Thursday, June 30, 2016

Trying to make Tarzan relevant

Nothing legendary about the latest look at the King of the Apes.

Filmmakers tackling a Tarzan movie face a variety of problems -- not the least of which are the racial attitudes that tinge Edgar Rice Burroughs' hopelessly dated fantasy.

Obviously aware of such pitfalls, director David Yates tries to cleanse The Legend of Tarzan of offensive elements, putting an anti-colonial spin on a movie that becomes a kind of CGI zoo. What, you thought they'd be using real apes?

For all the digital effort, Yates, who directed the final four Harry Potter movies, can't entirely liberate The Legend of Tarzan from Hollywood imperialism. He's still dealing with a story in which the white Lord Greystoke, a.k.a. John Clayton (Alexander Skarsgard), leaves the comforts of Great Britain with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie) to rediscover his animal self and save Congolese tribesmen from being enslaved by Belgian mercenaries.

You needn't look past Christoph Waltz's name in the credits to know who's playing the bad guy. Waltz's Leon Rom makes deals with a fierce chief (Djimon Hounsou), captures Jane and generally makes it clear that he's indifferent to all forms of African life.

Waltz, who has been menacing innocent lives since his breakthrough in Inglourious Basterds, may not seem particularly enthusiastic about his jungle-bound villainy, but at least he's well dressed.

Rom wears a white suit and tie in even the most remote locations. He carries a rosary that he uses to strangle people. A less-than-wry comment about possible connections between Christianity and the exploitation of Africa's abundant resources?

Then there's George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), an American Civil War veteran who wants Tarzan to accompany him to Africa to see whether Africans really are being enslaved. If they are, Tarzan can expose this crime to the world. Who, after all, wouldn't believe Tarzan, a man with impeccable jungle cred?

Yates also offers flashback to Tarzan's youth. After his widowed father is beaten to death by apes, baby Tarzan is snatched by the same apes, one of whom raises him with motherly affection.

As the adult Tarzan -- bare chested and in britches rather than loincloths -- the Ape Man swings through trees, leaps off cliffs, and fights the apes who thinks he deserted them.

I haven't said much about Skarsgard's Tarzan because he isn't exactly loaded with personality. Tarzan's hands are swollen and a bit deformed because he spent much of his youth running on all fours. He knows how to speak to animals and regards them as friends.

Still best know for playing a vampire in HBO's True Blood, Skarsgard mostly displays his abs and looks noble.

As for Jackson? He has seen better days, and, I hope, better hairpieces.

Robbie's character takes no guff, but this Americanized Jane seems like another product of authorial engineering, one more strained attempt to accommodate contemporary sensibilities.

It takes more than an hour for Tarzan to deliver his trademark yell, and this rumble in the jungle may not fool audiences who've seen too many digitally created animals to suspend much disbelief.

Legend of Tarzan doesn't exactly die on the vines that Tarzan uses to swing from tree-to-tree, but did the world need another Tarzan movie? If so, it should have been one that didn't make the mistake of delivering its most exciting moments in the short prologue that precedes the rest of the movie.

'BFG' is a bit of a bore

The magic is only intermittent in director Steven Spielberg's adaptation of a Roald Dahl story..

The real giant behind the movie The BFG is Steven Spielberg, a director whose amazing track record ranges from the serious to the sublimely whimsical. Inspired by a story by Roald Dahl, Spielberg abandons the brooding intelligence of his last movie -- Bridge of Spies -- to focus on a tale aimed at children.

With a screenplay by ET screenwriter, the late Melissa Mathieson, The BFG centers on young Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a lonely orphan who early on is whisked off to a giant's lair. Thanks to his vegetarian preferences, the giant -- known as the BFG or Big Friendly Giant -- doesn't eat little kids. He dines on glop that bares little resemblance to food as we know it.

A generally affable sort, the BFG frequently finds himself at odds with his monstrous giant colleagues who do like to gobble up kids. These bad giants look like floating ogres in a Thanksgiving Day parade. Very frightening -- if, say, you're five years old.

Younger audiences may also respond to the movie's fart jokes. The BFG aids his digestion with a drink called Frobscottle, a fizzy brew that gives him gas inducing bouts of flatulence that he calls "whizpoppers."

All of this offers mild amusement with Spielberg obtaining fine, motion-capture work from Mark Rylance as the BFG; Rylance, you'll recall, won a supporting actor Oscar for his work in Bridge of Spies.

An unlikely duo, Sophie and the BFG spend lots of time together at the BFG's home in Giant Country. Unfortunately, this house-bound part of the movie becomes a bit of slog and early enchantment gives way to monotony.

The movie perks up significantly during a late-picture tea party attended by Sophie, the BFG and the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton). Finally, you may think, some fun.

Spielberg ably handles the technical challenges of Dahl's story, and the movie's production design has an admirable story-book quality.

Ultimately, though, story takes a back seat to tricks of scale. Spielberg and his crew must have had a great time playing with size differences between young Sophie and those who inhabit Giant Country. The movie is at its best when the BFG enters the world of normal humans, puny in comparison to the big guys.

Dull as it can be, the movie deserves credit for at least one bold stroke: A fart joke in Buckingham Palace unwinds with whizpopping gusto. But much of the movie drags in ways that seem uncharacteristic of Spielberg who usually sets a brisk pace.

For all his prowess, Spielberg can't carve a giant-sized slice of charm out of The BFG.

Spies in a world shorn of honor

Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgard enrich Our Kind of Traitor, an engaging adaptation of a John le Carre thriller.
Almost any John le Carre novel has the potential to yield an intelligent, big-screen thriller. Adapted from a 2010 le Carre novel, Our Kind of Traitor proves the point, deftly luring us into a world populated by Russian mobsters, British academics, and British intelligence agents, all of them operating against backdrops that extend from Marrakech to Paris.

Perfectly timed to compete with the bloated drivel of summer, Our Kind of Traitor reminded me of the kind of movie pleasures I'd lately been missing, namely characters who find themselves in situations they couldn't possibly have anticipated and which prove morally taxing.

Early on, we meet Perry (Ewan McGregor) and his wife Gail (Naomi Harris), a couple vacationing in Marrakech in hopes of reviving a sagging marriage. Self-sufficient professionals, Perry and Gail are dining in a restaurant when Gail abruptly leaves to handle a business matter.

Left alone, Perry is approached by a convivial Russian (Stellan Skarsgard) who invites him to have a drink with his companions, a surly looking bunch. Perry reluctantly accepts, and soon finds himself accompanying Skarsgard's Dima to a party full of temptations, mostly in the form of drugs and women.

