Category: film reviews (page 1 of 3)

Review: “Zero Dark Thirty”

Review: “Hitchcock”

Review: “Lincoln”

Review: “Wreck-It Ralph”

Review: “Cloud Atlas”

My review of “Argo” and “Seven Psychopaths” from KGW-TV

My review of “Frankenweenie” from KGW TV

‘The Master’ review: a gorgeous, vexing and one-of-a-kind tale of psychology and power

Paul Thomas Anderson's tale of a man drawn into a quasi-religious cult is puzzling and provoking, with remarkable performances at its heart.

The Master.jpegJoaquin Phoenix in "The Master"
“The Master” is cool and puzzling and almost feels more like a novel than a movie.

Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson came onto the scene as a brilliantly gifted scamp of a storyteller, with the portraits of underground culture “Hard Eight” and “Boogie Nights” and the web-of-life epic “Magnolia.”  But since then he has moved away from familiar narrative forms, first in “Punch Drunk Love,” then in “There Will Be Blood,” the last of which, in light of this new film, seems the dawn of a new phase in its maker’s art.

Like “Blood,” “The Master” concerns a strong, charismatic man determined to reshape the world no matter the personal costs.  Like “Blood,” it is a film in which big ideas are chewed over but not necessarily digested, in which the world is slightly distorted to accommodate large and even grotesque characters, in which the accumulation of episodes weighs more heavily than the ‘through line’ of a ‘plot.’  It vexes and dares, it frustrates and goads, but it is powerful and singular and doesn’t leave your mind easily.  It’s not as appealing, at least on the surface, as Anderson’s early films, nor does it wallop you like “Blood.”  But it is something, you must admit that.

Joaquin Phoenix, back from his bizarre decision to shut down his career, plays Freddie Quell, an alcoholic, emotionally troubled seaman who finishes his service in World War II and finds himself unable to reintegrate himself into society.  Adrift, he winds up aboard a yacht commanded by Lancaster Dodd (Anderson staple Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man of mysterious authority who is engaged in rethinking ideas of human psychology, history, and self-empowerment.  Quell, who, in fact, needs quelling badly, is drawn into Dodd’s world, seeking to silence the demons in his head and striving to gain status among the writer’s traveling cohort of family members and apostles.  But Freddie’s troubles may be too profound for any cure to avail, and Dodd’s work might not be able to offer him, or anyone else, credible answers.

Dodd is, plainly, a version of L. Ron Hubbard, author of “Dianetics” and founder of the Church of Scientology.  But “The Master” isn’t a critique or expose.  Yes, there are passages in which it seems that Dodd’s work is a sham, but there are also moments in which true believers profess their faith, and nothing that we see distorts the actual legal and doctrinal struggles faced by Hubbard and his followers during the period the film depicts.  There will (probably) not be lawsuits.

Besides, the focus isn’t on the spiritual movement so much as the relationship between off-kilter Freddie and grandiloquent Dodd, the itchy, gaunt acolyte and his robust and Olympian master.  Phoenix is almost perversely out of sync -- gangly and twitchy, speaking out of one side of his mouth, hands on hips inside-out, arms akimbo like a scarecrow.  The forces inside him have gnarled and twisted his form.  Just seeing him on screen makes you shift back in your seat.

Hoffman, on the other hand, brings a grand Falstaffian quality to Dodd, a fondness for food and flesh and thrills and ideas, an outsized confidence camouflaging a sometimes thunderous temper, a blend of certainty and doubt, a need to control all of those around him while giving them the impression that they command themselves.  Orson Welles would’ve loved the guy.

These two herculean performances more or less wipe everyone else off the screen, and Anderson knows it.  He’s got Amy Adams as Dodd’s missus, and Laura Dern as a significant devotee, both small roles, really, and there are very few other faces you might recognize.  That lack of familiar faces makes it easy for him to immerse us in the post-war era of skirts and suits and big cars and no-tech living.  Like the blasted-out landscape of “Blood,” the sparsity of “The Master” allows the two lead actors and the various competing ideas to play out against a relatively clean backdrop.

In speaking of the novelistic quality of the film, I specifically refer to the sense that, like Tolstoy or Dreiser or Bellow, Anderson is deploying characters and events in an effort to give shape to ideas.  There’s nothing prosaic about the filmmaking, however, which is conceived in sequences of motion and light that sometimes recall the abstraction of Terrence Malick rather than the hopped-up energies of Martin Scorsese or the jazzy flow of Robert Altman, to name two of Anderson’s chief influences.  Gorgeously shot by Mihai Malimare Jr. (who has photographed Francis Coppola’s last few films), with a spooky and compelling score by Jonny Greenwood, it’s exquisitely made.  Anderson may be thinking like a writer, but his movies are movies.

But they are not always warm movies, and the aridity of “The Master” is, finally, its most lingering impression.  It’s a film you admire, with two powerhouse performances, but it’s aloof and self-involved and eccentric.  “Blood” was a head-scratcher, yes, but it galvanized, if only through the strength of Daniel Day-Lewis at its heart.  “The Master” doesn’t have the same magnetic power, but it does excite you at the prospect of Anderson’s future.  Once upon a time people talked quite seriously about the “Great American Novel,” a chimerical blend of intelligence, entertainment and import that would forever change and define literature.  Anderson, god love him, seems determined to make the “Great American Film.”  “The Master” isn’t it, but you come away from it with the sense that may be on the right path. 

(137 min., R, TBD) Grade: B-plus


‘Compliance’ review: a prank call turns into a real horror show

A based-on-truth tale about people manipulated into criminal acts by stranger on the phone.

Compliance.jpgAnn Dowd in "Compliance"
“Compliance” is a slice-of-life film that sneaks up on you nauseatingly, and not just because it’s set in a fast food restaurant.  

Writer-director Craig Zobel’s movie is based on the true story of a predator who phoned various businesses pretending to be a policeman and asking to speak to the manager.  When he hooked an unwitting victim, coerced the person on the other end of the line into performing degrading and even criminal acts on a subordinate: confinement, strip searches and worse.  

Zobel, whose previous film was the little-seen but worthy con man story “Great World of Sound,” is adept at finding actors who make the unimaginable seem completely real.  The restaurant manager (Ann Dowd, painfully believable) is harried and over her head; the target of her ministrations (Dreama Walker, also utterly credible) is frightened and confused; nobody in the film feels like an actor, which is a point of praise.

There’s a skin-crawling effect to watching it all unfold, and a sense of slowly falling into a hole without a bottom.  In large part that’s Zobel is less interested in the perverse motive behind the crime than the slow descent of the victims into its twisted logic.  We watch these dupes make choices, some of which we might have made ourselves, and then we’re sickened to see the consequences of those choices played out.  

Zobel isn’t a sadist about all of this as, say, Roman Polanski or David Lynch or Todd Solondz might have been.  There’s a humanity here, even for the restaurant manager.  But that still doesn’t make “Compliance” easy to ingest.

(90 min., R, Cinema 21) Grade: B

‘Hello, I Must Be Going’ review: fine performances can’t lift a wan film

Melanie Lynskey and Blythe Danner are fine in this small family comedy, but it's a

Hello I Must Be Going.jpgMelanie Lynskey and Christopher Abbott in "Hello, I Must Be Going"
You want to root for “Hello, I Must Be Going,” a soft and heartfelt little film built on the backs of two all-in performances, but the film’s lack of credibility and flabby craft keep defeating your goodwill.  

Todd Louiso, the sometime actor who previously directed “Love, Liza,” is empathetic enough with his actors to draw good work from them.  But the screenplay by newcomer Sarah Koskoff is wan and sometimes even silly, and Louiso never finds a tone to sell it.  

The fault isn’t with his stars.  Melanie Lynskey is quite good as Amy, a newly divorced thirtysomething forced to move in with her parents in her childhood suburban home.  Listless, lifeless and self-pitying, she only emerges through the most unlikely of avenues: an affair with Jeremy (Christopher Abbott), the 19-year-old son of her dad’s business acquaintance.  As she navigates the various passages of life, she must endure the scorn of her mother (Blythe Danner), who dreams of a life that hasn’t quite come to her.

Danner is, in fact, the best thing in the picture:  brittle and frank and cool toward a daughter who has flat-out disappointed her.  She’s terrific.  And you can’t help but feel at least some sympathy toward Amy, at least at the start, particularly as embodied by the winning Lynskey.  But the script’s contrivances and the director’s lax handling aren’t enough to hold you.


Gere faces ‘Arbitrage,’ the ‘Desires’ of film noir and more

Reviews of this week's new releases in Portland-area theaters.

Arbitrage 2.jpgSusan Sarandon and Richard Gere in "Arbitrage"
A slow movie weekend, with only a couple of reviews:  the Wall St-fatcat-in-trouble drama "Arbitrage," with Richard Gere, and "Dangerous Desires," a selection of film noir treats at the Northwest Film Center.  We've also got "Also Opening," "Indie/Arthouse," "Levy's High Five" and "Retro-a-Gogo" to flesh out the week.

Levy’s High Five, September 14 – September 20

The five films playing in Portland-area theaters that I'd soonest see again.

Beasts of the Southern wild boat.jpg"Beasts of the Southern Wild"

1) "Beasts of the Southern Wild" A dreamy and joyous film about life, death, hope, dreams and wonder on an island in the Mississippi Delta. The miraculous young Quevezhané Wallis stars as Hushpuppy, a wee girl who experiences life in the feral community known as the Bathtub as a stream of wonder and delight, even though her dad (Dwight Henry) is gruff, her mom is absent and a killer storm is bearing down on her home. Writer-director Behn Zeitlin, in his feature debut, combines poetry and audacity in ways that recall Terrence Malick, but with a light and spry touch. Still, all his great work pales in comparison to the stupendous little Wallis, whom you'll never forget. Hollywood, Living Room, Moreland, Tigard

2) "Moonrise Kingdom" Wes Anderson films are such a specific taste that I'm a bit hesitant to suggest that this might be his most approachable (but surely not crowd-pleasing) work. In the wake of the delightful "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," Anderson returns to live-action and his familiar tics and habits in a tale of young (as in 'pre-teen') lovers on the run. Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward fill the lead roles delightfully, and Anderson's muses Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman are joined ably by Edward Norton, Bruce Willis and Frances McDormand, among others. It's a light and breezy film with a very sweet heart and old-fashioned sturdiness. Even if you were left puzzled by the likes of "Rushmore" or "The Royal Tenenbaums" (still his best non-animated films, for me), this is likely to win you over. Cine Magic, Fox Tower, Hollywood, St Johns

3) "The Bourne Legacy" A dense, slick and thrilling spy movie that's got as much brain power as brawn. Writer-director Tony Gilroy ("Michael Clayton") turns the trilogy of films about Jason Bourne into the story of Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), another souped-up intelligence operative on the run from the secretive organizations which built him. The film cleverly integrates the story of the previous three, but stands alone as a gripping story about a man trying to extend the only life that he has come to know and depending on a geneticist (Rachel Weisz) and his own abilities to stay alive. From the complex narrative to the thrilling final half-hour, it's top shelf stuff. multiple locations

4) "Searching for Sugar Man" A truly remarkable documentary that demonstrates how big and how small this world of ours can be.  Rodriguez was a Detroit singer-songwriter whose poetic and soulful music deserved a much bigger career than the little blip it experienced in the early '70s.  But, in fact, that bigger career did  exist: in South Africa, where Rodriguez was a huge star and didn't know it.  So obscure was Rodriguez in his homeland, in fact, that his overseas fans long believed he had killed himself in an baroque onstage apocalypse.  The Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul tracks this amazing history and then witnesses a third act that you simply have to see to believe.  Mind-blowing, heartwarming and true. Fox Tower 

5) "Robot & Frank" Frank Langella is a delight in a film about a curmudgeonly retiree whose children foist a robot on him to monitor his diet, activities and housework.  The grumpy old fella hates the little electronic buddy (whose voice is provided by Peter Sarsgaard), then he realizes he has a use for it:  he devises a means to use it to get back into his life's work, which happens to be burglary.  Debuting director Jake Schreier and screenwriter Christopher D. Ford nicely balance the mild sci-fi with human comedy, and a sharp supporting cast, which includes Susan Sarandon, James Marsden and Liv Tyler, give the great Langella all the room he needs to be wonderful. Fox Tower




Shining a light on the shadowy world of noir

A series of little-known film noir titles crackles with energy and a sense of discovery.

