Wednesday, December 3, 2014

October-November 2014



      Let’s face it; the world most of us live in is too small for Christopher Nolan. Like his obvious influences, Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg, he’s looking for answers to questions that can’t be contained in the dimensions of the natural world, which can only be found out there, far from what we know on Earth.

      I wouldn’t compare Nolan to these two extraordinary directors except that he’s made a film that deserves mention alongside their sci-fi masterpieces “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Close Encounters of a Third Kind.” While in some ways, “Interstellar” is nothing but an episode of “The Twilight Zone” imbued with all the razzle-dazzle of 21st Century computer-based filmmaking, it also presents an astonishingly complex, perfectly constructed great adventure on a scale rarely attempted.

      The film opens on a Nebraska farm where widower Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is trying to raise his son Tom and daughter Murph amid a world gone environmentally bad. The human race faces dire straits as plants die and resources dwindle. Yet 10-year-old Murph (a very convincing Mackenzie Foy) is concerned about a ghost she says is haunting her room, warning her of something ominous.

      In fact, the apparition ends up leading the family to discover a research outpost of NASA in the middle of corn country and, for Cooper, a chance to revive his long-ago career as a test pilot (there’s a lot of Chuck Yeager in him). Though it’s a difficult decision, Cooper eventually decides that he must put the future of Earth ahead of his family and joins a mission with three scientists to the other side of the galaxy.

      Professor Brand (Nolan’s go-to authority figure Michael Caine) has develop a theory that involves traveling through a worm-hole—apparently the science of all this is somewhat legit, according to the film’s tech adviser and respected scientist Kip Thorne—to find a planet that can sustain human life. Among the other crew members is Brand’s daughter Amelia (a miscast Anne Hathaway) and a slab-like robot (voiced by Bill Irwin) that is clearly the most valuable member of the crew.

     There’s no need to get into the astonishing journey they take, except to say that the script (by Nolan and his brother Jonathan) makes it believably techie while still understandable to nonscientific types like me. At the same time, the movie keeps its connection to humanity by following developments on Earth and the life of Copper’s children. Those connections provide not only heartbreaking moments, but the quietly developing solution to the salvation of Earthlings.

     The images, mostly created by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (“Her,” “The Fighter”) are stunning, capturing both the beauty and the desolation of worlds beyond ours. While “Gravity” was a memorable story of the survival of one very resourceful woman, who desperately seeks to feel gravity again, “Interstellar” unlocks the secrets of gravity and moves on to the next level of dimensional understanding.

      McConaughey gives the film its heroic humanity, its symbol of integrity and heartland values; connecting back to the kind of performances—from the likes of Gary Cooper, John Wayne, James Stewart or Clint Eastwood—movies once were built around.

     The film’s other memorable performance comes from Jessica Chastain as Cooper’s grownup daughter, who holds the key to everything in the past and in the future. As she was in “Zero Dark Thirty,” she is superb at depicting the emotions behind being very good at your job.

      Though Hans Zimmer’s score (he also did “The Dark Knight” and “Inception” for Nolan) will probably win an Oscar, it is so intrusive into the story that it makes John Williams’ work for Spielberg sound subtle. While I had no problem hearing the dialogue, many theatergoers around the country have complained that the sound mixing drowned out the words. 

     The 44-year-old Nolan has done challenging work in the past—“Inception” (a cousin of this time-shifting picture), the “Dark Knight” trilogy and the backward-told gem “Memento”—but “Interstellar” surpasses all; he has built a (literally) timeless endorsement of the truth of science and the overriding power of family, all wrap up in a rollercoaster ride for the ages. How it all comes together is simply breathtaking; it has that “we have seen the face of God and he is us” moment that makes smart science-fiction so exhilarating.  




    Mike Nichols directed just 18 feature films in a 40-year movie career—he always had one foot on the Broadway stage—yet he consistently delivered memorable, popular, often important films throughout those four decades. It seems crazy to think that the same director who made “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” his debut in 1966, also made “Catch-22,” “Silkwood,” “Working Girl,”  “Birdcage” and “Charlie Wilson’s War.”

     While not displaying a recognizable filmmaking style that is usually the mark of greatness, as seen in his contemporaries Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Robert Altman and Woody Allen, Nichols, who died last month at age 83, understood how to get the most out of his actors as well as any director in the past half century. He liked to put the camera right on the face of the actor and let them work, trusting them, as one does on the stage, to communicate the truths of the drama or comedy.

     Like most artists, his most impressive work came early. He had just one directing credit to his name, the stage play “Barefoot in the Park,” a huge hit that ran from 1963 to 1967, when he was tapped to direct the most volatile actors in the business, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, in the film version of the most volatile play in the American repertoire, Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” The result was an explosive, uncomfortably frank film, at that time the most devastating look at marriage ever put on screen, earning Oscar nominations for all four actors.

      But it was his second film, starring an actor no one had ever heard of, which establish him as one of the most important filmmakers of his time. “The Graduate” officially reintroduced the disaffected youth, not as the typical 1950s delinquent, but as a college educated, well-to-do future CEO who just doesn’t care. 

      Home after graduating from a prestigious East Coast school, Benjamin Braddock (that unknown, Dustin Hoffman) wants to be anywhere but at his parents’ welcome-home party. Nichols shoots the scene in tight close-ups, as friends of the family seem to suffocate Benjamin with their inane questions and hallow praise. Then, a friend of his father pulls him aside and offers advice in a single word: “Plastics.” This, Benjamin realizes, is the world that he studied so hard to prepare for, that he’s now about to step into.

      When he’s not at the Taft Hotel having mechanical sex with Mrs. Robinson, the married friend of his parents, he’s lounging in his parents’ pool, drifting without a purpose, without a hope. Then hope arrives, as he falls helplessly in love with Elaine, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter. Few things in life inspire hope more than a pretty girl, but then what? Benjamin is headed straight for a life in plastics.

     “The Graduate” was instantly acknowledged as one of the key films of the era, winning Nichols the Oscar for best director and scoring six other nominations, including best picture. It remains both hilarious and insightful, a timeless commentary on sex, love and the American dream.

      He followed his first two remarkable films (maybe the best one-two punch since Orson Welles made “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons”) with his take on novelist Joseph Heller’s dark, sarcastic and disturbingly funny vision of a war that had previously been portrayed nearly exclusively in noble terms. “Catch-22,” adopted for the screen by Buck Henry, who had also scripted “The Graduate,” matches the book’s condemnation of military bureaucracy and the pure absurdity of warfare.

     But the real companion to “The Graduate” was Nichols’ fourth feature, “Carnal Knowledge” (1971), an uncompromisingly brutal examination of male sexuality as it evolved from the 1940s to the 1970s.

