Category: film reviews (page 2 of 3)

Levy’s High Five, July 20 – 26

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

Beasts of the Southern Wild.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. 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. Living Room Theaters









‘Neil Young Journeys’ review: Demme and Young together again, to lesser effect

A third pairing of the great director and the great musician is strictly for die hards.

Neil Young Journeys.jpgNeil Young in "Neil Young Journeys"
“Neil Young Journeys” is the third documentary/concert film focusing on the great Canadian songwriter that director Jonathan Demme has made since 2006, and it’s the weakest of the three, even as it sporadically charms.

The film combines a road trip Young takes through the Ontario towns of his youth with a 2011 solo performance at Toronto’s Massey Hall. The show, which consists of a lot of material from his 2010 album “Le Noise,” will primarily be of interest to fans (although, one song, the lacerating “Ohio,” is expanded grippingly with a glimpse back at the 1970 tragedy at Kent State which inspired it).  The tour of Ontario, too, lacks virtually any context for those who don’t already feel an affinity toward the artist.

In a sense, this film finishes a cycle that began with the homey and impressive “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” and continued with the raucous “Neil Young Trunk Show” of 2009. In that regard, it’s almost not even a stand-alone but rather a piece of a triptych.  And, as it happens, the creation was far more compelling in its origin than in this final act.

(87 min., PG, Fox Tower) Grade: B-minus


‘The Dark Knight Rises’ review: Batman, resurrected, in an epic, downbeat battle

The final chapter in an gigantic trilogy is more impressive as spectacle than as story or meditation.

The Dark Knight Rises -- Bane vs Batman.jpgView full sizeBane (Tom Hardy) vs. Batman (Christian Bale) in "The Dark Knight Rises"
It’s been eight years, in movie time, since the hooded vigilante known as Batman cleared Gotham City of the deranged scourges of the Joker and Harvey Dent and took the blame for what should have been deemed an act of heroism.

In that time, Dent has become an emblem of the city’s purity and unity, Batman has vanished, and billionaire Bruce Wayne, the man behind Batman, has become a recluse, hiding his broken body and spirit behind the walls of his mansion, making quixotic business decisions, speaking only to servants, lost to the world.

Thus begins “The Dark Knight Rises,” the final entry in a Batman trilogy by director Christopher Nolan, co-written with his brother, Jonathan. In three films approaching eight total hours in length, the Nolans have drawn from some of the grimmest Batman comics to bring forth a deeply conflicted, eternally mournful, gravely reluctant hero who seeks inner peace by imposing justice -- real moral justice -- on the outer world, no matter the personal cost.  Defying terrorists, organized criminals, corrupt politicians, a ravaging media, and a fickle public, sacrificing his body, heart and soul for the greater good, he’s an unnerving enigma, a man with everything who fights as if he had nothing, a shrouded beacon of light, a faceless icon.

The Gotham City of “The Dark Knight Rises” has no need for Batman -- or so it thinks.  And then the crimes start.  Some are little, such as the body of a homeless teen washing up in a storm drain.  And some are massive, such as the invasion of the stock exchange by a masked vigilante known as Bane, a villain so horrifying that his emergence occasions the unthinkable:  the reappearance of the Caped Crusader.

But the reborn Batman is no match for the musclebound, determined Bane.  Tapping deep, mysterious resources of money, science, and ordnance, possessed of savage ruthlessness and intelligence, Bane is set on crippling Gotham City and, indeed, the very culture and economy at the center of which it stands.  And, of course, he’ll happily crush Batman in body and heart in the process.

There’s more to “The Dark Knight Rises” -- much more, actually.  The film’s threads include Catwoman, an accomplished jewel thief involved in a come-hither tango with both Wayne and Batman; John Blake, a decent cop who senses something bigger behind the small crimes he’s investigating; a business plot in which Wayne staves off a hostile takeover of his empire and considers a partnership on a clean energy project with a beautiful philanthropist; and a sentimental dance of loyalty and sadness between Wayne and his butler/confidant Alfred.

It’s a lot of movie, but if there’s one thing we know for sure about Christopher Nolan is that he’s capable of telling massive, multilayered stories with agility and verve.  “The Dark Knight Rises” is overstuffed, and sometimes its components are drawn out excessively, but Nolan always infuses it with energy and grace.  It approaches three hours in length but never feels that long.

But that isn’t to say that all of its part are rewarding or that it always compels.  Particularly in its first hour or so, this is a glum and chatty movie, and even when it perks up with action and multiple plot lines it never quite shuts up:  you can’t imagine a comic book panel crammed with all the verbiage that portions of this script are forced to bear.   

And, too, there’s little to lighten the load.  The first film of the trilogy, “Batman Begins,” carried a predominantly leaden, sober tone that the second, “The Dark Knight,” shattered, chiefly through the epic performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker.  Bane, though, is humorless, his baroque voice (imagine Sean Connery providing the vocals for a cartoon opera tenor) spewing monotone taunts and insults.  And while Catwoman is a droll presence (especially as played by Anne Hathaway, confidently scene-stealing), she’s never around long enough to truly lighten the mood.  Not even the ostensibly merry bits of this film exactly shine.

The Dark Knight Rises -- Hathaway.jpgView full sizeCatwoman (Anne Hathaway) in "The Dark Knight Rises"
Elsewhere in the cast, Christian Bale once again brings earnest doggedness to the lead, Michael Caine provides genuine pathos as Alfred, Joseph Gordon-Levitt brings an air of street smarts to the Boy Scoutish Blake, and Tom Hardy is mainly a swaggering body as Bane, hidden behind a baroque mask and a fog of insinuating declamations.  No one particularly ignites the screen, and you get the feeling that no one is meant to.  Like their director, the actors are in the service of a Big Thing, and the emphasis is on streamlining rather than showcasing.

There is tremendous technical ability on display in “The Dark Knight Rises.”  Nolan may not have as strong a personal stamp as, say, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi, but he is a gifted filmmaker and, especially, orchestrator.  The action sequences are tight and coherent, and the inevitable climactic battle brings new stakes and dimensions to the film (unlike that of “The Avengers,” a more entertaining film with a rather redundant final act).  The film is shot, blessedly, in only two dimensions, but never lacks visual immediacy or authority.  

It does, though, lack a certain coherence of thought.  Bane and company co-opt some of the rhetoric and look of Occupy protestors and unleash a latent fascism when they become ascendant.  Wayne is a child of privilege whose Batman persona depends on his colossal wealth, yet he yearns to be free of money and encumbrance.  This may sound heavy for a comic book movie, but “The Dark Knight Rises” is not only heavy but heavyhanded on these points. Worse, the points are mud: clichés of left and right mixed willy-nilly until they have no real color, flavor or meaning.  

And such musings on wealth and power feel particularly inappropriate when couched inside the $250 million entertainment product of a multinational megacorporation based on a brand that has produced billions of dollars of revue in its 75 years.  Nolan is many things as a filmmaker: athlete, visionary, even magician.  But deep thinker: not so much.  “The Dark Knight Rises” is reasonably accomplished as a gigantic superhero movie; as a meditation on capital and its personal and social discontents, it’s strictly from the funny pages.
    
(164 min., PG-13, multiple locations) Grade: B


‘Take This Waltz’ review: marriage, interrupted

A chance encounter tests a woman's marital resolve.

Take this Waltz.jpgMichelle Williams and Seth Rogen in "Take This Waltz"
“Take This Waltz” is a film about a romance that looks hotter than it is.  It’s a tale of lust-at-first-sight between a writer (Michelle Williams) and her artist neighbor (Luke Kirby).  She’s married, mostly happily, albeit with childish undertones, to a cookbook author (Seth Rogen, born to play cuckolds), and she tries to resist temptation. But it’s summer, and she’s stifled, and that intense fellow across the street keeps popping up with soulful looks and leering innuendoes.

“Waltz” is written and directed by Sarah Polley, the actress who made the highly regarded “Away from Her.”  Like that film, which starred Julie Christie as a woman disappearing into dementia, the new one is built around a strong leading lady and painted with genuinely brilliant light and color.  It’s somewhat less affecting, though, as the heroine here is less formed and her plight less moving.  The marriage in which she’s involved is flawed, yes, but the chemistry she’s supposed to feel for the fellow across the street doesn’t quite translate for the viewer.  It feels more like mooning than wild passion.

Williams, as ever, fills an ordinary person with credible emotion, but little around her feels equally real (one exception: a remarkable scene in the shower of a women’s locker room at a swimming pool).  There’s often real beauty and poetry in the moviemaking, but “Waltz” requires you to be on board with it from the start and doesn’t often enough rouse itself to magnetize you if you’re not.
    
(116 min., R, Living Room Theaters) Grade: B-minus


Levy’s High Five, July 13 – 19

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

Moonrise Kingdom"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

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. multiple locations

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, Kiggins

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. Living Room Theaters








‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ review: joy, danger and beauty in the bayou, through a child’s eyes

A triumphant debut blends dreams, fears and hardscrabble life in sometimes breathtaking fashion.

Beasts of the Southern WildQuvenzhané Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
There’s a sense in watching any movie that you’re dreaming, albeit wide awake and amid a community of strangers.  We sit with our eyes open and we gaze at the impossible: instant shifts of space and time, improbable plots, music from nowhere, animation, computer effects, montages.

So if all movies are, to some extent, living dreams, what to say about a film like “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which is dreamlike and poetic and symphonic and magical in ways beyond the ordinary movie -- and beyond quite a few extraordinary ones, too.

“Beasts” is a fantasy, perhaps, or maybe an alternative history of recent events, or it could simply be a depiction of the world as seen and felt by a curious, apt, precocious, and intuitive young child.  At times it moves like a hallucination; at times it feels like journalism or, perhaps more to the point, sociology.  You’re continually leaning into it, wondering what’s real and what’s imaginary, what the physical and moral laws of its universe are, and where it all might go.  The only thing you’re sure of, virtually from the very start, is that you’ve never seen anything quite like it.

The film is the feature debut of director Benh Zeitlin, who is adapting (albeit, surely, very loosely) a play by Lucy Alibar. It centers on a little girl named Hushpuppy who lives on an island in the Mississippi Delta known by its couple of score of inhabitants as the Bathtub.  

The Bathtub sits outside of what Hushpuppy calls “the Dry World,” that is, the land protected by the levees, just as it sits outside of what the rest of us might call ‘civilization.’     It’s a broken-down place, built of and strewn with garbage, overrun by weeds and feral animals, bereft of work and school and government and media, and yet (or, perhaps, ‘hence’) it’s a paradise.  The children are raised communally, the lines between the manmade and natural worlds have dissolved, a sense of play permeates the lives of young and old alike, there’s little longing or despair because there’s little need or want.  From some vantages, life on the Bathtub might look like mere subsistence; from others, maybe, it looks like purity.

And yet, even through the eyes of wise-beyond-her-years Hushpuppy, who narrates and is largely the focus of the film, we can see that there are things missing from the Bathtub, and dangers in it.  For one thing, Hushpuppy has no mother, and is being raised, if that’s the word, by her gruff and often drunken dad, Wink.  And for another, an apocalyptic storm a la (if not actually) Hurricane Katrina hits the Delta, inundating the Bathtub and threatening its way of life.  The residents take drastic measures to save their community, and Hushpuppy herself sets out on a personal voyage of discovery.

Zeitlin, in the vein of Terrence Malick, dances through his story like a milkweed seed in the thrall of a breeze.  He brings us close to Hushpuppy but never quite puts us inside her head; she informs us and counsels us, but we’re mostly on our own in trying to puzzle out who the inhabitants of the Bathtub are to one another and which of the events that we watch are actual and which make-believe.  The ominous, destructive creatures Hushpuppy refers to as aurochs, for instance:  do they exist only in myth, or are they real, or can’t she tell the difference?  And, finally, does it matter?  What Hushpuppy believes is, in this universe, what we must take to be true.  And whether she’s dreaming or hoping things rather than experiencing them in an objective fashion matters not from the side of the screen through which we experience the movie.

“Beasts” is shot, quite beautifully, by cinematographer Ben Richardson on 16mm, which gives it a raw, documentary feel, but it gracefully includes some moments of computer-generated magic which give life to Hushpuppy’s speculations on the nature of time and the universe.  And it moves to strange and intoxicating music Zeitlin composed with Dan Romer.

But for all the beguiling quality brought to the film by its creators, the most unforgettable contribution is made by Quvenzhané Wallis, the tiny slip of a girl who plays Hushpuppy with enormous heart, authority and daring.  Looking impossibly fragile and yet enduring whatever the Bathtub and the fates throw at her, she turns Hushpuppy into the most unlikely movie hero you can imagine:  a child of nature able not only to withstand but to comprehend the infinitude around her.  Wallis is, like crusty Dwight Henry, who plays Wink with offhanded, hazy humor, a newcomer to acting.  But despite her greenness she carries the film on her wee little shoulders like a titan.  It’s breathtaking.

“Beasts” won the Grand Jury and cinematography prizes at January’s Sundance Film Festival and four prizes, including the one for best first feature, at Cannes in May. Inevitably, that has led to a backlash, with some people complaining that the film is a muddled headscratcher and others that Zeitlin infantilizes and patronizes Hushpuppy and the other inhabitants of the Bathtub in a way that reeks of colonialism, white privilege and liberal guilt.  

I would argue, rather, that what disconcerts here is not only deliberate but liberating:  just as she lives outside of what the rest of us think of as civilization, Hushpuppy has no concern for ordinary notions of narrative, whether that mean causality or the obligation to differentiate realism from fantasy.  As for Zeitlin somehow demeaning his subjects, surely that charge is leavened by the deep intimacy the viewer feels with Hushpuppy.  “Beasts of the Southern Wild” brings you into a world you didn’t know existed with a closeness that the movies almost never achieve.  If that constitutes exploitation, then it’s a crime which all works of art should aspire to commit.

