Wednesday, December 17, 2008

VALKYRIE

Review: Valkyrie
2 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Superheroes may have ruled the summer blockbusters, but Nazis are the suited figures dominating cinemas this winter. By year's end, more than five major films themed around some aspect of Nazi Germany will have been released, including “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” “Adam Resurrected,” “The Reader,” “Defiance,” and “Good.” Bryan Singer, who's perhaps best known for helming the Oscar-winning cult classic “The Usual Suspects” but more recently notable for taking on projects like “X-Men” and “Superman Returns,” should have stuck with the warm weather pack. His Hitler-assassination thriller, “Valkyrie,” which has him directing Tom Cruise in the fading star's latest futile attempt at a comeback, is sure to be the worst of this Reich-ridden lineup. Burdened by Cruise's misguided, distractingly self-important performance, it's a shoddy, Hollywood-ized take on an otherwise fascinating true story.

Cruise is Nazi Colonel Clauss von Stauffenberg, a key player in the German Resistance movement and the key player in a film that's loaded with characters who have very German names but are portrayed by very not-German actors. In “Valkyrie”'s opening sequence, Stauffenberg, while on patrol in the deserts of Africa, is severely wounded in an aerial attack. The incident costs the colonel his right hand, a few fingers, and his left eye, forcing him to wear a pirate patch and giving Cruise the opportunity to once again pursue character depth via facial disfigurement (see “Minority Report,” “Vanilla Sky”). It also facilitates Stauffenberg's traitorous-but-noble desire to dethrone Hitler (played by relative unknown David Bamber), a man who, in July of 1944 when the film is set, had become “not only an enemy of the world, but an enemy of Germany.”


In Stauffenberg's corner is a handful of high-ranking military men, all of whom have similar minds for treason and most of whom are played by classically-trained Brits. There's Major-General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), who takes an early crack at offing the Fuhrer with a killer Cointreau bottle; General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy), who shapes up to be Stauffenberg's closest ally; General Ludwig Beck (Terrence Stamp), a behind-the-scenes asset with copious political influence; and General Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), a shrewd coward playing both sides. With none of these men up to the task, Stauffenberg assumes the responsibility of taking out Hitler himself by hand-delivering plastic explosives to one of the dictator's wooded outposts. He code-names the mission Operation Valkyrie after Germany's Reserve Army, which is meant to be employed to intercept a rebellion against the government but is instead duped into expediting one.

The best thing about “Valkyrie” is that it gets right to the point. It wastes very little time with potentially taxing backstories and/or broad coverage of WWII and instead leaps right into the task at hand. Sadly, that's about as far the movie's observance of audience concerns goes. Stauffenberg's actual act of planting the bombs is the only portion that generates any real suspense. The remaining chunk is a by-the-numbers exercise in stale plotting and studio standards. The disappointingly stock script by Oscar winner Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects”) and first-timer Nathan Alexander is peppered with flagrant foreshadowing and oh-no-they-didn't dialogue. In the first half especially, nearly every scene is capped off with an over-emphatic exit line plucked right out of Hollywood's bargain bin, such as, “Only God can judge us now,” and, “This is a military operation – nothing ever goes according to plan” (no need for the “duh-duh-duh” music; the actors have that area covered). Two of this year's best movies, “Man on Wire” and “Frost/Nixon,” also gave accounts of well-documented historic events, but did so with smart and breathless pacing that created tension despite viewers' knowledge of the outcomes. “Valkyrie” fails to achieve that same urgency because it's so clearly a commercial concoction, led by none other than Tom Cruise.


I imagine that this movie will infuriate many Germans, especially those few who survived and/or sympathized with the events depicted. With Cruise as the conductor, any cultural authenticity is hopelessly derailed. Speaking in his American-as-apple-pie-voice and sticking out like a sore thumb among a cast of Europeans (at least the Brits are from the right side of the pond), the former box-office king feels about as alien to this picture as his space-cadet religion must feel to his fans. His presence is hulking and bizarre, further stripping the film of its prestige and revealing it as a shameless star vehicle. If his involvement is not part of his own effort to revamp his waning career, then what is he doing here? Surely the director didn't take on a film about Nazi Germany and immediately think to call Tom Cruise. I've long prided myself in the ability to separate stars' public images from their work on screen but Cruise is my Kryptonite. His peculiar paparazzi persona now follows him into the film frame, irrevocably blurring the line between the personal and the professional. If he's ever able to reestablish that divide and make a triumphant return worth watching, I'll be there, but “Valkyrie” ain't it.

The few German actors who do appear in this film are given blink-and-miss bit parts. The lovely and talented Carice Van Houten (“Black Book”), who plays Stauffenberg's wife, Nina, has about eight lines and is assigned such not-so-subtle actions as gripping her belly to let us know she's pregnant. Another is East Germany-born Thomas Kretschmann (Peter Jackson's “King Kong”), who's cast as Reserve Army leader, Major Otto Ernst Remer, and handed some of the screenplay's more priceless gems. Take this beaut, which he barks at a courier who's repeatedly brought him false alarms: “In ancient Greece, you would have been killed for this,” he says. “Lucky for you, we've evolved.” Yeah, thanks. It's a good thing the brains behind “Valkyrie” never lived in ancient Greece.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

DOUBT

Review: Doubt
5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

A telltale sign of a great film is the desire – no, the need – to see it again with the prescient knowledge that the second viewing will lead to the third and, eventually, the twenty-third. Such a feeling bubbles up after watching John Patrick Shanley's big screen rendering of his Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning morality play, “Doubt,” but not immediately. The hunger for another go-round doesn't hit you until the trip home. What comes first at the end of this enigmatic stunner is the overwhelming gratification of its performances. Headlined by the incomparable Meryl Streep, the movie is a showcase of magnificent acting. It's the hottest ticket in town for those who, like me, prefer their drama in big, thunderous portions and served to them by actors whose intensity of talent damn-near shakes the theater floor.

Set in 1964 (which we learn from cleverly planted dialogue rather than intertitles), “Doubt” takes place entirely in and around St. Nicholas, a Catholic school in the Bronx overseen with ironclad scrutiny by its dreaded principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep). Recently, St. Nicholas has seen two new arrivals: Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a progressive and liberal priest aiming to make the school more user-friendly, and 12-year-old Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), its first black student. Uniformly shunned by his peers, Donald forms a bond with Flynn, a fellow misfit whose methods and ideas are met with great disdain from Sister Aloysius. When the meek Sister James (Amy Adams) is given an inkling that Flynn's and Donald's association goes beyond mere friendship, she informs Sister Aloysius and unwittingly sets off an electrifying chain of events. Armed with all the proof she needs (which is none), the headstrong headmistress is instantly and utterly convinced of Flynn's guilt. She takes Sister James' subtle tip-off and initiates a one-woman quest for justice, focusing all of her steely resolve on ejecting Flynn from the school for good.


Housed within “Doubt”'s simple and straightforward infrastructure is a wellspring of densely layered themes and ingenious ambiguities. These days, a story about priesthood pedophilia is, unfortunately, nothing new, but the way this one is told will challenge, rattle, and, ultimately, floor you. An equal case is made for both Flynn and Sister Aloysius, and the questions of who is innocent and who is guilty are in a constant tug-of-war. Shanley's words, which are written like velvet and spat out like fire, are so cunning and duplicitous, they, along with the characters' actions, are intended to polarize the audience. I saw this film with an intelligent person whose opinion I respect. The two of us emerged from it with opposite interpretations of the outcome, neither of them incorrect. Both morally conflicted characters are drawn with balanced cause for sympathy and suspicion and who you are will determine your reaction. Every point has a counterpoint, every unturned stone another beneath it. Nestled in there, too, believe it or not, is a surprising abundance of gallows humor, making the movie not only thought-provoking but amusing as well.

While “Milk,” “The Dark Knight,” “Burn After Reading,” and “Rachel Getting Married” all featured stellar ensembles, when it comes to colossal acting across the board, there's no better one-stop shop this year than “Doubt.” Adams, who's perfectly cast, channels her inherent smarts and sweetness into her best role since “Junebug,” embodying the story's minimal purity and providing a glimmer of hope. Viola Davis (“Nights in Rodanthe”), who plays Donald's desperate mother and delivers some of the film's most shocking revelations, is so devastating, she will blow you away. Hoffman, who has yet to give a less-than-excellent performance, claims the part of Father Flynn with a commanding authority. Streep, who surely needs no introduction, does the same with Sister Aloysius, and with even greater impact. If Cherry Jones' Tony-winning take on this character is indeed better, as many say, then I'm gonna need a seatbelt if and when I see it because Streep nearly takes the house down. Icy-cold but passionately driven, her work here is even more intimidating than her editrix in “The Devil Wears Prada” due to Sister Aloysious' unswerving purpose. If there's any actor working today who's more innately gifted than Streep, he or she has never crossed my path. Aside from her dramatic ardor, she has a way of interacting with people and things within in a scene that's so natural, it would go virtually unnoticed if it wasn't so rare. You can expect her, Adams, Davis, and Hoffman to all be up for Oscars come January.


You can also expect people to tell you that “Doubt” suffers from “staginess.” You can expect them to say that its look is too bland and that its sometimes blatantly metaphorical speech is too Broadway for the screen. But I say, when the material is this provocative and the talent this explosive, a stage is all that's needed. “Doubt” needs no garnishes. Shanley – who also directed – called in ace cinematographer Roger Deakins (“No Country for Old Men,” “Fargo”) to make his sequences picture-perfect, but what's depicted is appropriately free of showy embellishments. What you get is hallways, classrooms, offices, pathways, and chapels, all of them impeccably composed. If you require more than that, you've missed the point.