The Window.jpgView full size
Little festivals of film noir -- ‘40s and ‘50s crime dramas starring Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Ryan and their ilk -- have been pretty commonplace over the past few decades.  

But “Dangerous Desires: Film Noir Classics,” a series beginning tonight and running through the end of September at the Northwest Film Center, stands out.  Curated by the Film Noir Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving and promoting the heritage of these dark little nuggets of post-war American angst, it’s filled with discoveries, including some films that aren’t available for home viewing in any form.

Only two of the dozen titles in the film -- “The Glass Key” and “The Blue Dahlia,” both starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake -- can be said to be familiar, and those play on a single night, almost as if being dealt with as an obligation.

The rest of the series peers more intently into the unknown corners of noir.  Tonight’s opening film, presented, by film noir scholar Eddie Muller, is a perfect example.  “The Prowler” is a 1951 Joseph Losey thriller starring Van Heflin as a cop obsessed with a lonely housewife (classic noir girl Evelyn Keyes). Like many of the films in “Dangerous Desires,” it deals with issues of men uprooted after the war, the threat of rupture to the traditional model of the family, and the fatal lures of sex and money.

Another of the opening weekend’s offerings, “The Hunted” (1948), about a woman seeking revenge, is among those in the series that can’t be readily seen elsewhere.  Also in that category is the remarkable “The Window” (1949), which plays on September 23.  Based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, it’s a story about a boy (the gifted and tragic Bobby Driscoll) who witnesses a murder but who can’t get anyone to believe him because of his long habit of telling tall tales.  Shot on location in New York by director Ted Tetzlaff, it’s tense and fresh and, at 73 minutes, remarkably taut.

High Wall.jpgView full size
“High Wall” (1948) is another treat, a very rare MGM film noir with Robert Taylor quite good as a man who admits that he strangled his wife and then comes to believe he may not have done so at that.   And in “Pitfall,” the lustful insurance adjuster in the middle (Dick Powell) is outshined by Lizbeth Scott as the object of his adulterous affections and Raymond Burr as the creepy crooked detective who wants the girl and won’t be told no.

Through the series we get exactly what we want from noir:  dark shadows, flawed heroes, mean little schemes, psychological dysfunction, fallen women, and a pervading sense of claustrophobic, paranoid fear.  The world of noir often looks normal, but the characters have just survived a horrific war and they know how easily ‘normal’ can vanish.  Their urges, longings, and fears drive them to places they never would have imagined visiting in their halcyon days -- and their journeys make for deeply exciting viewing.
 
The Northwest Film Center presents “Dangerous Desires: Film Noir Classics” through September 30 at the Whitsell Auditorium of the Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Ave. Tickets are $9 general; $8 for PAM members, students, and seniors; $6 for NFC Silver Screen members and children.


The Prowler poster.jpgView full size
SCHEDULE

“The Prowler” Friday, September 14, 7 p.m.
“The Hunted” Saturday, September 15, 9 p.m.
“Nobody Lives Forever” Sunday, September 16, 7 p.m.
“Pitfall” Thursday, September 20, 7 p.m.
“The Glass Key” Saturday, September 22, 7 p.m.
“The Blue Dahlia” Saturday, September 22, 9 p.m.
“The Window” Sunday, September 23, 7 p.m.
“Caught”
Friday, September 28, 7 p.m.
“High Wall” Saturday, September 29, 7 p.m.
“99 River Street” Saturday, September 29, 9 p.m.
“Loophole” Sunday, September 30, 5 p.m.
“The Naked Alibi” Sunday, September 30, 7 p.m. 

‘Abitrage’ review: with Gere in a familiar gear, a drama finds a spark of life

The silver fox plays another charming heel in a film about a financial kingpin in money and legal trouble.

Arbitrage.jpgRichard Gere in "Arbitrage"

The moral failings of Wall St. and its fat cat operators are the stuff of headlines today, but they are hardly anything new under the sun. Perhaps that's why "Arbitrage," a thriller from writer-director Nicholas Jarecki seems at once modern and old-school. Its depiction of a crooked big shot feels like it might've been made in the '70s or '80s, despite its contemporary details.

Combining a slick exterior with a morally dubious core, the film stars Richard Gere as Robert Miller, a financier whose hidden chicaneries -- both economic and marital -- start to catch up with him in all at once. He's got money locked up in a foreign mining deal that's going sour, his mistress is demanding more of his time, his company is for sale and the books are slightly dodgy, and, when an accident hits him out of nowhere, he's got a dogged cop poking at him and a nervous witness threatening to crack and tell the truth.

Gere is a past master at playing the charming rogue, and he's surrounded by pros such as Susan Sarandon as his willfully blind missus and Tim Roth as the suspicious detective. Slightly less powerful are Brit Marling as the daughter whom Miller is grooming in the business and Nate Parker as a fellow from whom he asks a favor that cannot be repaid. More seriously, Jarecki never quite pierces the skin of this world, capturing its shiny and grimy surfaces but failing to immerse us in its flaws; too often it's like flipping through a magazine story on the lives of the rich and corrupt.

But even the soft and lax parts of the film are laced with the conundrum that makes movies like this so delicious: Miller is a reprehensible heel, yet, because he's played by Gere and because we're privy to his desperation, we root for him. In this sense, "Arbitrage" is a mirror on the audience, making us realize that we're complicit, if only vicariously, in some crimes which we ought to deplore.

(105 min., R, Living Room TheatersGrade: B


‘Samsara’ and ‘The Ambassador’ roam, the ‘Words’ and ‘Summer’ crash, and more

Reviews of this week's new releases in Portland-area theaters.

samsara 2.jpgfrom "Samsara"
Not a lot of new stuff this weekend, as movie distributors try not to get their opening weekends blitzed by the dawn of a new NFL seasons.  We have a handful of reviews:  a comparison of two fascinating documentaries, "Samsara" and "The Ambassador"; a look at Spike Lee's back-to-the-old-neighborhood picture "Red Hook Summer"; and a slam of the inane literary drama "The Words."  And, eternally, "Also Opening," "Indie/ArtHouse," "Levy's High Five" and (under the old name that it once again sports) "Retro-a-Gogo."

Levy’s High Five, September 6 – September 13

The five films playing in Portland-area theaters that I'd soonest see again.

Searching for Sugar Man 2.jpgRodriguez in "Searching for Sugar Man"

1) "Beasts of the Southern Wild" A dreamy and joyous film about life, death, hope, dreams and wonder on an island in the Mississippi Delta. The miraculous young Quevezhané Wallis stars as Hushpuppy, a wee girl who experiences life in the feral community known as the Bathtub as a stream of wonder and delight, even though her dad (Dwight Henry) is gruff, her mom is absent and a killer storm is bearing down on her home. Writer-director Behn Zeitlin, in his feature debut, combines poetry and audacity in ways that recall Terrence Malick, but with a light and spry touch. Still, all his great work pales in comparison to the stupendous little Wallis, whom you'll never forget. Hollywood, Living Room

2) "Moonrise Kingdom" Wes Anderson films are such a specific taste that I'm a bit hesitant to suggest that this might be his most approachable (but surely not crowd-pleasing) work. In the wake of the delightful "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," Anderson returns to live-action and his familiar tics and habits in a tale of young (as in 'pre-teen') lovers on the run. Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward fill the lead roles delightfully, and Anderson's muses Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman are joined ably by Edward Norton, Bruce Willis and Frances McDormand, among others. It's a light and breezy film with a very sweet heart and old-fashioned sturdiness. Even if you were left puzzled by the likes of "Rushmore" or "The Royal Tenenbaums" (still his best non-animated films, for me), this is likely to win you over. Cine Magic, Fox Tower, St Johns

3) "The Bourne Legacy" A dense, slick and thrilling spy movie that's got as much brain power as brawn. Writer-director Tony Gilroy ("Michael Clayton") turns the trilogy of films about Jason Bourne into the story of Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), another souped-up intelligence operative on the run from the secretive organizations which built him. The film cleverly integrates the story of the previous three, but stands alone as a gripping story about a man trying to extend the only life that he has come to know and depending on a geneticist (Rachel Weisz) and his own abilities to stay alive. From the complex narrative to the thrilling final half-hour, it's top shelf stuff. multiple locations

4) "Searching for Sugar Man" A truly remarkable documentary that demonstrates how big and how small this world of ours can be.  Rodriguez was a Detroit singer-songwriter whose poetic and soulful music deserved a much bigger career than the little blip it experienced in the early '70s.  But, in fact, that bigger career did  exist: in South Africa, where Rodriguez was a huge star and didn't know it.  So obscure was Rodriguez in his homeland, in fact, that his overseas fans long believed he had killed himself in an baroque onstage apocalypse.  The Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul tracks this amazing history and then witnesses a third act that you simply have to see to believe.  Mind-blowing, heartwarming and true. Fox Tower 

5) "Robot & Frank" Frank Langella is a delight in a film about a curmudgeonly retiree whose children foist a robot on him to monitor his diet, activities and housework.  The grumpy old fella hates the little electronic buddy (whose voice is provided by Peter Sarsgaard), then he realizes he has a use for it:  he devises a means to use it to get back into his life's work, which happens to be burglary.  Debuting director Jake Schreier and screenwriter Christopher D. Ford nicely balance the mild sci-fi with human comedy, and a sharp supporting cast, which includes Susan Sarandon, James Marsden and Liv Tyler, give the great Langella all the room he needs to be wonderful. Fox Tower



‘Samsara’ and ‘The Ambassador’ reviews: filmmakers with the world in focus — and in the crosshairs

Two documentaries of diverse style and aims show what can happen when first-world filmmakers take a look at other cultures.

Samsara.jpgfrom "Samsara"
Two films new to town open some fascinating questions about the nature of non-fiction filmmaking and the ways in which First World artists and journalists confront the Third World.

“Samsara” is a sumptuous film by Ron Fricke, who directed “Baraka” and was cinematographer of “Koyaanisqatsi.”  Like those films, “Samsara” is a non-narrative vision of the panoply of the world -- people, animals, geological and meteorological phenomena, buildings, wastelands, metropolises -- edited together to a musical accompaniment.  

The word ‘samsara’ means ‘continuous flow of life’ in Tibetan, and Fricke and company surely experienced that sensation in making the film, which took them to 25 countries in a span of five years.  They have put together a thoughtful and profoundly gorgeous film in which the works of humanity are celebrated and questioned, the colossal scale of nature is revealed, the cruelties and grotesqueries of life are laid bare.  It was shot in 70mm, and it’s one of the most immersive things the screen has shown us in years.

There’s a lot of immersion in “The Ambassador,” a documentary which ‘stars’ its director, Mads Brugger, a Danish journalist who, in an undercover expose of corruption in Africa, dives into the world of false diplomatic credentials, crooked governments and blood diamonds.  Buying, outright, the title of consul from the Liberian government, Brugger sets himself up in the Central African Republic as a businessman-slash-diplomat, pretending to be interesting in building a match factory but actually forming liaisons with diamond miners and using his diplomatic passport to remove the gems from the country illegally.

