Monday, February 29, 2016

Best picture 'Spotlight,' a welcome upset

Host Chris Rock scored big in the opening as Oscar lumbered its way through a controversial year.

In the end -- and the end was a long time coming -- the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did the right thing: It awarded the best picture Oscar to the best picture. Spotlight, which did not have a stellar night otherwise, walked away with the evening's biggest prize.

I have to admit that I was surprised. Most prognosticators thought The Revenant would win best picture: I expected The Big Short to pull off an upset because it was both entertaining and meaningful. The Academy went me one better, and recognized Spotlight. I've never been happier to be wrong about an Oscar prediction.

As for the rest ...

It was an OK but typically labored evening that was guided by a mostly sharp Chris Rock, whose opening monologue lived up to just about everyone's expectations. I could spend time quoting lines from it, but I don't need to. I'll refer you instead to a link at which you can read his entire opening.

Suffice it to say that Rock was trenchant when he needed to be, immediately addressing the elephant in Oscar's room, the diversity issue that has dominated this year's awards season.

Once it got rolling, the program pretty much conformed to the standard model, receiving an energy boost from the lone upset that broke the tedium of watching Mad Max: Fury Road clean up in the costume, make-up, editing, sound and production design categories. As a fan of Ex Machina, I was particularly glad to see that movie win an Oscar for visual effects.

Mark Rylance's win in the best supporting actor category counts as another of the evening's surprises. Sylvester Stallone, who reprised his role as Rocky Balboa in Creed, had been the sentimental favorite.

Could voters have been reluctant to acknowledge Stallone in a year when there was much complaining about the fact that Creed's star -- Michael B. Jordan -- was ignored by the Academy?

That's not to say that Rylance wasn't deserving. He gave a fine performance as a Russian spy in Bridge of Spies.

If you're of a cynical bent, you might think the evening's many black presenters were on hand to counter the #OscarsSoWhite campaign that's been raging since the nominations were announced.

Some recipients -- notably Alejandro G. Inarritu, who won best director for The Revenant -- called for more opportunity for people of color.

In some ways, though, Oscars are only the tip of Hollywood's institutionally white iceberg.

A real increase in inclusion depends on diversifying the ranks of those who make key decisions at studios, as well as on breaking down stereotypical casting habits.

As is customary, there were bits that didn't work, notably the production number that accompanied Earned It, the nominated song from 50 Shades of Grey. As he sang, The Weekend was encircled by dancers who looked as if they were auditioning for 50 Shades of Victoria's Secret.

It's nearly impossible this time of year to go to the supermarket without being asked to buy Girl Scout cookies. Now, the Girl Scouts have invaded the Oscars. About midway through the proceedings, Rock brought out a troop of Los Angeles Girl Scouts who sold cookies to the audience, raising more than $65,000.

In what surely was a lapse in judgment, Rock neglected to say whether Tagalongs outsold Samoas.

What else? Showing lists of those who were being thanked at the bottom of our screens was a dumb idea. Without people to thank, most recipients had little to say.

An exception: Brie Larson, who won best actress for her performance as a kidnapped young woman in Room. Larson thanked both the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals, which served as launch pads for her movie. In an additional display of Oscar graciousness, she also thanked those who went to see her movie.

I suppose it's important to mention Joe Biden. The vice president introduced his "friend" Lady Gaga who sang 'Til It Happens to You, the emotional song from The Hunting Ground, a documentary about rape on college campuses. That song lost to Writing's On the Wall, the theme from Spectre, a tune I hope never to hear again.

And, of course, there was Leo. Leonardo DiCaprio finally won his Oscar for his physically challenging performance in The Revenant.

That, and a considerable amount of Oscar fatigue, leads me to the real moral of last night's Oscars: One never should underestimate the power of crawling inside a dead horse. You never know what good will come of it.

For a complete list of winners, try ABC News.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Who'll win and who already has lost

A brief look at Oscar in the year in which Hollywood looked in the mirror and (gasp!) realized it was white -- and not a woman.

Here's my only surefire prediction in an unusually uncertain Oscar year: Every actor who wins an Academy Award Sunday night will be white.

Of course, you already know that because this has been the year in which the Academy's all-white list of nominees in the acting categories has become one of the season's hottest pop-cultural topics. Once again, we've been reminded that Oscar, Hollywood's symbol of excellence, is also an emblem of an industry dominated by white males.

I'm not going to reiterate all the analysis that already has been done. Google "Oscars and diversity" and you can spend the rest of the day (or even week) reading the statistical evidence that proves Hollywood's lack of diversity and inclusion. I'm assuming that you -- like me -- need no convincing.

Institutional whiteness has been part of Hollywood's DNA since the beginning, and it continues to dominate Hollywood's commercial calculations even today.

In the wake of controversy over another white year, the Academy has pledged to double its minority membership by 2020; maybe that will help as far as awards are concerned, but the underlying question of who's empowered to give the go-ahead for a studio project -- the much desired green light -- remains problematic.

But don't assume that if we suddenly found blacks, women, Latinos or Asians in some of those positions that we'd see a wholesale change in the way Hollywood does business. We might and we might not see a difference in the kind of movies that are available to us. Why is change uncertain? There still will be shareholders to please, as well as an industry in which commercial considerations -- including the proclivities of the global marketplace -- often trump (if you'll pardon the word) artistic considerations. It's rare that the two come together, although that sometimes happens.

Whatever the future holds, I think we all can agree that the most electric moment of the evening will occur when Rock takes the stage for his opening monologue.

I won't belabor the diversity issue, but do want to pose one question that might be as important as which black stars (Will Smith and wife Jada Pinkett Smith, for example) won't be attending.

In this regard, it's important to realize that Hollywood doesn't have a minority problem, whether we're talking about blacks, Latinos, Asians, gays or any other under-represented group. It has a majority problem.

That's why it would have been meaningful if Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, had declined to attend because he didn't want to accept an award from a system that was rigged -- if that's what he believes. White stars can help make change happen, too.p>
So what about those predictions? Had this not been a year of #Oscars So White -- the on-line protest movement that started last year -- we'd be concentrating on a race that promises more than the usual suspense, particularly in the best-picture category.

Why is that? Because although 2015 was a very good year for movies, it did not produce the usual stand-out nominee. I can't say I'd consider it an outrage if any of the eight best-picture nominees were to win.

