Posted on 3/05/11 01:27 AM
I found "Inception" disappointing, but only during its first 10 minutes. Before I bought a ticket at the box-office and ordered my Sproke (that's half-Sprite, half-Coke), I've read only two reviews about it: one tore it to pieces and micropieces (Rex Reed), the other one was ecstatic (Richard Roeper). In my case, I became a fan early in the movie. By the time the first special effects worked their magic on me, let me just say that I was swept away. As the final credits ended, I concluded that this movie was, visually, a landmark, and in terms of montage, a masterpiece. Three months later (now, as I re-post this), I still feel the same.
Surely its weakest point must be the premise that dreams could be extracted and that ideas could be planted like viruses inside dreaming subjects' brains. That's quite a stretch, and an invitation to sniggering remarks. The mechanics of how this is done are hazy, or probably I wasn't listening. But once I accepted it, I was in for some cinematic rewards.
First, there's a fine ensemble of actors, particularly Leonardo di Caprio, who became more and more sympathetic as the story unfolded and who ultimately must be credited for making us Believe.
The visual concepts and their execution are mind-boggling, hallucinatory and refreshing even if I had the haunch that I've seen them before. But the special effects are nothing less than exhilarating: the spatial distortions, the sense of being neither here nor there, the extraordinary editing. Nolan's best images are either M.C. Eschers in motion or an architect's nightmare in 3D. A Parisian arrondissement folds up like a child's picture book, bodies seem to slip in and out of mirrors and there's a ghastly panorama of a city in ruins by the sea. Could that be New York after a future cataclysm?
But what places Inception among landmark films is its labyrinthine narrative and how they've been pieced together. That's another way of saying montage -- that word, preferred over the more technical term editing, which used to be in vogue during the French New Wave movement. The word may be old and faded but the idea lives on the best directors working today in any part of the world.
In "Inception," here are two strands in the plot: one about dream extractor Cobb and his ghostly wife (played with neurotic intensity by Marion Cotillard), and the other one about the inception operation. The Cobb-wife strand features several brief dreams and dreams within a dream, including dream architect Ariadne's intrusions. They move back or forth in time: sequels, prequels or story movement played out in real movie time. And they're strategically embedded throughout the film.
The anchor story, the corporate-organized inception operation, includes three dreams within the main dream, i.e. the scion Fischer's dream. I told my friends later that the key to enjoying the movie was not to fuss about the seeming complexity and to be always asking: which dream am I watching now? But if you insist, I said, remember that those four-layered dreams move in parallel, and in logical progression. Plus, the settings tell us which dream layer we're in: the hotel corridor, the city road, the jumbo jet, somewhere in the Alps, and the river.
"Inception" hits an explosive point when each of those subplot dreams reaches its climax in breathtaking sequence. They are beautiful, elegantly flashy, and grand in a way the climaxes of classic films are. The resolution of the Cobb-wife story neatly wraps up everything. Or does it? Cobb's operative "token," a metallic top, continues its endless spin, indicating that he, and us, are still caught up in a dream.
Christopher Nolan has all the credentials to be hailed as a master of the deconstructed narrative and classical montage. I believe that it will end up not just one of the top 10 movies of the year; it will be one of the top three. The French L'Express newspaper reviewer wrote that Inception is "a cinematic miracle disguised as a Hollywood blockbuster." I couldn't agree more.
Posted on 2/11/11 02:58 PM
SCENE: On an Artesia day train from Paris to Venice's Venezia Santa Lucia station.
Elise: I'm Elise.
Frank: I'm Frank.
Elise: What a terrible name.
Frank: It's the only one I got.
Elise: We have to get you another one.
That wry scene introduces the moviegoer to the peculiar delights of "The Tourist," a tale of low-level intrigue, sane humor, as well as high-level sophistication in plot, concept and production design. On that high-speed trans-European train is born a new love story that isn't really new, and a thriller that is so set up, we actually suspect early that we ourselves are being set up by its director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who co-wrote the devilishly crafty screenplay with Christopher McQuarie and Julian Fellowes. The original story concept comes from 2005 French thriller, "Anthony Zimmer."
The unlikely romance between gangster moll and continental society figure Elise Clifton-Ward (Angelina Jolie) and Frank Tupelo (Johnny Depp), a electronic-cigarette-smoking schoolteacher from Wisconsin, U.S.A., is set in a world that spy agent 007 James Bond knew so well, a glamorous place populated by snoops from the Interpol, handsome operatives in Her Majesty's Secret Service and a stock arch-villain who issues threats with a twitch of the lower lip, his stare icy cold, surrounded by not-so-bright looking and blond Slavic bodyguards and henchmen with uniformly receding hairlines.
Elise, a woman who falls in love too easily, could also get away with murder too easily. She's on the run, hounded by both the Interpol and evil British tycoon Reginald Shaw (Steven Berkoff). Shaw once had an aide and later partner in crime, Alexander Pearce, who disappeared along with the 2.3 billion euros (nearly $3 billion) that the mobster boss was supposed to get.
The British police are after Pearce because he owes the government £744 million (around $1 billion) in back taxes. Why the British government would have any business taxing money that it fully knows to be dirty is beyond me, but this is just one of the jokes in "The Tourist." (A British solicitor or lawyer has just told me that U.K. law stipulates that all earnings made on British soil must be subject to taxation.) The authorities' eyes, ears and the latest electronic spying gadgets are all on Elise,the woman whose heart Pearce had enslaved who knows all the secrets and could even be in possession of the loot.
The plot is worthy material for another James Bond sequel. Venice provided the climactic scenes of the latest and probably the best in that series, "Casino Royale," starring Daniel Craig. Some suspenseful scenes of "Moonraker" and "From Russia With Love" were also filmed on the squares and in the canals of "The Queen of the Adriatic." It is not without reason that Timothy Dalton, secret agent 007 in two films, has got the role of police chief inspector in this movie.
Grimy Venice of yesteryears is gone
The Venice of today is a far cry from that of three decades ago, before the city's great cleanup and polishing operations took place. Even as late as the first half of the 1990s, Venice was in a state of decay and decadence, with its ancient structures under constant repair and new construction being planned and debated. This being Italy with her contentious politics, it was a miracle of modern European politics that the bickering stopped and the city fathers got their act together, producing the spic-and-span La Serenissima that's for us to enjoy in "The Tourist."
For example, gone are the scaffoldings that perpetually blocked the facades of such landmarks as the Basilica di San Marco, one of Europe's most beautiful structures. And even in the early 1990s, when an uncle first visited, the entire exterior of Santa Maria della Salute church was smudged all over with soot and grime.
