Thursday, June 27, 2013

The 'White House' under siege -- again

To say White House Down is dumb doesn't do justice to the movie's rampant preposterousness.
After the mind-numbing and wildly irresponsible Olympus Has Fallen, a movie in which a disgraced Secret Service agent saved the president from North Korean terrorists, comes White House Down, an action movie in which a wannabe Secret Service agent (Tatum Channing) saves another president -- this one played by Jamie Foxx. The danger: A cabal composed of right-wing crazies, disillusioned military types and greedy corporations, some of whom want to wreak havoc with the nation's nukes.

First, a bit of housekeeping: This latest helping of mayhem from director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) boasts a stronger than usual cast -- at least for a movie that's hellbent on dishing out overheated destruction. Included are Maggie Gyllenhall (as a Secret Service agent), Richard Jenkins (as Speaker of the House); and James Woods (as the retiring head of the Secret Service).

I wish I could say that the presence of these veteran actors enriched a movie that begins credibly enough but quickly collapses into the debris of a ravaged White House.

The plot of this violent PG-13 pig-out exists in a realm beyond stupidity and preposterousness; it can't be described without spoilers, so I'll simply say that trying to connect this movie to anything resembling reality is like trying to anchor an oceanliner with a thimble.

The movie, I've read, is supposed to resemble Die Hard: It places violent action within the closed-space of the White House where Tatum's John Cale -- his daughter (Joey King) in tow -- arrives for a job interview.

King's Emily is upset that her divorced dad missed her talent show, but she's also totally immersed in White House trivia. She seems to know everything about the place.

When the terrorist invasion begins, we learn more about President James Sawyer, who's connected -- via blatant suggestions -- to President Obama. President Sawyer chews nicotine gum to combat his cigarette addiction and has lots of basketball sneakers in his closet, along with the obligatory black shoes. He owns a pair of Jordans.

The major character disclosures are all fairly predictable, and it doesn't take long for Emmerich to make it clear that he's planning not only to stretch credibility but to torture it to the point where it's screaming for mercy: A wild car-chase sequence on the White House lawn stands as a prime example, an attempt to mix action and laughs.

Amid the explosions, you'll find a budding bromance between Tatum and Foxx, who are thrown together as Tatum's Cale tries to protect the president and rescue his own daughter. The girl happened to be in the bathroom when para-military fiends took control of the White House, entering as workmen hired to overhaul the sound system in the White House theater.

Although Emmerich occasionally shifts the action to the plane on which the vice president (Michael Murphy) has been spirited away or to a headquarters outpost in the Pentagon, he sets about wrecking the White House with all the enthusiasm that derelict rock groups once brought to classy hotel rooms.

Look, I have no problem with irreverence when it comes to the presidency or the White House, but I do have a problem with a movie in which we watch thugs put a gun to a child's head and in which political ideas are tossed around as if they were nothing more than one-liners.

Some of the actors take their work seriously; others, less so; and White House Down emerges as an atonal mess that seems to have invested a lot of energy into accurately recreating the White House -- only for the purpose of ripping it to shreds.


A Hasidic woman seeks fulfillment

The Israeli film, Fill the Void, conveys emotional issues within an insular world.
First-time director Rama Burshtein's parents moved from Brooklyn to Tel Aviv when Burshtein was only one. In interviews, the 46-year-old Burshtein has said that her husband also grew up in the secular Jewish world. Both have since become Haredi, members of Tel Aviv's ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community. The couple has four children.

If you follow news reports, you've read about the growing Israeli tension between the various branches of Hasidism and secular Israelis. Reports about Haredi communities have been anything but flattering. Stories about ultra-Orthodox protestors throwing stones at school girls because they don't like the way they're dressed make the Haredi seem more like intolerant zealots than people with whom most of us would want to identify.

If you're interested in an entirely different, less media-driven view of the Haredi, you'd do well to see Burshtein's Fill the Void, a movie that demonstrates, often with great beauty, that human emotions -- feelings recognizable to all of us -- continue to flourish even within the an insular Hasidic environment. As you already might have guessed, Buhrstein's movie expresses no interest in any of the issues that roil beyond the boundaries of the world it depicts.

In Fill the Void, Burshtein tells the story of Shira (Hadas Yaron), an 18-year-old who wants to move on to the next stage of her life. In Shira's case, that means marriage. Within Shira's community, it's customary for parents to present a marriageable woman with alternatives. The woman then decides whether she wants to pursue an engagement.

Shira never questions whether her parents would present her with anything but worthy suitors, leaving the ultimate decision up to her. She has the power to say "no."

At the outset, Shira -- eager for marriage -- agrees to a match. But when her older sister Esther (Renana Raz) dies in childbirth, the plan is put on hold.

I won't burden you with plot details, but what ensues is a drama that tests Shira's ability to come to terms with the conflicts that impede her fulfillment as a woman.

Here's just where Burshtein starts to put Shira's problem into sharp focus. Foot dragging on the part of Shira's grieving family causes the prospective groom's family to back out, leaving Shira adrift.

Fearful of losing her newly born grandchild, Shira's mother (Irit Sheleg) proposes a solution. Shira should marry the newly widowed Yochay (Yiftach Klein), the man left wifeless after Esther's death.

Now, it's important to know that Fill the Void never feels like a drama of repressed desire. Burshtein's characters are complex creations, men and women whose lives are governed by religious law, but who simultaneously can be conflicted about issues involving familial duty.

As Burshtein heself has noted, her characters are not rebelling against what might have been presented as maddening religious constraints and limitations -- the separation of men and women in religious ceremonies, for example.

Although religion is not her primary subject, Burhstein obviously does not see strict religious observance and adherence to Jewish law as constraints, but as guideposts that her characters accept as entirely meaningful.

Shira is anxious about how to proceed with a proposed marriage to Yochay. She's willing to accept the idea of such an arranged marriage, and she's able to give her consent so long as she sees it as an expression of familial obligation.

What she can't entirely come to grips with is the passion aroused by the possibility of physical and emotional intimacy with the patient, attractive Yochay, whom she obviously finds appealing.

If she acts on those feelings, will she be betraying her late sister?

Beautifully played by Yaron as an 18-year-old yearning for hormonal and familial fulfillment.

Far from being a conniving woman, Shira's mother couldn't be more honest about her motivations or more understanding of her daughter's right to make a choice based on her own wishes, as well as those of her family. She's not a guilt-inducing cliche of a Jewish mother.