“Doubt” is a film I can't wait to own on DVD. Its lingering power not only bears repeating in its entirety but also warrants the point-and-select enjoyment of its many compulsively watchable scenes. Before that, I'll be back to the theater to feed the hunger and see it again. “Doubt” is one of the best movies of the year and of that there is no – oh, you know.

AUSTRALIA

Review: Australia
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

for Your Movie Buddy's "Australia" Review

Thursday, December 4, 2008

FROST/NIXON

Review: Frost/Nixon
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

The title sums it up: “Frost/Nixon” is a face-off. Adapted by playwright-turned-screenwriter Peter Morgan (“The Queen”) from his own Tony Award-winning Broadway smash, it's a whip-smart dramatization of the interview sessions between British journalist David Frost and former president Richard Nixon that rocked the television airwaves in 1977. An inside look behind the scenes of the the events leading up to the battle-of-wits broadcast, the film is deftly directed by Ron Howard and enthralling from start to finish. Its pace is breathless because it has a clear, pressing objective to which it builds from minute one: Nixon's eventual on-air confession of guilt regarding the Watergate scandal.


As the movie begins, those viewers who remember Tricky Dick's 1974 impeachment-impending resignation are invited to relive it while the rest of us get a history lesson in the form of high-brow entertainment. In character, key members of the supporting cast – which include Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, and Matthew MacFadyen – recall the pivotal moment and its aftermath in documentary-style confessionals that are intercut with actual news footage of the era. Save Bacon, who plays Nixon's right-hand man, Jack Brenner, everyone seems to agree on one thing: the ex-president, pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford, would never be given the trial he deserves for perhaps the most infamous political crime in US history. Enter Frost (Michael Sheen), a peppy Regis Philbin-type headlining a talk show in Australia at the time of Nixon's departure. Yearning to take on a project with far more prestige than a sit-down with the BeeGees, Frost informs his skeptical producer, John Birt (MacFadyen), that he's interested in interviewing the disgraced head of state. Enter Nixon (Frank Langella), a smug and greedy shell of a man who accepts the invitation and agrees to break three years of silence with the promise of a hefty check and with every intention of outmaneuvering his neophyte host.

No one believes that Frost can produce a legitimate segment; not the networks (they all turn him down), not Brenner (he's highly protective of his boss), and, initially, not American collaborators Bob Zelnick and James Reston, Jr. (Platt and Rockwell – they both know what's at stake far more than the out-of-his-league Frost). In fact, the only other person who's gung-ho about the show is Nixon, whose self-importance is well intact despite his public humiliation. A fight for the spotlight and the upper hand kicks off between the two determined men as the interviews – paid for, essentially, out of Frost's pocket – are taped over a period of five days. And they are hypnotic to watch.


Langella and Sheen, both reprising their roles from the play, deliver their lines like shotgun blasts. I have to admit, going into this film, I had my doubts about Langella, his Tony win notwithstanding. Too many actors have already impersonated Nixon – Dan Hedaya, Beau Bridges, Anthony Hopkins – and too many of them unconvincingly. Langella sent my trepidations right out the window. He turns Nixon into something we haven't seen before: a complex cinematic character. He transcends the obligatory prosthetic nose and peace signs in the air and makes the man his own, humanizing him while still playing him as despicable. Destined to be nominated for an Oscar, it's a towering and spellbinding performance. In the other corner is Sheen, a can't-miss actor who re-teams with Morgan after delicately portraying Tony Blair in “The Queen.” Outshined by Langella's powerhouse but more than capable of holding his ground, Sheen gives another seemingly effortless turn. Together, the two stars spin Morgan's material into pure dramatic gold.

“Frost/Nixon” is Ron Howard's best-directed film since 1995's “Apollo 13.” Naysayers may argue the validity of 2001's multiple Oscar-winner “A Beautiful Mind” but, seven years later, who but cinemaniacs like me even remember it? Howard's newest title ranks among the great movies about broadcast journalism, where it will remain for years to come. It also affords the filmmaker the get-out-of-jail-free-card he'll probably need when “The Da Vinci Code” prequel, “Angels & Demons,” drops with a thud in 2009. Though it criminally sidelines some great actors to highlight its titular match-up, “Frost/Nixon” is a seat-pinning locomotive of a movie. It barrels toward its destination, reaches it, and comes to a smooth, graceful stop. I was thrilled to be on board.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE

Review: Slumdog Millionaire
4.5 stars (out of 5)
R. Kurt Osenlund

At long last, the season of great movies is upon us, and Danny Boyle's unattractively titled but gorgeously entertaining “Slumdog Millionaire” may be its most pleasurable and wondrous gift. Reel-to-reel, end-to-end, this fresh spin on the rags-to-riches love story is furnished with sights and sounds to discover, behold, and cherish. Written by Simon Beaufoy (“The Full Monty”), who transcendently adapts the Indian novel, “Q and A,” by Vikas Swarup, the film is about a skid-row teenager from Mumbai who winds up in the hot seat and wins big on the Hindi rendition of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” It's about much more, of course, and how that more is depicted makes “Slumdog” a spectacle not to be missed.

The underdog tale is bookended by an on-screen multiple choice question, one of many visual ingenuities that director Boyle uses to amp up “Slumdog”'s abundant energy and rollicking pace. It asks us how dirt-poor, uneducated Jamal Malik (coulda'-fooled-me newcomer Dev Patel) got to be one question away from scoring 20 million rupees on a prime time phenomenon that stumps doctors and scholars. Is it luck? Is it destiny? Is he a genius? Did he cheat? The latter is the belief of the show's bully of a host (Anil Kapoor, who makes Meredith Vieira look like Bambi), as well as Mumbai's draconian police force, which resorts to torturous tactics to get an explanation out of Jamal. The focused teen – whose job at the time of the live broadcast is a lowly tea server at a major communications company – gives one, but an admittance of guilt plays no part in it, and as he indulges the cops with his tempestuous autobiography, “Slumdog” takes glorious flight.


In flashbacks (which take up much of the two-hour running time), Jamal reveals the events of his impoverished life that serendipitously account for his knowledge of each answer. How best to describe this major nugget? Imagine if you splashed the technicolor dreamscapes of “The Wizard of Oz” across the brisk, gritty ghettos of “City of God” and kept the tone and luster of both worlds on an even keel. Sound impossible? Boyle pulls it off – splendidly. He takes us back to such terrible tragedies as the murder of Jamal's mother; such calamities as the fall of Jamal and his brother, Salim, into the hands of a child-exploiting local gang; and the starkly, inevitably different life paths of the two boys (Jamal and Salim are each played by three different actors of different ages).

Boyle keeps the rough realism on high (prepare to see kids blinded and plenty of people shot), but balances it with exuberant color, innovative technique, and a sense of buoyant hopefulness. What a magical moviemaker Boyle is, able to inject soaring fantasy and staggering beauty into what at first seem like such unlikely, Earth-bound places. He clinched a similar victory in 2004 with “Millions,” a fancifully-told story of two brothers from London who must deal with the real-world effects of their manna from heaven. The British director has an unprecedented way with children that wonderfully compliments his oft-youthful style and gives his brighter movies a mass appeal. Where he goes and what he does with the the younger Jamal and Salim will win your heart.


Credit also cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, Boyle's go-to camera artist (“Millions,” “28 Days Later”) who here uses oblique angles, shimmering sunlight, and rapid-fire on-location shooting to create brilliant sequences. The ways in which both the inner-city squalor and upper-crust decadence of Mumbai's culture are captured are amazing. After careening through the crime-ridden streets at low perspectives and blistering speeds, the camera pulls out to show a stunning patchwork of slum roofs. As the boys migrate across the the nation, there are scenes on trains and at the Taj Mahal that are filled with wonder. And when the narrative circles back around to Jamal's present-day interrogation, the feel of the film shifts from mystical and dreamlike to modern and ultra-cool. All of this is backed by an exotic, up-tempo soundtrack courtesy of composer A.R. Rahman and artists like M.I.A. The elements combine to make “Slumdog” a dynamic testament to survival and life-affirmation.

Pumping through Jamal's chronology and spilling into the present is an old-fashioned, undying love that faces hurdles from the first spark. Latika (played, like the boys, by multiple actors in the recollections and by the model-flawless Freido Pinto in the here-and-now) is Jamal's ultimate desire and his reason for going on the show (“I thought she'd be watching,” he sighs). She's also the desire of a lineage of gangsters, a threat that follows the star-crossed pair from past to present. The romance is meant to be the movie's glue, and it does hold all the pieces together, but it goes from sticky to dry in quieter moments due to slightly cliched dialogue and sub-par acting on the part of Pinto. Since these moments are so few amidst “Slumdog”'s hyperkinesis, we need them, and the failure to fully connect with them is a problem.

But it's a problem that surely won't eclipse the overall, grand experience of the film, which showers the audience with rewards. Even the subtitles and title cards flow forth like confetti, and crowds will want to stick around for the Bollywood-derived end credits. “Slumdog” is a unique and jubilant entertainment, and while it may not make you cry, it'll certainly make you laugh and may just make you cheer. So...my final answer? A (minus).

