Monday, July 28, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Witness for the Prosecution" (1957)

Charles Laughton is today's Morgan Freeman. He was good in supporting roles or leads, as comic relief or deadly serious, and he made every movie he was in better. I've enjoyed catching up with some of his roles while writing this column for more than five years (!), and "Witness for the Prosecution" features one of his most delicious performances.

First, a word about film credits. Tyrone Power was the top-billed actor and the face on most of the posters, with Marlene Dietrich a close second. Both give nice turns in "Witness," but it's clear from watching even five minutes of the movie that they're the supporting characters. The story is focused entirely through Laughton, playing ailing British barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts, defending an acccused murderer in the trial of his long and storied career.

Power plays Leonard Vole, the accused, a seemingly hapless fellow and natural charmer with the ladies. It turns out (spoilers ahead) that he actually did commit the murder he's accused of, and relied on the skilled thespian powers of his German war wife, Christine (Dietrich), to construct an elaborate ruse to get him off. It was deliberately playing against type for Power, who was known mostly for heroic swashbuckling roles such as Zorro.

"Witness" was also his final film -- Power succumbed to a sudden heart attack at the tender of age 45, literally with a sword in his hand while filming his next big production.

Dietrich, still a stunner at age 57, continued to perform for many more years, including a live stage show in which she flaunted a "nearly nude" sheer dress in her 70s. She was also laid low during a performance, falling off the stage during a show in Australia and suffering a seriously broken leg. She endured until age 90, alcoholic and largely bedridden.

So why was Laughton, certainly no small fry as a movie star himself, relegated to third billing despite carrying the entire movie? Who really knows, as showbiz has rarely made a lot of sense. Maybe the advertising boys preferred the winsome couple over the famously frog-faced Laughton.

Laughton certainly garnered all the meaningful attention, earning an Academy Award nomination (the third of his esteemed career) as well as a BAFTA nod. The film also got Oscar noms for best picture, best director (Billy Wilder), editing and sound recording. Neither Power or Dietrich were recognized, though strangely Elsa Lanchester was for her comic relief role as Robarts' nagging nurse.

Based on a short story (later turned into a play) by Agatha Christie, "Witness for the Prosecution" wears the clothes of a whodunit while existing more as a character study of its leading trio. Wilder and Harry Kurnitz adapted the story for the screen, and while the last few minutes are deliberately shocking, the actors carry the narrative rather than the other way around.

Probably three-quarters of the picture takes place inside a courtroom, in the British version of the familiar courtroom drama genre. It's much more stuffy and genteel than American courtroom films, which tend to have a lot of big emotions and sweaty stand-offs.

Christine was thought by Robarts to provide the key alibi for her husband, who dilly-dallied with an older heiress in hopes that she would loan him money to develop his eggbeater invention. She turned up with her head bashed in, and the woman's crotchety maid points the crooked finger of blame at Vole. Things aren't helped when it's revealed that the victim changed her will to make him the beneficiary of an £80,000 inheritance -- about $2 million in today's dollars.

Robarts is vexed when Christine is instead called as a witness for the prosecution, and proceeds to throw Leonard under the bus, saying he came home with blood on his sleeves and at 10:10 p.m., not the 9:26 p.m. he swore to. But then Robarts receives some letters from a mystery woman that claim the whole thing was a plot to get rid of the husband she'd grown tired of.

I won't reveal the very end, but suffice it to say that the brilliant barrister finds out that he's had the wool pulled over his eyes.

Robarts has just returned from a long convalescence, with a strict nurse in tow and instructions not to try any more criminal cases. Of course, he gives in to the temptation of a juicy murder case -- along with cigars and brandy snuck into his thermos full of cocoa.

Blowsy, charismatic and indulgent, Robarts can't leave behind the life of outfoxing his opponents he's grown to love so much. There's even a funny little trick he does of using his monocle to shine a reflected light in a person's face to find out if they're lying. Turns out it isn't so reliable, as Vole passed with flying colors.

"Witness for the Prosecution" is good old-fashioned filmmaking -- a thriller-cum-drama where all the real action is confined to the courtroom. It's there Robarts, and Laughton, ply their considerable skills with reptilian panache.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Video review: "Noah"

Darren Aronofsky is not the sort of filmmaker who punts.