The same generosity of spirit isn't expressed by Shira's disabled aunt (Razia Israeli) who believes that Yochay should marry a cousin whose marriage possibilities are fast dimming.

Not surprisingly, the whole matter winds up before a rabbi who -- rather than dispensing a legalistic opinion wrapped in Talmudic intricacies -- cuts straight to the human heart of the matter in a lovely, bittersweet scene.

As played by Klein, Yochay is a more frustrated character, an appealing man who wants his new son to have a mother and who might, therefore, be pushed into a marriage with a woman in Belgium. It's this prospective marriage that threatens to take the new born Mordecai away from his grandmother and grandfather.

For the most part, though, Burshtein concentrates on the women who occupy this world. She finds beauty in them and in the lives they lead, and she portrays the yearnings and confusions of a young woman as well as any adolescent film set in more recognizable surroundings. Burhstein wisely relies on the humanity of her characters to sustain interest, and the approach works.

As I watched the movie, though, I wondered how it would play with audiences who knew little or nothing about Jewish tradition. And for all the considerable honesty when it comes to dealing with emotions, it seemed to me that Burhstein couldn't entirely resist idealizing the Hasidic world of which she's a part.

The movie doesn't acknowledge the necessary tradeoff in Shira's life. Her education probably has been entirely religious. Her ability to earn a living may be limited. The dominant role in her life will be that of a wife and mother. Has she made a choice or has she been so isolated that she doesn't even know that there's a choice to be made? It's interesting that Burshtein, who I've watched in interviews on You Tube, didn't allow Shira a choice that she herself was able to make.

The closest Burhstein gets to depicting life beyond the community arrives when we hear the distracting beat of contemporary music in the streets outside the family apartment. No one pays it much mind.

Burshtein might argue that she has presented an insider's view, the approach taken by someone who is not in conflict with her community but nourished by it. As such, Fill the Void stands as a substantial and moving coming-of-age story about a young Hasidic woman captured in the full blush of her ripening.

Back-ups: Do they get enough credit?

I've always thought that being a back-up singer would be a rewarding experience, a life full of harmonic satisfactions and impressive dance moves. Although the entertaining new documentary 20 Feet From Stardom didn't exactly change my mind, it opened by eyes to some of the frustrations inherent in singing back-up. Director Morgan Neville uses some major front-line talent to talk about the role, talent and status of back-ups, namely Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Mick Jagger. Of course, we hear from lots of back-up singers, as well. Darlene Love, who worked with producer Phil Spector and often received no credit for her labors, is one of the few back-up singers who eventually broke into lead-singer ranks. The movie also demonstrates that the line between the collaborative melting pot and cultural appropriation can get blurry. I got the impression that some white performers know that they can deepen their sound and connect it to R&B history by letting back-up singers do some heavy lifting for them. Merry Clayton, for example, sang back-up on the Stones' Gimme Shelter. That's not to say that name artists aren't appeciative of the work of the talented singers who back them up. They are. You'll also meet Lisa Fischer, who has worked with others, but who has amazing chops of her own. Fischer -- at least in this film -- earns a place in the spotlight and helps add to the fun of an informative and very lively work. Any frustrations aside, 20 Feet From Stardom is far from a collection of seething (if justified) resentments. Sure, stories about music-industry injustices can be found, but there's also an obvious love of music-making and some very fond recollecting. And no matter what you think about any issues raised by 20 Feet From Stardom, you'll be buoyed by a movie that never forgets to entertain -- while throwing in a bit of inspiration for good measure.

High tension aboard a cargo ship

A Danish film follows a hijacking that puts its characters to the test.

We've grown so accustomed to amped-up thrillers that we may have lost our taste for real tension, the unease that grows from a situation that's truly terrifying, perhaps even life-threatening. I wondered about that while watching Danish director Tobias Lindholm's exceptional new movie, A Hijacking.

As the title suggests, Lindholm's movie focuses on a cargo ship that has been hijacked by Somali pirates. Rather than over-dramatize an already fraught situation, Lindholm offers a deliberately constructed depiction of the events that transpire as the company that owns the ship tries to negotiate for the crew's freedom.

The company's CEO (Soren Malling) goes against the advice of an American terrorism consultant (Gary Skjoldmose Porter), and decides to handle the negotations himself. These sporadic talks require Ludvigsen's character to speak with Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), the Somali who functions as spokesman for the pirates. The CEO and Omar speak to each other in English.

Mikkel (Pilou Asbaek) becomes the story's main crew member, a genial fellow who works as the ship's cook and who's looking forward to returning home to his wife and young daughter after a stint at sea.

A Hijacking depicts the humiliations suffered by a small crew that's reliant on the ship's ownership to come up with a sum the pirates will accept. The negotiations take place via telephone with Omar speaking from the ship and the CEO, from a sterile meeting room at the company's Copenhagen headquarters. As events unfold, Ludvigsen's usually successful character begins to see the limitations of the negotiating abilities on which he prides himself.

At times, the Danish crew develops friendly relations with its captors, a group that mostly seems focused on the bottom line and that can seem as eager as their captives to get off the increasingly debilitated ship. Food supplies are dwindling, and sanitary conditons are worsening by the day.

Without fanfare or phony histrionics, Lindholm has given us an entirely credible depiction of a commercial environment in which a large corporation must learn how to come to grips with a world in which not everyone plays by the rules. Payouts may become a standard part of doing business, and the company's CEO is intent on partinjg with as little money as possible.

To his credit, Lindholm trusts his audience enough to let these points emerge without underscoring, thus earning a place for A Hijacking as one of the year's most absorbing movies. Most thrillers are not to be believed: This one is.


Thursday, June 20, 2013

'Bling Ring' explores a gimme-more ethos

Sophia Coppola's latest is lively, engaging and a little too obvious.
The Bling Ring might be director Sophia Coppola's liveliest film to date. Working with a mostly unfamiliar cast of young actors, Coppola brilliantly recreates the morality-free atmosphere in which a group of California teen-agers set out to burglarize the homes of celebrities.

In looking at these materialistic, style-obsessed young people, Coppola can't help but make us complicit in their avaricious ways. Would you turn away if you had an opportunity to look into Paris Hilton's closets? Would you decline if offered a chance to savor a bit of the opulence that surrounds some of the well-heeled folks in show business?

