Thursday, January 30, 2014

ENOUGH SAID...LAST VEGAS...24 EXPOSURES



Eva  massages people for a living. Her clients, for the most part, are disgusting. They have bad breath, they talk too much, and one of them is so dense that he stands at the top of his stairway while she lugs her massage table up to his place; the guy never offers to help, even as she struggles. It's a lousy way to make a buck, but she's divorced, and doesn't have much going for herself. In a way, rubbing the backs of these slobs is the only contact she has with humanity.

One night she attends a party and meets Marianne, a poet who is wealthy and lovely and knows Joni Mitchell. Eva also meets Albert, a bear of a man with a disarming smile.  Eva takes on the former as a client  - she is delighted to massage someone who isn't gross - and starts dating Albert. Life, for a change, is looking good. She and Albert are comfortable with each other.  They grow close. Eva grows close to Marianne, too. Marianne (Catherine Keener) is flighty and needs a friend. Eva then learns that Marianne and Albert were once married. She tries to keep her friendship with Marianne a secret from Albert, but as Marianne is constantly bad-mouthing her ex, Eva's view of her precious new boyfriend is being slowly poisoned.

All of this may sound like a sitcom episode, maybe because Enough Said stars longtime TV favorites Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini as Eva and Albert, while writer/director   Nicole Holofcener has an extensive television background.  As we watch Eva try to squirm out of the situation, it's hard not to think this might have made a nice Seinfeld. Yet, Gandolfini and Louis-Dreyfus have a nice chemistry. You want Eva to ignore Marianne's influence and stay with Albert. Because Eva's painted as a wishy-washy person, you're not sure which way she'll go. That's what makes the movie work.

The story brings up an intriguing point that is very true: no matter how much you may like someone, there's a chance that someone else considers them a loser, which is the word Marianne uses to describe Albert. Unfortunately, the movie has too many subplots about various friends and neighbors; sometimes these side stories distract from the main plot.  Still, the two leads are wonderful here. I like how this middle-aged pair are as shy as kids at first, sharing an awkward kiss, moving cautiously, knowing they have stumbled into something that might be special. Their performances are enough to lift a standard romantic comedy into something quite watchable.

 
The quartet of Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Kevin Kline, and Morgan Freeman could probably elevate even the dreariest of movies, even in this era when movies have been dumbed down to an embarrassing level. The four old champs do exactly that in Last Vegas,  about four men on the cusp of 70 hitting Las Vegas for a bachelor party. It's the sort of scenario that you just know will feature a lot of Viagra jokes, and you also know at least one of the guys will end up dancing with a female impersonator.  But while those predictable gags are here, there are just enough fair one-liners, plus the presence of the four stars, to make the film palatable. 

Douglas' character, the glossy one of the bunch, is getting married to a much younger woman. He invites the other three to the wedding, and as usually happens in films of this sort, old hostilities rise to the surface. Douglas, you see, didn't show up for De Niro's wife's funeral a year earlier. They had once vied for the same girl back in their Brooklyn childhood. De Niro got her. Now, things get sticky in Las Vegas when both De Niro and Douglas set eyes on a lounge singer played by Mary Steenburgen. Of course, friendship conquers all, and the film moves briskly to its pat, predictable outcome.

De Niro is fine here as the dark cloud of the group, a sad widower who seems unable to enjoy himself. Freeman, too, delivers his usual solid performance. Kline and Douglas mug it up. Douglas still seems to be playing Liberace, and Kline is too urbane to be a believable Brooklyn boy from Flatbush. Only De Niro and Freeman appear to wear their roles comfortably. Still, there's something sort of fun about seeing these four actors together. The film turned a profit during its winter release, so we can probably expect another like it real soon. Highlight: One of the guys from HBO's Entourage harasses the crew on the dance floor of a Las Vegas nightclub. De Niro drops him with a left hook. A nation cheered. At least I did.
24 Exposures is the sort of snide, hastily assembled film that gets made these days because it's become increasingly easier to make a low budget feature.  This one is about a "fetish photographer" who shoots pictures of women posed as murder victims.  It was such an underwhelming film that I'm hardpressed to recall details, but there are some lesbians here, and a loopy cop, and an angry boyfriend, and a lot of amateurish acting. The film is presented with absolutely no style, no humor, no intrigue. Adam Wingard plays the photographer as a giggling lech. One woman tries to kill another in a bathtub. I'm sure there was more to it, but sometimes it's fruitless to make sense of a bad movie. The impression I get is that  director Joe Swanberg wanted this to be like an early Brian De Palma film, but it turned out more like a Doris Wishman.   Seriously, some of the acting here is as bad as in Wishman's old nudie flicks. I'll give some credit to Simon Barrett as the psycho cop. He was bearable, a step up from Doris Wishman and well into Ed Wood territory.



Monday, January 27, 2014

NEBRASKA...ALL IS LOST...





I've never been to Nebraska, but between the old Bruce Springsteen album and the new film by Alexander Payne, I have a pretty good idea of the place: long, lonesome highways, little old churches, and people who haven't done or seen much, because there simply isn't much there to do or see. Springsteen wrote about the desperation and anger of the place. In Payne's Nebraska, we see the flip-side: the ennui and the small-mindedness that comes from such provincialism. Grudges last a long time there, and everyone knows everyone else's business.
 
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) left a long time ago for Billings Montana, but he thinks he's won a million dollars in a bogus mail order contest, and the only way he can claim his money is to appear at the contest's promotional headquarters in Lincoln. The problem is that he's very old and can't drive himself. He recruits his son David (Will Forte) to take him. David  assures him that the contest is a sham, but he likes the idea of hitting the road for a few days because he's dealing with his own problems, namely a dreary job selling audio equipment, and a girlfriend who has just left him. David also hopes to spend a little time with the old man before it's too late. Woody's mind is wandering. It won't be long before he's in a nursing home, unable to fend for himself.

Along the way, we learn a lot about Woody. He was not a great father, nor was he a great husband. He drank too much, and cheated on his wife. He was also a man who couldn't say no to anyone, and was often taken advantage of in his younger days, which might account for why he left Nebraska. The script by Bob Nelson parses out the information in small doses, but by the end of the film we have a complete picture of this old man. Dern, who grunts and seems dazed for most of the film, plays the role as if distracted by something that weighs heavily on him. The future, perhaps, or his lack of one.
 
