Thursday, December 31, 2009

'Uncertainty' is no sure thing


The best reason to see Uncertainty -- a gimmicky drama from directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel: The cinematography of Rain Li. Li does an admirable job of photographing New York City from two vantage points linked by the famous Brooklyn Bridge. To restate the obvious -- a mainstay of all journalism -- we're talking Brooklyn and Manhattan and a story that splits in two. Lynn Collins and Joseph Gordon-Levitt play two couples, one living through a family Fourth of July in Brooklyn; the other running around Manhattan in a thriller of sorts. Neither half of the movie is well enough developed, but the actors are watchable and the directors have a bit of track record, having made The Deep End (interesting) and Bee Season (ambitious but failed). To put all this another way, Uncertainty proves marginally interesting as the work of a directing team that's not afraid to aim high with movies that always manage to look good.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The year in review: 2009's best

OK, so 2009 wasn't a banner year for movies, but that doesn't mean it didn't produce its share of memorable work. And, no, I don't want to hear about how Avatar saved the year for you or why Star Trek made your summer. The best of 2009 either took place away from Hollywood or in mainstream movies that were touched by indie spirit. I have to admit that I was shocked to discover no less than four French movies on my list. It's a little late in the game to be turning into a Francophile, but so be it -- at least for 2009.

Without further ado, then, my 10 best movies of the year with some footnotes about films that almost made my list and other memorable matters.


1. SUMMER HOURS


Director Olivier Assayas' impeccably acted Summer Hours deals with things that matter to us all -- or should: the deterioration of family bonds and the disconnection that can develop between generations. A mother passes away and her three grown children -- two brothers and a sister -- must decide what to do with her house and possessions. There's no faux melancholy here, only the sadness that's felt as time passes and the world as we understand it begins to vanish.

2. THE HURT LOCKER


Set in Baghdad, director Kathryn Bigelow's combat-ready movie could have been No. 1 on my list, but this year I put love for Summer Hours over respect for Bigelow's considerable achievement. The Hurt Locker builds unbearable tension as it follows a three-man bomb squad around Baghdad, showing how different soldiers react to the strains of war. Jeremy Renner does exceptionally fine work as a sergeant who finds both purpose and an undeniable high in defusing bombs. Bigelow works in a sparse, no-nonsense style that proves that she might be a Sam Fuller for the 21st Century.

3. UP IN THE AIR


George Clooney excels as a man who earns his living by depriving others of theirs. Clooney's Ryan Bingham works for a company that specializes in corporate dirty work. Too timid to downsize? Hire Bingham to let your people go. Funny and trenchant, director Jason Reitman's ultra-loose adaptation of a novel by Walter Kirn tops my list of mainstream entertainments. Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick give Clooney able support, and -- as he proved in Thank You For Smoking and Juno -- Reitman is much too smart to sabotage either a movie's entertainment value or its ability to say something meaningful.

4. A SERIOUS MAN


Joel and Ethan Coen defy expectation with a profoundly serious comedy based on their experiences growing up Jewish in a Minneapolis suburb. A Serious Man focuses on the fast-unraveling life of physics professor Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg). Well observed down to the last painful detail, A Serious Man allows the Coens to ponder big questions. It should come as no surprise that the Coens' view of the world -- though often funny -- does not brim with optimism.

5. IN THE LOOP


The year's best satire deals with the way British and American bureaucrats talk themselves into an impending war in the Middle East. (Any resemblance to U.S. and British involvement in Iraq should be taken as purely intentional.) The result is compelling and arch, and just about everything in the movie rings true. The government officials that we meet are a venal lot, careerists who spend as much time jockeying with one another as they do advancing the interests of their respective countries. An ensemble cast shines, but Peter Capaldi earns special recognition as a ruthless, profanity-spewing PR man for the British prime minister.

6. THE INFORMANT!


Director Stephen Soderbergh denies us a strong rooting interest in this story of corporate corruption; Soderbergh does, however, make us wish that sanity might suddenly penetrate the movie's intricate web of irresponsibility and greed. Based on a true story, The Informant! not only lacks a bona fide hero, but takes a surprisingly comic approach to a price-fixing scandal. I know that sounds dull, but it's anything but. Matt Damon gives an Oscar worthy performance as whistler blower who's not all that he seems.

7. SERAPHINE.


A little-known painter who died in 1942, Seraphine de Senlis spent much of her life working as a domestic. A woman of mystical bent, Seraphine believed that God had commanded her to paint. She also believed that she had a winking, intimate relationship with the Virgin Mary. Not surprisingly, Seraphine wound up in an insane asylum. Director Martin Provost's somber movie revolves around a great performance from the Belgian actress Yolande Moreau, whose portrayal of Seraphine is utterly unselfish and deeply committed. Plain and portly, Seraphine isn't the sort of character who endears herself to us or to the residents of Senlis, the town in France's Picardy region where she resides, but Moreau's performance proves unforgettable.

8. 35 SHOTS OF RUM


French director Claire Denis' look at an African father and his daughter quietly (and that's a crucial word) reveals the subtleties of adjustment demanded by those making their way in a changing and increasingly multiracial society. Don't look for screaming or abrasive conflict. Denis' story deals with the great population change in Europe on the most intimate of levels. 35 Shots of Rum expands in the mind as you think about it, and, in some ways, can be viewed as a companion piece to Summer Hours, two movies about the shifting tone and tenor of life in Europe. If only we had American equivalents.

9. THE BEACHES OF AGNES.


I always like to include at least one documentary on my 10-best list. This year's spot goes to Agnes Varda's reflective (and joyfully creative) look at her own relationship to a life in film. The 81-year-old French director remembers her childhood, her development as a still photographer, then as a movie director, and, of course, as the wife of director Jacques Demy, most famous for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Varda's movie is at once arty and playful -- serious without ever being solemn. Varda, who was 80 when her film was made, concludes by telling us that she's alive and that she remembers. Good news for us on both counts.

10. BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS


OK, maybe it's a bit of stretch to put director Werner Herzog's helping of neo-noir nastiness on a 10-best list. And, yes, I have to admit that at times I was a little too aware of Nicolas Cage's tendency to push himself as far over the top as possible. Cage plays a reprobate detective, a guy who seems to have crawled out of the muck of post-Katrina New Orleans. But Herzog, who usually makes films involving great physical challenges (witness Fitzcarraldo or Grizzly Man), accomplished something wholly unexpected. In telling the story of a corrupt New Orleans detective, he rediscovered American funk. Lord knows, our CGI-dominated culture could use more of it.

I'm going to cheat a bit here, and add one more movie to my list, the film I regard as the year's best animated entertainment:

HONORABLE MENTION FOR THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX


Wes Anderson's adaptation of a Roald Dahl story about a rebellious fox boasted the year's best voice work in any animated feature, and, for me, stood out as one of the year's most enjoyable entertainments. How about George Clooney (as Mr. Fox) and Meryl Streep (as Mrs. Fox) as couple of the year?

FOOTNOTES

Not unlike health-care legislation, a 10-best list involves a series of ugly compromises. I could have gone in different directions. Take documentaries: I was partial to Every Little Step, Anvil: The Story of Anvil and My Neighbor, My Killer, which played at the Starz Denver Film Festival and which dealt with attempts at reconciliation in Rwarnda. I went for Varda's movie out of a sense of fondness for a director who insists on following her own muse.

Had I been able to see the five-hour version of John Woo's Red Cliff, it probably would have made my list. I passed because thus far I've seen only the condensed two-and-a-half hour edition that was released theatrically in the U.S. What I saw suggested that Woo may have made his masterpiece.

When it came to acting, 2009 was a strong year. Morgan Freeman's portrayal of Nelson Mandela in Invictus was quiet, subtle and revealing. Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer were superb as Mr. and Mrs. Tolstoy in The Last Station. Tom Hardy was spectacular as Britain's most violent convict in the little-seen Bronson, and Christian McKay accomplished the near-impossible in Me and Orson Welles: He brought Orson Welles back to life -- arrogance, genius and all.

Young women -- Carey Mulligan in An Education, Abbie Cornish in Bright Star and Emily Blunt in The Young Victoria -- distinguished themselves in 2009. And, yes, Mo'Nique stopped me in my tracks as an abusive mother in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Saphire.

I had my qualms about Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, but Christoph Waltz deserves big-time praise for creating one of the most frightening characters of the year: Hans Landa, a terrifyingly polite SS officer.

I don't think most people realized -- and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences probably won't either -- that Michael Jackson: This is It was a triumph of editing. Credit a talented team of editors who made something coherent and even revealing out of tons of raw footage.

Some of year's stronger movies flew under the radar of hype: Director Ramin Bahrani continued to explore the "real" America with Goodbye Solo, an unsentimental look at the oddball relationship between a bitter white southerner (Red West) and a taxi driver (Souleymane Sy Savane) who emigrated to the U.S. from Senegal. Director Sergei Dvortsevoy took us to the steppes of Kazakhstan for Tulpan, a simple story about a herdsman who wants nothing more than to find a wife. German director Uli Edel may have made the year's most exciting thriller by telling the real life story of the Baader Meinhof gang in his Baader Meinhof Complex.