Coppola's flash-obsessed characters understand that at certain social levels, the car you drive and shoes you wear can be taken as worthy expressions of character. She knows that to some, a watch is more than an instrument with which to tell time: It's a statement of status and taste, a bejeweled form of validation that puts one in the same high-living stratosphere as the those who get recognized -- even if it's only for being recognizable.

The Bling Ring does not tell a story about latter-day Robin Hoods. These high-schoolers don't rob from the rich and give to the poor. They rob from the rich for their own amusement -- half expecting that their victims are so well stocked they won't notice anyway. They seem to be children of affluence upset that they're not children of monstrous money. For them, theft becomes a perverted form of shopping.

F. Scott Fitzgerald supposedly told Ernest Hemingway that the rich "are different from you and me." Hemingway supposedly replied, "Yeah, they have more money."

These kids believe that the line between the rich and them easily can be blurred: The rich accumulate; so do these youngsters. Does it really matter how they cross the acquisitive threshold to get to the diamond-studded goodies?

Rebecca (Katie Chang) is the author of the burglary scheme. Rebecca enlists the help of her pal Marc (Israel Broussard), a new kid at her school. Together, they invade Paris Hilton's home after reading (on-line, of course) that Hilton is out of town.

The gang also includes Sam (Taissa Farmiga) and Nicki (Emma Watson), teens who are being home-schooled by a mother (Leslie Mann) who specializes in motivational aphorisms. Chloe (Claire Julien) also joins the group, which occasionally expands to include other teen-agers, as well.

Together, these youngsters apply the art of breaking and entry at the homes of various celebrities.

In some ways, The Bling Ring is a glitzy sociological exercise that reveals what life is like in a strata impenetrable to most of us. Fueled by a near ravenous energy, The Bling Ring eventually begins to look like an episode of something we might call "Lifestyles of the rich and vapid."

Mostly, these young thieves are oblivious to any moral and psychological implications of a) taking other people's stuff and b) craving all these expensive trinkets in the first place.

These are cunning, self-absorbed kids. In her best performance to date, Watson (of Harry Potter fame) demonstrates that Nicki has a chameleon-like willingness to project herself as situations dictate. After being caught, she says she's learned a lesson and now aspires to charitable work. Her responses sound as if they might have been prepared for the question portion of a beauty contest.

The tone, energy, performances and voyeuristic tug of The Bling Ring prove considerable, but it's equally true that at the end of the movie's glitzy crime spree, I was left to wonder whether this true story -- reported in a Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales -- afforded Coppola sufficient opportunity to leave an audience with something more substantial.

Coppola (Marie Antoionette and Somewhere) is a skilled enough filmmaker to keep us engaged by The Bling Ring even as we fret that she may have demonstrated something some of us already suspected: Shallow people really are ... well ... shallow.


A breezy 'Much Ado' in Santa Monica

A happy summer diversion brings Shakespeare to life in contemporary garb.
Director Joss Whedon may not be a lightweight, but he's sure light on his feet.

Known for a popular television series (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and for equally mainstream big-screen entertainments such as Marvel's The Avengers), Whedon demonstrates an engagingly nimble touch in his filmed version of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.

Whedon's Much Ado -- filmed in black-and-white during 10 days at his Santa Monica home -- serves as a welcome tonic in a summer already laden with booming explosions and numbing helpings of CGI.

A strong cast gives Shakespeare's language a comfortable American accent, and Whedon is keenly alert to the clownish possibilities in Shakespeare's play about a group of nobles searching for love -- or, in some cases, professing a desire to avoid it at any cost.

Employing an agile camera, Whedon swaddles Shakespeare's play in an atmosphere of contemporary affluence. A Santa Monica setting projects a sense of worldly accomplishment and personal well-being. Whedon may not entirely convince us of the appropriateness of this location for Shakespeare's nobles, but he obtains fine and diverting performances from a cast composed of actors with whom he has worked during his television career.

Love and possibilities for marriage fill the air, tempered -- of course -- by intrigue and the kind of abundant misunderstanding that results from wanton eavesdropping.

Here's my very sketchy plot summary: Claudio (Fran Kranz) becomes engaged to Hero (Jillian Morgese), daughter of Leonato (Clark Gregg). The wedding is to take place under the rule of Don Pedro of Messina (Reed Diamond).

Meanwhile, Don Pedro's duplicitous brother Don John (Sean Maher) schemes to break up the lovers at their wedding, where one of Don John's henchmen will slander Hero's virtue.

And then there's Beatrice (a luminous and smart Amy Acker), who expresses nothing but disdain for love, as does the cynical Benedick (Alexis Denisof). Reversals abound, so it's a sure bet that the love-averse posturing of Benedick and Beatrice will push them together.

Substantial comic relief is provided by Nathan Fillon, familiar from lots of TV and from the movie Serenity), which Whedon wrote and directed. Fillon's Dogberry functions as Messina's top cop.

Whedon's Much Ado may not change your life, but it should bring a welcome smile to your face: The movie transpires in an atmosphere of informality and fun -- and, of course, benefits from the enrichment provided by Shakespeare's language. The Bard never saw a movie, but he knew more about creating an image than most writers before or since.

Small surprise, then, that when Much Ado is clicking -- which is often -- it's a genuinely superior amusement.




Hannah Arendt and the banality of evil

As every student of Holocaust literature knows, Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem remains a book of enormous significance, notable -- among other things -- for Arendt's use of the phrase "the banality of evil" to characterize Otto Adolf Eichmann, the SS officer she saw as shockingly ordinary. Arendt deemed Eichmann a soulless bureaucrat who accepted and endorsed monstrous, genocidal policies, and who helped to orchestrate Hitler's "final solution."

Arendt's observations, first reported in a series of New Yorker articles, seemed to go against the official Israeli and Jewish grain. The Israeli government wanted to see Eichmann as an aberrant monster, a villain worthy of the genocidal crimes he'd help facilitate. Where others saw an examplar of evil, Arendt saw a nobody, a man who believed that in his obedience to orders, he was enacting an impersonal drama made virtuous by his willingness to comply with Hitler's law.

The German-born Arendt arrived in New York steeped in German philosophy and culture. She detested the Nazis, and thought Eichmann should be executed, but she took pains to say that he might be no more guilty than some who were well-situated in the new, post-War German government. She also objected to the show-trial aspects of the legal proceedings that unfolded in Jerusalem in 1961.