(91 min., PG-13, Cinema 21) Grade: A-minus


‘Lola Versus’ review: a drab comedy centered on a rising star

Greta Gerwig shines through a dim and uninspired indie romcom.

Lola Versus 2.jpgZoe Lister Jones (l.) and Greta Gerwig in "Lola Versus"
The best thing about the wan comedy “Lola Versus” is the extended opportunity to watch the emerging star Greta Gerwig, even if the material she has to work with isn’t always worthy of her offbeat gifts and charms.

The film, co-written by director Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister Jones (the latter of whom plays Gerwig’s best chum), is the tale of a woman who’s about to get married and finish her Ph.D. on the cusp of her thirtieth birthday.  It all falls apart, and in the ensuing throes of angst she relies heavily on her pals (Jones and Hamish Linklater) and her parents (Debra Winger and Bill Pullman) and endures the sort of embarrassing miscues and coincidences that only befall the heroines of bad romantic comedies.

Gerwig manages to infuse her role with dignity and heart, despite the goofy permutations of the script.  As in “Damsels in Distress” and “Greenberg,” she combines a real-girl aspect and an arch, knowing calm that feels theatrical and distanced and yet intimate and warm.  That strong presence in the center almost makes “Lola Versus” watchable even as it starts to get formulaic, preachy and tiresome.
    
(87 min., R, Fox Tower) Grade: C-plus



Movies: ‘Spider-Man’ reboots, Woody does ‘Rome’, bloody ‘Savages’ and more

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

The Amazing Spider-Man kiss.jpgEmma Stone and Andrew Garfield in "The Amazing Spider-Man"
The big movie opening of the week is "The Amazing Spider-Man," but there's plenty of variety out there, and we review much of it, including Woody Allen's Italian rondelay "To Rome with Love," Oliver Stone's bloody, sexy crime film "Savages," the Duplass brothers' warring-sibling comedy "The Do-Deca-Pentathalon," and a restored print of Jean Renoir's 1937 classic "Grand Illusion."  On top of that, you can, as always, count on "Also Opening," "Indie/Arthouse" and "Levy's High Five."

Levy’s High Five, July 6 – 12

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

Your Sisters Sister bed.jpgEmily Blunt (l.) and Rosemarie DeWitt in "Your Sister's Sister"

1) "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

2) "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. multiple locations

3) "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

4) "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. Living Romm Theaters

5) "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" Yes, I know it's an absurd premise and that in many ways it exists only to be absurd, but there's genuine skill and relish in director Timur Bekmambetov's adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith's novel. The action, as in Bekmambetov's "Night Watch," "Day Watch" and "Wanted," is spectacular, the 3-D effects are top-notch, the woodenness of the historical bits is deliberate and cheeky, and Benjamin Walker is actually quite good as the title character, embodying the clumsiness and self-mocking qualities of the real man and the bloodthirsty venom that this over-the-top story requires. As a summer goof, it's swell. multiple locations






‘To Rome with Love’ review: Woody Allen anthologizes himself, with mixed results

A quartet of stories set in the Eternal City find the director in a late-career glide.

To Rome with Love Benigni.jpgRoberto Benigni in "To Rome with Love"
In the wake of the popular and critical success of “Midnight in Paris,” Woody Allen has caught a flight to Italy and whipped up “To Rome with Love,” a hodgepodge of jokes and stories which adds up to little more than a simple -- and intermittent --  pleasure.

In one tale, a young architecture student (Jesse Eisenberg) is counseled (a la Allen’s “Play It Again, Sam”) by the spirit of an older architect (Alec Baldwin, drily funny) as he veers between his steady girl (Greta Gerwig) and her flighty friend (Ellen Page).  

In another, an ordinary Roman citizen (Roberto Benigni) becomes a celebrity overnight -- hounded by paparazzi, lusted after by women, sought for opinions -- with no explanation or rationale.

A third story features Allen as a retired opera impresario who discovers that his daughter’s prospective father-in-law, a Roman undertaker, is a brilliant tenor (opera star Fabio Armiliato plays the role) who can only perform at his best in the shower.

The last is a virtual remake of Federico Fellini’s 1952 comedy “The White Sheik,” with provincial honeymooners Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi coming to Rome only to be separated and fall in with other lovers, he with a prostitute (Penélope Cruz), she with a movie star.

The tales have no points of common contact save the setting and are woven together willy-nilly; the story of the honeymooners, for instance, transpires in a single day but is intercut with the other tales, some of which transpire over weeks.  This isn’t “Fellini’s Roma,” a personal meditation on the history of the city and one’s life in it, nor is it an anthology like “Love in the City,” in which Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and others crafted characteristic short films on themes of romance.

Rather it feels at times that Allen has pulled a few story ideas out of his desk drawer, none of which could stand on its own, and made a patchwork quilt of them.  Some moments are inspired -- a staging of “Pagliacci” with a portable shower as a centerpiece, a confession of love during a thunderstorm -- and the settings are uniformly handsome (cinematographer Darius Khondji has a virtual love affair with the light and colors of the city).  But most of the film seems content simply to pass like a gently rolling stream, however illogical, however random.  

There’s an impulse to come down hard on an artist who doesn’t seem to give his all to a movie, but consider this another way.  In his late ‘70s, Allen only has so many working days left in him, and if he has stories and ideas that he’s eager to get down on film, he’s earned the right.  Decades from now, when the thumbs-up/thumbs-down have been totted up and the boxoffice accounts settled, “To Rome with Love” is likely to be seen as a single episode in the longer story of his art and career.  

We don’t denigrate John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock or, pointedly, Fellini for not being as inspired toward the ends of their lives as they were in their artistic and mortal primes, and Allen’s 40-plus year career ought, at this point, to be seen in a similar light.  So what if “To Rome with Love” isn’t a masterwork?  We’ll always have “Paris”....and “Manhattan” and so on.

(112 min., R, Century Eastport, Fox Tower) Grade: B-minus




‘Grand Illusion’ review: one of the very few forms of film perfection

Jean Renoir's 1937 prisoner-of-war drama is one of the standards to which all films must aspire.

GRAnd Illusion -- von stroheim.jpgErich Von Stroheim in "Grand Illusion"
Sometimes I’m asked why I almost never give a film a grade of ‘A,’ and I reply that to do so is to declare a movie an immortal classic on a par with “Casablanca” or “The Godfather”: works of perfection as both art and entertainment and survivors of the test of time.

I’d add “Grand Illusion” to that list.  In 1937, with the threat of war slowly rising to a boil around him, director Jean Renoir looked back with a combination of nostalgia and horror at the War to End All Wars, as the conflict which we now call World War I was known.  

It’s a prisoner-of-war drama, with a French officer (Pierre Fresnay) and enlisted man (Jean Gabin) shunted from one form of incarceration to another, often under the guard of a German aristocrat (Erich von Stroheim). In its course, issues of class, race, history, love, and art are considered with the most delicate of touches, the personalities of cast ooze through the masks of their characters, and the daily life mixes seamlessly with greater events.  

“Grand Illusion” is humane and funny and profound and light and sober and dreamlike and hopeful and sad all at once.  It’s showing in a new 35mm print (that, too, makes it something of a classic).  See it and you may begin to appreciate the sorts of standards for greatness that the cinema is capable of setting.
    
(114 min., unrated, probably PG, Cinema 21) Grade: A


‘Savages’ review: Oliver Stone gets back to bloody good fun

A sexy, gory, drug-infused novel gets a treatment worthy of the Oliver Stone of "Natural Born Killers" and "The Doors."

Savages 2 -- Lively Del Toro.jpgBlake Lively and Benicio Del Toro in "Savages"
It’s been a while since Oliver Stone exercised his chops on something as juicy as “Savages,” Don Winslow’s novel about a pair of Laguna Beach pot growers waging war against a Mexican drug cartel that wants to buy their business.  What ought to be a straightforward negotiation becomes personal -- and very bloody -- when the Mexicans kidnap the girl whom the two California dudes share and love.  

With all the smoke and skin and violence, with dazzling cinematography by Dan Mindel, and with a pair of gleefully wicked performances by Salma Hayek as a drug lord and Benicio Del Toro as her henchman (kudos, too, to John Travolta as a corrupt federal agent), Stone seems truly to be enjoying himself for the first time in ages.  

The trio at the center of the film -- Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch -- are thoroughly credible as ironic innocents who find themselves in something deadlier than they could imagine.  Stone seems to take a little vicarious pleasure in making these relative lightweights squirm in fear and confusion.  He briskly navigates the Elmore Leonard-style twists of the story, and, as he did in films like “Salvador,” “Natural Born Killers” and “The Doors,” he transmits his hedonistic pleasure directly to the audience.  It’s nice to have that Oliver Stone back.
    
(125 min., R, multiple locations) Grade: B



‘The Do-Deca-Pentathalon’ review: Oh, brother, why art thou so annoying?

Brothers wage war -- in 25 steps.

The Do-Deca-Pentathalon.jpgSteve Zissis (l.) and Mark Kelly in "The Do-Deca-Pentathalon"
In “The Do-Deca-Pentathalon,” the writing-directing brothers Duplass, Jay and Mark (“The Puffy Chair,” “Cyrus,” “Jeff Who Lives at Home”) once again confront questions of maturation and family ties.  It’s a slight and likeable film that doesn’t go very far dramatically but churns up some interesting waves.

Steve Zissis
and Mark Kelly play Jeremy and Mark, estranged brothers who have engaged in an unhealthy and quite petty lifelong competition.  When Jeremy, joined by his wife and son, travels to his mom’s to celebrate his birthday, Mark, uninvited, crashes the weekend, and the pair revive a contentious boyhood pursuit: a contest of 25 events (the do-deca-pentathalon of the title) to determine which is the “greatest” brother.  Needless to say, it’s a bad idea.

There’s a real lifelike quality to the film: you squirm with both of these unformed boy-men as they struggle with their emotional issues.  And it never balloons into parodic Hollywood-level comedy, which is a blessing.  But there’s something a bit pat and staid to it as well:  there’s never a real sense of stakes or danger.  Still, the Duplasses know how to put a small film like this together with soothing ease, and they never tax the audience with contrivances or excess baggage.

NOTE: 
Kelly, who was raised in Oregon, will be on hand for the first evening shows on Friday and Saturday night to introduce the film and conduct post screening q-and-a sessions.

(76 min., R, Living Room Theaters) Grade: B


‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ review: a tale repeated, with less freshness

A superhero franchise is rebooted, and while it's not a disaster, it is a puzzle.

The Amazing Spider-Man unmasked.jpgAndrew Garfield in "The Amazing Spider-Man"
The tale of Spider-Man, the teen nerd turned web-slinging superhero, has been part of popular culture for 50 years now, which means that Baby Boomers who remember his debut might well join their grandkids in seeing the newest version, “The Amazing Spider-Man,” and that some of those grandkids will do the driving.

As evinced by his longevity, Spidey, like such similarly long-lived comic book heroes as Batman and Superman, is one of the truly mythic characters of our time, a figure whose legend has been remade and retold over the years in different cultural moments to suit different generations.  That’s one of the functions of myths, after all:  to allow each subsequent epoch to define itself within a shared tradition by refashioning a standard icon in a way that expresses its particular sensibility and communal wishes, fears and needs.

None of which explains, exactly, why the folks at Marvel Comics and Columbia Pictures have given us a new Spider-Man a mere 10 years after Sam Raimi brought the character to the big screen so spectacularly in “Spider-Man” (followed by a splendid sequel in 2004 and a rotten third act three years later).  Raimi’s origin tale, following more or less the story credited to Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, was filled with energy and zest and skewed humor and featured one of the greatest of screen kisses, with costumed Tobey Maguire literally turned upside down for Kirsten Dunst. It still feels fresh in the mind, a Spider-Man worthy of several decades tenure, surely.

But, no.  Once again commerce trumps culture at the multiplex, and Spidey has been rebooted in “Amazing,” which has the shape of its predecessor but only a portion of its pep and wit.  The film is directed by Marc Webb, whose sole previous feature, “(500) Days of Summer” was deeply charming but hardly seemed the work of a blossoming wizard of effects-driven 3-D action cinema.  He’s pretty good with the human stuff, but little here is as vitally alive as the action that Raimi, a poet of kinetics, whipped up.

At times, such as in the sequences when a newly super-powered Peter Parker tries his abilities out for size, Webb sparks the film into life.  And his star, Andrew Garfield (best known as the friend and partner stabbed in the back by Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network”), has a pleasantly saucy, angsty air.  But there was an exhilaration in Raimi’s first two “Spider-Man” movies that this film never equals.  As “Amazing Spider-Man” carries on, it accrues bulk rather than depth and becomes increasingly slow and murky, and during the unengaging moments that pile up, you can’t help but ask why it exists at all.

For non-initiates, the story involves high schooler Parker bitten by a genetically altered (as opposed to radioactive) spider and becoming infused with superhuman strength, the ability to cling to walls, uncannily acute sensory powers, and so on.  One night, he allows a thief get away from a holdup, and when the stickup man subsequently kills his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen, quite good), Parker dedicates himself to vigilantism as a costumed do-gooder.  

Spider-man’s deeds and celebrity earn him the enmity of the NYPD, embodied by Captain Stacy (Dennis Leary), who happens to be the father of Peter’s sweetheart, Gwen (Emma Stone).   And, worse, the scientist (Rhys Ifans) whose experimental spider bit Parker has turned himself into a giant, murderous lizard bent on transforming all of New York similarly.  Parker, who’s partly responsible for the success of the mad doctor’s schemes, is the only one who can stop him.