But today its dome is a neat shade of gray that seems to gleam under a bright sun. But Venice then had a certain romantic, even Gothic charm that's missing today, a foreboding air that we can catch in Nicolas Roeg's thriller-horror film released in 1973, "Don't Look Now," with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie.
From the moment that our odd couple Elise and Frank steps into Hotel Danieli - three palazzi conjoined and converted into one of city's choicest hotels -- until Elise is entrapped in the claws of Shaw, the plot moves with a gentle rhythm punctuated by robust action and edited with precision under the no-nonsense visual style of Henckel von Donnersmarck -- and always with a measured dose of wit and humor.
There are four episodes of daring escapes and chases, mostly taking place in the estuaries of the Grand Canal or somewhere close to the Rialto Bridge. The earliest chase shows Frank clad in satin pajamas running scared on the ochre brick tiles of Venetian rooftops, hounded by Shaw's Russian bullies.
If you expect the actors in "The Tourist" to act up outdoing each other with the hope of getting an Oscar award nomination, you've come to the wrong movie. Paul Bettany plays Inspector John Acheson with a rough and suave edge that recalls Jon Hamm's similar role in Ben Affleck's "The Town," at the same time masculine and gallant. Berkoff reveals mobster boss Shaw's megalomania in every line he utters. "Now," he says with relish on a flight in his private jet upon learning that Elise was headed for Venice, "what do I own in Venice?" Berkoff melds the standout traits of James Bond movie villains such as Auric Goldfinger, with the bombast of Dr. Evil (Mike Meyers) in "Austin Powers," but avoids looking or sounding ridiculous.
Depp, seen smoking an electronic cigarette in several scenes, sheds all sophistication except the sophistication of a comic artist doing a difficult role.
As a recently widowed schoolteacher from Middle America, he gives the un-debonair Frank a layer of innocence and sadness and a resolute gentleness that recalls his role as "Peter Pan" author J.M. Barrie in "Finding Neverland." It's also this trait that Elise finds irresistible, although we wonder whether she might be in it only to make Frank an accessory to or fall guy in her next crime. The Wisconsinite sports long hair that says: rock star, but the way it's parted in the middle makes him look nerdy, more like a hick or a has-been Don Juan.
Lost in the splendor
As sketched by Depp, Frank's naivete borders on a caricature of an average tourist in Venice, lost in all that splendor and criminal intrigue. His surname Tupelo squarely of Italian origin, he doesn't even have a clue about the language of his forebears, turning to his measly Spanish vocabulary as a way out of tight spots. Awakened by a trio of assassins, he rings up the Danieli's front desk. "Buon giorno, signore," says Reception. "Bon Jovi," a nervous Frank shots back then gropes for the words in Spanish. In the film's climax, he appears wearing a shabby ensemble in a black-tie-only grand ball, where he seems oblivious to the fact that he's the only man there with long hair and a white jacket.
In "The Tourist," with Jon Hutman in charge of the overall design, Angelina Jolie gets to carry some slim and fancy clutch bags, wear a to-die-for pearl necklace, travel in a white silk dress with a cream-colored wrap, and dangle a pair of earrings with huge round diamonds in the middle that get built-in extra sparkle from the tiny stone gems set around them.
Toward the end of the story, Shaw invites her to a grand ball that she knew was going to be a trap for pivotal character Pearce, and for her as well. So she goes to her possible martyrdom sporting a hairdo in the shape of a cinnamon bun, wearing a flowing, strapless black dress that bares her shoulders, and around her neck, a stunning lacework of diamonds that could sit on her head like a tiara.
And it's all for show. Jolie struts around with her chin always raised a few millimeters above whatever one calls a female Adam's apple (Eve's apple?), her hips swaying like Cleopatra strutting before her Roman conqueror -- but all these are by an Angelina playing a pun on her glamorous persona, a self-parody if you will of her star image.
The other Jolie for me is as real, the woman who over the recent holidays visited an animal shelter in Namibia with her husband actor Brad Pitt and kids to make a donation, dressed down in cliché safari ensemble.
After making her entrance to the ball that is every bit as dramatic as Audrey Hepburn/Eliza Doolitle's royal entrance in "My Fair Lady," Depp joins Jolie in an amusing tribute to a classic -- classic slapstick, that is. To the sweet strains of mandolins and violins playing some Italian mazurka, the lovely couple glides and talks, then waltzes and talks some more, just like Leslie Nielsen and Priscilla Presley did in one of the "Naked Gun" films.
Henckel von Donnersmarck's stubborn loyalty to the style that he had adopted for makes it that: a triumph of style over what is an enjoyable story anyway. Underlying Frank Tupelo's tale, the direction, the acting and the overall design is the theme of what it's like being a "tourist" -- travel being an activity when we all are at our elementary best or worst, shedding or guarding the images and delusions about us that we or others have crafted for ourselves through the years.
Posted on 1/15/11 09:34 AM
Owen and Abby, both 12, are what some kids in a suburban school in Los Alamos, New Mexico, would call "besties" -- close friends. Unknown to them is that the two have just started going steady. They're quite an odd couple, those two. Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), looking undernourished and underweight for his age, has a familiar face, especially to a trio of bullies who hacks on him every chance they get, taunting his girlie looks. But nobody has ever laid eyes on Abby (Chloe Moretz) who's just moved in next door to Owen and his alcoholic mom. She looks rather moody and sullen, but otherwise normal, so who'd ever guess that she has been 12 "for a very long time" and that she's in fact a vampire?
The pact between Owen and Abby is as simple as the games children play. Their exclusive club has just one rule: If one of them wishes to enter the room of the other, one must ask and wait for a clear answer. A nod, a gesture or an approving look won't do; one has got to say it. Never mind that Abby has special powers which she could use to have her way. She can easily leap from the ground straight up to his room, or smash the window with her wolverine teeth. Indeed, we see her later decapitating a victim in one stroke, with one quick crunch of the jaw. Can she be trusted at all?
"Let Me In" is a nearly frame-by-frame reproduction of the widely acclaimed Swedish 2008 horror drama, "Let the Right One In." The preferred styles of the original film's director Thomas Alfredson and the remake's director Matt Reeves are minimalist, either one a relentless, drip-by-drip account of what happened in a suburb Los Alamos that snowy winter of 1983 during the early Reagan years. These two movies peel the genre to its bare minimum, resulting in an inspired depiction of pure horror and a redefinition of it.
Reeves (who also wrote the screenplay) strips the main characters to their bare essentials, to a fault, resulting in a slow-moving first half that is stronger in mood than in plot movement. Owen's character is defined by the sadistic bullying in school, while Abby's is defined by her constant thirst for blood as supply dwindles, and the danger that the law, in the person of a determined police detective, would catch up with her and her guardian.