Put another way: This year's nominees tend toward a general and fairly equal level of quality.

So here -- without enthusiasm or blather -- are my predictions in the major categories; an asterisk appears next to the movie or person I deem the likely winner.

I'm betting against The Revenant for best picture because The Big Short offers entertainment along with an important statement about financial flimflammery on an epic scale. It's also difficult for me to imagine the Academy getting behind a movie many may admire, but which doesn't exactly generate affection. The Revenant, after all, is a bit of an ordeal.

Maybe that's wishful thinking on my part, though. All the smart Hollywood money is on The Revenant, which probably tells you something about me and money. If I were voting, I'd vote for Spotlight, but that movie seems to have lost its Oscar luster.

As for who already has lost? That's an easy one. We all have because we've not heard voices that should be heard and too often are ignored.

Best Picture
*The Big Short
The Revenant (regarded as the favorite at time of this writing)
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
Brooklyn (upset possibility)
Best Director
*Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, The Revenant
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road (upset possibility)
Lenny Abrahamsson, Room
Adam McKay, The Big Shot
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight (upset possibility)
Best Actor
*Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs (upset possibility)
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl
Matt Damon, The Martian
Best Actress
*Brie Larson, The Room
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn (upset possibility)
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Best Supporting Actor
*Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies (upset possibility)
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Best supporting actress
*Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs (upset possibility)
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
Rooney Mara, Carol
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Best Original Screenplay
Inside/Out (upset possibility)
Ex Machina
Straight Outta Compton
Bridge of Spies
Best Adapted Screenplay
*The Big Short
The Martian
Brooklyn (upset possibility)
The Martian
Best Animated Feature
*Inside Out
Boy and the World
When Marnie Was There
Shaun the Sheep
Best Foreign Language Film
*Son of Saul, Hungary
Theeb, Jordan
Embrace the Serpent, Colombia
A War, Denmark
Mustang, France (upset possibility)
Best Documentary
Cartel Land (upset possibility)
The Look of Silence
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The horrible choices of war

A War stands as a complex, sobering and challenging account of one warrior's choices.

At first, A War -- the Danish nominee for a best foreign-language film Oscar -- seems to be locked into a familiar template. Vivid combat sequences are juxtaposed with scenes from the homefront. Solid in their camaraderie, soldiers endure harrowing dangers of the battlefield; those at home struggle to keep families on an even keel.

Skillfully directed as these scenes are, it's difficult not to think we know precisely where the movie is headed.

But director Tobias Lindholm has something more complex and challenging in mind than many contemporary war movies have attempted. He wants to raise the moral stakes so that we're asked, perhaps even compelled, to evaluate what transpires in Afghanistan and later in Denmark.

Along the way, we realize that it's nearly impossible to reach an entirely acceptable conclusion about the events that we've been watching. Everything we've seen results from fighting a war filled with inherently ambiguous situations in which civilians and enemies aren't always easily differentiated.

Lindholm's story focuses on Claus Pederson (Pilou Asbaek), a leader who's trying to understand all aspects of the situation in which he and his men find themselves. It doesn't take long before the heat of battle puts the clearly decent Pederson in a compromising position. He makes a decision on the fly, and it backfires. Eleven Afghan civilians die as the result of an artillery strike Pederson orders so that he can save the life of one of his men.

To the movie's credit, Pederson is no war addicted officer, a la the character played by Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker. He's a stable, thoughtful military man who'd rather be home with his wife (Tuva Novotny) and children, but he's also devoted to his men. Asbaek's performance makes this conflict clear and intensifies it as the story progresses.

The movie eventually forces Pederson to make more difficult choices, ensuring that A War gets under the skin and stays there.

At times, it almost feels as if we're watching a documentary, which only serves to make the experience of A War more wrenchingly real, and, by the end, you may conclude that there's something deeply troubling about putting people into combat situations in which few good choices can be found.

Credit Lindholm with bravely refusing to let us off the hook; it's impossible to see this movie without examining not only the consciences of the characters, but our own. Deeply troubling and appropriately ambiguous A War is a fine and sobering movie.

The Last Man on the Moon

It's difficult in these days of national unease to recall the excited optimism once generated by the space program. The Last Man on the Moon, a documentary from British filmmaker Mark Craig, not only brings back some of the elevated enthusiasm of days that included the first moon walk, but adds significant personal poignancy. That's because Craig's film is also a bio-pic about astronaut Eugene Cernan, the last man to set foot on the moon. In some ways, Cernan's story serves as mournful ode to a program that once buoyed the country, bolstering pride and optimism and even creating a sense of wonder. Cernan made his moon walk in 1972; he was the 12th man to walk on the moon; famously, he wrote his daughter's initials on the moon's dusty surface. It was Cernan's second trip to the moon. In 1969, he had traveled to the moon in a test that preceded the first lunar landing. Two months later, Neil Armstrong would take his legendary giant leap for mankind. Last Man on the Moon doesn't present Cernan, now 81, as a polished hero. He talks about the way his jaunty ego and self-centered ambition caused him to neglect his family; he expresses sorrow over the decline of the space program and recalls the disaster when three astronauts died in a launch-pad fire on an Apollo mission. Some of the early parts of the film evoke memories of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff as we learn how skilled fighter pilots were transformed into astronauts. A combination of personal sacrifice and global achievement make The Last Man on the Moon more than exercise in nostalgia; it's a call to listen to our better angels and once again look toward the stars. I hope we listen.

Only Yesterday

Director Isao Takahata's Only Yesterday, an animated look at a 27-year-old woman who can't quite shed the anxieties and inhibitions of her fifth-grade self, was released in Japan in 1991. The movie is now making its journey through the US, and it surely was worth the wait. Only Yesterday, which I saw in a dubbed English-language version,* tells a story that easily could have been presented as a live action feature. Voiced by Daisy Ridley, Taeko takes a leave from her job to travel into the country to pick flowers on a commercial farm. The story flashes back and forth between Taeko's country trip and her childhood, which is presented gently but realistically. The movie's childhood scenes include the cruel teasing that Taeko and other girls receive over menstruation, and delineate her relationship with a stern and indifferent father. Almost always hidden behind a newspaper, Dad won't let Taeko participate in a theatrical event for which she has been chosen. Takeo's relationship with her mother and two older sisters also is marked by contentiousness. In the country, Taeko meets Toshio (Dev Patel), an entirely decent fellow who's devoted to conserving the land. Toshio might be a romantic interest for Taeko -- if she can overcome her tendency toward self-isolation. American audiences who remember Takahata's The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2914) should find, in this earlier film, a story that's animated with care and occasional fanciful touches. Takahata serves up splashes of nostalgia along the way, but the real reason to see the film, adapted by Takahata from a manga, is its understanding of the child that lives within Taeko, sometimes bringing back treasured or troubled memories and sometimes keeping her from realizing her fullest potential.