     At the film’s center are the biting, truthful and revealing conversations between Jonathan (a quietly brilliant Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) starting when they are college roommates and continuing, off and on, into their 40s. To watch “Carnal Knowledge” today, a 43-year-old picture, is to be reminded of the shrill clichés that pass for honest in contemporary films. When I first saw it as a college student, it hit me like a brick across the back of my head; who would have known the complications of sexual relations?

     I could keep writing all day about Mike Nichols films, but I’ll finish by saying that his version, for HBO, of Tony Kushner’s riveting epic about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, “Angels in America” is about as good as television gets. The director manages to make the story both personal (aided by some brilliant performances) and political, filled with heartbreak and anger. Few filmmakers have been better at getting to the heart of human relations; digging into both the beautiful and the ugly, revealing the lies we tell and the desires we hide.      




     With blistering sarcasm and outrageous physical humor, “Birdman” portrays, like few films ever have, the exhilarating highs and devastating lows of the life of an actor.

     There’s a feeling of frantic desperation that pervades the film, not just for Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton), an aging Hollywood star trying to revive his career on Broadway, but for the other players too; it is as if everyone’s lives depend on the success of Thomas’ play, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” And while “Birdman,” a movie about acting, revels in its dialogue— bitingly hilarious, heartbreaking and childishly ridiculous—director Alejandro González Iñárritu (“21 Grams,” “Babel”) brings a visual style that intensifies every aspect of the film.

      Essentially, the ever-moving handheld camera becomes a character in the picture; daringly bringing the audience right into the story, into the moment, putting us on stage and in the dressing rooms. Filmed almost entirely inside the legendary St. James Theatre, the movie is photographed as one continuous shot, without a single edit, until the final few minutes. The camera winds through the narrow hallways backstage of the St. James, following the characters as they interact with one another, and, by smoothly fading from one day to another, prepare for opening night of the play.

     Emmanuel Lubezki, one of the great cameramen of the past 20 years (“The New World,” “Children of Men,” “The Tree of Life,” and, taking home the Oscar, “Gravity”) takes the kind of camera movement made famous by Welles and Scorsese to a new level without letting it become a distraction. Perfectly complimenting the intense camera work is the score, one long, dynamitic drum solo by composer Antonio Sanchez.

     The film’s title refers to the superhero franchise that made Riggan famous, but, at the same time, turns him into an easy target as he tries to write, direct and star on the Great White Way, where “Hollywood” is considered an obscenity. “Birdman” is also the voice in Riggan’s head (and occasionally in his dressing room) that he battles with as he nears opening night. If there’s a comparison to be made, it’s to Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz” and its unblinking look at a deeply damaged man of the theater. Riggan shares similar fears and insecurities as Fosse’s alter-ego Joe Gideon.

     The production turns absurd when an acclaimed but unstable stage actor joins the company (played at full throttle by Edward Norton), increasing both the interest in the play and Riggan’s blood pressure. At the same time, Riggan is trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter Sam (Emma Stone, nailing the pseudo toughness of her generation), who is working as an assistant on the production.     

      This is the defining performance of Keaton career, which, in retrospect is pretty interesting. After his early, star-making comedy roles in “Night Shift,” “Mr. Mom” and “Beetlejuice,” he added to his box-office clout with solid work as the first “Batman” in that early franchise and then followed with a smart turn as a frustrated editor in “The Paper.” Dumb comedies like “Multiplicity” and “Jack Frost” sunk his stardom, but he continued to do good dramatic work, twice as Ray Nicolette, a federal agent, in “Jackie Brown” and “Out of Sight.” At 63, even an Oscar win for “Birdman” (certainly, a possibility) might not bring him more good roles, but based on what he does here, he seems poised for greater things.

      Keaton expresses the angst, aimlessness and unabated ambition that marks contemporary America, while still being just a regular guy trying to get his screwed-up life on track. The dark irony of how he finds salvation shows the utter foolishness of grand gestures; the pointlessness of turning life into a stage play. “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” a street performer emotes, reciting “Macbeth.” 

       Every performance is priceless, including Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s devoted manager, Amy Ryan as his ex-wife, Naomi Watts as the play’s shaky co-star and, in a small but crucial role, Lindsay Duncan as the arrogant New York Times theater critic who savors her power to crush a Broadway show.

      Iñárritu’s films—from his Spanish-language debut, “Amores Perros” to “21 Grams” and “Babel”—are all about how interconnected we all are, even as we fail to hear or understand what each other are saying. But those earlier films were just warm-ups for this superb piece of iconoclastic filmmaking that digs into the heart and soul of an actor (who better to represent us all?), rips into both Hollywood and Broadway and cuts open the insecurities that are central to what makes us tick.  

      The cast of “Birdman” takes this wickedly smart, multi-layered, but also rambling and messy, script, by the director and Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo, and turns it into a deeply felt, painfully honest motion picture that’s not to be missed.




     For all the ballyhoo leading up to this third installment, there’s little to really say about it; the film is but an intro with no climax, no resolution—a war film that ends before the real battle begins. The reason we’re still watching is for Jennifer Lawrence’s gloomy, feisty, magnetic Katniss.

     Picking up where “Catching Fire” stopped, the film opens as Katniss awakes following her rescue from the Games by rebels from District 13, where she, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and her family have been taken. Within this impossibly huge militarized bunker, hundreds, if not thousands, of rebel forces are preparing for a faceoff with Capital forces and President Snow (the ever sneering Donald Sutherland).

     “Part 1” focuses on the propaganda aspect of the battle, as rebel leader Coin (Julianne Moore) and her right-hand man, former games maker, Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) convince Katniss to be the face of the revolution and star in videos to inspire the other districts to join the fight. At this point, Katniss remains just a chess piece in this strategic war being planned and fought by others. (I’m guessing that may change in “Part 2.”)

     Back in the Capitol, her beloved Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, still looking, and acting, like a middle-school nerd) is being used in the same way, urging the rebels to lay down their arms in televised interviews with Caesar (Stanley Tucci).

     Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) are back to keep Katniss on the straight and narrow, but they’ve been marginalized once “Games” became war.  Hoffman, whose final film appearance will continue in “Part 2,” offers the films only hint of humanity; everyone else is so downtrodden you wonder how they could possibly win this revolution.

The film, or should I say, half-film, makes some interesting points about how 21st Century “wars” are fought, how the spin and manipulation of opinion becomes just as important as bomb tonnage. But, overall, it’s a rather dreary, plodding beginning of this franchise’s conclusion. Ask a friend to give you a two-minute summary right before you see next Fall’s finale and you wouldn’t have missed a thing. 




      What’s not to like about a movie about jazz? Well, I’ll get to that later, but for a fan of this underappreciated music, currently barely stirring on its death bed, it was invigorating to see college musicians worshiping at the feet of Charlie Parker and Buddy Rich.

     The film, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s second movie, has a spare, documentary look and narrow viewpoint of a indie picture, never trying to turn its simple story into something more than one person’s experience.

