his youth to his triumphant days with the Detroit Red Wings -- gives the documentary an interesting arc, exposing us to the hardships faced by Soviet players who were also in the military and who were forced to live spartan lives.

Tikhonov once barred one of his players from taking time off to visit his dying father. Fetisov tells us that he respected Tikhonov as a coach, but not as a man.

Even those who are familiar with the story of Soviet hockey will find plenty to chew over because Polsky understands that this is a case in which athletics and politics are inextricably (and often unfortunately) linked.

Polsky also details how difficult it was for Russian players to play in the West, even after glasnost and the resignation of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Once the Soviet empire dissolved, players were allowed to leave, but had to share their NHL salaries with the Russian authorities.

Fetisov refused to participate in any such arrangement, and suffered for it. He held his ground and insisted that if he were going to leave Russia, it would be on his own terms. Eventually, he prevailed.

Red Army tells a fascinating sports story, introduces us to more than one Soviet sports icon and stands as a fascinating look at what happens when the stakes of a hockey game involve a good deal more than winning or losing on the ice.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

'Fifty Shades' reaches the screen

Sleek sets, sadomasochism, a few spankings and an overall blandness.

Well, I didn't hate it.

That, I suppose, constitutes a small triumph for a movie such as Fifty Shades of Grey, the eagerly awaited adaptation of the first of three novels by E.L. James.

And, no, I haven't read James's enormously successful but widely panned trilogy. For me, reading time is too precious to waste on junk. Besides, my junk cravings mostly are satisfied at the movies.

That's not to say that I knew nothing about James's inescapable novels. I've read reviews and stories about the Fifty Shades phenomenon, and joined those who wonder why legions of readers have succumbed to the soft-core call of a story built around bondage, discipline and sadomasochism (BDSM, for short).

On screen, Fifty Shades turns out to be a bland romance between two more or less uninteresting characters, one of whom happens to be a Dominant who wants to persuade his new love interest to be his Submissive.

I was hoping for a movie that enthusiastically embraced the trashiness of its conceits, which include ridiculous dialogue, minimal characterization and -- of course -- the sexual silliness that happens in a room that the male partner in this unlikely duo refers to as his Playroom; i.e., a room full of crops, ropes and other paraphernalia for which I lack the requisite vocabulary. And, yes, in this case, I'm drawing the line on more research.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson keeps the proceedings slick and perhaps even understated, which -- devoted trash fans -- may decide is precisely the wrong approach. Fans of the novel may find Taylor-Johnson's work suitably respectful.

Dakota Johnson plays Ana, the college senior who opens the movie by doing a favor for her sick roommate (Eloise Mumford).

Ana agrees to interview Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for the school paper. Grey, a 27-year-old billionaire, is giving the school's commencement address.

During the interview, a nervous Ana is (in theory, if not on screen) overwhelmed by Grey's sexual magnetism. From that point on, Ana's fate is sealed. She's going to wind up in that Playroom, although not without first being relieved of her virginity by an obligingly considerate Grey.

As a wealthy and tightly wound businessman, Grey insists that Ana sign a contract that specifies and details the nature of their relationship. All sex. No hearts and flowers.

Eventually, the contract is negotiated. Exercising what passes for common sense in this movie, Ana, says "yes" to ropes and "no" to vaginal clamps. Still, she doesn't sign the contract.

Therein lies whatever tension the story harbors. Can Ana protect her humanity in this situation? Can she break through the control-freak obsessions of a wealthy man and touch his heart? Who, in the end, is the Dominant and who, the Submissive?

The definitive answers, one presumes, will be found in the next two installments.

Of course, we shouldn't dismiss Grey's seductive wealth. He has plenty to offer Ana besides spankings -- a new car, a ride in his private helicopter and later in a glider and a bedroom in his monotonously modern Seattle apartment, which exudes a designer sleekness that infiltrates most of the movie.

I don't know how much humor Taylor-Johnson hoped to include, but a good deal of laughter punctuated a preview screening. I found that heartening. The mostly female audience seemed to be having a good time. I enjoyed their enjoyment.

Of the two actors, Johnson steals the show. She tempers Ana's awkwardness and vulnerability with a sense of an emerging emotional life. Dornan proves a bit of a weak link as a handsome young man with stalker impulses and a gift for playing moody classical music on the grand piano in his apartment, which boasts many polished surfaces.