Because Dima belongs to the Russian mafia, these temptations come with obvious forebodings: Perry's crude, tattooed associates make no attempt to conceal their carnal appetites.

Full of robust charm and confidence, Dima assures Perry that he needn't be alarmed. He calls him "professor." He overpowers Perry's resistance with loudly expressed charm.

Of course, Dima has an ulterior motive. He wants Perry to transport a memory stick to London. As the man who launders Russian mob money, Dima says he'll name prominent Brits who are in cahoots with Russian crime czars. In return, he wants asylum for himself and his family.

The rest needn't be revealed here, but director Susanna White and screenwriter Hossein Amini treat le Carre's work kindly in a story that focuses on characters who are trying to get out of predicaments rather than penetrate secret inner sanctums.

Once Perry agrees to transport the memory stick, he's in over his head. A British operative (Damian Lewis) pushes Perry to become even more involved, arguing that he holds the key to saving Dima and his family.

Of course, betrayals and bureaucratic fumbles abound, as well as subterranean motivations in which money trumps anything resembling patriotism or honor.

In Dima, Our Kind of Traitor finds a terrific character. Entirely engaging, ebullient and tough, Dima makes no bones about having dirty hands. Yet, we understand Perry's fascination with him. Dina suggests something bigger and more life-affirming than his circumstances might have us believe, a deep understanding of the world's ways. He also knows how to use truth as weapon.

But it's not only plot and performance -- McGregor's best in a while -- that makes Our Kind of Traitor so intriguing; it's the movie's knowledge, acquired from le Carre, that the rot of barbarism can be found beneath the civilized veneer of societies that run on murderous greed. That attitude carries us past the movie's improbabilities and coincidences -- if not to greatness then at least to sustained interest.

In le Carre's fallen world, as made clear in the movie's gripping opening, there's always a chance that the purity of a snow-covered field will be stained with the blood of a beautiful innocent.

His best pal is a corpse

Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe are game for an absurdist look at human isolation, but Swiss Army Man ultimately lets them down.

Had Swiss Army Man been a short film, it might have been a brilliant, semi-serious lark about a young man stranded on a barren Pacific island and in a life that's apparently cut off from the rest of humanity.

But at one hour and 35 minutes, Swiss Army Man plays like Samuel Beckett Lite, a wobbly, repetitive two-actor journey into the absurd.

The movie opens on a beach, where the aforementioned young man -- bearded and obviously desperate -- is about to hang himself. Almost too late, the man notices that a body has washed ashore. Could a companion have arrived? Is salvation at hand?

Not exactly.

Directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who refer to themselves in the credits as "the Daniels," Swiss Army Man stars Paul Dano as Hank, a marooned man who develops a relationship with that beached body which, as if part of some cosmic joke, turns out to be a corpse.

The corpse -- one Manny by name and played by Daniel Radcliffe -- suffers from rampant flatulence, a condition the Daniels never lets us forget. More about that later.

Radcliffe's corpse of a character eventually begins talking. Could Hank be hallucinating? Maybe, but it doesn't really matter because Manny raises questions about the meaning of life in face of death's inevitability and about Hank's inability to connect with others. Hank explains life to Manny, but he's really opening a window into his own parched soul.

As the Swiss Army man of the title, Manny proves an all-purpose pal whose expulsions of gas propel Hank off the island and land him in the woods off the California coast.

In the forest, Hank carries Manny on his back, moves his limbs, keeps his head from flopping over, and teaches his new best friend the rudiments of living. He also helps Manny remember the life that death evidently has obliterated from his brain.

Dano and Radcliffe are game for an insistently strange movie that refuses to dot every "i" and cross every "t" or even to acknowledge that such coherence might be a worthwhile endeavor.

Worse yet, Dano and Radcliffe's mildly amusing duet never quite finds the emotional groove for which the Daniels seem to be searching. Brief flashbacks tell us that Hank has trouble reaching for the object of his desire, symbolized by a woman he sees on a bus ride.

I suppose there's a point beyond gimmickry to this man/corpse relationship. Inhibited to the point of inertia, Hank has so much difficulty choosing life, he's only able to reach out to a corpse.

I wasn't bored by The Swiss Army Man, but I wasn't motivated to give much thought to the questions the movie raises, either. Seems like I encountered them in dorm rooms eons ago.

And about those farts. They serve a higher purpose, acknowledging the unnecessary shame that's too often associated with natural bodily functions. Hopefully, though, you won't be sitting next to someone who takes this injunction seriously, and let's loose in the theater.

Nothing funny about 'Tickled'

New Zealand journalist David Farrier , a self-confessed collector of oddities, thought he had found a terrific subject when he discovered a sport billed as "competitive endurance tickling." Joining forces with director Dylan Reeve, Farrier embarked on what promised to be an amusing journey into one life's obscure back alleys, a pastime in which young men tickled other young men. But in Tickled, Farrier and Reeve stumbled into a tale that turned into more than either of them expected. Beginning as a documentary about an offbeat activity, Tickled evolves into a story involving lives smeared on the Internet and more. Best to discover the rest in a theater. Know, though, that if you're expecting to laugh at the folly of those who engage in what at first blush seems like an exceedingly silly pastime, you may wind up wincing at what turns out to be a whole lot of pain.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Another alien attack. Ho Hum.

They're back. Aliens take another shot at Earth in scattershot Independence Day: Resurgence.
Independence Day: Resurgence wasn't made available to critics until its Thursday night opening. That doesn't necessarily mean that the movie was being hidden from critical view or that audiences should presume that Resurgence will be a misguided mess.

You can judge for yourself if you venture into Resurgence. My vote: The massive size of the alien craft in Resurgence -- some 3,000 miles in diameter -- is matched by an equally massive lack of imagination. If director Roland Emmerich was trying to re-capture the entertainment magic he found in the 1996 original, the trick fell flat.

Off-the-rack plotting and cliched dialogue mark what appear to be a scattershot collection of scenes. Watching Resurgence is a bit like watching a boxer throw nothing but jabs -- most of them missing their target. The movie flails.

Here's one indication of the fall-off since '96. Jeff Goldblum, an actor who knows how to create characters of cynical intelligence, seems to be imitating himself as Dr. David Levinson. He's off his game.

It may not be fair to say that Resurgence is imitating the first movie, but it has a derivative feel as earthlings battle giant creatures who arrive on a spacecraft that destroys large parts of the Earth before anyone can figure out what to do about it.