*In Denver, the movie will show alternately in dubbed versions and the original Japanese.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

'Risen' ascends no movie heights

A Roman tribune is assigned the task of finding the body of the crucified Jesus. Do you think he'll have a moment of revelation before his job is done?

A confession, if you will. I've always had a soft spot for bible and pseudo-bible movies. I have enjoyed their sword-and-sandle displays of kitsch, their faux reverence and their attempt to strike Hollywood's version of awe into the hearts of wide-eyed moviegoers.

I have not, on the other hand, ever confused bible movies with the bible.

So if you're a devoted Christian who thinks you'll find the new movie Risen to be convincing and inspirational, read no further. Know, though, that I'm talking about a movie, not your faith.

Risen adds a slightly novel twist to a revered story that, at first, seems to be taking place in the movie's background. Pontus Pilot (Peter Firth) orders a battling Roman centurion (Joseph Fiennes) to find the body of the crucified Jesus, called Yeshua in this version of the story.

Pilot worries that an empty grave will prompt the impressionable multitudes to assume that Yeshua has risen, thereby lending credence to claims that he is the messiah. Rome's rule will be threatened, and all hell will break loose -- or so to speak. Besides, emperor Tiberius is scheduled to visit Judea. Order must be maintained.

Director Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Waterworld and The Count of Monte Cristo) turns the movie into a first-century detective story in which most of the characters speak with English accents.

I suppose you can call Risen a faith-based police procedural in which an increasingly exasperated Clavius interrogates those who knew Yeshua, including Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto). He wants to find Yeshua's body, be rid of the whole business and return to Rome.

When he's totally frustrated with his task, Clavius asks the god Mars for help.

Though it may appear novel to young eyes, Risen shares some kinship with The Robe, a 1953 epic in which Richard Burton played a tribune who wins Jesus' robe after the crucifixion, and is, of course, transformed as the picture progresses.

In Risen, Fiennes' tribune has his moment of conversion when he sees Jesus -- er Yeshua -- with his disciplines after his death.

For Clavius, seeing is believing. He saw Yeshua on the cross, and knew him to be dead. Now, he sees him chatting with his disciples, a down-to-earth and friendly fellow who doesn't seem the least bit spectral, although he does take time out from fellowship with his comrades to cure a leper.

Adding new wrinkles to the story and tempering Roman cruelty with giddiness among some of the disciples -- especially Bartholomew -- about the prospect of eternal life deprives the story of some of its more interesting wrinkles.

As an unadorned portrayal of the first century, Risen generates mild interest with its avoidance of spectacle and its insistently dusty backdrops.

As an expression of spirituality, I found it unconvincing. Clovis changes because he's sat and talked with the resurrected Yeshua, not because of any abiding belief in his message.

Oh well, he's probably better off anyway: In this movie, being a Roman tribune looks like a pretty crummy job.

'Race,' the Jesse Owens story

Not a bad movie, but the subject deserved a better one.

Despite a strong performance from Stephan James as Jesse Owens, Race proves an only passable account of the track star's life -- from Owens' victories as a student athlete at Ohio State to his stunning triumphs at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

A sprinter and long jumper by trade, Owens won four gold medals in Berlin, a feat that was widely celebrated as a slap in the face to Hitler and his Nazi minions, racists who hoped to use the games as a demonstration of unbeatable Aryan superiority.

Director Stephen Hopkins' dutifully tells Owens' story -- or at least parts of it -- but he's so busy recounting events that he doesn't get deep enough into anything.

None of this is to say that Race, with its double-edged title, is an act hagiography.

Owens is shown making mistakes, notably an affair he had while he was engaged. And some of the movie's supporting players are also depicted as flawed.

Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), an influential member of the International Olympic Committee in 1936 and later its head, was a construction mogul whose dealings with the Nazi government sparked controversy. Brundage wouldn't listen to progressive voices who insisted that this particular Olympics should be boycotted.

The movie also shows that Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), Owens' tough-love coach at Ohio State, wrestles with alcohol problems, and, at times, seems insensitive to Owens' problems.

The movie takes a pretty positive view of Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houtem), the filmmaker whose Olympia set new standards for sports photography. Of course, Riefenstahl also made Triumph of the Will, a propaganda documentary and near exaltation that chronicled the massive 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremberg.

Here, Riefenstahl is portrayed as a rebellious spirit, defying Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) so that she could make her own film rather than the one that the propaganda minister wished to see.

Those who know little or nothing about Owens' life can view Race as a learning experience, but even the racial barriers in a script from Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse can feel as if they're being played by-the-numbers, including the virulent racism Owens faced at Ohio State, where he broke three world records at a now legendary 1935 Big Ten meet in Michigan.

A recent New York Times story briefly describes Owens life after the Olympics. He made an unsuccessful foray into Hollywood, dabbled in vaudeville, and, at one point, lost his amateur status, the article notes.

Desperate to support his family, he toiled at gas stations, and performed stunts in which he ran against race horses.

American racism kept Owens from capitalizing on his victories in Berlin. His triumphs abroad, presented here with the expected celebratory quality, didn't do much to change the racial climate at home, something the movie could (and should) have done more to dramatize.

Odd isn't it? When it comes to fictionalized sports movies Hollywood has no trouble serving up inspiration, but when it latches on to a historically important story, it can't get beyond an effort we'll call "adequate," and perhaps instructional for those unfamiliar with Owens' life.

Given all its volatile and exhilarating ingredients, it's disappointing that Race doesn't have greater impact.

'Son of Saul,' inside the Holocaust

Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes's Son of Saul pitches us into the fires of hell.

