The problem is that "Winter's Tale" wants to be a magical romance that leaves you feeling like the universe might be full of secret purpose, but the actual movie that was written and filmed is convoluted, over-narrated and deeply silly.
If you're going to title your film anywhere in the neighborhood of a Shakespeare play, even a "problem" Shakespeare play, you probably need to put a little extra shoulder into the screenwriting part of your job. Writer/director Akiva Goldsman -- adapting Mark Helprin's much-liked, much-vaster 1984 novel -- does not do this, though at least he starts things off with an intriguing story hook.
A man named Peter (Colin Farrell) is wandering around modern-day New York with memory issues. He finds mysterious items in a tiny attic space in the ceiling of Grand Central Station. We soon learn, in an epic flashback, that Peter has been the same age since 1916, when he was a thief chased around New York by a glaring gangster (Russell Crowe) and his bowler-hatted henchmen.
This is all fairly intriguing. But then, maybe 10 minutes into the movie, Peter is rescued from those henchmen by a blindingly white flying horse. [Exit, pursued by Crowe.]
And then that horse guides Peter to the home of the world's most ebullient young woman afflicted with late-stage consumption (Jessica Brown Findlay).
They meet cute (Peter's trying to rob her, she offers him some tea). And the movie starts sprinting down an increasingly corny, ridiculous road -- as everyone starts yammering about "destiny" and "miracles" and "light" and the forces of bowler-hatted evil being literal demons trying to "tip the scales" by robbing people of hope, or something.
There's nothing inherently wrong with trying to mashup "Somewhere in Time" and "Harry Potter," I suppose. And cinematographer Caleb Deschanel certainly makes it all look very pretty. But fantasy universes usually work best when they function according to a coherent set of ground rules. As adapted by Goldsman, "Winter's Tale" keeps piling on exposition that adds rule after rule after rule: Demons have to keep miracles from happening, specific miracles are assigned to specific people, demons have to get permission to travel, the stars in the sky are either departed souls or angel wings, stolen jewels can be used as holographic projectors, J.J. Abrams-style lens-flares have cosmic significance, the horse is actually a dog, and so on. It's all over-explained by actors who are frankly capable of better, though Crowe at least seems to be having fun (and anyone who can deliver the line "There'll be no miracles tonight, and her destiny is gettin' skewered!" with a straight face and an Irish brogue deserves something approaching respect).
Even worse, none of it seems to add up to anything significant. The process of Farrell figuring out his divine purpose finally gets so convoluted and schmaltzy, it feels less like "destiny" and more like "cruel cosmic joke," which is at odds with the romantic spiritual vibe Goldsman clearly hoped to achieve.
P.S. I highly recommend Drew McWeeny's lengthy decimation of the ridiculous theological underpinnings of "Winter's Tale" (a film he declares "the 'Batman and Robin' of magical realism") followed by his survey of cinematic "dream projects" gone horribly wrong. ________
(118 min., PG-13 for violence and some sensuality)Grade: C-minus
A fair amount of traumatic stuff happens in "2 Autumns, 3 Winters" -- muggings, relationship tests, suicidal depression, even the odd life-threatening medical crisis and melodramatic coincidence. But writer/director Sébastien Betbeder's French seriocomic romance still feels light (or emotionally distant, depending), thanks to the film's fusillade of stylistic tics.
Betbeder's tale of aging art-school grads (Vincent Macaigne, Maud Wyler) falling in love is told as a near-relentless collage of fourth-wall-breaking monologues -- "High Fidelity"-style -- and peppered with chapter breaks, dream sequences, and clips from other movies.
The constant talking-head interjections keep the film at a slight documentary remove from its heaviest material; I would rather have seen certain key moments instead of being told about those moments by characters standing in front of green screens. But the cast's lumpy charm still wins the film -- putting it more or less in the neighborhood of Cédric Klapisch's "Spanish Apartment"/"Russian Dolls" series, entertainment-wise. ________
Writer/director Jan Ole Gerster's first feature "Coffee in Berlin" (originally released in Germany as "Oh Boy") does a fair job riffing on the usual beats of the slacker indie.
An unemployed college dropout (Tom Schilling) with serious life-commitment issues wakes up in Berlin and drifts through a seriocomic day that includes a disappointed girlfriend, a psych eval, an even more disappointed father, a movie-set visit with a struggling actor pal, a wacky neighbor, a wounded actress and that hoariest of slacker-indie clichés, the truth-telling barfly -- among other loosely structured incidents that may or may not serve as a twentysomething's wake-up call.
Schilling's character is just enough of a vaguely unpleasant blank that he's a little hard to root for, frankly, but the whole enterprise still manages a low-key appeal, thanks in part to its attractive black-and-white cinematography. ________
A stubborn 16th-century horse-breeder (Mads Mikkelsen) takes a principled stand in a legal dispute against a young baron over the mistreatment of two horses. That dispute slowly escalates into violence, a full-blown peasant revolt and some pointed ethical questions.
Director/co-writer Arnaud de Pallières embraces odd storytelling rhythms, jumping past the expected period-revolution story beats and lingering on others. Combined with strong performances, the gorgeously overwhelming environment (the sounds of wind and flies are practically supporting characters), and at least one agonizingly long close-up, "Age of Uprising" unsettles as it raises troubling questions about the price, morality and flexibility of a "principled stand." ________
With "Cairo Drive," documentarian Sherief Elkatsha finds an unusual route into the atmosphere before, during and after the Arab Spring protests at Tahrir Square -- by showing the revolt's effect on Cairo's chaotic pressure-cooker of a traffic system.