The face of Owen's mother, a devoted but alcoholic Catholic, is studiously kept out of sight, an unnecessary and puzzling tack that could be excused as an attempt to increase the sense of Owen's isolation, shedding light on why he finds comfort in Abby.
"Let Me In" discards many conventions of vampire films. There's none of the crucifixes, garlic gunk, holy water, mirror phobia and, happily, none of the high-tech dabbling of recent ones. The coffin concept lives on, but in the form of a sinister-looking room that Abby shares with his stepfather (Richard Jenkins). Also kept is the idea of sunrays as a vampire slayer, as well as the vampires' powers of flight and instant mutations.
The second half of "Let Me In" operates on the level of horror classics. Carefully paced, the suspense and the shockers pile on to each other and what was a simple storytelling in the first half becomes a fascinating interweaving of story threads.
The killings become increasingly bloody, including an attack inside a young man's car and another that takes place in a tunnel (where the split-second decapitation occurs). A body bursting in flames instantaneously is an awesome sight, if only in a flash. While busy killing, the vampire morphs into several beasts in a row, now looking vaguely like a wolf, and in a wink shifting into the contour of a demon or some fanged monster rising from wisps and swirls of gray smoke.
Two extraordinary scenes
Of special interest to fans of horror and suspense are two scenes that define the creators of this film and the original as genuine film artists. The first occurs during a class excursion to a frozen lake where Owen, accidentally gets hold of an ice hockey stick and, when threatened, follows Abby's advice to the letter ("you got to strike back hard"), punctuated by shrieks of terror from his classmates. The other scene comes later at the school swimming pool, where the bullies exact a cruel vendetta against Owen.
"Let Me In" does not flinch away from graphic images of violence and mayhem -- blood smeared on the lips, acid trickling down and searing the face, a frail young body being dragged on concrete -- but it does so with a certain grace and never in excess. They serve one purpose: to advance its theme of the presence and persistence of evil. The evil in Los Alamos, as it was in Sweden's Blackeberg, permeates the air, ready to pounce anytime and is bent on perpetuating itself. It takes many forms, from something as banal as school bullying, as sad as a messy divorce to something tragic such as the murder of people we love.
From the start of production, this movie was going to float or sink depending on its two young lead characters. As Owen and Abby, Smit-McPhee and Moretz were lucky to have a director in Reeves, who clearly has great rapport with preteens; a very able cinematographer Greig Fraser who frames them in the most fitting angles; and an editor who makes up through cuts and timing what the young actors lack in polish. Their roles get a boost from the more talented Dylan Minnette who as Kenny is a natural villain, high school bully and closet wimp.
Precisely because of their complete lack of artifice, Smit-McPhee's unsullied looks and air of vulnerability combined with Moretz's angel-to-demon transformations convince us and prevail, down to the movie's final twist. They leave a memorable and tragic portrait of a boy from the world of imperfect humans and a girl from the netherworld of the undead -- he the flesh-and-blood Romeo and she the vampiric Juliet -- trying to make sense of their doomed existence.
Posted on 12/28/10 03:46 PM
The turning point in the life of ?Avatar? as a blockbuster was when it lost the Best Picture Oscar to ?The Hurt Locker?. Not that it lost potential movie consumers, far from it, but by not winning, it was deprived of bragging rights for posterity.
In the run-up to the 2009 Academy Awards night, the two films were locked in a David-and-Goliath publicity contest the likes of which are becoming more and more of an annual event. When the peers of directors James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, his ex-wife, chose the $11 million film over his $300 million digital epic, the irony is not lost on us.
It?s amusing to describe the movie?s main conflict in biblical terms because the film?s Davids are 3 meters tall (10 ft., Americans? average height, male and female considered, is 1.69 meters or 5 ft. 5 in.). They are the Na?vis, a tribe of blue-skinned, yellow-eyed humanoids on some planet Pandora. On the other hand, the Goliaths are an army of Earthlings from the military-industrial-complex bent on strip-mining the planet?s valuable rock, unobtainium. You know the story, how the mission?s lead avatar infiltrates the noble tribe, falls for their feisty warrior princess then switches over to the side of the soon-to-be oppressed.
That could well be ?Avatar?s? biblical dimension, a call to us, the masters of nature by default, to conserve whatever pristine treasures we have left. But short of lecturing, it lightly couches its message in a morality play that melds science fiction, war story, action and romance.
It is a story laced with youthful fantasizing, nevertheless well told. The corporate exploiters and their mercenaries menace the peace of Pandora, an otherworldly ecological Paradise. At its center is the mystical Tree of Souls that holds the spiritual and genetic fabric of the race. And who best to help them but Jake Scully, the paraplegic ex-Marine avatar who has found acceptance among the planet dwellers and literally connects to them and their creatures. Sam Worthington, the Australian actor who plays him, is a study of a reserved man longing for an inner life.
The plot moves with agility and dramatic logic, culminating in an epic battle between the rapacious villains and the noble Pandorans, who find their deus ex machina in their wondrous wild creatures. The skillfully managed battle sequences ? we can expect nothing less from Cameron -- evoke images from the Vietnam War and America?s allegedly oil-motivated wars, as some love to point out.
It was only the other day when we journeyed to Munchkinland in the Land of Oz, and only yesterday when George Lucas was transporting us to unknown worlds in galaxies far, far away, to new places and the bizarre creatures inhabiting them. Today, through computer graphic imaging, ?Avatar? takes us back home, but to a home that we never had and never will have, not even one that we can hope to have.
The imagined landscape of Pandora and the totally digitized creation of the Na?vi giants are the reasons why the movie will be a durable audience-pleaser for a long time. The planet comes across as a pastiche of Earth?s mountain ranges, cliffs and lush rain forests. Except that the mountains defy gravity, floating up to the sky, connected to the lower strata by gigantic vines on which Scully?s avatar and his Na?vi love Neytiri (an aristocratic Zoë Saldana) can navigate with feline grace. The skyscape of islands on air seems to be a nod to Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki?s ?Princess Mononoke?.
And the plants and beasts appear to be products of several million-year evolutions, or those of a creator who was having a bad day, mixing up their DNAs, resulting in bioluminescent land-based jellyfish, pterodactyls with the beaks of ducks and gills of sharks, and the grafting of manatee and elephant body parts topped with hammerhead sharks? craniums.
Whether they are giving life to flora or fauna, the computer graphics are meticulous down to the last pixel, the tones realistic and the textures palpable. One can even notice the stains on the ivory teeth of a dragon-like creature?s fossil. The same care had gone into the creation of the Na?vi entity: elongated torsos and limbs, ultra-slim waists, wiggly ears, hair locks and costume accessories, this last seemingly a collection of those worn by African, Asian and American indigenous tribes.