If there are supposed to be fifty shades to Mr. Grey, it's not easy to identify more than two, and the movie's ending ... well ... it either can be regarded as a tease or a cheat. Take your pick.

Those who think that the elusive link between pain and pleasure is a subject worthy of exploration needn't bother with Fifty Shades, which (you'll pardon the expression) is strictly a skin-deep affair.

And that returns me to this review's starting point. The best I can say is that the movie bred no serious contempt in me. Of course, I can't say that it prompted the opposite reaction, something on the order of appreciative interest, either.

It did, however, serve as a cautionary tale for impressionable, young women. Next time a guy asks if you want to come over and play, you may want to reconsider -- either that or stock up on duct tape.

'Kingsman' goes too far, but ....

Not for every taste, but this spy spoof has some kick.

If you're planning to kick some butt, it pays to be well-dressed. We're not talking well-dressed in the sense of neatly pressed jeans and a clean T-shirt. We're talking impeccably tailored Savile Row suits that might cause an opponent to underestimate your ferocity.

The secret agents in the new action comedy Kingsman: The Secret Service base their small, private army (members are named for Knights of the Round Table) at an upscale British clothing store named Kingsman.

The agents of Kingsman do not work for any government; they're privately funded James Bonds who fight for truth, justice and well ... expensive clothes.

This entirely crazy notion fuels a movie from director Matthew Vaughn, who became known to most moviegoers in 2010 for another equally bold action comedy, Kick-Ass.

Kingsman may not be an unalloyed triumph, but its high points soar and its finale -- or should I say many finales -- create a woozy intra-movie competition in which each additional set piece tries to top its predecessor.

That's no easy task for a movie in which the heads (as in craniums) of a group of elites already have exploded, creating gorgeous smears of color that travel upward with silky grace. All of this to the accompaniment of Edgar Elgar's stirringly patriotic Land of Hope and Glory.

Clearly, Kingsman is not a movie for all tastes; it requires a tolerance for mordant humor that brushes up against (but doesn't fully embrace) political satire.

Vaughn has taken on a difficult task: He's out to spoof spy movies without entirely abandoning their pleasures.

That means the movie can be as rash as it is brash.

Consider: At one point, an agent named Galahad (Colin Firth) goes berserk in a fundamentalist Christian church in the U.S., wiping out the entire congregation. It's not possible to say with any certainty whether Vaughn is straining to push the envelope or engaging in a perverse exercise in counter-cultural wish fulfillment.

Behind all Vaughn's bold excess, you'll find a plot of sorts. Firth plays an agent who recruits a street tough (Taron Egerton) for Kingsman. The movie follows Egerton's character as he trains to become a Kingsman, competing with other hopefuls for the lone open spot.

Of course, there's a villain. Samuel L. Jackson plays Valentine, a genius who wears Yankee baseball caps, lisps (huh?) and has contrived a brutal population reduction scheme that he believes will save the planet.

Valentine's aide (Sofia Boutella) has two, spring-loaded prosthetic legs that look like those that carried Oscar Pistorious to fame in the Olympics. These artificial limbs are also equipped with blades that can cut a man in half as neatly as you please.

Michael Caine adds a bit of gravitas as Arthur, the seasoned veteran who runs the Kingsman operation.

Now, when someone attempts a movie such as Kingsman, chances are that some of its violence will cross lines that shouldn't be crossed. In this area, you'll have plenty of eligible candidates.

Recognize, though, that Vaughn has tried to make a movie that might be called a "violent romp." When it's working -- which I'd say is more than half the time -- Kingsman is a kick.

She's caught in a terrible trap

Marion Cotillard plays a woman struggling to save her job in another fine film from Belgium's Dardenne brothers.

Imagine if you had to spend a weekend tracking down co-workers to change their minds about having selected you to be laid off from your job.

That's the predicament faced by Sandra (Marion Cotillard), the troubled main character in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's quietly powerful and distressingly relevant Two Days, One Night.

How did Sandra's plight arise? She works at a small factory that produces solar panels. Faced with increased foreign competition, her boss (Batiste Sornin) forces the company's employees to make a cruel choice. They either can collect their annual bonuses -- about 1,000 euros each -- or maintain the current size of the work force. If they opt for the bonuses, one of them will have to go.