By now, everyone knows that Will Smith -- hero of the first movie -- sat this one out. Maybe he didn't want to participate in space battles that look like Star Wars knockoffs. Maybe he's tired to carrying blockbuster-sized burdens.

A screenplay credited to five writers, including Emmerich, makes room for fresh blood. Liam Hemsworth shows up as a fighter pilot as does Jesse T. Usher, who's portraying the son of the character Smith played in the first movie.

Sela Ward signs on as the new, strictly business president of the US.

Of course, some of the actors from the 1996 edition return: These include Bill Pullman, now a former president who has nightmares about another alien invasion. Brent Spiner reprises his role as Dr. Okun, a guy who has been in a coma since 1996, and who, as a result, hasn't had a haircut in two decades. Judd Hirsch drops by as Goldblum's grumpy but supposedly lovable father.

Most of the jokes implode and the story -- Earth vs. a queen-bee alien -- is just one more exercise in overkill from a movie that looks as if it had been hastily assembled under threat of alien invasion; i.e. plot elements and characters are introduced without finesse. Worse yet, Resurgence builds little tension; it just just hurtles along, leaving nothing in its wake but planetary destruction and something we already have in large enough supply, disappointment.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Rebelling against the South's Rebels

Despite Matthew McConaughey's fiery performance, Free State of Jones is a bit of a slog.

Some background: During the heat of the Civil War, Newton Knight left the Confederate army, returned to his Mississippi home and formed a ragtag band of fighters to combat what he viewed as injustices inflected by the Confederate Army on poor farmers and blacks who had been enslaved. Knight's rogue army -- a.k.a. the Knight Company -- was composed of deserters and runaway slaves.

Knight was motivated to desert the Rebel army, where he served as a nurse, by the Confederacy's "Twenty-Negro Law." That law exempted Southerners who owned 20 or more slaves from fighting, thus establishing grounds for believing that the Civil War was a battle in which poor southerners fought to protect the bounties of the rich.

A bona fide man of personality, Knight evidently took seriously the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply. He had nine children with Serena, his white wife. Knight also had a common-law wife, a former slave, with whom he had five children.

So was Knight a prototypical hippie or an authentic champion of the poor?

That argument reportedly remains unsettled, but not for director Gary Ross, whose new movie -- The Free State of Jones -- treats Knight (Matthew McConaughey) as a heroic figure who believes in racial equality and in simple economic justice: A man deserves to own what he plants, etc.

I don't know whether Ross's interpretation of history is correct, but I do know that his movie possesses a pulse that beats only intermittently. Free State of Jones also suffers because Ross seems to prefer the lengthy accumulation of events to incisive character development.

Looking fierce, a bearded McConaughey blazes with passion as the committed Knight, but the rest of the cast -- including Knight's two wives (Keri Russell and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) -- aren't given enough chance to evolve.

Like nearly everyone else in the movie, they're swamped by Ross's need to cover ground -- from the waning days of the war through reconstruction to a jarringly presented 1948 trial in which Knight's great-grandson is accused of miscegenation, interracial marriage being illegal in Mississippi.

At times, the movie seems like an American take on Robin Hood with Knight's merry band of rebels living an idyllic life in the Mississippi swamps. At other times, the movie seems like a Western; Knight becomes the loner who protects the weak. At still other times, Ross uses photographs of the period to add authenticity. It's as if Ken Burns cropped up in the middle of the story to add his two cents.

There are compelling scenes, Knight discovering the body of a comrade in arms (Mahershala Ali) who has been hanged and castrated by Klansmen who can't accept the Reconstructionist idea that black men could vote. Unfortunately, such harrowing moments emerge amid what amounts to a general slog through an obscure slice of history.

Not widely known, Knight's story proves interesting enough to keep this lead-footed effort from totally foundering. But Ross (The Hunger Games) squanders an opportunity: Too many of the movie's scenes fail to spark in ways that would have taken The Free State of Jones to more memorable levels.

High style, low-down movie

Director Nicolas Winding Refn's foray into the world of modeling bores until the gore arrives.

Glossy but vacuous The Neon Demon might move you to say that director Nicolas Winding Refn has an eye for compelling images, but you may also find yourself wondering whether his movie connects to a brain.

Senseless as it is stylized, Neon Demon takes us into Refn's idea of the intensely competitive world of high fashion modeling.

Let's just say Refn exaggerates to maximum levels, punctuating his movie with scenes that surely were intended to shock. If lesbian necrophilia weren't enough to set the mood, Refn throws in some cannibalism because ... well ... in Los Angeles, it's a model-eat-model world.

With its coolly conceived lighting design, its anesthetized performances and a mood that vampires might find a bit chilly, Refn serves up a drama that focuses on Jesse (Elle Fanning), a rootless young woman who arrives in Los Angeles to pursue a modeling career.

Jesse tells others that prettiness constitutes her only attribute. She's convinced she can make money from her looks.

Sixteen-year-old Jesse projects a midwestern aura of innocence that's supposed to be irresistible. As Jesse herself sums it up, everyone wants to be her, so much so that women will starve themselves on the chance that they might become second-rate imitations of her.

The faint aroma of critique rises from this purple-hued carcass of a movie, something about society's preoccupation with the way women look, beauty over substance -- and a limited idea about beauty, at that.

Refn -- the director of the over-rated Drive and the less-admired Only God Forgives -- is as guilty of dehumanizing his characters as any modeling agency or fashion photographer. What meaning can necrophilia have in a movie in which everyone looks half dead?

Despite what appears to be a rapid rise to the top of the modeling heap, Jesse maintains her residence in a sleazy Pasadena motel where the rooms are covered with fading floral wallpaper. At one point, a mountain lion invades her room. Oh, the dangers that lurk in Pasadena. Oh, the attempt to surprise the audience with an art grenade.

Keanu Reeves plays the motel's sleazy manager, one of those small roles that makes you wonder whether he dropped by the set for an afternoon. Reeves carries a knife into one of the movie's more chilling scenes.

Jena Malone portrays a make-up artist with a crush on Jesse. Two additional models (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) are Jesse's competition. They're heanto plastic surgery. Think of them as fashion cyborgs.

It's not easy to tell whether Refn is aiming for satire or horror. If it's the latter, the biggest horror involves the movie's monotony, a steady beat of boredom interrupted only by late-picture servings of gross-out violence, one such episode involving an eyeball.

Perhaps it's fitting. The eyeball is the only thing Refn rewards with this nonsensically slick bit of rot.