Payne made another film similar to this one, About Schmidt starring Jack Nicholson. Payne has matured as a filmmaker since then, for that previous film relied on a kind of gross slapstick for laughs, and occasionally turned maudlin. Nebraska is a sharper, more sophisticated version of a similar story of a man returning to his past, visiting some old haunts, and relying on a pipe dream: Schmidt was futilely trying to break up his daughter's wedding; Woody Grant wants to collect his money so he can buy a new truck. It's a smaller dream, but perhaps the theme of Nebraska is that even the smallest of dreams can leave a man broken.

Where Payne hasn't changed is in his habit of showing ignorant locals and fat people with bad haircuts in hopes of getting a cheap laugh. He displays the citizens of Hawthorne NE as if he's bringing us into a carnival of grotesques. Now, if Federico Fellini did this I'd think it was fine, so maybe I should give Payne a break. Payne also happens to be a Nebraska native, so maybe he's just having a little fun. Still, I never get the sense that Payne loves these Hawthorne characters, the way I sense Martin Scorsese loves every last hoodlum in his movies.

But Payne does seem to have an affection for every roadside attraction and cheap barroom in the neighborhood, all recorded lovingly in black and white by veteran cinematographer Phedon Papamichael.  By not filming in color, Payne and Papamichael create an  empty, barren Nebraska, where everyone seems to have spent a lifetime standing in the wind. The coldness of the place is especially visceral when they focus on the farmland that seems so vast and depressing. If the people here move slowly, it's because there's so much damned land to cover. Even the cows seem still as concrete, as if they'd given up long ago.

 
There are some great performances in Nebraska. I particularly liked Stacy Keach as an old friend of Woody's who has a nasty side; June Squibb as Woody's wife, who seems like a ballbuster but actually maintains a well-guarded fondness for the coot; Bob Odenkirk as Woody's oldest son; and Angela McEwen as the editor of the local newspaper. The scene where Forte learns she was once a girlfriend of Woody's  is one of the best in the movie. The players cast as Woody's extended family are great at showing the pettiness that erupts when they learn Woody may be a millionaire.
 
Dern deserves the accolades he's received for his turn as Woody Grant, but the unsung hero of the piece is Will Forte as David. He seems at first like a meek, well-meaning son, the one who was called "a beautiful baby," but  he shows some backbone when he needs it.  A magnanimous gesture he makes near the film's end may leave you a bit wet-eyed. At the very least, you'll agree with him that even the smallest of dreams should be coaxed towards reality, and that everyone deserves a shot at driving through their hometown like a winner.


Watching All Is Lost reminded me of something the late Andrew Sarris wrote many years ago.

"It is the actor we see aging and dying on the screen, not the director, writer, or other behind-the-screen artist. It is time we acknowledge this fundamental fact."

In short, All Is Lost is about Robert Redford on a sinking boat. He tries to patch up the hole in the side, but more leaks appear until it's apparent that this old man in the sea is fighting a lost cause. Redford's character doesn't have a name here - he's listed in the credits as "our man." He may as well have been listed as "Robert Redford."

Redford, or at least Redford as we think we know him, is a perfect choice for the role.  Since there are no other actors in the film, we spend the whole time looking at Redford, hence, we think about his past, the various romantic types he's played,  the electric cowboys and stoic types, and it occurs to us that he doesn't have an easily distinguishable character. As far as iconic movie stars go, he's always been as bland as a wax figure. He works perfectly in All Is Lost because there has never really been such a thing as "the Robert Redford character." Try to imitate Redford. You can't. Yet, imagine another actor, a Robert Downey Jr. or a Will Smith, in All Is Lost. Could they keep their mouths shut for an entire movie? I doubt it.  Or imagine Sly Stallone in the role.  You'd never fear for his safety. You imagine he'd fix the boat, and maybe even wrestle a shark. Maybe he'd kill the shark, and use the carcass to plug up the holes in his boat. That's Stallone. With Redford, you don't have a preconceived notion of his character. He might survive. Maybe not. You don't know.

The film opens with a brief voice over from Redford. He's reading what sounds like a goodbye letter to the world. His last words are "I'm sorry." Sorry for what? We never know. We never learn anything more about him.  In a lesser movie, there'd be a scene where Redford is rummaging around in the boat and finds a family album; he'd look through it we'd see some semblance of his life. Worse, there'd be a cheesy flashback of him and a loved one. Director J.C. Chandor can't be bothered with flashbacks and family albums. But we do see Redford eating beans, sleeping, trying to fix his boat. The film could easily have been made in the 1920s - I can imagine it as a Robert Flaherty picture about one man against the elements, or a D.W. Griffiths epic with Mary Pickford trying to save the boat. It would've been beautiful as a silent film. It's not bad now, either.
 
Redford has played men of nature in the past, various mountain men and horse whisperers.  Nature is his co-star here. There are many scenes of Redford's granite profile against a pale blue, enormous sky. the difference here is that Redford is not playing a man of nature. This time, he's up against it. And losing. Redford doesn't work often, so there must have been something here that meant something to him, the futility of communication, perhaps. The man who created the Sundance Film Festival, and has had millions of eyes on him for decades, was intrigued by a character who screams for help but isn't heard.
 
In a way, All Is Lost is also meditation on aging - the boat ultimately betrays Redford, as our bodies will do for all of us.  I love the scene where Redford jumps to a large raft as his boat sinks. The boat doesn't go down all at once, but slowly,  one part of it remaining above water like a man's arm waving for help. Redford can't even watch. He turns his head, almost ashamed. 

Some have said that Redford deserved an Academy Award nomination because he performed this role with minimal dialog. Considering that most movie dialog is bad, the lack of dialog  may have actually been to his advantage. Others have said that he underplayed too much, or that he was too casual. I, too, felt this way at first. Then I grew to like the way Redford kept things close to the vest. I liked how he seemed in control through most of the film. Then, imperceptibly, he starts to slump. I noticed it around the fifth leak. Later, he reaches a point of such desperation that he sets the raft on fire and dives out, hoping a passing boat will see the flames. If he's not seen, he drowns. The look on his face as he waits to be noticed is astounding.  It's over: all is lost.
 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM...LAST DAYS HERE...

The sounds run through our memories, most notably in Lou Reed's old hit, 'Walk on the Wild Side,' where "the colored girls go do-duh-do," and on the Rolling Stones' 'Gimme Shelter,' when a mysterious female voice  roared, "Rape, murder, it's just a shot away..."  Twenty Feet from Stardom is about the women we heard in the background of our favorite songs, and their struggles to be heard.

They are, we're happy to learn, still living, still healthy, and above all, for the most part, still singing. They were artists in their own right, all with beautiful voices and an uncanny feel for singing background harmonies. They were tough, too, overcoming the instinct of the industry to treat them as eye candy. In many cases these women were more talented than the people they performed behind.
 