      That person is Andrew (Miles Teller), a student at a prestigious New York music school, who desperately wants to impress the school’s jazz band director, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) and become the band’s No. 1 drummer.

      A soft-spoken, pleasant young man, Andrew, somewhat of a loner, is intently determined to be a great drummer. Fletcher thrives on verbal abuse, leveling multi-adjective profanities—most of a homophobic nature—to push his young musicians to hit the notes and keep time to perfection. His young students both hate him and want to please him with the same intensity.

      Simmons, who became one of the cinema’s most interesting supporting players since establishing himself as the forensic psychologist on the original “Law and Order,” gives a gut-wrenching, spit-flying performance as the manipulative, dishonest and despicable Fletcher. He makes Hannibal Lector seem like a pleasant-enough dinner companion. 

      From my point of view, Chazelle turns Fletcher into such a monster that I stopped believing in the story’s reality. I seriously question whether the continual verbal abuse displayed in the film could go on in 2014 at a high-regarded academy. He’s a combination of a basic training drill sergeant and Bobby Knight.

      Teller, who was also quite effective in “The Spectacular Now” and “Rabbit Hole,” is definitely a young actor on the rise; as Andrew he shows how an unassuming, nearly invisible student can also burn with ambition. Adding to the authenticity of the film are Paul Reiser as Andrew’s dad and Melissa Benoist as his sometime girlfriend. 

       What the film does best is show the incredible time and energy required to become a top musician and for an ensemble to master a piece of music. For fans of swinging, up-tempo big band jazz, the film is heaven sent. I just wish the filmmaker had put a mute on Fletcher.




     I thought I had seen or, at least knew about, every interesting newspaper movie Hollywood ever made, but this Edward G. Robinson gem caught me by surprise when it popped up on the TCM schedule.

      Robinson plays Bruce Corey, a returning GI from World War I who, rather than continue his newspaper career at one of the New York dailies, decides to create a new kind of American paper—the tabloid—already popular in Europe.

      Corey, fast talking and full of confidence, ends up receiving his financial backing from a notorious mobster (superbly played by veteran character actor Edward Arnold), who has his own reasons to “own” a newspaper. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t take long before the owner is tired of seeing his associates’ names in the paper and gives Corey an ultimatum.

       Director Mervyn LeRoy, whose career spanned from the silents to the 1960s, had made Robinson famous with “Little Caesar” (1931) before directing such hit films as “I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” (1932), “They Won’t Forget” (1936), “Random Harvest” (1942), “Madame Curie” (1943) and “Quo Vadis” (1951).

      Though not usually remembered as a stylist, the director brings some dynamic energy to “Unholy Partners,” with interesting camera movement and angles—LeRoy’s director of photography was George Barnes, who shot “Rebecca” and “Spellbound” for Alfred Hitchcock and was one of the most in-demand cameramen of the 1940s. While watching it I suspected the film had been strongly influenced by another newspaper movie, “Citizen Kane,” until I saw that the LeRoy picture was also released in 1941. For both style and subject matter, the films would make for a good double-bill.

       It’s one of Robinson’s best performances; his character is deeply conflicted even as he presents himself as a decisive, tough-talking editor. He remains one of the most underrated actors of his era, too often pigeonholed as “just” an effective bad guy. Sure, he could chew scenery with the best of them, but his performances as innocents swept away by lust in both Fritz Lang’s “Scarlet Street” and “The Woman in the Window” show his impressive range.




    I know they don’t make animated films for 58 year olds, but this attempt to revive two beloved characters from my childhood made me cringe.

     As part of the company of cartoons that appeared in Jay Wards’ masterful “Bullwinkle and Friends” (later “Rocky and Bullwinkle”), “Peabody and Sherman” was a clever, sarcastic and puny gem that used historical events (which the dog and his human son time-traveled to) as social criticism.

    The new movie fits the characters into contemporary clichés and uses their Way-Back machine for a lifeless adventure tale. The puns are still there, but aren’t earned; they lack the eye-rolling pleasure of 50 years ago.

     While not as bad as the live-action “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” (2000), there is little here for fans of the TV show. They tried, as Bullwinkle would say, pull a rabbit out of their hat, but came up empty handed.



VENUS IN FUR  (2014)

     Like Mike Nichols, Roman Polanski, as a child, escaped the Nazi regime of the 1930s to become one of the most important filmmakers of his generation. Also like Nichols, he has consistently produced first-rate movies since the 1960s; Polanski’s first great film was his 1963 psychological drama “Knife in the Water” made in Poland.

      I recently re-watched Polanski’s 1971 take on “Macbeth,” which is a model of how to make Shakespeare vital and understandable for any audience. Even without a great performance at its center (Jon Finch plays the disturbed king), the movie is brings 11th Century Scotland alive along with the Bard’s study of unabated ambition. 

     The now 81-year-old filmmaker continues to work at the highest level—his previous two movies, “The Ghost Writer” (2010) and “Carnage” (2011)—stand just below his masterpieces, “Repulsion” (1965), “Chinatown” (1975) and “The Pianist” (2002).

     Like “Carnage,” his latest is a stage play adaption (with no attempt to open it up visually) centering on volatile male-female relationships. I’m not sure what the director could have done to improve “Venus in Fur,” which, as a stage production, received good reviews on Broadway, but I found it tiresome, repetitive and sadly dated.

      The play presents yet another metaphor for the ongoing power struggle between men and woman, sexual and otherwise, a subject that has been given thorough examination by Polanski, Nichols and dozens of playwrights and filmmakers over the past 40 years. This 2010 play might have had something original to say if it had been written in the 1960s or ‘70s, but hardly in 2014. Not that the issues don’t still exist, it’s just that David Ives’ play has little new to add to the debate.

    Set on a darkened rehearsal stage, the play opens with Vanda (Polanski’s real-life wife Emmanuelle Seigner) bursting into the theater, late for a casting call, and then spending the next 20 minutes trying to convince the director (Polanski look alike Matthew Amalric) to hear her read for the part. 

     The play within the play, much of which is recited by the two actors, is based on the assignations of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who first wrote about the psychology behind S&M in the 1870s. As it is played out on stage by Vanda and director-playwright Thomas, their lives and the characters in the play begin to intermingle. Not only does Vanda know the role and the play, backwards and forward, but she has insight into Thomas that is otherworldly. Clearly, we are meant to wonder if she might be the reincarnation of Leopold’s long-ago lover.

     This two person dance is well acted by Seigner and Amalric. It’s probably Seigner’s finest performance, as she manages to play a mysterious seductress at age 48; previously she did excellent work in “Bitter Moon” (1992) and, opposite Amalric, in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”

       Amalric is one of the most in-demand French actors, known in this country for his Bond villain role in “Quantum of Solace” and as one of the crazies in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” He was brilliant as the paralyzed editor in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”

    In “Venus in Fur,” it becomes a bit of a distraction that he looks so much like the young Polanski, especially playing opposite Mrs. Polanski. Something weird is going on here (not a surprise for a Polanski film), but it’s not weird enough, or interesting enough, to make for a good film.