A first-time director, Nemes gives his debut film one of the more unsettling openings in some time. The movie begins when a figure emerges from a background that's been thrown out of focus.

We soon realize that we're in a Nazi death camp -- unnamed but assumed to be Auschwitz/Birkenau. The camera hovers close to this figure, a man who's sometimes photographed from behind so that we can see the red "X" that's been painted on his jacket.

The "X" identifies him as a member of the Sonderkommando, Jews who were forced to do the dirty work of extermination. Members of the Sonderkommando hurried unsuspecting victims to the gas chambers, watched as they stripped off their clothes, and stood outside the gas chambers listening to the sounds of panic and terror once people realized they were being asphyxiated. The Sonderkommando also cleaned up the gas chambers before the arrival of the next victims.

The man at the center of the film's organized chaos is Saul, a stoic figure about whom we know little. Saul works quickly and already seems to have absorbed the great lesson of the camps: Dehumanization is essential in an environment so ghastly that it defies ordinary belief.

Using close-ups, a hand-held camera and vigorously refusing to contextualize anything, Nemes treats the victims as anonymous figures in a drama over which they have no control. He makes us feel what it might have been like to find oneself waking up in a Nazi-ruled hell, adapting to a situation in which the rules are entirely arbitrary.

Saul scurries to stay out of the way of his tormentors. He listens to whispered conversations among his colleagues in misery.

Transports of Hungarian Jews are arriving at the camp; the extermination of Hungry's Jews occurred toward the end of the war, which gives us a rough time line. We also learn that Saul is a Hungarian Jew.

In this harrowing opening, Nemes plays his strongest card: He seems to want to make a Holocaust film that attempts to shatter the boundary between experience and observation. Presumably, he wants us to feel the numbness that may have overtaken Saul in this environment of unrelieved terror. By staying close to Saul and never allowing us to orient ourselves, Nemes insists that we be overwhelmed.

Powerful as it is, this approach has limits. It doesn't necessarily add to what we already know about the Holocaust -- at least for those who've read widely and seen some of the many excellent Holocaust documentaries that are available.

When I was watching Son of Saul, I wondered if I'd gone too far by writing the phrase "Holocaust porn" in my notebook; the more realistic the suffering, the more exploitative it risks becoming.

But this is less a criticism of the filmmakers than it is of us. Why do we want to see the Holocaust graphically reenacted? Are our imaginations so impoverished that we insist that the terrors of the gas chambers be visualized? Have we not already heard the testimony of the few surviving members of the Sonderkommando?

Although it attempts to deemphasize story, Son of Saul has a narrative. It's realistic, but also, a fiction.

During a session in the gas chamber, a boy momentarily survives. Saul decides to focus his entire attention on finding a rabbi and giving the boy a real burial. He won't let this boy's body go up in smoke. He eventually says the boy is his son, but the movie casts doubt on whether that's true.

Saul engages in an act of concentrated defiance that separates him from his fellow prisoners, and his madly focused behavior works against another and perhaps more important act of rebellion.

Some of the members of the Sonderkommando are staging a revolt. Saul's insistence on finding a rabbi constantly bumps up against the conspirators who are doing their best to blow up a crematorium.

It doesn't take much reflection to realize that looking for a place to bury a body and for a rabbi are acts of madness in the camp environment. It's as if Saul has lost his sense of where he is. Maybe that's what he's trying to do.

Saul is played by Geza Rohrig, who is not a trained actor. Rohrig has a striking face, but one that reveals little. This makes Son of Saul a little opaque, as if Nemes wants his film to be difficult to read.

Moreover, Nemes's refusal to broaden the film's view -- he gives us no overview of the camp and never shows its overall layout -- suggests that he's trying to recreate the time before the Holocaust even had a name.

That's part of the film's strategy, and it works, but it also tends to turn Son of Saul into an increasingly numbing collection of atrocities that form the background for Saul's search.

These include scenes in which Jews are rounded up and shot next to a pit because the gas chambers are too busy or a scene in which Saul shovels ashes of murdered Jews into a nearby lake, the industrial-scaled waste of Nazi genocide.

The Nazis refer to their victims as "pieces," and the film, perhaps unwittingly, adopts this view, as well. The victims become part of a murderous blur.

As I mentioned earlier, Son of Saul made me wonder anew whether it's possible to make a fictional Holocaust film without distortion. I wish I had a definitive answer. I don't.

All I'll say is this: I've visited Auschwitz/Birkenau twice. There's a place in Birkenau where you can see a photograph of women and children who were waiting to be ushered into a nearby gas chamber. The photo is located under a clump of trees, next to what's left of a crematorium that the Nazis destroyed before they fled Birkenau.

You can look at the faces of those women for clues about what they knew, what they felt in their final moments, but any answers you find may say more about you than about them.

That place is quiet now, and the quiet deepens everything you know about what happened there; in that quiet, you wrestle with an indigestible mixture of rage and sorrow.

I tell you this to explain why Son of Saul struck me as the equivalent shouting in a cemetery; I think I understand what Nemes has attempted to do, but couldn't overcome my uneasiness about his film.

On its simplest level, Son of Saul tells the story of a hopeless man trying to do something good by attempting to take the anonymity out of mass murder -- even if he doesn't know that that's what he's trying to do.

Yet for all its frenzied realism, I'm not sure that Saul's story isn't one more attempt by a filmmaker to impose structure on an event so massive it refuses to submit to art: I can't insist on it, but a terrible and chastening silence might have been the better alternative.

Evil in the woods of New England

The Witch either is a study of madness bred by isolation or a tale of the supernatural. It's grim, strange and sometimes too literal.

A New England-based horror movie set during the 17th Century, The Witch proves somber slice of horror that -- up to this point -- has garnered a significant amount of critical attention. Fair to say, the movie's first-time director, Robert Eggers, creates a physical environment that brims with stark, period-appropriate authenticity.

Eggers also serves up plenty of chilled atmosphere, creating a world bathed in light so severely grey it seems insufficient even to coax crops from the ground.

Taken from historical records of early settlers, the film's dialogue is delivered in accents that sometimes border on the incomprehensible and may sound a laughably stilted to "thine" ears. It did to mine.

For all its eeriness, Eggers' movie grapples with something real, the perils of isolation. The story begins with a super-religious family withdrawing from the main settler community because of religious differences. Are we to conclude that self-imposed banishment inevitably leads to tragedy and madness?