But for all the attention to detail, or maybe because of Cameron?s mythic intent, the movie missed endowing the Na?vis with a clear culture, hinting only at their hierarchical customs and cult-like rituals performed around the Tree of Souls, with rhythmic chants and ecstatic flailing of hair locks. How do they live? Where are the kids? Except for one bite of a fig-like fruit, we get no glimpse of what foods nourish them. There are two especially whimsical visual touches. One is the bonding between Na?vi and Na?vi, or between Na?vi and beast through the tips of their hair locks, which are equipped with squiggly nematode-like filaments. The other is a webbed mid-air hammock that gently ensconces a sleepy warrior at slumber time.
The first and only ?Avatar? I?ve seen is the Special Edition, not in IMAX but in 3D. It took me quite a while to enjoy the wonders of 3D, being somewhat bothered by the random blurring of image details in certain frames, apparently not caused by shifts in the depth of field. As for the extra nine minutes added or restored to the original, I doubt that they make any difference.
Should ?Avatar? have won over ?The Hurt Locker? in the Oscars? The question is academic. Unlike a certain winter sport, to make a clumsy analogy, judging films is not a mere factoring in of technical brilliance and artistic merits, calculated to the last decimal point. When Academy members vote, their knowledge, taste and intuition are their only guide. ?Avatar? may be miles ahead in technical brilliance, and its humble rival may be miles ahead in artistry. But when the accountants split the difference, David slew Goliath.
Posted on 12/19/10 06:32 PM
The hour of the owl has come. This creature of the night has shared top billing with the Pussycat when they went to sea, done cameo roles in horror movies, and is still stuck in bit parts, for example, as mail courier in the Harry Potter series. Now finally it has a full-length feature of its own in "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole".
The movie should delight not only the many fans of Kathryn Lasky's multivolume fantasy for young people but also bird lovers and, especially, the uninitiated. Based on the series' first three books, it's a crash course on the epic, and a movie that surprises with its ultra-realistic visual style and soaring dramatic moments.
Set in an era before or after mankind as we know it, the story is spun around the abduction of two brothers, who are barely out of their owlet years, by members of the tribe of the Pure Ones. Before the incident, the father of the fledglings had fed them tales about the heroism of the legendary Guardians, hammering the message that "through our gizzards the voices of the angels of the Guardians speak to us".
However, the siblings, Kludd and younger Soren, are made of the stuff of two different gizzards. Even back in the nest, Kludd was skeptical about the existence of the Guardians, while Soren idolized them. At the sinister St. Aegolius Academy for Orphaned Owls where they are now imprisoned, Kludd proves to be an easy prey for the evil queen Nyra, who grooms him as a prime warrior dedicated to upholding the superiority of the species. Meanwhile Soren puts up a fight, first by resisting the cult's bird-brainwashing sessions called "moon-blinking" where the feathered captives end up glassy-eyed, ready to do slave labor, and then by forming a band of four unlikely rebels.
Given the crowded cast of characters of the books -- which include a snake, a Tasmanian devil and a gaudy echidna --the director and scenarists of "Legend of the Guardians" had the tough task of paring the film's cast and action down to essentials. They barely succeed, and perhaps they are not to the satisfaction of fans who may have their own favorites. By concentrating on the events around Soren's escape and the showdown between the Pure Ones and the Guardians, the movie achieves a leanness of narrative that allows it to concentrate on weaving animation magic.
"Legend" gives the books, which are beautifully illustrated, the digital treatment they deserve, and much more. It's an exploitation of the possibilities of computer graphic and design, capturing fully the "dimension" in 3Dimensional. Building on the ornithological research done earlier by the author, the animators and director Zack Snyder, who had previous CG imagery experience in his breakthrough feature "300", bring several subspecies of hooting or screeching owls to life, down to their downy plumage, odd facial disks, ear tufts and whiskers. And for the settings, the creators drew from nature's exotic landscapes, applying an autumnal palette of russet, rich copper, orange and gold. All these efforts reach a memorable climax when Soren and friends pierce through storm and sleet, then soar majestically to the home of the Guardians.
Both "300" and "Legend" touch on the theme of racial superiority, but this time Snyder puts himself on the other side of the fence. While "300", the 2007 historical action epic set amid rippling abs, was flayed for its fascistic elements, "Legend" is firmly anchored on correctness, with some old-fashioned virtues such as courage and loyalty thrown in. Snyder is one of those pragmatic directors who set aside their biases to deliver the original intent of the source, the producers or the scenarists. (He will direct tne next "Superman.")
The characters and voice assets are some of the movie's finest points, although main hero Soren's personality comes out somewhat flat despite a soulful turn by Jim Sturgess. Strangely, Soren's face evokes the reticence and questioning look of Elijah Wood's Frodo in the "Lord of the Rings" series. Kludd (voiced by Ryan Kwanten), however, is a revelation; in every scene, each frown and wink of an eye traces his evolution from a guilt-wracked novice to a hardened convert. As Nyra, Helen Mirren is in every phrase a queen, and in every inflection deliciously evil. For comic relief, the oddball duo of Twilight (Anthony LaPaglia) and Digger (David Wenham) accent their lines with mock Shakespearean flourish that even non-theater buffs will love.
For adolescents, the occasional violence and the aerial slash-fest that cap "Legend" may not pose a problem, but for kids under 10, they might. Snyder and his editors have carefully panned away from violence, editing out even the hint of blood and presenting the final fratricidal battle in bold but exciting strokes -- it's hard to tell the attacker from the victim -- but still, the sight of steel-reinforced talons could be chilling for the youngest ones.
For the toddlers watching animated features, I have devised a "Scary Scale" for rating their possible impact based on grotesqueness, violence and depiction of death. S stands for safe and sound, C for carefully done, A for advising the kids in advance, R for read the reviews and reconsider, and Y for you've been warned. I would have given "Toy Story 3" an A and "Despicable Me" an S. "Legend of the Guardians" meanwhile gets a C.
Posted on 12/18/10 11:06 AM
The poster of the movie "Easy A" at the multiplex sums up its main lesson very well: "Let's Not and Say We Did." If you're going to say you've done something, then it better be true, because even a teeny-weeny lie could make your life a living hell and, worse, make your name synonymous with toxic skank forever.
How Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone) got to be wearing "whore couture" with a scarlet letter A on her chest - just like Hester Prynne, the martyr and latter-day saint of the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel - is the subject of this totally charming comedy that sheds light on teen misbehaviorial patterns in our age of social networks and the nature of shame, rash judgment and other sins.