Monday, October 13, 2014

September 2014


GONE GIRL (2014)

       Director David Fincher’s latest attempt to decipher the evolving state of human relations is not a pleasant experience. If you go to the movies to be entertained rather than contemplate social criticism, then I would definitely skip this one.

      From the nauseating sweet dialogue between husband Nick (Ben Affleck) and wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) to the easily misled police investigation and the irresponsible TV media, the narrative of “Gone Girl” illuminates an artificiality that pervades American society; everyone has a role they feel obligated to play as if we are all starring in one long, commercial-free reality show.

     From “Fight Club” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” to “Zodiac” and “The Social Network,” Fincher has been exploring the difficulties of finding one’s place in the world and the extent to which some individuals go to fit in. At times, the new film seems as contrived as its characters, but, of course, that’s Fincher’s way of hammering home his points.

      The plot, from Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel (she also wrote the script), provides the director with all the raw material to dig below the veneer of life as it follows the investigation and reactions, public and private, when Amy goes missing. The script captures all the contemporary trappings of a high-profile missing person: the teary news conferences with family; the rallying support from the community; the rumor mill of cable news shows; and, finally, the invasion of any sense of privacy the family once had.

     In this case Nick seems too cool, too level-headed for both the police and tabloid TV, especially once his version of his marriage begins to unravel. Again, image is everything, so to save himself he hires razzle-dazzle attorney Tanner Bolt (actor-filmmaker Tyler Perry, giving the film’s most entertaining performance) and starts using the media to put his own spin on the story.

     I am purposely being vague about the plot, because each of the twists, which start coming at you early and never let up, should be experienced without preparation. This is a violent, heartless and pretty frightening morality tale that will leave you wanting to take a very cold shower; its linage can be traced to David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” and Brian De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill,” in which murder, sex and identity are all rolled into one psychotic nightmare.

     “Gone Girl” should be the star-making role for Pike, a British actress who is probably best known as Tom Cruise’s costar in “Jack Reacher,” but gave a better performance as the object of desire for Paul Giamatti in the little-seen “Barney’s Version.” As Amy in “Gone Girl,” she’s both damaged and fragile, calculating and dangerous; the alchemy of a woman asked to be more than she can possibly handle.

      Affleck’s blandness fits the role of Nick perfectly, as his reactions to the firestorm that rises around him fit the subdued tone of the picture. The supporting players are all superb, especially Perry as the blunt-talking lawyer, Kim Dickens as the dogged Det. Boney; Carrie Coon as Nick’s twin sister and real soul mate;  David Clennon and Lisa Banes as Amy’s manipulative parents and Neil Patrick Harris as Amy’s naïve, obsessive ex-boyfriend.

     Fincher finds the perfect metaphor for the dysfunctional state of marriage and a society whose dirty laundry inevitable turns up on the 11 o’clock news when, at a crucial moment in the film, Amy agrees to talk truthfully to Nick only in the shower, guaranteeing he’s not wearing a wire. 

     It’s probably the only moment in the film where you can be sure you’re getting the naked truth.




       He’s the answer to one of the great Hollywood trivia questions, typically stumping all but dedicated movie buffs. Who is the credited director on both “Gone With the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz,” probably the two most iconic films of the American cinema’s Golden Age.

      You’d think Victor Fleming would be lionized as one of Hollywood’s great filmmakers simply based on these two masterpieces of popular entertainment. Instead, he’s been marginalized by historians, his reputation dented by the fact that numerous directors had their hands on both films, leading to the oft-repeated theory that they are producer-driven pictures.

      Fleming’s standing was also undercut by his early death of a heart attack at age 59 in 1949. Others of his generation—those  who started in silents and toiled sometimes with little recognition in the studio system—were still working in the 1950s and early 60s, when film critics and historians started celebrating the filmmakers from the first half of the century. Fleming’s career, cut short by death and ending with a much publicized bomb, “Joan of Arc,” was never considered in the same league with contemporaries John Ford, Howard Hawks, William Wellman, William Wyler, George Cukor and Michael Curtiz—except during his own time.

    A superbly researched biography and reappraisal of the director by film critic Michael Sragow, “Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master,” published in 2009, attempts to resurrect the filmmaker’s reputation.

     Fleming’s entry into the film industry came because he was skilled at working on motors and could drive a car—the idea that those skills were so highly prized in the 1910s is one of this biography’s many examples of how things have changed so dramatically in the past 100 years.

    He soon was operating cameras, making his mark as Douglas Fairbank’s early cameraman, helping the acrobatic star become the medium’s first action hero. Fleming quickly became one of the silent era’s top filmmakers, making acclaimed (but now lost) films “The Rough Riders” and “The Way of All Flesh” before helping to define the film personas of Gary Cooper in “The Virginian” (1929) and Clark Gable in “Red Dust” (1931) and then making a star of Spencer Tracy in “Captains Courageous” (1937).

    As far as the two elephants in Fleming’s career, Sragow makes a strong case that Fleming spent the most time of any of the other directors on the films and did much to shape both the Rhett-Scarlett relationship and Judy Garland’s performance as Dorothy. Fleming wasn’t a sensitive, coddling director; he could be brusque and short tempered. But, most tellingly, he was much admired by contemporaries, an adventurer who raced cars with Hawks and was a pilot in the early days of aviation.

      He fell in love with Ingrid Bergman during the filming of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”—he was 25 years her senior—and that love affair ultimate led to his final failure, aiding her dream to bring “Joan of Arc” to the screen. Is there anything worse than leaving the stage after delivering your least satisfying work?

     My favorite Fleming film is his sarcastic tribute to the idiocy of his own industry, “Bombshell.” Jean Harlow, in what may be her most complex role, plays movie siren Lola Burns (a barely disguised version of Clara Bow, an ex-lover of the director), who is in constant battle with the studio’s fast-talking, cartoonishly named publicity man Space Hanlan (Lee Tracy).

     The screwball comedy is filled with inside jokes and references to actual events: Lola is starring in “Red Dust” opposite an unseen Clark Gable, directed by Jim Brogan (Pat O’Brien), an obvious caricature of the director himself. Lampooning the nonstop fake publicity created by the studios at the time—Space actually hires a stalker to claim he’s Lola’s husband—and the rampant insincerity of nearly everyone, “Bombshell” is both chaotic fun and biting satire.  

       Hollywood priorities are made crystal clear by Hanlan when he assures reporters that Lola can’t be having a baby because “it’s not in her contract.”