There's promise in such a premise, and it gives Eggers the opportunity to explore what happens when a family -- complete with resentments, fervid beliefs, budding sexual appetites and lots of physical hardship -- tries to put down roots in an isolated clearing surrounded by mysterious woods.

Eggers wisely opts to keep his imagery severe, and his cast certainly can't be faulted.

Ralph Ineson portrays the increasingly troubled father of this lonely brood, and Kate Dickie plays his suffering wife. As a couple, they make American Gothic look cheerful by comparison.

The principal role among the family's children goes to Anya Taylor Joy, who plays Thomasin, a teenager who's guilt-ridden because her infant brother disappeared while she was playing peek-a-boo with the boy.

Of course, we wait for more shoes to fall?

Will brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), who can't help sneaking a look at his older sister's emerging bodice, vanish? And what about the twins (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson)? Are they doomed, as well?

Before it's done, The Witch has carted out at least one familiar symbol. A black goat represents Satan, and we also see a witch, a naked crone who seems indistinguishable from the forest's rot.

All of this takes place during a time when people worried about salvation the way we worry about Supreme Court nominations. God and the devil seemed to be equally vivid presences in Puritanical lives -- except, of course, for the fact that God remained invisible.

At times, I found the movie a bit ridiculous, and Egger can't resist dealing out a bit of graphic bloodshed, although I doubt it's enough to satisfy Saw-happy audiences.

Meticulously crafted, The Witch creates plenty of convincing eeriness, but yields to an evil temptation -- the literalism that forces Eggers to create images that ultimately undermine the film's stabs at ambiguity. Eggers' spectral crescendo of an ending either will strike you as eerie or risible.

I'm more in the latter camp, and by its ending, I felt The Witch had come close to shattering its macabre spell with Grand-Guignol theatrics the filmmakers weren't able to resist.

Addicted to the highs of madness

Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby co-star in a movie about bipolar lovers.

A deglamorized Katie Holmes plays a young poet suffering from bipolar disorder in Touched With Fire, a movie inspired by a 1993 non-fiction exploration of mania, depression and creativity by Kay Redfield Jamison.

Written and directed by Paul Dalio -- himself a sufferer from bipolar disorder -- the movie version teams Holmes with Luke Kirby, who portrays a struggling bipolar wannabe artist who wanders the streets of New York drawing graffiti. Kirby's Marco doesn't need much encouragement to advance his avidly delivered theories about the universe and his place in it. He can't believe that he doesn't hail from a distant planet where he'd feel more at home. He wants to get as high as the stars.

Dalio's script raises questions about whether it's possible to live a daringly creative life without simultaneously falling prey to bouts of madness. If Carla and Marco stay on their meds will they lose the creative spark that brings them together when both are hospitalized?

Once released from care, Carla and Marco become a couple, raising questions about how fit they are to make the kinds of decisions that now will be required of them, particularly when Carla becomes pregnant.

Katie's mom (Christine Lahti) and her father (Bruce Altman) are rightfully worried. Marco's father (Griffin Dunne) is no less concerned.
Both Holmes and Kirby are more than up to the task, and Dalio mostly tells the story from their points of view. In their manic phases, it's as if both have awakened inside Van Gogh's Starry Night, a painting that figures prominently in the story. Carla and Marco are energized by the enchantment of their vertiginous upswings in mood.

And that leads to another question. Would it be worth giving up the highest of highs for a stable life or are the peak points of mania so wildly intense and visionary that normality pales by comparison?

The problem Dalio has stems from this focus. Telling the story mostly from Carla and Marco's perspective tends to make us sympathetic to their desires (particularly strong with Marco) not to give up the inspirational peaks of their manic periods.

Dalio tries to temper this view with an awkwardly inserted, late-picture appearance by Jamison. She assures Carla and Marco that they can take their meds without diminishing their creative powers.

This less-than-organic ploy (almost a public service announcement) comes off as a near apology for shifting our sympathies toward Carla and Marco, an ungainly reminder that bipolar disorder doesn't count as a higher form of insight and fun.

None of this is to say that Dalio's movie fails to illuminate many of the problems stemming from bipolar disorder, and it finds credible ways of illustrating bipolar highs without too much overstatement.

And there powerfully observed moments. Near the beginning, Dunne's character visits his son, who hasn't been answering his phone. The young man's apartment has become a filthy clutter of books and junk. Marco has quit his job.

To us, it appears as if Marco's life has become a hopeless shambles: He, on the other hand, believes he has put his life on exactly the right course.

That kind of scene -- and there are others -- keeps Touched With Fire honest and affecting.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

A dirty-talking origins story from Marvel

Deadpool brings us an energetic but cynical superhero.

I've mostly had my fill of Marvel Comics heroes, even when they strike caustic anti-hero poses as is the case in Deadpool. But fairness compels me to add that, at its best, Deadpool is a winking, sharp-eyed entertainment that turns rampant self-awareness into a sustained goof.

I make no claim to understanding fan boy mentality, but I'm betting Deadpool will strike a nerve with comic-book devotees without generating much by way of cross-over interest.

Stocked with enough sex jokes to make Seth Rogen blush, the movie serves up the kind of R-rated material that's bound to keep everyone's inner adolescent happy as it tells the story of Deadpool, a character Ryan Reynolds first played in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).

Reynolds reprises and extends his portrayal of Wade Wilson in an origins story that explains how Wilson became Deadpool, a mutant superhero with a face that looks as if it caught fire and someone tried to put it out with a brick.

So how did Wilson go from being a hunky young man to a superhero so physically repulsive he has to wear a red suit and a mask to cover his body and face.

It's a sad story. After being diagnosed with terminal cancer, Wilson yields to temptation. He agrees to allow a character known as Ajax (Ed Skein) to perform a life-saving procedure on him. It works, but leaves him permanently disfigured.

That's a major problem for Wade, who believes that his girlfriend (Morena Baccarin) most likely will bolt when she gets a look at his defaced kisser.

Reynolds does his best to give Deadpool extra kick as he transforms from a cynical, wiseass mercenary into a cynical, wiseass superhero who's out for vengeance.

At times, Deadpool even speaks directly to the audience, letting us know that his character understands when the movie is doing stupid superhero stuff that threatens to become generic.