In many ways, any Spider-Man movie is can’t miss material, with a hero much more irreverent and human than Batman or Superman and easier to empathize with, being, as he is, an ordinary fellow who receives an extraordinary gift.  Simply by serving as a vessel for that story, “The Amazing Spider-Man” is agreeable.  And occasionally it’s more.  But, as with the American remake of the Swedish film of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” you can’t help but feel that you’ve not only heard the story before, but that you you’ve seen it before, too -- and recently.  

Sixteen years elapsed between Tim Burton’s first Batman movie and Christopher Nolan’s, and that span of time, plus the depths into which the series had fallen under Burton’s successors, justified a reboot -- and, of course, Nolan’s truly was a fresh vision.  Whatever you may think of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” though, it’s hard to credit that the world was crying out for it or that Webb’s version of the story is on a par with Raimi’s.  It’s not a dud, but it is a headscratcher -- and that’s something no summer blockbuster wishes to be.
    
(112 min., R, multiple locations) Grade: B-minus


Movies: ‘Ted’ swears, ‘Mike’ grinds, a lovely ‘Wish’ and more

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

Magic Mike McConaughey.jpgMatthew McConaughey in "Magic Mike"
There's an intriguing variety of new titles in Portland this weekend:  the foul-mouthed living teddy bear comedy "Ted"; the male stripper seeking meaning drama "Magic Mike"; the dysfunctional family tale "People Like Us"; the moving Japanese tale of boys trying to reunite their estranged parents, "I Wish"; the Oscar-nominated animated film "A Cat in Paris"; and the based-on-truth comedy about politics "Grassroots." And when you've worked through all that, check out "Also Opening," "Indie/Arthouse" and "Levy's High Five."

Levy’s High Five, June 29 – July 5

The five movies 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) "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

2) "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. multiple locations

3) "I Wish" In "After Life," "Nobody Knows" and "Still Walking," the Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda has approached weighty issues of life and death with a rare blend of respect and levity. It's a deeply humane stance, and it's not surprising to note that he's also a gifted director of children, as in this story of two brothers, living in different cities because of their parents' separation, who concoct a wish-fulfillment scheme in hopes of reuniting their family. The music, film craft and acting are quite fine, but perhaps the most heartening thing is the way in which Koreeda throws open the theme of childhood fantasy to embrace the various adults in the story who, too, have dreams, realized and not. A charming, shambling, uplifting film. Living Room Theaters

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. Living Romm Theaters





‘Magic Mike’ review: it’s hard out there for a hardbody

Channing Tatum's sizzle is skin-deep in Steven Soderbergh's dark film about male strippers.

Magic Mike TAtum.jpgChanning Tatum (center) in "Magic Mike"
The come-on of “Magic Mike” is pretty obvious:  watch hardbodies Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, Joe Manganiello, and Alex Pettyfer perform striptease routines without enduring the cost and, um, ambiance of an actual strip joint.  

But if that sounds like a blast, “Magic Mike” might surprise you, and not necessarily in a good way.  Directed by Steven Soderbergh from a script by Reid Carolin, it deliberately echoes such iconic films as “Shampoo,” “American Gigolo,” and “Boogie Nights,” in which shiny, sexy surfaces hide dark and creepy interior worlds.  That’s an impressive pedigree, but there are clunkers with the same agenda:  “Cocktail,” say, or “Coyote Ugly.”  And while “Magic Mike” isn’t as vacuous as those latter two, it doesn’t compel as powerfully as the former trio nor, I suspect, will it fulfill the expectations with which it teases its audience.

Tatum plays the title character, a Tampa schemer with a professional life cobbled together out of a variety of low-level pursuits and a personal life filled with boozing and bed-hopping.  At his day job as a roofer, he meets Adam (Pettyfer) and takes him under his wing, eventually inducting him, without warning, into the world of stripping.  There, under the tutelage of club owner Dallas (McConaughey), Adam starts to bloom, but in ways that his protective sister (Cody Horn) doesn’t condone.  

As in “The Girlfriend Experience” and “Full Frontal” (and, for that matter, “Sex, Lies and Videotape”), Soderbergh promises raw sexuality and then holds back.  There’s a lot of skin on display in “Magic Mike” -- male and female -- but there’s an iciness to its sensuality.  The film is at least as much about the cost of self-exposure as it is about the pleasure of it, and the sex in it never seems particularly ecstatic or warm.  

Indeed, the darkness of “Magic Mike” might push people away.  The sheen of sweat on taut torsos may be comely, but the physical abandon of the striptease is never accompanied by an emotional or spiritual release.  The film is almost always in shadow, even when bathed in glaring Gulf Coast light.  It’s a broody male stripper movie, and that doesn’t sound quite so hot as the ads.

That said, there is electricity in a few of the staged routines and, it goes almost without saying, in Soderbergh’s craft (he simply cannot do dull).  If Tatum still wobbles as a leading man and Pettyfer and Horn never quite spark to life, McConaughey is positively crackling as a preening, scheming peacock, infusing his role with personal touches and self-deprecating humor.  He steals every moment he gets.

“Magic Mike” doesn’t sizzle often enough as either cinema or beefcake, though.  It’s medium-strength Soderbergh, which is better than the full-strength stuff most filmmakers can manage but not exactly the brand that keeps you coming back for more.
    
(112 min., R, multiple locations) Grade: B


‘I Wish’ review: a sad boy’s scheme to save his family lifts the heart

The director of "After Life" and "Nobody Knows" weaves a sweetly shambling story about hopes and dreams.

I Wish 1.jpgOhshiro (l.) and Koki Maeda in "I Wish"
A sweet and shambling film about children with grand dreams, “I Wish” is yet another impressive work from Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda, whose previous movies, including “After Life,” “Nobody Knows” and “Still Walking” evinced a rare combination of playfulness and empathy and blended weighty subject matter with light, deft touches.

In this film, a pair of young brothers (real-life siblings Koki and Ohshiro Maeda) are forced to live in different cities by their parents’ separation but concoct a plan to reunite.  They believe that if they can witness two high-speed trains passing in opposite directions, they can make a wish, as if on a falling star, and knit their broken family back together.  They each enlist a cadre of chums to help reach a remote spot where such a synchronicity of trains will occur, and each of those kids brings a dream of his or her own along.

There’s much to enjoy here:  inventive photography, a breezy soundtrack, engaging performances by the child actors, and flashes of heart and humor where you may not expect them.  What’s refreshing, too, is that Koreeda presents the adults in the children’s lives as harboring dreams of their own, making the theme of wish-fulfillment universal.  The result is a film that’s both entertaining and illuminating, no matter your age.
    
(128 min., unrated, probably PG, Living Room Theaters) Grade: B-plus

‘Ted’ review: the potty-mouthed plush toy is kind of a hoot

A living teddy bear with decidedly grownup issues gives Mark Wahlberg a hangover and a headache.

Ted 1.jpgMark Wahlberg and chum in "Ted"
Ted the living teddy bear is crude, crass and sporadically hilarious, and “Ted” the movie is pretty much the same.  Writer-director Seth MacFarlane makes the leap from the animated TV sitcoms “Family Guy,” “American Dad” and “The Cleveland Show” with a splash, if not exactly chops, and the laughs more or less carry you through the clumsy bits.

The title character is a walking, talking teddy bear (voiced by MacFarlane) who came to life when his owner John (Mark Wahlberg) made a wish as a lonely boy.  That was sweet, but now John is in his thirties with a job and a girlfriend, Lori (Mila Kunis), and he still spends excess hours with Ted, albeit on a diet of pot and beer and dirty jokes instead of milk and cookies and TV cartoons.  When Lori threatens to dump him because of his codependent friendship with Ted, John is in crisis.  And Ted finds that life outside the familiar comfort of John’s house is a dangerous business.

In its storytelling and film craft, “Ted” is as unpolished as its jokes, but it spews a sufficient amount of random and occasionally rancid comic energy to recall, in a good way, the more raw works of, oh, the Farrelly brothers or the “South Park” guys or Judd  Apatow’s gang.  At times -- as in a melee between Ted and John in a cheap hotel room or a cocaine-fueled night of partying , it’s surreally funny.  And Wahlberg is actually quite good working opposite a co-star who, technically, isn’t there.  “Ted” may not be profound or deft, but when it hits the sweet-sour spot, which it does regularly, it can win you over.    

(105 min., R, multiple locations) Grade: B


‘A Cat in Paris’ review: attractive but paper-thin French animation

An Oscar-nominated feature that's lovely to look at but short on story.

A Cat in Paris.jpg"A Cat in Paris"

A surprise nominee for Best Animated Feature at the most recent Academy Awards, the French animated film "A Cat in Paris" is handsome and perky and built around a story so simplistic that it almost feels like it wasn't written down.

The title character (who is not, oddly, the protagonist of the story) is a kitty who lives by day with a little girl whose mom is a detective and by night with a cat burglar (get it?) who runs across rooftops, parkour-style, to purloin loot.  Mom is chasing after a crime kingpin whom the thief happens to run across, and pretty soon we're involved in kidnapping, chases, shootouts, and more, all centered around the little girl.

Directors Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol favor a modish visual style and a jazzy score, both of which are charming.  But their storytelling is exceedingly familiar even for kiddy fare, resulting in fairly tired -- if pleasantly brief -- going.    

(70 min., unrated, probably PG, Living Room Theaters) Grade: B-minus


Movies: A ‘Brave’ princess, a ‘Lincoln’ who kills, a sweet ‘End of the World’ and more

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

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter 2.jpgBenjamin Walker in "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"
A little bit of everything in movie theaters this weekend.  Pixar brings us the princess tale "Brave"; the brilliantly crazed Russian director Timur Bekmambetov offers "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"; Steve Carell and Keira Knightley meet up in "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World"; and "Your Sister's Sister" is a sweet, sad, offbeat indie romcom.  All that, plus "Also Opening," "Indie/Arthouse" and "Levy's High Five."

Levy’s High Five, June 22 – 28

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

Your Sisters Sister bed.jpgEmily Blunt (l.) and Rosemarie DeWitt in "Your Sister's Sister"

1) “The Deep Blue Sea” Terence Davies is the finest director you’ve likely never heard of, probably because his best films -- the quiet, devastating semi-autobiographical “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and “The Long Day Closes” -- were made more than two decades ago and he’s only had one film (“The House of Mirth,” an anomaly, really) get even a modest release since.  Here, adapting Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play about a passionate woman (Rachel Weisz), her stodgy husband (Simon Russell Beale) and her unreliable lover (Tom Hiddleston), his immense, inimitable gifts for image-making and, especially, turning film into something like music are in full power.  The effect is sometimes funny, sometimes dramatic, sometimes absolutely ravishing.  Davies is a master, and this is his most accessible film.  See it.  Living Room Theaters

2) "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. multiple locations

3) "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. Fox Tower

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. Cinema 21




‘Your Sister’s Sister’ review: torn between two lovers, who are themselves torn

A trio of engaging actors in a sweet, sad, lowkey romcom rondelay.

Your Sisters Sister trio.jpgMark Duplass, Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt (l. to r.) in "Your Sister's Sister"
“Your Sister’s Sister” is a cockeyed semi-romcom that feels like it started with a ‘what-if’ concept and then, unusually, deepened and improved.  

As in her offbeat charmer “Humpday,” Seattle writer-director Lynn Shelton builds the film on the personalities of her lead actors, the charismatic and credible trio of Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt and Mark Duplass. There’s an improvised and offhanded feel to the film, but it’s carefully built -- almost like a stage play, really -- and it touches on humor and emotions in ways that are never showy or contrived.

Duplass is Jack, mired in sorrow after his brother’s death and lost in life and love.  His best friend, Iris (Blunt), offers him a chance to recharge himself at her father’s San Juan Islands cabin, not knowing that her half-sister, Hannah (DeWitt), is there recovering from a breakup with her longtime girlfriend.

There’s some comedy and drama in the storytelling, but the chief interest is in the flow of the characters, their emotions, their choices, their desires, and their abilities to accommodate one another.  In that, Shelton and her cast are note-perfect.  In the very best sense, “Your Sister’s Sister” almost feels like it’s being made up as it goes along:  organic, fluent and true.    

(90 min., R, Fox Tower) Grade: B-plus


‘Brave’ review: a princess from Pixar…and other disappointments

The tale of a plucky Scottish lass feels more like second-tier Disney than the top-shelf stuff its Pixar subsidiary usually turns out.

Brave.jpgMerida lets fly in "Brave"
In January, 2006, the great independent animation studio Pixar was acquired by the Walt Disney Pictures in a move that, it was assumed, would inject spirit, class and quality into the larger company’s fading animation division.  

Pixar had made a remarkable string of six critical and commercial hits in the previous decade (two “Toy Story” films, “A Bug’s Life,” “Monsters, Inc.,” “Finding Nemo,” and “The Incredibles”), while Disney, which had admirably revived feature animation as a genre in the late 1980s, foundered with such flops as “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” “Treasure Planet,” “Brother Bear,” “Home on the Range” and “Chicken Little.”  

As an animation studio, in fact, Disney was still principally beholden to its two generations of princess movies, the classic trio of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty,” and the contemporary masterworks “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.”  Pixar, surely, would be able to retool the studio from an admittedly lucrative princess factory into something fresh and exciting.

But corporate cultures have a funny way of mutating everything that touches them, and here we are, six years later, with Pixar, following its first widely-acknowledged disappointment, 2011’s “Cars 2,” with “Brave,” its first...princess movie.  It’s like seeing your favorite punk band get hired to run a record label and then release an album of Barry Manilow covers.  No matter the execution, the very idea appalls.  And frankly, as it turns out, neither the story nor the execution of “Brave” quite approaches the potential genius of punk version of “I Write the Songs.”