Morgan Neville's intriguing film works on two levels. Along with celebrating the talents and achievements of these singers, it tries to understand why these women, from Darlene Love and Merry Clayton, to more recent singers like Lisa Fischer, and Tata Vega, couldn't  make the move  from the background, to walk that 20 feet to centerstage. It's not that they didn't try - many of them recorded solo albums - it just seems they couldn't sell any records. The documentary features a stirring mid '70s clip of Clayton singing Neil Young's 'Southern Man,' and it's as strong as anything on the air in those days. Still, a music historian suggests the music business could only support one soulful female singer at the time. We already had Aretha Franklin, the thinking went, we don't need another one.
 
I wonder if that's a flippant reason, but there may be some truth in it. I also wonder if these women simply lacked that indefinable "star appeal," whatever that is.  Bruce Springsteen and Sting are in the film, and  both wearily admit that much of the business relies on luck, and that these women simply didn't have any. 
 
The women all appear to have come from a church background, where they  learned to sing in the choir. They have good senses of humor, are all intelligent, and each has great confidence in their ability. I liked the way Merry Clayton recounts being in a recording studio at 2:00 AM with the Stones, and quietly deciding to blow the room apart with her vocals. Yet, the women seem to lack the required ego to move to the front of the stage.  Stevie Wonder even warns one of his backing singers to not get too comfortable back there if she wants to progress.
 
 The women occasionally say they're glad they didn't become stars, for the pressures are too much. The background, they say, is easier and more comfortable for them. There's also a sense that it's rather tasty to be in the background, and that being part of a harmony group is something that not everyone can do. There's a kind of united feeling among the women, that they're part of a special breed. Yet, at least one of them dealt with drug problems, and the rest vary in their attitudes, from perplexed, to disappointed, to resigned as to how their lives turned out. One admits to praying for success,and still seems unsure why God didn't answer her prayers. Another, a beautiful woman who was once part of Ike and Tina Turner's revue and seemed poised for big things,  is now a Spanish teacher. The film hints that she's trying to sing again, and shows her performing for a very small audience in a dimly lighted club, intercut with clips of her sitting on Keith Richard's lap, and posing for Playboy in the '70s.

Darlene Love appears to have the best strategy. With her group The Blossoms, she sang behind everyone from Frank Sinatra to Elvis Presley. For a time she was being groomed by Phil Spector, but aside from 'Christmas, Baby Please Come Home,' which she recorded in the 1960s, her own career amounted to little.  It was while working as a house cleaner one afternoon that she heard her old song on the radio and decided, at age 40, to make a comeback. She has worked steadily since, highlighted by annual Christmas appearances on David Letterman's show. The key to her happiness seems to be: work hard, love the music, and if you have a gift, you ought to use it. 
 


 
"He's got to have a dream, otherwise he'd kill himself." So says Bobby Liebling's mother in the stirring documentary, Last Days Here. Liebling was the front man of Pentagram, a heavy metal group that an agent from Columbia records once described as "a street Black Sabbath." Now Liebling is in his late 50s, looks much older, and lives in his parents' basement, smoking crack and slowly dying. The film looks at a couple years in his life, his attempts to clean up, to fall in love, to restart his band, and ultimately, get out of the basement.

It's hard to like Liebling. When he's on drugs, he's delusional and imagines his body is infested with parasites. He's scratched himself to a horrifying degree, and has to wear cloth casts on his arms to heal his wounds. (One of the rumors about Liebling was that he'd shot so much heroin that his arms were on the verge of being amputated; in the film, they look as if they might fall off.)  When not on drugs, he's self-pitying; he understands that he's never grown up, but he doesn't seem hellbent on doing anything about it.  His parents claim to have spent over a million dollars supporting him and his drug habit. They remember him as a talented little boy; they've seen bands on Saturday Night Live that aren't so hot, so they wonder why their son never got a break.

Actually, he did, back in 1974, when a major record producer brought Pentagram to New York to record a demo tape. This was the step all bands dream about. The producer had previously produced Blue Oyster Cult, and was looking for a new act. Liebling proved difficult to work with, and the producer balked. On another occasion, members of Kiss showed an interest in the band, but Pentagram's makeshift audition was a disaster. The scene is recreated for the documentary, and while it's played for humor, it shows the truth about Pentagram's failure: they could play a bit, but weren't bright enough to take advantage of the good opportunities that came their way.
 
Since then, Pentagram has lurked on the fringes of cultdom. They were able to record some of their music, which occasionally fell into the hands of collectors. One such collector, Sean  Pelletier, went on to become Liebling's manager, friend, and keeper. Pelletier's in the movie, taking Liebling to the hospital, bailing him out of jail, trying to whip him into some kind of coherency. There are people like Pelletier throughout show business, well-meaning fans who get too close to a has-been. Before they know it, they're in too deep. Ther's a minor subplot here about a 26 year old female fan who strikes up an unlikely relationship with Liebling before slapping a restraining order on him, but the real story is about Liebling and Pelletier. It's interesting to note Pelletier's beard turning grey just within the time the film was made.
 
 
Filmmakers Don Argott and Demian Fenton do a good job of compressing Liebling's various personalities into one film. He veers from being the typical addict bent on self-destruction, to the faded rocker who is still full of himself, to a kind of amiable doofus, the sort of guy you might see panhandling under a bridge. The downside is that Pelletier and the filmmakers only relate to Liebling as a performer.  The guy should spend a year in rehab, but they're trying to get him signed to some small record label. The idea is to reform Pentagram with the original members, and do a show. Hence, we'll get the traditional feel good/fade out ending.

Some have called Liebling's parents enablers, but I think Pelletier and the filmmakers are just as guilty, because they're living vicariously through Liebling's return. "He has this Jim Morrison thing where you never know what's going to happen," says Pelletier, which shows you Pelletier is nearly as delusional as Liebling. 
 
Somehow, Liebling gets his act together and performs for a small crowd. There's even a tacked on coda where he gets married and fathers a child. I suspect the baby isn't his, but that's a subject for another doc. In this one, he plays the gig and gets the girl.



(Last Days Here was released in 2011, and has since floated through the festival circuit, winning some well-deserved awards along the way. It has also been available on various VOD services. I didn't see it until recently. I'm glad I saw it.)




Sunday, January 19, 2014

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS...FRUITVALE STATION...