Arendt cut her teeth as a political philosopher under Martin Heidegger, a German professor who became known for his support of the Nazis.

As directed by Margarethe von Trotta, Hanna Arendt becomes a study of Arendt's life during and just after the Eichmann trial -- with flashbacks to her growing disillusionment with Heidegger. At one point, she and Heidegger were lovers.

Although Barbara Sukowa, who starred in von Trotta's Rosa Luxemburg, looks nothing like Arendt, she manages to capture the writer's authorial courage and her approach to intellectual life with her second husband, poet and philosopher Heinrich Bl├╝cher, played by Axel Milberg.

Arendt's view of Eichmann -- who's seen in actual footage from the trial -- was not the only source of controversy emerging from her work. As the movie makes clear, Arendt's detractors also objected to her critique of a European Jewish leadership that often cooperated with the Nazis in hopes of saving as many Jews as possible. To Arendt, this was a form of capitulation that served only to enable the Nazis in their insidious labors.

When I first read Arendt's book, it struck me as a revelation. Looking back from a 21st century perspective, it seems that Arendt may have both right and off the mark at the same time. Perhaps a show trial, a public airing of atrocity on a massive scale, was precisely the right response when it came to Eichmann. If the Israeli government used him to tell a Holocaust story, so what?

However one views Eichmann -- thoughtless nebbish or enthusiastic purveyor of genocide -- he was the SS man in charge of the massive logistical effort that moved European Jewery into death camps.

For her part, von Trotta may be less interested in Arendt's conclusions about Eichmann than in her courage as a writer and independent thinker. Toward the end of the movie von Trotta focuses on Arendt's impassioned speech to her students after she was scorned by her colleagues at Columbia University, where she was a visiting professor.

Despite a strong performance from Sukowa, Hannah Arendt tends to come across as a kind of intellectual footnote rather than an impassioned debate about the sorts of people who carried out the crimes of the Holocaust.

Beyond that, Arendt's post-Eichmann fate -- no matter how unfair or unpleasant -- seems insignificant when measured against the magnitude of suffering caused by the Nazis.

It also needs to be pointed out that there's much more to Eichmann in Jerusalem than the movie -- forced to consolidate and concentrate -- can convey. However you regard von Trotta's film, Arendt's work demands re-visiting -- again and again.





A zombie tsunami hits screens

It may not be a zombie classic, but the action-heavy World War Z contains trace elements of smarts.
When the zombies in World War Z twitch and convulse, they look like the kind of awkward geeks who lack either the common sense or decency to stay off dance floors. But unlike the hopelessly arrhythmic or even the creatures in most low-grade zombie movies, these big-bite men and women have gone global: They arrive on screen in swarming hordes, the undead residents of Earth terrorizing the planet in apparently endless waves.

As you may already know from the movie's trailers, World War Z imagines a world in which zombies have become a dangerous infestation, a population explosion of monsters eager to consume those who remain fully human. Think locusts with two legs.

Downplaying the political slant of the Max Brooks novel on which it's based, World War Z emphasizes biological mayhem a la Steven Soderbergh's Contagion . Director Marc Forster's gargantuan mixture of sci-fi and horror tells us that the zombie condition stems from an unexplained virus.

Skeptical viewers may be tempted to think that the movie spreads a virus of its own by indulging in the kind of frenzied, non-stop action that infects the nation's multiplexes during the summer months.

In the case of War War Z, this may not be an entirely bad thing. The movie explores what might happen if an unsuspecting and unprepared populace faced a fast-moving catastrophe. All bets suddenly are off.

The movie -- which stars Brad Pitt -- dishes out agitated bursts of excitement and manages a reasonably neat trick: It makes an entirely preposterous story appear as if possesses a reasonable amount of intelligence.

Pitt portrays Gerry Lane, a former United Nations investigator who -- almost from the movie's start -- finds himself on the run from zombies along with his wife (Mirelle Enos) and two daughters. Early scenes in a Philadelphia traffic jam serve up an effectively deadly combination: gridlock and chaos.

Forster gained action experience on Quantum of Solace, after directing movies such as Finding Neverland and Monster's Ball. With World War Z, he takes a globe-hopping approach to a story in which Gerry's former boss (Fana Mokoena) secures the safety of our hero's family by airlifting them off the roof of a Newark tenement to the deck of an aircraft carrier.

Security comes at a price. Gerry's family only can remain on the carrier if he agrees to lead a mission aimed at determining the cause of the zombie-producing virus, thereby enabling scientists to develop a vaccine that will prevent its continued spread.

The movie takes Gerry from early scenes in Philadelphia and Newark to South Korea, Jerusalem and Cardiff, Wales, where the story settles at a laboratory run by the World Health Organization.

Forster does a decent, if not inspired, job with the action, keeping the pacing brisk and not allowing a great deal of time for thought. His greatest achievement involves shots of the zombie masses trying to breach the walls the Israelis have erected around Jerusalem. Evidently, the Israelis were the only people to take the zombie threat seriously from the outset.

There's no show-boating in Pitt's performance, which doesn't need to get much beyond genre efficiency. The supporting cast includes a nice turn from David Morse as a rogue CIA agent. Danielle Kertesz is equally good as an Israeli soldier who joins forces with Gerry as he hopscotches the globe in search of answers.

For the most part, though, World War Z moves so quickly that the performances hardly matter. The movie is at once streamlined and abundant: It serves up more action than plot while depicting a world engulfed by mega-helpings of zombie rot.

Forster also does a nice job whipping up suspense, particularly in the final going when the movie dishes out a more intimate brand of tension. He also serves the blockbuster beast by including at least one buzz-generating bit of action: You've heard of snakes on a plane, try zombies on a plane and you've got the idea.

World War Z leaves us wondering what happened to a couple of characters who disappear without explanation; it also lacks the kind of depth and emotional resonance that would have made it more than a souped-up "B" movie.

But as summer movies go, you could do a lot worse, and probably already have.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Action filled, but less than super

Instead of being a renewed helping of Superman, Man of Steel feels like one more summer blockbuster.

Despite a ton of action -- some of it impressive, some merely clangorous -- Man of Steel just didn't feel like a Superman movie to me.