“Brave” is the story of Merida, a plucky, spirited, flame-haired lassie in medieval Scotland who rejects the traditional tutelage administered by her prim mother in favor of archery, horseback riding, wilderness adventures, and other boyish pursuits.  When her parents effectively name her the prize in a contest between the bachelor sons of the local tribal lords, Merida rebels in ways that threaten the stability of her father’s kingdom and, even more gravely, her mother’s very life.

You don’t exactly require a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature to see the similarities between this story and those of “The Little Mermaid,” “Mulan” and “Pocahontas.” And while I don’t often stress originality of plot in evaluating a film, the spectacle of a Pixar film being squeezed into the mold of Disney production line product is deflating. (In comparison, the short which precedes the feature, the sweet little fable “La Luna,” is a pure, Pixarish pleasure.)

There’s a letdown, too, in the look and feel of the film, which is usually such a strong suit for Pixar.  Merida’s headful of ginger locks is more or less the star of the production, shimmering and bouncing in extraordinarily lifelike fashion.  Most of the 3-D animation, however, is very flat and dark, and the many action scenes are more cluttered than they are gripping.  Now and again, directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman manage something rousing -- Merida’s triumph at an archery contest, the pranks of her triplet brothers, the comportment of a large mammal possessed of a human spirit -- but in all this is the least visually inventive and appealing film Pixar has ever made.

If it seems unfair to compare “Brave” to its Pixar siblings, then it should also be noted that it falls quite far from the heights of the great Disney features of 20 or so years ago.  It simply never engages you with its grandiose posturing and desperate jokes and trite moralizing.  And there’s a twist at the end that absolutely betrays the ostensible lessons of female empowerment; without spoiling the story, let’s just say that Merida’s scheme to save the day repudiates the very spirit that presumably makes her heroic to begin with.

There’s an element in “Brave” that’s worth noting, namely the depiction of a credible mother-daughter relationship in an animated feature, something that’s usually given scant -- if any -- attention.  But that effort hardly makes this tepid, boilerplate production worthy of its lineage or even its title.

(93 min., PG, multiple locations) Grade: C-plus


Movies: Cruise is a ‘Rock’, Gyllenhaal’s in ‘Hysteria’ and more

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

Rock of Ages.jpgTom Cruise in "Rock of Ages"
Not very much new stuff in the hopper this weekend.  We have reviews of the '80s metal love story "Rock of Ages," the invention-of-the-vibrator comedy "Hysteria" and a program of New Czech Cinema at the Northwest Film Center.  Add to that the usual stuff -- "Also Opening," "Indie/Arthouse" and "Levy's High Five" -- and that's all she wrote.

Levy’s High Five, June 15 – 21

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

Bernie"Bernie"

1) “The Deep Blue Sea” Terence Davies is the finest director you’ve likely never heard of, probably because his best films -- the quiet, devastating semi-autobiographical “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and “The Long Day Closes” -- were made more than two decades ago and he’s only had one film (“The House of Mirth,” an anomaly, really) get even a modest release since.  Here, adapting Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play about a passionate woman (Rachel Weisz), her stodgy husband (Simon Russell Beale) and her unreliable lover (Tom Hiddleston), his immense, inimitable gifts for image-making and, especially, turning film into something like music are in full power.  The effect is sometimes funny, sometimes dramatic, sometimes absolutely ravishing.  Davies is a master, and this is his most accessible film.  See it.  Living Room Theaters

2) "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. multiple locations

3) "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. Fox Tower

4) “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”  Jiro Ono is the owner of a Tokyo sushi bar with 10 seats and 3 Michelin stars, and David Gelb’s gorgeous and intimate documentary about the man and his obsession gives you an idea of how that can not only be so but be fitting.  Jiro and his two sons (bound to the chef’s apron strings, almost literally) devote untold hours of work and thought to the perfection of sushi-making, turning a sometimes makework form of cookery into indisputably high art.  At 85, the old master still works virtually every day, and the fruit of his focus is in servings of raw fish and warm rice photographed so lusciously that you can almost taste them.  A mouthwatering film:  literally.  Lake, Laurelhurst, Living Room Theaters

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. Cinema 21



Levy’s High Five, June 8 – 14

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

Moonrise Kingdom grownups.pngBill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton and Bruce Willis (from l.) in "Moonrise Kingdom"

1) “The Deep Blue Sea” Terence Davies is the finest director you’ve likely never heard of, probably because his best films -- the quiet, devastating semi-autobiographical “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and “The Long Day Closes” -- were made more than two decades ago and he’s only had one film (“The House of Mirth,” an anomaly, really) get even a modest release since.  Here, adapting Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play about a passionate woman (Rachel Weisz), her stodgy husband (Simon Russell Beale) and her unreliable lover (Tom Hiddleston), his immense, inimitable gifts for image-making and, especially, turning film into something like music are in full power.  The effect is sometimes funny, sometimes dramatic, sometimes absolutely ravishing.  Davies is a master, and this is his most accessible film.  See it.  Living Room Theaters

2) "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. multiple locations

3) "The Triplets of Belleville" Before he made the utterly charming "The Illusionist," animator Sylvain Chomet made this utterly charming film about gangsters, music, bicycle racing, kidnapping, a sad-eyed boy, a fat dog, and a heroic grandmother. In some ways it's impossibly French, with the hot jazz and the Tour de France and the noirish touches. But the sheer imagination of the thing, the execution, the relentless eccentricity, and the infectious (and Oscar-nominated) music make it, I think, universally accessible. It was no surprise to see Chomet go on to adapt a Jacques Tati script in his subsequent film: this one, with all its quirks and its purely cinematic heart and soul, would have delighted the comic master. Northwest Film Center, Friday through Sunday only

4) "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. Fox Tower

5) “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”  Jiro Ono is the owner of a Tokyo sushi bar with 10 seats and 3 Michelin stars, and David Gelb’s gorgeous and intimate documentary about the man and his obsession gives you an idea of how that can not only be so but be fitting.  Jiro and his two sons (bound to the chef’s apron strings, almost literally) devote untold hours of work and thought to the perfection of sushi-making, turning a sometimes makework form of cookery into indisputably high art.  At 85, the old master still works virtually every day, and the fruit of his focus is in servings of raw fish and warm rice photographed so lusciously that you can almost taste them.  A mouthwatering film:  literally.  Lake, Laurelhurst, Living Room Theaters

‘Moonrise Kingdom’ review: Wes Anderson’s sweetly cracked vision of love at first flight

The tale of 12-year-old sweethearts on the run is delightfully light and filled with the director's iconoclasm and quirks.

Moonrise Kingdom kids.jpgKara Hayward and Jared Gilman (and Jason Schwartzman's head) in "Moonrise Kingdom"
“Moonrise Kingdom” is Wes Anderson’s seventh feature film, and in some ways it’s typical of all of them, with tropes and tics and themes and actors familiar from the likes of “Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore,” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” and the rest.  (Indeed, so strong is Anderson’s artistic stamp that it even permeated 2009’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” a stop-motion animated movie based on a Roald Dahl novel.)

And yet, there’s a freshness and vitality to “Moonrise” that was absent from Anderson’s two previous live-action films, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and “The Darjeeling Limited,” in which the writer-director trod his wonted territory with heavy -- and heavily mannered -- feet.

Yes, “Moonrise” gives us the predictable feckless fathers and decent-hearted surrogate dads, the precocious kids spouting archaic lingo, the old-timey technology, French pop music, symmetrical visuals, young adult fantasy books, amateur theatricals, pup tents, suitcases, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and an awkward, ardent romance:  the stock ingredients of the Andersonian stew.  And yet somehow there’s a zest and lightness that had been missing of late.  The film feels more spry and unencumbered and inspired than Anderson’s recent work (the delightful “Mr. Fox” excluded).  It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s charming.

Set in 1965 (with a few flashbacks to the previous year), “Moonrise” centers on the romance of two 12-year-olds, Sam Shakusky (debuting actor Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward, another newcomer).  Sam has fled his Khaki Scout summer camp and Suzy the stifling home of her lawyer parents (Frances McDormand and Murray) to live together in the wilds of (the fictional) New Penzance Island, sustaining themselves on his outdoorsmanship and her sense of culture.  

Naturally, the adults (including scoutmaster Edward Norton and local cop Bruce Willis) are in eager pursuit, as are the other Khaki Scouts, who pretty much loathe Sam, and a Social Services operative (Tilda Swinton) who means to send the orphaned Sam to an institution.  And with a famous (and also fictional) storm ominously en route, it all takes on an especially freighted air.

The craft is at the high level we always get from Anderson, who is working with some of his usual creative team.  But you can’t help but feel that it’s the young actors -- the lumpy but sober Gilman, with his coonskin hat and pipe, the svelte and cool Hayward, with her eye shadow and Francoise Hardy records -- who have helped the director find his artistic fountain of youth.  As often, Anderson has trouble sticking the landing, but “Moonrise Kingdom” is in many ways the most satisfying flight he’s taken us on in years.    
    
(94 min., PG-13, Fox Tower) Grade: B-plus


‘Prometheus’ review: a sci-fi prequel sacrifices storytelling for beauty

The director of "Alien" prequelizes his brilliant 1979 invention with mixed -- but always handsome -- results.

Prometheus Fassbender.pngMichael Fassbender in "Prometheus"
When he gave the world “Alien” in 1979, Ridley Scott was a young Turk with a eye that had won him honors in the worlds of advertising and television and one gorgeous but under-noted film, “The Duellists,” to his name.  

Now, 33 years later, he is officially Sir Ridley, with more than 20 feature films on his resume, and “Alien” has become a franchise, with five sequels and a number of video games and whatnot in its cabinet.  And Scott, who has directed such films as “Thelma and Louise,” “Gladiator,” “Black Hawk Down” and “American Gangster” (without, to many minds, equaling the one-two punch of “Alien” and its follow-up, “Blade Runner”),  is revisiting the universe of his first great triumph.  Like George Lucas before him, Scott is engaged in a prequel to a hit science fiction series, spelling out the story that the first, classic film only implied.

“Prometheus,” as the prequel is known, is built on a completely different scale from “Alien” and has a completely distinct agenda.  Where the earlier film, based on a Dan O’Bannon script, was a claustrophobic horror movie which sadistically took its time to revealed the fiend at its core, “Prometheus” knows, along with its audience, what the creatures we all call Aliens look like, how they breed and fight, and that an evil corporation hopes to manipulate these horrible killing machines for material advantages.

Screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts have sent us back to the end of the twenty-first century, approximately 30 years before the events of “Alien.”  The titular vessel Prometheus is carrying a team of scientists led by Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace of the Swedish “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), who have followed clues left by Earth’s ancient civilizations to a remote planet where they believe they will discover the race of giants whom they call “engineers,” the beings whom they believe created mankind in their own image untold millennia prior.  

The expedition is supervised by the chilly Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), an official of Weyland Industries, which funded the mission, and the vessel is captained by the crusty Janek (Idris Elba).  But the fellow who seems to be mostly in charge of things is an android, David 8 (Michael Fassbender), an uncamouflaged nod toward the original film.

Prometheus arrives on the uninviting planet early in the going and the scientists head right into a mysterious and apparently abandoned structure where, with David’s not entirely helpful prodding, they begin to get the idea that the “engineers” may have met a ghastly end.  Soon enough, on cue, the DNA of the Aliens is discovered and unleashed, the competing agendas of the scientists and the corporation surface and clash, and the violent and gory deaths start to pile up.

Little, then, occurs in the way of surprises or revelations.  Rather, themes familiar from the other “Alien” films -- strong heroines, horrific gestations, and cruelly placid androids -- emerge for, chronologically, the first time.  The film is lovely, as is much of Scott’s work, although the heavy use of computer imagery, the 3-D (unobtrusive and involving, as the best 3-D is now becoming), and the general sense that the directing world has, as a whole, caught up to his visual inventiveness, make it something less than special.

Still, “Prometheus” is breezy and comely and sufficiently clever to mitigate most qualms, and Fassbender, especially, is wonderful.  It’s not as good a movie as Scott’s “Alien” or James Cameron’s 1986 “Aliens.”  But it doesn’t perversely toy with the audience as did David Fincher’s 1992 “Alien 3” or Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 1997 “Alien: Resurrection.”  If it’s not the most enlightening prequel, it’s nevertheless a sturdy one.  And if it leads viewers to appreciation of its superior kinsmen, well then that’s a bonus.
    
(120 min., R, multiple locations) Grade: B

‘Monsieur Lazhar’ review: a delicate situation, and the perfect man to handle it

An Oscar-nominated Canadian film is a small triumph of delicacy and restraint.

Monsieur Lazhar.jpgMohamed Fellag in "Monsieur Lazhar"
Discreet, delicate, and cautious, “Monsieur Lazhar” takes you by surprise -- and that goes for both the movie and the man.  

After a ghastly tragedy at a Montreal school, an elegant, soft-spoken and mysterious immigrant named Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) shows up and offers himself as a replacement teacher.  Though he hasn’t followed the proper protocol, his manner is impeccable, and he’s hired.  In the coming months, he helps his middle-schoolers put the hurtful thing they’ve witnessed behind them.  But there is pain in his past, too, and it gradually emerges, bringing challenges of its own.

Writer-director Philippe Falardeau dances delicately along the razor’s edge of the familiar and the conventional.  But he does so with tact and taste and just the right blend of tension and relief.  He has a wonderfully poised performance from his star and a pair of strong turns from child actors Sophie Nélisse and Émilien Néron.

“Monsieur Lazhar,” which was nominated for an Oscar as best foreign language film, isn’t a world-beater, but it doesn’t need to be to move and impress you.  Sometimes it’s the quiet ones who move us the most with their simplicity and their sincerity -- in life and in art.
    