 Inside Llewyn Davis  reminded me of other films by the Coen brothers. In this tale of an early 1960s folk singer who seems to hit one snag after another in trying to kick-start his failing career, I could see a bit of Barton Fink, a bit of The Big Lebowski, and even a bit of Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? The Coens borrowed some ingredients from their earlier movies - a man  goes on a journey, meets some odd people along the way, is stymied by authority figures, and finds that nothing is as what it seems to be  - and jammed them into the Greenwich Village folk scene, just before the arrival of Bob Dylan. It works, more or less. The Coens are good filmmakers, and even when not at their best, they're entertaining and intriguing. What's different here is that the Coens seem fatigued. There's no joy here, the laughs are few, and the drama is nil. Davis, played with  simmering anger by  Oscar Isaac, may be the most hapless character they've ever created.

Davis' singing partner committed suicide. Davis has since embarked on a solo career, but hasn't had any luck. He's sleeping on friends' couches, and performing at open mike nights where the audience passes the basket around to collect money for him. He's tiring of the artist's life, but when his friends and family suggest he try something different, he turns hostile. He's alienating the people closest to him, and has started drinking and abusing other performers. The film opens with him singing, and then getting his ass kicked in an alley behind a coffee house. He'd heckled someone onstage the night before, and a mysterious audience member teaches him a rather violent lesson. Davis doesn't seem to mind getting beat up, though. His life has turned to such shit that a back alley beating is normal.

There are several subplots that don't really lead anywhere. Among them: Davis spends much of the film trying to find a friend's cat who has escaped; he learns that a woman he slept with (the girlfriend of one of his buddies) is pregnant; he helps arrange for her abortion; he meets a doltish army private who is not only a folk singer, but is on the verge of stardom; and in one of the movie's best scenes, Davis takes part in recording a novelty song about astronauts.  

Halfway through the film Davis accepts an officer to help drive a jazz musician (John Goodman) to Chicago. This fellow annoys Davis with a lot of unfunny banter, turns out to be a junkie, and nearly dies in a public toilet somewhere between New York and Illinois. But what the hell, while he's in the area, Davis decides to audition for a top folk promoter played by F. Murray Abraham. After Davis pours his heart out in a song, the promoter merely shrugs and says, "I don't see a lot of money here."

Like all Coen productions, Inside Llewyn Davis has a beautiful look to it. The cinematography by  Bruno Delbonnel  has a muted, dreamy look, perfect for  New York's  interminable winter bluster, and the interior of the Gaslight Cafe where Davis performs has the smoky blue tint we recall from the covers of old folk or jazz albums, or from photo spreads in LIFE and LOOK magazines. The atmosphere seems to fit Davis' mood - as his career lurches further out of control, the weather seems to grow colder and bleaker, the highways darker and more menacing. 

I wonder if Davis represents the Coens at this time in their career. Davis was once part of a duo; he can't find success as a solo. Is this something from one or the other Coen's psyche, hiccuping forth as a character? Davis is constantly angry, not wanting to sing when asked, hating the thought of harmonizing with others. Singing is not easy, he says, it's not a parlor trick. Later, he has a meltdown at a folk club and screams that he hates folk music. He can't understand why other lesser acts are getting over while he stumbles. I can't help but think the Coens are feeling some of this themselves, as they try to make their small, offbeat movies in an era of superheroes and screenplays cribbed from video games. 

Of course, the Coens aren't hurting. They've had an incredible career, and are responsible for some of the best movies of the past 25 years. Still, the most touching scene in Inside Llewyn Davis is when Davis finally admits that it's over, that he's not going to get anywhere. "I'm tired," he says, and the weight of the words are devastating. It's so rare in an American movie when someone outright quits. Soon, he finds his way back to the cafe, and is thrown out again. The end of the film is exactly like the beginning. He's living life in a nightmarish loop. Are the Coens talking about the plight of struggling artists? All artists? In Barton Fink, the life of a creative person seemed scary and uncertain, with hazards leaping out at you, or lying in wait in the next room. Twenty-two years later, the Coens have made another film about a creative person. This time, the view is colder, sadder, barely rewarding. John Goodman appears in both films. In the first, he was a grinning serial killer. In this one, he can barely walk. He tells a lot of boring showbiz stories, and isn't interested in anyone else. I think there's a link here. If Davis represents the Coens, Goodman represents show business itself: dangerous and all consuming when you're young; bloated and sickly when you're older. (Goodman also claims to practice black magic in this film; could he have cursed Davis, which is why the folk singer's life is such a mess?)

The film was met with accolades upon it's release a few weeks ago. Audiences, however, haven't warmed to it, and the recent Academy Award announcements all but ignored it. Maybe it doesn't deserve any awards. But it sneaks up on you. At long last, Barton Fink finally has a companion piece for the double bill. 




When I first heard that the Oscar Grant case was being made into a movie, I imagined it as an angry, political piece, with monstrous white cops killing a young black man for no reason, something like Do The Right Thing, but with an Oakland setting and without the comic interludes. I imagined a somber piece, with a lot people wailing at the injustice of it all. It would've been watchable, and probably stirring, but it wouldn't have been especially memorable. Anger, in and of itself, is one dimensional and dull. Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station is neither one dimensional or dull. That's because he's chosen to tell as much as he can about Grant, a 22-year-old who is neither an angel or a devil, but a person. Once Oscar is killed and the movie is over, we miss him. 

Fruitvale Station is as much about what it's like to be a young man in urban America today as it is about an altercation between some black men and some cops. Grant (Michael B. Jordan) is scuffling. He's lost his job at the local supermarket, his girlfriend  is angry at him for being unfaithful, and he's still haunted by memories of a stretch he did in San Quentin. On the other hand, he's made the New Year's resolution to stop selling marijuana, he's a doting father to his daughter, and he's trying to make amends regarding his romantic life. We get the sense that he's a good guy, if a little irresponsible. His family appear to be decent people, and there's a distinctly warm atmosphere as they're preparing for a New Year's Eve dinner at his mother's home. 

As the movie opens, Oscar is trying to do a dozen things at once:  talk his ex-boss into rehiring him; buy a birthday car for his mother; make plans for the evening; smooth things out with his girlfriend; give his daughter a ride to school. In the middle of his day he sees a stray dog get hit by a car. He's helpless to do anything about it as the car speeds away. Life is cheap, or so Coogler seems to convey. Coogler directs in a very matter of fact style: no flash, no sizzle, just strong, basic storytelling. Oscar carries the still breathing dog to the parking lot of a gas station and leaves him there. His anger dissipates quickly; he's been so helpless against the tide for so long that that he knows it's a lost cause. It's the first sign in the movie that things may not go well.

