Tuesday, February 28, 2012


There is a world of difference between a movie that is both funny and vulgar, such as "Bridesmaids" or "The Hangover," and a movie that thinks it is funny because it is vulgar, such as this weekend's flop "Wanderlust." There are some clever ideas and even a few chuckles in this Jennifer Aniston-Paul Rudd vehicle about failed Manhattanites who find themselves (and then find themselves) at a free-loving, clothing-optional commune 30 miles from the nearest Red Roof Inn. Unfortunately, both the clever ideas and the many more insipid ones are repeated five, six, twenty times, until all the charm is suffocated out of the picture and what could have been a genial sleeper engenders surprising antipathy. The screenwriters have been told they're funny all their lives. Their response is to assume if you like the joke the first time, then by the tenth time, you'll love it.


The weekend's other bomb is the straight-to-video-worthy "Gone," with Amanda Seyfried as Jill, a Portland waitress who claims she was kidnapped and left to die in a deep hole in Forest Park by a serial killer, known only as Digger, who she says is responsible for a wave of missing young women, and who she believes has now taken her sister. One minor problem: The cops don't believe her about any of it - she was involuntarily committed not so long ago - and she's forced to go after Digger herself.

Sunday, February 26, 2012


The poignant, high-spirited football documentary "Undefeated" rounds out an excellent complement of Oscar nominees in the Documentary Feature category. So long as anything but "Pina" wins, I'll be happy, if for no other reason than I won't have to suffer through two hours of choreographed performance art. (Wim Wenders spoke after "Pina" screened at DocuDay last night, and you couldn't pry him off the stage with a hook.)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Forgiveness of Blood

Eight years after his auspicious feature debut, the compelling Colombian drug-mule saga "Maria Full of Grace," director Joshua Marston returns with another potent, immersive look at a world culture, the fascinating "The Forgiveness of Blood," about the Albanian tradition of blood feuds, an extralegal form of homegrown justice in which the family of a murdered man has the right to avenge his honor by killing the murderer or another man in his family. Because the family home is considered sacrosanct, however, there are hundreds of Albanian families living in virtual house arrest, the sins of the fathers visited mercilessly on the sons, their lives on indefinite hold until, years later if ever, the feuds are resolved through a ritualized process of mediation.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

One of the nominees for tomorrow night's Documentary Feature Oscar, "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" completes a 15-year, three-picture odyssey by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky chronicling the case of the West Memphis 3, then-teenagers convicted of the brutal 1993 murder of three eight-year old boys in Arkansas. The alleged ringleader, Damien Echols, seems to have had no connection to the crime, but wore black clothes and dyed his hair black and was wrongly identified as a satanist at a time of rampant hysteria. His constant-shadow best friend Jason Baldwin was seemingly found guilty by association, while a third friend, the mildly retarded Jessie Misskelley, gave a wildly implausible and shifting confession that implicated the three after twelve unbroken hours of repetitive police questioning.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

This Means War

"This Means War" belongs to that infinite pool of movies that take place entirely in Movieland, where everything everybody says and does rings totally false - and they talk non-stop, because the screenwriter wrongly believes he's witty or clever. This movie's conception of the workings of a CIA field office must be seen to be believed - it's staggeringly absurd - and the alternatingly unctuous and puppyish Chris Pine is no more plausible as a top operative than I am as a runway model. (His character's name is FDR, and nobody in this movie's universe seems to find that at all unusual.) Somewhat more masculine and appealing is Tom Hardy as the almost-as-ridiculously named Tuck, FDR's partner and bromantic rival for the affections of the cloying Reese Witherspoon (who has the everyday Movieland job of consumer product tester). This is the sort of picture where two people can engage in a brutal gunfight in one shot and not have a scratch on them in the next. It was slapped together so hurriedly nobody cared about getting it right, from continuity to anything resembling actual human emotion or experience. Chelsea Handler as Witherspoon's vulgar, keeping-it-real best friend provides the movie's only lightness and laughter; she's a bracing tonic to its wearying, leaden formula.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


One of the Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film - and indubitably the strangest - is the character study "Bullhead," about a steroid-popping man-child in the bizarre demimonde of the Flemish bovine hormone mafia. The movie runs to 140 plot-heavy minutes, with a convoluted, kitchen-sink storyline that careens from gay police informants to perfume-shop samples to a literal ballbusting. It's frequently unpleasant to watch, but mostly it's boring and goes nowhere.

The Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

There are two good choices in Shorts International's theatrical package of four of this year's five nominees for Best Documentary Short. (The fifth, "God is the Bigger Elvis," about early screen star turned nun Dolores Hart, will screen locally on Saturday as part of the International Documentary Association's annual DocuDay at the Writer's Guild on Doheny.)

Monday, February 20, 2012

How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?

The long but not especially interesting title "How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?" belongs to a short and sporadically interesting documentary about the pioneering British architect Norman Foster. I enjoyed the world tour of Foster's original buildings, some of which are strikingly beautiful. Interviews with leadingarchitects are also of some help to those of us with only a lay appreciation of architecture. But the movie's fatal flaw is its unnamed narrator, whose countless hagiographic references to "Norman", besides vaguely recalling "Psycho," are delivered in the reverential tones you might expect of a Scientology infomercial on L. Ron Hubbard.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Thin Ice

There's a lot to like in Jill Sprecher's bitingly cold Kenosha black comedy "Thin Ice," starring Greg Kinnear as a fast-talking Wisconisn insurance salesman living beyond his means. A big score appears in the form of a dotard customer (Alan Arkin) who doesn't seem to realize he owns a violin, or how valuable it may be. In trying to pry it away, Kinnear encounters Arkin's relentlessly sunny neighbor, who always seems to check up on the old guy at the most inopportune time; the powder-keg ex-con (Billy Crudup) Arkin has annoyingly hired to install a home alarm system; and an ethical luthier (Bob Balaban) who maddeningly insists the fiddle be sold on the up and up.