Special mention is due The Messenger, which stars Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson as soldiers assigned to deliver news of GI deaths to their next of kin. To my way of thinking, director Oren Moverman came closer than anyone to date in showing the deep and abiding impact of war on the lives of those who survive it.

And one final note: I haven't had a chance to review A Single Man, but I have seen the movie. Director Tom Ford's finely wrought adaptation of a Christopher Isherwood novel about a gay English professor trying to cope with the death of his partner is graced by an admirably restrained performance from Colin Firth, as the English professor, and by a sad, nervy performance from Julianne Moore, as an increasingly desperate and lonely woman.

So that's it for 2009. With the awards season looming, we'll hear a lot more about the year's best movies, but I always enjoy the prospect of moving on.
People sometimes ask me to name the best movie I've ever seen.
Of course, I could pick a movie, but I always prefer to answer with hope rather than history.

"My favorite movie ever? I hope I haven't seen it yet."

Friday, December 25, 2009

Oh to be young, gifted and royal


Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend as royals in love.

The Young Victoria -- a look at the early years of the famed British queen who ascended to the throne at the age of 18 -- mixes pageantry and palace intrigue in ways that keep a generally tasteful historical drama from sagging under the weight of its own costumes. Nicely directed by Jean-Marc Valle and equally well-acted by Emily Blunt (as the title character), The Young Victoria centers on simmering conflicts over who would follow an ailing King William (Jim Broadbent) to the throne. William died in 1837.

Though respectful of the monarchy, The Young Victoria does suggest that family values -- especially royal family values -- aren't always exemplary. Victoria's mother (Miranda Richardson) and her pal, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), tired to take over the empire by urging the underage Victoria to sign her powers over to them, thereby establishing a regency and marginalizing Victoria's role.

Victoria may have been young, but she wasn't stupid. She resisted and ultimately chastened her mother and sent Conroy packing.

In addition to learning how to wear the crown, Blunt -- familiar from The Devil Wears Prada -- also shows how the queen discovered love. Blunt plays a touching duet with Rupert Friend, who appears as the liberal-minded and always supportive Prince Albert. Early on, King Leopold of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann) encourages Albert to marry Victoria so that he can expand his sphere of influence. But Albert and Victoria -- who were first cousins -- trip everyone up by falling in love and trying to work out their respective roles as husband and wife and subject and sovereign.

I recently looked at a picture of Queen Victoria, and, not surprisingly, her resemblance to Blunt was slight to nil, but Blunt's convincing as a lively and engaged teen-ager who chooses to navigate treacherous political waters, a young woman who gradually becomes less reliant on her prime minister and trusted advisor (Paul Bettany).

Nicely acted by a large cast -- with special cheers for Broadbent's portrayal of an addled, angry William -- The Young Victoria is a smart costume drama that stops short of tackling what might have been the more interesting part of the story -- Victoria's long and much-discussed reign. Here's one movie that I thought ended too soon.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A 'Sherlock Holmes' for action junkies


A Watson and Holmes who break with tradition.

When I saw the trailer for Sherlock Holmes, I fell into a mild depression. Director Guy Ritchie -- best known for hyperactive British gangster movies -- seemed to have made Lock, Stock and Pipe-smoking Sherlock, a movie that turned the world's most cerebral detective into an action junkie. Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes looked as if it would flex enough cinematic muscle to start Sir Arthur Conan Doyle spinning in his grave.

After seeing the movie, I have to say that my fears were only partially justified. Sherlock Holmes is better than I expected, even though it boasts many overblown bursts of action, even though its story involves a secret society that might feel right at home in a Dan Brown novel and even though Ritchie fills in crucial narrative gaps with quick flashbacks that hit the screen with the force of a bandage being ripped off a fresh wound.

If you're a Holmes purist, you'd best stay home. Ritchie's movie doesn't quite leave us with a Sherlock in name only, but it's a long way from the Holmes and Watson created by Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in the 1940s and perhaps an even longer way from the Holmes who occupies digs at 221b Baker Street and still lives in readers' imaginations.

At times, Sherlock Holmes looks like a standard-issue buddy picture -- full of bickering and banter between Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law). Law's Watson seems to have grown more assertive, too. Freshly insulted, an aggrieved Watson hauls off and punches Holmes in the face. In fact, many punches are thrown in Ritchie's high-stepping mixture of Holmesian iconography, Wild Wild West gadgetry and CGI-boosted effects.

For all the artificially enhanced action, Ritchie's best special effect is Downey, whose Holmes dabbles in drugs -- or so it's suggested -- enjoys bare-knuckle fighting and leaps to logical conclusions faster than a speeding bullet. (Sorry, Superman.) Downey's Holmes, of course, is not quite a superhero; he's an unkempt and idiosyncratic investigator whose efforts -- at least in this installment -- are devoted to preventing murders and preparing the audience for a sequel.

After the abject and semi-failures of movies such as RocknRolla, Revolver and Swept Away, I was a little surprised to learn that Ritchie had been handed the keys to a major and potentially lucrative Hollywood franchise. For the most part, Ritchie serves the narrative, an eclectic hodgepodge that evokes Doyle's creation, as well the ghosts of blockbusters past.

The movie's secondary characters are all a bit limited. Inspector Lastrade (Eddie Marsan) doesn't have that much to do. Rachel McAdams appears as Holmes' slightly compromised romantic interest. McAdams' Irene Adler -- inspired by a character from the Holmes' stories -- looks as if she'll be around for future movies. For his part, Watson is about to take up residence with his fiancee (Kelly Reilly). Holmes isn't happy about losing his companion.

A chilly Mark Strong provides the villainy in this installment. As the scheming Lord Blackood, Strong must look sinister, speak softly and glare when called upon. Lord Blackwood, we quickly learn, is behind a series of brutal murders that present Holmes with enough of a challenge to hold his attention.

Somehow, this teeming movie -- hobbled as it is by a second-rate plot -- crossed the finish line without rousing my ire. A final sequence on London's Tower Bridge -- then under construction -- offers a bit of vertiginous amusement. And Downey, whose mind moves as quickly as a pair of darting eyes, conveys intelligence even during the movie's most preposterous fights.

If I were an optimist, I might be tempted to suggest that Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes will encourage a new generation of readers to seek out the detective who proved that the brain was indeed mightier than the sword. But I don't think that will happen because in this edition, Holmes' actions speak louder than his words. Every punch is amplified. Every explosion has been cranked to ear-splitting volumes, and every repulsive 19th Century London sight -- rats, for example -- has been given a magnified ugliness.

You get the idea; I was able to overcome my initial bias and go along for the souped-up ride. You'll have to make up your own mind whether Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes is a spirited re-imagining, a brutal desecration or -- as I concluded -- something that falls between either of those sharply defined poles.

'It's Complicated,' luxurious and funny


Sometimes it's not easy to look your best.

After a year in which The Hangover seems to have been anointed as one of 2009's top comedies, Nancy Meyers' It's Complicated may be the closest we get to a grown-up antidote. Meyers' movie relies on an improbable contrivance and it's a little too soggy when it comes to drama, but the movie allows Meyers (Something's Gotta Give and What Women Want) to do what she does best: present well-upholstered comedies that balance prosperity and discontent. One thing's sure, when a couple in a Meyers' film breaks up, there's plenty of property over which to fight.

It's Complicated begins long after any such martial haggling has stopped. Meryl Streep plays Jane Adler, a woman who has been divorced for a decade. At a party, Jane -- who runs an upscale Santa Barbara bakery -- runs into Jake (Alec Baldwin), her former husband. An attorney by trade, Jake's carting around his bossy trophy wife Agness (Lake Bell) and her bratty son Pedro (Emjay Anthony).

When Jane and Jake meet again in New York at their son's college graduation, they rekindle an old flame and the movie unveils -- perhaps a little too quickly -- its central conceit: The married Jake -- a man who's always had a roving eye -- casts his ex-wife in the role of his mistress.

No character in It's Complicated needs to pinch pennies. Jane's sprawling Santa Barbara home is enough to make you want to seize the property of the rich. Meyers' apparent devotion to conspicuous materialism has caused some critics to turn up their noses, but Meyers' brand of escapism allows for both fantasy and comic concentration. Her characters are free to worry only about relationships; they needn't fret about where the next latte might be coming from.

Streep's Jane isn't entirely satisfied with her role as mistress, so the script graciously provides her with an attractive alternative. Jane's been planning an addition to her house, a plot twist that brings her into contact with a recently divorced architect (Steve Martin). He's interested in her; she's interested in him, but she's also in the middle of an affair with her paunchy but perpetually libidinous ex-husband.