The hemlines of Olive's clothes conform nicely to Ojai High School's rule: not higher than her fingertips. She won't be out of place among fashionably dressed women walking at midnight along a Parisian boulevard, if only because her preference is French designer brands: often black, cut low and strapless, with lacy frills steeped in corset chic. She wears her shame like a fashion model. The letter A recalls Hester's punishment for her crime of Adultery and - contrary to actress Stone's quip to media people that it stood for Awesome - it is something else entirely. It's a play on the phrase "easy lay."
How easy a lay? Well, some lucky boys in this California school can claim to have bedded her just like that - this bunch of weird guys who many say were gay, irredeemably repugnant or ostracized. Olive's reputation as a slut, a trollop and their dozen or so synonyms, is solid and well earned. She came out in the open at a party at a friend's house, where her classmates gathered before a bedroom door to listen to her kinky panting and squealing session with Brandon (Dan Byrd), who until then had been tormented by talk that he was gay. Well, he's a cool dude among the guys now.
But Olive, 17, who narrates her life story in a Web podcast, tells us a totally different story. First, that it's all a lie of her own doing, a bunch of fake relationships and pretend sex. She's been accepting offers simply to help boost the guys' peer ranking. "The rumors of my promiscuity have been greatly exaggerated," she says. And, second, that things are now in danger of getting out of hand.
A great way with words
For a highly intelligent girl to tell her closest friend Rhiannon (Aly Michalka) the lie that she slept with a college jock over the weekend sounds dumb, but that's the Olive drawn by director Will Gluck and screenplay author Bert V. Royal: a jumble of contradictions that would have been irritating were it not for the fact that she has a great way with words (a fusion of the language of "South Park" and Ivy League undergraduates) and a sassy personality that keep us wanting to hear more.
The trouble with Olive is that she gives in too quickly to the whims of friends and those who know how to use emotional blackmail. Is her personality too insecure or of such low self-esteem that she's always trying to please others, the school lynch mob included? Let's not forget that she's aware of her precocious intelligence. "Don't worry," she tells a boy at the age of 8, "I'm not nearly as smart as I think I am."
And after all, she has the greatest parents in the world (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson), a bit too liberal and hands-off perhaps but exceptional, and subtly witty too. "I will take a bullet for you, have my throat slit to stand up for you," dad Dill assures her. "Any friend of Olive is a friend of our daughter," mom Rosemary assures visitor Brandon, a tautology but sounds very welcoming. Their names are Dill and Rosemary? Yes, together with their adopted black son Chip, this is a spiced-up family.
Rhiannon's readiness to believe Olive's lie is just one of a series of this film's satirical takes on the nature of gossip: that people are willing to believe the worst in others and that they will blindly believe what they choose to believe. Tell 'em what they want to hear and they will lap it up, spreading the news virally through today's mobile phone texting and Internet postings.
The effect is that the "velocity and the obnoxiousness of the inexactitude" accelerates (words on Olive's prompt cards). At Stage Two, her reputation goes up from a common slut to a tramp who demands cash in exchange for easy favors. It doesn't matter that in reality she gets peanuts for her help, such as discount coupons for Home Depot or free tickets to a foreign-language art-house film (now showing: "The Scarlet Letter" in German). And didn't Brandon just send her a tacky thank-you gift, a vibrator?
At Stage 3, she incurs the wrath of Jesus-loving, sex-abstaining young Christians on campus, led by Cross Your Heart Club head Marianne Bryant (Amanda Byrnes). Hell-fearing Marianne, a pastor's daughter, has many positive virtues. Pretty and devoted to her cause, she rivals Olive in a contest to win our sympathy, and if she thinks that Olive dresses up like a Jezebel harlot, then she tells her so and warns that girls like her must someday answer to a Higher Authority. ("Like Tom Cruise?" Olive asks, in one of the film's digs at religious groups, echoing a theme in Mark Twain's works). But like Rhiannon, Marianne believes what she likes to hear, and accepts Olive as a friend when she thinks, mistakenly, that she has seen the divine light. And in the film's final irony, Olive turns out to be a personification of virtues that young Christians hold so dearly.
The turning point in the charade
Stage 4 is the turning point in the spiraling charade, when Olive allegedly turns into a home wrecker and, for the first time, reveals the pain she's been through. She idolizes her wise English teacher Mr. Griffith (Thomas Haden Church), who doesn't hesitate to explain the finer points of literature through rap and who warns gossipy kids that "innuendo touches everything you say." He is married to the guidance counselor (Lisa Kudrow), whose advice to Olive is to "let your freak flag fly." Olive later does something to the Griffiths that doesn't make her proud of herself.
And then there's mild-mannered Anson (Jake Sandvig), the school's Renaissance man, hot-air balloon enthusiast and admirer of author Sylvia Plath, who invites Olive to a date at the Lobster Shack. He may be the only guy in high school who can tolerate Olive's prattle about rhinoceros horn and blister beetle as aphrodisiacs. He raises up Olive's hopes for a better social life. But what a letdown it turns out be when, in the movie's eye-opening moment, he turns out to be no better than the rest of the guys. Like any young woman who's not thinking straight, Olive blames herself, not Anson, and starts her quest to clear her name once and for all. How she does this is a major ingredient of the lighthearted fun that is "Easy A."
As the movie progresses, several questions arise, the biggest of which is the motive behind Olive's over-identifying with Hawthorne's branded martyr. The movie leaves some questions like this one unanswered. For instance, it's hard to fathom why the people whom Olive had helped turn so mean in the end. But the movie does answer, in a droll, heartwarming way, the question of why the Penderghast couple has raised such a wonderful daughter in Olive. And as to the puzzle as to who among a short list of school hunks will win Olive's heart, it delivers a solution that is heartwarming, very romantic and obvious.
Assessing this movie's fine cast could be quickly done through what Olive and her friends call "identifiers," or the initials of the key words that describe a person. Penn Badgley as Woodchuck Todd is S.S.T., the strong and silent type. Byrnes as Marianne and Michalka as Rhiannon are both F.L, funny and lovable. Haden Church and Kudrow as the Griffiths are B.S., believable and sympathetic. The role of veteran Malcolm McDowell as Principal Gibbons is U.U., unfortunately underwritten. And playing the Penderghasts with a post-hippie style of parenting, Tucci and Clarkson are M.A.G., magical actor genies who are a delight to watch.
And Emma Stone is simply A.B.C. - adorable, bright and a completely confident comedienne. What the critics have unanimously said about her is true. "Easy A" is as much the journey of a young woman into adulthood as Stone's stepping stone to a well-deserved stardom.