The Ambassador.jpgMads Brugger in "The Ambassador"
Brugger isn’t like Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, puckishly tweaking a perceived ill in the world at the service of an agenda.  He’s more like a Graham Greene character or a sober (-ish) Hunter S. Thompson, diving into the darkness and taking an active role in it so as to shed light on it.  (With his cigarette holder, riding boots and combat glasses, he strongly evokes Thompson’s Raoul Duke persona.)  There’s a touch of whimsy to his misadventures, but the malfeasance he uncovers -- often using hidden cameras and microphones -- is anything but a joke.

The superficial differences between the films are stark.  Fricke and company set out to create a work of art and have an emblem for their efforts in a gorgeous mandala created by Himalayan monks.  Billions of grains of colored sand are used to ‘paint’ an extraordinarily complex image which, eventually, is wiped away into nothingness, a perfect metaphor for human life.  Brugger, on the other hand, provokes (albeit without much effort) specific acts of criminality and his subjects tumble into holes they themselves have dug.  In his wake, there’s something of a mess:  a lot of money changes hands, some illegal diamonds are in circulation, and no one is arrested or put out of business; the ugly little world he has detailed carries on.

It would be easy to point a finger at Brugger as a provocateur and hold up Fricke as a pure chronicler, but it’s not as simple as that.  Fricke has a point, too, and the way “Samsara” juxtaposes, say, overfed folks shopping at Costco with people picking the stuff of life out of a garbage dump in South America makes a case as damning as anything in “The Ambassador.”  Every edit in cinema has the potential to carry a moral argument, establishing equivalences or disparities between the subjects of two shots, and “Samsara,” for all its holism, isn’t free from the sort of specific contingencies and perspectives that “The Ambassador” explicitly embraces.

In a sense, too, both films present us with portraits of the world as seen from a vantage of privilege.  Brugger, as a white man in sub-Saharan Africa with bags of money and a diplomatic passport, is able to get people to say and do things as shockingly and disturbingly raw as anything Sacha Baron Cohen has ever managed.  He isn’t exactly preying on innocents, but he’s certainly engaging in subterfuge to make bad folks behave badly: a fairly obvious point.  And you strongly suspect that he’d have a far less easy time pulling off his elaborate hoax in a culture more familiar with his brand of journalistic stunts.

Fricke’s intent is, for the most part, nobler -- a vision of the world as unified by the works and forces of humanity and nature -- but he, too, puts people in a frame of his own devising.  The visions of “Samsara” can be breathtaking -- a field of temples in ancient Myanmar, the sand-sculpted canyon walls of Utah, the neurological web of nighttime traffic in Los Angeles, the stupefying power of Iguazu Falls.  But when he focuses on people, the mask of aesthetic indifference drops and you sense yourself being pushed toward a point of view about sex, food, guns, labor, what have you.   Maybe you agree with him, maybe you don’t, but an argument is being made under the guise of objective revelation.  The extraordinary beauty of the work doesn’t change the fact that there’s some preaching going on behind the screen.


“Samsara” (102 min., PG-13, Fox Tower) Grade: B-plus

‘The Words’ review: there are words for this mishmash, just not nice ones

A story about a novel about a novel should have been erased from the word processor, not made into a film.

The Words.jpgJeremy Irons in "The Words"
Several words are suggested by “The Words,” and none of them are, you reckon, the ones its makers had in mind.

Let’s start with ‘nitwit.’

“The Words” is a nitwit story about a nitwit author who has written a nitwit novel about a nitwit author who has published a nitwit novel which, in fact, he has stolen wholecloth from another writer whose personal behavior, as fictionalized in the novel-within-the-novel-within-the-film, can charitably be described as...nitwit.

There’s also ‘phony.’  Everything about “The Words” feels phony:  the depiction of the writing life; the story of the ‘real’ novelist (that is, the one in the outermost circle) being preyed upon by a journalist; the working and private lives of the novelist in the ‘real’ fellow’s novel; the tale of love and loss in wartime at the innermost core of this utterly unengaging not-really-a-puzzle.

For the record, Dennis Quaid is epically miscast as the ‘real’ novelist, a miscue you almost don’t notice because Bradley Cooper, whom it is hard to imagine reading anything more challenging than a Ziggy cartoon, is playing the purloining novelist in his creation.  Jeremy Irons appears, crusty and lovelorn, as the wronged author at the core of it all, and he’s the only one of the three who seems remotely capable of having composed a sentence, which I suppose adds to the theme of how cruel fate and publishing are, but not in a way the writer-directors of the film intended, surely.

Oh, and one more word comes to mind: ‘kidding,’ as in, ‘you’ve got to be....’  The writer-directors of “The Words” are, you see, Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, whose sole previous behind-the-camera screen credit came as the co-writers of...“TRON: Legacy.” 

You know, I take it back:  There are no words.

‘Red Hook Summer’ review: a confused homecoming for Spike Lee

A film meant to evoke "Do the Right Thing" is more muddled than powerful.

Red Hook Summer.JPGClarke Peters in "Red Hook Summer"

In the 23 (!) years since the fiery summer's day of "Do the Right Thing," Spike Lee has had some moments of glory ("Malcolm X," "Inside Man," "4 Little Girls") and inspiration ("Crooklyn," "Clockers," "25th Hour"), but he's never been able to capture the same power, pop energy, passion and polemic force as in that epochal film.

To see his newest work, "Red Hook Summer," is too see how far Lee is from his impressive best.  A companion, of sorts, to "Right Thing," the film takes place in another Brooklyn summer, with young Flik (Jules Brown) dropped by his Georgia-based mom to live for a few months with her dad, Enoch (Clarke Peters), a storefront preacher and boiler repairman in the local housing projects.

It's something of a coming-of-age story, with Flik learning the harsh ropes of big city life alongside an almost-sweetheart (Toni Lysaith) and avoiding the neighborhood tough guys (led by Nate Parker).  Mookie the pizza man (Lee himself) makes an appearance (illogically still delivering pies on foot from Sal's Famous, which is nowhere near Red Hook), and there are other diversions, both filmic and narrative which sometimes engage but more often eat up time frustratingly.

The highlights, without question, are Bishop Enoch's fiery, musical, galvanizing sermons, which dot the story and are implicated with a sensationalist turn in its final portion.  Peters ("The Wire") is superb in these scenes, without which "Red Hook Summer" would be a vague and somewhat desperate attempt to rekindle past promises.  Lee is, as ever, a gifted image-maker, but his storytelling has gotten so lax over time as to barely register.  This isn't the "Right Thing" in any sense.

(121 min., R, Hollywood Theatre) Grade: C-plus


A ‘Killer’ diller, a wily ‘Robot,’ some ‘Lawless’ brothers and more

Reviews of this week's new releases in Portland-area theaters.

Killer Joe -- McConaughey.jpgMatthew McConaughey in "Killer Joe"
A nicely varied selection of films for this holiday weekend.  We've got reviews of the NC-17 black comedy "Killer Joe"; the low-fi sci-fi tale "Robot & Frank"; the brothers-in-bootlegging film "Lawless"; the slow-burn drama "Oslo, August 31"; and the multi-character web-of-life film "360."  And -- but you knew this already -- we've got "Also Opening," "Indie/Arthouse," "Levy's High Five" and "Vintage Vault."

Levy’s High Five, August 31 – September 6

The five films playing in Portland-area theaters that I'd soonest see again.

Beasts of the Southern wild chicken.jpgQuvenzhané Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild"

1) "Beasts of the Southern Wild" A dreamy and joyous film about life, death, hope, dreams and wonder on an island in the Mississippi Delta. The miraculous young Quevezhané Wallis stars as Hushpuppy, a wee girl who experiences life in the feral community known as the Bathtub as a stream of wonder and delight, even though her dad (Dwight Henry) is gruff, her mom is absent and a killer storm is bearing down on her home. Writer-director Behn Zeitlin, in his feature debut, combines poetry and audacity in ways that recall Terrence Malick, but with a light and spry touch. Still, all his great work pales in comparison to the stupendous little Wallis, whom you'll never forget. Hollywood, Living Room

2) "Moonrise Kingdom" Wes Anderson films are such a specific taste that I'm a bit hesitant to suggest that this might be his most approachable (but surely not crowd-pleasing) work. In the wake of the delightful "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," Anderson returns to live-action and his familiar tics and habits in a tale of young (as in 'pre-teen') lovers on the run. Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward fill the lead roles delightfully, and Anderson's muses Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman are joined ably by Edward Norton, Bruce Willis and Frances McDormand, among others. It's a light and breezy film with a very sweet heart and old-fashioned sturdiness. Even if you were left puzzled by the likes of "Rushmore" or "The Royal Tenenbaums" (still his best non-animated films, for me), this is likely to win you over. Cine Magic, Fox Tower, St Johns

3) "The Bourne Legacy" A dense, slick and thrilling spy movie that's got as much brain power as brawn. Writer-director Tony Gilroy ("Michael Clayton") turns the trilogy of films about Jason Bourne into the story of Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), another souped-up intelligence operative on the run from the secretive organizations which built him. The film cleverly integrates the story of the previous three, but stands alone as a gripping story about a man trying to extend the only life that he has come to know and depending on a geneticist (Rachel Weisz) and his own abilities to stay alive. From the complex narrative to the thrilling final half-hour, it's top shelf stuff. multiple locations

4) “Searching for Sugar Man” A truly remarkable documentary that demonstrates how big and how small this world of ours can be.  Rodriguez was a Detroit singer-songwriter whose poetic and soulful music deserved a much bigger career than the little blip it experienced in the early ‘70s.  But, in fact, that bigger career did  exist: in South Africa, where Rodriguez was a huge star and didn’t know it.  So obscure was Rodriguez in his homeland, in fact, that his overseas fans long believed he had killed himself in an baroque onstage apocalypse.  The Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul tracks this amazing history and then witnesses a third act that you simply have to see to believe.  Mind-blowing, heartwarming and true. Fox Tower 

5) “Robot & Frank” Frank Langella is a delight in a film about a curmudgeonly retiree whose children foist a robot on him to monitor his diet, activities and housework.  The grumpy old fella hates the little electronic buddy (whose voice is provided by Peter Sarsgaard), then he realizes he has a use for it:  he devises a means to use it to get back into his life’s work, which happens to be burglary.  Debuting director Jake Schreier and screenwriter Christopher D. Ford nicely balance the mild sci-fi with human comedy, and a sharp supporting cast, which includes Susan Sarandon, James Marsden and Liv Tyler, give the great Langella all the room he needs to be wonderful. Fox Tower



‘Killer Joe’ review: a harrowing vision of greed and lust in a trailer park

Matthew McConaughey astounds and disturbs as a hit man preying on a wicked family.

Killer Joe -- Church McConaughey.jpgThomas Haden Church (l.) and Matthew McConaughey in "Killer Joe"
The NC-17 designation was devised by the Motion Picture Association of America to distinguish films with strong and pervasive adult content (read: sex, mostly, and violence) from outright porn, the producers of which had co-opted the similarly restrictive X rating, rendering it meaningless.

In the 22-odd years of its existence, the NC-17 has been slapped on approximately 120 new releases.  Most of them were recut and then resubmitted to the ratings board to obtain R ratings (major movie studios generally won’t release NC-17 titles, and lots of theaters can’t, because of lease restrictions, show them).  A couple dozen, including the likes of “Y Tu Mamá También” and “Requiem for a Dream,” were released unrated, their makers deciding not to cut them but, rather, to distribute them without the scarlet stigma of a restrictive rating.  

A handful of films, though, have gone into theatrical release wearing an NC-17 as a kind of badge of honor, a certification of their resolve to show and deal with themes, images and ideas that other films simply won’t touch.  These include “Henry & June” (the first NC-17 title), “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!,” “Happiness,” “Mysterious Skin,” and, now, “Killer Joe,” an inky dark comedy from director William Friedkin -- who might’ve garnered an NC-17 for “The Exorcist” or “Cruising” if it had existed when he made them.