By now, just about everyone knows that Baldwin is a fine comic actor. The guy's ability to blend happy insensitivity and mild (very) self-awareness always makes me laugh. Martin, also known for comedy, plays his role fairly straight, although he's at the center of one of the movie's more amusing bits: Martin and Streep revisit the '60s, getting stoned on pot and trying to suppress their giggles in the middle of a social gathering.

Streep? Even as a rejected and somewhat insecure wife, she remains a diva, and the giddiness she brings to the role of Jane threatens to go over the top, particularly in the movie's early stages.

Meyers does better with the movie's comic moments than with its attempts to get serious, but It's Complicated succeeds as frothy comedy.

And, yes, after Julie & Julia and It's Complicated, Hollywood owes Streep a movie in which she can stay out the kitchen.

'Nine' out of 10? Hardly


Daniel Day-Lewis has trouble starting in Nine.

Hey, I've got a great idea for a film. Why not focus on a gifted director who has hit a spirit-stifling bad patch? After many great (and I mean truly great) movies, our director seems to have run out of creative steam. To make matters worse, his last few films were outright flops. Let's make him Italian, which could mean that he's having lots of trouble with the women in his life -- wives, mistresses, etc. In short, our hero's totally lost and unable even to fake his own brilliance.

But wait? That movie already has been made. It was called 8 1/2 . Released in 1963, the movie earned an honored place in director Federico Fellini's filmography, a portrait of an artist gone dry. In Fellini's movie, Marcello Mastroianni -- an actor whose exhausted charm always seemed inexhaustible -- portrayed the director.

The point: Some things are best left alone, but no.....

In 1982, a musical inspired by 8 1/2 -- it's called Nine -- reached Broadway. Now, Nine has become a muchp-hyped movie with a script by Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella and direction by Rob Marshall. An all-out A-team blitz, Nine's Oscar-heavy cast includes Daniel Day-Lewis, Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Kate Hudson, Fergie (of Black Eyed Peas fame) and Italian cinema goddess Sophia Loren.

That's one impressive group, but Marshall -- familiar to the world of big-screen musicals from his version of Chicago -- hasn't made a film that's worthy of its talent. A musical without memorable music, Nine seldom catches hold. Making a musical with non-musical talent may not be fatal, but Marshall's movie feels perpetually out of synch, as if it's always running to catch up with itself.

Elegance is not the movie's strong suit. The musical numbers have been inserted into the narrative with all the grace of a rain-soaked farmer stamping mud off his boots. Beyond that, Nine -- which includes black-and-white and color footage, as well as a bit of fantasy -- seems like a mediocre imitation of Fellini.

Day-Lewis seems an unlikely choice to play director Guido Contini, but he stoops, shrugs and mostly pulls of an Italian accent and attitude. Guido may have run out of ideas, but he hasn't run out of women. Fittingly, The movie opens with a musical number that introduces the women in Guido's life -- his muse (Kidman), his wife (Cotillard), an admiring journalist (Hudson), his mother (Loren), and a costume designer who's working on his new movie (Dench). When it comes to women, Guido is so busy, he needs a scorecard, and so -- at first -- do we.

Nine takes place partly in Rome, some of it on a vast soundstage at Cinecitta Studios where Guido is preparing his next film, a massive project called Italia. The only trouble: There's no script for the movie, and Guido has no idea how he's going to pull a film out of the tumult that surrounds him. He's not sure he can keep bluffing -- at press conferences or with the large crew that awaits the maestro's command.

Wishing to escape the pressure, Guido retreats to a spa, but instead of finding peace, he discovers more chaos. His mistress, the entire film crew and then his wife follow in hot pursuit. What's a poor, harried artist to do? Talk to a cardinal? Try to juggle his time between an increasingly disgusted wife and a demanding mistress?

The actors -- few known for their musical accomplishment -- do reasonably well with the movie's singing chores, but -- in truth -- they don't have much with which to work. I felt sorry for Dench, who must sing a ghastly number called the Folies Bergere. Happily, she emerges with her dignity in tact. In a movie not given to understatement, Cruz swings for the rafters as Carla, Guido's sexy mistress. Marshall approaches Cruz's number as if its sole purpose were to film Cruz's body from every conceivable angle. Say this: It takes your mind off the lyrics.

At times, the movie tempers its melodrama with an antic spirit, but Nine's only real moment of delicacy comes at the very end. Before that, boisterous music -- most with a generic Broadway ring -- mocks most attempts at sophistication.

I have no idea whether Nine will connect at the box office. It certainly has enough star power to sell tickets. But Nine is a movie full of hyperventilated editing, exaggerated energies, faux sophistication and unvarnished shtick.

Add it all up, and it amounts to ... well ... very little indeed.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Nothing broken about 'Embraces'


Penelope Cruz in one of her Broken Embraces incarnations.

I've often argued that Spanish director Pedro Almodovar is incapable of making a bad movie. There's greater and lesser Almodovar, and that's about all that needs to be said.

Broken Embraces -- the latest movie from the now aging bad boy of Spanish cinema -- falls somewhere between lesser and greater. Still, Broken Embraces is a must-see for those who've followed Almodovar's career and for those who love the sensuous pleasures of movies.

In Broken Embraces, Almodovar explores a variety of interconnecting relationships, as he deals with familiar themes of lust, love and obsession. In case such deeply human passions were insufficient, Almodovar further atomizes his narrative, setting the story in both the past and the present. And beyond even all of that, Broken Embraces serves as an enticing inquiry into the very nature of film -- film as art, film as entertainment, film as consolation and film as an instrument of surveillance.

Tellingly -- and, of course ironically -- the most revealing bit of film in the Almodovar's elaborate story is a bit of grainy footage that we're told was shot by a rank amateur.

Almodovar, of course, is no amateur; he's a terrifically entertaining filmmaker with a buff's appreciation of the past. Alberto Iglesias' score evokes memories of Bernard Hermann's work for Hitchcock, suggesting the dread and danger that gives an Almodovar film its tension. There's even a bit of self-reverential humor with Almodovar using a film within his film to suggest his own international breakthrough, 1988's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

As is the case with most of Almodovar's films, the story is too complex to summarize, but not to follow as you watch. In brief: Lluis Homar portrays film director Mateo Blanco, a man who lost his eyesight and now goes by the pseudonym of Harry Caine. No longer able to direct, Harry writes screenplays with the help of Diego (Tamar Novas), his youthful assistant. Diego's mother (Blanca Portillo) has a long-standing relationship with Homar's Harry Caine -- or Mateo, if you prefer. She's his agent and protector.

The plot begins to spin when a young man (Ruben Ochandiano) who calls himself Ray X shows up at Harry's door. He wants Harry to write a script. Harry refuses, but soon discovers Ray X's true identity. He's the gay son of a financier named Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez). At one time Martel financed a movie for Harry, mostly to appease his mistress (Penelope Cruz). Cruz's Lena landed a starring role in the film. Harry fell for her and a terrible rivalry between director and financier ensued.

That's enough plot to give you a feel for the movie's main ingredients -- if not its flavor. With Almodovar that's an important distinction because story is not always the main source of pleasure in an Almodovar movie. For that, we look to Almodovar's unparalleled cinematic facility, his ability to tease, suggest and create uneasy anticipation in the bargain.

Almodovar seldom approaches a scene in expected ways, and at a time when critics are hailing James Cameron's visual achievements in Avatar, it's instructive to remember that Almodovar's approach to cinema has a richness and purity that has less to do with technological innovation than with the director's nearly infallible eye.

All of the performances in Broken Embraces are fine, but Cruz's work as Lena drives the movie. Cruz plays a woman who's struggling to settle on an identity. Is she Harry's lover? Martel's mistress? An actress? Can she be all of those things at once?

Broken Embraces takes place in at least a couple of worlds as well, the world of real guilt and crippling anxiety and the world of cinematic artifice. Almodovar has crafted a tricky, sometimes elusive movie that's beautifully fluid in its movements. Like many of his films, it's about what we see and what we don't, about why films are made and why they are watched. Greater or lesser, it's clearly the work of a master.

Broken Embraces opens in Denver Friday, Christmas. Because of a glut of movies also opening Friday, I'm posting a few reviews earlier than usual.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A cop who's bad to the bone


Tracy and Hepburn they're not. Cage and Mendes share a moment in Werner Herzog's very crazy Bad Lieutenant.

Despite its title, Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is only a distant cousin to Abel Ferrara's 1992 movie -- also called Bad Lieutenant. Ferrara's movie starred Harvey Keitel as the world's most depraved detective. The new version stars Nicolas Cage as an equally corrupted cop, but one who doesn't seem to have time to plumb any Dostoevskian depths.

I'd just about given up on Cage, tagging the former Oscar-winner as an actor who appears mostly in the kind of big-ticket movies that have words such as "National Treasure" in the title. But Cage gives his chops a real workout in Bad Lieutenant.

For his part, Herzog -- whose career includes both features (Nosferatu and Fitzcarraldo) and documentaries (Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World) -- comes closer to mixing his sensibilities with a straightforward story than he did in 2006's exciting but more conventional Rescue Dawn.