He makes dizzyingly complex movies that charter a course through the interior minds of his characters, who often descend into madness or despair. He broke onto the scene with “Pi,” and more recent efforts include “The Wrestler” and “Black Swan,” both of which got the attention of Oscar voters.

For his latest effort Aronofsky literally reached back to his childhood and a poem he wrote about Noah, the Biblical savior who builds an ark to save his family and two of every creature on Earth from God’s destructive flood. Religious literalists may be offended by the modernist reimagining of scripture by Aronosfsky, who also co-wrote the script with Ari Handel.

In this version of the tale, Noah (Russell Crowe) is a temperamental eco-warrior, a vegetarian who carefully harvests the bounty of the land, as opposed to the meat-eating descendants of Cain, who mine for precious metals, wage constant wars, and worse.

He receives dream-visions from the Creator (the word “God” is never used) indicating He plans to destroy the world, and Noah is charged with saving all his creatures. In Noah’s interpretation, he, his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), their three sons and adopted daughter (Emma Watson) are merely caretakers for the animals, and are expected to die out afterward.

His enemy is Tucal-Cain (a snarly Ray Winstone), who thinks his right of free will includes displacing Noah and his clan from the ark. Lending a hand are the Watchers, golem-like giants made of stone who are actually the souls of fallen angels, trapped for helping the descendants of Adam and Eve.

Also hanging around is Noah’s grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), the last of the great Biblical patriarchs endowed with magical powers. A major subplot involves a rivalry between Noah and his middle son Ham (Logan Lerman), who resents that his father refuses to let them choose wives to take along on the ark.

“Noah” represents a bold vision, unintentionally goofy at times, but one still engaging and illuminating.

Extra features are a tad disappointing, especially if you buy the DVD version, which contains exactly nothing. Upgrade to the Blu-ray, and you add three making-of featurettes: “Iceland: Extreme Beauty,” “The Ark Exterior: A Battle for 300 Cubits” and “The Ark Interior: Animals Two by Two.”



Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Review: "Lucy"

"Lucy" starts out as a brash crime thriller/drama with a sci-fi twist, and then it swerves into profundity, and folly.

Scarlett Johansson plays the title character, an inconsequential American girl partying in Korea, who gets forced into being a drug mule for an international kingpin. It turns out the mysterious blue powder surgically implanted in her belly -- it looks like the stuff from "Breaking Bad" -- leaks into her system, and causes one of those chain reactions where it rewrites her entire DNA, granting her super powers.

In this case, the change is not in her body so much as her mind. The human brain only uses 10 percent of its cerebral capacity -- as we are continually reminded in concurrent lectures by a brilliant scientist, Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman). If we could unlock just 20 to 40 percent of that potential, he suggests, humans would become capable of all sorts of amazing feats -- including telepathy, telekinesis and more.

Lucy is the living experiment, with her mind growing apace even as she embarks on an elaborate revenge-slash-salvation mission to find the other drug mules and confiscate the other bags of narcotics before they ... well, it's not exactly clear why she wants the stuff.

To prevent the creation of other super-brains like her? Given the way she disposes of the innocent -- shooting a taxi driver for the crime of not speaking English, for instance -- altruism does not seem to be high on her priority list.

Min-sik Choi, the Korean star best known for his role in "Oldboy," plays the drug lord, Mr. Jang, who is sophisticated and wears expensive suits and seemingly has an entire floor of a high rise set aside for his gory amusements.

The reconstituted Lucy easily mows through Mr. Jang's bodyguards to force him to give her the locations of the other mules. She hurts him enough to make him really angry, but doesn't kill him, which even with 10 percent of my brain I can deduce is not a very smart move.

(This is the perennial conceit of movies about the super-intelligent, as they always proceed to do very dumb things.)

Anyway, the plot quickly morphs into a race against the clock, as Lucy determines she will not live past achieving total consciousness, aka 100 percent brain use. She hooks up with a smoldering French detective (Amr Waked), who's basically just there to bear witness to her miracles and provide the barest of romantic subplots.

Soon she moves past parlor tricks like making a hallway full of gunmen levitate to tapping into people's cell phone calls just by read their energy patterns out of the air, taking over entire computer systems, and so on. In essence, she becomes Neo from "The Matrix," but without the alternate reality.