     Though hailed after his twin successes of 1939 (including best director Oscar for “GWTW”), he made just one more first-rate picture, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1941), before his death 10 years later. During the 1940s, he started many projects that never made it to the screen, including a version of “The Yearling” that was to star Spencer Tracy.

     Sragow, in his valid attempts to boost Fleming, sometimes overrates some of his films, turning pedestrian pictures such as “Test Pilot” and “A Guy Named Joe” into forgotten masterpieces. But overall, the film critic succeeds in shining a spotlight on a great filmmaker who somehow got lost in the shuffle of time.   




      Even when the self-styled arrogance of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, a pair of veteran British TV comics playing characters based on themselves, grows tiresome, the stunning travelogue of Italian coastal cities and amazing meals the actors consume is well worth the price of admission. Not to mention, the impressions.

      This second “road” picture—the first was “The Trip” (2011), which took them to the English countryside—is again mostly about Coogan’s and Brydon’s dueling egos, as both savor every putdown of the other’s career successes and failures as they go from one incredible hotel to another. Like an old married couple, they never stop chirping at one another over the tiniest of things.  

       Despite all the bickering, what makes these two such entertaining dinner guests for viewers is their extraordinary ability to mimic the voices of well known actors, mostly United Kingdom natives. Their go-to  impressions are Michael Caine—they have his vocals down pat from “Alfie” to his most recent work—and Al Pacino, who they turn into a raving clown. But the highlight is their extensive dissection of Christian Bale’s and Tom Hardy’s incomprehensible line readings in “The Dark Knight Rises.”  With astonishing precision and endless assurances that they greatly admire both actors, Coogan and Brydon nail the ridiculously mannered speaking voices the “Dark Knight” actors brought to that film.

       Writer-director Michael Winterbottom, who first introduced these two as “characters” in his 2005 film about a location filming, “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,” keeps the movie from becoming a series of skits (it’s based on a British TV series with the pair) by introducing small little dramas (women, family, career) along the way.  

     It helps, greatly I would think, that you know the difference between Richard Burton and James Mason and understand James Bond film history, but with that caveat, you won’t see many films this year as funny as “The Trip to Italy,” and probably none as visual pleasing.   





   Leave it to Hollywood to take a Leo Tolstoy novel about a 19th Century Russian soldier who falls for a girl while visiting the Caucasus region and turn it into a comic-adventure starring John Gilbert.

      Gilbert plays Lukashika, a young man of leisure who has no interest in the war parties his village sends out as part of the long conflict between Russia and Turkey, instead content on showing off his horse riding skills and flirting with girls. Only when he’s publicly ridiculed by Maryana (French actress Renée Adorée), the town’s beauty, does he prove himself an able soldier and leader, living up to his father’s expectations.

      Then Prince Olenin Stieshneff arrives from Moscow with a message from the Tsar: peace has been reach with the Turks. That news spurs some of the movies best lines, including “Peace is for old women and sheep” and “We can’t stop fighting the Turks, we have nothing else to do.”

      But the Prince has something else on his mind. To forge an alliance between Moscow and the Cossacks, he is to marry a local girl. Immediately, he sets his sights on Maryana, who, as he tells his aide, “is the least unsightly of her tribe.”

    Any resemblance to Tolstoy or history is pure coincidental, but the film is a well-made late silent that satirizes the nobility’s “concern” for villagers, while paying homage to the uneducated masses whose loyalty to the crown enabled these long, pointless wars to continue.

    Director George Hill, a cinematographer, from 1913, before becoming a director, best known for two 1930 hits, “The Big House” and “Min and Bill,” is the credited director, though Clarence Brown also shot some of the film. Whoever is responsible, “The Cossacks” features the kind of fluid camera movement and  naturalistic acting that marked silent pictures at their maturity. 

    Gilbert was among the top stars of the time, with a string of hits including “The Big Parade” (1925), “La Bohéme” (1926), “Flesh and the Devil” (1926) and “Love” (1927), the last two with his off-screen lover, Greta Garbo.

     Adorée, who also played Gilbert’s love interest in “The Big Parade,” had a very short run of fame in the mid 1920s before she was forced to retire when she was stricken with tuberculosis, an illness that killed her a few years later at age 35.




     It makes perfect sense that Jim Jarmusch would direct a vampire movie. His characters, from those clueless layabouts in “Stranger Than Paradise” and “Down by Law” to the cold robotic people of “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” and “The Limits of Control” have always been less than human, creatures of the night who speak in special code, a hipster Jarmuschian cool.

     His latest focuses on two eternal souls, symbolically named Adam and Eve.

Eve (Tilda Swinton, always a little less than human) is a brilliant, haughty woman ensconced in Algiers while Adam (Tom Hiddleston, Loki in the “Thor” films and Fitzgerald in “Midnight in Paris”—match that for range) is on the other side of the planet; he’s a hermit musician living in a dilapidated house in Detroit. The strength of the movie is the mini-worlds these depressed, aimless character, once lovers, inhabit and how they interact with their enablers.

     Eve relies on a sympathetic cafe owner and another vampire played by John Hurt, while Adam has Ian (Anton Yelchin), an eager sycophant willing to locate whatever strange request Adam makes.

    Yet the film goes nowhere, lacking in any recognizable plot or substantial dramatics. The most interesting thing they do is acquire their needed blood supply, not from sucking necks, but from blood banks and through bribery.

      At one point, while Eve is visiting Adam, her sister (a decadent L.A. party girl played by Mia Wasikowska) shows up and adds some unruliness into the proceedings, but not enough to save the movie. As much as I appreciate the somnolent mood—especially effective is the car trip they make through the sad, deserted streets of Detroit—Jarmusch’s stylish touches don’t add up to much without a story.

     Gorgeously shot by French cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (“Swimming Pool,” “Arbitrage”) and well acted by Swinton and Hiddleston, “Only Lovers Left Alive” should have been something more than just another Jarmusch oddity.




     It’s been more than 30 years since this epic Western became shorthand for over-indulgent directors, financially out-of-control productions and box office disasters.

    A damning review by esteemed New York Times critic Vincent Canby sunk the much-anticipated film before it ever reached the rest of the country. Director Michael Cimino, whose “The Deer Hunter” won him best picture and best director Oscars in 1978, went from Hollywood’s latest boy wonder to pariah. In the three decades since the fiasco, he has directed just four features, none in the past 18 years. Few Oscar-winning filmmakers have faded into such deep obscurity as Cimino, who is 75.

    In 1982, when it finally reached theaters in the hinterlands, United Artists, the company that was all-but destroyed by the $30-million film’s failure, had sliced an hour out of its 3 hours and 39 minutes. Despite all the critical horror stories, I was pleasantly surprised by “Heaven’s Gate”; it was filled with beautiful composed and photographed praire scenes, memorable acting and contained a compelling story of the racist, land-grabbing history of late 19th Century America. It was no “Deer Hunter”—despite its flaws, a great film—but I found the shortened “Heaven’s Gate” to be among the better films of 1982.

