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Mad About Coco

In the battle of the biopics, fashion-based weepie upsets Nair's Amelia


The Men Who Stare At Goats
  • The Men Who Stare At Goats


Opening Friday, Nov. 13, is A Serious Man, the latest offering from Joel and Ethan Coen. Set in Minnesota in 1967, the film centers on Larry Gopnik, who is a professor of physics. Things aren't going so well: his son is smoking a lot of dope, his wife announces it's time for a divorce, his daughter is just unpleasant, his brother is in trouble with the police, a student attempts to bribe him for a passing grade and the rabbis aren't exactly helpful. The humor is offbeat, dark and Jewish. I saw this film in Portland and recommend it highly. Rated R for language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence. 105m. At the Minor.

The world may digitally end yet again in the latest disaster film 2012. This time, the end of a cycle for the Mayan calendar on 12/21/2012 (numerologists rejoice) provides the impetus for the cataclysm, directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) and starring John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, Oliver Platt and Woody Harrelson. Rated PG-13 for intense disaster sequences and some language. 158m. At the Broadway, Fortuna, Mill Creek and Minor.


THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS: Jon Ronson, whose book of the same title inspired this film, is a British author and documentary filmmaker. I have never read his 2004 book -- in fact, I've never heard of the author -- but as best I can tell from some research, the book was a serious examination of a secret program within the U.S. army that intended to use psychic powers as a weapon. The program was largely based on a 1979 manual written by Lt. Col. Jim Channon, influenced by the human potential movement in California (of course), entitled First Earth Battalion Operations Manual.

The film itself -- wisely, I believe -- does not take the whole operation seriously. In the film, Ronson becomes Ann Arbor journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), who, after his wife ditches him for his editor, goes off to Iraq to re-find himself. Here he meets Special Forces op Lyn Cassady (George Clooney, having a good time), who tells him about the special program.

While Cassady and Wilton embark on some mysterious mission, the film intersperses flashbacks of the psychic experiment, which was the brainchild of Bill Django (Jeff Bridges, looking like a refugee from the Summer of Love). Throw in Kevin Spacey as a failed psychic and imagine an army training exercise with a New Age template thrown over it, and you have this mostly amusing and genial film. Rated R for language, some drug content and brief nudity. 93m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and the Minor.

AMELIA: I've been a fan of director Mira Nair ever since Salaam Bombay! in 1988, and up through The Namesake in 2006. Sadly, Amelia is not up to her best work. Her other films -- especially those dealing with social problems in India, where she was born -- have a clear point of view and a rich narrative center. Perhaps Nair was defeated by the limitations of the biographical film, but in any case Amelia seems a bit shallow in comparison to Nair's other work.

Having said this, however, I don't think the film is as bad as the barrage of negative reviews in the mainstream press make it out to be. Nair attempts to depart from strict chronology by beginning with Earhart's (Hilary Swank) fateful around-the-world flight as it nears its final leg on July 2, 1937. Her story is then told through a series of flashbacks that lead to her final moments.

But in giving equal weight to Earhart's championing of women pilots and equal rights for all women and her romantic life -- she eventually marries publisher George Putnam (a quietly effective Richard Gere) and has an affair with aviation administrator Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor) -- neither side of Earhart is given full justice. Swank, who resembles the real Earhart in the film, gives life to her character, but I wish she had a sharper script to work from. Too often, the story seems to be about Saint Earhart. Rated PG for some sensuality, language, thematic elements and smoking. 111m. At the Broadway.

THE BOX: The Box is based on the 1970 short story "Button, Button" by Richard Matheson, who is perhaps most familiar to moviegoers as the author of I Am Legend, which has been adapted several times as a film.

Directed and adapted by Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko), the film centers on an ethical dilemma presented to married couple Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) when a disfigured stranger named Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) presents them with a box. If they push the button on top the box, someone unknown to them will die and they will receive $1 million; otherwise, the box will be taken away and reprogrammed.

As usual, the situation is over-determined, as we discover the couple needs money to continue their son Walter's (Sam Oz Stone) education and Arthur is turned down for the astronaut program at NASA (failed the psychological test). As icing on the Hollywood ethical cake, Norma is teaching Sartre's No Exit (you know, hell is other people) at her son's private school.

All of this is easy to accept, however, with a little suspension of disbelief but then the film enters the twilight zone (Matheson was a writer for the TV series) and the suspensions begin to pile up until they collapse the film's under-structure.

As with many science fiction narratives, the story leads up to a climactic twist when the real dilemma is revealed. By that time, though, I didn't care. This film commits the ultimate sin: Despite the solid acing, it's a bore. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some violence and disturbing images. 115m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.

COCO BEFORE CHANEL: As I thought about seeing this film, a list of negatives came to mind. Perhaps foremost was the fact that I have no interest in, or knowledge of, the fashion industry. Secondly, I generally can't stand Audrey Tautou, whose talent seems to be limited to looking cute. Finally, the film appeared to be another biopic, a genre with limited narrative possibilities. On the plus side, however, was the fact that it is a French film, which also makes it a rarity in Humboldt County.

As I watched Coco Before Chanel, though, all the negatives became irrelevant in the face of a wonderfully effective film. First of all, this is the best work I have seen from Tautou as Gabrielle, who became known by her nickname Coco. She may have softened the edges of the real person, but she is both strong and subtle in her characterization.

But perhaps the most effective aspect of the film, written and directed by Anne Fontaine (The Girl from Monaco), was the focus on Coco before she became the influential designer. As such, it is less a biopic than a story about an orphan girl who through strength of character, tenacity, luck and imagination raises herself above the fate that usually befell one of her class. One doesn't have to know who Coco Chanel was in order to enjoy this film, and that's all to the good. Mira Nair could learn a few things from this approach. In French with English subtitles. Rated PG-13 for sexual content and smoking.


ASTROBOY. A young robot is given super strength and x-ray vision. Kids love this stuff. Rated PG. 94m. At the Movies.

CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRE'S ASSISTANT. A 14-year-old vampire joins a circus freak show. Rated PG-13. 109m. At the Movies.

CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS. Based on the beloved children's book where it rains food. The cure for the recession? Rated PG. 90m. At the Movies.

COUPLES RETREAT. Vince Vaughn leads a group of married friends to a tropical island resort in Couples Retreat. They soon discover that participation in the hotel's couples therapy is not optional. Rated PG-13. 108m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Disney does Dickens (in 3D!) Rated PG. 96m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.

THE FOURTH KIND. As opposed to the third kind, a close encounter of the fourth kind is when they actually take you. Rated PG-13. 98m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.

LAW ABIDING CITIZEN. Jamie Fox is justifiably upset. The world better watch out. Rated R. 122m. At the Movies.

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. See what you and your buddies can do with a $15,000 film budget? Get to work. Rated R. 99m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.

SAW IV. It's October. Time for our annual Saw installment. Want the plot? See Saw I-V. Rated R. 93m. At the Movies.

THIS IS IT. Michael Jackson moonwalks into your heart, one last time. Rated PG. 111m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. Max journeys to the land of Wild Things where he becomes their new ruler, but soon finds that relationships are harder then he thought. Rated PG. 94m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.

WHIP IT. Drew Barrymore makes her directorial debut with a Roller Derby flick. Sweet. Rated PG-13. 113m. At the Movies.

ZOMBIELAND. Woody Harrelson hilariously blows peoples heads off. Kinda like Natural Born Killers except they're already dead. Rated R. 88m. At the Movies.


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