Writer/director Luc Besson, a Frenchman known for over-the-top tales of kinetic fantasy like "The Fifth Element," came up with a great idea for a movie and then didn't know where to cut the string. Individual scenes have a certain vibrant energy, like when she's flying on a plane, working two laptop computers at the same time, and her physical being starts to fritter away. But we feel the same thing happening to the narrative.

Having Johansson play the role with a sort of vacant robot mien was a mistake. She says that she can no longer full pain, fear or desire, and that she worries her humanity is slipping away. But why would this be so? One would think being able to fully access our memories and experiences would render them more emotionally intense, not less so.

"Lucy" is a smart idea for a film, obtusely executed.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Night of the Hunter" (1955)

'Preacher' Harry Powell of "The Night of the Hunter" has been called one of the most frightening villains in cinematic history, but Robert Mitchum doesn't actually seem to be trying very hard to be scary. In fact, there are times when his performance is downright comical, as if he's channeling a character from Loony Tunes.

The great actor Charles Laughton only got once chance to direct a feature film. "Night" was a critical and commercial failure, and his tenure in the director's chair was done. But over time the movie has risen in stature and today is regarded as a seminal midcentury film, due in large part to its distinctive look and Mitchum's bold turn.

It's generally included in the film noir tradition, though Laughton was consciously trying to emulate the German expressionist style of the 1920s. With its low angles, looming shadows and stretched perspectives, there are some shots that could have come straight out of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."

I think this sensibility also influenced Laughton's direction of Mitchum's performance. Powell is a serial killer who poses as a wandering preacher during the Great Depression. He famously has "LOVE" and "HATE" tattooed on the four fingers of each hand, and has a prepared little speech about these forces continually grappling with one another. He talks to God frequently, and seems to think he's part of the Lord's higher purpose. A switchblade in the pocket of his black reverend's coat is the instrument of his judgements.

Powell grows increasingly deranged as the story goes on. By the end, he's leering into the camera and making animalistic squawks. He clutches a wounded limb with a sense of mortification, almost like Wile E. Coyote being  unable to believe that the Road Runner keeps getting one up on him.

At a spare 92 minutes, "Night" is one of the few films you wished was longer. It would help better flesh out the characters, particularly Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), the lonely widow who Powell woos and weds. He was prison bunk mates with her husband (Peter Graves), who was executed for a bank robbery in which he killed two people and made off with $10,000. He hid the cash inside his little girl's doll, admonishing the children to never speak of it to anyone. Powell is determined to procure it for himself.

In seemingly the space of just a few minutes of screen time, Willa is widowed, introduced to Powell, married, rejected out of her wedding bed, turned into a religious zealot and murdered. There's a beautifully creepy shot of Willa dead at the bottom of the river, still tied to the driver's seat of Powell's Ford Model T, her long hair flowing with the kelp. It only serves, however, to  underline the fact that she exists in the movie as a construct there to service the plot, rather than a flesh-and-blood person.

Another problem with the script (by James Agee, based on a novel by Davis Grubb) is that it's told largely from the perspective of Willa's son John (Billy Chapin), but he largely remains inscrutable. Chapin tries in vain, but the script sets him up as a totally reactive character. Though there is a certain level of threat during his scenes alone with Powell, where the "preacher" drops the wholesome pretense he shows to adults and becomes coy and belligerant.

The film takes the unusual twist of introducing a main character two-thirds of the way through the picture. John and his little sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) escape down the Ohio River in their father's skiff and eventually end up on shores belonging to Mrs. Cooper (the great Lillian Gish), an old woman who takes in orphans.

"I'm a strong tree with branches for many birds," she says, musing to herself as she is wont to do.

Cooper is religious and fierce, and is the only person in the movie not intimidated or fooled by Harry Powell. She siccs the shotgun on him to run him off, then stays up all night waiting for him to break into the house. Strangely, she has a phone in her home, but waits until she's put buckshot into the false preacher before calling the state police.

I liked how Powell exists more as an existential threat than an actual one, riding around the countryside looking for victims, singing gospel tunes in a rich baritone while trolling for the next helpless woman or child to harm. But in the end he's just a kook wielding a skinny little knife that an elderly widow easily gets the best of.