    When I finally saw the uncut version of a few years later, it made me question what I had originally seen. And, watching it against at its full length recently confirmed its deserved spots on the list of movie disasters, along with “Cleopatra” (1963), “Howard the Duck” (1986) and “Cutthroat Island” (1995).

     The convoluted plot centers on the real-life Johnson County War, which took place in Wyoming in 1890, when government-backed cattle owners had to fight off the immigrant homesteaders who claimed the land the syndicate desired.

     Kris Kristofferson plays a lawman of some ilk—everything about this film is purposely vague—who returns to the area and takes up for the harassed farmers. He’s backed by a colorful but rather pointless character played by Jeff Bridges.

    Kristofferson’s James Averill shares a girlfriend (a miscast Isabelle Huppert as the local madam) with Nathan (Christopher Walken), a gunman employed by the land barons, who have decided to just kill all these pesky immigrants.

     Lingering off to the side is a cynical, perpetually drunk Irvine, played by John Hurt, who was a Harvard classmate of Averill.

     The film never properly explains how these Harvard grads end up in these dusty, far-from-anywhere environs or why everything moves at a snail’s pace. Even after the plan of the rich men is made public, everyone sits around waiting for the massacre to happen.

     What really kills the move are the interminable set pieces that needlessly go on long after their point has been made. The same criticism has been made about “The Deer Hunter,” but I would argue that the intense emotions of that film are augmented by the pacing. Not so in “Heaven’s Gate;” if anything, if my memory of the trimmed version is accurate, it seems to dissipate the energy level, exasperating one’s attempt to understand the character and follow the story.

   The opening scene at Averill’s Harvard graduation day goes on for at least 30 minutes without adding much to the upcoming plot. By the end, I was tired of these characters and had little interest in their fate. Only Vilmos Zsigmond should be proud to list the film on his resume; the exception cinematography should have earned him an Oscar nomination.

      Cimino made a somewhat interesting crime picture, “Year of the Dragon” (1985) that was notable for its excessive violence (it was scripted by Oliver Stone) and the moody performance of Mickey Rourke, who had a small role in “Heaven’s Gate.” More unremarkable were “The Sicilian” (1987), from a Mario Puzo novel, and “The “Sunchasers” (1996), starring Woody Harrelson as a kidnapped doctor. The director’s best film since “Heaven’s Gate” was a remake of the 1950s thriller “Desperate Hours” (1990), a great vehicle for acting, with Rourke in the Humphrey Bogart role and Anthony Hopkins in the role originated by Fredric March.

     Since 1996, his only credit is for directing a segment of a 2007 French documentary on filmmaking, “To Each His Own Cinema.”

     Thirty years ago, newspapers and magazine were filled with stories on how studios were going to pull back on big-budget films, that a conservative approach to movie making would be ruling the day. That lasted about a year and the coffers opened up again.

     No one’s looked back since. Movies cost so much now (averaging more than $70 million) that no one, outside the studio gates, even pays attention. Turns out, “Heaven’s Gate” was even successful as a warning sign.



HOWL  (2010)

     This impossible to classify homage to Allen Ginsberg’s landmark poem isn’t much of a film, but it will be a pleasure to anyone who admires the screed that is “Howl” and the iconoclastic author.

     Shot as if it were a documentary, the picture only uses words from the poem, Ginsberg’s interviews and the transcripts of the obscenity trail that followed its publishing by City Light’s founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti. As Ginsberg, James Franco mostly speaks directly to the camera or during the recreation of the poet’s first public reading of the epic piece of social criticism in a San Francisco coffeehouse. The film also features stark, impressionistic animation that offers a visual interpretation of Ginsberg’s words.

      The only real drama is the trial, in which the state brought obscenity charges against Ferlinghetti, which is nearly comical almost 60 years later. David Strathairn plays the prosecuting attorney who, uncomfortably, reads passages from Ginsberg’s often explicit verse and asks university professors to explain their meaning. Jon Hamm gives a nicely measured performance as Ferlinghetti’s lawyer.

      Because the film has limited itself to only words from Ginsberg and the trial, scenes with actors portraying Ginsberg brothers-in-arms, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady and his life partner Peter Orlovsky have no lines. It’s very odd; a bit too disciplined for its own good. The film is written and directed by well-known documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who have made the gay-themed films, “The Celluloid Closet” and “The Times of Harvey Milk.”

      Franco is quite good in delivering “Howl” even though I was a bit taken aback when stanzas were skipped or the order changed to fit in the film’s narrative. If you’re making a film about a poem (which may be a first), at least give me the entire piece, start to finish. Yet, I’ll admit, the trims don’t diminish the power of Ginsberg’s message. This angry cry for inclusion and its unflinching profile of those living outside the restrictive box of mainstream society remains timeless.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

August 2014



    I rarely write about television series, but this eight-part miniseries from HBO, which I watched via Netflix, is one of the most impressive pieces of filmed fiction I’ve seen in quite awhile.

    The acting—Woody Harrelson as Det. Marty Hart and Matthew McConaughey as Det. Rust Cohle—equals anything in feature films over the past few years. These guys get so deep into these characters that, at times, it’s frightening.

     The story begins when this mismatched sheriff’s investigators are assigned to a ritual killing in rural Louisiana in which a dead woman’s body, with deer antlers attached to her head, is posed against a tree. The powers-that-be want the killing presented as an anti-Christian threat, while the detectives’ boss (Kevin Dunn) just wants it off the books as soon as possible.

     While their investigation, set in 1995, is the heart of the series, the story flashes forward intermittently to police interrogations of Hart and Cohle 17 years after the events. Harrelson’s Marty, your typical detached detective with a rocky marriage (to Maggie, played by the marvelous Michelle Monaghan), a demanding mistress and a drinking problem. But he keeps getting pulled deeper and deeper into the complex case by the obsessive Rust, an introspective, misanthrope who has no friends or loves, a tragic past and little hope for the fate of mankind.

   The series really soars during the interrogation scenes with Cohle, now out of the department and doing little but drinking, who holds forth with the two investigators who are working a similar case. Demanding they provide him with a six-pack of Lone Star, he gives them a sanitized version of the crime along with his unforgiving but fascinating philosophy. (Based, some claim, on the ideas of writer Thomas Ligotti, whose lack of credit has raised questions of plagiarism against the show’s writer/creator, Nic Pizzolatto, who denies any connection.)

     Director Cary Fukunaga, who made the recent version of “Jane Eyre,” captures the flat, unchanging geography of the bayou along with the pockets of human desperation. Often Marty and Rust are seen as small figures moving across a vast landscape, as if the inherit evil of the region is about to swallow them up.   