Posted on 12/18/10 10:29 AM
"The Town" is Ben Affleck's subtle homage to "Casablanca," with a twist. In this taut thriller, Doug MacRay of Charlestown, a blue-collar enclave in Boston notorious for producing more bank robbers than any other town in the U.S., knows precisely what the law says. The sentences for threatening a state witness, and for bank robbery resulting in murder -- he knows them by heart. He should: his own father had committed such crimes and is serving five life terms.
Doug (Ben Affleck) is the genius planner and leader of a band for four robbers working for a syndicate boss who runs a flower shop for cover. Doug confesses to his new girlfriend Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) that he has never killed anyone. His latest dossier consists of two bank heists, and a raid on the sanctuary of "the cathedral of Boston" -- the money vault of the Red Sox's Fenway Park - that resulted in the fatal face-smashing of a bank officer, the death of a security guard and the serious wounding of another.
To get an idea of what possible jail term he faces in case of conviction, I asked lawyer John Kriss of Kansas. He categorizes Doug's crime as a felony murder. His committing a felony (theft) "was directly responsible for the murder and injury." Since, unlike in Kansas, Massachusetts's law does not sanction the death penalty, "Doug could be on the hook for two life sentences plus others for the battery, for the robbery and all," says Kriss.
Consequences. "The Town" is about the consequences of crime and what happens when love enters the picture. Doug's romantic fling defies Irish "omerta," the Mafia code of silence, putting him and his men in trouble as the feds, led by FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm), close in.
Affleck directs with great intelligence and tackles the role of a criminal on the verge of conversion with muted passion. He manages to be convincing in a tricky monologue where he describes to Claire that day when his mother disappeared forever. His spiel sounds much too refined, not the expected working-class chatter, a far cry from his tense altercation with his second-in-command and adopted brother Jem (Jeremy Renner), where they fire a barrage of four-letter words.
There is scarcely a moment when "The Town" does not throb with action, crackles with crisp dialogue or simmer with conflict. The bank heists and the car chase through the narrow streets of old Boston are shrewdly paced, the goons and police dueling intensely, the sound suddenly turning mute and the action frozen, only to ricochet to their bitter end.
Claire, taken hostage in the opening heist, is pivotal since her traumatic experience stokes Doug's feelings, and the interest of FBI agents too. The heavy burden to be likable and believable falls on Hall's lap. She excels in the first task and falters in the other, and she's really not to blame. It doesn't help that there is a fuzzy edge to her character as scripted. She plays Claire with a passivity and resignation that's out of sync with her job description as bank manager, as though she had climbed the corporate ladder without some feistiness.
Hall's wardrobe, dark and nondescript, does not serve her well either, oblivious to her being the neighborhood "toonie," the yuppie outsider. For the heists, the costume department had found the right Jason helmets and get-up of Mother Superiors from hell, so why didn't they shop for the smart, say, Gap or Guess casuals for her? The cut-to-cut close-ups that are Affleck's preferred vehicle for dialogue -- oh, those talking heads -- also work against her at times as her unease in finding the right tone and emotion is betrayed on the screen. But this much must be said: Hall is electrifying and heartbreaking when she needs to be.
Renner's gives Jem's character perfect shading, menacing at times and sometimes explosive. Jem is the loose-cannon type who's quick to smash a face with a rifle butt in a moment of panic or, inexplicably, to bare his masked face during a brutal beating of a Charlestown bully. The zeal that FBI investigator Frawley brings to his job is frightening, but brusque and suave Hamm is more than equal to the task, badgering, cajoling and intimidating potential witnesses to spill the goods on the suspects. His interviews with Claire, Doug and Jem's sister Krista are free lessons in A Dozen Ways to Manipulate People.
As the mob grandfather Fergie the florist, Pete Postlethwaite has the sharpest lines, pornographic in their cruelty, which he delivers with the lilt and rhythm of Irish poetry. Blake Lively plays soaked-in-dope Krista, who is also Doug's part-time lover, slutting, slurring and whimpering her way through the narcotic haze, and revealing herself in the clearest terms as an actress to watch.
So finally, "The Town" boils down to consequences. They come fast and furious and with blood. For the final scenes, Affleck finds in the ending of the classic film "Casablanca" a paradigm, or at the very least an inspiration. "The Town" is of course cut from an entirely different mold, from the premise to the atmosphere -- although Affleck tends to bathe Boston in blue and dark tones, recalling "Casablanca's" shadows and grays. And while "Casablanca" is a psychologically complex film that has kept cinema lovers busy dissecting it for decades, "The Town" is more gritty and clear-cut. There are no mystifying issues about it.
But the choices the characters of either film face toward the end do mirror each other and are equally touching: which is it, love or the social order? A crucial decision taken in "The Town" manages to leave a bittersweet taste that for some would come close to "Casablanca's." This is more than a nod to the classic; it's a subtle homage with a twist. And what about the consequences of the thugs' crimes against the people of Boston? Well, truth be told, on a day like many summer days in Charlestown, they don't really matter.
Posted on 11/23/10 06:04 AM
The Other Guys" is a fireball of hilarity detonated by two writers who seem to be having as much fun as its weird heroes. It begs the question: why can't the funniest movie of the year be its best as well? Just about the only big gripe about it is the slacking off of the laughs in the second half, but by then the audience have had more fun moments than five comedies combined. Besides, the story fulfills a higher purpose: to send a poison letter to Wall Street and its regulators. Both halves are good honest entertainment, so why grumble?
If there's one movie that could have shed light on recent U.S. financial scandals, it's "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps." But Oliver Stone barely scratches their surface, while "The Other Guys" exposes them with startling clarity, from the collusions to cover up the losses of investment banks and a buddy system that binds the regulators and the regulated. This movie pits powerful cliques of buddies against the underdog buddies, two losers in the police force.
The bond between Detectives Allen Gamble and Terry Hoitz (Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg) is tongue-in-cheek, a teaming up of meatheads. Gamble, the more finely drawn character, "audited" his parents when he was 11. He became a pimp in school, wearing rapper chic, and later switched to the job of a detective accountant, taunted by colleagues as their "paper bitch." As a buddy, he's fiercely loyal and thoughtful. As a husband, he can be verbally abusive. But as a sex object, he is a runaway hit, driving hot women into a state and into fantasies of three-day sex marathons.
Hoitz has had less success in his love life despite being the movie-star/model type. As a young man, he learned to dance the ballet and play the harp as an act of "sarcasm" toward sissies whom he wanted to beat up. Currently, he's banned from street beats because he had brought shame to the police when he shot the top star of the World Series. As a buddy, he can be dense, hurting Gamble's delicate feelings and using him cynically in the name of police duty.