Part genre exercise and part goof, Bad Lieutenant revolves around Cage's performance, which is every bit as insane as his character. As a homicide detective with back problems, Cage's McDonagh snorts cocaine, has a prostitute for a girlfriend, steals drugs from people he threatens with arrest, fraternizes with murderers and smokes a fair amount of pot.

With his shoulders tilted at a sea-saw angle and his face looking as if it's about to implode, Cage turns himself into a reptile with a badge, something that has crawled out of New Orleans' post-Katrina waters and can't shake off all the muck. Assigned to investigate the execution-style murder of a family of five, McDonagh sinks deeper and deeper into reprobate ways. Occasionally, he hallucinates, imagining that he sees a couple of iguanas on a table, for example (Granted, it's a small field, but Herzog includes the best shot of iguanas with musical accompaniment ever filmed.)

As is the case with any self-respecting neo-noir, plenty of minor characters round out the cast. Eva Mendes plays a hooker who McDonagh keeps supplied with drugs. There are also bookies, gangsters and every other imaginable form of human slime.

Perhaps because he couldn't quite decide whether to be serious or grimly funny, Herzog walks the fine line between both extremes. He also makes sure to include scenes that etch themselves into noir memory: McDonagh depriving an elderly woman of her oxygen exemplifies the movie's mean-spirited lunacy. As Cage unleashes a sneering rage that's almost cartoonish, the scene becomes an exercise in shock and macabre humor.

Usually, I hate a movie with several endings, which is the case with Bad Lieutenant. Herzog can't seem to let go of this character, and, by the end, I understood why. McDonagh allows Herzog to make a movie that feels as if it has been composed of jazz-like improvisations, riffs so harsh they turn into a kind of warped comedy, something like the rude, low humor of a honking saxophone.

In Denver, Bad Lieutenant wasn't screened in advance for critics, so I had to catch up with it over the weekend. It's a seriously twisted movie, which -- at least in this case -- is a good thing. In New Orleans, Herzog and Cage seem to have pushed each other toward a wild, dangerous and often-funny collaboration. They've made a movie that lives proudly on the fringe.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Humans bad! Aliens good! It's 'Avatar'



Jake becomes an avatar to learn native ways.

The long list of technical credits for James Cameron's much-hyped Avatar don't pile as high as the stacks of money the movie surely will earn, but they do attest to Cameron's ability to push the medium to its limits. Like Titanic, Avatar will be a box office bonanza, prompting multiple viewings among fans and producing a stream of devotees who believe the movie's encompassing use of 3D and masterful deployment of motion-capture techniques will revolutionize moviemaking as we know it.

At minimum, Avatar seems destined to become a touchstone for geeks everywhere, and five minutes in, you certainly can see why it took Cameron four years to complete his elaborate sci-fi fantasy.

For more than an hour, I found myself wondering whether Cameron hadn't achieved what he hoped, a full immersion in a world so compelling, it sweeps you away. But the movie kept on going -- two hours and 40 minutes -- long enough to expose its deficiencies: the over-ripe pulpy dialogue, the juvenile thinking and the obvious and dated references to such politically explosive matters as Vietnam and Bush era foreign policy.

Avatar's catalog of effects, which carry the picture a long way, range from industrial-strength macho to Tinkerbell ethereal. And, I swear, I thought of both George Lucas and Walt Disney while watching Avatar, not quite the right references for those us who prefer Cameron in his grisly sci-fi mode, a la The Terminator and Aliens.

The thematic underpinnings of the story can't be regarded as one of its strongest points: Avatar pits imperialism, materialism and greed against the natural purity of an indigenous population on the planet Pandora. Ravenous corporate earthlings -- in cahoots with the military -- want to trample the planet, regarding it only as a source of the mineral unobtainium. I'm not making up that name, by the way. Unobtainium? Why not something even less subtle? How about greedium?

The locals -- aliens called the Na'vi -- live in Pandroa's forests and are in tune with the natural environment. Cameron imbues the Na'vi with many of the idealized qualities with which Earth's indigenous populations so often are romanticized. They love of nature and understand how to live in harmony with animals, even ferocious ones. Forget selfish individualism. Among the Na'vi, there's much talk of "the people."

Like Titanic, Avatar also revolves around a love story. Sam Worthington plays Jake Scully, a Marine whose legs were paralyzed in combat. Jake arrives on Pandora to replace his late scientist brother. Because Jake shares DNA history with his brother, he's able to complete his brother's mission and become an avatar, a creature created by mixing human and alien DNA. A human subject climbs into a sleeping chamber, dozes off and emerges in the wilds of Pandora as an avatar, in this case as a member of the Na'vi tribe, 10-feet tall creatures that look like humans, although they still have tails.

Once propelled into the world of the Na'vi, Jake -- or more precisely his Na'vi avatar -- is able to walk and run. The Na'Vi princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) takes a liking to Jake and initiates him into the ways of the Na'vi, which include learning how to merge with the spirits of other creatures (it's done by linking tails), riding prehistoric-looking beasts and generally adopting a greener-than-thou attitude. The Na'vi may appear primitive, but their intelligence is more geared toward survival than that of the earthlings, who already have despoiled their own planet.

At times, Avatar almost seems like a fairy tale -- assuming you like fairy tales that come fully equipped with bruising battles and thudding heavy machinery. The jungles and floating mountains of Pandora are richly imagined, and state-of-the-art 3D tends to pull you into the world that Cameron so painstakingly has created.

The movie raises questions that are less than groundbreaking. We know that Jake will fall for Neytiri and that he will face a moral dilemma. Will he side with the Na'vi or with the corporate militarists -- led by Giovanni Ribisi (as a heartless businessman) and Stephen Lang (as a Marine officer)? Sigourney Weaver signs on as a scientist who believes that the way to win Na'vi hearts is through understanding and diplomacy. She wants to bond with the Na'vi; the corporate guys want to break them to pieces.

I wasn't bored by Avatar, but the longer it wore on, the more it became apparent that the thinking behind it can be as simplistic as the movie's technology is complex. And even that wouldn't matter if it didn't seem as if Cameron was taking himself so damn seriously. I guess when you're able to raise somewhere around $300 million to make a movie, ego inflation is inevitable.

And after the revenue-producing triumphs of Titanic, who really believed that Cameron would be content as the self-proclaimed king of only one world?

Movies on the fringe

Most movies have the sense to run and hide when an imperial behemoth such as Avatar stomps into the marketplace. But several releases can be found on this week's fringe. Here are a few:



The Sun. Russian director Alexander Sokurov (Russian Ark) never has been known for movies that conform to standard expectations. This time, Sokurov examines the life of Japanese emperor Hirohito during the final days of World War II. Living in a bunker, Hirohito (Issey Ogata) is both literally and metaphorically disconnected from the outside world. Sokurov meticulously follows the ritual that surrounds the emperor, who maintains an interest in marine biology and wanders around his underground home as if he's a creature from another planet. If you're looking for action, look elsewhere, but Sokurov's movie proves a strangely haunting meditation on a ruler surrounded and fatally blinded by the machinery of an imperial state. The third in a series of Sokurov movies about fading tyrants that began with Moloch (about Hitler) and continued through Taurus (about Lenin).


Ong Bak 2. Martial artist Tony Jaa returns in Ong Bak 2, a movie that's not a sequel to the original Ong Bak, which also starred Jaa. No matter. Jaa's martial arts skills are undeniable, and -- as is the case with many such films -- the story is a chaotic blend of exotic plot lines, most of which serve to support the action. A sequence in which Jaa subdues a herd of elephants is exceptionally impressive, as are several of the fights. The movie's ending proves unsatisfying, but there's enough action in Ong Bak 2 to turn the movie into a bona fide guilty pleasure.


The End of Poverty? Director Philippe Diaz's documentary, The End of Poverty? attempts to explain the mechanisms by which rich nations suppress poor nations, usually destroying their cultures in the bargain. Talking heads alternate with heart-wrenching scenes of poverty, but the movie is the kind of documentary that would require tons of research either to confirm or to debunk. If you're looking for an anti-capitalist exploration of the world order, you can try End of Poverty? or you can head for Avatar, which makes some of the same points about imperialist exploitation, but also features 3-D and action. Too flip? Maybe, but Diaz' film -- not terribly exciting as cinema -- probably needs to be reviewed by an economist, not a film critic.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Broadcast Film Critics nominees announced

As a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), I usually publish a list of the organization's major nominees for year-end honors. The 15th Annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards will be announced Friday, January 15. The list -- more expansive than most other such lists -- provides you with plenty of fuel for your own year-end awards and also gives you something to argue about as the year draws to a close. I voted, but the nominees don't all reflect my taste, an inevitability with any critics' organization. Stay tuned for more.