     The centerpiece of the first part of the series takes place when Rust goes undercover, reconnecting with a gang of drug-dealing bikers, leading to a full-scale shootout with rival dealers in a suburban black community. Brilliantly filmed and staged, the tense, chaotic sequence is both an indictment of a criminal culture devoid of basic humanity and an unforgettable action scene.   

     The final three hours focus on what happens after the 2012 interviews, as the long-estranged detectives reunite and get on with unfinished business that has taken over Cohle’s life. Even though the plot, which takes viewers into a world of lurid, twisted, cultish psychotics, is intensely compelling, it’s just a vehicle for Pizzolatto’s exploration of these troubled, talkative and ultimately single-minded detectives.       

   I finally caught up with 2012’s Oscar-winning documentary about cult-legend Sixto Rodriguez, a Detroit singer-songwriter whose early 1970s albums were all but forgot everywhere except in South Africa.

    On the one hand, the film superbly documents the heartfelt crusade of two men, a record shop owner and a music journalist, to find out what happen to their childhood idol along with the somewhat mysterious career of Rodriguez. But, for me, it raised as many questions as it answered.

    *If Rodriguez was so popular in South Africa—he’s compared to the Beatles—then why did it take 30 years for anyone to dig into his life after he seemingly disappeared?

   *Did anyone really believe the rumors that he had killed himself on stage? They do have newspapers and television in South Africa, right?

   *If Rodriguez sold so many records and was so admired, where were the South African concert promoters? They weren’t interested in the incredible profits a Rodriguez concert would have produced?

   *Even if U.S. record executives swindled Rodriguez out of royalties, which seems clear (Clarence Avant, a legendary music exec, is the arrogant bad guy of the film and now is facing a lawsuit), why wouldn’t they have followed up when South Africans kept buying his record? Whether they thought him talentless or not, no record honcho passes up a chance to make money.

     In addition, I found the accolades for the man’s music a bit over-the-top (I bought a best-of collection and his lyrics are closer to Cat Stevens than Jackson Browne—please don’t even mention Joni or Dylan); he seems like a fine, regional artist who probably could have sustained a career with some effort.

     Of course you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be touched by the upshot of the search for this “lost legend.” It is quite a tale, but it falls short in its documenting.



    I’ve never quite known what to make of Mae West. Her films, immensely popular in their time, haven’t aged well—they now play like Marx Bros. films without any of the brothers. West might as well be digital inserted into her films as little interaction she has with the other performers. She saunters through her scenes performing her faux sexy routine and delivering ribald one-lines like Rodney Dangerfield on Quaaludes.

   Yet West was a pioneer in opening up the Broadway stage to controversial, “indecent” subjects through the 1920s. Writing and starring, the ambitious actress brought portrayals of the underbelly of society and the unspoken appeal of sex from burlesque and presented it for upper-class audiences on the legitimate stage, breaking box office records. As chronicled in Marybeth Hamilton’s fascinating book, “When I’m Bad, I’m Better,” West was among the first playwrights to fully explore a side of society not spoken of in polite company, penning characters who were prostitutes, homosexuals, promiscuous, criminals and, even “worse,” were of races other than white. Unfortunately, little of that cutting-edge attitude made it to her Hollywood pictures.

     “She Done Him Wrong,” a watered-down version of her Broadway hit “Diamond Lil,” tells the story of a Bowery nightclub performer in the “Gay ‘90s” who enjoys both expensive jewelry and good-looking men. Of most interest to Lady Lou is Captain Cummings (a pre-stardom Cary Grant), a newly arrived do-gooder who is at odds with Lil’s sleazy boss and cabaret owner Gus Jordon (Noah Beery).

      Paramount Studios ran into the brick wall of the Hayes Office immediately after announcing they had purchased the rights to West’s play. The censorship board, set up by the studios to protect themselves from outside censorship (movements where gathering steam across the country in the late 1920s and early ‘30s) couldn’t stop Paramount from making the picture—all they could see were the huge profits she had made with the stage play—but did its best to tone it down. But West is West.

     It’s not so much the lines that are so suggestive, but the manner in which the 40-year-old actress delivers them. Out of her mouth, everything sounds dirty. Yet, most of the time, her co-stars don’t respond to what she says, as if she’s an off-screen commentator.  The film, directed by Lowell Sherman, but clearly controlled by West, couldn’t be more stagey or move at a more sluggish pace. But the movie was a major hit, immediately skyrocketing West to the top of the most popular actress polls (a ranking very important in that era).

    After “She Done Him Wrong,” each successive film starring West (most adapted from her plays) became less and less racy as the studios began to acquiesce to calls for a more “family-oriented” product.

     While I’m not much of a fan of the actress or her movies, she certainly deserves credit for trying to open up the cinema to a more adult view of the world. It wouldn’t be until the 1960s—when everything was changing—that Hollywood realized that talking about, or even showing, sex would not cause the ruination of society.


     While not up to the director’s recent successes—“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008), “Midnight in Paris” (2011) and “Blue Jasmine” (2013)—Woody Allen’s latest amusement offers his most unabated assault on the idea of the afterlife and its suspicious cousin, the supernatural. 

     Primarily set in the south of France during the 1920s, the single-threaded story involves successful illusionist Stanley (a strangely lightweight Colin Firth)—he performs as Wei Ling Soo, complete with a fake bald head and fu manchu mustache--who is invited by fellow illusionist and boyhood friend Howard (Simon McBurney) to debunk an American psychic (Emma Stone). Sophie has convinced a wealthy widow (a very amusing Jacki Weaver) that she can speak to the dead and predict the future, which seems to include her marrying the widow’s simpleton son.

     It takes only a few days for the low-keyed, childlike Sophia to upend the world of righteously cynical Stanley; she senses things about him and his spunky aunt (the great British actress Eileen Atkins) that turn Stanley into a believer. 

      Part of the problem with the film is that it plays out like an early rehearsal of a stage play, with most of the actors delivering their lines as if they were handed them an hour earlier.  Allen’s script is heavy on talking points, slight on character development, yet I think a different set of actors, especially in the leads, might have helped. Stone never exudes the kind of charisma or gravitas you’d expect from this type of character. One of the hallmarks of Allen films through the years has been his often surprising yet spot-on casting; recently he’s widely missed the mark in key roles.

     But I was highly entertained; both by the 78-year-old filmmaker’s politically incorrect commentary on the impossibility of anything beyond the known reality and his enthusiastic embrace of the unending hope for romantic magic.     



UNDER THE SKIN (2014) and LUCY (2014)

    I liked the sci-fi genre much more when it was the poor cousin of Hollywood filmmaking. When sci-fi meant cheesy B-movies in the 1950s, some real gems emerged (“Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Forbidden Planet,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still”) amid the rubber-masked aliens and cardboard-constructed space ships, which, in their own way, are as entertaining as the current big-budget events. Then came “Star Wars” and the studios discovered that by throwing a few more dollars into the budget those B-movie plots and characters could make them billions.