It's his mother (Octavia Spencer) who suggests he and his buddies ride the train on New Year's eve rather than drive. The train ride is actually joyous, as holiday revelers are partying in their seats. When the train stalls just before midnight, the passengers make the best of it and have their own countdown. Oscar and his friends begin dancing in the aisles. Suddenly, a brawl breaks out. With frightening speed, the brawl is broken up, and Oscar and his friends are being harangued by the biggest meanest transit cop you've ever seen. As Oscar argues, you want him to shut up. Of course, the cop sucker punches Oscar, kicks him, insults him, and otherwise abuses him. Oscar is a feisty sort, and he's not going to shut up.

The shooting incident happens so quickly that you're not even sure what happens, which is how it probably was in real life. More cops arrive on the scene, and a shot is fired. The next thing we see is Oscar on the ground, blood pouring from his mouth. The meanest of the cops huddles over him, holding his hand, telling him to keep his eyes open. Even this bully of a cop seems surprised that things turned out this way. The cop probably figured he'd bust a few heads and that would be that. The fellow who did the shooting would later claim he thought he had his Taser in his hand, not his gun. He went to prison for 11 months. Oscar died the next morning. 

Although racism plays a major hand here, the real villain of the piece is the randomness of life. At different times in the movie Oscar considers not going out. What if he'd stayed home? What if he'd stepped into a different train and the brawl never started? What if more level headed cops had been on the scene?  In the end, a lot of things combined to kill Oscar Grant.

Fruitvale Station is about an ordinary young man, full of foibles and flaws, trying to get his life together, who was killed because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Friday, January 17, 2014

YOU'RE NEXT...CARRIE....


With so many remakes of slasher/splatter films hitting our screens in recent years, it's encouraging when someone actually tries to make a new one. Adam Wingard's You're Next has the look and feel of a '70s "cut 'em up," and aims for the nightmarish, chaotic style of films like I Spit on Your Grave, and Last House on The Left. The difference between '70s and '80s gore films was that the earlier style was more manic and angry, while the '80s style was goofier, designed more for a younger shopping mall audience, not the unemployed creeps who frequented 1970s grindhouses.

The movie takes place at the Davison family reunion, up in a secluded mansion in the same wooded area where all of these movies seem to take place (this one was filmed in Columbia, Missouri). There isn't much good cheer at the reunion, just a lot of not so thinly veiled insults. The brothers, in particular, don't get along. Within moments of the family sitting down to dinner, arrows from high powered bows crash through the windows; the Davisons are suddenly under siege by masked maniacs armed with crossbows, axes, and other pointy things.   Family members are quickly picked off, throats are cut, and people are gutted. The ones who aren't killed do a lot of screaming. Finally, the girlfriend (Sharni Vinson) of one of the brothers  goes into action. She's handy with weapons herself, having been raised in her dad's survivalist camp, and starts killing the bad guys. More blood flows. Not only is she good with knives, she also finds an interesting use for a blender. You get the idea.

You're Next isn't going to make a place for itself in the pantheon of great horror films, but it has some good qualities. The film's musical score has the thick, plodding electronic sound of 80s slash films, and hearing those somber chords made me realize how much much I miss those  horror movie soundtracks. I like how a nearby neighbor has been murdered, but his CD player remains on and keeps playing the same song over and over (the song, an excellent choice, is 'Looking for the Magic' by that old 80s pop-rocker, Dwight Twilley). Every time someone from the family runs  to his house for help, they see the dead body and hear the music. Good stuff. Sure, there are  some twists that you can probably see coming. So what? In a romantic movie, you know the guy and the girl will get together in the end, so what does it matter if a horror film, too, is a bit predictable? 

Wingard had fun making this film, and I felt his enthusiasm. The Davisons are a nasty, stupid bunch of people, and I enjoyed watching them come to nasty ends. Of course, a few innocent bystanders get whacked, too, but an arrow in the forehead is probably less painful than an evening with the Davisons.



I think we all know the story of Carrie White, the poor, bullied girl who develops telekinetic powers and eventually levels her high school and everyone in it. By now, Carrie is a part of modern mythology, along the lines of the hunchback of Notre Dame or King Kong. Kimberly Peirce's Carrie is a watchable, competent redo of Brian De Palma's 1976 classic, but there are some distinct differences in tone. The original, which was based on a Stephen King novel, seemed more vicious. The girls in the original were outright bitches. Peirce softens them up. The girls in the new cast also look like high school kids, whereas in the original they all looked like extras from Three's Company.  However, Peirce's effort to make the girls  more realistic has an adverse effect: Now they're smaller than life.  When they're all killed during Carrie's prom night ramapage, we can't tell one from the other; there's no catharsis.

As for Carrie (Chloe Grace Moretz), she seems a little more sure of herself this time, not as scared of her blossoming powers. In one scene she sits dreamily on her bed, mentally floating her books around the room, a look on her face of almost orgasmic bliss.  She also uses her hands to guide her subjects through the air, as if she were playing a Theramin. This is Carrie by way of the X-Men. On the flipside, Carrie's mother (Julianne Moore) is more batshit crazy in the new version, banging her head against walls and cutting herself. But even though mom's crazy, she's too pathetic to be threatening. Carrie's powers are so strong, and she seems so in control of them, that we don't really fear mom, not the way we once feared Piper Laurie.

By the end, we get the familiar  Armageddon at the prom, but it, too,  lacks the impact of the original.  Carrie waves her hands around like a maestro, people are trampled and thrown through glass in all sorts of ways, but it's not creepy or scary. There was something enthralling about Sissy Spacek standing perfectly still as everything exploded all around her. Of course, it's not fair to match Chloe Grace Moretz against Spacek, but comparisons are inevitable. As Carrie, Spacek seemed feral, almost subterranean. You believed she lived in a sheltered environment with her warped mother, and that the outside world frightened her. Moretz works hard to play shy and awkward, but she still seems like a modern girl, poised and pretty. Still, Moretz is a good actress and has some fine moments. She earns our sympathy.  She just doesn't scare us.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

CHUCK & BUCK (2000)



What is it about photographs of toys that seems so melancholy? I think it's because we imbue toys with personality, but the photo captures their lifelessness.  Extreme close-ups of toys, like the ones that open Chuck & Buck, make the figures seem like fossils stuck in time.

Buck (Mike White), although he's 27, is stuck in time, too. He's still operating at the level of a kid who wants to eat lolly pops all day and show you his room full of toys and games. He still wears the clothes that a kid would wear, and we imagine that he combs his hair the same way he did when he was 12. When his sickly mother dies, he invites his childhood friend Chuck to the funeral. Chuck (Chris Weitz) lives in Los Angeles, works for a music label, and is engaged to be married. Chuck and Buck haven't seen each other in years. Things seem a bit strained between them at the funeral, but it's nothing we can quite put a finger on.  When the service is over and no one is around, Buck puts his hand on Chuck's ass and gives it a squeeze. Chuck recoils, and announces that he and his fiance must leave the funeral immediately. Before they leave, Chuck's fiance casually invites Buck to visit them if he's ever in LA. This is something she'll regret.