(94 min., PG-13, Cinema 21) Grade: B-plus

‘This Is Not a Film’ review: a sly and daring expose of life under house arrest

An Iranian director subtly -- and bravely -- reveals his fate.

This Is Not a Film.jpgView full sizeJafar Panahi and friend in "This Is Not a Film"
In December 2010, the Iranian director Jafar Panahi (“The White Balloon,” “Offside”) was charged with committing acts of propaganda against his country its security and sentenced to a six-year jail sentence and a 20-year ban from making movies.  

The following spring, while awaiting appeal of his sentence, Panahi spent an ordinary day drinking tea, taking phone calls, watching TV, listening to noises from the street, imagining a new film project, and, subversively, filming it all with the help of documentarian Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. The pair edited the footage, saved it to a flash drive and smuggled it out of Iran inside a cake.  The result, entitled “This Is Not a Film,” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, 2011, and has helped direct the attention of the movie and political worlds to the plight of Iranian filmmakers and to Panahi’s situation in particular.

Predictably, not much happens in “This Is Not a Film”; dude is under house arrest, after all.  But it’s absorbing and clever.  Panahi’s activities -- acting out a potential future film project, letting his son’s pet iguana climb over him, reacting in fear to the noise of fireworks in the streets marking the Persian new year, collecting garbage from the other apartments in the building with the janitor -- all have a metaphorical resonance.  At one point, he replaces the high-quality camera which he and Mirtahmasb have been using with his iPhone, demonstrating how easy it would be for someone with his determination to make a movie and share it with the world, governments, censors and even prisons be damned.

“This Is Not a Film” has no special effects, no soundtrack, no plot to speak of, and yet it is, in many ways, one of the most tense films you can imagine:  the real stakes of real life don’t often have the shape of narrative cinema, after all, and we almost never get to see them played out in real time like this.    

(77 min., unrated, probably PG, Hollywood Theatre) Grade: B-plus


‘Snow White and the Huntsman’ review: a classic tale raucously retold

A truly evil queen and some delightful dwarves balance out a bland heroine.

Snow White and the Huntsman.jpgChris Hemsworth and Kristen Stewart in "Snow White and the Huntsman"
Sometimes wondrous, sometimes overwrought, “Snow White and the Hunstman” is a big, noisy rendering of the fairy tale has been movie fodder since the silent era and particularly since Walt Disney’s 1937 animated masterpiece.  There have been dozens of versions of the story; two already this year, in fact:  the big screen comedy “Mirror, Mirror” and, with liberties, TV’s “Once Upon a Time.”  But this is, in many ways, the largest in scale.

In the hands of first-time director Rupert Sanders and a small clutch of screenwriters, this “Snow White” adheres more or less to the version collected by the Brothers Grimm, with a vain and evil queen, a beautiful and doomed princess, a sympathetic assassin, friendly dwarves, a poisoned apple, a handsome prince and so on.  

In some cases, the film augments the tale’s supernatural elements:  the queen has an array of horrific powers, a dark forest is terrifyingly alive, and a fairyland is similarly bewitched but in a far happier way.  In other ways, it puts a rather more human face on things than we’re used to:  the dwarves (there are eight) are played, deliciously, by such actors as Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Nick Frost, Ray Winstone, Toby Jones and Eddie Marsan, none of whom feels especially cartoonish.

The core of the story, as in virtually all versions, lies in the jealousy of the vain queen (Charlize Theron, absolutely chewing up the scenery) toward the youth and beauty of the princess (Kristen Stewart, looking, as ever, more stricken than inspired).  In this go-round, the queen has a brother (Sam Spruell) who does her awful bidding and Snow White has two champions:  a huntsman who refuses to kill her (Chris Hemsworth. in a nicely roguish turn) and a prince (Sam Claflin) who has loved her since their youth.  A bit of “Robin Hood” has been added, with the queen depicted as a  usurper whose cruel dominion over the realm is contested by rebels who require the sort of inspiration that Snow White can provide.  But otherwise, it’s the tale you know.

What’s not familiar is the scale and the texture and all the special effects.  Sanders combines whimsy and horror in ways that might very well spook the younger members of the audience.  Some of it is quite fetching:  the moss-covered beasties who live among the fairies, the queen’s habit of morphing into birds, the soldiers built of shards of black glass.  But some, too, is heavy-handed, particularly when shot through with the bombastic score by James Newton Howard.  And the film feels long, partly because the story is a bit overstuffed, partly because the pace of the telling can get gummy and loose.

Still, if you’ve a mind to see a classic fairy tale rendered as an action movie, and if you want to see a sizeable handful of fine English actors have grand fun playing grizzled dwarves, there are worse ways to spend two hours than in the company of “Snow White and the Huntsman.”    

(125 min., PG-13, multiple locations) Grade: B-minus


‘Polisse’ review: a multi-threaded tale of French police and their woes

The personal and professional lives of a child protection squad make for a volatile, uneven drama.

Polisse.jpgMaiwenn, Jeremie Elkai and Joey Starr (l. to r.) in "Polisse"
“Polisse” is a sprawling, pied, uneven policier about the professional and private lives of the men and women on the Child Protection Unit of the Paris police.  Faced with a daily diet of ghastly crimes, struggling to keep the horrors and stresses of their work out of their homes, they’re constantly on edge, as likely to lose control of themselves with suspects as with each other and with their families and partners.  

Directed and co-written by the actress Maïwenn, the film covers a period of several months during which a photojournalist (Maïwenn herself) is embedded with the squad.  She gets close enough to her subjects to begin an affair with one of them (Joey Starr), a turn of events which is known to all and yet never mentioned as a possible problem with her work.  That’s but one of perhaps two dozen stories the film encompasses, the lot of them knit together very loosely in the manner of an episodic TV series.

Some of the drama, comedy, sexuality, and human tension in “Polisse” (the title is meant to evoke a childlike spelling of the word ‘police’) is genuinely engaging.   And a few of the actors (especially Starr and Karin Viard as a divorcing policewoman) are quite strong. But the shagginess of the thing, the lack of a throughline, and the fleeting nature of the incidents make the whole thing feel arbitrary.  When the chunks are strong, you can imagine whole films being built around them; when they’re not, you wish someone had found the resolve to cut them out.  “Polisse” won a jury prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, but it’s only a patchwork success.
    
(127 min., unrated, surely R, Living Room Theaters) Grade: B

‘The Color Wheel’ review: mumblecore becomes fumblecore in comic road movie

An indie comedy about bickering siblings lack the polish of its low-budget peers.

The Color Wheel.jpgAlex Ross Perry and Carlen Altman in "The Color Wheel"
If you think that the tiny indie movies known as ‘mumblecore’ -- movies like “The Puffy Chair” and “Quiet City” -- are easy to make, watch one that systematically botches the staging and framing and pacing and all the other little aspects of film craft that those movies get right.  Watch “The Color Wheel.”

The fitfully funny comedy follows a quarrelsome brother (director and co-writer Alex Ross Perry) and sister (co-writer Carlen Altman) on a road trip to fetch her belongings from an ex-beau’s apartment.  Along the way, they abuse each other, and everyone they encounter -- stranger or acquaintance -- piles on and adds to the woe.  

They’re an appalling pair, deliberately, but the unsteadiness of the moviemaking means that the line between laughing with the filmmaker/stars and laughing at them is blurred in ways that Perry can’t control.  Maybe the characters will grate on you, maybe you’ll find them quirky fun, but the sheer clumsiness of the enterprise is patent and undeniable.  The best mumblecore movies -- the best low-budget films of any stripe -- make virtues of their restrictions of scale and means.  “The Color Wheel” succumbs to them without the least hint of a fight.  There’s handmade and then there’s amateurish.  This, alas, is the latter.
    
(83 min., unrated, probably R, Northwest Film Center, Friday through Sunday only) Grade: C


‘Men in Black 3’ review: an unsought sequel affords surprising delights

Josh Brolin adds a dash of droll magic to a time travel subplot and lifts a film above its expected quality.
Men in Black 3.jpgJosh Brolin (l.) and Will Smith in "Men in Black 3"
It’s rarely worth assessing a movie by considering what it might have been, but in the case of the third film in a series that has been dormant for a decade after a brilliant launch and a catastrophic follow-up, it’s almost unavoidable. “Men in Black 3” reunites stars Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith with director Barry Sonnenfeld in a sequel that almost nobody but corporate moneymen was itching for.  The Lowell Cunningham comic book series that inspired the previous two films about secret government agents keeping a lid on the activities of alien creatures who live on Earth hasn’t been active for almost 20 years, there haven’t been new episodes of the animated version of the material since 2001, and the 2002 “Men in Black II” seemed to have effectively killed off the franchise, possessing none of the verve or charm of its 1997 predecessor. Factor in Sonenfeld’s absence from the big screen since the horrific 'comedy' “RV” (2006) and Smith’s steadily diminishing boxoffice stature, and it’s no wonder that expectations for a new “MIB” should be at rock bottom, a premonition only bolstered by word that the new film would have a plot involving time travel -- frequently a mark of creative desperation in these sorts of things. How pleasant, then, to find that “Men in Black 3” is a fairly brisk, sometimes funny, periodically inspired film.  Yes, it’s a special-effects sequel, with all the noise and excess that implies.  But there’s more freshness to it than you would expect, and there’s a performance in the center that honestly makes it all worthwhile. That would be the work of Josh Brolin, who is simply astounding as the 1969 version of Agent K (Jones in the present tense), whom Agent J (Smith) must go back in time to rescue from  a time-traveling bad guy (the blustery Jemaine Clement) who seeks to kill the young K both for personal reasons and to facilitate an invasion of the Earth by his species. Brolin does an uncanny Jones -- the still, probing eyes; the stiff, hunched shoulders; the brow and mouth pursed in doubt; the deadpan voice that somehow mixes a drawl with staccato.  It’s an impression, yes, but also an interpretation:  Brolin’s K hasn’t hardened into the Jones incarnation yet; his youthful verve and openness continually surprise J.  And the wit comes as much from Brolin’s timing and control as from the sheer fun he obviously has playing the part.  It’s not the sort of thing that will be remembered come awards time, but it’s one of the most enjoyable performances you’ll see in a movie this year. Actually, “MIB 3” has a couple other terrific acting turns --  Michael Stuhlbarg (“A Serious Man,” “Hugo”) plays a sweetly prescient alien and Bill Hader, joins the ranks of, among others, David Bowie, Crispin Glover and Jared Harris in creating a droll and sharp Andy Warhol for the screen. The latter appears as part of the time-travel story (turns out, per the script, that Andy was an MIB agent and his scenesters were mostly aliens), as are the 1969 Mets and the Apollo 11 space mission.  These are all woven cleverly into a script credited to Etan Cohen (with, it seems, a small team providing assists) that manages to accrue depth and layers as it moves forward toward an action finale (something which “The Avengers,” which is a better movie in many ways, did not).  And Sonnenfeld, who has sometimes been guilty of gratuitous garishness, keeps the gimmickry minimal, employing flourishes only occasionally and using 3-D almost naturalistically -- or as naturalistically as can be hoped for in a movie in which the villain has a deadly dart-spewing spider-thingy living inside of his palm. So did the world need another “Men in Black”?  No, not at all.  But if there had to be one, then it’s certainly a relief that it should be one as agreeable as this. (105 min., PG-13, multiple locations) Grade: B

‘Hit So Hard’ review: a grunge musician’s real-life survival story

She drummed for Hole and babysat for Kurt and Courtney -- and lived through hell and tells the tale.

Hit So Hard.jpgDrummer Patty Schemel, star and subject of "Hit So Hard"
In many ways, “Hit So Hard,” the story of Patty Schemel is familiar to the point of being clichéd:  a ‘90s Seattle rocker spirals into alcoholism and drug abuse until she winds up homeless, then slowly achieves sobriety and a new life.

But Schemel ran in heady circles:  she was chummy with Kurt Cobain and his missus, Courtney Love, and she played drums in Love’s band Hole at that group’s height. So her tale of downfall and survival has absorbing echoes and connections.  What’s more, Schemel was an ardent videographer who, somehow, held onto her tapes, which means that her personal archives provide a truly rare view into the musical world known as grunge at something like its media-hyped height.

Director P. David Ebersole combines frank interviews with Schemel, her family and friends, and her bandmates to assemble this portrait of a talented woman dealing with the weighty pressures of the rock world, the drug world, and her own sexuality.  But it’s a long film for such a familiar story.  And, despite Schemel’s appealing candor, the highlight of the film is, by far, those precious images of Cobain horsing around with his baby daughter, helping Love write songs, and behaving like an ordinary fellow:  peace, love and normalcy in the midst of madness and pain.
    
(103 min., unrated, probably R, Hollywood Theatre) Grade: B-minus

‘Bernie’ review: Richard Linklater’s light and lighthearted Texas true-crime story

The unlikely comic trio of Shirley MacLaine, Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey brings a sordid little tale to sparkling life.

Bernie.jpgShirley MacLaine and Jack Black in "Bernie"
Based on a true story, filled with real people, and deftly mixing comedy, pathos and the macabre, “Bernie” is a delightful and compact confection from director Richard Linklater (“Dazed and Confused,” “Waking Life,” “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset”), who’s just as good with a pair of unlikely costars as he is with the ordinary Texas townsfolk who populate the film.

The film tells the story of Bernie Tiede, an East Texas mortician beloved in his community for his charitable works, his cheerful spirit and his attentiveness to widows.  After the death of one of the town’s richest men, Bernie befriended the fellow’s irascible -- nay, mean -- wife, Marjorie, and became her unlikely best friend, to the point that the suspicious and sharp old gal gave him control of her fortune.  It was eyebrow-raising stuff, and then Marjorie stopped being seen around town and some folks got more suspicious than ever.