Elkatsha spends much of the doc embedded in cars, trucks, ambulances and buses -- interviewing drivers of varying skill and wealth as they attempt to navigate an exhausting, nearly anarchic system of wrong-way drivers, heedless pedestrians, coded horn-honks, arbitrary laws and outright bribery helping bring societal tensions to the boiling point. (And that's before the protests start and the police directing traffic around Tahrir Square are apparently replaced by citizen volunteers.) In Elkatsha's editing bay, the frustrations of traffic become a potent metaphor for a nation's much-larger frustrations. ________
(Egypt; 77 min.)Grade: B-plus. Showtimes:
1 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 9, World Trade Center Theater
9 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 15, World Trade Center Theater
In True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, David Mamet writes about how he's seen actors adopt the neuroses of characters they play because "our suggestibility knows no limits." Director/co-writer Philippe Le Guay's "Cycling with Molière"amusingly illustrates Mamet's observation.
A TV star (Lambert Wilson) travels to Brittany's Île de Ré to try and recruit an actor pal who quit showbiz in disgust (Fabrice Luchini). Wilson wants Luchini to perform with him in a stage version of "The Misanthrope." Soon they're rehearsing Molière in Luchini's crumbling house -- taking breaks to tangle with the odd local porn star or truth-telling divorcé. The visit echoes "The Misanthrope"'s bitter comedy of aristocratic manners more than a little.
The island setting is lovely and the few forays into slapstick are fairly lame, but Wilson and Luchini's dramatic tanglings are fun to watch -- particularly when they furiously rehearse arguments between Molière's angry Alceste and his more politic pal Philinte, then switch roles and reverse the dynamic. ________
Even the biggest fan of Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" book trilogy might admit the 2012 film adaptation (while a big hit) was largely carried by its cast.
Jennifer Lawrence was terrific as warrior-heroine Katniss. But that first "Hunger Games" movie's postapocalyptic world-building was ... a little thin.
I suppose the depiction of life in the struggling districts enslaved to feed the Capitol of Panem was gritty enough. But when the movie got to the big city, it briefly turned into a bright, barn-broad satire of overindulged ignorance. I'd argue this undermined the earlier attempt at realism. And also that whole final section where children fought each other to the death.
Other than the ruthless dictator (Donald Sutherland), the manipulative TV host (Stanley Tucci), the conflicted showrunner (Wes Bentley) and the caring stylist (Lenny Kravitz), the Capitol seemed to be populated exclusively by cartoon Louis XIV yuppie sheep barely capable of enslaving their own hats -- much less forcing kids to compete in annual gladiator combat (even gladiator combat carefully edited to secure a PG-13 rating).
But now, with "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" -- the middle story in the book trilogy, and the second of four planned film adaptations of the series -- the movie's quality catches up with Jennifer Lawrence's performance to an unexpected degree.
Under director Francis Lawrence ("I Am Legend") and adapting screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, "Catching Fire" does what any good middle film should: It deepens the characters (even the cartoonish ones), expands the world and complicates the situation -- in ways that will delight fans who've read the books and surprise those who haven't.
"Fire" finds Katniss and fellow Hunger Games winner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) on a miserable post-victory publicity tour of all the enslaved districts serving Panem. As the kids' drunken mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) points out, that tour will last the rest of their lives: The kids are now pawns of President Snow (Sutherland) -- with the added emotional torture of having to pretend for the cameras that they're in love.
But Snow is unhappy that Katniss' performance in the Games made her a symbol of rebellion to the commoners. On the advice of a new showrunner (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Snow forces her and Peeta into a second, far deadlier round of arena combat -- where the threat lies as much in the arena's design as it does in the extremely annoyed Hunger Games survivors the kids will be forced to fight.
Snow's goal is to wreck Katniss' growing public appeal. Matters complicate.
Francis Lawrence brings a much-stronger visual sense to "Catching Fire" than previous director Gary Ross. (To be fair, the sequel's bigger budget probably helped, and Ross did bring the original cast.) But more important, the filmmakers add a bit more heft -- emotional and otherwise -- to everything from the first film's world, from the characters to the setting to the action.
The Capitol itself feels more filled-in, more decadent and nuanced and threatening; even wading-pool-shallow Panem citizen Effie (Elizabeth Banks) gets to reveal a few cracks in her couture armor. (I should probably note parenthetically that this is relative praise. I still don't think the Capitol is in the same league or sport as the great cinema dystopias of, say, "Metropolis" or "Blade Runner" or "Brazil." I just think that in "Catching Fire" the Capitol feels a lot less like an "SNL" spoof of those places.)
The arena threats are more nightmare-weird this time around, to the degree that I started wondering if Collins was a fan of Patrick McGoohan's "The Prisoner." And the previous Hunger Games victors dragged back into the ring are wonderfully bristly -- particularly Jena Malone as an axe-wielding valkyrie with a sneering contempt for polite society, Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as oddball tech-heads, and Sam Claflin as what can only be described as the Val-Kilmer-as-Iceman of this series.
Way back in 2006, Bill Mudron and I founded "Serenity Tales," a site hosting “Firefly” fan-comics. For a couple of years, we updated it with stories set in the ‘Verse, written and drawn by friends and fans.