Buck quickly packs his toys,  and begins his journey. He's not a complete case of arrested development. He can drive a car, has a considerable amount of money tucked away in his savings, and has no trouble relocating. His desire to be near Chuck is all consuming, as if the death of his mother has freed him to pursue something long sublimated. Once in LA, Buck pops up at Chuck's office and at his home.  "Wow," he says. "We used to play 'office,' and now you really work in one. What do you do here all day?" Chuck tolerates these impromptu visits until Buck invites him to play an old sex game they used to enjoy. Disgusted and embarrassed, Chuck bans Buck from any more visits. We next see Buck in his cramped motel room, surrounded by his toys, weeping into his pillow.


Many observers have described Buck as a "stalker" or a "psycho," but those terms are too simple. He is a lonely human. At one point in the film he cries uncontrollably and howls, "There is no love for me. Not anymore." What we learn is that he and Chuck had some sort of sexual encounter when they were children, perhaps more than one, instigated by Chuck.  The event, we assume,  was traumatizing, for a part of Buck has remained the age he was when he and Chuck did whatever they did. Chuck, somehow, has moved on. Buck stayed behind.

Mike White, who wrote the screenplay, gives one of the most daring performances of the past 30 years as Buck. He's appeared in other movies playing a variety of nerds and clumsy guys, but he's amazing here. He's relentless in his quest to seduce his old friend, and scarily suggests the despair in his life when he says, "Everything makes me feel dead." For all of Buck's childlike goofiness, there's an adult trying to emerge, an adult that desires a connection and doesn't know how to achieve it. That he ends up working at a local children's theater is one of the film's strange twists. He writes a play called Hank and Frank and the Witch, about a witch who puts a curse on two boys. Buck's hope is that Chuck will see the play and understand something about their friendship."She left me crippled and made you stupid," says one of the boys in the play.  Is the witch supposed to be Chuck's wife? Possibly. Buck believes Chuck's fiance is coming between them, even though she's never anything less than nice to him. Is the witch a representation of how sex between children can leave the parties permanently damaged? More likely. Onstage, the two boys die in each other's arms, while the witch cackles offstage. The dangers of sex triumph; no one is safe.

Buck arrives at the theater in a haphazard way, but it  makes sense within the confines of his life. The theater is across the street from Chuck's office. He sees they are producing The Wizard of Oz, which inspires him to write about Frank & Hank. The theater environment is where he meets two people who will help him grow up a little. One is Beverly the stage manager (Lupe Ontivares), who agrees to direct his play. Beverly treats Buck as an adult, and admonishes him when he fails to behave like one. She is probably the first adult to look him in the eye and treat him like an equal, and whatever weirdness she sees in him is not that big a deal to her. "I think you have a weird thing about women," she says after reading his play. "You have a weird thing about men, too."

The other character of importance is a bad actor named Sam. Despite Sam's lack of talent, Buck casts him in the play because he looks a bit like Chuck (Sam is played by Paul Weitz, the brother of Chris Weitz). Sam, a macho lug-head whom Beverly openly calls a "moron," is as lost and clueless as Buck. "People kept telling me I'm so funny that I should be an actor," Sam says. "So here I am."  At one point, after a night of drinking together, Buck tries to snuggle up to Sam on the couch. Sam is annoyed, but dismisses the episode by saying, "I don't want to hump ya. Ok?" Sam might have been worth his own movie. His complete lack of talent is only compounded by the depth of serious he brings to the production. He should've been in Waiting for Guffman. But underneath his dim cover is what seems to be a nice guy. He even invites Buck to move into the vacant apartment across the hall: "You'd be better than having some bitch move in." 

Despite his new friends, Buck is still fixated on Chuck. When Chuck attends the play and leaves without commenting, a desperate Buck goes into his endgame. He makes Chuck an offer: If Chuck spends a night with him, Buck will never bother him again. Their night together is gentle, and melancholy. Chuck laughs at the absurdity of it all, but in the wee hours of the morning, he and Buck reach an impasse. "Do you remember me?" Buck says. His voice aches at the thought that the defining moment of his childhood meant nothing. "I remember you," Chuck finally says. "I remember everything."   Chuck reveals himself to be a decent person, someone who is trying, not without difficulty, to be an adult. I also suspect there is some pain inside him, knowing that what seemed like a playful childhood sex act left his friend in a bad state. When Chuck leaves Buck in the middle of the night, there's no more to be said. Their childhood ends with a quick blowjob in a dank motel, Buck's dehumidifier puffing away next to them.

Chris Weitz has the more difficult role of Chuck. He could easily be viewed as the villain of the piece. Yet, it's easy to identify with him not wanting to deal with the mistakes of his past, or take responsibility for a bothersome old friend.  When Chuck yells at Buck, we don't feel mad at him. Buck is a handful, and we certainly wouldn't want him in our lives. Late in the film, Chuck sees Buck at a restaurant with his new theater friends. They exchange a friendly glance. Chuck seems relieved, and glad, that Buck has new people around him.  The film ends with Chuck's wedding; Buck is an invited guest, eating some wedding cake, chatting with a stranger.  He appears to have matured. The film closes on a hopeful note, with Buck squinting into the sun, squinting into his own future.

Director Miguel Arteta deserves much of the credit for taking material that could be dark and creepy and keeping it alive a. He loads the film with childlike music, which I think inspired a handful of indy movie soundtracks down the road, from Napoleon Dynamite to Juno.  By keeping the tone playful, we're not too put off by Buck's weirdness. Otherwise, this film could've easily turned into something like The Cable Guy, just an overwrought black comedy about a stalker.

The film won an independent spirit award in 2001, but was not without  critics - some found it homophobic in the way that Buck was depicted. Others objected to the way Chuck simply shrugged off his gay experience and "grew out of it." The film was also harshly criticized in some circles because it was filmed using primitive digital technology and looks rather bleached out. Some felt it was visually ugly, and a poor advertisement for indy films. Personally, I've never thought it was anything less than beautiful. It is the world as Buck sees it, slightly hazy and faded, like and old photograph album. As for the gay themes, I've never thought Chuck & Buck was presented as a manifesto about gay behavior. It's a story about these particular people.