Thursday, November 20, 2008

MILK

Review: Milk
5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Oselund

When planning a post-election, pre-holiday release date for their Oscar front-runner, “Milk,” the execs over at Focus Features couldn't have anticipated just how relevant the film would become. With California's gay marriage-repealing Proposition 8 freshly enacted, a biopic about slain San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk – America's first openly gay politician who fought and defeated his state's gay teacher witch-hunt, Proposition 6, in 1978 – has an intensified socio-political oomph. “Milk” is a pillar of pride -- out and about, flashing its colors and asserting its voice. With the Obama-friendly theme of HOPE as its mantra, the movie has an authentic ability to change people's minds by chronicling how one man changed them over 30 years ago. And, as directed by Gus Van Sant, written by Dustin Lance Black, and performed by a brilliant cast led heroically by Sean Penn, it's the most rousingly inspirational and deeply moving film I've seen all year.

It recounts the last eight years of Milk's (Penn) life, from his 40th birthday as a New York nobody to his migration to San Fran's Castro District with lover Scott Smith (James Franco) to his assassination at 48 by fellow city supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin). Van Sant packs that nearly decade-long span with the vivacious vibrancy of the '70s, and introduces us not only to his bevy of dexterous actors (which also includes Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, Joseph Cross, and Alison Pill), but also to actual members of the society he's recreated. He harmoniously blends found footage of the dynamic gay haven with Harris Savides' oft-grainy cinematography, creating a historical docu-drama that hums with realism yet still has the rapture of a great novel. It's guided along by the tape-recorded recollections of Milk himself (as portrayed by Penn), a man who seems to have been prophetically aware of his brief opportunity to make a difference. He seizes his chance when, after opening a camera shop on Castro Street and instrumentally turning the neighborhood into a homosexual microcosm, an invasion of religious intolerance and police brutality threatens his community's way of life and prompts him to run for office.


With an accuracy that calls to mind the long-road campaign of our current president-elect, “Milk” depicts how a small, grassroots movement can spread into a national phenomenon on the basis of a singular belief (“We're fighting for our lives, here,” Milk says). Milk starts out standing on a box on a street corner with a megaphone, and ends up a state figurehead who makes headlines and receives phone calls from suicidal, salvation-seeking gay teens across the country. He “recruits” people off the street, relentlessly pursues support from skeptical political power players, and transforms The Castro into the Woodstock-like mecca of his cause. He faces down the opposition of radical conservatives like State Senator John Briggs (Denis O'Hare) and Southern Baptist singer-turned-anti-gay-spokeswoman Anita Bryant (who plays herself in archival news interviews) with an unyielding courage. And though he sees failures and is constantly aware of his challenges (the film is very attentive to Milk and co.'s fears and vulnerabilities), his eventual victories and inevitable ascension as the voice of an entire culture of oppressed people stems from a valiant refusal to back down. (“I'm not a candidate,” he insists. “The movement is the candidate.”)

Black's retelling of these events rolls out with great fervor and fluidity, and it's aided by acting of the highest order. Franco caps off a banner year – he stole the show in Judd Apatow's “Pineapple Express” – by rapidly maturing before our eyes and tapping into his heartthrob appeal with a just-right amount of restraint. Brolin, who seems to have all the right moves lately, adds another fascinating performance to his newly enviable resume', allowing White's volcanic center to boil to its desperate breaking point. Hirsch, who proved his chops last year in Penn's “Into the Wild,” is a flamboyant, streetwise delight as Milk's hustling point man. Even Luna, who plays a familiar, comic relief role as Milk's featherbrained interim lover, instills gravity in his superfluous character. And Penn, all doe-eyed and optimistic with an almost impervious ear-to-ear grin, conveys precisely why Milk was able to accomplish what he did in a time when films like “Brokeback Mountain” were still relegated to underground venues. He's impossibly charming and undaunted by the prejudice that sometimes literally closes in around him. Like Daniel Day-Lewis, Penn is an actor who devotes every inch of himself to the character he's playing. In the end credits, there's a montage of the principal players and their real-life counterparts. With Penn and Milk, there's a resemblance, of course, but it's the personalities that look most similar. Penn tackles the role and finds Milk's soul.


And then there's Van Sant. One does not reach a professional peak like “Milk” without building blocks of groundbreaking work. A pioneer of the New Queer Cinema that roared onto the scene in the early '90s, the openly gay Van Sant is a child of the very world he's documenting here. I think it's safe to say that this is the film he's waited to make his whole life. Watching it, we can see the artistic evolution of an American auteur. Stylistically, there are pieces of “Drugstore Cowboy,” “My Own Private Idaho,” “To Die For,” and “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.” Thematically, there are shades of “Idaho,” “Mala Noche,” and “Good Will Hunting.” Ultimately, what Van Sant has achieved is a career culmination by way of a modern masterpiece.

I very rarely applaud at the end of movies. It's a futile practice to clap at an inanimate screen. But, in spite of myself, after wiping away tears, I clapped for “Milk.”

Saturday, November 15, 2008

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS

Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

The makers of the haunting Holocaust tragedy, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” are marketing it as a family film. The TV commercials are awash with glowing blue skies, sweeping music, and a kid-friendly sense of adventure. The posters – which feature those same skies, a glowing horizon, and a barbed-wire fence that, in context, manages to look friendly – are emblazoned with the insignia of the Heartland Truly Moving Picture Award, typically a green light for concerned parents. Well, moms and dads, I'm here to tell you not to be fooled by this profit-seeking trickery. While “Pajamas” does make for daring and provocative grown-up entertainment, if you bring your kids to see it, expect the month that follows to be filled with tough questions and sleepless nights.

The movie, based on John Boyne's best-seller, begins in Berlin during World War II and tells of Bruno, the curious, 8-year-old son of a high-ranking Nazi officer. When his father is reassigned to be the commandant at a remote concentration camp, Bruno – along with his mother and older sister – gets uprooted from his charmed life of school friends and social gatherings and relocates to a dreary military compound. Lonely and bored, he begins exploring his new surroundings and discovers the existence of a “farm” about a mile away where people – including children – work and wear “pajamas.” Against his mother's warnings, the intrepid Bruno ventures out to the site and befriends a boy his age who's detained behind an electrified fence. As the pair's meetings continue, they begin to form a bond that eventually crosses barriers both literally and figuratively.


That, or some variation of it, is what will end up on the back of the film's DVD packaging, along with the sentimental tagline, “Lines may divide us, but hope will unite us.” Allow me to illuminate how things really go down. From the moment the family's move gets underway, “Pajamas” begins to descend – inexorably condensing until it finally implodes on itself. This is not a criticism but an observation; in fact, the style of the narrative is extremely effective in centralizing the drama. We leave the bustling, radiant city and the family's posh urban dwelling for a gray fortress in the woods where only a few characters remain and, from which, even more will depart by the end. The film gives us subtle visual and aural cues to the bigger picture, like chimney smoke and warmongering, but it never expands to illuminate the devastation of the camp next door or the war at large. All of the film's major events play out within that one-mile radius.

This allows director Mark Herman (“Little Voice”), who also wrote the script, to confine the tension to this family's dynamics, which are also on a downward spiral. Perhaps the most interesting things about this movie are its rather novel perspectives of the Holocaust. There's Bruno, of course, whose innocence and naivete' allow him to initially think that the things he's discovered are part of an elaborate game. There's also the mother, a Nazi's wife who's quite naive herself and experiences a severe personal decline once she learns the truth about her husband's work. The sister is a fervent supporter of the party and the father/husband is a soulless machine – two types we've seen many times before in films about this topic. But the points-of-view of Bruno and the mother feel new and eye-opening and the actors who play these characters do so with remarkable believability.


The performances that Herman draws from young Asa Butterfield (Bruno) and Vera Farmiga (who's only credited as “the mother”) are superb. Butterfield, who previously starred in “Son of Rambow” and whose wide, ocean-blue eyes render him as the male clone of Saorsie Ronan from “Atonement,” has eagerness and charisma to burn and never hits the stifling snag of forced child acting. Farmiga, a brilliant actress who's best known in the mainstream for her supporting role in “The Departed” but more known to film buffs for her harrowing work in “Down to the Bone,” is flat-out riveting. She conveys all of the nuances of her conflicted character with simple glances. (Watch how she reacts when she finds her daughter plastering her bedroom with Nazi propaganda: incapable of condoning or condemning what she sees, she says nothing, but her face gives us all we need.)

Herman doesn't nurture the relationship between the two boys as much as he does the ones in the family, resulting in a diminished sense of attachment to the film's bellwether plot line. But “Pajamas” isn't really interested in appealing to our hearts; it's dead-set on rattling our nerves. I surely won't spoil the ending but I will say that, once we realize where this story is headed, the horror mounts like a gathering storm. “Pajamas” is a brutally righteous morality tale that sticks with you. It's the kind of movie you tell your friends to check out but at their own risk. That it's manipulatively disguised as an affair for the whole gang is its greatest weakness and bit of a sick joke. I'd normally say it's a good idea to inspire worldliness in a child as early as possible, but the Holocaust is heady stuff even for an adult, and “Pajamas” goes way beyond a simple post-film discussion. I know what you're thinking: "But it's clearly given a cautionary PG-13 rating." Yeah, well so was the last “Harry Potter” installment. I wouldn't recommend “Pajamas” be seen by anyone under 16. I'd highly recommend it to everyone else – at their own risk.

Friday, November 7, 2008

RACHEL GETTING MARRIED

Review: Rachel Getting Married
5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

In the introduction of his book, The Great Movies, film critic extraordinaire Roger Ebert writes, “We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls.” Jonathan Demme's poignant domestic drama, “Rachel Getting Married,” is one of those great, truth-telling windows in which we can see our reflection. Life, with all its dirty smudges, is mirrored back to us as this alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking film bluntly examines the human condition. Its representative sample is an especially dysfunctional Connecticut family with equal cause for joy and sorrow. Hanging with this clan, we share those feelings and more; Demme's direction and Jenny Lumet's script deliver them in spontaneous cascades. By the end, we've absorbed so much life, love, and brutal honesty that we feel the need to hug someone just to share the load.