A bridge built by music

The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble is my kind of feel-good movie. The notion that iconic cellist Yo-Yo Ma could assemble a group of musicians from many cultures and arrive at a coherent musical expression is encouraging and also a bit naive, particularly when carried to metaphoric levels about possibilities for cooperation beyond the concert hall. But if one is going to submit to fantasy, better this than one in which aliens invade the world and must be repelled with massive applications of force. Director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) fills his documentary with plenty of music, but also provides insight into Yo-Yo Ma, who claims that as a child he simply fell into music. Neville also introduces us to the musicians that form the Silk Road Ensemble. Among them: Kayan Kalhor, an Iranian who plays kamancheh and who discusses the hardships he's faced. Wu Tan, who plays the pipa or Chinese lute, briefly occupies center stage, as does Cristina Pato, a bagpipe player from Galicia, Spain, who's known as the Jimi Hendrix of bagpipes. (Yes, it's an apt comparison.) As you might imagine, Silk Road's fusion-heavy music tends toward the melodic or the rhythmically infectious. OK, so maybe music won't change the world, but it certainly can change the hour and a half it takes to watch The Music of Strangers, a rare documentary that isn't driven by conflict, but by Yo-Yo Ma's hopeful vision of the ways in which conflict might be resolved.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

A fish searches for Mom and Dad

Finding Dory is a sweet little sequel to 2003's Finding Nemo.

Suffice it to say that although Finding Dory, the latest animated feature from the Disney/Pixar alliance, lacks the freshness of its predecessor, Finding Nemo, and although it wears its "you-can-do-it" message with all the subtlety of a political yard sign, it's entertaining and touching enough to garner well-deserved attention.

This time, Nemo and his dad Marlin (Hayden Rolence and Albert Brooks) are relegated to supporting roles as Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) tries to reunite with her long-lost parents.

Dory, you'll recall from the first movie, is a blue tang fish with short-term memory problems: Dory's disability causes her to be separated from her parents at the movie's outset. Can Dory ever remember enough to find her way home, home symbolizing all that is safe and good in the world of Disney?

Along the way, Dory meets a variety of new characters who become like a new family. These include Hank the octopus (Ed O'Neill), Bailey the whale (Ty Burrell), and a shark named Destiny (Kaitlin Olson). None of these characters are groundbreakers, but they're all serviceable and sometimes amusing.

Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton provide voices for Dory's parents.

The movie follows Dory as she travels to waters off the California coast. Once there, she discovers The Marine Life Institute, a facility where ocean life is rescued before being sent to an aquarium in Cleveland or returned to the ocean.

Directors Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane offer the best visual diversions when the movie plumbs ocean depths.

The filmmakers also make a few bows to ecological issues; the closer Dory and friends get to shore, the more dangerous life seems to become. Images of debris-littered waters send a reminder about human carelessness when it comes to natural life.

The movie culminates with an action-oriented finale that feels overly cartoonish and anti-climactic, especially considering that it occurs after Dory reunites with her parents. It's likely, though, that the movie's primary audience -- i.e., kids -- won't care.

Dory's overall sweetness, its colorful ocean environments and its fine, jokey use of a recognizable voice (no, I'm not telling) make it a worthwhile dip into summer waters.

Predatory aspects of natural life in the ocean, by the way, mostly are avoided.

A self-absorbed writer and his editor

Genius focuses on the relationship between Thomas Wolfe and Max Perkins.

Genius -- a movie starring Colin Firth, Jude Law and Nicole Kidman -- presents a handsomely mounted but somewhat tepid portrait of the relationship between volatile novelist Thomas Wolfe and his editor Max Perkins.

The gist of the story: Perkins, who also edited the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, tolerated Wolfe's alcoholic digressions and emotional outbursts because he believed in the author's talent.

In part, the movie suffers because time hasn't entirely justified Perkins' faith. Novels such as Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel don't command the widespread attention they once did.

Director Michael Grandage focuses the story on the Perkins/Wolfe relationship during the Depression years, a time when Perkins plied his trade at Scribner's. Wolfe would dump his colossus-sized manuscripts -- all written in pencil -- on Perkins' desk. Perkins then would work with the writer to whittle Wolfe's efforts to more manageable size.

When not ensconced in Perkins' Manhattan office, the movie visits his Connecticut home, where Laura Linney plays the mostly negligible role of Perkins' wife.

The point of these scenes may be to tell us that Perkins preferred the comforts of home and hearth -- he had five daughters -- to the roller coaster ride taken by those who more directly stoke their creativity fires.

Wearing an ever-present fedora, Firth inhabits the character of Perkins with ease and quiet grace, although his performance can feel a trifle sparkless. As the ebullient, life-embracing Wolfe, Law compensates for Perkins' preternatural calm with emphatic expressions of energy.

Wolfe's relationship with a married woman, Kidman's Mrs. Bernstein, mostly demonstrates the devastating consequences of Wolfe's boundless self-absorption.

Grandage's wan drama might have been better had Wolfe's work retained the regard still given to Fitzgerald and Hemingway, played in cameos by Guy Pearce and Dominic West respectively.

Otherwise, Genius -- based on a 1978 biography of Perkins by A. Scott Berg -- needed something that Perkins probably would have insisted on had edited movies instead of books: the infusion of enough urgency to prevent both period and characters from feeling trapped in the past -- as if they're being suffocated by a sepia-hued fog.

A director reflects on his career

Brian De Palma takes us on a guided tour of his work.

I once met Brian De Palma at the Toronto International Film Festival. Amazingly, De Palma hadn't attended the festival to hawk new wares. He was sitting in the back of an auditorium in a multiplex the festival then used for press and industry screenings. Had I missed something in the program? Did De Palma have a new movie? No, De Palma told me. He'd come to Toronto to catch a few films. A director watching movies at a festival in which he did not have a film to promote? Yes, it's a rarity, but, then, so is DePalma.

De Palma, the simply titled new documentary by Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach, takes a straightforward approach to the director's life and work, leaving most of the analysis to De Palma himself.

De Palma discusses his career, and we see clips from his filmography, all annotated by the director, who acknowledges his debt to Alfred Hitchcock, hardly a secret to anyone familiar with his work.

De Palma saw Vertigo when he was a kid, and never looked back. He sees himself as the only true heir to Hitchcock, and it's clear that he understands the master's work and knows how to amplify and twist it to create his own cinematic vocabulary.

Box office results also play a role in De Palma's discussion, no small matter when it comes to determining how a director's career will progress. De Palma's identifiable style isn't enough to ensure that he'll latch onto big studio projects -- which he says he no longer wants.