It wasn't just that Henry Cavill, the British actor who plays Superman, looks a bit like a young John Travolta -- only buffed to the max. And it wasn't that many of the touchstone events marking Clark Kent's evolution to Superman pass without appropriate fanfare. And it wasn't that lovable stock figures such as Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) have been drained of vitality or even that spunky Lois Lane (Amy Adams) knows Superman's true identity from the start. They even smooch.

Those things don't help, but none of them prove fatal.

But by flooding the Superman story with blockbuster-style action and by presenting it in distinctly darker hues, director Zack Snyder (Watchmen) has deprived Man of Steel of the innocence, humor and moral certainty on which Superman thrives.

And by updating the series to the present day, the filmmakers are forced to abandon some of Superman's trademark flourishes. In the age of the cell phone, Clark Kent would be hard pressed to find a phone booth in which to change into his trademark outfit, form fighting tights and a red cape. Even Superman's suit has been rendered in a darker shade of blue than those of his predecessors, suggesting a super hero for an era consumed by global gloom.

And that "S" on Superman's chest? You might have thought it stood for Superman; it's really a symbol of hope from his home planet, Krypton.

Snyder & company treat Man of Steel as an origins story. In much of the movie, Superman is referred to as, Kal-el, the name he was given by his father Jor-el (Russell Crowe) on Krypton.

This young superhero has yet to discover his destiny, which eventually will cast him as a Christ-like savior for a needy planet, providing, of course, you can imagine a savior whose battles can result in the wanton destruction of whole cites.

At the movie's end, Metropolis becomes the stage for a fierce battle between Kal-el and General Zod (Michael Shannon), a villain who escapes imprisonment, along with a handful of dedicated followers after the planet Krypton self-destructs. The planet's core gives way, much like the center of this highly anticipated re-start.

In case you think I'm exaggerating about the connection between Superman and a more widely acknowledge savior, consider this: The movie includes a scene in which a troubled Clark Kent talks to a priest. A stained-glass figure of a kneeling Jesus provides an obvious symbolic backdrop for the conversation, which takes place moments before Superman makes an appearance in his trademark cape.

Perusal of the supporting cast gives you a quick idea about the way Man of Steel unfolds. Kevin Coster appears as Superman's earthly father, the dad who doesn't want his adopted son to reveal his powers lest the wary residents of Earth turn on him.

Diane Lane -- unconvincingly aged during the proceedings, plays Clark's mother -- and a group of mostly indistinguishable actors portray General Zod's evil devotees.

Zod plans to destroy humanity and reconstruct the planet Krypton on Earth, thus ensuring the survival of his race. To do this, he must tamper with the Earth's gravity and take possession of a Codex, a device in which all the genetic codes of Krypton have been implanted.

Man of Steel doesn't skimp on action. When Superman, still a drifting Clark Kent, saves the crew of a burning oil rig, the large scaled imagery proves impressive. So do CGI images of a monster tornado that sweeps over Smallville.

And for those who like pulpy views of alien planets, early depictions of Krypton may prove interesting. Of course, these also devolve into showers of fiery pyrotechnics.

Making Zod the villain tends to turn Man of Steel into a second-rate space opera that's equipped with ominous spaceships that resemble giant bugs that perhaps should have been fought with mega-blasts of Raid.

A booming display of CGI dominates a protracted finale that features so much destruction, you might think that Snyder hired Michael Bay (of Transformers fame) as a consultant.

There had been hope that the participation of Christopher Nolan (of Batman fame) as one of the film's writers and producers would add a compelling contemporary sensibility to the Superman story. But looked at with the benefit of hindsight, a more serious Superman represents a major miscalculation. The same goes for the memory-trigged flashbacks that reveal Superman's childhood.

Kal-el remembers a youth in which he tried to restrain his super powers, prompting an identity crisis that pervades the movie. This Superman really is an alien on Earth.

We're all locked into our personal cultural prisons. In the case of Superman, the walls of mine were built from the comic books I read as a kid when my parents weren't looking, from the early TV show starring George Reeves and from the better Superman movies in which Christopher Reeve found a signature role.

This edition -- which no doubt will smash as many box-office records as it does Metropolis skyscrapers -- seems to lack deep affection for Superman. To me, Man of Steel seems more like a medium-grade summer movie than a convincing revival. I missed the character whose claim to fame involved leaping tall buildings at a single bound and moving faster than a speeding bullet.

But even if you accept Snyder's action-dominated 143 minutes, you may have have to admit that the movie might have benefited from some narrative Super Glue. Are scene-to-scene transitions a totally forgotten art?

Only the movie's final scene offers a hint of the winking chemistry that Superman needs. Yet, it too can seem weirdly misguided. Clark Kent lands a job at the Daily Planet, thus making him one of the few people in any galaxy who doesn't know that the newspaper business is foundering. Bad career choice, Clark.

Man of Steel -- which offers enough action to induce motion sickness -- can't be accused of lacking an interpretive slant. (I didn't like it, but at least it has one.) And, yes, it makes a hell of a lot of noise.

What's missing? How about a major helping of fun? How about a clear sense of yearning for the simple virtues Superman so reliably embodies? By the end of this edition, Superman not only had rocketed through Earth's atmosphere, he'd basically flown the coop.




Jesse and Celine on the rocks?

Talk is the action in director Richard Linklater's gem-like Before Midnight.
Director Richard Linklater's Before Midnight is a welcome rarity, a movie that digs deeply into the core of a relationship that's been going on for almost 20 years. At a time when insipid rom-coms tend to dominate the nation's multiplexes, a smart relationship movie can seem like a cultural antidote: fragile, tentative and absolutely essential.

This third in a series of films about two lovers who first met in Vienna in 1995 (Before Sunrise) and who reunited in Paris in 2004 (Before Sunset) continues and perhaps even strengthens Linklater's talky, introspective inquiry into the nature of love between two people who can't always get out of their own heads.

As those familiar with the previous two movies know, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) have had their problems: However, travel deprivation isn't one of them. This time, Jesse and Celine, now married to each other, find themselves in beautiful Greece with their twin girls.

The movie begins with Jesse feeling blue and a bit guilty because his son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) is about to rejoin his mother in the U.S. Looming separation triggers one of Jesse's nagging issues: Although he and Celine have two beautiful daughters, Jesse hasn't been the father Hank, his offspring from a previous marriage, needs or deserves.

Jesse's talk about moving back to Chicago upsets Celine, who believes she's already sacrificed a lot for the sake of their relationship. A dedicated environmentalist, the French-born Celine just has landed a job that allows her to pursue her career in an ideal European setting. The last thing she wants is to uproot and move to the U.S.