“Killer Joe” isn’t the most violent movie in theaters right now, nor is it the most sexually provocative or the most profanity-laced.  But it is so focused on the depravity at its heart that watching it is like subjecting yourself to a nightmare that sucks the air slowly from your lungs.  Art of any sort should have the power to make us feel, and while you may not like what “Killer Joe” makes you feel, there is absolutely no denying that it has an effect on you.  It’s far more straightforward, but the only movie I can compare it to for immediate recognition is “Blue Velvet,” and I say that as praise.

The film is based on a play by Tracy Letts which was suggested by the true story of a Florida father and son who hired a hit man to kill their ex-wife/mother so that they could collect a small life insurance policy.  In Letts’ version, the events are moved to a Texas trailer park, the hit man is a police detective, and the greed, lust, callousness and animal stupidity of the characters is plain and unguarded -- base, unfiltered, animal humanity.  That, frankly, is the stuff of art:  Take these people out of their jeans and pickup trucks and give them togas or horse-drawn landaus and it could be a Greek or Jacobean tragedy.

Playing the detective, in a breathtakingly chilly performance that tops a fine year on screen, is Matthew McConaughey, snaky, lascivious, casually violent, wiser by half than the people on whom he’s preying.  Emile Hirsch and Thomas Haden Church are equally good as Chris and Ansel Smith, the avaricious son and father, respectively, and Gina Gershon is raw and convincing as a truly wicked stepmother who helps spark the talk of murder.  In the middle, eerily still, Juno Temple is a strange and compelling blend of the innocent and the oracular as Chris’s sister, Dottie, who is given by the family -- just outright given -- to the hit man in lieu of prepayment for the murder.

Such is the fallen state of our world that reading the story, learning the details, and even imagining how it plays out makes “Killer Joe” seem no more shocking than something you might see on cable TV.  But Friedkin takes two scenes -- a dinner between Joe and Dottie, and another between Joe and the three conspirators -- and turns them into horrorshow scenes of perversity and terror.   There are laughs scattered throughout the film (Letts is a truly darkly funny fellow), but the two dining sequences inside that double-wide blast all the light out of the film.  On the strength of that pair of scenes alone, the film can boast its NC-17 rating like a combat scar.

To talk so much of the ratings board’s classification of “Killer Joe” slights the film somewhat, because it is a tremendously capable and assured work.  Friedkin, who has also directed an adaptation of Letts’s “Bug,” has never been an ostentatious director; rather, in the vein of Howard Hawks or Robert Aldrich, he’s a master craftsman of plain, solid American vernacular.  He has shown some baroque tendencies in the past (off-screen, he actually directs operas, for heaven’s sake!).  But here, as in “The French Connection” and “To Live and Die in L. A.,” he cedes center stage to a very strong cast and a compelling story, while getting captivating work from cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.   

If “Killer Joe” is, finally, too much for certain audiences to stomach, so be it.  In the hands of Letts, Friedkin and this cast, it feels, despairingly, terribly real, and you can’t blame artists for reporting what humans are actually like.


‘Robot & Frank’ review: a curmudgeon warms up to his mechanical pal

Frank Langella is exquisitely dry and crusty as a retiree who devises a unique use for his robotic househelp

Robot & Frank.jpgFrank Langella and chum in "Robot & Frank"
There’s a terrific balance between human comedy and just-this-side-of-science-fiction in “Robot & Frank,” the debut feature of director Jake Schreier and his writing collaborator Christopher D. Ford. 

Frank Langella is splendid as the irascible Frank, a small-town retiree whose absent children have determined that he needs a household robot to manage his diet, medication and lifestyle.  The little white gizmo (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) drives Frank nuts.  But then he is inspired: the obliging robot can help him keep a hand in his life’s work -- which happens to be burglary.  And suddenly Frank has a spring in his step and a purpose to his days.

There are other angles to the story involving the town library (and its librarian, played by Susan Sarandon), and those are nicely handled.  But the chief spectacle here -- and it’s a good one -- is Langella in gruff, curdled mode, an underappreciated master actor slipping seamlessly into a bespoke role.  

Other science fiction spectacles of the summer have offered us mind-boggling technologies, but there really is no better special effect in the movies than a fine actor given a wonderful part.  And for that alone (although it’s not all it offers), “Robot & Frank” is a real treat.


‘Oslo, August 31’ review: a painful, precise day in the life

A rehabbed drug addict traverses his home town in search of a new start in a compellingly quiet film.

Oslo August 31 -- 2.jpgAnders Danielsen Lie in "Oslo, August 31"
The generic quality of the title “Oslo, August 31st” couldn’t be less like the experience of watching the new film from the Norwegian writer-director Joachim Trier. Adapting “The Fire Within,” a 1931 novel by Pierre Dieu La Rochelle (which Louis Malle filmed in 1963), Trier follows his 2006 breakout film “Reprise” with another careful, painful and precise meditation on human desire and confusion.

Anders Danielsen Lie (also of “Reprise”) plays Anders, a journalist who has been given a day’s leave from a suburban drug rehab clinic to interview for a job in the city.  In the span of a day, he visits old friends and colleagues, people-watches at a café, attends a party, meets a girl, reunites with his sister, and stops in at the family home, which his parents are selling.  

The actual incidents sound dry, and Anders isn’t exactly an easy fellow to read.  But the slowness and stillness in the film are, actually, a slow boil, and in Lie’s taciturnity there is pain and even horror.  The world is goes on without him, and the things that he has done to himself and the possibilities that might rise before him are tiny compared to all that is around him.  

That much we all know (or should); the challenge for Anders is to reinsert himself in the quotidian flow of life.  Without a note of sensationalism, Trier makes real drama of the question of whether or not he can do it. In a single day, through a single pair of eyes, Trier and Lie give us an emblem for the world.

(95 min., unrated, probably PG-13, Living Room Theaters) Grade: B-plus

A sleek ‘Cosmopolis,’ a speedy ‘Rush,’ an unreal ‘Imposter’ and more

Reviews of this week's new releases in Portland-area theaters.

Cosmopolis haircut.jpgRobert Pattinson in "Cosmopolis"
A truly hectic week, as evidenced by the number of films to do with cars, bikes and travel.  To wit:  David Cronenberg's dark limo ride, "Cosmopolis"; the bike-messenger-on-the-run picture "Premium Rush"; and the darkly comic chase film "Hit and Run."  We've also got reviews of the culture-clash comedy "2 Days in New York"; the exes-trying-to-stay-friends film "Celeste and Jesse Forever"; and the unbelievable but true crime story "The Imposter."  Plus, like clockwork, "Also Opening," "Indie/Arthouse," "Levy's High Five" and (the newly renamed) "Vintage Views."

Levy’s High Five, August 24 – 30

The five films playing in Portland-area theaters that I'd soonest see again.

The Bourne Legacy 3.jpgJeremy Renner in "The Bourne Legacy"

1) "Beasts of the Southern Wild" A dreamy and joyous film about life, death, hope, dreams and wonder on an island in the Mississippi Delta. The miraculous young Quevezhané Wallis stars as Hushpuppy, a wee girl who experiences life in the feral community known as the Bathtub as a stream of wonder and delight, even though her dad (Dwight Henry) is gruff, her mom is absent and a killer storm is bearing down on her home. Writer-director Behn Zeitlin, in his feature debut, combines poetry and audacity in ways that recall Terrence Malick, but with a light and spry touch. Still, all his great work pales in comparison to the stupendous little Wallis, whom you'll never forget. Hollywood, Living Room, Tigard

2) "Moonrise Kingdom" Wes Anderson films are such a specific taste that I'm a bit hesitant to suggest that this might be his most approachable (but surely not crowd-pleasing) work. In the wake of the delightful "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," Anderson returns to live-action and his familiar tics and habits in a tale of young (as in 'pre-teen') lovers on the run. Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward fill the lead roles delightfully, and Anderson's muses Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman are joined ably by Edward Norton, Bruce Willis and Frances McDormand, among others. It's a light and breezy film with a very sweet heart and old-fashioned sturdiness. Even if you were left puzzled by the likes of "Rushmore" or "The Royal Tenenbaums" (still his best non-animated films, for me), this is likely to win you over. multiple locations

3) "The Bourne Legacy" A dense, slick and thrilling spy movie that's got as much brain power as brawn. Writer-director Tony Gilroy ("Michael Clayton") turns the trilogy of films about Jason Bourne into the story of Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), another souped-up intelligence operative on the run from the secretive organizations which built him. The film cleverly integrates the story of the previous three, but stands alone as a gripping story about a man trying to extend the only life that he has come to know and depending on a geneticist (Rachel Weisz) and his own abilities to stay alive. From the complex narrative to the thrilling final half-hour, it's top shelf stuff. multiple locations

4) “Searching for Sugar Man” A truly remarkable documentary that demonstrates how big and how small this world of ours can be.  Rodriguez was a Detroit singer-songwriter whose poetic and soulful music deserved a much bigger career than the little blip it experienced in the early ‘70s.  But, in fact, that bigger career did  exist: in South Africa, where Rodriguez was a huge star and didn’t know it.  So obscure was Rodriguez in his homeland, in fact, that his overseas fans long believed he had killed himself in an baroque onstage apocalypse.  The Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul tracks this amazing history and then witnesses a third act that you simply have to see to believe.  Mind-blowing, heartwarming and true. Fox Tower 

5) “ParaNorman” The second feature from Portland’s Laika Entertainment is, like 2009’s “Coraline,” a gorgeously crafted stop-motion animation that blends a creepy tale with an impish wit, resulting in a smashing entertainment for tweens and their chaperones.  The focus is Norman, a boy whose ability to talk with ghosts is, unbeknownst to him, part of his legacy as a necromancer who must appease a witch whom his town elders executed lest she wreak havoc on the place.  With rich jokes about horror movies and teen angst, impeccable handmade craft, and nicely dense 3-D, it’s a pleasure throughout, even, I suspect, if you’re not rooting for your hometown team. multiple locations


‘Cosmopolis’ review: a sleek and airless limo ride with a cipher

David Cronenberg's adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel is an exquisitely built torture machine -- for its protagonist and, perhaps, for its viewers.

Cosmopolis gun.jpgPaul Giamatti (l.) and Robert Pattinson in "Cosmopolis"
There’s a fearlessness knit into the very core of David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” that you cannot help but admire, even if the film finally pushes you away.  It’s a movie of ideas, of talk, of resistance to the norm.  Even within the context of Cronenberg’s knotty oeuvre (think how dense and oblique he’s been in, oh, “A Dangerous Method,” “Crash” or “Naked Lunch”), this film is a tough sell.  But it’s never less than daring, poised or deliberate.  It doesn’t go down easy, but it clings.

The film, based on a Don DeLillo novel, is an odyssey through the streets of Manhattan in the back of a custom-built limousine.  Our protagonist, Eric Packer, is a young titan of finance whose empire is crumbling based on his misreading of global markets just as his psyche is unraveling because of his failure to connect coherently or significantly with anyone in his life.  

One by one, employees, lovers, doctors, and bodyguards enter his opulent world (or, in the case of his strangely remote wife, he hers), with each encounter serving to confuse or vex Packer further.  Under a credible threat of violence, through streets choked by anarchist rioters, a funeral cortege for a rap star, and a presidential visit to New York, Packer insists on being driven to his old neighborhood for a haircut.  It is, of course, also a rendezvous with meaning, fate, identity.

For Cronenberg, the sleek limo with its plush, high tech interior is a physical space, a mental space, an object of fetish, a challenge in filmmaking.  Sitting in the rear of his car like a paranoid king, amid moody lights and information-spewing screens, heavily guarded and yet desperate enough to step out into the world unprotected, Packer is like a film director who has lost control of a production.  Cronenberg invests his protagonist with an air of power and authority, but he constantly shifts perspectives on him; we never feel that Packer is fully settled, safe, or certain.  And eventually the dread that he feels creeps into the viewer.