De Palma does, of course, talk about those big-ticket movies (Scarface, The Untouchables and Mission Impossible), as well as the smaller, European-based movies that he currently favors, 2013's critically derided Passion.

I was heartened to hear De Palma say that he didn't think he could make a better movie than Carlito's Way, a film starring Al Pacino. I'd call it one of De Palma's best.

Self-protection isn't the point here: De Palma can be critical of himself, and, of at least one actor. At one point, he talks about Obsession (1976), and what a pain in the butt Cliff Robertson was.

De Palma, by the way, was the first director to use Robert De Niro in a feature, 1968's Greetings.

For a man whose movies can be steeped in eroticism and violence -- and some would say misogyny -- De Palma sometimes seems more like a nerdy cinema buff than a cunning auteur. When talking about things that either surprised him or threw him off his game, he tends to use an exclamation that sounds like it's coming from a Boy Scout.

"Holy mackerel" is one of his favorites.

A documentary such as De Palma can serve as an occasion for a critic to ruminate about a director's body of work. No need. Paltrow and Baumbach's movie does that for us, offering valuable insights into both the art and business of film and illuminating the mixture of choice and chance that makes a career.

Anthony Weiner's failed comeback

What to make of Anthony Weiner, the former New York Congressman and mayoral hopeful who wrecked his career with a sexting scandal? I didn't quite know before I saw the documentary Weiner, and I still don't. Still, I found the documentary about Weiner's attempted comeback intensely watchable. Weiner works on multiple levels, as a look at a ferociously driven man trying to overcome his past, as a portrait of a strained marriage and as a testament to the stark absurdity of our politics. I suppose I don't need to remind you that these days our political climate regularly devolves into a cacophonous mixture of issues, personal failings, posturing and media glare. Directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg received what looks like near-unlimited access to Weiner during the 2013 primary campaign in which he tried to become the Democratic candidate for mayor of New York City. As he seeks reinstatement into public life, Weiner relies heavily his wife, Huma Abedin, a woman whose boilerplate description lists her as "a long-time aide to Hillary Clinton." As Weiner unfolds, relations between Abedin and her husband hit rough spots, particularly when another round of sexting was (you'll pardon the expression) exposed. Never shy about expressing himself, Weiner tries to cling to his views on issues, even as the world around him collapses. It's a bit like a passenger on the Titanic focusing on the elegant dinner ware as the ship takes on catastrophic amounts of water. There's a sadness to Weiner because watching his self-destruction is as sobering as it is compelling. Weiner may have been trying to prove that there are second acts in American life. After watching Weiner, it's difficult to imagine that he'll get a chance at a third.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

A house under siege -- by a demon

The Conjuring 2 has plenty of jolts, but falls short of its predecessor.

Another summer, another exorcism.

Yes, it's time for The conjuring 2, a second chapter in the adventurers of real-life ghostbusters Lorraine and Ed Warren.

Beginning their work in the 1950s, Lorraine and Ed became the couple you'd call if you suspected that your house had been possessed by demons, other than the ones that cause the toilet to overflow at inopportune times or make the microwave die when you haven't got time to buy another.

Of course, most of our problems are nothing compared to those that put the Warrens on the paranormal map.

Set in 1977, The Conjuring 2 focuses on the troubles of (Frances O'Connor), a single mother who lives in London with her four children, one of whom -- young Janet (Madison Wolfe) -- suffers intermittent bouts of possession.

Like The Conjuring, which told the story of a "haunted" house in Rhode Island, this one focuses on another residence, a North London house that became the focal point of a story dubbed "The Enfield Poltergeist."

The first movie took place prior to the Amityville Horror case that made the Warrens famous; this one takes place in 1977, seven years after Amityville.

At first, the Warrens (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) resist involvement. But even at home, Ed and Lorraine aren't what you'd call a typical couple.

-- Ed keeps busy painting pictures of some sort of mysterious demon.

-- Lorraine has horrifying visions, one in which she sees her husband die.

Ed and Lorraine seem out of step with the '70s cultural zeitgeist that spawned the Bee Gees, so much so that when Wilson's Ed picks up a guitar, it's to sing Elvis tunes. Can't Help Falling in Love With You is a particular favorite.

Barely scraping by, the fatherless Hodgson family tries to cope with demonic visitors in North London. The screenplay -- credited to Wan and three additional writers -- quickly dispenses with any doubts about Janet's possession: Others see and hear what Janet sees and hears, phenomenon such as furniture sliding across rooms and loud, thumping noises that interrupt the night.

The house in London's Enfield borough isn't exactly a prize. Paint has begun to peel from the walls, the basement exudes horror-movie possibilities, and the furniture has seen more than its share of wear, particularly a fraying armchair that occupies a corner of the house.

The movie unites its American and British strands when the Catholic Church asks the Warrens to check out the goings-on in Great Britain. The Church wants to know if there are grounds to send in the exorcists or whether this is one more hoax.

Wan, who helped redefine contemporary horror with 2004s Saw and who directed The Conjuring, knows the tricks of the demonic-movie trade, dishing out enough jolts -- many involving severe property damage -- to startle most audiences.

A small supporting cast doesn't have much to do. Franka Potente shows up as a psychologist eager to debunk Janet's stories. Unfortunately, her character isn't well-enough integrated into the story to justify her presence. Simon McBurney signs on as a researcher who's disposed to believe the Hodgson's story.

For all the frightening folderol, Wan can't match the achievement of the first movie -- and, this time, I was overly conscious of exactly how Wan was using his skills to help us overlook some pedestrian writing and to make audience members pop out of their chairs as if the theater had become a giant toaster and they, the bread.

A second helping of big-screen trickery

Now You See Me 2 continues the adventures of magicians with larceny up their sleeves..

Now You See Me 2 attempts to occupy brave new franchise turf with a souped-up repetition of a formula that enjoyed success when the original was released in 2013.

Here's what I wrote about the original:

"If you bother to play Now You See Me back in your mind (and there's no compelling reason you should), you'll be hard-pressed to believe that the intricacies of its plot were remotely possible anywhere but in a screenwriter's imagination: Three writers were involved in creating the screenplay and story. They find entertaining moments in what otherwise amounts to a self-defeating hodgepodge of conceits, ploys and attempted fake-outs."

Now, I could say almost the same thing about a second installment that's more unashamedly outlandish than its predecessor and that replaces Isla Fisher with Lizzy Caplan, the female in these male-dominated proceedings. But, for me, this is a case in which the movie's 126-minute running time contains enough amusement to keep boredom at bay.