The workers choose the bonuses, and select Sandra as the person to be sacrificed. Sandra isn't helped by the fact that she suffers from depression. Some of her colleagues have come to regard her as unreliable.

During the course of a weekend, Sandra visits her co-workers hoping that they'll change their minds and allow her to continue in the job on which she and her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) rely.

Like many other people in a battered economy, Sandra and Manu are holding on by a thread.

The Dardenne brothers are a rarity, filmmakers who focus on people who in one way or another have been marginalized. In movies such as Rosetta, The Son, and The Kid With the Bike, they've established a naturalistic style that favors realism over cinematic razzle-dazzle.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the Dardennes are two of the most important filmmakers working today and that their clear-eyed films deserve to be called "essential."

The Dardennes elevate Two Days, One Night by turning it into a story that not only deals with economic stress, but with complex ethical issues.

Sandra hopes her colleagues will forego self-interest and help her stay employed. She knows, of course, that the people she's approaching are under as much financial strain as she is.

Sandra's encounters constitute the heart of the movie. Watching a guilt-ridden co-worker struggle with his conscience embodies the movie's attempt to expose the tormenting tug of incompatible forces, in this case regret and necessity.

The Dardenne brothers don't give us phony villains; they are less interested in finger pointing than in looking at a system that pits workers against one another.

Cotillard, who received a best actress Oscar nomination for her performance in Two Days, One Night, embodies Sandra's compassion, fear and uneasy psychology. Her performance fits snugly with the rest of a lesser-known cast.

Two Days, One Night sustains the Dardennes importance as filmmakers who care deeply about ordinary people and who feel no need to amplify life's heartbreak. In Two Days, One Night, we watch characters trying to salvage their humanity in a climate of panic and desperation.

It's difficult not to be moved.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

'Jupiter' ascends, Wachowskis sink

A muddled fantasy that pours on the visual stimulation.

Get ready for a list of strange ingredients:

-- Inter-species gene-splicing.
-- Something called "recurrence," a mysterious process that resembles reincarnation.
-- Aliens who want to conquer Earth to boil down the human population in refineries designed to produce a life-extending substance for those greedy aliens.
-- A young woman who cleans toilets in Chicago, and doesn't know that she's actually a queen.

Ok, take a breath. The idea here is to let you know that these and many additional incongruities populate Jupiter Rising, the latest muddle of a movie from the Wachowski siblings (Andy and Lana).

As visually dense as it is dramatically unsophisticated, Jupiter Ascending doesn't so much flop as splatter, sending fragments of story flying toward incoherence.

Any initial excitement about the movie probably stems from the Wachowskis success with the Matrix trilogy, movies that created their fan base. It remains to be seen whether that fan base has sufficient strength to help Jupiter Ascending get off the ground.

A short summary of the plot probably is unavoidable. Mila Kunis plays Jupiter Jones, the daughter of a Russian immigrant family living in Chicago. Various aliens are tracking Jupiter, who happens to have been born with the exact DNA of the late queen of an alien civilization.

Jupiter's royal genetic heritage threatens the offspring of the late queen, a group of ambitious siblings want the Earth for themselves. If Jupiter's genetic heritage allows her to be recognized as a royal, she inherits the Earth.

Take another breath. There's more.

How about a dutiful alien protector? Channing Tatum portrays Caine Wise, a stoic alien warrior with a few wolf genes, a goatee and shoes that allow him to lift off the ground and fly. Think super Air Jordan's. Caine rushes to Jupiter's aid when villainous aliens try to kill her.

Once on the run, Caine introduces Jupiter to Stinger (Sean Bean), an alien with bee genes mixed into his make-up. I can't remember whether it matters, but bees never sting royals, the caste to which an unknowing Jupiter belongs.

Now, about the late queen's competitive offspring, foul creatures that they are:

Balem (Eddie Redmayne) wants the Earth badly. So good in The Theory of Everything, Redmayne here lends his talents to a movie so addled it might have been dubbed The Theory of Absolutely Nothing. Redmayne tries his best to be menacing, interrupting his barely audible whispering with occasional bursts of anger.

Then, there are Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), the sister in the group, and Titus (Douglas Booth), the obsequious brother who tries to advance his cause by staging a ceremonial marriage to Jupiter in some intergalactic cathedral.

Meanwhile -- and there are a lot of meanwhiles in Jupiter Ascending -- Jupiter falls for Caine. He resists her because he knows that no lowly gene-spliced guy can hope to aspire to romance with a royal.