White has written and or directed a handful of interesting films, including The Good Girl, School of Rock, Year of The Dog,  and the recent HBO series, Enlightenment.  He often writes about people who are stuck in a certain frame of mind and are trying to break out of it.  Sometimes they become fanatical in their efforts to change,  but they mean well, they learn their lessons, and they eventually find a safe place to land. He's a good-hearted writer and wants the best for his characters. He writes well for males or females. He can be broadly funny, or dark and skewed.  That he has consistently attracted good actors to his projects, and that they tend to work with him more than once, says a lot about him.

Looking at Chuck & Buck recently, it seems from a time that has already passed. It came out at the height of the indy film boom, but 14 years later it's doubtful that such a strange, personal film could slip through the world of super heroes and zombies that are polluting the cinema. Even the indy films of this era, with their self-conscious nods to style and their overly talkative characters, seem more like television sitcoms. Chuck & Buck was unique, and still feels that way now.

Monday, January 13, 2014

COLD COMES THE NIGHT...RAZE...FREE RIDE



The single mom in peril has become such a staple of modern suspense films that it's almost expected that they will emerge victorious over any number of hit men, abusive boyfriends, or serial killers. Single moms in the movies are scrappy, and street smart, and will scratch and claw to maintain their status quo. We root for them, because they awaken something primal in us, as if we're watching a mother bear protect her cubs. We flatter ourselves by thinking that, yes, we, too, would fight like hell to protect our offspring.

So strong is our identification with single moms that even when the mother would be considered a bit of a loser, as is the mother figure in Tzu Chen's Cold Comes The Night, we still hope she'll come out on top. 

The film is a neo-noir, and its blood runs as cold as any of the better noirs of the past 20 or 30 years, including A Simple Plan, and After Dark My Sweet.  Ultimately, it's not as good as those films, but it tries. Sure, there are cliches here, but depending on the viewer, you might enjoy the cliches. The mother is Chloe (Alice Eve), a young widow  living and working in a sleazy hotel, and sleeping with a married cop who is corrupt on several levels. Chloe has a sweet daughter, but a local social worker correctly deems the hotel environment unfit for raising a child. Chloe has two weeks to find a new place to live, otherwise she'll lose her daughter.
 
 

One night two mysterious men check in. One of them brings a prostitute to his room, and their union ends in a bloodbath. The other man, who wears dark glasses and speaks with a Slavic accent, panics when their car  is compounded. He had a stash of money tucked behind the dashboard, and was transporting it to a nearby contact. With his driver dead and the money missing, he forces Chloe at gunpoint to help find his car and the loot. She knows where it is - her crooked boyfriend compounded it, and took the money. The Slav, whose name is Topo (Bryan Cranston), needs Chloe's help because behind his dark glasses he's nearly blind. She will be his eyes. They will split the money.
 
Chloe isn't in the same league as Topo. Even with his failing eyes, he gives the impression that he was once a real bad ass. He can fire at shadows and still hit someone right in the forehead. Chloe, meanwhile, realizes there will probably be a showdown between Topo and her crooked cop boyfriend. The inevitable confrontation turns out to be even uglier than we imagine it will be.
 
The roles are underwritten, but the performances are all nicely crafted. Eve provides a sympathetic center for the film, as a woman willing to stoop to incredibly low levels to survive. Logan Marshall-Green is watchable, if over the top, as Billy, the loose cannon cop. Cranston, as Topo, is quietly menacing.  Chen films him like a block of granite, immovable. I think Chen made a mistake in not making the film about Topo, for a criminal losing his eyesight would be a fascinating character. Still, one of the strengths of Cold Comes The Night is that it plays like an old-fashioned pinball machine, the plot careening all over the place. Even if it ends the way it has to end - the single mom survives, thanks to a lot of dumb luck - the trip to the climax isn't dull.

Single moms in movies can get away with murder. They seem to get a free pass because they do what they do to save their children.  It's pretty clear that Chloe will never be mom of the year, but she'll get by. Poor Topo. He can still shoot his way out of most situations, but is too blind to see that Chloe might be the end of him.

 

We're only 11 days into 2014 and I  already have a candidate for strangest, and perhaps dumbest, movie of the year: Raze. This one is about some bizarre secret society that kidnaps women and then forces them to fight to the death. Apparently, the winner gets to be queen for a day, or something. I'm not sure what the point is, but we're treated to a lot of bloody faces and endless fists bashing into mouths, the sound effects for said punches sound like hammers hitting a watermelon. Unfortunately,  there are so many fights that we're quickly bored by the violence. Someone should've told director Josh C. Waller that less is more, because once the violence is no longer shocking, all we're left with is the relentlessly dumb story. Waller may have wanted to create something in the tradition of old Roger Corman  'women in cages' type films, but Corman would have taken this same idea and made it sexier and funnier.

Sabrina, the toughest woman of the bunch,  is played by Zoe Bell, a likable actress I remember from films like Death Proof  and Whip It.  She's very good in those movies, and actually, she's very good here, too. She's charismatic, and her background as a Hollywood stunt person means she's athletic enough to succeed in an action role. Granted, not even Bell can overcome some of the dumb stuff in Raze. She has to scream lines like, "How many more people do I have to kill!" and "I'm fighting for my daughter!" (Yes, she's also a single mom, sort of, although she gave her daughter up for adoption years earlier.) But while she's a physical dynamo, it defies logic that after engaging in several consecutive life and death battles, she'd still have the stamina to fight her way past several guards and make her escape. And somehow, throughout the entire movie, her clothes are never torn.

Bell's also listed as one of the producers of Raze. Maybe it had seemed better when she read the script, or maybe she thought this was her chance to show her stuff.  I hope she eventually finds her way into better projects. The world is ready for a female James Bond, and Zoe Bell could be the perfect fit.




The single mom saga continues with Shana Betz' Free Ride, a moderately entertaining drama about a single mom (Anna Paquin) who finds herself deep in the Florida drug trade, all in the name of taking care of her two daughters. She's a former stripper who is fleeing her Ohio home because of an abusive boyfriend (watch enough of these movies and you begin to wonder if there are any decent guys left, or if these women would even recognize one if they met him). Once in Florida, a friend hooks her up with a housecleaning job, which leads to her becoming a sort of drug mule.  Her duties take her away from her daughters, one of whom is nearly killed in a car accident. It all ends well, though, for mom finally realizes how she's allowed her job to soil her life, rather than enhance it.