The Secret World of Arrietty

Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki co-wrote, but did not direct, the new Studio Ghibli production "The Secret World of Arrietty," and the film suffers without his golden touch. Anointed director Hiromasa Yonebayashi has made a vividly colorful, frequently beautiful movie, but not one that will linger in my memory. 

Friday, February 17, 2012


"Return" is a showpiece for the actress Linda Cardellini, who plays Kelli, a soldier just getting back to Ohio from a tour of duty and trying to resume her life as a factory worker and wife and mother. The experience of the film is highly fragmented, at times logy, occasionally compelling, but always quiet, understated, free of movieish artificiality or hysterics. It's the lack of a prefabricated arc and easy resolution that gives it its lingering effect.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

In Darkness

We all know there's a world of difference between a movie's being "based on a true story" and being honest in all its particulars. "In Darkness" exemplifies that difference. It recounts the real-life saga of a mercenary small-time Polish crook and sewer worker who, for a steep price, shielded a dozen or so Jews in the maze of sewers under Nazi-occupied Lvov. But the details are dramatized in cliche ways. When one of the Jews chooses to return to the ghetto to inquire after a loved one's whereabouts, none of the Jews he asks knows the woman until the very last man happens to. A flash flood threatens to drown the hiding Jews in a well-staged late sequence; then, at the last minute, the water simply "goes away." The effect of a compelling story is not enhanced but cheapened by artificial aggrandizement.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Woody Harrelson gives a look-at-me performance as a rogue LAPD cop in Oren Moverman's style-over-substance misfire "Rampart." Moverman aims to create, in Harrelson's Dave Brown, an iconic embodiment of paranoid, self-righteous vigiliantism, but peppering Brown's vocabulary with a few two-dollar words doesn't make him iconic any more than clogging the soundtrack with right-wing talk radio and the noise of the vacuum cleaner in the adjacent apartment conveys paranoia. The movie is plot-heavy, which is a problem because the plot is a muddled mess, so that when the lights abruptly came on, we looked at each other befuddled and asked, "Okay, what just happened?" Interesting performances by Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright, Ned Beatty and Ice Cube get lost in a morass of coincidences and bizarre camera angles in a picture that's less than the sum of its parts.

Safe House

There are a few terrific chase sequences in the spy-world thriller "Safe House," especially the first one, a giddy and vertiginous (and totally preposterous) thrill ride through the streets of Johannesburg. There are also a lot of fights: gunfights, knife fights, fistfights. Eh. But what puffs the movie up to two hours are a bunch of long, slow, talky scenes that go nowhere exciting. Ryan Reynolds looks sexy as shit, but lacks the movie-star quality - the heft - of, say, a Matt Damon. Denzel Washington is quietly likable here, but the movie's not as much fun as his recent "Unstoppable." Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard and Vera Farmiga lend solid support as Reynolds' CIA bosses, but the picture plays out predictably and at great length.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts

A weak field hits this year in the Live Action Short category, screening contemporaneously with the superior Animated Short package at the Nuart.

First is the strained comic allegory "Pentecost," in which a priest psychs his altar boys up for a big mass like a Division I football coach. The short has one joke, badly overplayed, and ends with an action that rings false and wouldn't make sense even if it rang true.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin

There had been talk of an Oscar nomination for previous winner Tilda Swinton for her role as the mother of a child who grows up to be a school shooter in Lynne Ramsay's "We Need to Talk About Kevin," but neither Swinton's one-note performance nor Ramsay's structurally flawed film matches the power and complexity of Maria Bello's work in the similarly themed "Beautiful Boy."

Monday, February 6, 2012

Norwegian Wood

You know a film directed by Anh Hung Tran ("The Scent of Green Papaya") is going to be slow. You know a film rated 74% fresh by critics, but only liked by 51% of Rotten Tomatoes audiences, is probably going to be boring at times. You're right: "Norwegian Wood" is long and slow and occasionally boring. Not a whole heck of a lot actually happens. But it's just pretty enough to recommend.

King of Devil's Island

The actual Norwegian film of the week is not "Norwegian Wood," which is, of course, Japanese, but rather "King of Devil's Island," an odd little movie, not badly made, about a real-life boys' correctional facility located on an island outside Oslo (or, when the film is set early in the 20th century, Christiania). The movie has a strong sense of place; it's just not a place you particularly want to be.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Hell and Back Again

One of the Oscar-nominated documentaries, Danfung Dennis' "Hell and Back Again" shows us the war in Afghanistan through the eyes of Marine Sergeant Nathan Harris, first while Dennis was embedded with Harris' unit battling the Taliban and later when Harris, badly injured from his hip down his leg, returns to life in North Carolina. (Dennis several times conveys Harris' difficulty living in the present by overlapping the audio as he segues between events in Afghanistan and back home.)

Thursday, February 2, 2012


Steven Soderbergh's "Haywire" is yet another head-scratcher from the talented but often nomadically adrift director. I do admire Soderbergh's willingness to take on all different kinds of material, rarely repeating the same genre twice, but he's made an action thriller with no thrills and not much action, either.