There is a Rachel in the family (played by Rosemarie DeWitt), and she certainly does get married, but the principal focus is put on Kym (Anne Hathaway), Rachel's drug addicted live-wire of a sister who leaves a nine-month stint in rehab to come home for Rachel's wedding. Kym's return opens old wounds and creates new ones. We get an immediate sense of how much trouble she's caused in the past from the way her family behaves around her; most of them treat her like a ticking bomb. Her lovingly loony father, Paul (Bill Irwin), is constantly putting food in her frail hands and won't let her borrow the car. Her calculating, nearly-as-estranged mother, Abby (a regal Debra Winger, veteran of another reflective, smudge-filled window, “Terms of Endearment”), dares not get too close, lest she confront her maternal failures. Rachel's best friend and maid of honor, Emma (Anisa George) makes it her mission to point out Kym's faults and keep her from adding the wedding to her list of things destroyed. (Through quiet allusions, we also gather that Kym's done something far worse than lie, cheat, and steal – though she's done all of those things, too.)


The only person who expresses a serious interest in understanding Kym is Rachel, a soon-to-be shrink who's watched her little sister come apart at the seams. For that reason, Kym's erratic behavior tries Rachel's patience most of all, and the sisters' relationship is continuously tested. There are scenes of revelation between the two women that are about as raw as they come, heatedly alive and objectively captured in hand-held, home-movie fashion. The rest of the story is shown through that same unbiased lens, right down to bride Rachel and groom Sidney's (Tunde Adebimpe) lyrical vow exchanges (the film refreshingly makes no matter of the fact that the marriage is interracial, and neither will I). We attend this tumultuous event as guests and take in the whole thing from top to tails. We sit through the unnervingly candid rehearsal dinner, the bright and buoyant reception, and the behind the scenes dirt in between, all of it unfurling with a naturalness that feels organically cultivated by everyone involved.

The movie's fiery core is Hathaway, who's so good as Kym, the role could mark the acting feat of her career (and she's only 26). Her performance is by turns infuriating, hilarious, mortifying, smart, and devastating. She makes a steadfast choice not to judge her character but to slip into her skin with an open mind and leave the evaluation to the audience. Nothing Hathaway has done before – the least of which being Garry Marshall's glittery “Princess Diaries” flicks – comes remotely close to the fearlessness on display here. From her squirrel-chewed haircut to her thumping gait, from instances of commanding allure to ones of tearful vulnerability, she builds Kym from the ground up with the courage to crush her at any moment.


Hot on Hathaway's heels is DeWitt, whose stunning star turn as Rachel should jump her from virtual unknown to in-demand Hollywood heavyweight. She goes above and beyond the task of playing Kym's only formidable opponent and comes very close to stealing the show. DeWitt's Rachel is a real, flesh-and-blood woman driven by both compassion and resentment, and the actress' contribution to this project is an integral part of its success. Another is Lumet's falsehood-free writing and all its impulsive mood swings. If one were to graph “Rachel Getting Married”'s emotional content, the end result would look like a kid's doodle of the Rocky Mountains. Like Hathaway's performance and like life, it's highly unpredictable and constantly redirecting its energy.

Every Thanksgiving for the past five years, I've watched 2003's unsung gem, “Pieces of April,” a movie with many parallels to this one. Shot in the same cinema verite' style, it depicts an extremely flawed black sheep and her quirky modern family as they reluctantly gather together for a celebration and hit big bumps along the way. With a similar veracity, it offers an impartial glimpse into someone else's life while allowing us to reflect on our own. I'm going to have to choose a holiday to devote to “Rachel Getting Married.” It's a celebration I want to revisit, a window I don't want to close.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

CHANGELING

Review: Changeling
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Screen goddess Angelina Jolie tones down her sultry image and dons a cloche hat for director Clint Eastwood in “Changeling,” a stylish, Depression-era mystery that follows a California single mother as she searches for her missing son and takes on the crooked LAPD. Fact-based, it's a story predominantly well-told by Eastwood and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, a former journalist who spent a year digging through archives of the actual case before shelling out his script. From concept to consummation, this period piece reeks of taste. Nevertheless, “Mystic River” or “Million Dollar Baby” it is not. “Changeling” lacks the emotional wallop of Eastwood's other recent films and, sadly, there seems to be only one person to blame for that: the director's leading lady.

Jolie is Christine Collins, a reasonably simple woman living in the Los Angeles suburbs in 1928. She works as the floor supervisor of the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company and oversees her staff of switchboard operators while gliding around on roller skates. She applies cherry red lipstick on the daily to throw off her muted, bourgeois attire and carries herself as daintily as a doily. Her best – and, apparently, only – friend in the world is her eight-year-old son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith), whose height she measures on the kitchen wall and whose father is completely out of the picture.


When Walter vanishes, Christine naturally turns to the police for help but, instead, finds only added grief. After five months without results, the cops – desperate to rebuild their public standing in the face of a whistle-blowing preacher (John Malkovich) who broadcasts their underhanded practices over the radio – produce a child of similar description and declare that it's Walter, found at last. Christine insists there's been a mistake and her non-compliance prompts a sleazy captain (Jeffrey Donnovan) to have her committed to an insane asylum. Subsequently, the quest to find the real Walter coincides with an uphill battle for justice.

Had someone like Kate Winslet or Charlize Theron been cast as Christine, this film would likely be a tour de force. Taut and sharply paced, it's packed with opportunities for searing drama. With Jolie, those opportunities are turned to blunders. There's no denying this woman's priceless contributions to the world of motion pictures (her face alone could launch a thousand breathtaking scenes), but in her more actress-y roles, there's always a type of inescapable hollowness. From “Girl, Interrupted” to “A Mighty Heart” - both of which are more geared to her hard-edged strengths - to this, Jolie's fitful wails of distress tend to thud with an insincerity that's miles away when she's strutting her stuff in something like this past summer's “Wanted.” No matter how hard she tries to bring truth to turbulent moments (yes, I'm talking about the Oscar bait-y, “I want MY son back!” bits from the trailers), it's difficult to get past the notion that she's, well, trying too hard.


With its elements of Nazi-like, psych-ward mistreatment and woman vs. establishment freedom-fighting, “Changeling” conjures up memories of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” and “Norma Rae,” two films that leave you wanting to stand up and cheer. Here, we never get that crowd-pleasing sensation because we can't establish enough of a human connection to the heroine to root for her. There's a clear-cut villain in this movie, played with a Peter Lorre-creepiness by Jason Butler Harner (“The Good Shepherd”), who gets what's coming to him by the end. At one particularly desperate point, I felt more of an emotional link to the bad guy than I ever did to Christine. Harner should be hailed for his talent but there's something wrong with that picture.

“Changeling” warrants a look simply because Eastwood is at the helm. A devout minimalist, the two-time Oscar-winning director embellishes nothing, favoring story and character over bells and whistles (the closest he comes to window dressing here is staging the action through a smoky filter). Even in his 2006 WWII epic, “Letters from Iwo Jima,” the beating heart of the film's intimacy resonates much louder than its guns and bombs. Such a stripped-down style needs transcendent lead performances to be fully effective and Eastwood's newest title is his first in years in which that requirement is not fulfilled. He's incapable of making a bad film, and if you want to see a classy piece of work, by all means, get to the theater. But if you want to see Jolie doing what she does best, add “Wanted” to your NetFlix queue.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

PRIDE AND GLORY

Review: Pride and Glory
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Police dramas are a dime a dozen. Whether scrolling through the channel guide or standing in the ticket line, for every award-worthy “Shield” and “Departed,” there's a horde of second-rate “Cold Case”s and “Righteous Kill”s. “Pride and Glory,” an occasionally gripping but overly complicated potboiler about a corrupt pack of New York's finest, ranks somewhere in the middle of this crowded hierarchy, leaning precariously toward the lesser end of it. It's a good thing director and co-writer Gavin O'Connor called in reinforcements.

The movie stars gritty-cop-film-school valedictorians Edward Norton and Colin Farrell as brothers-in-law Ray Tierney and Jimmy Egan, two boys in blue who operate on different ends of the moral spectrum. Ray, living off the grid on a docked boat after an ambiguous tragedy left a scar on his face and his reputation, takes after his father, Chief of Manhattan Detectives Francis Tierney, Sr. (Jon Voight), and swears by the code. Jimmy, living off lousy wages and making up for it with shady deals, serves under Ray's brother, Francis Tierney, Jr. (Noah Emmerich), and hovers above the law. The world of this badge-wielding brood is thrown into an upheaval when four of their fellow officers are slain in a drug bust gone awry. Lured out of hiding and put on the case, Ray smells an in-house rat and all signs point to Jimmy (and, perhaps, Francis, Jr.). In what snowballs into one seriously messy game of good cop/bad cop, Ray must ultimately choose between family ties and professional responsibilities (if only the title, “Justice and Loyalty,” sounded as cool). This is a pedestrian plot that's pretty cut-and-dry once it loops around itself. Getting to that point, though, is quite a bumpy ride.