Bringing Ferrell and Wahlberg together was an inspired move. They're born comic actors, capable of wild physical gags as well as a more subtle type of mimicry. Ferrell has the more demanding role, where he swings from being a reluctant partner to a gung-ho crime-buster and as a gruff husband to Dr. Sheila Gamble (Eva Mendez). But Wahlberg is as expressive and colorful ("I'm a peacock, you've gotta let me fly!") and as multi-layered, such as his look of disbelief and lust when he first meets Sheila. Like the comic greats, the duo gives Gamble and Hoitz a kind face, a gentle disposition and an honest heart.
Directed by Adam McKay like an indulgent father giving free rein to his gifted children, and scripted by himself and Chris Henchy, "The Other Guys" has supplied this year's most quoted lines. Early on, the duo has a battle of conceits to express how they dislike each other. "If I were a lion and you were a tuna," says Hoitz, "I'd swim to the middle of the ocean and eat you and I'd bang your tuna girlfriend," whereupon Gamble frees a cascade of metaphors.
More word plays keep the fun going ("the sound of your pee hitting the urinal sounds feminine"), as well as non sequiturs ("I'm Catholic, he's Episcopalian, so somehow it works") and mock hyperbole ("I think we all witnessed today a ballet of emotions and feelings," says Gamble of Hoitz's Baryshnikov-like pirouettes).
This movie puts the audience in such a lighthearted state that when it's time to wrap up the story, some feeling of letdown sets in. But sit tight, folks, as there's intrigue and more wham-bang action yet to come. When Gamble and Hoitz set off to investigate some scaffolding violations in the buildings owned by billionaire David Ershon (Steve Coogan), little did they know that they will be sitting on top of a rotten scheme where Ershon and his creditors conspire to make huge dirty profits from huge dirty losses.
Some may find the Wall Street jargon off-putting, but really, it all boils down to state lottery earnings and police officers' pensions at risk of melting down. American public apathy had played a role in the Bernie Madoff, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers scandals. It still does, and this movie indicts everyone.
Two scenes keep "The Other Guys" crackling with comic madness. The comedy gems are the dinner scene at the Gambles with Mendez and a sketch toward the end -- where Gamble's mother-in-law (Viola Harris), disguised as a bag lady with a walker, shuttles back and forth to deliver increasingly salacious messages between him and his angry wife.
In a Manhattan pub, Jewish humor meets Irish humor as Gamble (or Irish-blooded Ferrell) joins an a cappella group in a lovely rendition of a parody of a tragic Irish rebel song that ends with the English scoundrels burning Harry Potter books. Huh? Another pleaser is the freeze-frame, continuous-shot scene set in the same bar that's like a music video clip loaded with cool digital effects.
Coogan plays Ershon as a quick-witted manipulator with the charm of a fading rock-star. Mendez as Gamble's trophy wife reveals a comedic side to her celebrated silhouette and is very much in on the joke. But Madame Harris steals the show at the last moment as her pleading eyes and quivering voice, tinged with gleeful malice, turn the audience's giggles into bursts of laughter.
In one defining moment, Gamble and Hoitz duck under the bed to make sure that their chat is not being recorded. "Did you miss me?" Gamble says, barely audible. Hoitz continues his prattle about the latest findings of their criminal investigation. "Hey did you miss me?" Gamble insists. "Well ahhh, umm yes," Hoitz replies, then carries on. It's a splendid irony that after all the huffing and the arguing and the screaming, the best lines of "The Other Guys" come in whispers.
Posted on 11/15/10 08:45 PM
The most gorgeous among the recent crop of films, "Eat Pray Love" is like getting three for the price of one. "Eat" is a feast for the senses; "Pray" a flawed exercise; and "Love" a lush story. Adapted from Elizabeth Gilbert's best-selling memoirs, the movie also plays like a four-part television mini-series starting with a pilot episode. Apart from director Ryan Murphy's modest display of versatility, it stands out because of its classy production design and master-class cinematography that are among this year's best.
The book about Gilbert's journey after a painful divorce took off after Oprah Winfrey warmly endorsed it and readers embraced its theme and exuberant prose. The book also sparked talk about feminism. Many saw the author's flight from a stifling marriage and her trek of self-discovery, a man's exclusive domains in the old days, as a feminist triumph.
Oprah and Gilbert straddle the two sides of a movement that was born decades before the Victorian era. On the one hand are hardliners on women's liberty and equality ("some of us are becoming the men we want to marry"). On the other, moderates who fight for rights "with dignity . . . without blemishing the delicacy of their sex." But the two sides are deadlocked over the question of love, a dilemma captured by Julia Roberts's panic and anguish when Liz rejects her new lover's invitation to build a life together. "I don't have to love you to prove that I love myself," she cries. Panic because she doesn't want to lose him, and anguish because accepting him could destroy her feminist core.
"Eat Pray Love" the movie has a fitful start, merely sketching the breakup of Liz's marriage to Steve (Billy Crudup) and her brief affair with David (James Franco), a "rebel-poet-yogi from Yonkers," a yoga devotee. The film's evasiveness over why both relationships failed is puzzling and will later rob Liz's dramatic moments of their power. With the reasons fuzzy, her dumping of Steve and David could be dismissed as being heartless. Her spiral into depression is only hinted at, so the healing comes not as an act of grace but as a footnote. When she forgives, one wonders, what for?
This starter gives us a glimpse of Gilbert's self-pooh-poohing humor. Liz attends a reading of her play and listens to David reciting lines such as "your love is like a hot panini." "Did I write that?" she asks. The awfulness is punctuated by her play's title -- "Permeable Membrane" in the book, "Impermeable Membrane" in the movie.
A convivial first episode, "Eat" is a distillation of the sensual delights of Italian life and a lesson in the pleasure of doing nothing, "dolce far niente" -- thanks to Gilbert, a phrase now almost as familiar to many Americans as savoir faire. The dishes that restore Liz's appetite are actually simple but, photographed with the same gusto that Italians devour their pizza (and follow football), they are transformed into gourmand fare. Olive oil trickles down stalks of asparagus like honey, smoked salmon brightens up a plate of antipasti, and mozzarella melts into gooey strings. The camera avoids the travel-brochure clichés of Rome and Naples, lingering longest on the ruins of Portico d'Ottavia where Liz reflects on the ruins of her life.
In one scene, a cranky landlady tells Liz, "You American weemen come to Italy only to eet pasta and sausage," a perfectly innocent remark. But for those with an ear for innuendo, it might as well refer to liberated travelers of some repute. It's a measure of Liz's moral frame of mind that when the second entrée in the signora's menu is offered to her, she says no.