Perhaps trying to emulate the episodic leaps of a Star Wars movie, the Wachowskis shift the action from Jupiter to other locations without establishing much sense of where the hell they're dragging us, and the action set pieces extend beyond any reasonably supportable length.

At one point, Jupiter must establish her legitimacy by obtaining some sort of official validation, a process that enables the Wachowskis to assemble a mini-satire on bureaucracy that boasts a cameo from Terry Gilliam. Gilliam's no stranger to visually bloated movies himself -- although, he's better at it than the Wachowskis. Remember Brazil?

As Jupiter, Kunis brings little to the role. Tatum, who knows how to give a real performance (see Foxcatcher), isn't asked to do much beyond striking a heroic pose. He battles strange looking creatures and pretends as if he's flying through he air in an ice-skater's crouch.

Now, if Jupiter Ascending were a flat-out comedy, its visuals might be more interesting. But as a bit of sic-fi that aspires to Dune-like complexity, it lacks enough consistency to be taken seriously.

Ornate spaceships, for example, pass in review like floating art objects. They seem unrelated to any plausible technology.

To be fair, I did spend some time wondering how the Wachowskis achieved some of the movie's more impressive effects, but I spent even more time wondering why they had bothered to create them in the first place.

It would be wrong to suggest that the Wachowskis suffer from some horrible talent deficit: It's more apt to say that as writer/directors, they make fabulous production designers.

A dark tale mired in familiarity

Wizards, witches and dragons. So what else is new?

Maybe it's time I added a few more books to my already crowded nightstand. Perhaps I should be familiar with author Thomas Siegel's YA novel, The Spook's Apprentice, part of a 14-book series known as the Wardstone Chronicles.

Had I been, I might have been more entertained by Seventh Son, director Sergey Bodrov's lavish but overly familiar adaptation of one of Siegel's novels.

Maybe I would have been more appreciative of the concept of an alternate universe where wizards battle witches, and the fate of humanity hinges on the outcome of these supposedly epic clashes.

Maybe, but I doubt it.

A movie must stand on its own, and Seventh Son must (at least with me) work against a deck stacked with diminishing appetite for swords, sorcery and medieval-style mayhem. I'm more than a little tired of movies in which anyone must fight a force called "The Dark," even when Jeff Bridges -- an actor I much admire -- plays the movie's battler-in-chief.

In Seventh Son, Bridges portrays Master Gregory, a gruff fellow of superior skills. Master Gregory has been battling evil (with help from a series of doomed apprentices) for a very long time. He wears a cowl, carries a staff and is quick to dispense judgment.

Bridges strains to lower his voice by a couple of octaves, either that or he's doing an impression of the late John Huston. Whatever the case, I hope Bridges plans a speedy return to the 21st century.

I would have skipped Seventh Son entirely, but for Bridge's presence, which is augmented by the participation of Julianne Moore, who plays Mother Malkin. Mother Malkin is an evil witch who's capable of turning herself into a ferocious dragon or maybe it's the other way around. She might be a dragon who can appear as a witch.

Bridges already has won an Academy Award (for his work in Crazy Heart) and Moore probably is on the verge of winning one for playing an Alzheimer's afflicted professor in Still Alice. Safe to say, neither will be feted for their work in Seventh Son.

To her credit, Moore never attempts to distance herself from this medieval mash-up, giving it her sinister all while tempering Mother Malkin's fury with a bit of lascivious wit.

Performances aside, the movie feels like second-hand goods, a fantasy that doesn't appear to be breaking much by way of new ground.

The story finds Master Gregory locating his latest (and last) apprentice (Ben Barnes). He trains Barnes's Tom Ward to fight the witch and her associates. These include a warrior played by Djimon Hounsou, an actor who has mastered the art of the brooding scowl.

Along the way, a somewhat bland Tom is smitten a young witch played by Alicia Vikander, made to look attractive in a fairy tale sort of way. We're meant to wonder whether Vikander's Alice is a good or bad witch, but this purported puzzlement hardly qualifies as an adequate source of mystery.

Seventh Son includes its share of big battles, but fails to establish itself as a worthy addition to a genre that seems to be undergoing entropic expansion.

Oh, how I wish the darkness would lift, and we could move on from a moment when movies we haven't seen before feel pretty much like those we have.