Say this: Jesse and Celine know how to suffer in comfort. They're the guests of a novelist (played by the cinematographer Walter Lassally) who has invited Jesse and his brood to spend time at his very pleasant villa.

Linklater is one of the few directors working today who makes no bones about directing talk-heavy films. Conversations evolve during a meal that Jesse and Celine share with a group of friends. Jesse and Celine stake out more turf, as they stroll about town. A hotel room provides the setting for what begins as an opportunity for romantic renewal but quickly degenerates into a fight.

Jesse and Celine's marriage may be shaky, but Before Midnight isn't a hand-wringing, soul-rending look at a marriage in its death throes. As was the case in the previous two movies, there's an exploratory quality to the conversations between Jesse and Celine, although this time, there's also plenty of anger, particularly on Celine's part.

Meanwhile, Jesse -- who earns his living as a writer -- mulls ideas for a new novel and continues his on-going inner monologue, which occasionally presents itself in the form of conversation with others.

Hawke and Delpy give such impressively naturalistic performances that they leave us hoping that Linklater will check in with Jesse and Celine again -- even though he's running out of times of day to provide these movies with names.

And keep this in mind: Despite the loose and deceptively informal nature of Before Midnight, it takes focus and discipline to keep a movie such as this feeling relaxed, unstudied and real.






'The East' poses difficult questions

Acting and intrigue help elevate this thriller about eco-terrorism.

The eco-thriller The East deals with the often-fraught relationship between conscience and action, inviting us to ponder whether the two ever can be brought into complete agreement.

The movie has the right team to consider such a question. Actress Brit Marling co-wrote The East with director Zal Batmanglij, who directed Marling in Sound of My Voice (2011), an effective and involving drama about life inside a cult.

Marling, who stars in The East and who also starred in the haunting Another Earth, is an unusual actress; she seems to play characters who are both doers and observers, projecting a divided sense of self that's full of puzzle-like complexity.

In The East -- a thriller that focuses on a committed band of eco-terrorists -- Marling portrays Sarah, a woman who works for a company that provides security services to corporations that are fearful of becoming targets for environmental extremists.

Headed by a no-nonsense boss (Patricia Clarkson), the firm seems as concerned about profits as it is about protecting lives and repuations. Not a client? In danger? Too bad.

Ambitious and calculating, Sarah leads a double life. She lives with a boyfriend who doesn't know exactly what she does. He believes she's on a business trip to Dubai while she's actually infiltrating The East, a band that conducts trageted anti-corporate operations called "jams."

Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), the quietly magnetic leader of the group, presides over sessions featuring lots of hugs, some of them dispensed during an oddball game of spin-the-bottle. The group lives in a burned-out shell of house in the protective seclusion of a forest.

Two members of The East stand out. Ellen Page proves entirely convincing as Izzy, an eco-ideologue who wrings all feeling out of her decisions. Toby Kebbell portrays Doc, a disillusioned physician with first-hand experience about the perils of Big Pharma.

The members of The East are smart and not entirely unsympathetic. When they're not "jamming," they attempt to live by authentic communal values, and they seem to care about one another.

They're also Freegans, part of the culture that lives on food discarded before it spoils. They seem to have the courage of their dumpster-diving convictions.

The screenplay pulls Sarah in and out of the group, occasionally returning her to corporate headquarters where she reports on activities of The East.

Predictably, Sarah begins to develop personal relationships within the group, attachments that further fragment her already divided life. We know that Sarah eventually will grapple with confounding moral questions: Where do her sympathies lie? Can she accept extreme measures in pursuit of morally defensible ends? Can harming people -- even obvious corporate villains -- ever be justified? Can there be "revolutionary" action without collateral damage?

Think of The East as a better-than-average political thriller, though not a perfect one. The "jams" conducted by The East aren't always credible, and it would have been interesting to know a little more about Marling's character. Still, The East qualifies as a drama with something important on its mind. That, strong performances and a fair measure of old-fashioned tension separate The East from a crowded thriller pack.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Beautiful, but short on enchantment

I appreciated the care that director Jean-Francois Laguionie has taken with his new animated movie, The Painting (Le Tableau). Playful and imaginatively realized, Laguionie's carnival of color is enriched by clever touches that result from its premise: Characters within serveral painings come to life. Having said that, I can't say that I totally enjoyed The Painting, which pits a quartet of characters against a rigid class system and which, alas, tends toward only intermittent delight. The Alldunns (say it out loud) are figures that have been completed. They lord it over second-class citizens such as the Halfies (half-finished figures) and Sketchies (figures that only have been outlined). Halfie Claire and Alldunn Ramo join with Lola, who has one remaining spot that needs color, and Sketchie Quill in a search to find the painter who created them. Presumably, the painter can make everyone whole, thereby establishing a climate of equality with his paintings. The version of The Painting playing in the U. S. has been dubbed into English, which I suppose makes it easier to savor the visuals, but which may detract from this French import's charm. Overall, The Painting struck me as the kind of entertainment that adults might consider good for children, which (in my mind) means that kids might be a trifle bored. Laguionie's ample creativity impresses even as The Painting falls short of enchantment.


Thursday, June 6, 2013

Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson go Google

Google may be a high-tech mecca, but The Internship downloads few laughs.
Just what we needed, another fish-out-of-water comedy, this one starring motor mouth Vince Vaughn and reliable goofball Owen Wilson. Make that two fish out of water.

The new comedy, The Internship, focuses on a couple of displaced salesmen who attempt a leap into the digital age.

Absent any other opportunities, this duo of former watch salesmen applies for an internship at Google's California headquarters, the high-tech playground where some of the movie was filmed.

The comedy mostly centers on the way two relics of the old economy try to blend with bright, young hotshots. These youthful techies also face an uncertain economic future, but they're totally prepared for the information-oriented economy that's beginning to attain near-imperial stature.

Overly long and not especially funny, The Internship -- which was directed by Shawn Levy (Date Night) -- misses a chance to bring a sharp satirical edge to material that seems ripe for it. Vaughn plays Billy, a character so mired in the '80s, he uses Flashdance as a source of inspiration. It's not a great joke to begin with, but then the movie acts as if it actually believes that Flashdance really did have something useful to say.