Working from a script he co-wrote with Skip Hollandsworth, who chronicled the story in a magazine article, Linklater intermixes the recollections of actual denizens of Carthage, Texas, where it all took place, with the dramatic telling of the story as acted by Jack Black as Bernie, Shirley MacLaine as Marjorie and Matthew McConaughey as a district attorney.

The three are marvelous.  Black espouses a mincy fussiness, uses his powerful singing voice beautifully, and stretches more than he ever has, even in Linklater’s “School of Rock.”  MacLaine, 57 years into a movie career that began when she was 21, plays her wicked role with just the right blend of comedy and villainy.  And McConaughey (whom Linklater discovered, recall) manages subtly to expose the dumb core of his prima donna prosecutor.

“Bernie” is slight but terrific.  The intertwining of the sharply tuned actors and the guileless (and often hilarious) townspeople is seamless, the tale is sometimes despairing but never heavy, and the blend of drama, comedy and music is brisk and fresh.  Linklater has many estimable qualities, but with this film he reminds us that he can craft a cinematic soufflé better than just about any director in America.
    
(104 min., PG-13, Fox Tower) Grade: A-minus


QDocs, "Plymptoons" and EFF Portland make for a busy week of film festivals

A diversity of film events turn up at once, making for a rich and hectic week.

Vito.jpgVito Russo from "Vito" at QDocs
The weather may be hollering, ‘get outside,’ but Portland filmlovers have ample reason to head for the great indoors in the coming week.

Two festivals of note and a barnstorming film tour highlight a truly eclectic crop of movie choices, and we’ve got the skinny on all three.


QDoc
(by Grant Butler)

Portland’s Queer Documentary Film Festival, kicked off at McMenamins Kennedy School on Thursday night with “Wish Me Away,” about country singer Chely Wright, followed by a big party at downtown’s new restaurant Corazon. But the festival kicks into high gear today, with screenings of 11 additional films being held Friday through Sunday. Here are five of the standouts:

“King of Comics”
  German cartoonist Ralf König has been shocking and entertaining readers since the 1980s with his graphic and often hilarious comic books “Gay Comix.” His drawing style is reminiscent of R. Crumb, with a touch of delicious crude humor. This portrait of the artist shows him giving a hilarious reading of some of his best stories, intermixed with a melancholy look at his life, which has involved broken relationships and loneliness, showing there can be tears behind the laughter. This is a 21-and-over screening. (9 p.m. Friday; 80 minutes; Germany) B+

“Question One” 
President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage earlier this month is just the latest chapter in the ongoing debate over marriage equality, and this documentary offers an even-handed look at the emotions on both sides of the issue. In 2009, Maine’s state legislature approved same-sex marriage, prompting a constitutional ballot battle that ended with voters overturning the right to marry by a significant margin. Filmmakers Joe Fox and James Nubile follow both gay activists fighting the ballot measure, as well as Christian supporters and ministers who believe that marriage can only be defined as between a man and a woman. The film captures the complex thoughts and concerns of people on both sides of the referendum — no easy task. The filmmakers and one of their subjects, Darlene Huntress, will be in attendance. (6 p.m. Saturday; 113 minutes; United States) A

“This Is What Love In Action Looks Like” Gay-conversion therapy is one of the most-controversial practices by some churches today. It prompted a national firestorm in 2005 when a Tennessee program called Love In Action became the focal-point of protests after a 16-year-old gay boy was forced into the program by his parents against his wishes. Memphis bloggers and activists began protesting outside the treatment facility, eventually getting the attention of national TV news, leading to the eventual dissolution of the program. This film asks questions about the intersection of Christian faith and free will, and whether any gay-conversion programs have any merit — not just those directed at teens. Director Morgan Jon Fox will be in attendance. (11:30 a.m. Sunday; 70 minutes; United States) B+

“Love Free or Die” 
Gene Robinson made international news when he was made a bishop of the Episcopal Church in New Hampshire in 2003, prompting the Anglican Church to ban him from its 10-year conference of bishops five years later. But Robinson went to England anyway, shadowing the conference with speeches at a handful of churches that dared to invite him to preach. The portrait shows how Robinson’s efforts to get the Episcopal Church to recognize same-sex marriage and the role that gays and lesbians have in the clergy is fleshed out with snapshots of his homelife, including his own marriage to his longtime partner when it became legal in New Hampshire. Director Macky Alston will be in attendance. (4 p.m. Sunday; 82 minutes; United States) A-

“Vito”  Gay film historian Vito Russo helped show the dismal way that Hollywood has treated gays and lesbians on film with his landmark book “The Celluloid Closet” and his live presentations in the 1980s that showed hundreds of examples of homophobia on film. But Russo was more than a scholar, becoming an outspoken activist in the early years of the AIDS crisis, before the disease cut his own life short. Interviews with family, friends, and archival interviews with Russo create a full portrait of someone who loved cinema, and wanted to see gays and lesbians depicted fairly in the medium. Director Jeffrey Schwarz will be in attendance. (7 p.m. Sunday; 93 minutes; United States) A

Full ticket and program information


Adventures in Plymptoons.jpgView full size
The Great Northwest Film Tour
(by Shawn Levy)

The Oscar-nominated cartoonist Bill Plympton is, of course, a native son of Oregon, so it’s only right and proper that he bring a film about his life and art to his home state.  And by that you can take it to mean the whole state -- or as much of it as hosts a McMenamins brewpub movie theater.

“Adventures in Plymptoons,”
directed by Alexia Anastasio and featuring interviews with a great many of Plympton’s peers and chums, both local and national, will play at no fewer eight of the McMenamin brothers’ theaters in a span of nine days.  And Plympton and Anastasio will be on hand throughout the event to discuss their project.  

The tour, which has been mounted by the Oregon Media Production Association trade group, begins on Saturday at the Mission Theater in Portland, followed by screenings at the Old St. Francis School in Bend (Sunday), the Kennedy School in Portland (Tuesday), the Grand Lodge in Forest Grove (Wednesday), the Olympic Club in Centralia, Washington (Thursday), the Edgefield Powerstation in Troutdale (Friday, May 25), the Bagdad Theater in Portland (Saturday, May 26) and the St. Johns Theater in Portland (Sunday, May 27).

Saturday’s event is being billed as an “Industry Premiere,” with many of Portland’s famed animators and filmmakers expected to attend.  And the next-to-last show, on May 26, is a gala fundraiser for the OMPA, with musical performer Weird Al Yankovic  adding to the festivities.

Full ticket and schedule information


EFF Portland.jpgView full size
Experimental Film Festival Portland
(by Shawn Levy)

It’s been a few years since Peripheral Produce has held one of its seminal PDX Film Fests, and that hasn’t been because there’s been a lack of new experimental film projects created in this most creative of towns.  Rather, PDX Fest honcho Matt McCormick has been working busily films of his own and simply hasn’t been up to the heavy task.

With the thought that it would take a whole collective of people to replace McCormick and his team, the filmmakers in the group called Grand Detour have combined their talents to mount a new festival dedicated to film on the margins.  Experimental Film Festival Portland (or, cheekily, EFF Portland) will run from Tuesday, May 22 through Sunday, May 27, with premieres of new works from, among many others, Portlanders Vanessa Renwick, Pam Minty, and Karl Lind.

The several programs, comprising dozens of films in all, bear names like “Eruption,” “Mycology” and “Magma Flow” and screen at various locations around town.  It all climaxes on May 27 with the Dill Pickle Club history group hosting a symposium on experimental film at the Clinton Street Theater,featuring new work from McCormick, Brooke Jacobson and Jim Blashfield, and, later in the day, the premiere of Renwick’s new film, “Charismatic Megafauna,” presented at the Hollywood Theatre with live musical score.

Full ticket and schedule information


‘Mansome’ review: a lighthearted look at the culture of male grooming

The director of "Super Size Me" takes a look at men (like himself) who take care with their appearance.

Mansome.jpgJason Bateman (l.) and Morgan Spurlock in "Mansome"
In “Mansome,” the intrepid, self-revealing documentarian Morgan Spurlock turns his whimsical eye toward contemporary male attitudes about personal grooming.  With the aide of celebrity talking heads (including Will Arnett and Jason Bateman, who co-produced and carry on a film-long conversation during a visit to a day spa), and specialists in such fields as beard-growing, hairpiece manufacture, and body-shaving, it’s a breezy, fleeting film that offers more ‘who knew’ moments than epiphanies.

Spurlock, who risked his health with a fast-food diet in “Super Size Me” and sports a signature handlebar moustache, reveals the stories of a champion beardsman whose life is built around healthy beard growth, a New York businessman who obsessively tweaks his appearance with cosmetic treatments, a professional wrestler who shaves his impressively hairy body every working day, and the manufacturer of a deodorant designed for men to wear in, um, their pants.  These are peppered with cameos by a clutch of famous faces, ranging from Paul Rudd and John Waters, who raise sharp points, to Zach Galifianakis, who adds randomness, to Adam Carolla, whose patter any 12-year-old could predict and write without seeing the film at all.

As I say, there’s not a lot of meat on the bones of “Mansome” -- certainly not compared to, say, the steroid expose “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*.”  Nor is there the sort of zest that infused Spurlock’s last film, “Comic-con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope”  (which appeared in April, bless his busy heart).  But there are a few chuckles, a few head-scratches and, thankfully, very few missteps. It charms.

(82 min., PG-13, Fox Tower) Grade: B


‘Mansome’ review: a lighthearted look at the culture of male grooming

The director of "Super Size Me" takes a look at men (like himself) who take care with their appearance.

Mansome.jpgJason Bateman (l.) and Morgan Spurlock in "Mansome"
In “Mansome,” the intrepid, self-revealing documentarian Morgan Spurlock turns his whimsical eye toward contemporary male attitudes about personal grooming.  With the aide of celebrity talking heads (including Will Arnett and Jason Bateman, who co-produced and carry on a film-long conversation during a visit to a day spa), and specialists in such fields as beard-growing, hairpiece manufacture, and body-shaving, it’s a breezy, fleeting film that offers more ‘who knew’ moments than epiphanies.

Spurlock, who risked his health with a fast-food diet in “Super Size Me” and sports a signature handlebar moustache, reveals the stories of a champion beardsman whose life is built around healthy beard growth, a New York businessman who obsessively tweaks his appearance with cosmetic treatments, a professional wrestler who shaves his impressively hairy body every working day, and the manufacturer of a deodorant designed for men to wear in, um, their pants.  These are peppered with cameos by a clutch of famous faces, ranging from Paul Rudd and John Waters, who raise sharp points, to Zach Galifianakis, who adds randomness, to Adam Carolla, whose patter any 12-year-old could predict and write without seeing the film at all.

As I say, there’s not a lot of meat on the bones of “Mansome” -- certainly not compared to, say, the steroid expose “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*.”  Nor is there the sort of zest that infused Spurlock’s last film, “Comic-con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope”  (which appeared in April, bless his busy heart).  But there are a few chuckles, a few head-scratches and, thankfully, very few missteps. It charms.

(82 min., PG-13, Fox Tower) Grade: B


‘The Dictator’ review: in a tired fiction, Sacha Baron Cohen loses his comic bite

He's still crude and sometimes quite funny, but there's little electricity in the make-believe compared to his real-world exploits, and the result is Sandler-esque.

The Dictator.jpgSacha Baron Cohen in "The Dictator"
Sacha Baron Cohen occupies a unique space in the comedy world.  In three personae invented on TV and enlarged for movie screens -- Ali G, Borat and Bruno -- he ambushed celebrities, public figures and ordinary Britons and Americans, reveling in crude humor, trafficking in vile stereotypes, and, alarmingly often, getting his subject/victims to reveal their own prejudices and dark sides.

It was frequently sophomoric and often quite hilarious, but it was also a finite enterprise:  as the career of Michael Moore demonstrates, a fellow can only catch other folks by surprise for so long before the echo of his own fame precedes him and his access to unguarded sources dries up.

And so Cohen and his team -- director Larry Charles and a cohort of writers who worked on “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” -- have invented a new character who shares some attributes with the comedian’s other false faces but who lives inside a fictional world, which rather blunts the satire.  “The Dictator,” the lumpy comedy in which this new fellow appears, feels not so much like a sibling of Cohen’s brilliant TV work or the stupefying “Borat” and “Bruno” movies as it does a cousin with only some of the genetic gifts its relatives enjoys.

Cohen plays Supreme Leader Aladeen, president-for-life of the fictional North African nation of Wadiya, which he rules with callous brutality.  When Aladeen addresses the United Nations on the subject of Wadiya’s nuclear weapons program, he is kidnapped and stripped of power by a scheming underling (Ben Kingsley) who plans to democratize the nation in order to exploit its oil reserves.  Aladeen survives the coup but is left to the mercies of modern New York, which is filled with the sorts of people whom he has mercilessly despised and belittled throughout his life.  

He’s taken in by Zoe (Anna Faris), the over-eager operator of a politically correct grocery, and has a chance encounter with Nuclear Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), a Wadiyan scientist whom Aladeen had ordered to be executed years earlier (all of his victims, learns, actually had their lives spared by an executioner disloyal to the regime).  Together, the two exiles plan to scuttle the plans for regime change in Wadiya, restore Aladeen’s despotic monarchy, and get back to building nukes.