 
The film is based on a true story, and one of the daughters grew up to be Shana Betz, director of the film. Although the film has a low boiling point and isn't particularly dramatic, I liked Betz' style. She's soft-handed in her approach, and nicely captures 1978 Florida. She also coaxes some nice performances out of  the girls playing Anna Paquin's daughters, Liana Liberato, and  Ava Acres.   The movie ends with some clips of the real family, which provides a sigh of relief. It's nice to know the mom in this movie didn't have to kill anybody.

Monday, January 6, 2014

AMERICAN HUSTLE...THE BEST OFFER


 At the screening of American Hustle that I attended, people started filing out within 20 minutes. At first, I thought they were going to the bathroom, but they never came back. I didn't blame them. The film was slow, and the 1970s setting, at long last, feels played out.  After all the critical hoopla and Golden Globe  nominations, the customers must've expected something grander,  sexier, funnier, whatever. I was tempted to leave, too, but I stuck with it, waiting for the great performances I'd been hearing about.

Christian Bale is in it, 25 pounds overweight, his hair in a hideous comb-over, grunting at people in a kind of cartoonish New Yawk accent (He reminded me of Al Pacino as "Big Boy" Caprice in Dick Tracy). Bale plays a con man involved in everything from art fraud to money laundering. He has a girlfriend (Amy Adams) who dons a fake British accent and assists him in his scams. He has a wife, too (Jennifer Lawrence, in the sort of showy role that gets a lot of attention at awards time). The wife stays home,  busts  his chops, and reads self-help books. (Strangely, the self-help book she's reading wouldn't come out for nearly 20 years after the film takes place, so maybe she has a time machine, too.)

Bale's illegal activities are exposed by a hotheaded FBI agent played by Bradley Cooper.  They strike a deal - Bale and Adams will help Cooper bust some big government types, and he'll let them go. Or something like that. They focus on a New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) who mingles with mobsters and, they hope, will be caught taking a bribe. Robert De Niro is here, too, as a Florida gangster. He creates more menace and drama in his brief scene than the rest of the cast can muster in the film's two-hour running time. Sure, the cast works hard, displaying the sort of gross American acting that critics have come to praise in recent years, but I think you could've taken five other competent actors, put them in the same costumes, and achieved a similar result.

It's all based loosely on the Abscam scandal of the late '70s, so that's why we're bombarded with so many ugly hairstyles and hairy chests. There's even the obligatory scene in a disco. So clich├ęd is our understanding of the 1970s that there will one day be a film about the Watergate scandal, with Nixon and Kissinger dancing under a mirror ball. American Hustle isn't content to be goofy, though. It  takes itself seriously enough to offer such painful bromides as, “We’re all conning ourselves in one way or another—just to get through life.” Ugh. If that sounds profound to you, maybe you'll like American Hustle.

Foot lovers may like it, too, for director David O. Russell is apparently enamored of Adams' feet. Every scene Adams appears in begins with the camera on her tanned tootsies, then panning upwards. We see her barefoot. We see her in slutty shoes.  Russell's love of Adams' feet is so pronounced that  even in a scene where Bale is suffering a minor heart attack,  the camera jumps quickly to Adams' feet while she gets into her car. It's the most blatant case of foot fetishism since Tarantino's Death Proof. (Russell doesn't show the same devotion to Ms. Lawrence's feet, although he inexplicably lets her sing the old Paul McCartney hit, 'Live and Let Die.' Seriously, she sings the whole song, for no apparent reason. I guess this was supposed to be funny, the same way comb-overs and wide lapels are supposed to be funny...)

Foot love aside, American Hustle features a few good acting turns, but no great ones.  Most of it feels like a tired imitation of other, better films.

Giuseppe Tornatore's The Best Offer starts as a psychological thriller, segues into a sort of fairy tale romance, and ends on a bleak note that Vladimir Nabokov would've appreciated. I might've preferred if the movie stayed on one of the first two roads, but even with the burden of a few too many twists, there are rewards here to be found if you're patient.

Geoffrey Rush plays art auctioneer Virgil Oldman (Get it? Old man...get it?), the sort of unctuous type who not only wears gloves 24 hours a day, but has a magnificent closet loaded with gloves for all occasions. The closet, which looks to have been designed by Stanley Kubrick for A Clockwork Orange, splits open to reveal the many works of art he has acquired over the decades, all portraits of women. He's a lonely man, somewhat frightened of females. He's also a germaphobe, and prone to superstition. He dines alone in the finest restaurants, but when a friendly waiter offers him a piece of birthday cake, he won't eat it because his birthday is still a day away.

Rush is fascinating as Oldman, dry and cold in his personal life, yet rather witty dynamic on the auctioneer's podium. He's called upon by a mysterious woman who wishes to have her family's estate put up for auction. The catch: the woman is an agoraphobic and won't come out of her room, conducting business like a shut-in. When things don't go her way, she hides behind a locked door and screams like a howler monkey (Vocally, she reminded me of Bjork's emotional rages in Dancer in the Dark). Oldman grows infatuated with her, until their relationship takes on a Beauty and the Beast kind of feel. He becomes a sort of father/confessor/shrink for her, listening to her complaints. He even takes it upon himself to do her grocery shopping. I liked this part of the story. I liked their cat and mouse game, and I liked seeing Oldman come out of himself to care for someone even more emotionally damaged than himself.


The woman (Sylvia Hoeks) gradually comes out of hiding, but the unlikely romance that develops doesn't feel right. It all seems a bit too good to be true. There are subplots: Oldman finds pieces of an antique automaton in the woman's basement, and brings the pieces to a young mechanic friend (Jim Sturgess) to assemble. Oldman's friend Billy (Donald Sutherland)   sometimes helps Oldman at the auctions, helping to drive up prices on certain items, but seems bitter that his own paintings have never made any money.  Oldman, who has never been in love, begins telling his young friend about the woman, asking for tips on courtship. There are hints that something is wrong,  though, and Oldman's friends behave strangely around him. The mysterious woman allegedly supports herself by writing novels under a pseudonym, but we never learn what they are. At times she  seems to disappear, sometimes within her own massive home. There are trap doors and secret rooms everywhere in this movie.

I wish I could say everything is sen up neatly for a dramatic climax, but instead, we get a lot of weird stuff, including a dwarf who is a math genius, a violent street mugging, and a bunch of betrayals. If you're familiar with Lolita, you can almost guess how the whole mess turns out, with Oldman standing in as a less predatory Humbert Humbert. Still, I liked it. The sweeping camerawork by Fabio Zamarion, the art direction and set decoration by Andrea Di Palma and Raffaella Giovannetti, the original music by Ennio  Morricone, and of course, Rush's portrayal of Oldman, add up to something that may not create a satisfying whole, but is quite exquisite in its own way.