I certainly don't need – or want – things spelled out for me but “Pride and Glory” had me scrambling for a user's manual. Needlessly gnarled and arbitrary in structure, it breaks its own back with strained attempts at cleverness. Without warning or viewer regard, it throws around names after barely introducing them, builds up urgent scenes then casually breezes through them, hints at dark pasts but takes forever to clarify them – and dares you to keep up. (It wasn't until about halfway through that I realized one main character's sister is another main character's wife.) Watching this movie is like being the stranger at a cliquey social event; everyone's in on the good dish but you. Soon enough, it becomes less an intriguing mystery to solve and more a laborious task to sit through.

To the rescue is a strong-as-steel cast led by Norton, an actor who seems forever cursed to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders. Film after film, role after role, Norton continuously plays characters who are stricken with demons, regrets, or, at the very least, deep thoughts. That niche of emotional and mental baggage is what the thinking-viewer's-favorite plays well; watching him, you can almost hear the gears grinding behind that stern, troubled face. Farrell, who nailed a Norton-type part earlier this year in Martin McDonagh's masterstroke, “In Bruges,” does a complete 180 as Jimmy, a remorseless, money-hungry villain. The notoriously reckless Irishman plays Jimmy scarily well, perhaps tapping into the bad boy that he's finally managed to curb in real life. Farrell does things here that you've never seen him – or, quite possibly, anyone – do on screen before, and the alarm of such heated moments temporarily revives the film.


“Pride and Glory” has bursts of intensity that grab you by the throat. If O'Connor (“Miracle”) and his writing partner, Joe Carnahan (the very similar, “Narc”), had dispersed that energy more evenly, clearly, and carefully, they could have generated a distinctly strong cop picture. Instead, they try to toughen up their material in two-bit ways, such as giving their actors lines that are overflowing with expletives. This movie has enough f-bombs in its first 15 minutes for an entire episode of “The Sopranos,” maybe two (and that's saying a lot). I'm sure O'Connor, who was raised by a New York cop and “grew up in that world,” would argue that this is the way these men really talk. Maybe so, but I believe “NYPD Blue” – arguably the preeminent dramatic depiction of the modern New York police force – made it through 12 seasons without a single utterance of the four-letter-word. Profanity for emphasis of feeling is good. Here, it's used to an extent that's gratuitous and distracting, not to mention silly.

I read a review of “W.” last week in which a critic predicted that Oliver Stone's Bush biopic would be “forgotten in a flash.” I disagree. “Pride and Glory” is much more the type of flick with a one-way ticket to oblivion, forever to be lost in a sea of like-minded fare. Its premium talent (Voight and Emmerich also impress, considerably) and few hard-hitting scenes place it well above some of its brethren, but it's still a movie that's barely worth watching, let alone remembering.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

W.

Review: W.
3.5 stars
(out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

The best thing to be said about the Bush biopic, “W.,” is that it's a sign of a return to form for director Oliver Stone. One of the real original mavericks, Stone was crafting smart, hot-button political dramas (“Born on the Fourth of July,” “JFK,” “Nixon”) long before he was applying cheesy Hollywood conventions to historic tragedies (“World Trade Center”) and everything but the kitchen sink to sagas about historic conquerors (“Alexander”). With its omnipresent bounciness and decidedly fair depiction(s), “W.” nibbles when it should bite, but its tremendous ability to both fascinate and entertain graciously suggests that, somewhere in there, Stone still has the chops and the nerve to make great movies.

“W.” is not a great movie but it comes pretty close. As absorbing as any political thriller, there's hardly a single dull moment in its 131 minute span. The script (by Stone's “Wall Street” scribe Stanley Weiser) uses criss-crossing chronology to illustrate Bush's rise to power. Jumping back and forth from the uncertain time between 9/11 and the Iraq War to the booze-soaked formative years in Texas, it offers executive decisions alongside frat boy pranks. Along the way, we also take in backyard barbecues, odd jobs, domestic disputes, car accidents, father-son fights, AA meetings, campaigns, debates, speeches, and prayers, all leading up to our president's eventual fall from grace. The film reads like a rock star's legacy played out on Capitol Hill and it's Stone's best work in years. What's surprising – and a bit disappointing – about the director's approach is how much he's chosen to file down his teeth. While far from being bi-partisan, “W.” isn't nearly as left-leaning or jabbing as one would expect, especially from someone as famously controversial as Stone. Instead, it paints Bush as a rather tragic sad clown, full of frailty and daddy issues. The aw-shucks courtesy of such a sympathetic take is dignified but it clashes with the movie's intrigue.


From a technical standpoint, Stone deserves nothing less than applause. Title notwithstanding, the director sees to it that we remember precisely who this film is about at all times. Often in close-up or extreme close-up, he keeps his camera fixed on Bush, regardless if he's running his 3-mile morning jog or running for Congress. Sometimes from low, imperial angles, we see this troubled man of power succeed, suffer, and sweat. Never one to skimp on aesthetics, Stone knows the weight of his material and finds a look to match it.

As the big man himself, Josh Brolin touches brilliance. He's on dangerous ground, playing someone who's been parodied to death, but he thankfully sidesteps “Saturday Night Live”-style sketch comedy by finding the perfect balance of caricature and honest portrayal. The magnetism of the subject matter lends a mighty hand, but Brolin deserves much of the credit for convincing us that what we're watching is more than just a movie. His performance is brave, immersive, and well-rounded and it's one of the best of the year. Fittingly, Brolin has a massive amount of support, chiefly from Elizabeth Banks, who glows in her biggest role yet as Laura Bush. Not far behind are Toby Jones as Karl Rove, Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney, Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell, and James Cromwell as Bush Sr., all of whom dig deep into their real-life counterparts in equally human and humorous ways. The sole cartoonish player in this game is Thandie Newton as Condoleeza Rice. Exaggerating the Secretary of State's twitches and grimaces to the umteenth degree, Newton's amateurish imitation is “W.”'s only forced joke.


The rest of the film's comedy (and horror) seems to manifest simply from our acute awareness of its source. Nothing that's “revealed” to us about Dubya's private life holds a candle to what he's done publicly, which Stone recreates in seamless 35 mm and mock archival footage. In an all-too-memorable press conference, when Bush is asked by a reporter to reveal his biggest presidential regret, his stuttering admittance to having “confidently made mistakes” is as painfully funny as ever. During speeches, the oblivious use of words like “nucular” has a priceless ring that no screenplay could top. In other words, you just can't write this stuff. Like Michael Moore's “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Stone's film proves once and for all that, no matter what directorial stance is taken or what editorial techniques are employed, a character as naturally buffoonish as Bush can do bad all by himself.

The worst thing to be said here is that “W.” could be terribly ill-timed. Amidst this crazy election, which is arguably just as entertaining, is anyone even thinking about Bush? Does anyone even care? As unprecedented as Stone's push for a 2008 release may be (find me another film that's directly devoted to skewering a sitting president), the director faces a very real danger of the public's fatigue of the current Commander in Chief winning out over its curiosity. Undeniably important in spite of it weaknesses, “W.” seems primed to have the lasting power of Stone's better projects. More immediate success will be determined by whether or not today's moviegoers have any interest at all in approving this message.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY

Review: Happy-Go-Lucky
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

There's a fleeting moment in “Happy-Go-Lucky,” the aptly-titled and altogether delightful new film from Mike Leigh (“Secrets & Lies,” “Vera Drake”), when sprightly heroine Poppy (Sally Hawkins) gazes out the window of her North London flat and comments on how beautiful the sky looks. Cut to what she sees: a grayish-blue horizon covered with big, puffy clouds. It's hardly a remarkable sight and, in fact, rather ordinary; just another day in the UK. But Poppy is someone who finds splendor and joy in just about everything. She's blissfully content in her modest little life and this film is essentially a spirited frolic through a slice of it.

Poppy is 30 years old, single, and a teacher at an elementary school. She lives with Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), her best friend from college who teaches in the classroom next door. Poppy's dress matches her demeanor; she's literally colorful from head to toe, like Cyndi Lauper outfitted by Patricia Field. On weekends, she hits the clubs with Zoe and the gals and drinks and dances the night away. She's open-minded, unbiased, and greets everything and everyone with a smile. When we first meet her, she's just had her bicycle stolen, and her reaction is: “I didn't even get to say goodbye. Oh well.” The movie explores the ways in which the people whom Poppy encounters react to her impossibly upbeat attitude. Those who have a similar approach to life, like Zoe, adore her company. Those who accept but don't quite understand her, like school principal Heather (Sylvestra Le Touzel), see her behavior as childlike and nonsensical. And those who take life way too seriously, like Poppy's pregnant an unhappily married sister, Helen (Caroline Martin), find her downright threatening.


It's understandable why some folks would run in the other direction if they saw Poppy coming down the street. Imposing her glee upon others – “Stay happy!” she says, often – she's the kind of person most world-weary adults find exasperating. Her biggest challenge comes in the form of Scott (Eddie Marsan), a somber driving instructor she hires soon after she's rendered bike-less. A repressed loner who's unhealthily consumed by his existence-defining job, Scott is Poppy's polar opposite. Their exchanges, which take place during lessons every Saturday for weeks, create an interesting dichotomy and the story's central conflict. Poppy is faced with other challenges (a bully at school, a back injury, a new romance, a moody instructor at her and Heather's Flamenco dance class) but none so daunting as Scott. The two repeatedly test each other's patience, sometimes humorously, sometimes coarsely, and their relationship eventually reaches a climax that's a powerhouse for both actors, especially Marsan.