All of this is an excuse for one outrageous, grotesque, gratuitous joke after another.  Like Cohen’s other personae, Aladeen is a seething mass of biases and bigotries, and he continually hates on and debases women, minorities, celebrities, children, old folks, ordinary Americans, and, really, anyone who wanders through into his gaze.  Some of it is funny, and much of it is shocking, but little of it has the satiric impact or sense of danger that accompanied the antics of Cohen’s previous characters, who risked the chance of having political or cultural figures explode at them or ordinary folks -- often mobs of them -- beat them up.  Here, in a purely fictional context, it’s all make-believe, and the sparks that occasionally result from the cheek and the crudeness aren’t nearly so bright.  (And Charles, needless to remind anyone, is no one’s idea of a master comic filmmaker.)

For all its boundary-pushing, “The Dictator” only once makes you feel truly uncomfortable, very near the end, when Aladeen lists the qualities that make a nation a dictatorship and virtually anatomizes the contemporary American political, economic, journalistic and cultural milieu.  But that moment, a weird inversion of Charlie Chaplin’s famous paean to human rights at the end of “The Great Dictator,” doesn’t resonate amid the caustic frivolity of the rest.  “The Dictator” has a few laughs along its bumpy path, but not enough of them to indicate that Cohen has found a means to escape the shadows of his early career and forge a second act for himself.

(82 min., R, multiple locations) Grade: C-plus


Levy’s High Five, May 11 – 17

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

The Deep Blue Sea window.jpgRachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston in "The Deep Blue Sea"
1) “The Deep Blue Sea” Terence Davies is the finest director you’ve likely never heard of, probably because his best films -- the quiet, devastating semi-autobiographical “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and “The Long Day Closes” -- were made more than two decades ago and he’s only had one film (“The House of Mirth,” an anomaly, really) get even a modest release since.  Here, adapting Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play about a passionate woman (Rachel Weisz), her stodgy husband (Simon Russell Beale) and her unreliable lover (Tom Hiddleston), his immense, inimitable gifts for image-making and, especially, turning film into something like music are in full power.  The effect is sometimes funny, sometimes dramatic, sometimes absolutely ravishing.  Davies is a master, and this is his most accessible film.  See it.  Living Room Theaters

2) “The Raid: Redemption” An ultra-violent, wildly kinetic martial arts film that virtually strips itself of the narrative conventions of plot, theme and characterization to create a white-knuckle thrill ride.  Writer-director Gareth Evans, a Welshman living in Indonesia, takes the simplest story -- a squad of cops attacks a Jakarta apartment house where a crime lord is ensconced -- and uses it to string together wild action sequences that leave the viewer as exhausted as if he or she had fought them.  His stars -- Iko Uwais as a baby-faced cop and Yayan Ruhian (who also choreographed) as a stringy-haired bad guy -- are dazzling.  The whole thing is pure cinema: the human body rendered as a machine capable of mayhem, daring, and, yes, grace. Academy, Laurelhurst

3) “Bully” An emotionally overwhelming documentary about threads of violence in our social fabric.  Focusing on five or children who’ve been tormented and abused by schoolmates, two so relentlessly that they took their own lives, documentarian Lee Hirsch advocates without the use of any talking heads, statistics or editorial posturing.  Rather, his film actually depicts everyday acts of bullying and -- worse -- the ineffective and even hurtful responses of school authorities.  At times, the pity, outrage and empathy the evokes threaten to drown you.  But there’s a hint of light, too.  At moments you might feel slightly manipulated.  But when you look into the eyes of two fathers whose sons killed themselves rather than continue to be bullied, quibbles about journalist practice vanish from your mind. Fox Tower

4) “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”  Jiro Ono is the owner of a Tokyo sushi bar with 10 seats and 3 Michelin stars, and David Gelb’s gorgeous and intimate documentary about the man and his obsession gives you an idea of how that can not only be so but be fitting.  Jiro and his two sons (bound to the chef’s apron strings, almost literally) devote untold hours of work and thought to the perfection of sushi-making, turning a sometimes makework form of cookery into indisputably high art.  At 85, the old master still works virtually every day, and the fruit of his focus is in servings of raw fish and warm rice photographed so lusciously that you can almost taste them.  A mouthwatering film:  literally.  Laurelhurst, Living Room Theaters

5) "The Cabin in the Woods" A slasher movie inside a horror movie of another sort inside yet another narrative, one which looks out and the audience and asks why they (that is, we) keep lining up to watch other people get slaughtered.  A group of college students head to the titular location for a weekend’s bacchanal, only to be preyed upon and killed in grisly fashion, as per the familiar genre rules.  At the same time, a group of bureaucrats/scientists in a control room manipulate the victims and their killers in the service of...something.  Director Drew Goddard and his co-writer Joss Whedon have fun in the vein of “Scream” and in the vein of “The Truman Show” -- and they come up with an intriguing theory to explain the allure of horror films as well as a (literal) hell of a climax. Bloody, funny, clever. multiple locations




‘Headhunters’ review: the tables turn terrifyingly on a yuppie art thief

An agreeable Norwegian comic thriller with touches of the Coen brothers.

Headhunters.jpgAksel Hennie in "Headhunters"
Like a Norwegian cousin of a Coen brothers film, “Headhunters” presents us with a dislikeable protagonist and then heaps so much woe and misfortune on him so gleefully that we come to feel a rising sympathy for the poor devil.  

Aksel Hennie stars as Roger Brown, an obnoxious corporate headhunter who’s self-conscious about being married to a gorgeous (and taller) woman.  Feeling he must keep his missus happy, he augments his already sizeable income -- by stealing works of art from his business clients and replacing them with near-replicas.  In the process what ought to be the biggest score of this second ‘career,’ Roger discovers a secret which shatters him and then must flee for his life from a bloodthirsty mercenary (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau).

Director Morten Tyldum (“Fallen Angels”), working from a novel by Jo Nesbø, nicely balances slickness, terror, comedy and the grotesque, and Hennie is almost too perfect in the lead, particularly in his insufferable early stages.  

It’s a light entertainment -- provided you can be entertained by watching Roger suffer and quake as he does.  And, almost inevitably, it’s been identified for a potential Hollywood remake.  Do yourself a favor and see this one before some Yank director gets it all wrong.
    
(100 min., R, Cinema 21) Grade: B-plus


‘Dark Shadows’ review: a bloodless spoof with neither laughs nor chills

The eighth collaboration of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp is their most lifeless and least necessary yet.

Dark Shadows.jpgJohnny Depp in "Dark Shadows"
Tim Burton and Johnny Depp need some fresh air.

Their new film “Dark Shadows” marks their eighth collaboration in 22 years and fifth since 2005. In all those films, Depp has only once played an ordinary  human being in non-fantasy costume...and that was as the cross-dressing schlockmeister hero of the terrific “Ed Wood.”  

In all of their other work together -- “Edward Scissorhands,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Corpse Bride,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “Alice in Wonderland” -- Depp has played deeply outré characters in flamboyant outfits, wigs and makeup, sometimes finding human emotion beneath the grotesquerie but more often, and more commonly as time has passed, wandering off into self-amusement and obscurity.

This can be fun, I grant you.  Nobody in movies has ever quite had Depp’s gift for disappearing into so many variations on the comic and the bizarre, and Burton is almost always audacious in mounting spectacles born of youthful fantasies and nightmares.  But the two have returned so often to a single brand of inspiration that they no longer spark a frisson -- in the audience or, one suspects, in each other.  There’s a dulling sameness to the characters, the themes, the tenor.  Oh, sometimes the comedy is in the depravity and sometimes vice versa, but it’s all been cut from the same cloth, and after all this time the cloth has worn so thin that it’s become transparent.

And so “Dark Shadows,” in which the pair attempt to sprinkle their fairy dust on the gothic daytime soap opera that became a national sensation in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, making an unlikely pop hero of the vampire Barnabas Collins whose family manor, Collinwood, was the setting for the show.  (Collins was played by Jonathan Frid, who died in April and has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo as a party guest in this film.)

In the hands of Burton and at least three writers, much of the original tale remains in place: after two centuries of entombment, Barnabas is awoken to find that the year is 1972, the Collins family’s fortunes have crumbled, his old-time nemesis, the witch Angelique, runs the town of Collinsport, and his long-dead love, Josette, has been reincarnated, or seems to have been, as the governess Victoria Winters.

But, really, it’s more set-up than story:  the film grinds through a number of subplots that don’t resonate with one another and don’t add up to a narrative with any momentum or tension.  There’s some gore and some CGI tomfoolery, but mainly Burton plays it for laughs, making it all the more depressing that so little of it is funny:  Depp’s delivery and arcane argot can amuse, the conventions of soap opera craft are drily mocked, and there are one or two cheeky bits about Barnabas’ encounters with modernity, but that’s it.  For hours.  It’s a slog.

Depp, as I say, almost can’t help but hold your interest, but watching him work yet another variation on this mock-morbid trope most certainly neither surprises nor excites.  Chloë Grace Moretz charms a mite as a rebellious young Collins, and Helena Bonham Carter has some fun as a drunken psychiatrist.  But Eva Green as Barnabas’s foe, Bella Heathcote as his love interest, and Michelle Pfeiffer as the modern head of the Collins family are bloodless, no matter the energies they expend.

Indeed, ‘bloodless’ is the word for the whole enterprise.  Lord knows that Burton is an inventive fellow, and he’s capable of bringing all sorts of esoteric to pulsing life.  But it’s been a long time since he’s made a start-to-finish satisfying film -- and, perhaps coincidentally, nine years since he’s made one without Depp.  That walk in the fresh air that I suggested the two of them need?  I should add that it would be best if they took it in opposite directions....
    
(111 min., PG-13, multiple locations) Grade: C


Levy’s High Five, May 4 – 10

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

The Deep Blue Sea pub.jpgTom Hiddleston and Rachel Weisz in "The Deep Blue Sea"
1) “The Deep Blue Sea” Terence Davies is the finest director you’ve likely never heard of, probably because his best films -- the quiet, devastating semi-autobiographical “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and “The Long Day Closes” -- were made more than two decades ago and he’s only had one film (“The House of Mirth,” an anomaly, really) get even a modest release since.  Here, adapting Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play about a passionate woman (Rachel Weisz), her stodgy husband (Simon Russell Beale) and her unreliable lover (Tom Hiddleston), his immense, inimitable gifts for image-making and, especially, turning film into something like music are in full power.  The effect is sometimes funny, sometimes dramatic, sometimes absolutely ravishing.  Davies is a master, and this is his most accessible film.  See it.  Cinema 21

2) “The Raid: Redemption” An ultra-violent, wildly kinetic martial arts film that virtually strips itself of the narrative conventions of plot, theme and characterization to create a white-knuckle thrill ride.  Writer-director Gareth Evans, a Welshman living in Indonesia, takes the simplest story -- a squad of cops attacks a Jakarta apartment house where a crime lord is ensconced -- and uses it to string together wild action sequences that leave the viewer as exhausted as if he or she had fought them.  His stars -- Iko Uwais as a baby-faced cop and Yayan Ruhian (who also choreographed) as a stringy-haired bad guy -- are dazzling.  The whole thing is pure cinema: the human body rendered as a machine capable of mayhem, daring, and, yes, grace. Academy, Laurelhurst

3) “Bully” An emotionally overwhelming documentary about threads of violence in our social fabric.  Focusing on five or children who’ve been tormented and abused by schoolmates, two so relentlessly that they took their own lives, documentarian Lee Hirsch advocates without the use of any talking heads, statistics or editorial posturing.  Rather, his film actually depicts everyday acts of bullying and -- worse -- the ineffective and even hurtful responses of school authorities.  At times, the pity, outrage and empathy the evokes threaten to drown you.  But there’s a hint of light, too.  At moments you might feel slightly manipulated.  But when you look into the eyes of two fathers whose sons killed themselves rather than continue to be bullied, quibbles about journalist practice vanish from your mind. Fox Tower

4) “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”  Jiro Ono is the owner of a Tokyo sushi bar with 10 seats and 3 Michelin stars, and David Gelb’s gorgeous and intimate documentary about the man and his obsession gives you an idea of how that can not only be so but be fitting.  Jiro and his two sons (bound to the chef’s apron strings, almost literally) devote untold hours of work and thought to the perfection of sushi-making, turning a sometimes makework form of cookery into indisputably high art.  At 85, the old master still works virtually every day, and the fruit of his focus is in servings of raw fish and warm rice photographed so lusciously that you can almost taste them.  A mouthwatering film:  literally.  Hollywood Theatre, Living Room Theaters

5) "The Cabin in the Woods" A slasher movie inside a horror movie of another sort inside yet another narrative, one which looks out and the audience and asks why they (that is, we) keep lining up to watch other people get slaughtered.  A group of college students head to the titular location for a weekend’s bacchanal, only to be preyed upon and killed in grisly fashion, as per the familiar genre rules.  At the same time, a group of bureaucrats/scientists in a control room manipulate the victims and their killers in the service of...something.  Director Drew Goddard and his co-writer Joss Whedon have fun in the vein of “Scream” and in the vein of “The Truman Show” -- and they come up with an intriguing theory to explain the allure of horror films as well as a (literal) hell of a climax. Bloody, funny, clever. multiple locations



‘The Avengers’ review: They assemble, they fight, and then they fight some more

Joss Whedon's film manages the hard part of building a team of superheroes but is a bit puzzled trying to figure out what to do with them

Avengers -- Thor Iron Man Cap Am.jpgView full sizeAvengers assembled: Thor, Iron Man and Captain America (from l.)
It may not be based on a work of, in the old-fashioned sense, literature, but a movie like “The Avengers” is, in some crucial ways, quite like an adaptation of Shakespeare or Dickens.  

Certain characters, plots, phrases, even props must be handled just so or the director risks losing the good will of those who know a thing or two about it all.  Yes, there must be enough in the final product to appeal to non-initiates.  But if the core audience is lost -- as it was, say, with “Hulk” (2003) and “The Incredible Hulk” (2008), to pick two loaded examples -- then the filmmakers might as well have stayed home with their comic collections, because they’ll find little love from outside the target crowd.