Entertaining? Certainly. Genuinely threatening? Hardly.

I admired "The Night of the Hunter," but it works better in pieces than as a whole.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Video review: "Transcendence"

A box office and critical bomb, “Transcendence” is one of those movies that at least doesn’t suffer from a lack of trying.

This big, ambitious sci-fi thriller starring Johnny Depp posits a world in which artificial intelligence is threatening to take over, with promises of infinite knowledge and immortality -- as long as humans are willing to give up control and subvert their free will.

Depp plays Will Caster, a brilliant scientist who wants to build a sentient computer. He is forced to make himself the subject of his experiment when he is fatally wounded by anti-technology terrorists. With the help of his wife (Rebecca Hall) and reluctant best friend (Paul Bettany), he uploads his consciousness into a super computer.

The recomposed Will spreads across the Internet like a virus, and quickly makes breakthrough discoveries in medicine, energy and nanotechnology. He oversees the construction of a utopia-like town in the desert, and begins conscripting an army of henchmen controlled by his technology.

There are a lot of huge, thoughtful ideas in this movie. The screenplay by Jack Paglan had languished on the Black List of promising but unproduced scripts for years. But first-time director Wally Pfister, a cinematographer by trade, is clearly out of his depth, lacking the storytelling chops to translate such a complex narrative with overarching themes.

In the end, “Transcendence” is a slave to its science fiction tropes, rather than rising above them and giving us something new.

Video extras are OK, though you’ll have to spring for the more expensive Blu-ray combo pack to get most of them. The DVD version contains only two featurettes, “What Is Transcendence?” and “Wally Pfister: A Singular Vision.”

On the Blu-ray you’ll get four more making-of featurettes, and theatrical trailers.




Thursday, July 17, 2014

Review: "Planes: Fire & Rescue"

I was not a fan of "Planes" from last year, calling it a cheap-looking spinoff from the "Cars" universe.

Produced in part by an animation studio in India, it was released not under the Pixar label, but Walt Disney Pictures, as if to telegraph to the world that this film would not have the inspiration and polish we've come to associate with movies like "Finding Nemo" and "Toy Story."

The hurry-up sequel, "Planes: Fire & Rescue" is still not up to the standards of the Pixar/Disney legacy. But it is notably better than the original, which essentially recycled the story of plucky young racer Lightning McQueen and translated it into the skies.

The new film goes in a totally different direction story-wise, and exists more in action/thriller territory. I wouldn't go so far as to use the term original. But at least director Roberts Gannaway, a veteran of Disney's straight-to-video arm, and his cast and crew have come up with something sufficiently different to justify its existence.

At a brisk 83 minutes, I found it engaging enough for grown-ups, and my 3-year-old was quite delighted. 

The 3-D upgrade is rather unnecessary, as the animation isn't really detailed and textured enough to gain much benefit from additional layers. Depending on your perspective, this movie resembles really ambitious television programming or downscale filmmaking.

Dane Cook is back supplying the voice of Dusty Crophopper, a humble crop duster who somehow managed to win a race around the world against professional planes. He's now a bona fide celebrity, enjoying his quiet life in Propwash Junction in between more racing. (Sound familiar?)

But trouble turns up when his gearbox starts to come apart, and a replacement part can't be found. Unable to crank his engine into the red, it appears his racing days are over. When aviation authorities threaten to close down his home airport due to a lack of sufficient firefighting vehicles, Dusty decides to become certified as a SEAT -- single engine airborne tanker.

So he's off to a new locale, Piston Peak National Park, to take lessons in fighting forest fires from the great Blade Ranger, a fire and rescue helicopter with a taciturn demeanor (ably voiced by Ed Harris). 

There's a new crowd of supporting characters to meet, too:
  • Dipper (Julie Bowen), a veteran firefighting plane who takes a serious (almost creepy) shine to Dusty;
  • Windlifter, a heavy-lift chopper with an American Indian background (Wes Studi);
  • Cabbie (Dale Dye), an ex-military transport plane who drops the Smokejumpers, a gaggle of utility ground vehicles, into the middle of a fire;
  • Maru (Curtis Armstrong), a mechanic tug who insists he can fix anything "better than new";
  • Cad Spinner (John Michael Higgins), the unctuous Cadillac park superintendent who's more interested in building and promoting his Xanadu-like country club than giving the firefighters the resources they need.
Outfitted with water landing pontoons instead of wheels, Dusty is put through his paces by the demanding Blade Ranger, who has a secret past of his own fame. (Another total ripoff from "Cars," this time of the Doc Hudson backstory. Hey, I said it was better than the last movie, not a total departure.)