In the center of this paranoid parade, Cronenberg has placed Robert Pattinson, the English heartthrob best known for the “Twilight” films.  He’s credible as a New Yorker, less so as a business genius, least of all as a man of iron will.  If he’s meant to be uncomfortably weak, as many of Stanley Kubrick’s protagonists were, it’s a successful bit of casting.  But that would undermine Packer’s status as a villain, so there’s a bit of a problem at the core of the film.  

There’s a problem at the end, too, when Packer’s journey ends in a muddled debate with the man who has been threatening him.  That encounter is one of a series that range from steamy (Juliette Binoche, Emily Hampshire), to creepy (Samantha Morton, Gouchy Boy), to icy (Sarah Gadon, playing Packer’s wife), to frantic (Jay Baruchel) to farcical (Mathieu Amalric).  They don’t quite add up as narrative, but they do create a series of moods that accumulate an increasing sense of despair and hopelessness -- which, too, is stifling.

It’s a credit to Cronenberg’s sheer strength as an artist that he makes “Cosmopolis” compelling:  Packer, after all, is a creep who lacks the magnetism of, oh, Gordon Gekko, and yet we are magnetized through force of craft and a sense of mystery at the heart of the film.  The journey on which he takes us may not satisfy in the ways we normally ask of movies, but if it did it wouldn’t be a Cronenberg, would it?
(108 min., R, Fox Tower) Grade: B-minus


‘The Imposter’ review: a story of personal identity too crazy not to be true

A man poses as a missing boy, even though he's nothing like him, and pulls off the hoax with the boy's family.

The Imposter.pngFrederic Bourdin in "The Imposter"
From the very start of “The Imposter,” we know that Frederic Bourdin is 1) a real person and 2) a fake; that is, he’s a con artist.  He himself tells us so.  

But director Bart Layton’s film takes us to such strange and emotionally-charged places that we cannot believe that what we’re seeing is real, even though it demonstrably is.

Some facts: In 1997, Bourdin was found by police in Spain, and, when they demanded to know who he was, claimed to be Nicholas Barclay, a teenager from San Antonio, Texas, who went missing three years earlier.  Disposed to believe him, Spanish authorities contacted their counterparts in Texas, who called the Barclay family, who had long believed the worst about their missing boy.  Naturally, they were elated.

Nicholas’s sisterflew to Spain for the remarkable reunion, and even though she was confronted with a brown eyed man with a Mediterranean accent, rather than blue-eyed, Texas-drawling Nicholas, she accepted Bourdin as her brother.  She took him home, where the whole family embraced him, if somewhat tentatively, and he proceeded to integrate himself into normal life before having the truth revealed by a private investigator working for a tabloid TV show.

It’s an astounding story, truly, and Bourdin is the most chillingly sympathetic sociopath: frank, remorseless, matter-of-fact.  He’s kind of a titanic figure, easily capable of carrying a whole film.  It’s a shame, then, that Layton takes us on a macabre wild goose chase for the truth about the disappearance of Nicholas Barclay, distracting us, for the most part, from an appropriate sense of outrage toward his central figure.  Bourdin is a heel, but, like so many people over the years, “The Imposter” lets him slip, by and large, away. 
(95 min., R, Cinema 21) Grade: B

‘2 Days in New York’ review: so I married a French woman

Visiting relations turn a Manhattan couple's life into utter chaos, comically.

2 Days in New York.jpgChris Rock (l.) and Albert Delpy in "2 Days in New York"
Slight but winning, “2 Days in New York” is a comedy about ambition and cultural conflict starring, directed by and co-written by Julie Delpy, which rather makes it an example of some of its themes.

As in “2 Days in Paris,” which she also handmade, as it were, Delpy plays a French artist with an American beau who comes into conflict with her French family.  This time, Chris Rock is the fella,  a journalist and radio talk show host, and, once again, Delpy’s actual dad, Albert, plays her cinematic père, Alexia Landeau plays her sister, and Alexandre Nahon plays her sister’s boyfriend.

During a weekend in Manhattan when both Delpy and Rock have big career moments pending, the visiting French relations create good-humored havoc with the neighbors, with bosses, with shopkeepers, and so on.  It’s a predictable sort of humor, but it’s played with intelligence, wit, charm and, blissfully, very little pretense.  

In its final movement the film forces itself a bit much, venturing into screwball comedy territory when it had been more like a slice-of-life before that.  But by then you may well be won over and agree that “2 Days in New York” compresses a mad weekend nicely into 90 or so minutes.


‘Premium Rush’ review: heck on wheels

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is riding against the clock and a dirty cop in an energetic, if ordinary, thriller.

Premium Rush.jpgJoseph Gordon-Levitt in "Premium Rush"
“Premium Rush” is a rather routine thriller that’s got two things going for it: the ticking of a clock and the clickety-click of bicycle wheels.  Both impart a sense of exhilaration to a thin and even silly story, engaging you when, really, you ought to know better.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Wilee, a hotshot Manhattan bike messenger who rides a fixie like a bat out of hell.  One afternoon he makes a pickup and winds up with a dirty cop (Michael Shannon) on his tail.  There are subplots concerning Wilee’s girlfriend (Dania Ramirez) and the urgency of the delivery (it’s to do with a Chinese underground economy and illegal immigration).  But chiefly it’s a race against time -- and against cops on two wheels and on four -- on a bike.

Director and co-writer David Koepp (“The Trigger Effect,” “Stir of Echoes”) is wise enough to get out of the way, for the most part, sticking to chase sequences and stopping occasionally (maybe too often) for an expository flashback.  He allows Shannon to go a bit overboard, and he doesn’t get much out of Gordon-Levitt save his innate charm.  But the film doesn’t reach too high, and it keeps you involved so long as it keeps moving, which is most of the time.
(91 min., PG-13, multiple locations) Grade: B-minus


‘Hit and Run’ review: a raucous, crude and funny chase film

Dax Shepard writes, directs and stars, with real-life girlfriend Kristen Bell, as a man with a past on the run.

Hit & Run.jpgKristen Bell and Dax Shepard in "Hit and Run"
Spirited and saucy, “Hit and Run” is a small movie with big spirit, a Tarantino-ish sensibility, and a scattergun ethos that results in more hits than misses.  It’s continually funny and surprisingly tenderhearted, so much so that even when it runs into dead ends and confusions you stay with it.

Dax Shepard, who wrote and co-directs, stars as Charlie Bronson, a mystery man living in the witness protection program in rural California with his girlfriend, Annie (Shepard’s real-life sweetie, Kristen Bell.) When Annie gets a job opportunity in Los Angeles, Charlie determines to help her get there, even though it’s the most dangerous place in the world for him.  And the danger has been heightened by Annie’s jealous ex, who forces Charlie to reveal his true identity and deal with his past.

Along the way, there are outlandish visual and verbal jokes, fistfights and car chases, and some unexpected cameos (including a quite funny performance by Bradley Cooper as a gangster).  It can get sloppy and silly and gratuitous at times, but “Hit and Run” never feels tired.  Its energy and verve overcome its misfires.
(99 min., R, multiple locations) Grade: B


An animated ‘ParaNorman,’ a lost ‘Sugar Man’ and a wee bit more

Reviews of this week's new releases in Portland-area theaters.

ParaNorman van.jpg"ParaNorman"
The widest national release this torrid weekend is "ParaNorman," which is, of course, of special interest to Portlanders as it's the second film by our local gang of animation wizards, Laika Entertainment.  We've got a review, an interview with directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell, a brief history of stop-motion animation, the technique in which the film was made, and a roundup of other reactions.  We've also got a review of the remarkable musical documentary, "Searching for Sugar Man," the less you know about going in the better, frankly.  Plus:  "Also Opening," "Indie/Arthouse," "Levy's High Five" and "Retro-a-Gogo."  Much more next week.

Levy’s High Five, August 17 – 23

The five films playing in Portland-area theaters that I'd soonest see again.

Searching for Sugar Man 2.jpg"Searching for Sugar Man"

1) "Beasts of the Southern Wild" A dreamy and joyous film about life, death, hope, dreams and wonder on an island in the Mississippi Delta. The miraculous young Quevezhané Wallis stars as Hushpuppy, a wee girl who experiences life in the feral community known as the Bathtub as a stream of wonder and delight, even though her dad (Dwight Henry) is gruff, her mom is absent and a killer storm is bearing down on her home. Writer-director Behn Zeitlin, in his feature debut, combines poetry and audacity in ways that recall Terrence Malick, but with a light and spry touch. Still, all his great work pales in comparison to the stupendous little Wallis, whom you'll never forget. Cinema 21, Tigard

2) "Moonrise Kingdom" Wes Anderson films are such a specific taste that I'm a bit hesitant to suggest that this might be his most approachable (but surely not crowd-pleasing) work. In the wake of the delightful "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," Anderson returns to live-action and his familiar tics and habits in a tale of young (as in 'pre-teen') lovers on the run. Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward fill the lead roles delightfully, and Anderson's muses Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman are joined ably by Edward Norton, Bruce Willis and Frances McDormand, among others. It's a light and breezy film with a very sweet heart and old-fashioned sturdiness. Even if you were left puzzled by the likes of "Rushmore" or "The Royal Tenenbaums" (still his best non-animated films, for me), this is likely to win you over. multiple locations

3) "The Bourne Legacy" A dense, slick and thrilling spy movie that's got as much brain power as brawn. Writer-director Tony Gilroy ("Michael Clayton") turns the trilogy of films about Jason Bourne into the story of Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), another souped-up intelligence operative on the run from the secretive organizations which built him. The film cleverly integrates the story of the previous three, but stands alone as a gripping story about a man trying to extend the only life that he has come to know and depending on a geneticist (Rachel Weisz) and his own abilities to stay alive. From the complex narrative to the thrilling final half-hour, it's top shelf stuff. multiple locations

4) “Searching for Sugar Man” A truly remarkable documentary that demonstrates how big and how small this world of ours can be.  Rodriguez was a Detroit singer-songwriter whose poetic and soulful music deserved a much bigger career than the little blip it experienced in the early ‘70s.  But, in fact, that bigger career did  exist: in South Africa, where Rodriguez was a huge star and didn’t know it.  So obscure was Rodriguez in his homeland, in fact, that his overseas fans long believed he had killed himself in an baroque onstage apocalypse.  The Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul tracks this amazing history and then witnesses a third act that you simply have to see to believe.  Mind-blowing, heartwarming and true. Fox Tower 

5) “ParaNorman” The second feature from Portland’s Laika Entertainment is, like 2009’s “Coraline,” a gorgeously crafted stop-motion animation that blends a creepy tale with an impish wit, resulting in a smashing entertainment for tweens and their chaperones.  The focus is Norman, a boy whose ability to talk with ghosts is, unbeknownst to him, part of his legacy as a necromancer who must appease a witch whom his town elders executed lest she wreak havoc on the place.  With rich jokes about horror movies and teen angst, impeccable handmade craft, and nicely dense 3-D, it’s a pleasure throughout, even, I suspect, if you’re not rooting for your hometown team. multiple locations


‘ParaNorman’: the reviews start to roll in, and they’re good ‘uns

The second feature by Portland's Laika Entertainment garners kudos. And now we wait for the boxoffice results....

ParaNorman skull.jpg"ParaNorman"
So I've already weighed in on "ParaNorman," the delightful and beautifully made new film from the stop-motion animation wizards at Laika Entertainment, and I thought I'd surf the old intertubes and see what my colleagues are saying.

Over at MetaCritic, the film currently gets a 69 rating (out of 100, which means the low side of "go see it").  At Rotten Tomatoes, it's currently pulling an 82 (again, out of 100).  The two sites differ in that MetaCritic reads reviews, assigns them a number grade and then uses a secret formula to derive the final score; RT simply sees a review as a thumb-up  or thumb-down and counts them all accordingly, arriving at a percentage. It's a pretty good start, although still early; by this time Friday, I expect nearly 175 reviews to be up at RT and 45 or more at MetaCritic.