BEST PICTURE

Avatar

An Education

The Hurt Locker

Inglourious Basterds

Invictus

Nine

Precious

A Serious Man

Up

Up In The Air

BEST ACTOR

Jeff Bridges - Crazy Heart

George Clooney - Up In The Air

Colin Firth - A Single Man

Morgan Freeman - Invictus

Viggo Mortensen - The Road

Jeremy Renner - The Hurt Locker

BEST ACTRESS Emily Blunt - The Young Victoria

Sandra Bullock - The Blind Side

Carey Mulligan - An Education

Saoirse Ronan - The Lovely Bones

Gabourey Sidibe - Precious

Meryl Streep - Julie & Julia

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR Matt Damon - Invictus

Woody Harrelson - The Messenger

Christian McKay - Me And Orson Welles

Alfred Molina - An Education

Stanley Tucci - The Lovely Bones

Christoph Waltz - Inglourious Basterds

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Marion Cotillard - Nine

Vera Farmiga - Up In The Air

Anna Kendrick - Up In The Air

Mo'Nique - Precious

Julianne Moore - A Single Man

Samantha Morton - The Messenger

BEST YOUNG ACTOR/ACTRESS

Jae Head - The Blind Side

Bailee Madison - Brothers

Max Records - Where The Wild Things Are

Saoirse Ronan - The Lovely Bones

Kodi Smit-McPhee - The Road

BEST ACTING ENSEMBLE

Inglourious Basterds

Nine

Precious

Star Trek

Up In The Air

BEST DIRECTING

Kathryn Bigelow - The Hurt Locker

James Cameron - Avatar

Lee Daniels - Precious

Clint Eastwood - Invictus

Jason Reitman - Up In The Air

Quentin Tarantino - Inglourious Basterds

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Mark Boal - The Hurt Locker

Joel Coen & Ethan Coen - A Serious Man

Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber - (500) Days Of Summer

Bob Peterson, Peter Docter - Up

Quentin Tarantino - Inglourious Basterds

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach - Fantastic Mr. Fox

Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell - District 9

Geoffrey Fletcher - Precious

Tom Ford, David Scearce - A Single Man

Nick Hornby - An Education

Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner - Up In The Air

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Barry Ackroyd - The Hurt Locker

Dion Beebe - Nine

Mauro Fiore - Avatar

Andrew Lesnie - The Lovely Bones

Robert Richardson - Inglourious Basterds

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs

Coraline

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Princess And The Frog

Up

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

Broken Embraces

Coco Before Chanel

Red Cliff

Sin Nombre

The White Ribbon

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

Anvil

Capitalism: A Love Story

  The Cove

Food, Inc.

Michael Jackson's This is it

Friday, December 11, 2009

No surprise: The star is Welles


Zac Efron and Christian McKay in Me and Orson Welles.

Forget the "me'' in the movie Me and Orson Welles: It's Welles who steals the show.

If you've seen Orson Welles in a movie -- and who in their right movie mind hasn't? -- you'd have to wonder whether any actor successfully could play the genius director of Citizen Kane and founder of the vaunted Mercury Theater. Before seeing Me and Orson Welles, I'd have bet against any actor who had the nerve to take a sustained run at a figure as out-sized as Welles.
As it turns out, I would have lost my bet. British actor Christian McKay nails Welles. McKay not only looks enough like Welles to keep his appearance from becoming a distraction, he sounds like Welles and fills out Welles' personality, which was enormous even before the boy genius of the 1940s, expanded his girth.

The "me" of the movie's title is a high school student (Zac Efron of High School Musical fame) who aspires to be an actor. Efron's Richard Samuels manages to audition for Welles, who's beginning to rehearse his version of Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theater, a 1937 modern-dress production of Shakespeare that many viewed as groundbreaking.

Richard lands a small part in Julius Caesar, and watches as Welles indulges his libidinous appetites while pushing his actors toward a stellar achievement. The bit of Julius Caesar we see near the movie's conclusion might be better than anything in the rest of the film, which also doubles as a coming-of-age story for Efron's Richard
While hanging around Welles' troupe, Richard falls for Sonja Jones, a wily and worldly production assistant played with easy sophistication by Claire Danes.

Based on a novel by Robert Kaplow, Me and Orson Welles seems intent on teaching Richard a life lesson. It's impossible for even a brash young man of talent to pit himself against a titanic personality such as Welles, who's portrayed as a gifted actor, a genius director and a philandering cad.

Those familiar with the Mercury Theater will recognize some of the supporting characters, which include John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), Joseph Cotten (James Tupper) and Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill). Marsan's frequently exasperated Houseman may be the standout here. He tried to keep a grip on the purse strings while Welles pretty much ignored every constraint.

It's incredible to realize that Welles was only 22 when he brought his Julius Caesar to New York. He was still four years away from making Citizen Kane, and already more full of himself than any man deserves to be. But Welles' egotism was matched by his talent. Watching Welles rehearse his actors while offering asides on Shakespeare is worth the price of admission.

Director Richard Linklater (Before Sunset, School of Rock and Waking Life) makes the most of the carefully appointed sets, as well as of the enthusiastic bustle of the theater. But it's McKay's Welles that dominates the generally enjoyable proceedings; McCay's performance can be seen as a brilliant incarnation of a well-known and imposing figure. Like Welles himself, McKay practically dares us to look away.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

He fires people and then takes flight


Learning to fire people in several no-to-easy lessons.

Last week, I read a news article that reported that the U.S. economy had lost 169,000 jobs in November. As it turns out, this generally sobering bit of news was considered mildly positive because it represented 26,000 fewer job losses than had been recorded in the previous month. Now think about this: Someone had to tell those 169,000 jobholders that they were about to join the ranks of the unemployed. Up in the Air, director Jason Reitman's engaging new movie, focuses on a man who does just that. Ryan Bingham makes his living by telling others that they've lost theirs.

For my money -- what there is of it -- Reitman (Thank You For Smoking and Juno) is one of the best mainstream directors working today. He knows how to take a serious subject and make it entertaining. His movies have depth, but not so much that they lose their ability to amuse. He has a fine ear for dialogue and he knows how to put the right actors in the right roles. I don't know whether Up in the Air will stand the test of time, but it sure hits the sport right now.

Loosely adapted from a novel by Walter Kirn, Up in the Air gives George Clooney a chance to do what he does best. He plays an unfeeling bastard who lives in a hermetically sealed world in which he has crowned himself king. Clooney's Ryan Bingham works for a company that does corporate dirty work. Instead of facing up to the difficult task of firing people, companies hire Clooney's firm -- run by a character played by Jason Bateman -- to do the job for them. The poor victim gets the ax and is handed a packet that explains all of his or her "options." Isn't that great?

Bingham is able to do such unpleasant work because he travels light. When he gives motivational talks, he encourages listeners to empty the metaphorical backpacks that are weighing them down: they're supposed to remove little things such as possessions and families. In the gospel according to Bingham, one must give up all attachment to have everything.

Make no mistake, though, Bingham isn't interested in developing his spiritual purity; he's addicted to all the comforts his company credit card can buy. He also revels in the anonymity of hotel rooms and hotel lounges. He wants to accumulate 10 million frequent flyer miles, something only six other humans have accomplished. For him, that would be a kind of crowning life achievement. He's at home in all the places in which most of us feel slightly alienated. For Bingham, disconnection means freedom.

For Reitman, landing Clooney to play the role of Bingham must have been like opening his garage and finding out that an old clunker had been replaced by a Porsche. Clooney has all the right attributes for a part that's glib, attractive and confident. And like Paul Newman, he can play a heel who knows how to charm an audience.

For a guy such as Bingham, being taken off the road is the equivalent of slow death. And that's what's about to happen shortly after the movie starts. Bateman's Craig Gregory listens to a recent business-school grad (Anna Kendrick) who believes that the company can save lots of money firing people via teleconferencing. Bingham's boss orders him to take Natalie on the road so that she can learn the ins-and-outs of letting people go. Natalie and Bingham soon depart on their blight-spreading adventures.

So what happens to give Bingham a glimpse of an alternative way of life? A woman, of course. On the road, he meets Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), another business traveler. In a finely written comic scene, Bingham and Alex meet in a hotel bar, sharing some of their most intimate possessions; i.e., they compare credit cards. Clooney and Farmiga (who never has looked more glamorous) generate plenty of heat. Alex seems to be Bingham's dream girl: "Think of me as yourself -- only with a vagina,'' she tells him. Like him, she's not looking for attachment.

Of course, Bingham begins to develop a fondness for Alex that goes beyond one-night stands and their mutual disregard for anything resembling commitment. At one point, he even invites her to accompany him to his sister's wedding. They have a great time. Love seems to be blooming. Bingham even takes on the job of trying to talk the groom (Danny McBride) out of a last-minute case of cold feet.

Given Reitman's sense of humor, it's no surprise that Up in the Air tempers painful realities with humor. Kendrick and Clooney do an engaging odd couple number, as Ryan educates his young charge in the fine art of firing folks. Scenes of people getting fired involve some actors, but mostly are played by people who at one time have been fired. Some of the responses of these "non-actors" can be painful to watch.