As is the case with most of Leigh's films, the performances in “Happy-Go-Lucky” are sublime. Hawkins, who was previously seen in “Vera Drake” and John Curran's “The Painted Veil,” won the Silver Bear at this year's Berlin Film Festival for her role as Poppy and may just ride that momentum all the way to Oscar. In what will surely be remembered as her breakthrough, she's a natural, bringing to life a character who's blithe and bubbly but devoted where it counts. Zegerman, who makes her film debut, is just as lovable as Zoe, a tough yet silently sensitive sidekick who we're glad to know is in Poppy's corner.


Leigh's script deserves equal praise. Bright, honest, and lightning-paced, its dialogue surpasses the oft-overworked zingers in “Juno,” many of which seemed too hipster even for angsty Ellen Page. Clearly aided by unbridled actor improv, the conversations truck along with a rapid and believable familiarity among the characters. Even though we aren't immediately aware of the nature of Poppy and Zoe's friendship, the film entrusts that we'll stick around to find out, and we trust it right back. Its words are often light but not superficial, airy but not air-headed, and, when necessary, reach for profundity. During one of their lessons, Scott, infuriated with Poppy, insists that she “act like an adult.” Poppy, looking at the strange and miserable “grown-up” next to her, replies, “What, like you?”

Which brings me back to the view from the window. It's one of the few scenes in which we're given the opportunity to see the world directly from Poppy's eternally optimistic perspective. Am I wrong in calling her vista “ordinary” and “unremarkable?” Do her disappointment-resistant eyes see something mine don't? Am I just another cynic who sees the sky as half gray instead of half blue? Perhaps. With “Happy-Go-Lucky,” Leigh's message is clear: if one is to attain true happiness in life, carefree is the best policy. That may seem like a difficult task in these difficult times but Poppy sure does make it look easy. The film leaves us with some unresolved plot elements (and I'm risking mild spoilers here): we never learn whether or not Poppy finally gets her driver's license, nor do we find out if her Flamenco classes amount to more than just an after-school activity. The outcomes matter little to us and even less, I'd imagine, to Poppy.

Friday, October 3, 2008

APPALOOSA

Review: Appaloosa
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

In an interview promoting “Appaloosa,” Ed Harris, the film's director, co-writer, and lead star, observed the near-death of the Western in modern cinema, saying he could count the recent successful examples “on one hand – or maybe half a hand.” Thanks to his own efforts, Harris can now proudly extend another finger. His classic, no-frills picture, an adaptation of Robert Parker's 2005 buddy-cop-on-the-range novel, is a fine addition to the endangered genre. However, if you're looking for shoot 'em up thrills, you're drinking at the wrong saloon. This intimate character study is more “Brokeback Mountain” than “Rio Bravo.”


Don't get it twisted, brohams – this is no gay affair, but its primary focus and flowing undercurrent is the relationship between two gunslinging cowboys (played with top-notch chemistry by Harris and Viggo Mortensen), nestled in a story with hardly any gunslinging at all. When marshall-for-hire Virgil Cole (Harris) and his right-hand deputy, Everett Hitch (Mortensen), roll into Appaloosa, a one-horse town in 1882 New Mexico, they certainly come armed for battle. Hired by the town's politicians to restore order in the shadow of formidable outlaw Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and his pack of goons, Cole and Hitch act quickly, killing some peace disturbers right off the bat and laying down their own form of martial law. After that, they quiet down, and so does the film, shifting its attention to the dynamics of the duo's playful, personal bond. The threat of Bragg still looms, and the occasional standoff ensues, but “Appaloosa” draws its fire from less obvious sources.

Cole and Hitch's alliance is tested – as is our patience – with the arrival of Allison French, an increasingly toxic tramp-in-distress played by the increasingly horrific Renee Zellweger. I don't know what's become of the natural, spunky girl-next-door from “Jerry Maguire,” but she's never been more far away or missed than here, an abysmal low point in the actress' career. Squinty-eyed, rosacea-cheeked, and perpetually pucker-faced, Zellweger doesn't just make French appropriately detestable, she mucks up Harris' otherwise strong show. As mentioned, Harris and Mortensen have a killer rapport – it's lived-in, it's funny, and it's delicately underplayed. Harris gives Cole a coiled-up, authoritative coolness and Mortensen matches it with a knowing aplomb. The only good thing that can be said about Zellweger is that she is one with her character. French is the wedge threatening to divide the film's core companionship – she latches onto both men, especially Cole – and Zellweger is the virus threatening to infect the film itself. Thankfully, her presence is only mildly malignant.


For all its narrative subtleties, “Appaloosa” soldiers ahead with surprisingly brute force. Save Cole, who notes the length of he and Hitch's partnership and reveals a sordid past of trysts with hookers, nary a single character is given any back story. From the first frame, the film dives right into the story at hand. That the story lacks many bullets may bore certain viewers, but I found the minimalistic approach quite interesting. Harris, whose only other directorial credit is 2000's Oscar-nominated biopic, “Pollock,” uses that same approach in designing his sophomore effort. His take on the Western is restrained and traditional. Clearly an admirer of the work of John Ford and Sergio Leone, he gives us all the trappings of the genre, usually in carefully framed shots: wide open desert spaces, big blue skies, winding railroads overseen by chop-licking mountain lions, a town that looks like it's right out of a 1950s back lot, and even scalp-hunting American Indians. (I kept waiting for a tumbleweed to blow by.) Die-hard Western fans will revel in Harris' adherence to this style.

During my screening, a woman behind me observed that Harris' craggy, square-jawed face “looks like the mountains.” She was right. Looking at the focused four-time Oscar nominee, in the wake of Paul Newman's death, it's clear that he's in the top tier of our cherished, seasoned leading men. He finds a kindred spirit in Mortensen, a slightly younger star with a similar countenance, whom he previously worked with in 2005's “A History of Violence” (which reportedly planted the seed for this new collaboration). If they'd been working in the era when Westerns were all the rage, we could easily imagine this pair starring side-by-side in a slew of them. Their strong visual and visceral match-up is crippled only by Zellweger, whose awkward mug weighs down a movie that's notable for, but deeper than, its face values.

Friday, September 26, 2008

MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA

Review: Miracle at St. Anna
2.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

“Miracle at St. Anna,” about (at its buried core) a group of wrongly forgotten black American soldiers trapped in Tuscany, Italy during WWII, feels like a story that needs to be told. Spike Lee, ever the brilliant puppeteer of probing controversies and racial tensions, seems like the right person to tell it. A funny thing must have happened on the way to the set because this convoluted genre milkshake – a pseudo-satirical religious fantasy swirled up inside a grisly war epic – is, dizzyingly, just about everything but a comfortable fit.

Working from a script by James McBride (who adapted his novel of the same name), Lee gives us a strange cluster of many different films, all crammed into one. We begin in Harlem in 1983, where an aged postal worker has just inexplicably shot a man with a German Luger in broad daylight. When the cops search the perp.'s apartment, they find out he's a decorated war veteran and also discover the head of a 450-year-old Italian statue in his closet. A rookie reporter (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) gets access to the man's prison cell and starts questioning him in an attempt to connect the dots. So, it's a mystery/thriller? Not really.


We flash back to 1944, where members of the US Army's 92nd Buffalo Soldier Division trudge through a swampy battlefield in Italy. They exchange familiar jokes. They're taunted, via radio, by the voice of a cunning German woman who tells them of America's disdain for blacks and offers them fried chicken and grits in exchange for their surrender. Suddenly, bullets and missiles start flying, people start dying, and there are numerous gratuitous shots of detached limbs and bloody bodies. So, it's an intentionally funny B-picture? Not so fast.

Four of the soldiers end up behind enemy lines. There's Staff Sgt. Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), Sgt. Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy – who gives the film's best performance), Cpl. Hector Negron (Laz Alonso), and Pvt. Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), who carries the statue head from the beginning in a sack on his hip and rubs it for luck. The crew holes up in a rebel village, but not before rescuing an orphaned, 8-year-old child named Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi) who bonds with Train and, apparently, has magical powers ordained by God. There's also a group of Italian freedom fighters, a pack of Germans who are introduced like James Bond villains (thanks to Terence Blanchard's ludicrous score), and enough eventual bloodshed to paint the whole town red. So, it's a war movie after all? Not exactly.

Throughout his career, Lee has shown an uncanny ability to make his viewers profoundly uncomfortable, causing them to confront and reflect upon issues they may not often think about. (I can vividly remember my first screening of his 2000 satire, “Bamboozled,” in film school: me, a somewhat ignorant white kid in a room full of mostly black students, on the verge of tears after the film's climactic barrage of potent images.) Here, the discomfort created is not provocative but utterly perplexing. The story is surprisingly easy to follow, and Lee ties up its many loose ends, but the multiple tonal shifts overshadow any shot at clarity. After most scenes, it's hard to know whether to laugh, cry, or even care about what just happened.


I counted only three instances in which I took this film seriously and, through which, I saw the Spike Lee I know shine. The first is a flashback within the flashback (there are a few of those), when the group recalls an incident at a Louisiana diner that caused them to defend themselves against prejudice. The second is a simultaneous prayer sequence voiced by three separate parties that employs Lee's trademark direct address. The third is the infamous massacre at Sant'Anna di Stazzema (the place of the title), which Lee unabashedly depicts in devastating detail, right down to the last slaughtered child.

It's in such affecting moments that the director's admirable intention of unearthing lost truths comes to light. Too bad his execution pulls us in so many directions that, by the end, we feel like rubber. “St. Anna” is constructed with such a dumbfounding, scatter-brained inconsistency that, had it been directed by a first-time filmmaker, I'd be tempted to label that person as either a genius or a psycho. Well, I've seen enough of Lee's work to know that he's close to genius – the man also teaches film at NYU and Columbia – but too much of his latest project borders on crazy. The only miracle is that I got through the whole thing with my sanity intact.