Director Tim Miller adds plenty of action, some of it slickly mounted, and includes scenes with X-men: Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Briana Hildebrand) and a hulking creature called Colossus. They try to recruit Deadpool for more noble enterprises than those in which he's accustomed to participating.

A lot of how you react to Deadpool depends on how funny you find it and how taken you are with Miller's approach, underlined from the very start with opening credits that are meant to be taken as a self-referential joke.

I'd put the movie's humor average at about 500, but an excited preview audience probably would disagree with me, and Deadpool surely will score better than Ryan's last foray into the world of comic books, Green Lantern (2011).

With its R rating, snide humor and abundant violence, Deadpool turns its origins story into what looks like an off-the-wall helping of edgy fun. Sometimes, it even is.

Another visit from Derek Zoolander

Ben Stiller revives a character that should have been left alone.

The original Zoolander (2001) became a cult favorite in the days when you still could find a Blockbuster store at which you could rent a weekend's full of dumb comedies. Here we are, 15 years later, and you'll have to go to a multiplex -- at least for a while -- to catch the even dumber sequel, Zoolander 2.

But there's dumb funny, and just plain dumb, and after you chuckle at renewing your acquaintance with the movie's collection of "ridiculously good-looking" dopes, there's not much left to tickle the funny bone in this amped-up rehash.

I suppose ardent fans of the first movie will turn out, but despite the return of Ben Stiller (as Derek Zoolander), Owen Wilson (as Hansel), Will Ferrell (as Mugatu) and the addition of Penelope Cruz (as an Interpol agent, fashion police division), this one proves overproduced and undernourished.

The movie opens with the collapse of the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can't Read Good and Who Want to Learn to Do Other Stuff Good, Too. The building, a holdover from the first movie, falls into the East River.

A series of newscasters -- Katie Couric among them -- tell us that Derek's wife (Christine Taylor) died in the collapse. An incompetent father, Derek soon loses his son to social services and retreats to a cabin in the frozen wilds of extreme northern New Jersey.

He's so dispirited, he can't even do his patented Blue Steel look anymore.

We also learn that Hansel, Derek's modeling rival, has retreated from the limelight; he's ashamed to show his face, which was scarred when the Zoolander Center crumbled. Hansel now lives in the Malibu desert among of tribe of misfit nomads that includes Kiefer Sutherland and others who try to buoy Hansel's by catering to his taste for orgies.

Derek and Hansel soon are summoned to Rome for a big modeling job that could resurrect their faded careers. Zoolander goes so that he can prove he's capable of raising his 11-year-old son, played by Cyrus Arnold.

A series of cameos from the likes of Kristin Wiig, Sting and Benedict Cumberbatch doesn't do much to add merriment.

Justin Theroux, who appeared in the first movie, also turns up, as does Billy Zane, but the movie almost seems as if it's satirizing itself rather than poking fun at the world of high fashion.

The first movie had some difficulty expanding what began as a sketch into a full movie, and this one struggles even more with a Rome-based story involving the murder of pop stars and a plan to eliminate such fashion icons such as Vogue's Anna Wintour, Tommy Hilfiger , Vera Wang, Valentino, Marc Jacobs and others. Perhaps because they're good natured, these gods of fashion appear in the movie; they may live to regret it.

And, no, Donald Trump who did cameo duty in the first movie, skipped this one.

The fun wears out quicker than a fashion trend, leaving us wondering why anyone thought it would be a good idea to revive characters who should have been allowed to remain favorites of their zealous fans while leaving the rest of the world alone.

To be young, ungifted and single

A mush of romcom cliches and self-assertion.

Burdened with a generic-sounding self-help title, How to Be Single proves as superficial as most of the characters it tosses into a romantic stew about recent college grads exploring New York City's social scene. That means they spend lots of times in bars and often can be heard delivering the kind of breezy but forgettable dialogue that it took three screenwriters to concoct.

The movie is based on a 2008 novel by Liz Tuccillo, who also wrote He's Just Not That Into You, another book that was made into a movie. Tuccillo also worked on Sex and the City, and it's possible to view this bit of movie mush as Sex and the City for people who are still paying off their college loans. Don't take that as an endorsement.

Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) plays the central role, a young woman who breaks up with her college boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) so that she can live alone and discover her identity.

Johnson's Alice lands a job as a paralegal at a law firm where she meets Robin (Rebel Wilson), a woman who has dedicated her life to sex, partying and trying to turn herself into the kind of crude character usually played in ribald comedies by Melissa McCarthy.

Alice's older sister (Leslie Mann) is a doctor who never wants to have a relationship or a family, a sure sign that before the movie ends, she'll have both.

The men in Alice's life are an essentially sorry lot. A bartender friend (Anders Holm) is so thoroughly committed to being single that he has devised ways to keep six partners from lingering in the morning; i.e., don't look for food in his fridge.

An attractive real estate developer (Damon Wayans Jr.) can't talk about his late wife with his young daughter, and can't communicate with Alice, either.

A secondary plot involves another newbie to adult life; Allison Brie's Lucy has but one ambition: She wants to get married.

Movies such as this always require at least one of the men be a too-good-to-be-true stalwart. This time, the job falls to Jake Lacy, who plays a man with a good heart, an unreasonable devotion to Mann's character and no apparent flaws.

True to form, the movie tries to redeem its comic sputtering by tacking on a bit of instruction: Alice must learn how to be comfortable being alone.

Fair enough, but couldn't the writers have been generous enough to give poor Alice a credible career path? Is she condemned to a millennial limbo of subsisting on the economy's fringe?

Appealing in the Pitch Perfect movies, Wilson becomes an irritant in a one-note performance as Johnson's BFF.

Occupying the movie's center, Johnson puts in the kind of mandatory effort required of characters who are finding their way to a self-asserting conclusion that you can see coming from several bar stools away.

To the movie's credit, a couple of turns aren't quite so predictable, but it doesn't take much thought to realize that most of the characters in this film need no coaching on how to be single. They're not especially interesting. So who'd really want to live with them anyway?

An invasion Michael Moore supports

If you were gainfully employed in Italy, you'd get 30 days paid leave every year -- if you had a job, that is. Italy's unemployment rate hovers around 11 percent.