I can't say that Up in the Air is a full-blown critique of capitalist brutality. But it has plugged into something else about contemporary life, the creation of faux communities -- flyers, Facebook pals, airport buddies, etc.

Sexy, entertaining and willing to bite, as well as kiss, Up in the Air qualifies as one of the year's best movies, perhaps Reitman's most broadly appealing film to date.

I'm not suggesting that Reitman is a lowest common denominator sort of guy. Not at all. He's a filmmaker who's too smart to let his intelligence ruin a good piece of entertainment, and too serious to allow a good piece of entertainment to turn into fluff. Believe me, these days that's saying something.

Freeman's Mandela a wonder to behold


Morgan Freeman's Mandela courts a rugby player (Matt Damon).

How you ultimately feel about Invictus, a South Africa-based story about the relationship between big-time sports and national unity, depends on how you regard the role sports often plays in society. We've all seen countries unite around the success of a national team -- witness the Olympics -- but does that kind of unity encourage lasting change or does it provide an illusion of progress that serves to support the status quo?

Clint Eastwood, who directed Invictus, seems inclined toward the former view, but he's not the kind of director who draws hard conclusions. In telling the story of how and why Nelson Mandela lent his support to a South African rugby team that had been hated by blacks during apartheid, Eastwood provides a picture of South African society during the pivotal moment in 1994 when Mandela became the country's president.

For years Morgan Freeman has been talking about making a movie about Mandela. In recent interviews, Freeman has said that he never found a script that did justice to the sweep of Mandela's career. As an executive producer and star of Eastwood's movie, Freeman gets his chance to play this international icon in a story that's more a snapshot than a fully rounded picture. Invictus is, however, a very good snapshot, and Freeman's performance as Mandela -- called Madibe by his African constituents -- is one of the year's best.

Most of us never will meet Mandela, but through Freeman, we feel as if we've come close. After spending 27 years as a prisoner on Robben Island, Mandela adopted a policy of reconciliation and devoted himself to building national unity. He wanted to persuade white South Africans -- particularly Afrikaners who idolized the Springboks rugby team -- that South African's blacks would not turn into the nightmare avengers that whites feared.

Freeman depicts Mandela as cagey, appealing, wise and funny. He not only looks like Mandela, but he has mastered the leader's walk and accent. It's as if Freeman has lived in Mandela's skin long before we see Mandela walking into his office as president of South Africa. Freeman's performance becomes all the more convincing because it's not showy. He makes it clear that Mandela often tempered his power with charm. His gait suggests that imprisonment may have put an untenable weight on his shoulders without ever breaking his spirit.

The story focuses on two figures, Mandela and rugby player Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon). A heavily buffed Damon portrays Pienaar as a good-hearted jock who's easily won over by Mandela. This is no simple matter. Pienaar is the captain of Spingboks, a team that epitomized apartheid for black South Africans. According to the movie, Springbok had one black player when it made its run for the World Cup in 1995.

Eastwood, a director who never intrudes on his material, works from a script by Anthony Peckham that's based on the book, Playing the Enemy by John Carlin. Eastwood doesn't skimp on scenes that show the tensions between blacks and whites in the "new" South Africa. The security detail assigned to protect Mandela is composed of blacks and whites who aren't as committed to unity as Mandela. Pienaar's father reflexively expresses the white prejudices of the day, even when the family's black maid stands within earshot.

Invictus, by the way, is the tile of an 1875 poem by British writer William Ernest Henley. Mandela says that the poem inspired him during his imprisonment on Robin Island, particularly the lines "I am master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul."

Normally, I'd be tempted to approach such a line with raised eyebrows of skepticism, but if it worked for Mandela, who am I to knock it?
I don't know much about rugby, aside from the fact that it's brutally rough. An end-of-picture match goes on too long for my taste, particularly because Eastwood refuses to bog down the narrative with a tutorial on the sport.

But it's Freeman's portrayal of Mandela that finally wins the day. If Freeman had any fears about portraying Mandela, he now can put them aside. I don't know how it would be possible for an actor to inhabit a character more fully.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The trauma of war comes home


Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson have tough jobs..

Most of the movies dealing with the Iraq war have faltered. The Messenger proves an exception to the rule, a powerful and realistic drama about the stresses experienced by soldiers who return home from Iraq. That may sound like something you've seen before, but The Messenger feels fresh and hauntingly real.

Starring Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson, The Messenger seems to have a real appreciation for the way soldiers think, at least it seemed so to me. The characters in The Messenger -- which takes place after Foster's Will Montgomery returns from Iraq -- are alternately flawed and courageous; they're convinced that the world beyond the military never will understand them. And in Will's case, there seems to be a simmering anger thing happening, as well.

The Messenger is about the ways in which soldiers are asked to suppress emotion. For Foster's Will and Harrelson's Capt. Tony Snowe, reigning in emotion is more than desirable; it's essential. They've been assigned to "bereavement notification," a job that calls for them to report a soldier's death to his next of kin -- or NOK in Army parlance. Protocol insists this job be done without touching the next of kin -- a wife, a father or a mother. The soldiers are supposed to deliver the news, offer condolences and provide cursory details of how a soldier died. Nothing more.

Will's ability to hold his compassion in check is tested when he meets Olivia Pitterson (Samatha Morton). Olivia's husband has been killed, and Will -- who's harboring his own quotient of guilt -- feels a need to connect with her.

Director Oren Moverman, a veteran of the Israeli Army, handles this potential romance with honesty and delicacy. It's refreshing to watch two needy characters who are also torn by the dictates of propriety, conscience and the need to behave decently.

The Messenger is a beautifully observed story about the ways in which soldiers cope with trauma. Harrelson's Capt. Stone is a recovering alcoholic who womanizes, follows protocols and considers the military home. He's been married three times, and is now alone. Foster's Will, a staff sergeant, is the more complex of the two men: Will is torn by guilt, and he's way too smart to believe that emotions entirely can be pushed aside.

Small and focused -- aside from a trip that the two men pay to one of Will's former girlfriends (Jena Malone) -- The Messenger is honest and affecting. Every door that opens to Will and Capt. Stone exposes them to a worlds of excruciating pain. When Will tells Capt. Stone the story of the combat experience he can't shake, Moverman allows the scene to play out slowly. He reminds us of what's possible when actors are allowed to live through a moment.

By the end, we have to concede that Will is right. We can't really comprehend what he went through in Iraq: But we certainly see what he's going through now -- and that's plenty difficult enough.

'Red Cliff:' John Woo's spectacular leap


Forget this picture, it doesn't begin to do justice to Red Cliff.

Director John Woo's Red Cliff is billed as the most expensive movie made in China to date. Woo made his cinematic bones creating the balletic violence that defined much of Hong Kong cinema in hits heyday and later plied his trade in Hollywood, turning out movies such as Broken Arrow, Face/Off and Mission: Impossible II. With Red Cliff, Woo serves up a historical epic that artfully mixes action, history and fantasy.

Weighing in at a reported cost of $80 million, Red Cliff has been condensed for U.S. consumption from the two-part, 4 1/2-hour Chinese version, a major disappointment for purists. But that shouldn't deter U.S. viewers from taking a look. Though a little confusing at the outset, the story ultimately becomes clear, and the battle sequences -- presented with a CGI boost -- are astonishing, huge in scale and careful to delineate the tactics being used by rival armies.

At 2 1/2 hours, Woo's Red Cliff stands as a captivating action movie that emphasizes the story's broadest themes, notably the battle to protect the beauty of southern China from encroachments by the tyrannical North. The version playing in U.S. theaters makes sweeping battles the dramatic focal point of Woo's extravaganza, but unlike lots of American movies, the battles aren't just blood-and-guts spectacles. They're carefully orchestrated, the result of calculation and planning by the generals who are conducting them.

Woo concentrates the story's villainy in a single character, prime minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi). Early on, Cao Cao bullies Han dynasty emperor (Wang Ning) into fighting a war against two rebellious factions in the South, one led by Liu Bei (You Yong), the other by Sun Quan (Chang Chen). We later learn that Cao Cao's motives may have something to do with winning a lost love, a graceful beauty (Lin Chi-ling) now married to a southern general (Tony Leung).

Red Cliff tires to show how great warriors balance force and cunning. Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is a kind of warrior/diplomat who tries to unite the forces of the South. The movie also introduces us to a female warrior, San Quan's sister (Zhao Wei). Leung plays a general with a keenly developed sense of aesthetics. His beautiful wife sees the tragic folly of war.

Alternating quiet scenes with spectacle, Woo achieves a significant "wow" factor that includes an amusingly novel way for the forces of the South to acquire more arrows once its own supply is dangerously depleted. He stirs the imagination with the movement of vast armies, with assaults on fortresses and with a massive armada of war ships that seems to fill the entire Yangtze.

Woo understands that epics demand scale; toward that end, he has spared no expense. Even in this condensed form, Red Cliff delivers plenty of action-packed goods, but it also has some soul, expressed in the behavior of generals who play musical instruments and who are keenly aware of the importance of turning nature into an ally. When Cao Cao admits that a cup of tea has influenced the outcome of the final battle, we know we're in the hands of a director for whom civilized pleasures are at least as important as brute force.