Friday, September 19, 2008

GHOST TOWN

Review: Ghost Town
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

By the end of “Ghost Town,” the new spectral comedy from screenwriter-turned-director David Koepp (“Secret Window”), I was stuck on the fence. Here is a movie that is markedly mediocre, highly predictable, and almost instantly forgettable. At the same time, it boasts a very funny lead performance and a surprisingly heartwarming third act, leaving my opinions in limbo. My hope is that, by the end of this review, I'll have crossed over to one side or the other.

If Ebeneezer Scrooge had a great-great-grandson who moved across the pond to Manhattan, he'd probably be something like Bertram Pincus, an antisocial dentist who hates everyone and chose his profession, mainly, because he can shut people up with cotton and Novocaine whenever they get too chatty. On his day off, Bertram undergoes a colonoscopy (the easy explanation for which is potty-joke potential) and, after an adverse reaction to anesthesia, is declared dead – for seven minutes. When he wakes up, he realizes he's been gifted with a sixth sense: he can see (and hear) dead people. But for someone like Bertram, who avoids strangers on the street like thorn bushes, this is no gift at all. His worst nightmare has come true: the needy souls of deceased New Yorkers, from construction workers, to cops, to little old ladies, have gotten wind of his ability and won't leave him alone. One of them is Frank Herlihy, a fast-talking opportunist who's killed off in the first scene by a speeding bus. Frank tells Bertram that he'll back off (and, somehow, get the others to as well) if Bertram agrees to help foil the forthcoming marriage of Frank's widow, Gwen, a curator of sorts, working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Bertram is played by brash Brit Ricky Gervais, the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning star of the UK version of the TV series “The Office,” and the movie is definitely his star vehicle. Gervais is excellent here, delivering every line and insult with that acerbic, English-style matter-of-factness. That he was cast in the role does wonders for the film. Frank is played by Greg Kinnear, a fine actor who's made indispensable contributions to dramedies like “As Good as it Gets” (for which he received an Oscar nomination) and “Little Miss Sunshine.” In “Ghost Town,” he doesn't do much to put a stamp on his character, and we can easily envision many other actors filling Frank's shifty shoes. Gwen is played by Tea Leoni, a gifted and underrated actress whose natural beauty, stern focus, and contralto-like voice usually combine to create intelligent, emotionally complex characters (see: “Deep Impact” and “The Family Man”). She displays those same qualities here, giving Gwen, who still can't quite let go of Frank after 14 months, just the right balance of fragility and strength.

As a writer, Koepp has penned his fair share of thrills and spooks for directors like Steven Spielberg (“Jurassic Park,” “War of the Worlds”) and David Fincher (“Panic Room”). As director and writer, he crafted another film about a man who sees ghosts, the 1999 shocker “Stir of Echoes.” “Ghost Town” marks Koepp's first foray into supernatural comedy since 1992 when he scripted the eternal youth-gone-awry giggler, “Death Becomes Her,” for Robert Zemeckis. The gap seems to have left him a little dry for fresh ideas. His new offering unfolds like a Top 40 pop song: familiar hook, familiar lyrics, familiar beat (it has annoying, repetitive elements, too, like characters who insist on interrupting one another -- a joke that's meant to inspire laughs but, from me, elicited groans). The film is built like a catchy tune, but don't expect it to stick in your head.


Any moviegoer worth his or her salt can anticipate the turns of this plot. As one would expect, Bertram (somewhat) fulfills Frank's request and then regrets it. As one would expect, Bertram and Gwen entertain a romance that could only occur in the movies. As one would expect, Gwen finds out that there's more to Bertram's story, resulting in the inevitable, all-is-lost betrayal scene. As one would expect, Bertram's journey through the film helps him to rejoin the human race, thanks (in large part) to those who are no longer a part of it. Just like Scrooge, he's a hopeless grump until some insightful spirits show him the error of his ways. And then, the unexpected happens: the film takes a big tug on your heartstrings and doesn't let go. Once Bertram sees those errors and commits to fixing them, “Ghost Town” goes tender, with at least one tear-jerking surprise, and ends its last verse on a warm high note.

You can see my dilemma. And where do I stand now that all is said and done? Ultimately, I'd feel guilty advising readers against this ultimately – for lack of a better word – 'nice' movie. And it does have moments of true hilarity, specifically when the other actors seem genuinely entertained by the sporadic improv of Gervais, a genuine comedic talent. So, go ahead, have a night out on the “Ghost Town” (sorry, I couldn't resist), just be fully aware of the film's certain afterlife: the DVD clearance rack.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

BURN AFTER READING

Review: Burn After Reading
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

The Coen Brothers are a curious pair. As a filmmaking team (with Joel often directing, Ethan producing, and both of them dreaming up their inventive scripts), their combined sense of humor is some the driest in the business and, lately, their movies tend to be highly nihilistic in tone. And yet, with their superior storytelling and technical skills, they repeatedly manage to tap directly into whichever viewer emotions befit their current project. Last year, the Coens took home Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars for the inhumane but indelible “No Country for Old Men,” a thriller that hits you like a punch to the gut. And how do they follow that up? By rallying a selection of Hollywood's finest to play out their random and raucous spy comedy, “Burn After Reading.” Whereas “No Country” had no resolution, “Burn” has no purpose – except to make you crack up through most of its 96 minutes.


Where to begin with describing this film? The plot meanders down such zany roads that even two characters have to periodically clarify it for one another, resulting in some of the movie's funniest scenes (but, more on that later). First, we've got Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), an embittered and unhinged “alcoholic” who recently quit his job with the CIA after an unjust demotion. Osbourne's wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), a tightly-wound career woman, is sleeping with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a federal marshal who's also married and has a few other “activities” on the side. Then there's Linda Litske (Frances McDormand) a wifty serial dater who's seeking to transform herself via numerous cosmetic surgeries that she can't afford. Linda works at the D.C. gym Hardbodies with Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), a blissfully ignorant trainer who's too busy pounding away on treadmills and jamming to his iPod to care about properly forming a sentence. A CD-ROM containing Osbourne's memoirs lands in the inept hands of Linda and Chad, who hold it for ransom when they think it's encoded with government secrets and will stop at nothing to get paid.

“Burn” harks back to another dark Coen comedy, the 10-year-old cult hit, “The Big Lebowski.” In that film, slacking stoner Jeffrey Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) gets in way over his head when he stubbornly seeks undeserved compensation from people way out of his league. The same scenario unfolds here. Linda, sweet and well-meaning as she may be, thinks she's entitled to her elective procedures and sees Osbourne's so-called “information” as her free ticket to beauty. With the help of go-getter Brad (who's too dumb to know the difference between right and wrong), she sparks a hilariously unnecessary chain of events that affects every character and reaches as high as the CIA and the Russian embassy. Normal people can sense when they've crossed the line with their selfishness, but for those like Lebowski and Linda, personal interest seems to trump all logic. Nearly everyone else in “Burn” is just as foolish and all of them are just as egocentric, a combination that usually leads to big, big laughs.


Now, let's talk about this killer cast, sure to be one of 2008's strongest. As Osbourne, Malkovich is hysterically volatile, ready to spout a curse or swing a weapon without a hint of forethought. McDormand goes places we've never seen her go before, ditching her usual, witty quirkiness for a ditzy blonde and overacting to comic perfection. Clooney gets the tone of the material just right, conveying an intermittent shock and surprise that's equally felt by the audience. Pitt hasn't had this much fun on camera in years, playing his highlighted and high-spirited character like a cross between Ryan Seacrest and Jake Steinfeld. And Swinton, as the cold-as-ice Katie, dusts off her witch from 'The Chronicles of Narnia” and chews through her scenes (she's also gifted the film's most ironic revelation, of which there are many). The principal performances are dead-on, all of them fearless and uproarious, but the supporting players are the unsung heroes of this picture. As Katie's gold-digging divorce lawyer, J.R. Horne (The Coens' “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) had me rolling. As Hardbodies' pushover of a manager, the great Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor”) pulls off pathetic and sympathetic simultaneously. And as two CIA superiors who must decipher and clean up this story's mess, David Rasche (TV's “All My Children”) and J.K. Simmons (“Juno”) are a deadpan dream team.

For all its haphazardness, this needlessly paranoid paranoid thriller (even Carter Burwell's score creates nonexistent suspense) is surprisingly succinct. We literally drop in on this crazy caper, then just as soon pull right back out. “Burn” does feel like an in-between, pet project for the Coens; however, it's still better than what many directors serve up as their main course. Besides, it's completely aware of itself as throwaway fare, featuring an in-text disclaimer that practically renders it critic-proof. Not that many critics would disagree: “Burn After Reading” is one of the funniest films of the year.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

THE WOMEN

Review: The Women (2008)
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Just when you thought the big screen treatment of “Sex and the City” was the girls'-night-out movie event of the year, here comes “The Women,” writer/director/producer Diane English's catty update of George Cukor's 1939 film of the same name, to snatch that title with a well-manicured claw. It's taken nearly 15 years for English, who won three Emmys as the creator of the hit TV series, “Murphy Brown,” to get her version of Cukor's classic (which starred Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, and Joan Crawford) to the screen, with various studios, directors, and actresses (including Julia Roberts) attached in various capacities along the way. Finally and, perhaps, fortuitously, her finished product is revealed, the same year that “SATC” broke box office records to become the biggest-selling female-driven hit of all time. Without the built-in fan base that its estrogen-fueled counterpart had going for it, “The Women” likely won't top those sales, but it's still the (slightly) better film. It's just as fun, just as funny, and it succeeds where “SATC” fell short.