It's not the wall-to-wall raves enjoyed by Laika's 2009 debut, "Coraline," but it's good news. In all, like me, folks are more enamored of the filmmaking -- the handmade puppets, the painstaking animation, the 3-D, the voice talents -- than the script and story.  But few people, if any, are outright hostile (though some do wonder about whether the film is appropriate for pre-tweens).

Here are some passages to ponder:

"'ParNorman,'a dark and slightly dotty 3-D fable about a boy who communes with the dearly and not so dearly departed, sometimes gets a little out of hand, especially at the end. Even so, it may be the most fun you'll have with ghosts and zombies all year." -- Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times

"Far more than Norman’s adventure, which takes him from home to a cemetery and deep into his town’s history, what pulls you in, quickening your pulse and widening your eyes, are the myriad visual enchantments — from the rich, nubby tactility of his clothes to the skull-and-bones adorning his bedroom wallpaper. When Norman pauses while brushing his teeth to make a scary face in the mirror, the foamy toothpaste dripping like zombie drool, you may find yourself tapping into your own inner monster and goofily grinning right back." -- Manohla Dargis, New York Times

"Unlike 'Coraline,' which focused intently on the childhood terror of suspecting your parents may not be who they seem to be, the story of ParaNorman sprawls in a dozen directions. There are zombie attacks (mostly funny, rarely scary), teenage antics (the kids drive around in a van that bears a faint resemblance to Scooby-Doo’s Mystery Machine) and a third-act revelation that changes the tone of the film from spooky to beautiful, gentle tragedy. None of this is all that engaging. But the art design of the movie makes up for the slack story." -- Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald

"What works about "ParaNorman" is its subtle interweave of the stoical and the heroic. The voice work is inspired, without a lot of theatrical flourish. The low-key musical score by Jon Brion, one of the year's best, teases out the macabre humor in each new challenge faced by Norman. For all their painstaking detail, I never much took to the Tim Burton universe of stop-motion,"The Nightmare Before Christmas"or "Corpse Bride." But "Coraline" and "ParaNorman" are several steps up in terms of ... well, everything that makes a film successful and interesting. The stories seduce rather than bully. The throwaway gags are choice....And despite a heavy-going and not-great final 20 minutes, "ParaNorman" gets you in Norman's corner and keeps you there." -- Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

"Like many of the Amblin' films of the '80s, "ParaNorman" has a kid as the protagonist, but the film doesn't speak down to its audience.  Instead, it tells a sometimes sad, often scary story about perception and institutionalized lies and the things that we are driven to do by fear, and it treats all of its characters, even the most cartoonish of them, with respect.  Whatever I expected from the film, it wasn't something this smart and mature." -- Drew McWeeny, HitFix

The most negative review so far has come from Marshall Fine, the longtime Gannett newspapers critic who now plies his trade at his own web site.  Even in dismissing the film, though, Fine declares appeaciation for the filmmaking:

"Directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler from a script by Butler, “ParaNorman” is a marvel of stop-motion animation, built on a script of flat jokes and frantic, frenetic but uninvolving action. It wants to be a horror comedy, but the horror is mild-mannered and the comedy never ignites." -- Marshall Fine, Hollywood and Fine



‘ParaNorman’ review: brilliant craft and impish wit make for a charming horror tale

The second feature from Portland's Laika Entertainment is a grand romp for tweens -- and for those who appreciate fabulous filmmaking.

ParaNorman sunset.jpg"ParaNorman"
For its second feature film, Portland’s Laika Entertainment once again combines brilliantly crafted stop-motion animation with a cheekily dark tale to create a fabulous entertainment.  

“ParaNorman,” based on an original script by co-director Chris Butler, is the story of Norman Babcock, a small town boy who’s ostracized by everyone, including his family, because he claims (truthfully, as it turns out) to be able to talk with the dead.  It turns out that the town is, unknowingly, living under a curse cast centuries ago by a girl whom the Puritan founders burned as a witch.  Norman, it happens, is descended from a line of necromancers who are able to soothe the spirit of the witch to sleep and stay her from her vengeance.  But Norman doesn’t learn about his powers until it may be too late to stop the witch from wreaking heck.

Butler and his co-director Sam Fell have terrific fun with this material, using it as a springboard to poke fun at the conventions of horror movies, at school-age trauma, at modern family life.  The film is filled with gleeful humor aimed at tweens, spiced with just the right degree of horror to engage kids who’ve outgrown their “Goosebumps” books but are still too young for slasher films.  So few movies are pitched appropriately at kids (especially boys) in this age group that it’s a pleasure to see one at all, let alone one done well.  On the level of storytelling alone, “ParaNorman” is a delight.

But being, like Laika’s first film, 2009’s “Coraline,” a work of stop-motion animation, “ParaNorman” is at least as much about its texture as its story.  Butler, Fell and company have built a comically grotesque world of pear-shaped dads, muscle-headed quarterbacks, feral bullies, lumpy teachers and rubbery zombies amid whom Norman, with his affection for horror movies and nerdy mien, seems positively normal.  The tiny sets are brimming with witty details, the motion of characters and objects is rendered with flawless fluidity, the 3-D depth adds layers of richness, and the occasional computerized effects are meted out judiciously.  In its technique, “Coraline” was a genuine work of art, and “ParaNorman” succeeds it worthily in that regard.

Witty, too is the vocal work.  Kodi Smit-McPhee (“The Road”) gives Norman the appropriately exasperated tone, rising toward a struggle between his heroic and frightened sides as the film moves along.  Beside him, Tucker Albrizzi is a fondly dim best friend, Christopher Mintz-Plasse makes a fine feral bully, Casey Affleck is particularly funny as a high school hunk, and Anna Kendrick is snippy and shallow as Norman’s older sister.

Being an entertainment aimed at those still of school age, “ParaNorman” is almost obliged to have a moral, and perhaps it’s guilty of banging on its theme that we should be accepting of those who are different from the rest of us a bit heavily.  But the overall cheekiness of the film far outweighs its preachy moments.  For the most part, it’s a brisk, funny and engaging movie that does genuinely exciting things with little bits of string and wire and such.  In a sense, stop-motion animation is the purest form of moviemaking, and this is a fine example of the genre, as well as another reason to be proud of the home team at Laika.
(93 min., PG, multiple locations) Grade: B-plus


‘Bourne’ reborn, a scorched-earth ‘Campaign,’ a slow ‘Hara-Kiri’ and more

Reviews of this week's new releases in Portland-area theaters.

The Bourne Legacy 3.jpgJeremy Renner in "The Bourne Legacy"
A nicely varied selection for this getting-near-the-end-of-summer-movie-season weekend.  We've got reviews of Jeremy Renner as a spy in "The Bourne Legacy," Zach Galifianakis and Will Ferrell as political enemies in "The Campaign," Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as long-marrieds in "Hope Springs," and the French World War II drama "La Rafle."  And you know we've got "Also Opening," "Indie/Arthouse," "Levy's High Five" and "Retro-a-Gogo."  Enjoy!

Levy’s High Five, August 10 – 16

The five films playing in Portland-area theaters that I'd soonest see again.

Beasts of the Southern Wild"Beasts of the Southern Wild"

1) "Beasts of the Southern Wild" A dreamy and joyous film about life, death, hope, dreams and wonder on an island in the Mississippi Delta. The miraculous young Quevezhané Wallis stars as Hushpuppy, a wee girl who experiences life in the feral community known as the Bathtub as a stream of wonder and delight, even though her dad (Dwight Henry) is gruff, her mom is absent and a killer storm is bearing down on her home. Writer-director Behn Zeitlin, in his feature debut, combines poetry and audacity in ways that recall Terrence Malick, but with a light and spry touch. Still, all his great work pales in comparison to the stupendous little Wallis, whom you'll never forget. multiple locations

2) "Moonrise Kingdom" Wes Anderson films are such a specific taste that I'm a bit hesitant to suggest that this might be his most approachable (but surely not crowd-pleasing) work. In the wake of the delightful "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," Anderson returns to live-action and his familiar tics and habits in a tale of young (as in 'pre-teen') lovers on the run. Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward fill the lead roles delightfully, and Anderson's muses Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman are joined ably by Edward Norton, Bruce Willis and Frances McDormand, among others. It's a light and breezy film with a very sweet heart and old-fashioned sturdiness. Even if you were left puzzled by the likes of "Rushmore" or "The Royal Tenenbaums" (still his best non-animated films, for me), this is likely to win you over. multiple locations

3) "The Bourne Legacy" A dense, slick and thrilling spy movie that's got as much brain power as brawn. Writer-director Tony Gilroy ("Michael Clayton") turns the trilogy of films about Jason Bourne into the story of Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), another souped-up intelligence operative on the run from the secretive organizations which built him. The film cleverly integrates the story of the previous three, but stands alone as a gripping story about a man trying to extend the only life that he has come to know and depending on a geneticist (Rachel Weisz) and his own abilities to stay alive. From the complex narrative to the thrilling final half-hour, it's top shelf stuff. multiple locations

4) "The Story of Film: An Odyssey" Irish filmmaker Mark Cousins has gumption, all right. He has crafted a 15-hour tour through the century-plus of cinema, all over the world, filled with cranky opinions, beguiling finds, glimpses of forgotten history and interviews with accomplished masters. Starting with Edison and the Lumière brothers and ranging to the modern day, touching on all continents, this is an informative, enlightening and remarkably entertaining history, in the vein of Martin Scorsese's "A Personal Journey Through American Film." Cousin's epic screens throughout August in five three-hour chunks, starting this weekend. This week's bit deals with the rise of the Hollywood studio in the 1930s and the international explosion of vital cinema after World War II. Visit the Northwest Film Center, which is presenting, for full details.

5) "Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry" A documentary that feels as current as a news alert on your smart phone. American director Alison Klayman was granted remarkable access to the famed Chinese artist and activist Ai WeiWei, peering into his atelier and private life and traveling with him to exhibitions in Europe and public-interest investigations in Sichuan. She reveals a robust, lusty, bold, and playful spirit, a man with voracious appetites, fearless convictions, and a spry aesthetic. The film goes backward to tell the story of Ai's father, a noted poet crushed in the Cultural Revolution, and takes us to the brink of Ai's 2011 arrest on charges of tax evasion -- a matter which has only been (partly) resolved this summer. An invigorating and intimate portrait. Living Room Theaters

‘The Bourne Legacy’ review: a spy — and a movie franchise — finds thrilling new life

A new star and a new plot line are grafted onto the hit film series, and the result is exhilarating.

The Bourne Legacy 2.jpgRachel Weisz and Jeremy Renner in "The Bourne Legacy"
“The Bourne Legacy” is an absolute crackerjack entertainment: smart, taut, sleek, tense and unrelenting -- an ideal action movie and a truly exemplary sequel.

Tony Gilroy, who wrote the first three “Bourne” films, co-writes here (with his brother, Dan) and directs, as he did on the superb “Michael Clayton” and the underrated “Duplicity.” And he pulls off several impressive feats.

For one, he manages to move the “Bourne” series away from its initial star, Matt Damon, to a new protagonist, Aaron Cross  (played by Jeremy Renner), in one of the most audacious and clever strategies I’ve ever seen.  A fair bit of “Legacy” actually overlaps with 2007’s “The Bourne Ultimatum” -- characters, plot lines, actual scenes -- so that, in effect, the new film dovetails into the old, creating a vivid sense of continuity.

Gilroy also expands his palate as director impressively, following Doug Liman, who launched the series, and Paul Greengrass, who made the energetic second and third entries, in mounting explosive and gripping action sequences. Lots of films ratchet up into non-stop kinetics in their final acts and lose coherence, both as storytelling and as cinema. “Legacy” maintains a very high level of craft and accomplishment in both, and Gilroy proves himself more capable of choreographing massive action sequences than a lot of folks who make them for a living.