The movie's Horsemen (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco and Caplan are still magicians with a taste for larceny and for staging the improbably big finale.

This time, The Horsemen are coerced into working for the evil Walter Marbry (Daniel Radcliffe), an entrepreneur who has staged the ultimate vanishing act: He has faked his own death.

Marbry wants the Horsemen to steal something called "the stick," some sort of gizmo capable of deprogramming any computer.

Director Jon M. Chu does a nice job with the scenes involving magic, presenting them with the swiftly efficient wave of his cinematic wand.

Of course, the tricks we see are possible only in a movie where reality readily can be altered and audiences are accustomed to suspending disbelief as easily as they reach for the next bite of popcorn.

Some of the movie takes place in Macau, where the magicians visit Iong's Magic Shop, supposedly the world's best magic store. A grandson (Jay Chou) and his grandma (Tsai Chin) run this cluttered emporium of tricks and illusions.

This year's version also throws in a half-brother for Harrelson's character, an evil sibling (also played by Harrelson) with a predatory smile and a curly wig that makes him look like a demented version of Matthew McConaughey, something McConaughey previously has accomplished all on his own. Still, it's a weird effect.

We also learn that Mark Ruffalo's Dylan -- the FBI agent who's actually in cahoots with the Horsemen -- has reason to harbor a long-standing grudge.

Also returning -- albeit on the movie's fringe -- are Morgan Freeman as Thaddeus Bradley, a man who has made his living exposing the ruses behind magic tricks, and Michael Caine, as ... well ... see the movie.

There's no need to over-praise (or over-trash) a movie such as Now You See Me 2. The actors wear their roles well, and the result is a caper movie that's not afraid to ask us to go with its magical flow -- no matter how phony it seems.

It may help to think of Now You See Me 2 as a teeming helping of what might be called "magic unrealism."

More tales from New York City

Rebecca Miller's Maggie's Plan finds amusement in its characters' pretensions.
Watching writer/director Rebecca Miller's Maggie's Plan, I wondered whether something magical hadn'toccurred. Had Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach merged into an entirely new third person?

You all know Allen, and are familiar with his New York state of mind. The Baumbach connection requires only a little more explanation. Baumbach (Frances Ha and Mistress America) has worked with Greta Gerwig on several films, and Gerwig plays a pivotal role in Maggie's Plan, a New York-based movie in which the dialogue sometimes sounds as if it's standing on Allen's shoulders.

But Miller has her own view, one that sees characters as trapped by their pretensions and by relationships that are swamped by ego and need. As such, Maggie's Plan is a mostly pleasing seriocomic take on contemporary relationships.

Gerwig portrays Maggie, a young woman who has created one of those fuzzy, new-economy livelihoods: She tries to link artists with the commercial world.

Though single, Maggie wants a child. She arranges to acquire the seed of a sperm donor, a fellow named Guy (Travis Fimmel) who's carving out a career as a Brooklyn pickle maker. The Bavarian, he says, qualifies as one of his best.

Maggie's best pals (Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph) are a cynical couple who already have a child and seem immune to the massive child-centeredness of so many new parents.

Of course, Maggie's path to motherhood can't be simple. Just before she begins negotiating the tricky procedure of self-impregnation, she meets John (Ethan Hawke), a "ficto-anthropology" professor who's working on a novel.

John has needs that aren't being satisfied by his wife (Julianne Moore), a Columbia professor with a major academic career. He also has two kids.

John asks Maggie to read the first chapter of his novel. She does. Because she seems to understand his authorial intentions, he falls for her. She falls for him, probably because she's buoyed by his reliance on her. She's needed.

Miller skips John's break-up, and moves ahead several years. Now married, John and Maggie have a daughter of their own, and Maggie often finds herself caring for John's kids from his previous marriage.

Nothing like marriage, kids and family entanglements to take the bloom off the romantic rose.

Maggie begins to see that she has turned herself into a capable (her word) helpmate who nurtures John's ego and tends to his domestic needs.

The rest of the plot should be discovered in a theater, but know that it's not the story that makes Maggie's Plan appealing. Rather, the actors and a collection of amusing small moments create a welcome sense that Maggie's Plan is as much a comedy of manners as a rom-com that revolves around another indeterminate Millennial woman.

Gerwig plays Maggie as an apparently guileless woman who might be the most unprovocative dresser (long skirts or dresses, sweaters and loafers) to appear in a movie for some time. Maggie looks like a woman who's doing a Diane Keaton impersonation, but can't get it right.

As an insecure academic with literary aspirations, Hawke is funny and credible. Hawke's John never seems to know where he's going, unless its on a journey into his own head.

But it falls to Moore to deliver a comic masterpiece of a performance as Georgette, a Danish woman with a bizarre European accent and a personality composed of acute angles. Massively stilted, Georgette probably sounds like she's giving a lecture even when she's brushing her teeth.

Miller explores what it's like to fall in and out love in what many aptly have described as a mash-up of stylistic contexts: from screwball comedy to personal drama.

Whatever it is, Maggie's Plan shows us something about the way the omelettes of contemporary lives are made -- by, as the saying goes, breaking lots of eggs.

In Miller's case, many of those eggs are cracked directly over the characters' heads.

An unblinking look at refugee life

Trying to survive in French housing projects is no picnic..
If you have any interest in the world's immigration problems, you owe it to yourself to see director Jacques Audiard's Dheepan, the story of three Sri Lankan refugees who wind up living in a bleak housing project in the downscale suburbs of Paris.

To escape Sri Lanka, Dheepan -- the movie's title character -- creates a faux family. Yalini (Kalieswari Srinivasan) poses as his wife and the mother of nine-year-old Illayall (Claudine Vinasithamby), an orphaned girl plucked -- almost at random -- from a refugee camp.

After arriving in France, Dheepan lands a job as a janitor in a complex of buildings that's overrun by violence and drugs.

Almost from the start, we know that Dheepan is no pushover; he's a former fighter with the Tamil Tigers, a group that opposed the Sri Lankan government in a long and brutal civil war.

As played by Jesuthasan Antonythasan, the quiet but alert Dheepan constantly must be on guard. He knows that his survival, as well as that of his impromptu family, hinges on his ability not to call undue attention to himself.

Some of the movie deals with typical issues faced by immigrants: struggling with a new language, enrolling a child in school, mastering the ebb and flow of daily life in strange surroundings.

All of this takes place against the lawless backdrop of housing projects where unemployment runs high and gunfire has become commonplace.