You'll only learn the first part of that statement from Michael Moore's Where to Invade Next, a jocular European travelogue in which Moore visits a variety of countries to show us some of the civilized perks they enjoy. I take that back; they're not perks, but accepted parts of what's considered a normal and decent life.

As is often the case with Moore's approach, you won't get a whole lot of context for the stories he tells. Where to Invade Next seems intended less to make us think deeply than to stir the fires of our discontent.

Not only are we now supposed to look at the one percent with a mixture of resentment, envy and righteous anger, we're supposed to look at Europe and wonder why our lives are so stressful and depleted that we can't even enjoy life's simple pleasures.

Take the Ducati motorcycle factory. This Italian enterprise gives its employees two hour lunches. Most of them go home to enjoy a hearty meal with their families. They don't gobble sandwiches in their cars as they race from one appointment to the next.

And, yes, it gives you pause, providing you're not one of those folks who would view lunch with the family as a less-than-invigorating prospect.

The list of Moore's discoveries is long. College education is free in Slovenia. A French school serves its pupils lunches that look very much like gourmet meals. Norway has a prison system that doesn't rob inmates of their dignity. Finland has one of the world's best school systems, but the country's teachers don't believe in homework. They think kids need time to be kids. They don't believe kids have to be little achieving machines.

Moore builds all this information (and more) around a somewhat flimsy comic idea: He's going to invade many countries, steal their best ideas and bring them back to the US. He'll conduct the kind of invasion that will succeed where so many of our military adventures have failed.

Considered Moore's most upbeat film to date, Where to Invade Next is really a collection of stories tailored to make us wonder about the inadequacy of so much of American life.

That's fine -- as far as it goes.

Moore doesn't, however, talk about why the countries he visited are able to do the things they do and why we aren't.

Let's consider school lunches. I recently listened to my grandkids talk about what they eat in school. Let's just say their comments ranged from disgust to disbelief to descriptions of dishes that they thought defied all known gastronomic classification.

Would I rather they hate well, and at a pace that allowed them to digest what they've consumed? Of course. But if we had a national school lunch ballot initiative that would require even a modest tax increase, would it pass?

And who's going to fight for American workers? Depleted unions? A Congress that has little time for anything other than repealing Obama care?

Don't get me wrong. I have no answers here, but Moore at least should have raised some of these questions so that his film could have been more than a breezy series of cherry picked anecdotes -- no matter how entertainingly told.

Ingrid Bergman, Up Close and Personal

Swedish director Stig Bjorkman has assembled a documentary that pays tribute to one of the screen's greatest stars, Ingrid Bergman. Using letters Bergman wrote to friends, as well as interviews with her children, Bjorkman fashions Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, a bio-doc that reminds us of two things: How breathtakingly beautiful Bergman was on screen and what an independent spirit she was off camera. Fortunately, for Bjorkman (and us) Bergman took lots of home movies that show her in a variety of settings. Bergman's letters and portions of her diaries are read by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who intensifies Bergman's presence in the film. Bergman's life wasn't always easy: She was three when her mother died and 12 when her father passed away. She had a busy romantic life, and survived a major scandal when she had a child with Italian director Roberto Rossellini before the two were married -- to each other, that is. Suddenly, the angel of the cinema became the whore of the tabloids. Bergman and Rossellini had three children, including actress Isabella Rossellini. Retired television journalist Pia Lindstrom, also interviewed in the film, was the child of Bergman and Swedish surgeon Petter Lindstrom. Because of career-induced absences Bergman probably didn't qualify as the ideal mother, but her children mostly speak fondly of her. They seem to remember her more as a fun friend than a parent. As we learn, Bergman may have had only one abiding love in her life -- the camera. No wonder, then, that she talks reverentially of working with Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart and Alfred Hitchcock. For a time, she really was living the dream -- and millions of moviegoers lived it with her.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Coens take on '50s Hollywood

Great cast, but Hail, Caesar! is enjoyable only in bits and pieces. Fortunately, some of those bits are inspired.

Despite the exclamation point in its title, the new Coen brothers film, Hail, Caesar!, isn't the sharpest or most emphatic of their many amazing efforts. A collection of sketches that both satirize and celebrate Hollywood of the 1950s, Hail, Caesar! lands the Coens in what for them is strange terrain: They've come up with a middle-ground addition to their idiosyncratic oeuvre with -- and this deserves underlining -- touches of entertaining brilliance.

There's a whisper of a story here: Fictional Capitol Studios finds itself in the midst of a major production. The movie is called Hail, Caesar!, and it carries the same heavily freighted subtitle as Ben-Hur, A Tale of the Christ. The plot, which offers echoes of The Robe focuses on a hardened Roman officer who eventually sees the light, rapturously submitting to a new faith when he encounters Christ on the cross.

Capitol's mega-buck epic stars Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a slightly dissolute movie star who is also slightly dim.

During the filming of a scene, Whitlock is drugged and spirited away by extras who demand a $100,000 ransom. As it turns out, they are rebels with a cause, leftist screenwriters enamored of the Soviet Union who meet regularly to be lectured by Professor Marcuse (John Bluthal), an unveiled reference to Herbert Marcuse, a hero of the New Left during the 1960s.

It falls to Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the studio's tough but perpetually burdened mogul, to return Whitlock to the set so that his mega-production can wrap. Eddie's part businessman and part fixer, a guy who's accustomed to covering the tracks of the studio's frequently wayward stars.

Eddie Mannix is modeled on a real-life MGM studio fixer of the same name. Here, Mannix is treated as decent but beleaguered man who's trying to keep the studio from running aground -- not an easy task when its stars have a penchant for landing themselves in embarrassing positions.

As Eddie puts out one Hollywood fire after another, he also entertains an offer from Lockheed, which wants to give him a high paying job that would allow for a more regular and presumably respectable life.

Now, very little about the plot matters. What makes the movie palatable are several winningly ludicrous snippets from Capitol's movies. Think of them as footnotes that are more interesting than the main body of the work.

One of the best involves a bone-headed decision to turn the studio's acrobatic cowboy star into a romantic lead, jamming him into comedy in which characters dress to the nines and speak in the kind of faux British -- or British-ish -- accents that were popular in some movies during the '30s and '40s.

Director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) is stuck with this egregious piece of miscasting. The scene in which Laurentz tries to prepare cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) for sophisticated patter might be enough to justify the price of admission.