Chiefly, though, “Legacy” places the “Bourne” movies on a par with the James Bond films as a franchise big and sturdy enough to absorb a change of protagonist without losing punch or momentum. The “Bourne”-iverse is more political, more human-scale, more vulnerable, and more paranoid than the world of Bond. But the films themselves are every bit as juicy and intense.

“Legacy” starts with two plot threads: Cross is out in the wilds of Alaska on a survival-course test that turns into something more than that while bureaucrats in Washington and New York confront the potential scandal that will hit them if Jason Bourne and his story become known.  

A decision is made to wipe out all of the operatives who, like Bourne and Cross, have been genetically altered into super-human agents. Cross survives and then, fearing that the physical and mental enhancements that turned him from a wounded simpleton to an ubermensch are temporary, makes his way to Maryland to track down the scientist (Rachel Weisz) who helped transform him.  All the while, cold-blooded governmental operators (led by Edward Norton and Stacy Keach), are trying to eradicate him and all evidence of the program in which he participated.

The script makes absolutely no concessions to explanation, prologue or backstory. If you don’t know exactly what’s going on at the start, you might never find out.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it.  Just bear in mind that many, many bad guys -- some of them in elective office -- are out to kill off the one good guy, and you’ve got your bearings.  And after that, hold on for a heck of a ride.  The action sequences in Alaska, in a large house in Maryland, and in the streets and alleys of Manila are tremendous white-knuckle thrill rides.

Renner conveys human pathos beneath the potentially robotic veneer of the enhanced Cross, much as Damon infused Bourne with confusion and fear.  Especially compelling is a sequence in which, before his treatment, he’s a maimed dope agreeing to dangerous experimental treatment.  Weisz and Norton are sharp-minded and steely-willed on different sides of the chase, and there are appearances by a number of performers (including “Bourne” veterans Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, and Albert Finney) who enrich the milieu and give weight to even the smallest moments.

There’s real fire in “Legacy,” but there’s human frailty and desperation, too, which is something that the Bond films have never had.  It doesn’t exactly offer lightness, and it can be exhausting to keep up with.  But there is no doubt that the “Bourne” series is in good hands or that the handoff from Jason Bourne to Aaron Cross has been successfully achieved.  The result is a newly revived spy movie franchise -- and the best big-budget action film of the summer.

(126 min., PG-13, multiple locations) Grade: B-plus

‘The Campaign’ review: political animal planet

A crude comedy takes aim at the fallen state of American politics with scattershot results.

The Campaign.jpgZach Galifianakis and Will Ferrell in "The Campaign"
A fitfully funny mishmash of political satire and bawdy humor, “The Campaign” is an assault on the contemporary plagues of crooked electoral financing, issue-free political debate and credulous, sensationalist media.  Alas, it mixes its most damning barbs willy-nilly with frathouse humor and softens the whole thing with saccharine Hollywood storytelling.  The result is that some surprisingly biting commentary is lost amid predictable piffle.

Will Ferrell stars as Cam Brady, a smarmy Republican congressman whose professed values contrast starkly with his actual professional and personal lives. He’s running unopposed for a fifth term, but when a sex scandal hits, his financial backers, the billionaire Motch brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow), decide to stake a darkhorse candidate against him.  They recruit Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), a well-meaning weirdo who sees the campaign as a chance to do good for his hometown. Little does he know, though, that the Motch brothers have darker plans.

The Motches, of course, are meant to be the Koch brothers, who have financially backed the Tea Party and a variety of super PACs.  But this film barely lays a finger on them; Aykroyd and Lithgow are cardboard villains with less life in them than, oh, Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy in “Trading Places” (in which Aykroyd played, more or less, the Cam Brady character).

Similarly, the various attack ads and faux pas that the two candidates engage are occasionally hilarious (Ferrell and Galifianakis haven’t so resembled actual living humans in a screen comedy in years, which helps).  But wrapping the whole thing in a sentimental ending turns it into a fraud.  “The Campaign” might have been truly -- and appropriately -- scabrous in other hands; those of the “South Park” guys or Mike Judge, say.  But director Jay Roach and writers Shawn Harwell and Chris Henchy play it safe and down the middle.  No actual political contributors or candidates need fear harm.

(A final sidenote:  a truly despicable thing occurs throughout the film, namely the repeated use of CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer appearing as himself and reporting on the events of the script as if they were real.  He’s joined by others -- Chris Matthews and the “Morning Joe” gang from MSNBC, most often.  But Blitzer is supposed to be a serious journalist, not an opinion-monger.  He has no place in something like this -- or, more to the point, on the air afterwards as a trustworthy disseminator of facts.)
    
(90 min., R, multiple locations) Grade: B-minus


‘Hara-Kiri’ review: tale of samurai honor played as a slow burn

Takashi Miike's 3-D samurai movie is darker and slower than you might hope.

Hara Kiri.jpgEbizo Ichikawa in "Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai"
Peacetime in feudal Japan means little work for samurai, and various ronin -- samurai without masters -- have begun to show up at great houses to request honorable places to commit suicide.  

Many of these desperate fellows are dead serious. Others, though, hope to be offered jobs, or just a meal and some pocket money.  These ‘suicide-bluffs’ have become a scourge, and when a bedraggled samurai shows up at the house of Lord Ii to request the honor of killing himself there, he is warned away by the story of the fate imposed on another man who made the same request in bad faith.  And he, in turn, has a story to tell.

This is the plot of Takashi Miike’s “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai,” based on a 1962 movie, “Harakiri,” which was, in turn, based on a novel by Yasuhiko Takiguchi. Unlike previous Miike films, such as “Audition” and, especially, “13 Assassins,” “Hara-Kiri” is low on blood and shock, emphasizing performance and atmosphere.

That can be a positive, in that Ebizo Ichikawa brings a rich sense of dignity, pain and quiet fury to his role as the desperate samurai.  But much of the power the dark, looming, poignant air of the film is lost in the 3-D in which Miike shoots it and the dark glasses the technology requires.  That, combined with the deliberately slow pace, make the somber “Hara-Kiri” drag when it really ought to kick.
    
(125 min., unrated, probably PG-13, Living Room Theaters) Grade: B-minus


A ‘Recall’ reboot, a clueless ‘Queen,’ an ‘Ai Weiwei’ portrait and much more

Reviews of this week's new releases in Portland-area theaters.

Total recall 2012 2.jpgColin Farrell in "Total Recall"
Last week, the opening of the Olympics seemed to scare new films out of opening in theaters.  This weekend, we've got a massive haul of new stuff.  Towit: the scifi remake "Total Recall"; the dark romantic fantasy "Ruby Sparks"; the art world documentary "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry"; the epic movie history "The Story of Film"; the rich folks gone bad documentary "The Queen of Versailles"; the French historical drama "Farewell, My Queen"; the Danish gross-out comedy "Klown"; and the dreary psychic-investigation thriller "Red Lights."  And beyond that we have "Also Opening," "Indie/Arthouse," "Levy's High Five," and "Retro-a-Gogo."

Levy’s High Five, August 3 – 9

The five films playing in Portland-area theaters that I'd soonest see again.

Moonrise Kingdom kids.jpgKara Hayward and Jared Gilman (and Jason Schwartzman's head) in "Moonrise Kingdom"

1) "Beasts of the Southern Wild" A dreamy and joyous film about life, death, hope, dreams and wonder on an island in the Mississippi Delta. The miraculous young Quevezhané Wallis stars as Hushpuppy, a wee girl who experiences life in the feral community known as the Bathtub as a stream of wonder and delight, even though her dad (Dwight Henry) is gruff, her mom is absent and a killer storm is bearing down on her home. Writer-director Behn Zeitlin, in his feature debut, combines poetry and audacity in ways that recall Terrence Malick, but with a light and spry touch. Still, all his great work pales in comparison to the stupendous little Wallis, whom you'll never forget. Cinema 21, Kiggins

2) "Moonrise Kingdom" Wes Anderson films are such a specific taste that I'm a bit hesitant to suggest that this might be his most approachable (but surely not crowd-pleasing) work. In the wake of the delightful "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," Anderson returns to live-action and his familiar tics and habits in a tale of young (as in 'pre-teen') lovers on the run. Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward fill the lead roles delightfully, and Anderson's muses Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman are joined ably by Edward Norton, Bruce Willis and Frances McDormand, among others. It's a light and breezy film with a very sweet heart and old-fashioned sturdiness. Even if you were left puzzled by the likes of "Rushmore" or "The Royal Tenenbaums" (still his best non-animated films, for me), this is likely to win you over. multiple locations

3) "The Story of Film: An Odyssey" Irish filmmaker Mark Cousins has gumption, all right. He has crafted a 15-hour tour through the century-plus of cinema, all over the world, filled with cranky opinions, beguiling finds, glimpses of forgotten history and interviews with accomplished masters. Starting with Edison and the Lumière brothers and ranging to the modern day, touching on all continents, this is an informative, enlightening and remarkably entertaining history, in the vein of Martin Scorsese's "A Personal Journey Through American Film." Cousin's epic screens throughout August in five three-hour chunks, starting this weekend. Visit the Northwest Film Center, which is presenting, for full details.

4) "Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry" A documentary that feels as current as a news alert on your smart phone. American director Alison Klayman was granted remarkable access to the famed Chinese artist and activist Ai WeiWei, peering into his atelier and private life and traveling with him to exhibitions in Europe and public-interest investigations in Sichuan. She reveals a robust, lusty, bold, and playful spirit, a man with voracious appetites, fearless convictions, and a spry aesthetic. The film goes backward to tell the story of Ai's father, a noted poet crushed in the Cultural Revolution, and takes us to the brink of Ai's 2011 arrest on charges of tax evasion -- a matter which has only been (partly) resolved this summer. An invigorating and intimate portrait. Living Room Theaters

5) "Bernie”  It’s a term of deep praise to note that writer-director Richard Linklater (deepbreath: “Slacker,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” “Waking Life,” “School of Rock”) is capable more than any contemporary American filmmaker of making terrific movies about nearly nothing.  Here, working with a based-on-truth story, he gives us life in the small East Texas town of Carthage, where a beneficent  funeral director (Jack Black) and a mean, wealthy widow (Shirley MacLaine) become unlikely chums and companions...under she mysteriously goes missing.  Linklater weaves the dramatized version of the story with dry and deft interviews of actual Carthaginians (is that what they’re called?) and even several musical numbers in a perfect frappe of a black comedy. Hollywood Theatre, Mission Theater

‘Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry’ review: a portrait of the artist as moving target, in nearly-real time

A documentary about the Chinese artist and dissident has a breaking-news immediacy.

Ai WeiWei Never Sorry.jpgAi WeiWei in "Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry"
Few movies can claim to be ripped from the headlines in the fashion of “Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry,” a portrait of the Chinese artist and activist most famous for his work on the Beijing Olympic stadium (aka the Bird’s Nest) and his cheeky attacks on his government on his massively popular Twitter feed.  In 2011, Ai was held for months by Chinese authorities on charges of tax evasion that were widely believed to be a means of stifling his brazen anti-government speech and activities; only this summer was he granted bail and the permission to leave Beijing, with many restrictions on what he may say and do.

The career, private life and personality of the provocateur who brought such unwelcome attention on himself is the subject of an absorbing film by Alison Klayman, a journalist to whom Ai granted extremely close access both in his workplace and in his home.

Klayman’s film chiefly captures Ai in real-time: creating new works for exhibits in London, New York and Munich, agitating for governmental accountability in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, fighting off art critics, censors and bureaucrats, balancing a complex family life, eating his favorite meals.  But she looks backward as well, to tell the story of his father, Ai Qing, a noted poet who suffered during the Cultural Revolution, and to track Ai’s formative years as a young artist in New York.  