Audiard does nothing to mar a track record that includes movies such as the 2001 thriller Read My Lips and 2009s A Prophet. If you've seen either of those movies, you have a feel for Audiard's style, an unforced realism that centers on characters pushed into extreme situations.

In Dheepan, which won the Palme d'Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, Audiard builds toward a violent conclusion that, at first, may strike you as too similar to a B-movie helping of blazing revenge.

I won't give away more, but know that this eruption directly connects to Dheepan's past. There's only so much a man like him can take before he snaps, and when he snaps, he reverts to his warrior past.

A brief epilogue feels too good to be true, but Audiard may have decided he owed both his characters and his audience some respite from the hardcore realities he has depicted.

If so, I was more than ready for it.

The Louvre during World War II

A Russian director on how culture becomes a spoil of war.
One masterpiece in a lifetime may be more than we reasonably can expect from any artist. Russian Ark (2003) stands as such a work, director Alexandr Sokurov's tour de force.

In Russian Ark, Sokurov took us through St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum in a single, resonant 100-minute take that allowed us to immerse in 200 years of Russian history.

So when Sokurov turned his attention to the Louvre in Francofonia, his latest movie, expectations inevitably ran high, perhaps so high that even Sokurov couldn't meet them.

In Francofonia, Sokurov takes an unfortunately discursive look at the fabled French museum during World War II, focusing on two men: Jacques Jaujard, the Louvre's war-time director, and Franz Wolff-Metternich, the German officer and art expert chosen by Hitler to preside over the Louvre.

Jaujard and Metternich had an uneasy relationship, but both wanted to preserve the artistic heritage of the West by ensuring that the Louvre would retain its status even after the war. Much of the Louvre's art was hidden around the country prior to the German occupation, and Metternich seems to respect efforts to keep the Louvre French.

Not content to limit himself, Sokurov uses the story of Jaujard and Metternich as the basis for a sometimes intriguing, often ponderous examination of deeper questions about the way art is acquired.

In Sokurov's view, art and war are inevitable bedfellows, an observation he shares in a narration that he delivers. When countries are conquered, art becomes a spoil of war.

Sokurov's observations thread through a movie that employs location shooting, awkwardly acted re-enactments involving Jaujard and Metternich, newsreel footage of the German occupation of Paris and appearances by actors playing Napoleon and Marianne, French symbol of liberty.

Sokuruv further confuses matters with a recurring piece of business in which he attempts to communicate with the captain of a ship that's carrying valuable art through a powerful storm. A culture's artistic heritage threatened by natural turmoil? An attempt to add another layer of metaphor?

Informative, self-involved, stimulating and scattered, Francofonia can't always find a balance between brilliance and banality. I'm not sure I'd call it a failed work, but I certainly wouldn't proclaim it a wonder, either.

Still, it was nothing short of brave for Sokurov to make another museum-based movie after Russian Ark. Or maybe it was folly: After all, any artist who creates a masterwork forever is condemned to compete with him or herself.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Andy Samberg hip hops for laughs

A rapper falls on hard times.

I wanted to laugh.

And I often did, but Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping -- Andy Samberg's new comedy -- isn't uproariously funny and its cascading series of musical parodies certainly can't touch the winner and still champion mock-doc satire, This is Spinal Tap.

Put another way, Samberg hasn't made Spinal Tap for the Hip-Hop generation.

That's not to say that the movie, which is stocked with a surfeit of musicians and SNL vets, doesn't occasionally strike gold -- or at least a significant amount of gold plate.

Hamburg plays Conner4Real, a rapper who broke into the business with two boyhood pals (Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer), teen-agers who hit it big with a group called Style Boyz.

After the breakup, Conner enjoys some solo success, but his eagerly awaited second album tanks.

Somber, Taccone and Schaffer are all members of The Lonely Island, the trio that created SNL Digital Shorts, comic videos that fans will recognize as precursors to this full-length effort.

As a promotional scheme and commercial tie-in, Conner's management team signs a misguided agreement with an appliance company named AquaSpin. Every time an AquaSpin appliance is turned on, a Conner4Real song plays. The result: global power outages and rampant hostility toward Conner.

A strong comic cast, mostly underutilized, supports Stamberg's efforts. Tim Meadows plays Conner's manager), Sarah Silverman, his publicist and Maya Rudolph, a representative of the appliance company that goes into partnership with Conner. Bill Hader has a small part as a roadie and guitar wrangler.

You'll also see lots of real musicians: Questlove, Mariah Carey, Ringo Starr, Justin Timberlake, Snoop Dogg, Seal, D.J. Khaled, Usher, 50 Cent, Pharrell Williams and more.

The movie's collection of pop stars and rappers adds satirical weight. They talk with reverence about the StyleBoyz, an obvious joke because it's difficult to imagine that this group of white nerds could have made it big in the world of rap -- even by appropriating black styles.

In the album that flops, Conner goes way wrong with his choices. The main tune on his new album -- Not Gay -- is a belated cry for gender equality that lands with a thud, even with Conner's supposed genius for creating memorable catchphrases.

Much effort has gone into the movie's production numbers, presented as part of the sagging star's tour of the nation's arenas. The tour, by the way, eventually is hijacked by Conner's opening act, Hunter the Hungry (Chris Redd).

A Sacramento-bred suburban kid, Conner's egotistical personality seems less imaginatively conceived than some of the movie's rap lyrics.

Some of those lyrics are clever in a rude sort of way. I enjoyed a scene at an awards show that results in confusion over which crew is shooting which star's behind-the-scenes documentary. There's also something audaciously crazy about the idea that a rapper would write a song based on the way Spanish is spoken in Spain -- with a "lisp," says Conner.

So how do we sum up Popstar? Mostly sunny with sprinkles of laughs and no real taste for the rabid bite of satire.

Love in the time of paralysis

A British weepy that tries to get serious.

The title -- Me Before You -- sounds like it might be describing a self-help book for the terminally selfish.

But Me Before You has nothing to do with getting ahead in a ruthless, Trumpian world where deal-makers think of themselves as killers, and turn their adversaries into prey.

Actually, I'd like to see that movie, but Me Before You comes from a polar opposite direction. It's a bona fide weepy, so intent on wringing tears from its audience that complimentary boxes of tissues -- in a promotional wrapping, of course -- were handed out prior to a recent preview screening.

This adaptation of a popular 2012 novel by Jojo Moyes might have gotten somewhere if it hadn't starred an unbearably cute Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin, a guy who looks like a young Hugh Grant in a wheelchair. The story involves quadriplegia.