The happy news, then, about “The Avengers” is that the screenwriters (director Joss Whedon and Zak Penn), have done a splendid job of bringing an entire universe of characters together and to life with fidelity to the letter and the spirit of the source material.  Gathering threads from a string of franchise-type films featuring Captain America, Iron Man and Thor, resurrecting the Hulk convincingly after two botched films in less than a decade, adding new characters and an overarching plot that intertwines it all, “The Avengers” pretty much offers up anything a fanboy (or -girl) would want from such a film.  

And neutrals are likely to go for it as well, I reckon, for its wit, its pace, and its bang, even if it does expend itself on a third act that doesn’t add much to the drama.  Save for that showy finale -- which endures quite a while, although not without some highlights and pizzazz -- it’s a pip.

The fulcrum of “The Avengers” is Nick Fury, the eyepatch-sporting spymaster who has been played by Samuel L. Jackson in a number of teasers leading up to this film.  Fury and his organization, S. H. I. E. L. D., serve as a liaison between military-slash-political powers and various superheroes scattered around the world.  In the course of his work, Fury has thawed Captain America from decades of icy sleep, worked with Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) on developing weapons, served as a contact with the Norse god Thor during his time on Earth, and employed the assassins Black Widow and Hawkeye in various shadowy missions.  

When “The Avengers” starts, Fury is in possession of the tesseract, a mysterious and powerful cube which Captain America prised away from the Nazis long ago.  Fury’s scientists are attempting to turn the mysterious whatsits into a source of clean, cheap energy -- among other things -- when it’s stolen from them by Loki, Thor’s evil brother, who wishes to rule mankind as a tyrant.  Loki plans to use the tesseract to open a gateway through space and facilitate an alien invasion of Earth, and Fury must roundup all his superhero buddies to stop him.

And so, as in “Seven Samurai” and “Mystery Men” and other films about gaggles of do-gooders, a team is gathered.  Captain America (Chris Evans) is, of course, on board from the get-go, as is Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who is in mid-mission when she’s summoned.  Stark/Iron Man is recruited with relative ease, but it takes real delicacy to bring in Bruce Banner (aka the Hulk, played as a man by Mark Ruffalo and as a CGI beast with the voice of TV’s Hulk, Lou Ferrigno).  Thor (Chris Hemsworth) appears out of thin air, ready to help, but Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), has been brainwashed into badness by Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and must regain his senses to round out the classic Avengers lineup.

This portion of the film -- the assembling of the team -- is the best part of “The Avengers.”  There’s real humor in the byplay of altruistic Captain America and cynical Iron Man, and real wit, mystery and tension as Banner tries to control his inner behemoth.  (If nothing else, this is easily the best Hulk on film:  Ruffalo’s slightly twitchy chagrin is a perfect vessel for such a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality.)  Johansson brings a pleasant heft to her role; Hemsworth, achieving the impossible, makes Thor both human and funny; and Hiddleston relishes the chance to play a classic upper-crust English-accented villain with a sneer worthy of Alan Rickman.

Once they’re all in place, though, the film falters -- although, to be fair, it never exactly stalls or gets dull.  There’s a long sequence of plot exposition and fighting aboard Fury’s impressive flying fortress, followed by a long sequence of plot exposition and fighting in midtown Manhattan.  Some of this is spectacular and some of it is funny (two sight gags involving the Hulk and the Norse gods are priceless).  But it isn’t exactly novel or inspired.  And there’s a lot of it.

For the most part, Whedon has made a light and spry film out of humongous, cumbersome parts, and that’s to be lauded.  But he’s not a natural director of action sequences, and perhaps this is why he builds them bigger than they need to be -- as if to compensate for their lack of sharpness.  Writer Whedon is clever enough to add moments of levity even to the gigantic action sequences, but director Whedon is sufficiently pedestrian to require them, and the latter fellow’s sensibility too often blunts that of the other, brighter fellow.  

Perhaps this is too much attention to the film’s weaknesses, because even with the flaws of the final half, “The Avengers” is grand, brisk fun.  It comes tantalizingly close to reaching the level of the very best comic book films of the current generation:  Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, Sam Raimi’s first two “Spider-Man” films, and the debuts of Iron Man and Captain America.  That “The Avengers” is as good as it is should be celebrated, by fans and noobs alike.  But that it might have been better can’t be denied, even by zealots.
    
(140 min., PG-13, multiple locations) Grade: B


‘We Have a Pope’ review: the wrong man for the job

Overwhelmed by the thought of his new position, a would-be-Pope flees the Vatican -- and silliness ensues

We Have A Pope.jpgMichel Piccoli in "We Have a Pope"
There’s a peach of a set-up to Nanni Moretti’s new comedy, “We Have a Pope,” and a fine performance in the middle.  But the film wastes itself on silliness and scattered threads before very long, truly squandering a brilliant promise.

At the start, a Pope has died, and the College of Cardinals is united in the Vatican to elect a successor.  After a few days of balloting, a dark horse is chosen, Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli), and just as he is to be presented to the waiting world he suffers a crisis of nerve, bellowing “I can’t do it!” and fleeing into the privacy of the papal apartments.  

His colleagues can’t budge the new Pope into service, so a psychiatrist (Moretti) is called in to help, which becomes impossible with so many prying eyes at the Vatican.  A lay official (Jerzy Stuhr) has the idea to take the Pope out to see a therapist who doesn’t know his true identity, but the slippery pontiff escapes his handlers and vanishes into greater Rome.

The premise is truly inspired, the settings are handsome, and the 86-year-old Piccoli is superb in the role of a reluctant Vicar of Christ, his doubts and hopes and fears playing across his face like clouds (and recalling his role in Manoel de Oliveira’s 2001 film “I’m Going Home”).   

But Moretti fritters away his star’s fine performance amid side plots about a theatrical troupe among whom the Pope hides and a volleyball tournament which the psychiatrist organizes for the cardinals, and the human and religious drama is lost in grating frivolity.  “We Have a Pope” didn’t need to be a stone-serious film, but little is served by turning it into a farce.
    
(105 min., unrated, probably PG, Living Room Theaters) Grade: B-minus


Movies: a ravishing ‘Sea,’ quirky ‘Damsels,’ a funny ‘Goon’ and more

Reviews of this week's new releases from today's A&E.

The Deep Blue Sea.jpgTom Hiddleston and Rachel Weisz in "The Deep Blue Sea"
What a busy, eclectic weekend -- and so many reviews!  We recommend some little films:  the deeply emotional tale of heartbreak and passion "The Deep Blue Sea"; the bloody and profane hockey comedy "Goon"; and the offbeat campus comedy "Damsels in Distress."  We also like one of the big releases -- the animated "Pirates! Band of Misfits" -- but cannot recommend the Edgar Allen Poe-as-crimefighter movie "The Raven" or the rom-com "The Five-Year Engagement."  And, reliably: "Also Opening," "Indie/Arthouse" and "Levy's High Five."

Levy’s High Five, April 27 – May 3

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

The Deep Blue Sea window.jpg Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston in "The Deep Blue Sea"
1) “The Deep Blue Sea” Terence Davies is the finest director you’ve likely never heard of, probably because his best films -- the quiet, devastating semi-autobiographical “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and “The Long Day Closes” -- were made more than two decades ago and he’s only had one film (“The House of Mirth,” an anomaly, really) get even a modest release since.  Here, adapting Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play about a passionate woman (Rachel Weisz), her stodgy husband (Simon Russell Beale) and her unreliable lover (Tom Hiddleston), his immense, inimitable gifts for image-making and, especially, turning film into something like music are in full power.  The effect is sometimes funny, sometimes dramatic, sometimes absolutely ravishing.  Davies is a master, and this is his most accessible film.  See it.  Cinema 21

2) “Bully” An emotionally overwhelming documentary about threads of violence in our social fabric.  Focusing on five or children who’ve been tormented and abused by schoolmates, two so relentlessly that they took their own lives, documentarian Lee Hirsch advocates without the use of any talking heads, statistics or editorial posturing.  Rather, his film actually depicts everyday acts of bullying and -- worse -- the ineffective and even hurtful responses of school authorities.  At times, the pity, outrage and empathy the evokes threaten to drown you.  But there’s a hint of light, too.  At moments you might feel slightly manipulated.  But when you look into the eyes of two fathers whose sons killed themselves rather than continue to be bullied, quibbles about journalist practice vanish from your mind. Fox Tower

3) “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”  Jiro Ono is the owner of a Tokyo sushi bar with 10 seats and 3 Michelin stars, and David Gelb’s gorgeous and intimate documentary about the man and his obsession gives you an idea of how that can not only be so but be fitting.  Jiro and his two sons (bound to the chef’s apron strings, almost literally) devote untold hours of work and thought to the perfection of sushi-making, turning a sometimes makework form of cookery into indisputably high art.  At 85, the old master still works virtually every day, and the fruit of his focus is in servings of raw fish and warm rice photographed so lusciously that you can almost taste them.  A mouthwatering film:  literally.  Hollywood Theatre, Living Room Theaters

4) "The Cabin in the Woods" A slasher movie inside a horror movie of another sort inside yet another narrative, one which looks out and the audience and asks why they (that is, we) keep lining up to watch other people get slaughtered.  A group of college students head to the titular location for a weekend’s bacchanal, only to be preyed upon and killed in grisly fashion, as per the familiar genre rules.  At the same time, a group of bureaucrats/scientists in a control room manipulate the victims and their killers in the service of...something.  Director Drew Goddard and his co-writer Joss Whedon have fun in the vein of “Scream” and in the vein of “The Truman Show” -- and they come up with an intriguing theory to explain the allure of horror films as well as a (literal) hell of a climax. Bloody, funny, clever. multiple locations

5) “Goon”
In the spirit of the immortal “Slap Shot,” in which that nice old Paul Newman put on ice skates and got all potty-mouthed, Seann William Scott, of all people, absolutely kills as a sweet knucklehead who finds his niche in life punching out people as a minor league hockey player.  Director Michael Dowse, working from a script co-written by actor Jay Baruchel, who has a key supporting role, dives with real relish into bawdy humor and truly unsportsmanlike conduct.  It’s often hilarious, even if it doesn’t really amount to much.  And Liev Schreiber is dry, flinty fun as a grizzled hockey enforcer.  Hollywood Theatre






‘The Deep Blue Sea’ review: a master filmmaker dives into the waters of love and pain

Fine performances and overwhelming film craft tell the story of a woman who leaves a secure home for a passionate affair.

The Deep Blue Sea pub.jpgTom Hiddleston and Rachel Weisz in "The Deep Blue Sea"
There are filmmakers -- precious few -- whose artistic touch and temperament are recognizable in just a few seconds of footage or a few moments of sound.  The English director Terence Davies is one of them, a true master of the medium who has made films so small and unassuming that his name is all but unknown save to the most eggheaded cinephiles.

In his best, most personal works -- which, in my view, are the coming-of-age films “Distant Voices, Still Lives” (1988) and “The Long Day Closes” (1992) -- Davies crafts small, cramped worlds and stifled, frustrated emotions through the use of a dark, foggy lens, long, fluent camera moves, gently muddled time lines, and, most memorably, scenes of communal singing:  working class Britons of the pre-TV age (Davies was born in 1945) rousing their spirits -- amorous, religious, patriotic, festive -- by filling pubs and sitting rooms with the melodious words of Robert Burns or Johnny Mercer, expressing feelings as a group that they’re otherwise unable to as individuals.

There are two such scenes in “The Deep Blue Sea,” Davies’  first dramatic feature in more than a decade and a relatively accessible movie that could pull him out of the shadows of the arthouse.  Which is ironic, considering that, like much of Davies’ work, it is a shadowy film, laced with mournfulness, rue and pain, albeit with a vigorous strain of frequently breathtaking beauty running through it.

The film is an adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play (filmed previously in 1955) about Hester Collyer, a London woman who has left her stodgy older husband to live with a fiery younger man.  Hester has forsaken privilege and security (her husband is a judge and a Lord) for passion and risk (her beau is a World War II flying ace with no job prospects).  Lost in love and in the labyrinth of her choices, left alone in a dreary flat on her birthday, Hester undertakes a suicide attempt, which starts the movie and sparks a weekend of confrontations, revelations and resolutions.

Filling the roles, almost ideally, are Rachel Weisz, sensual and knowing as Hester, Tom Hiddleston, rakish but self-doubting as her lover, and Simon Russell Beale, stuffy and mother-cowed as her husband.  (Barbara Jefford has a marvelously acrid turn as that mother, by the way.)  It’s no insult to Davies or the film to suggest that these players are so deft as to make you think they’d honed their roles during a long stage run; not a note in any of their performances is excessive or misplaced.  They maintain the decorousness befitting the post-war setting while conveying earthy human impulses -- lust or anger or righteousness or pity or regret -- with modern vigor.  It’s a tiny ensemble, but it’s splendid.

And splendid, too, is Davies’ direction.  We slip in and out of time, now in bed with the lovers entwined as in classical statuary, now in a choked, polite confrontation between estranged spouses, now in a station of the Underground waiting out a Nazi bombardment with an unsteady chorus of “Molly Malone,” now watching outside a phone box as Hester offers the whole of her heart in exchange for next-to-nothing.  From the opening frames, in which children play in the bombed-out wreckage of a London home, we are in a master’s hands.  “The Deep Blue Sea” isn’t a big or bold or conventionally ambitious film.  It’s only a superb one -- which, I fear, may not be enough to garner it the attention it deserves.  Feel free to prove me wrong.
    
(98 min., R, Cinema 21) Grade: A-minus


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