The action scenes are fairly compelling, with some good smoke/fire effects and sympathetic vehicles in peril (including Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara as pair of romantic oldster RVs). And they don't go too heavy on the "life lessons" stuff, other than depicting the nobility of the firefighting profession.

There are a good number of clever jokes and throwaway lines, many of which will go over the heads of tiny kiddies but give their parents a smile. A truck in a bar complains, "She left me for a hybrid. I didn't even hear him coming!" Or the quip made by the firefighters about the fancy-pants Cad, "He waxes himself... daily."

Is "Planes: Fire & Rescue" high-quality filmmaking? Hardly. This is till rather rote entertainment better suited for streaming video and DVDs than a $10 movie ticket. But in a summer light on acceptable fare for small children, this will pass the time amiably. It cruises well at low altitudes.

Review: "The Purge: Anarchy"

Who would you kill?

That's the lure of "The Purge: Anarchy," the sly sequel to the successful low-budget horror film from just last year. As you may recall, the setup is that in a dystopian near-future American, one night a year everyone is allowed to murder, maim and rape without consequence -- the notion being that by "cleansing" ourselves of negative emotions, it makes for a more harmonious republic.

(Unless you're one of the ones being cleansed, of course.)

Personally, I can't say as I've ever had a overwhelming urge to kill another human being. Oh, there was that boss who treated employees like chattel, and anyone who kicks a dog is deserving of a good smacking around, just on general principle.

But blood and death? I don't need that in my dreams. And maybe I'm naive, but I don't think the vast majority of other people would, either.

So writer/director James DeMonaco, who also helmed the first film, starts off with a premise that is pretty whack. But like a flowering plant that is garish and goofy on the surface, sometimes there are roots that go down further than you'd expect. And that's the case with "Anarchy."

Abandoning most of the horror film tropes of the original flick, the sequel falls more into thriller/drama territory. There are a lot of shoot-em-ups and grisly scenes of mayhem. But the meat of the story is one of revenge and redemption, with a strong message about the rich preying on the weak.

As the Commencement, as it's called by the New Founding Fathers of America, approaches for the year 2023, a backlash has started to rise. There's an Internet prophet (Michael K. Williams) railing against the system, claiming the wealthy and powerful are using the purge to weed out the poor and weak.

It's also notable that most of the purgers are white, while the bulk of their victims are brown people.

"Change will come when their blood spills!" urges the leader of the 99 percenters.

Most people, though, are just scared and prefer to wait things out behind barricaded doors.

But not our never-named protagonist. Played by Frank Grillo, a recognizable actor who often portrays heavies and second fiddles, our man has apparently been planning for the purge for a long time. He's got an arsenal of guns, an armored car and a sour attitude. He's out to get someone, though the reasons remain hazy.

Then he comes across Eva (Carmen Ejoga) and Cali (Zoe Soul), a mother and daughter who have been torn from their apartment by a squad of militaristic goons. He stops to save them, and before long they've added a yuppie couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) to the mix, and he's saddled with a whole troupe of innocents to look after.

The group wends its way through downtown Los Angeles, getting into all sorts of bizarre scrapes and encounters with gangs in fright masks and whatnot. (The creepiest antagonists roam around in a semi-tractor trailer; the ominous Big Daddy is their leader.) It's reminiscent of "The Warriors," another ludicrous-yet-evocative glimpse of a chaotic future where roving bands of bloodthirsty tribes seek each other out for pointless exchanges of brutality.

Some sequences are just rote action -- typical machine gun fire and sweaty urgency. Others drive home the us-versus-them theme with delicious panache. A real fist-pumping turn of events is when the friendlies are captured and auctioned off to super-rich purgers, but then they flip the script.

"The Purge: Anarchy" is one of those movies that seems really silly at first. And it is. But it's also got some disturbing things to say.

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