Working from a script by Vaughn and Jared Stern, Levy keeps the humor on obvious levels, but it's not easy to believe that two guys in their 40s could be this deficient in "technical" knowledge, particularly Vaughn's character, who's made to seem dumber than he needs to be.

An example: Instead of talking about going on-line, Billy talks about going "on the line." If that's your idea of wit, have it, but that (and much else about The Internship) struck me as strained and slightly pathetic.

Levy seems to be trying to freshen an old formula by setting his comedy in the middle of a high-tech mecca where the two older guys become part of a team that's competing with other teams for permanent jobs at Google, which the movie seems to regard as the equivalent of ascension into heaven.

The competition makes it possible to add characters who presumably are meant to woo a younger demographic. Dylan O'Brien plays the bright but jaded young teammate; Tobit Raphael portrays a home-schooled Asian mama's boy, and Tiya Sircar appears as the girl in the group who pretends to be more street smart than she really is. Josh Brener plays the team leader, the Google employee who's supposed to whip his charges into fighting shape.

In addition to designing apps and learning how to work Google's help line, the teams even square off in a Quiddich match.
I doubt that we needed more evidence that Google is a nesting place for the kind of young people who are fluent in Harry Potter-speak. At times, the movie makes Google look like summer camp for nerds with Type-A personalities.

Aasif Mandvi provides additional support as the stern Google manager who oversees the competition, and Max Minghella plays an overly competitive and eminently dislikable rival of our sometimes feckless heroes.

Being a red-blooded adult, Wilson's character falls for an older Googler played by Rose Byrne about whom, in this instance, there's little worth saying.

Cameo appearances from Will Ferrell and John Goodman are funnier than some of the more extended roles, although Goodman's playing a variation on the kind of supposedly savvy hustler he's played many times before.

You won't be surprised to know that Vaughn and Wilson, reprising their previous teaming in Wedding Crashers (2005), wind up helping their younger charges, cementing an otherwise uneasy relationship. A night of club-hopping in San Francisco helps build a bridge between generations.

Vaughn does his talk-fast, say-little shtick, as someone in the movie points out; Wilson relies on his oddball sincerity, and the whole thing passes without downloading enough laughs to make it a summer stand-out.

Put another way: Google top funny comedies, and The Internship isn't likely to show up -- unless of course Google -- which, among other things, comes off looking like a beehive of busy creativity -- compiles the list.


Boys seek indepedence in the woods

The Kings of Summer doesn't quite rule, but it has its charms.

Every summer, a small movie looks as if it's poised to be the season's sleeper hit. Put The Kings of Summer into that aspirational category, but don't bet the rent that it will fulfill any record-breaking ambitions.

That's not to say that The Kings of Summer -- the story of three teen-agers who leave home and build a ramshackle cabin in the woods -- is charmless, but rather to caution that
the movie's overall impact matches its modesty.

Besides, it must mean something that the most interesting performance in this movie about teen rebellion is given by Nick Offerman, an adult best known for his work on NBC's Parks and Recreation. Offerman's deadpan style, wry delivery and willingness to portray a less-than-admirable dad helps spike the movie's adolescent punch.

It's just that kind of mildly mordant touch that keeps Kings of Summer from falling into a sink pit of teen-movie cliches.

The movie begins in earnest when 15-year-old Joe (Nick Robinson) gets crosswise with his dad during an aggressively competitive Monopoly game. We understand why Joe and his dad channel emotion into Monopoly. They're both having a rough go after the death of Joe's mother.

Joe's embittered dad slams the boy with withering verbal assaults, delivered without inflection by Offerman who knows how to play a guy who's fed up with life and seems to expect nothing much from it.

What's an aggrieved 15-year-old to do? Joe decides to round up a buddy and head for the woods. He convinces his friend Patrick (Gabriel Basso) to join him. Patrick is eager to escape the clutches of his self-absorbed parents (an amusing Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson).

Another youngster, the oddball Biaggio (Moises Arias) worms his way into the group, providing what every movie about teen-agers needs: the unashamedly weird kid.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, working from a screenplay by Chris Galletta, finds humor in the fact that the boys aren't natural woodsmen. When they hunt for food, a self-sufficiency pledge goes by the boards: It doesn't hurt that the boys' foray into the wilderness takes place within walking distance of a chicken restaurant. So much for living off the land.

The alliance between buddies is challenged when Patrick and Joe square off in the game of love. Joe has a crush on Kelly (Erin Moriarty). She likes Joe, but might be more inclined toward Patrick. When Kelly shows up, the boyhood paradise begins to crumble, something we knew would happen all along, possibly because the house the boys build looks as if it's been engineered for collapse.

The young actors give strong performances, and Vogt-Roberts makes room for a couple of scenes in which the boys get in touch with their primal selves.

It's a bit of a stretch to believe that three kids could pull off this kind of disappearing act, but unless they do, there's no movie. And maybe Vogt-Roberts means to suggest that, to some degree, the adults are allowing these kids room to fail.

Whatever its deficiencies, Kings of Summer earns points for understanding what it's like to be 15 and fed up with life at home -- but not entirely prepared to leave it.

'Midnight's Children:' An ambitious misfire

I once heard a screenwriter say that the best way to adapt a novel is for the initially overwhelmed writer to take what he or she most loves about the novel and discard the rest. Good advice, I suppose, but it must have been particularly difficult for someone like Salman Rushdie to follow, particularly in adapting his own 1981 novel, Midnight's Children, for the screen. Director Deepa Mehta, who directed a trilogy of beautiful films -- Fire (1996), Earth (1998), and Water (2005) -- provides this two-hour and 28-minute movie with plenty of impressive imagery, but can't bring the story to successful fruition. Over-plotted and unable convincingly to blend some of the novel's magic realism with an otherwise conventional narrative, Midnight's Children is one of those sprawling, thematically rich movies that probably needed to be great. It's not. Those unfamiliar with the novel need to know that the movie's title refers to children born at the stroke of midnight on Aug. 15, 1947, the exact moment India attained independence from Britain. Using two such children as a focal point, the story -- which spans 50 years of Indian and Pakistani history -- becomes a kind of smorgasbord of conceits that includes, among lots of other ploys, the old babies-switched-at-birth trick. Midnight's Children serves as a primer on recent Indian history, which is fraught with ethnic and political tensions. It also features a fine performance from Satya Bhabha, who portrays the main character, Saleem, as a young man. During its lengthy and intermittently arresting course, Midnight's Children makes room for some affecting scenes and instructive observations. Parts of the movie work well. Overall, though, Midnight's Children enters the world as an ambitious disappointment. Rushdie provides the movie's voice-over narration.