The same goes for brief appearances by Tilda Swinton, who plays two roles -- gossip pedaling, twin columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker. Listen to the way Swinton says Eddie's name, giving it a twist that evokes the pleasures of a whole era of studio filmmaking.

And if you don't smile during a production number featuring Channing Tatum as a tap-dancing sailor who, along with his shipmates, contemplates life at sea without "dames," you're in an even worse mood than I usually find myself in.

And then there's a broadly comic bit involving Frances McDormand as C.C. Calhoun, a chain-smoking film editor.

For me, those were highpoint to be savored, along with numerous small touches.

Alas (to be as stilted as some of the dialogue in Capitol Studio's productions), not all of the sketches work so well. Though beautifully produced, an Esther Williams' style swimming number featuring Scarlett Johannson might have been included just to show that the Coens could do it.

Johansson plays DeeAnna Moran, a pregnant movie star who forces the studio to find ways to cover the fact that she's not married. Her story eventually leads to Jonah Hill, whose role amounts to little more than a forgettable cameo. Hill plays Joseph Silverman, a man who specializes in "personhood," a joke that's not really worth the trouble of explaining.

In A Serious Man, the Coens took on religion; their attempts to do the same here aren't nearly as rich. The movie opens with Mannix in a confessional booth where he establishes himself as a serious Catholic who's addicted to confession. Mannix feels guilty because he lies to his wife about having quit smoking, but his real guilt comes from working so hard to support a morally dubious and often lunatic enterprise.

Stretches of Hail, Caesar! proves only mildly amusing and some of the humor built around the Hail, Caesar epic struck me as more obvious than we expect from the Coens who've taken swipes at Hollywood before, notably in the feverishly brilliant Barton Fink.

Hail Caesar! may not rank at the top of Coen's impressive list, but it should do nothing to sour anyone on their work. My advice: Treat the movie as a smorgasbord. Pick what you like; forget the rest.

Hunting 'Treasure' in Romania

The Treasure, a subdued film from Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu, opens a window into contemporary Romanian society, revealing a less-than-rosy picture that's marked by economic duress, bureaucracy and a few lingering mementos of the Communist era.

That may sound like a formula for an explosive political movie, but Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective) seldom pushes the dramatic pedal to the floor. He's interested in quiet desperation, but he sees it through a sensibility that's so attuned to absurdity, it has become almost commonplace.

Costi (Cumin Toma) lives in a cramped Bucharest apartment with his wife and son. He likes to read the boy stories about Robin Hood, an activity that's probably meant to remind us of the moral of a popular folk tale: Rob from the rich; give to the poor. This may be ironic.

One evening, Costi is approached by Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu), a neighbor who wants to borrow 800 euros. The neighbor doesn't plan to use the euros to pay debts or stave off hunger. He wants to rent a metal detector and search for a treasure that he believes his great grandfather hid on a rural property that Adrian shares with his brother and mother.

The evidence supporting Adrian's treasure claim hardly could be skimpier, but Costi joins Adrian's quest. He'll pay for the metal detector, and, in return, will receive half of whatever treasure the duo unearths.

Costi rents a metal detector and hires a man (Corneliu Cozmei) to operate it. He sets out with Adrian to find what he may hope will be life-changing largesse.

The protracted scenes of treasure hunting are dryly funny, and nicely conceal the fact that Porumboiu has a few surprises up his sleeve.

I began by saying that The Treasure is about Romanian society; it is, but by the end, you may have remembered that it's not only Romanians who make half-baked decisions based on inadequate information.

No fair telling more, but know that Porumboiu wisely ends his film in a way that's either crazy, instructive or redemptive. Maybe all three.

Another look at wayward priests

A difficult, perplexing and punishing movie from Chile.

Just what the Catholic Church needed, another reminder about wayward priests.

Like it or not, Chilean director Pablo Larrain has weighed in on the issue of church scandals with an odd and difficult movie that focuses on four defrocked priests, a nun, an inquisitor from the Vatican and a greyhound dog.

The movie's quintet of exiled religious rogues lives in the isolated coastal town of La Boca. They've been sent to this sleepy, seaside village for a mixture of punishment and penance -- and to be hidden from public view.

Things seem to be going smoothly enough until a new resident arrives. The others rightly see the presence of this recently defrocked priest as possibly disruptive. It doesn't take long before one of the town's fishermen -- a former altar boy -- is outside the house screaming at the new arrival, describing -- in excruciatingly graphic detail -- the way in which he was sexually abused.

Clearly disturbed, the priest responds by shooting himself in the head.

That's a bit of a spoiler, but you should know that most of the movie involves the repercussions felt by these sinning priests and the wily nun who tends to them.

The situation becomes critical when another priest -- this one a representative of the church -- arrives to conduct an investigation.

It should be noted that the men are free to leave; they're not prisoners; they've consented to this strange banishment, a situation in which none totally admits to wrongdoing. They seem to reinforce their communal sense of denial.

The priests still observe Catholic ritual, but they allow themselves one diversion: They train and race a lone greyhound, putting their winnings aside for expenses.

Larrain tries to see these priests in clear-eyed fashions. They're flawed men burdened by bitterness, defiance, self-aggrandizement and, in one case, dementia, but they're not particularly remorseful.

The former altar boy, whose relentless taunts echo throughout the movie, wobbles his way through the story as the church's representative conducts his inquiry.

It takes some time before we get any sort of handle on this interrogator, who has his own ideas about how to balance compassion with the institutional need of the church to insulate itself from scandal.

I can't say that I totally understand the ways in which Larrain plays with symbolism; a bizarre and difficult to watch late-picture event -- part sacrifice, part punishment -- makes a cruel piece de resistance to a cruel, arduous and, I'm afraid, perplexing exercise in bleakness.

Larrain's movie is commendably serious, but it also brims with the kind of rabid determination that feels as if it's rebuking those who might raise even the mildest of objections to its thoroughgoing rancor.

Of course, no one approves of pedophile priests or a clergy that collaborates with torturers, but The Club seems to regard aberrant behavior as an excuse to flagellate not only the movie's characters, but the audience, as well.

If I had to articulate a point to all of this, it might be that every status quo will go to great lengths to preserve itself and those whose interests depend on it, and that, in the process, there will be pain.