Apart from release dates and demographics, 2008's all-girl features have much more in common – so much that it's impossible not to compare the two. They're built from the same blueprint: four Manhattan women balance work, love, and their checkbooks and three of them eventually corral around the one in the biggest relationship crisis. Even the characters are interchangeable: Carrie is replaced by Mary (Meg Ryan, who's been on board with English from the beginning), a selfless part-time fashion designer whose husband's infidelity is the central plot; Samantha is swapped out for Sylvie (Annette Bening, on point), a high-powered magazine editor with that same fiery independence and societal influence; Charlotte becomes Edie (Debra Messing, goofy as ever), the hopeful, conservative mommy of the group; and Miranda is replaced by Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith, underused), a headstrong, lesbian author with Ms. Hobbes' same dry disposition. It's as if we left the first quartet and were transported across town to hang with their (slightly) older and (slightly) wiser friends. The trip was worth it.

I haven't seen Cukor's original but I do know that English stayed true to it in at least one way: not a single man appears on screen throughout the entire film. That's right, even all the extras are female – not a suit in sight. Well, not of the three-piece variety, anyway. Pantsuits do abound, as English fills her sparkling frames with superwomen of the 21st century. Early on, at a posh luncheon held at Mary's swanky Connecticut mansion, we meet dozens of her high-society friends, who fan out like living lawn ornaments across her gorgeous estate, gossiping as they go. Edie is pregnant yet again. Alex is still working on the follow-up to her last New York Times bestseller, while her starving supermodel girlfriend drags her to anger management classes. Sylvie's Blackberry is practically an extension of her arm, her thumb scrolling emails while her eyes scroll the scene from behind her Gucci sunglasses. She's harboring the biggest secret of them all: while getting her nails done at Saks Fifth Avenue (the setting for many critical and comical scenes in the film), Sylvie learns from her manicurist that Mary's husband, Steven, a Wall Street bigwig, is sleeping with Crystal (Eva Mendes), the sexy “spritzer girl” behind the perfume counter. Sylvie's afraid to tell Mary the dirt, unaware that she's been dished the same pile – from the same manicurist.


That first luncheon never really ends, for we bounce around from one luxe location to the next (high-end boutiques, five-star restaurants, high-rise offices), all of them populated by gals and their gossip. Look left, look right, all we see are the bright colors of designer duds. Yet English doesn't over-fluff her ruffles and stuff the fashion in our faces, a fault of “SATC” that left me – a fan of the show – distracted and displeased. Here, rather than upstaging it, the styles simply compliment the substance. “SATC” featured a needless runway show sequence at Bryant Park, thrown in, presumably, just to throw more labels at the audience. “The Women” has such a sequence but it serves the story and the development of a lead character. “SATC” also tacked on a pregnancy, but the element lost the weight it deserved, overshadowed by the film's more prominent storylines. “The Women” has a pregnancy and a birth scene which, albeit a little ridiculous, finds a perfect place in the script. Both films attempt to juggle a lot of characters, inevitably leaving some with little to do. Pinkett Smith's Alex, whose presence really only fills a cultural quota, is sidelined nearly out of memory. Apart from her va-va-voom entrance, Mendes' character is more discussed than shown. Bette Midler shows up to revisit “The First Wives Club” and add a name to the bill but she and her scene could be lifted entirely without any damage to the finished product. Candice Bergen, on the other hand, is utilized perfectly and, as Mary's mother and Carrie's former boss, she embodies the link between the two films.

English's script is crammed with commonplace chick flick-isms and yet, I didn't mind. It all seemed right at home in this world, where girls rule and boys - presumably, since we don't see any - drool (over them). I was intrigued and impressed by English's empowering adherence to keeping men out entirely. Besides, who needs 'em? The cast, oversized or not, is superb and a welcome addition to a growing line of strong female characters. Bening delivers her usual knockout punches as a smart woman juggling loyalty and success (think “The Devil Wears Prada”'s Miranda Priestly with a conscience). Cloris Leachman is a laugh riot as Mary's trusty housekeeper, who represents a whole new tier of scandalous scuttlebutt. And, I'm just gonna go ahead and say it: is this the return of Meg Ryan? Bright and youthful (if you can get past that lip surgery), her performance, featuring a much-needed character makeover, feels like the rebirth of an actress who once all but dominated Hollywood. Whether or not “The Women” puts her back on the map, it'll likely pave the way for more Meg Ryans, or, at the very least, get people talking.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

DEATH RACE

Review: Death Race
1 star (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

How do you like your action? If the answer is fast, noisy, and brainless, then “Death Race,” habitual video game adapter Paul W.S. Anderson's retooling of Roger Corman's 1975 cult film, “Death Race 2000,” is for you. For the rest of us, who require a little more expertise behind our explosions, it's an absurd and abhorrent pile of cheap scrap metal. I'm giving it one star because it doesn't bore – its pace is as quick as the rugged, armed contraptions that roar around its minefield of a track -- but that's about the only way in which the movie is successful. In it, Anderson (“Resident Evil,” “AVP: Alien vs. Predator”) attempts to emulate many of his apparent heroes, Corman included, but fails to serve anyone well – least of all the audience.

“Death Race” stalls right out the starting gate, when an overabundance of overly explanatory text blasts across the screen and breaks the ultimate rule of “show, don't tell” by filling us in on the heavy-handed back story as if we were all still reading at a junior high level. We learn – or, better yet, are force-fed the knowledge – that the year is 2012 and the economy has crumbled, shooting unemployment to an all-time high. In turn, crime has skyrocketed as well and America's most wanted have been moved to Terminal Island, an Alcatraz-like prison built off the coast of a city I can't remember. Taking an obvious cue from last year's “Stone Cold” Steve Austin vehicle, “The Condemned,” the movie attempts to cash in on reality TV mania by focusing on a brutal, live-broadcast competition in which Terminal prisoners race one another to the death in souped-up sports cars. Audience bloodlust (an angle that's been used to far greater effect in everything from “Network” to “Natural Born Killers”) makes the show a hit and turns inmates into action heroes who continue to play the game because of a promise of freedom to the victor of five consecutive races.


That exhaustive preamble is followed by the first of many frenetically photographed chase sequences, in which the zooms and cuts are as violent as the driver dismemberments. (Even in interiors, Scott Kevan's camera work and Niven Howie's editing are so frenzied that it's often hard to decipher what's happening, let alone enjoy it.) Somewhere in the chaos, we're introduced to Machine Gun Joe (singer-turned-actor Tyrese Gibson, replacing Sylvester Stallone from the original), a loose cannon with a few wins under his belt, and Frankenstein (originally played by David Carradine), the reigning champion who wears a mask and is a favorite among pay-per-viewers (it costs $250 to watch one race). Meanwhile, struggling factory worker Jensen Ames (a totally toned and tattooed Jason Statham, back for yet more action) has been framed for the murder of his wife, landing him in a Terminal cell. A former NASCAR favorite, Ames is ordered by warden/show creator Hennessey (an insanely out of place Joan Allen, who must have a Corman fetish to have stooped this low) to step into Frankenstein's anonymous, recently vacated shoes in order to retain ratings. Enlisting the help of handyman Coach (Ian McShane) and hot navigator Case (fresh eye candy Natalie Martinez), Ames complies and tries to stay alive long enough to turn the tables on Hennessey and deliver a last minute sentiment that's even more misplaced than Allen.

Throughout “Death Race,” Anderson (who also wrote the script) gives repeated, blatant nods to far better filmmakers who've made far better films. After a mess hall brawl, Coach observes that Ames may not have responded well to Terminal's oatmeal in a line that's practically a verbatim repetition of one delivered by a soldier in James Cameron's “Aliens” (which should come as no surprise after the fanboy-toned “AVP”). And in wide, CGI shots of Terminal and its adjacent city (the only notions we're given of the world that's meant to exist within the movie), torches can be seen spewing streams of orange flames, the same way they did in Ridley Scott's classic sci-fi noir, “Blade Runner.” It's cute that Anderson, 43, wants to give a wink-wink to the directors and films he grew up idolizing but when all you're creating is one throwaway flick after another, any homage is gonna come off more like a bad joke. Sorry, Paul, you're no James Cameron and you're no Ridley Scott and it's disheartening to think that you're often mistaken for another Paul Anderson, who's created enduring American epics and been nominated for Oscars.


In addition to its headache-inducing construction, “Death Race” is laced with so much hackneyed dialogue that you can hear it coming like a tricked-out tank. Fine actors like Allen and McShane do their best to say lines like “she's the judge, jury, and executioner” with gusto but even the best thespians often can't give life to dead banalities. Gibson is the only one who comfortably and believably utters Anderson's asinine, profanity-filled sentences, perhaps just because the actor's gruff demeanor is better suited to the simple speech of bottom-dwellers. And I haven't even touched on the fact that many plot elements here make no sense at all. (If everyone's out of work, how on Earth can 70 million viewers afford to watch carnage on cable at $250 a pop? And if those viewers are given the option to watch the races from dozens of camera angles, including inside the cars themselves, can't anyone see that Hennessey is unfairly determining the outcomes by rigging traps on the track?)

As mentioned, “Death Race” moves along with speed, but what's the point of cutting the crap when all you've got is crap to begin with? I hear that televised NASCAR races tend to be boredom-free as well. You'd be better off plopping down on the couch with a few beers and a few buddies and screaming curses at the screen than paying nearly ten bucks to have Statham and company scream them back at you.