The challenging cinema of Carlos Reygadas

Post Tenebras Lux can sweep you along in its mystifying wake.
Mexican director Carlos Reygadas begins Post Tenebras Lux (Latin for After Darkness Light) with a stunning sequence in which a toddler (the director's daughter Rut) wanders through a field in which cows graze, dogs run wild and donkeys trot through wet grass. The rumble of thunder evokes thoughts of distant cannons. A storm seems to be brewing, and we fear for the tiny girl who is on the verge of learning to speak, and says only simple words: "Cow." "Mommy." "Daddy."

Adults are nowhere to be found in these images, and the sequence concludes in darkness broken only by sharp flashes of lightning.

As such a sequence suggests, Reygadas (Japon, Battle in Heaven and Silent Light) doesn't make filmmaking easy for an audience. Although Post Tenebras Lux tells a story of sorts, it also dances away from the linear imperatives of narrative cinema.

Consider: In a scene following the opening, a red devil -- an animated figure -- enters a home carrying a tool box. The image of this wandering devil recurs later in the film, casting a strange shadow over scenes that are arranged in ways that don't always seem to connect. Reygadas forces us constantly to reorient ourselves, to keep resetting our relationship to this strange and sometimes baffling film.

Clearly, a Reygadas film is not for every taste, and even those with an appreciation for adventurous filmmaking may find themselves taxed by Reygadas's cinema of disorientation.

The movie does, however, have a focus. Juan (Adolfo Jimenez Castro) is an architect who lives in an isolated rural home in Mexico with his wife Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo) and his daughter (Rut Reygadas of the opening sequence) and young son (Eleazar Reygadas, also the director's child).

Tender and obviously loving with his kids, Juan nonetheless has a brutal side. Early in the film, he vents his anger on one of his dogs, administering a severe beating that's almost unwatchable, even though Reygadas doesn't show us the suffering animal. He focuses more on Juan's raging face and flying fists than on his canine victim.

Given Juan's mercurial temperament, it's hardly surprising that something's wrong in the marriage between Juan and Natalia, who are shown at various times of their lives and during a visit (which may not be real) to a European sex club where they wander through naked steam bathers en route to the Duchamp Room.

There, Juan watches as Natalia has sex with a stranger while resting her head on the lap of an older woman with mountainous breasts.

Talking about films as dreams can be a critical dodge, a way of trying not to engage a movie's substance. In a way, though, Post Tenebras Lux is like one sustained dream sequence with Reygadas offering few clues to help us differentiate between what might be real and what might be fantasy. And when we come down on the side of fantasy, we may not be sure exactly whose fantasies we're watching?

At first blush, most of Reygadas's images appear to be entirely naturalistic, but he blurs the edges of many of those images so that they become embedded expressions of the conflict between what's clear and what's distorted.

And, yes, you'll initially wonder whether what you're seeing is the result of faulty projection or artistic intention. Look, there's simply no way to accept a film as entirely realistic when it includes a shocking image of a man tearing off his own head.

Elements of class conflict percolate throughout the film. Educated and even sophisticated, Juan -- who grew up in wealthy Cuernavaca -- forms loose associations with the poor Mexicans with whom he shares the rural countryside. These characters seem to have nicknames -- Seven, for example -- and it's this mingling of classes that leads to Juan's doom. At times, Juan exchanges intimacies with his neighbors; at other times, he treats them as inferiors.

I've read that many elements in the film are personal to Reygadas. That's one explanation for the rugby scene that concludes the film. Reygadas attended school in Britain. A British rugby scene in a movie about a Mexican marriage? Yes -- and without apologies, perhaps because some of the tension that rumbles through Post Tenebras Lux stems from Juan's roiling sense of his own masculinity. Juan could be one of those young rugby players.

Post Tenebras Lux may not rank with Reygadas's widely acclaimed Silent Light, which took place in a Mexican Mennonite community, and those who care about such things, should know that Post Tenebras Lux was roundly booed at the 2012 edition of the Cannes Film Festival.

But if you're interested in directors with genuine artistic vision, no Reygadas work should be ignored.

At one point, Natalia sings her version of Neil Young's It's a Dream to her bedridden husband. The last line of Young's refrain ("Just a memory without anywhere to stay") might make a fitting summary of Reygadas's tonally challenging film, which can be confusing, but which also provokes and disturbs. From its first deeply mysterious and unsettling images, Post Tenebras Lux declares itself as the work of a difficult but remarkable talent.












Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Hit women and their victim

Cartoon impulses give way to loneliness in Violet & Daisy.
During the first several scenes of Violet & Daisy, I wondered whether the movie was enroute to becoming another flippant display of hip, ironically presented violence. It's an easy conclusion to reach because Violet & Daisy focuses on two young women (Saoirse Ronan and Alexis Bledel) who earn their living as assassins. Violent (Bledel) and Daisy (Ronan) conduct their opening hit disguised as pizza delivering nuns, a ploy that's a little too obvious in its attempt to simultaneously amuse and outrage. Are characters such as Violet and Daisy -- slavish devotees of their favorite pop singer, Barbie Sunday -- really plausible? Maybe not, but once movie settles down, it definitely improves. Best friends and roommates, Violet and Daisy are asked to carry out a hit on a guy who lives alone in a modest, perhaps even depressing, apartment. Here's the twist: The man (James Gandolfini) actually wants to die. He treats the women as guests, at one point even baking them cookies. At heart, Violet & Daisy looks a lot like a play that has been filmed in a single location, the shabby apartment occupied by Gandolfini's Michael, a character steeped in sadness and regret. As the situation evolves, we learn more about the relationship between Violet and Daisy, and they become less cartoonish. We also discover what's motivating Gandolfini's character. Director Geoffrey Fletcher, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for Precious and who also wrote the screenplay for Violet & Daisy, has picked a modest project for his directorial debut. He allows each actor plenty of space with Ronan and Gandolfini (no traces of Tony Soprano here) doing exceptional work. Violet & Daisy can feel more like a rough draft than a fully developed movie, but Fletcher has his finger on the lonely pulse of characters who've lost their moorings, and Violet & Daisy has more to offer than you might expect.