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|May 7-13, 2009
• The magic of Caine
by Betsy Sharkey
• Rise of the impalings
by Michael Phillips
The magic of Caine
by Betsy Sharkey
It is a trembly and vulnerable Michael Caine we see in Is Anybody There? — a finely drawn and gentle British drama propelled by another of the star’s unforgettable screen portraits.
Caine plays Clarence, an aging magician struggling to keep hold of his dignity and his mind in the face of the pitiless approach of old age. He has been packed off to Lark Hall, an old-age home in a small seaside town, where he discovers an unexpected friendship with Edward (Bill Milner), an inquisitive but pensive 10-year-old whose family runs and lives in the house with a clientele that is forever departing.
Is Anybody There? might sound dark and depressing. It is anything but, in no small part due to Caine, whose wonderfully nuanced performance is the film’s centerpiece — whether he’s staging an escape with a nonchalant slip out the door, or letting the props of the magic trade draw out his memories.
Director John Crowley and Peter Harness’ semiautobiographical screenplay is a character-driven study that is neither too sentimental nor too clinical as lives unfold and then exit from the small stage they’ve created. There are no long monologues about the meaning of life and the implications of death. Instead we see it in understated touches everywhere — the ambulances that pull up in front of the house are in no hurry, knowing the curtain has already fallen.
Young Edward, still adjusting to the realities of living among the elderly, is a lonely child, intent on unlocking the mysteries of death and hopefully capturing evidence of an afterlife on the tape recorder he strategically places to record the residents’ last moments. Clarence, on the other hand, though tossed about by life and hit hard by the loss of his wife, intends to wrestle with the indignities of aging until the end.
There is discontent and frustration in the air when this odd couple first encounter each other — Clarence sure that he shouldn’t be in a retirement home at all and Edward angry that there is yet another tenant moving in to what used to be his bedroom. Almost without realizing it, they begin to set aside self-interest to help each other out, with Clarence teaching Edward card tricks so that he can survive the dreaded birthday party his mum (Anne-Marie Duff) has planned for him, and Edward devising a way to take Clarence on a trip to the grave of his wife.
There is such an easy grace between Clarence and Edward, with Caine giving young Milner (a standout in Son of Rambow) plenty of space to hold the screen with him, and for the most part he does. The two become almost inseparable as they meander through the house and the English countryside, all the while having the kind of conversations that make you wish they’d let you eavesdrop for a long time.
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Rise of the impalings
by Michael Phillips
A chaotic headbanger, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is saved from pure flat-footed blockbuster franchise adequacy by six things, three of them on Hugh Jackman’s left hand, three on his right.
Don’t those retractable metal alloy blades look like a blast? The way they slide in and out like that? It’s the only special effect in this entire mechanical enterprise that’s the least bit special. It is cool, plain and simple, the way Jackman’s mutant Wolverine slices through helicopter rotors or the passenger side of an oncoming truck, while his nemesis Sabretooth, played by Liev Schreiber, uses his own Howard Hughesian claws to drag a signature across someone’s car hood, or someone’s neck. Or the script. That would’ve been worth slicing.
This fourth X-Men picture ties for weakest X-Men picture with No. 3. The third one came not from Bryan Singer — he directed the enjoyable first two — but from Brett Ratner, whose career to date peaked with the shot of Salma Hayek bending over the car hood in After the Sunset.
Gavin Hood isn’t that kind of director. Hood’s Oscar-winning film Tsotsi revealed a talent for blunt, effective storytelling, but with Wolverine Hood appears mismatched, uncertain as to how to activate and stylize this sprawling origin myth (sounds so much classier than “prequel”) designed to showcase Jackman’s arched eyebrow of rage, bare bum of destiny — at one point, naked, he darts through a waterfall and across a barnyard like a starlet in a ’70s drive-in picture — and his mighty pecs of stardom.
Though they’re brothers under the skin, across the centuries and behind their respective, superhuman muttonchops, Jackman and Schreiber periodically try to kill each other in Wolverine. That’s most of the plot. Screenwriters David Benioff and Skip Woods keep the slaughter coming (I wouldn’t take anyone under 12 to this one), and every other retort pulls a variation on “Hunt him down. Take his head off.” The film races around introducing this character and that one, jumping from Canada to Nigeria to Ohio to the Three Mile Island power plant, setting up the next round of impalings. Wolverine delivers a tremendous number of impalings. It may as well be called X-Men Origins: Rise of the Impalings.
Those who saw the previous X-Men features will have little trouble sorting through the mutants here, such as teen versions of Scott “The Fire Beam” Summers and Emma Frost. But there’s a rote quality to the proceedings, and director Hood shoots the action in such a way as to minimize the performers’ abilities to perform it. The editing by Nicolas De Toth and Megan Gill chops each new incident of violence, along with simple one-two exposition chunks, into 12 or 15 erratic fragments. Wolverine has been shot, cut and packaged for those afflicted with ADHLAS which, as you may know, stands for “attention deficit hey look a squirrel!”
The performers compensate some. Here and there you get what you want from an X-Men prequel, thanks to the irrepressible Jackman; the slippery, can’t-ever-trust-him-for-a-second Danny Huston; Lynn Collins’ heartfelt, charismatic Kayla; and a wittily seething Schreiber, underplaying while overplaying — a neat trick. Across the next decade we’ll no doubt see more X-Men Origins tales. Whoever develops them should take the time to re-view Singer’s contributions to the franchise. Wolverine makes last summer’s Iron Man and The Dark Knight seem like a long time ago indeed.
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