     But occasionally a picture reminiscent of those pre-“Star Wars” days gets made--“Brazil,” the first “Terminator,” “Children of Men” and “Super 8” come to mind. Brian Glazer’s darkly stylish and totally baffling “Under the Skin” fits the bill.

     This intentionally vague film begins with a beam of light arriving from outer space and eventually taking the human form of Scarlett Johansson (utilizing a conveniently beautiful dead body). Her assignment—a mysterious motorcyclist seems to be her operator—is to drive around Glasgow, Scotland, picking up guys who she then leads into a deadly pool inside abandon houses.

    Who these aliens are, what they want with human bodies and when or how they set up these pool-like portals on Earth are issues never addressed. We just see the process—her victims slowly undressing just as she does, leading them to their death.

    The moody film benefits from its use of mostly real people along the streets of Glasgow who Johansson seduces into her van, giving it a documentary feeling. At points you can see the actress being amused by the interactions.

     It doesn’t take long before Johansson’s alien starts understanding human emotion and wants to know what it feels like. As we humans know all too well, things get complicated once emotions enter the picture.

      Under Glazer’s judicious direction, the film offers just the right amount of horrific mystery and real-world observation, with Johansson’s unnamed alien the perfect conduit for exploring the results of human emotions. She’s as other worldly and all so human as she was in “Her.”

     “Lucy” is nearly as difficult to comprehend, but much more fun; a wild ride of a nutty sci-fi film that is equal parts intellectual exploration and violent shoot-em-up. 

      A clueless party girl living in Taipei, Lucy ends up delivering a briefcase full of drugs to a volatile, ruthless Chinese mobster (Min-sik Choi). After an intense standoff, Lucy and three other foreigners are selected to smuggle this drug—an experimental, mind-expanding compound—into their homeland, where one of Mr. Jang’s men will take possession on the packets. Oh, and, the packets of drugs have been surgically inserted into each of the smugglers’ stomachs.

     The real fun begins when the drug starts increasing Lucy’s ability to utilize her mind (much is made of the fact that human’s use but 10 percent of the brain’s capacity.). Soon, she enlists the help of a French police detective (a bemused Amr Waked) and a world-renown expert in brain power, Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman, as always, the voice of reason).

     Both revenge fantasy and scientific lark, the film, written and directed by French action specialist Luc Besson (“La Femme Nikita,” “The Professional”), tries to explore the burden of dealing with too much information, even as Lucy, virtually single-handedly, takes on this fearsome mob with the power of thought.

     Johansson is again superb in this supernatural role; she manages to be convincing as both a dimwit and the smartest person on the planet. And, happily for once, the script doesn’t attempt to insert an implausible romance, presenting Lucy as clearly understanding the seriousness of her mission.

    At some point, the science became a bit deep and I stopped trying to understand the details, giving in to Bresson’s highly entertaining controlled chaos.


     Foolishly, I had some hopes that this time-travel romance would be something interesting; the trailer made me think it had potential and writer-director, Richard Curtis had a good track record, having penned “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary.”

     Early in the film, the awkward, somewhat immature Tim (Domhnall Gleeson, Bill Weasley from “Harry Potter”) is told by his father (an overly maudlin Bill Nighy) that the males of the family have the ability to go back in time.

      Immediately after Tim is convinced—the process involves going into a closet and closing your eyes wishing yourself back—his father tells him that he should not use it for financial gains because “that’s not what’s important in life.” What nonsense! Of course money is important.

      Why have the movies, especially in recent years, demonized the desire to have money? Constantly, characters are judged by whether they follow their heart or go for the money—if it were only that simple. No, it’s not the most important thing, but if you have a chance to watch a sporting event and then go back in time to place a bet, you’d be crazy not to do it. Even if you only did it once; even if you didn’t want this “dirty” money and you gave it all to charities or used it to help poor people in some way, becoming a modern day Robin Hood.

      But the film wants to put that obvious use of this amazing ability out of bounds so that Tim can go back in time to kiss a girl on New Year’s Eve and, later, make a better impression when he has sex with a woman he’s fallen for. I guess improving one’s love life is more legitimate than making some bucks on the World Cup.

       I did understand Tim’s motives to some extent since the woman he’s smitten by is played by Rachel McAdams. She brings a life-affirming glow to all her roles, no matter how minor the film and then showed in the spy thriller “A Most Wanted Man” that she’s capable of a portraying a very serious, complex character. “About Time” could have used some of that side of the actress; instead she’s relegated to playing the dutiful, sensible girlfriend/wife. (Oddly, she was also the love interest in 2009’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife”—hardly enviable typecasting.)

      Tim ends up having to go back in time to help out her father’s playwright friend, forgetting that it wiped out his first meeting with Mary. But when you can keep going back in time, everything is possible. Too much, actually.

      The arbitrariness of the film makes it ludicrous, along with its basic toothless approach to life. I know, I know, it’s a comedy, but it attempts, badly, to offer insight in how we live our lives, so some standards need to be applied. Yet I might have bought it (McAdams: what can I say?) if Tim had just placed a single bet.

NOAH  (2014)

    The man who built the ark is given a big-budget, special-effects loaded film treatment by writer-director Darren Aronofsky, who does his best to turn the simplistic story into an action-adventure epic.

     Russell Crowe plays Noah as a man possessed, bringing the same strident intensity he displayed as Javert in “Les Misérables,” after he receives a message he believes comes from the creator of the world. As a descendent of Adam and grandson of Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), this father of three jumps into the ark-building obsession with the help of giant rock creatures (God’s angels but looking more like prehistoric transformers.)

     Adding to the chaos is the presence of what seems like a much too sophisticated, ahead-of-its-time army led by the film’s representative of evil, Tubal (the menacing Ray Winstone), who traces his lineage back to Cain—need I say more?
    The coming of world-cleansing rains—God, pissed at the destruction of his paradise, decided to start over, according to the Bible story—offers impressive CGI sequences and provides the only reason to watch this film. Unlike previous depictions of the story, this movie doesn’t make much of the gathering of two of each living creature for safe keeping in the ark or that Noah is allegedly between 500 and 600 years old.

    Of course, the religious right was offended by the depiction of Noah’s heroics because it didn’t follow the Bible word for word, as if it was written by those present at the flood. For everyone else, the parable doesn’t hold (sorry) much water.

    Jennifer Connelly, who played Crowe’s mate in “A Brilliant Mind” (and winning an Oscar for it), is back as his wife, but her role as Naameh is barely there; though she looks great for a woman who’s lived a couple of centuries.

    I’m not sure what Aronofsky, best known for “The Wrestler” and “Black Swan,” and co-writer Ari Handel were aiming for; they knew they’d upset Christians, but, at the same time, who else would be interested in this ponderous ancient world tale?