You come away with an appreciation of the abstraction, scale and daring of Ai’s art and, even more, a sense of the living man in his courage, humor and restlessness.  It’s an invigorating experience.

(91 min., R, Living Room Theaters) Grade: B-plus

‘The Queen of Versailles’ review: you know, maybe there IS such a thing as being too rich….

A portrait of a family building a 90,000-square foot house gives life to the cliche "filthy rich."

The Queen of Versailles.jpgView full sizeJackie and David Siegel in "The Queen of Versailles"
Watching “The Queen of Versailles” you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.  

Lauren Greenfield’s documentary is a portrait of the Siegels, David and Jackie and their eight kids, who have put some of the mega-millions they’ve made on the world’s largest time share resort business toward construction of the largest private home in the United States (90,000 square feet! 17 bathrooms! 10 kitchens!) and then watched their dreams of glory crumble along with the post-2008 economy.  Not only is their unfinished dream home increasingly beyond their means, the house they live in is threatened, along with David’s business.

The sheer lavishness of the Siegels’ lifestyle can appall: a pet lizard dies for want of food and at least one of the kids is surprised to learn that the poor thing lived among them at all; Jackie stupefies a car rental clerk at a small airport by asking for the name of the chauffeur whom she assumes comes with her vehicle; a Christmas shopping spree results in several SUV loads of needless junk.  

Superficially, the couple aren’t exactly advertisements for some Fair Play for the One Percent movement.  Jackie, with her $17,000 purses, artificially enhanced physique, and taste for massive take-out orders from McDonald’s, is a cartoon trophy wife; David is a slob and a lecher and something of a misanthrope who credits himself with winning Florida for George W. Bush in 2000 and shrugs off the Iraq War with an “oops.”

But Greenfield pierces the vulgar and easy-to-mock façade and gives us a more human and decent portrait.  No, we never feel that the Siegels deserve their Xanadu. But at the same time we’re abashed to see them ground down, and in their oldest daughter and David’s adult son from a previous marriage we see that they have managed to teach compassion and loyalty and a work ethic -- a job well done.

Yes, “The Queen of Versailles” offers the undeniable fun of seeing a rich fellow getting his top hat knocked off with a snowball.  But it takes pains, too, to show us how embarrassing and painful that comeuppance is for the victim, which ought to temper our schadenfreude somewhat.
    
(100 min., PG, Fox Tower) Grade: B






‘Ruby Sparks’ review: a writer’s dream girl turns into a nightmare

A lonely man dreams up the perfect sweetie, then wishes he hadn't.

Ruby Sparks -- Dano Desk.jpgPaul Dano in "Ruby Sparks"
“Ruby Sparks” is a fantasy romcom that’s chiefly notable for its acknowledgement that what we want most in love might actually be bad for us.  

Paul Dano stars as a boy-genius author who’s been unable to write a second book for years and is friendless -- and, chiefly, girlfriend-less -- to boot.  His psychiatrist (Elliott Gould) suggests he write about the girl of his dreams, and so ardently does he take to the task that he actually whips her up, in the flesh, out of his imagination and typewriter.  

This is a scenario out of a Woody Allen comedy, but screenwriter Zoe Kazan, who also stars as the magical girl, ventures into the darker implications of domination, free will, and possession suggested by the set-up.  Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris don’t quite blend the somber and frivolous as breezily as in their “Little Miss Sunshine,” but they construct certain moments from all ends of the emotional spectrum well.  

Dano is nicely flustered and plausibly dark, and he plays well off of Kazan (his real-life girlfriend), the droll Gould and, especially, Chris Messina as his smarmy brother.  If “Ruby Sparks” doesn’t warm you much or form a seamless whole, it’s nevertheless got pieces that you can genuinely admire.

(104 min., R, Fox Tower) Grade: B





‘Klown’ review: boy-men will be boy-men

A gross-out comedy from Denmark has laughs but little heft.

Klown.jpgOne-and-a-half men: "Klown"

In "Klown," Danish TV comedians Casper Christensen and Frank Hvam join the ranks of Sacha Baron Cohen and the "Jackass" mob by turning their antics into a semi-improvised comedy about the vulgar and sometimes very funny antics of confused men behaving like witless boys.

Married Casper is planning on a weekend at a brothel and wants to bring uptight Frank along. But Frank, to score points with his pregnant sweetheart, drags along her pudgy nephew, which you would think would curtail Casper's coarsest and most explicit plans -- but, then, of course, you'd be thinking, which is something that people in comedy of this stripe don't often do.

There are real laughs in the film, yes, and enough sex and scatology to make anyone in the Apatow-verse blush. It isn't art, it's will-o-the-wisp thin, but it might well make you squirt your soda through your nose. And as there seem to be a number of people willing to pay good money for that sensation, there's glory for you!

(89 min., R, Hollywood Theatre) Grade: B-minus


‘Red Lights’ review: a film about psychic-debunkers is a sham and a shame

A strong cast and a nifty begining quickly unravel into incoherence.

Red Lights.jpgRobert De Niro in "Red Lights"
“Red Lights” presents a strong cast with a promising premise and early on feels like it will rise into something memorable.  But before it’s done, the film dissolves into gibberish and hysteria, snuffing out hope like a cigarette beneath the sole of a boot and memorable mostly as a botch.

Sigourney Weaver
and Cillian Murphy play a pair of scientists who specialize in debunking claims of paranormal phenomena.  The stakes of their work are academic until the news that Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), a renowned blind psychic, is returning to the limelight after decades in seclusion.  He has a history with the investigators, and they’re determined to reveal him as a fraud.

It starts well, with Weaver snappy and sassy, Murphy charmingly skittish, and De Niro understated and creepy.  But given how badly the script and tenor of the film get away from writer-director Rodrigo Cortés (who previously made the underrated “Buried”), you’d think that ‘fraud’ would be the last thing the fellow would want you to think about.  By the time the film reaches its convoluted, bombastic and preposterous climax, any sense of real magic that it once conveyed has utterly vanished.
    
(113 min., R, Fox Tower) Grade: C-minus

‘The Story of Film’ review: an opinionated 15-hour portrait of a century-plus of cinema

An epic film informs -- and sometimes rile -- but never bores: a feat in itself!

Mark Cousins.jpegView full sizeMark Cousins, director and narrator of "The Story of Film: An Odyssey"
If nothing else, count Irish filmmaker Mark Cousins as audacious.  

His 15-hour made-for-TV documentary “The Story of Film: An Odyssey” is a one-stop history of the medium, in all of its forms, all over the world, from the groundbreaking laboratories of Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers to the contemporary use of digital filmmaking in special effects spectaculars and personal documentaries.

In a breezy brogue that sounds more suited to a fireside conversation than an academic lecture, Cousins discourses knowledgeably on the materials of the medium -- lenses, lighting, sound, editing -- and the innovations of its various masters: Griffith, Chaplin, Ozu, Rossellini, Hitchcock, Polanski, Nolan.  You come to appreciate the work not only of individuals but of whole cultures that have added nuances to the art of film.  Just as cinema had more than one origin, so it was moved forward as an artistic medium on every continent, often simultaneously, if not always in the same way.

At times Cousins’ preferences and biases puzzle and even irritate (he’s awfully quick to accuse whole nations and industries of “racism,” for instance), and his homey script can lapse into repetition.  But this is smart, entertaining, illuminating and addictive viewing.  Even if you already know huge chunks of the story, you never stop learning.  Like Martin Scorsese’s “A Personal Journey Through American Cinema” and “My Voyage to Italy,” it’s a tour through a museum with a deeply passionate and engaging guide.

“The Story of Film” is being screened at the Northwest Film Center throughout August in five three-hour chunks, starting this weekend.  Visit the website for full schedule details.
    
(900 min., unrated, perhaps PG-13 overall, Northwest Film Center) Grade: B-plus

Levy’s High Five, July 27 – August 2

The five films playing in Portland-area theaters that I'd soonest see again.

Bernie.jpgShirley MacLaine and Jack Black in "Bernie"

1) "Beasts of the Southern Wild" A dreamy and joyous film about life, death, hope, dreams and wonder on an island in the Mississippi Delta. The miraculous young Quevezhané Wallis stars as Hushpuppy, a wee girl who experiences life in the feral community known as the Bathtub as a stream of wonder and delight, even though her dad (Dwight Henry) is gruff, her mom is absent and a killer storm is bearing down on her home. Writer-director Behn Zeitlin, in his feature debut, combines poetry and audacity in ways that recall Terrence Malick, but with a light and spry touch. Still, all his great work pales in comparison to the stupendous little Wallis, whom you'll never forget. Cinema 21, Kiggins

2) "Moonrise Kingdom" Wes Anderson films are such a specific taste that I'm a bit hesitant to suggest that this might be his most approachable (but surely not crowd-pleasing) work. In the wake of the delightful "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," Anderson returns to live-action and his familiar tics and habits in a tale of young (as in 'pre-teen') lovers on the run. Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward fill the lead roles delightfully, and Anderson's muses Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman are joined ably by Edward Norton, Bruce Willis and Frances McDormand, among others. It's a light and breezy film with a very sweet heart and old-fashioned sturdiness. Even if you were left puzzled by the likes of "Rushmore" or "The Royal Tenenbaums" (still his best non-animated films, for me), this is likely to win you over. multiple locations

3) "Bernie” 
It’s a term of deep praise to note that writer-director Richard Linklater (deepbreath: “Slacker,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” “Waking Life,” “School of Rock”) is capable more than any contemporary American filmmaker of making terrific movies about nearly nothing.  Here, working with a based-on-truth story, he gives us life in the small East Texas town of Carthage, where a beneficent  funeral director (Jack Black) and a mean, wealthy widow (Shirley MacLaine) become unlikely chums and companions...under she mysteriously goes missing.  Linklater weaves the dramatized version of the story with dry and deft interviews of actual Carthaginians (is that what they’re called?) and even several musical numbers in a perfect frappe of a black comedy. Hollywood Theatre

4) "Your Sister's Sister" Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton spins a sweet and sad and true-feeling variation on a Hollywood romcom, with shlubby leading man Mark Duplass caught unexpectedly between two half-sisters, Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt. There are machinations that could have been drawn from a higher-gloss (and less appealing) film.  But, as in her not dissimilar "Humpday," Shelton finds real grounding for the story in the personalities of her cast, who improvised some of their scenes within guidelines.  The result feels theatrical and human at once, with three wise, low-key performances and a credible air of confusion and hope. A sly winner.  Fox Tower

5) "Monsieur Lazhar" This delicate, sweet and, surprisingly, harrowing little drama was nominated for an Oscar as best foreign language film, and it's a mark of its quality that it's a very good film despite that sometimes dubious distinction. Mohamed Fellag stars as the title character, a secretive and formal man who arrives at a Montreal school out of the blue and volunteers to take the place of a teacher who has left under horrid circumstances. Gradually his compassion and wisdom come to heal wounds, just as his own personal pains are revealed. Writer-director Philippe Falardeau dances around the clichés inherent in the scenario as if they didn't exist, eliciting wonderful performances from his cast (especially the kids) and real emotions from the audience. Laurelhurst, Living Room Theaters










A grim ‘Knight,’ a melancholy ‘Waltz’ and more

Reviews of this week's new releases in Portland-area theaters.

The Dark Knight Rises.jpgChristian Bale in "The Dark Knight Rises"
The big release of the weekend -- and likely the month and maybe the season or even the year -- is "The Dark Knight Rises," the final installment in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy.  We've also got reviews of Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen in the marital drama "Take This Waltz," the musical documentary "Neil Young Journeys," and "Trishna," a reimagining of Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" in India starring Freida Pinto. All that plus "Also Opening," "Indie/Arthouse" and "Levy's High Five."
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