Red Cliff opens in Denver Friday, Dec. 11.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

'Brothers,' a second-hand drama?


Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal deal with brotherly issues.

Adapting foreign material for American audiences is a bit like trying to run a race with your legs shackled. Adjusting stories that found their truest expression in another culture and language often seems to sap material of something vital, rendering it a trifle drab. In the case of American attempts at cross-cultural appropriation, traces of sentimentality often creep into the mix.

Many of those liabilities are on display in Everybody's Fine, an adaptation of Giuseppe Tornatore's Stanno tutti bene (reviewed this week) and also in Brothers, an Americanized version of Danish director Susanne Bier's movie of the same name.

If you've seen either of the originals, the Americanized versions -- though notably earnest -- may strike you as the equivalent of looking at something painted by the numbers as opposed to encountering something strikingly new.

It's a matter of coincidence that neither Everybody's Fine nor Brothers was directed by an American. Kirk Jones, the Brit best known for Waking Ned Devine, brought Everybody's Fine to the screen; Jim Sheridan, the Irish director of Brothers, is best known for movies such as My Left Foot, The Boxer and In America.

The more socially relevant and better of the two movies, Brothers centers on Tommy and Sam Cahill, played respectively by Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire). Tommy, an ex convict, is the family disgrace. Sam, a captain in the Marine Corps, upholds the family tradition of honor and service. The brothers' tough-minded, hard-drinking father (Sam Shepard) served as a Marine in Vietnam.

The drama begins with Tommy being released from prison. Sam, on the other hand, is about to be deployed to Afghanistan. From the start, Sheridan makes it clear that Sam and his wife Grace (Natalie Portman) have a happy and healthy marriage. They also have two cute daughters, played with engaging naturalism by Ballie Madison and Taylor Geare.

Shortly after arriving in Afghanistan, Sam is killed in a helicopter crash -- or at least that's what his family is told. It's not giving away anything to reveal that Sam survives and is taken prisoner, a startling bit of information that the movie discloses quickly.

Back at home, Tommy begins to develop a relationship with Natalie and her children, becoming a kind of surrogate father and humanizing himself in the bargain. To its credit, the movie deals delicately with any potential romance between Tommy and Grace, both of whom believe that Sam is dead. The movie also shows us the life-changing horror Sam confronts in Afghanistan.

I don't remember feeling as if Bier was dotting every "i" and crossing every "t" in her version of Brothers. I did get that impression with Sheridan's movie, which derives from a script by David Benioff, who also adapted The Kite Runner for the screen.

Still, you almost can feel the actors trying to rise to the occasion. Gyllenhaal captures Tommy's rueful cynicism, alienation and confusion. Portman is equally good -- maybe better -- as a loyal wife who somehow senses that her husband's still alive. And Maguire makes the unsettling transition from loving father and husband to post-traumatic creep show.

Gaunt and sporting a military haircut, Maguire becomes a looming menace once Sam returns home. He makes those around him (and us) increasingly uncomfortable.

Look, Brothers represents an honorable effort by Sheridan, and it certainly can't be called a failure, but it demonstrates the drawbacks of not starting from scratch, of asking actors to pump first-hand immediacy to material that, by its vary nature, qualifies as second-hand goods.

After president President Obama's speech, a movie about Afghanistan should feel more timely than ever, but Brothers is haunted by shadows of yesterday. It is, finally, a remake.

Is everybody fine? Not really


De Niro and Barrymore as father and daughter.

Everybody's Fine -- the Americanized remake of Giuseppe Tornatore's 1990 Stanno tutti bene -- begins with shots of Robert De Niro vacuuming a living room. Consider it part of an on-going trend, the domestication of De Niro, an unfortunate progression for which the actor himself deserves some of the blame.

At 66, De Niro has decided to play a widower who travels around the country checking on his grown children. I'm not suggesting that men should not use vacuum cleaners or that familial reconciliation is an impoverished dramatic theme. I am suggesting that watching De Niro tend to an empty house just doesn't stir the imagination.

De Niro couldn't remain the incendiary Johnny Boy of 1973's Mean Streets forever, but can't he find material that matches the intensity of his best work? Is it him? Is it the scripts? Do we really need a Meet the Fockers sequel, due in 2010?

Aside from providing a progress report on De Niro's career, Everybody's Fine -- which was directed by Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine) -- explores the sad gap that develops between a retired father and the children he has raised, often by pushing them too hard.

Despite the rich possibilities of its premise, Everybody's Fine never quite clicks. It's as if a great theme -- the protective lies we tell ourselves -- has suffered a debilitating deflation, lapsing into something only vaguely substantial.

Jones turns De Niro's Frank Goode into who man who spent his life helping to manufacture protective casing for telephone wires. As Frank travels around the country by train, he looks at the telephone lines that have opened up so much communication. The irony is as inescapable as a call from a telemarketer: Frank may have helped connect a nation, but he's not much of a communicator when it comes to his family.

As the screenplay -- also by Jones -- unfolds, we learn that Frank doesn't know the whole truth about his children, played by Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell and Drew Barrymore, three actors whose looks make it difficult to believe they've arisen from the same gene pool.

Frank's cross-country journey begins in New York City, where he tries to surprise his son David, a painter. Unable to contact David, Frank continues on to Chicago where Beckinsale's character operates an ad agency. Next up Denver, where Rockwell works as a musician. Finally, Frank arrives in Las Vegas, where Barrymore earns her living as a dancer. Each stop reveals something about the lives of Frank's offspring, details that conflict with Frank's beliefs about his kids.

For all the traveling Frank does, the movie takes us nowhere we haven't been before, as it slowly discloses why Frank didn't find David at home, not that there's any great surprise looming. I half wondered whether De Niro vacuumed away all the movie's loose ends in those opening images. Whatever the case, the rest is mostly procedure.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

'Mr. Fox' really is fantastic


The Fantastic Mr. Fox can't suppress his inner wild.

I have no idea whether children will enjoy Wes Anderson's stop-action animated feature Fantastic Mr. Fox. And you know what? I don't particularly care. All I know is that I was totally entertained by this witty and beautifully detailed adaptation of a Roald Dahl story. For me, the mixture of sly humor, talking animals and terrific voice work resulted in one of the year's more amusing movie experiences.

Let me emphasize the point about voice work. Mr. Fox contains some of the best voices to grace an animated feature in this or any other year. George Clooney is perfectly cast as Mr. Fox, a married fox who writes a newspaper column, but can't quite suppress his inner wildness. Far fetched? Not really: I've known columnists like that.

Meryl Streep provides the voice of Mrs. Fox; she understands her husband's adventurous streak, but hopes he'll keep it in check. Jason Schwartzman gives voice to Ash, their son, and Eric Anderson helps bring Kristofferson to life; he's a visiting cousin who happens to excel at all the activities Ash has trouble mastering, most notably athletics.

Meticulously constructed backgrounds add to a story in which Mr. Fox decides it's time to move his family out of a hole in the ground and into a tree house, a real estate deal that his attorney Badger (Bill Murray) advises against. But Mr. Fox wants to move on up, and he's not in an advice-taking mood.

Once ensconced in his new home, Mr. Fox is tempted by the livestock and produce of three farmers -- Boggis, Bunce and Bean. With an assist from Kylie the opossum (Wallace Wolodarsky), Mr. Fox raids the farms in search of delectable treats. The farmers retaliate, organizing under the leadership of Mr. Bean (Michael Gambon). This trio of ill-tempered humans tries all manner of tricks to exterminate the Fox -- and most of the rest of the animal population in the area.

We root for the animals at the same time as we enjoy Clooney's witty delivery and the humor served up by the rest of the cast. You should know, though, that Anderson's sympathy for animals doesn't extend to some of their prey -- chickens, for example. Despite Clooney's breezy delivery, Fox's instructions on chicken killing are brutally blunt.

Though he has inspired a near cultish following, Anderson (Rushmore, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited) isn't one my favorite directors. But I enjoyed Fantastic Mr. Fox more than anything Anderson has done to date. Its anarchic spirit and earthy humor make for a fine time at the movies. Eat your hearts out, kids.

This 'Road' leads to depression


Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee on a harrowing journey.

Bleak seldom has looked bleaker than in The Road, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 2006, Pulitzer Prize winning novel. A serious post-apocalyptic meditation, the big-screen version of The Road has everything it needs, save for McCarthy's prose, and its absence proves a liability.

No Country For Old Men notwithstanding, McCarthy's novels aren't exactly a screenwriter's dream. To deprive a McCarthy novel of its prose stands as a misguided form of reductionism and helps to prove a shopworn adage: Fine novels don't necessarily translate into equally fine movies.

I guess director John Hillcoat deserves credit for trying, but sans the disturbing grandeur of McCarthy's voice, Hillcoat's carefully conceived and drastically somber adaptation tends to shroud itself in the tedium of dead-end gloom.