At the heart of the movie is a hollow that belies Liz's supposed quest for change, balance and spirituality. Shot in an ashram in India, "Pray" has its roots in New York, where Liz tearfully seeks divine aid over her marital distress. That's the last prayer we hear, unless we count meditation. But prayer is a reaching out to the Other while meditation is a retreat into ever-deeper layers of the Self. As a meditation student, Liz would probably get a D anyway and whatever enlightenment she finds comes from the snippy Texan Richard (Richard Jenkins), part pop psychologist and part guru of forgiveness who, as Liz says, "speaks in bumper sticker." They bond too late and not too closely. When Richard confesses his failings in a drawn-out monologue, delivered perfectly like a stage pro by Jenkins, the movie hits its first big false note. It's Liz's confession, not his, that we want to hear badly -- talk about scene-stealing.
Followed by another: a fantasy flashback wherein bride Liz in an ashram sari and groom Steve in a white suit dance the aborted waltz of their wedding party. Another scene, apparently meant to be a symbolic and mystical meeting between Liz and the elephant-headed god Ganesh, falls flat as gorgeous Dumborella upstages an amused, somewhat petrified Roberts.
"Love" is a well-scripted romance. Liz finds in Brazilian businessman Felipe (Javier Bardem) her complimentary opposite in a story that unwraps as sweetly and magically as its setting, Indonesia's Bali. Cinematographer Robert Richardson adds a sultry patina to the island in the same way that he captures the modern and timeless textures of Italy, and the cacophony of color that is India. Totally not intimidated by his debut in a Hollywood film, Hadi Subiyanto plays "no-teeths" medicine man Ketut with poise and subtlety, his rapport with Liz rivaling that of Bardem's. As for the Spanish actor, he seasons his role with feminist-slaying sensitivity, every shifting emotion traceable on his face and in his eyes.
Gathered around Roberts is a bright cast led by Crudup doing his goofiest best in an ambiguous role, and the ever-cerebral Franco. Viola Davis as Liz's best friend reflects some of Oprah's aura. Luca Argentero, Liz's Italian conversation partner Giovanni, has the goods and the style of the late Marcello Mastroianni, if the Italians haven't yet noticed.
Meanwhile, Roberts remains a problem the film business loves to have. Being a pillar of the star system, she always gets cast in a dual role, as the character and as herself. In "Eat Love Pray" Liz and Roberts compete for attention, with Roberts coming out on top. A director would have to work harder to make the Lizes and the other pretty women of the scripts prevail over Julia the star. It's been done before. That director is probably not Murphy, but everyone deserves a second chance.
Posted on 11/06/10 09:22 AM
Something's not quite right. "Stone," a drama that revolves around a Michigan parole officer and a convict seeking freedom, is played against a background of soothing voices preaching Gospel truths, asking questions about man and God, and offering alternatives to established beliefs and religions. Over the airwaves and in the media, a contest for minds and hearts and recruitment is being waged. Even in the maximum-security prison where parole officer Jack Mabry (Robert De Niro) works, the inmates' library has a shelf lined with brochures and leaflets from religious groups, like a supermarket shelf for souls shopping for redemption.
One of those souls is "Stone" Creeson (Edward Norton), serving the eighth year of his 15-year sentence, and now seeking a parole. He was convicted of complicity in the murder of his grandparents as well as the arson of the couple's home.
For his sadly erratic and unfocused screenplay, writer Angus MacLachlan uses a few religious themes that are well loved by preachers, gurus and priests. One theme is the role people play in each other's lives. Another is the Psalms' answer to anyone questioning divine wisdom: "Be still, and know that I am God." And then there's the basic tenet of an obscure cult that Stone finds appealing, prescribing different sounds that reverb in the soul and result in spiritual transformation.
Those are big themes that MacLachlan touches on but fails to follow through. He uses them more for the weight they give the story, much like decorations, and they recall Woody Allen's love for philosophical musings. But while Allen weaves them brilliantly into his comedies and dramas, MacLachlan leaves it to the audience to connect the dots and leaves it at that.
The plot is exciting enough, going back decades ago, when Jack's wife Madylyn (Frances Conroy) announces that she was leaving him for making her redundant in his life. He then scurries upstairs where their baby daughter is asleep, picks her up and threatens to throw her out of the window. Madylyn opts to stay and the couple spends a lifetime of compromise in another loveless marriage in middle-class America.
Now on the verge of retirement, Jack faces the man who will change his life, a cornrowed, tattooed and self-avowed reformed man, Stone. Their initial meeting and the several more meetings after that are good but ill-at-ease character studies of a tired old man who has nothing much more left to do in life, and a young man who wants to reclaim it.
Enter Stone's wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), whom he describes as being out of this world, in fact an "alien." She does look out of place in suburban Detroit, being bubbly, pert and conveying a cosmopolitan air despite her plain wardrobe. She is in many ways like an immigrant not from a developing country but from some sophisticated place like New York City.
It's easy to miss the part of the movie where Stone suggests to her that she could help him win a parole by cozying up to Jack because from the start, she declares that she will do a-ny-thing for that to happen. She lays out the traps, and Jack bites. Some will find their sex scenes steamy, but others may not, for the simple reason that De Niro and Jovovich as actors and as characters are mismatched. And the movie's suggestion that Lucetta is nursing some amorous feeling toward Jack is a lame attempt to add mystery to a wanton barter deal.
However, MacLachlan's and director John Curran's ploy to confuse us on whether Stone and Lucetta had been in full complicity in the seduction and humiliation of Jack nearly works. While Jake and Lucetta are busy with their bedroom massages and erogenous zone explorations, Stone starts to fall apart and turns suicidal. In a visit to the correctional institution's infirmary, he witnesses the brutal slaying of a prison guard by some convicts. The experience could have further damaged his psyche, but it's a different Stone that we see not long after, sane, jubilant and self-satisfied with the success of a conspiracy that he may or may not have orchestrated.
Inconsistency and shallow treatment are apparent in the other characters. An impulsive and nearly irrational man in the fine opening scene, Jack, carefully sketched by De Niro, is mostly in control of his emotions, even when he frees himself from sexual repression. His wife Madylyn, played with deep bitterness and brooding by Conroy, once had ideas of liberation but she instead became a slave of respectability. The role of bed-hopping Lucetta is more consistent, but Jovovich did not find the right stops -- and direction -- to be more than just a one-note seductress.
The redeeming points of the movie are its well-constructed ending and another, more successful attempt to give it a deeper layer. In one of the interviews at the parole officer's office, Stone raises very relevant questions to Jack. When is punishment enough? When does it cross over to injustice? And do corrupt and corruptible people have the right to judge criminals? Like those Gospel truths riding the airwaves, they sound great but this movie's creators needed to weigh them, put them up front in the drama and then tell the audience: sit still, we have a great movie for you. But all that is wishful thinking now.