But that's just me. Clarke (Game of Thrones) and Claflin (The Hunger Games) are precisely the reason that the movie will work for those who are able to buy into it.

A glossy romance with a morbid twist, director Thea Sharrock's movie purports to deal with a few serious issues. Really, though, it's all about those tissues.

To prime the pump for a flow of tears, we're supposed to fall under the spell of the irrepressible Lou, a lower-class woman with a spiffed-up thrift store wardrobe and an unwillingness to appear in any two scenes wearing the same pair of shoes.

Lou's village also is home to a castle occupied by a wealthy family. Enter Will Traynor (Claflin), a hot shot investment guy who became a quadriplegic after being hit by a motorcycle while crossing a London Street.

Miserable that he no longer can be the dashing young man he once was, Will has sunk into a depression.

But wait ...

It's a sure bet that Lou, desperately in need of a job after losing employment at a local cafe, will try to reinvigorate Will's spirit when she's hired as his caretaker.

For his part, Will claims he'll never accept his new lot. If he can't be the man he was, he'd rather not be at all. He'll choose assisted suicide.

Will's parents -- Janet McTeer and Charles Dance -- give the movie gravitas. They're understandably concerned about their son.

McTeer and Dance also resemble drop-ins from another movie, reminders that this isn't a traditional rom-com, but a movie that wants to appeal to the same crowd that wept at The Fault in Our Stars.

Disability isn't the only obstacle to burgeoning love. Class issues intrude, as well. Will works to educate Lou, exposing her to subtitled films, books and Mozart. This isn't exactly Pygmalion, but you get the idea.

Clarke and Claflin develop some chemistry, but Clarke's Lou is bubbly to the point of overflow. She works overtime trying to persuade Will that he shouldn't travel to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal. She's a cheerleader for Team Life.

No self-respecting romance can proceed without glamor. Me Before You pours it on when Lou and Will visit Mauritius. He wants to give her a dream vacation, and she hopes that the trip will take his mind off any end-of-life plans.

To which I say: Assisted suicide should be a lot more than a plot device. It should be fully engaged as a subject.

A final fillip of encouragement turns the story into a tale of self-actualization for Lou; her relationship with Will may be just what she needs to leave the constricted confines of her village and make her way in the larger world.

Call me callous, but the little box of promotional tissues still sits on a forsaken corner of my desk. It remains unopened.

It's possible to argue that Me Before You is well done, but well done teary-eyed schlock is still teary-eyed schlock.

'Dark Horse' is a good bet

If you're a habitual fan of the underdog (in this case a role played by a horse), you won't want to miss Dark Horse, a documentary set in an economically depressed Welsh village. The story: Some of the village's residents pooled meager resources, and bought a race horse. The participating owners chipped in about $14 a week to pay for and train the horse, which they named Dream Alliance. Director Louise Osmond interviews the backers of the colt, as well as the woman who began the journey, Jan Vokes. Vokes worked as a bartender in the town, which had fallen on hard times since the closure of its coal mine in the 1980s. Dark Horse includes some re-enactments, a technique I mostly don't like, but the story is irresistible, largely because we can't help but root for Vokes and her neighbors to add some triumph to lives that badly need bolstering. Just as important, these folks aren't in it only for the money; they love the horse. Maybe that's why the whole genial lot of them were able to become working-class heroes in the sport of kings.

Tripping on the stairway to heaven

A documentary takes an inside look at a cult and its leader.

No one asked, but here -- anyway -- a few tips for spiritual seekers: 1. Follow no one who asks you to break all ties with your family. 2. Unless you're entering a monastery, be suspicious of anyone who asks you to avoid romantic involvement. 3. Be wary of any spiritual path that lacks roots that go beyond last week.

Ignoring some of these rules, director Will Allen spent 22 years following a self-proclaimed guru who attracted some 150 adherents to a group called The Buddhafield.

Known as Michel, this supposedly enlightened being walked among his followers wearing a Speedo. Sun glasses covered what we later learn is the glassy-eyed stare of someone who claims to be able to transmit spiritual experiences to others.

In an exercise called "The Knowing," Michel introduces "select" members of the Buddhafield to a direct experience of the divine -- or something like that.

Consisting of footage Allen shot while in the cult -- he was in charge of the group's videography -- Holy Hell also presents testimony from many of Michel's now-disillusioned followers. The big source of their disillusionment: betrayed trust.

During so-called "therapy" sessions, Michel sexually abused some of his male devotees. Turns out that Michel was a second-rate actor who apparently found his calling among the susceptible.

According to the film, Michel still works his "magic" in Hawaii, where he has accumulated new followers.

Allen doesn't penetrate deeply enough into Michel's psyche to explain him, and from the outside, it's sometimes difficult to understand how so many apparently intelligent people fell under his sway.

The major gains for members of the Buddhafield seem to involve a sense of belonging and, perhaps, the notion that devotees are on a special road. And, yes, some are genuine seekers.

Holy Hell plays best as a cautionary tale. Beware of anyone who promises to show you the way to higher spiritual ground. There's a danger that the path will lead only to the leader's self-aggrandizement -- and possibly worse.

Taking matters into her own hands

A woman's protest against an insurance company..
At one time or another, just about everyone has had something bad to say about an insurance company. In the Mexican thriller A Monster With a Thousand Heads, a distraught woman (Jana Raluy) decides that there's only one way to obtain a drug for her husband, a man in the last stages of his battle with cancer.

Accompanied by her teen-age son (Sebastian Aguirre Boeda), Raluy's Sonia heads to the home of the doctor who denied her husband a pain-relieving drug that wasn't covered by her insurance company's formulary. Knowing that she'll likely meet with resistance, she has armed herself with a pistol.

Director Rodrigo Pla relies on our distrust of insurance companies and bureaucracy to create sympathy for Sonia, a woman who's acting out of desperation and perhaps denial about her husband's inevitable fate. < Sonia's first target is Dr. Villalba (Hugo Albores), the physician charged with coordinating her husband's care. He manages to avoid her until she's at the front door of his home.

The story then follows Sonia and the captive Villalba as they seek out various executives of the insurance company to obtain the necessary signatures for Sonia to be granted an exception that will allow her to buy the drug.

The outcome of Sonia's criminal foray is partially revealed because as the movie unfolds, we hear snippets from the court proceeding that follows Sonia's impromptu protest.

Although presented in an entirely realistic manner, A Monster With a Thousand Heads can be viewed as a fantasy of the downtrodden and frustrated, those who -- in seeking help -- are faced with stony indifference of people who act as if they are too important to be bothered with the pain and suffering of those they supposedly serve.