The movie's ravished landscapes gradually drain the spirit, which I suppose is appropriate, but the novel had a poetic sense of loss that brought us face-to-face with extinction -- not just of ourselves but of everything we take for granted. The movie, though grimly accomplished, can't scale those kind of heights or perhaps I should say, it can't plumb the horrible depths of life -- all life -- on the precipice.

The Road focuses on the relationship between a father and his young son, a relationship honed by the sorrow of a world bereft of all but the smallest hopes: finding something edible, for example.

As is the case with the novel, a character called The Man (Viggo Mortensen) tries his to protect his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). In flashbacks, we learn that The Woman (Charlize Theron) -- the boy's mother -- refused to face an intolerable future and committed suicide. This left The Man and his son to wander the ruined landscape, searching for food and trying to avoid the Bad Guys, survivors who have resorted to murder and cannibalism.

Though the movie never explains the cataclysm that befell the world, it hardly matters. In this rubble of ruined dreams and scattered ash, the surviving residue of humanity has turned brutal.

If you scan the movie's credits, you'll note that the presence of a variety of actors, but only two -- other than Mortensen and Smit-McPhee -- receive any real showcase. Michael Kenneth Williams plays a wanderer who attempts to steal from The Man and his son, who push their belongings around in a shopping cart. Robert Duvall appears as The Old Man, a survivor who arouses the boy's sympathy.

Joe Penhall's script eventually reveals an essential conflict. The Boy hasn't lost the impulses that lead toward decency, compassion and trust: The Man regards such virtues as stumbling blocks on the littered road to survival. Additional tension arises as The Man contemplates whether he'll have the will to kill his son should they confront an inescapable threat.

Although The Road ends on a slightly hopeful note, the movie tends to leave you bobbing on gray seas of depression. Perhaps it has been weighed down by all the post-apocalyptic debris. To the extent that the movie works, credit must be given to Javier Aguirresarobe's unforgiving cinematography and to Mortensen's performance, all dirt and emaciation.

Hillcoat remains faithful to the novel, so much so that movie can be viewed as act of respect for McCarthy. Keep in mind, though, that the biggest event in the novel may not have been the apocalypse, but McCarthy's language. Hillcoat has found no real equivalent for that. I'm not sure anyone could.

Ninjas out for blood and revenge


When Rain's around, it tends to pour blood.

Silly as it may sound, that statement could serve as a credo for Ninja Assassin, a movie whose title promises more than director James McTeigue (V For Vendetta) is able to deliver.

Rain, a Korean singer with an international profile, stars as Raizo, a young man who flees his ninja master and spends the rest of the movie running from the Ozunu Clan. That's not a bad idea because the Ozunus tend to hold grudges. They view any deviation from the assassin's life as a major form of betrayal.

Messy and lacking in distinction, this martial arts extravaganza doesn't measure up to its genre challenge. Blame an overly convoluted plot that experiences continental drift, wandering from Asia to Berlin as Rain's Raizo tries to escape the wrath of his former mentor, the vicious Lord Ozunu (Sho Kosugi). Ozunu once considered the exceptionally skilled Raizo as a son and possible successor.

In Berlin, a Europol agent (Naomie Harris) joins with Rain's Raizo in trying to fend off a ceaseless string of assassination attempts. Raizo and his new sidekick are constantly on the run.

Look I know great writing has little (maybe nothing) to do with the success of a ninja movies, and we should credit McTiegue with getting some things right: The mysterious ninja clan system proves intriguing, as does the stark simplicity of Lord Ozunu's mountain retreat, sort of a monastery of murder. Flashback scenes in which Lord Ozunu trains his youthful charges are tense, eerie and appropriately sadistic. And, yes, there's a thrill in watching black-clad ninjas slipping unnoticed into rooms.

But these hardly compensate for the movie's rampant chaos. Much of the action take place in the dark of night, and it's fair to say that you may not be able to tell what's happening. Sure, everything moves quickly, but it would have been nice to have some idea where things were headed.

Too bad. What could make for a more bracing Thanksgiving than watching ninja warriors carve one another up? Now, all that's left to do with our carefully sharpened knives is aim them at the nearest turkey. Have at it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Young men who make the girls scream


In Edward's absence, Bella looks to Jacob for protection.

For me, the most entertaining thing about The Twilight Saga: New Moon -- aside from a lot of inadvertent humor -- was the audience. At a preview screening, hordes of tweens -- some accompanied by their mothers -- screamed each time one of the major male characters appeared sans shirt. The audience's amusing hyperventilation kept my bad will at bay -- and allowed me to enjoy this amazingly silly movie for what it is, a pre-teen phenomenon. That's good because as a movie, New Moon hardly merits a mention, particularly for those of us who prefer the grown-up vampires on HBO's True Blood.

In this chapter, Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) spends most of the movie pining for Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), the vampire who leaves her because he fears he'll be unable to protect her from all manner of supernatural dangers. In Edward's absence, Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) becomes Bella's protector: He's a werewolf -- or at least he's able to turn himself into a CGI version of a giant, snarling beast.

Director Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass) takes over where director Catherine Hardwicke left off with the first installment. He keeps things moody, as if the entire movie has sprung from the depths of Bella's adolescent funk.

Edward's departure leaves Bella feeling as if she has a hole in her chest. Unless you're 12 or 13, the movie may leave you feeling as if you've got a hole in your head. Bella's dad (Billy Burke) seems a little bewildered, too; he races into her room to offer comfort when Bella wakes up screaming. Nothing seems to help.

Much of New Moon takes place in the northwestern forests of the United States, but this edition stretches its budget to travel to Italy where Edward appears before the Volturi, a trio of vampires who seem to be more powerful than ordinary vamps.

Based on a popular series of books by Stephanie Meyer, the Twilight movies arrive on screen with a built-in audience that seems to have enlarged because of the popularity of the first film. And I guess there's something to be said for a movie that poses an unusual question for a teen-age girl: Would a vampire or a werewolf make the better lover?

Not being one who cares much about the answer, I found myself wondering whether Bella wouldn't be better off putting some effort into her SATs. But, hey, that's just me.

She helps him reach NFL glory


Good mom Bullock reads to Quinton Aaron and Jae Head.

Michael Oher plays tackle for the Baltimore Ravens. If you happen to see a close-up of Oher on the sidelines, it might be difficult to distinguish him from the other behemoths who populate NFL lines. The dude is 6'5" tall and weighs 310 pounds. How exactly anyone can move these kinds of players off the line of scrimmage is beyond me, but that's a story for another day.

The story for today involves a movie called The Blind Side, which stars Sandra Bullock as the white mother who took the dispossessed Oher under wing and Quinton Aaron as Oher during his high school years.

If you've seen the trailer, you already have a pretty good idea about the movie: In other words, it's predictable in ways that are calculated to satisfy, and Oher's story does hold our interest. Oher managed to be admitted to a Memphis private school, mostly because the school's football coach (Ray McKinnon) hated to see his bulk go to waste. On the verge of homelessness, Oher attracted the attention of Bullock's Leigh Anne Tuohy, a no-nonsense woman who opened the family home to the kid everyone called "Big Mike."

The Tuohy family -- husband Sean (Tim McGraw), teen-age daughter Collins (Lily Collins) and younger brother SJ (Jae Head) -- all welcomed Michael. Eventually, the Tuohys adopted Michael and hired a tutor (Kathy Bates) to help boost his grade point average and make him scholarship eligible for college.

The movie also chronicles an NCAA investigation of Michael. Did Leigh Anne Tuohy push Michael toward Ole Miss, the school she and her husband attended? Did the Tuohys adopt Michael just to beef up Ole Miss' offensive line? Seems like a silly question, but it evidently was asked in real life.

In the movie version of the story -- based on The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, a book by Michael Lewis -- Bullock transforms Michael from a gentle kid into a ferocious lineman. She arouses his protective instincts, telling him to imagine that the quarterback is like his brother and sister. He must do what's necessary to keep the QB from harm.

Perhaps to keep things real, Michael occasionally visits his old neighborhood. And there's an affecting scene in which Bullock -- all snap, crackle and southern pop -- visits Michael's mother (Adriane Lenox), a defeated woman whose life has been ruined by an addiction to crack cocaine.

In a way, the movie is less about Michael Oher -- who pretty much goes along with the program -- than it is about Leigh Ann Tuohy, which is not surprising since Bullock -- and the promise of wholesome entertainment -- constitutes the draw here. Aside from the wisecracking SJ, who offers comic relief, most of the Tuohy family gets short shrift.

Director John Lee Hancock hits all the right marks for a movie that's meant to keep audiences involved and happy, and, yes, The Blind Side easily could have been more challenging. For me, the words "crowd pleasing" aren't an inducement, so I'll just say that Blind Side will achieve its success without me doing any over-the-top cheerleading.

And one final question: I'm glad Oher found a way out of poverty, but who exactly reaches out to the young men who can't block and tackle? Where's their movie?