Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Review: "The Connection"

"The French Connection" became a classic crime movie because of Gene Hackman's pugnacious portrayal of an American cop chasing down the flow of heroin from France, and William Friedkin's gritty, bloody-knuckles style of filmmaking. But the drug war was actually a real thing, and for years international law enforcement agencies seemed powerless against an octopus of a criminal cartel.

"The Connection" is the based-on-truth tale of the beast finally meeting its maker from the French perspective. Jean Dujardin, an Oscar winner for his joyous turn in "The Artist," plays a crusading young magistrate who took the fight to the mob bosses.

This movie doesn't have the immediacy or punch of the 1971 film, but it's an engaging crime procedural that shows the daring steps drug lords go to in order to carry out their illicit trade, and what a herculean effort it requires for the law-and-order types to untie the knot of corruption that often ensnares their own agencies and colleagues.

Dujardin plays Pierre Michel, a callow magistrate who mostly dealt with reforming young junkies until he was tapped to oversee the major crimes unit in Marseilles. In one of the interesting things about the story, magistrates are a European concoction that combine aspects of American police, judge and prosecutor. He works with the local cops but has to convince them to cooperate.

Pierre encounters a lot of resistance at first, especially from an older police officer who's seen plenty of magistrates come and go, more interested in promoting themselves to the next higher office than actually slowing the flow of deadly heroine. The first half of the movie essentially deals with the two men finding a way to work together, and eventually becoming fast friends.

The latter half becomes more of a character study between Pierre and his chief opponent, crime boss Gaëtan "Tany" Zampa. He's played by Gilles Lellouche, who has a physical resemblance to Dujardin so strong that I cannot believe director Cedric Jimenez left it to accident. (Jimenez also co-wrote the screenplay.) Both men have sloping foreheads and prominent Gallic brows and noses; they resemble distant cousins of Liam Neeson whose forebears might've slipped across the Channel long ago.

Each are family men who place a high price on loyalty and comradeship. They have one great scene together where Pierre is tailing Tany in his car -- this magistrate likes to savor the street action -- and they end up having a faceoff with one of the beautiful Marseilles backdrops behind them. Lellouche and Dujardin make for a charismatic pair of antagonists.

Also a formidable screen presence is Benoît Magimel as Thomas Calazzi, aka Crazy Horse, one of Tany's chief rivals who ends up as something of a third wheel in the long war between Pierre and Tany. He has a shocking twist to his story that is probably showbiz BS, but I still was enthralled by it.

Céline Sallette has the thankless role of Pierre's wife, the sort who's always complaining about the main character spending so much time at work. I also enjoyed Bruno Todeschini as a smarmy party boy type who gets in too deep with the bad guys, and Guillaume Gouix as a junior detective who shows Pierre the underbelly of policing in southern France.

"The Conversation" isn't a great movie; it seems to have grander ambitions about linking the lives of the two main characters with their relationship to their wives, children, underlings, etc. These tend to get swept under by the relentless plot, but that's OK when the story is this gripping.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Reeling Backward: "The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah" (1962)

"The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah" is a classic example of mid-century ersatz Hollywood cheese, a cynical attempt to rip off a spectacularly successful film on the cheap.

Stewart Grangers plays Lot from the famous biblical tale of "Sodom and Gomorrah" (as this film was known everywhere else in the world but America). He's got the same poofy white-and-grey pompadour that Charlton Heston wore in "The Ten Commandments," though sans beard. Ostensibly this is because Lot is in mourning after the death of his wife, but he remarries midway through and the chin whiskers never appear. I think the filmmakers just didn't want to hide Granger's famous jutting chin.

The movie was a French/Italian/American production financed by the likes of Joseph E. Levine, famous for bringing cut-rate Hercules and Japanese monster flicks to these shores and promoting the hell out of them. (He also financed prestige projects like "A Bridge Too Far.") He and his fellows did a fair job on this film, making it a modest international hit without any of the sumptuous production values of "Commandments."

It was directed by Robert Aldrich, who had a fine career with the likes of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?", "The Dirty Dozen," "The Flight of the Phoenix" and "The Longest Yard." Screenwriters Giorgio Prosperi and Hugo Butler loosely based the script on the book by Richard Wormser, taking great liberties with biblical texts to flesh out Lot's story into a 2½ hour movie.

As I remember from interminable Sunday school classes, the basic tale of Lot is one of loss and redemption, and more loss. Lot leads his portion of the Hebrew tribe out of the desert to the edge of the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, famous for their salt mining and lecherous ways. After initially keeping the Jews upright in their faith as farmers, Lot eventually succumbs to power and vanity, as they move into Sodom and become corrupted.

But then the angels of God warn him of the city's destruction, and he pleads to let the city be spared if he can find 50 men of good will in Sodom -- which he then haggles down to 10. Strangely, in the movie he never actually seems to go looking for the 10 good men, and the Lord's wrath is unleashed in the form of a storm that looks eerily like an atomic bomb explosion. Despite the warning of the angels, Lot's wife looks back on the city's destruction and, seeing the power of God unveiled, is turned into a pillar of salt.

The film adds a whole bunch of new characters and subplots from Wormer's book, while leaving out chunks of biblical text. For instance, the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah and Lot's capture by the Elamite leader Chedorlaome, and subsequent rescue at the hands of Abraham, is omitted.

And, needless to say for a film released in 1962, Lot's subsequent incest with both of his daughters is left out. Though there is a fair amount of flesh for a movie of this era, including a languid tracking shot across a bunch of sleeping revelers, who are clearly implied to have just held an orgy.

"The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah" also shows Lot leaving Sodom not only with his family, but the entire Hebrew tribe. This is obviously an attempt to replicate the exodus scenes of Moses from "The Ten Commandments." (Don't forget, back then extras were cheaper and more effective than special effects.)

Anouk Aimée plays the exotic heavy, aka Yul Brynner's counterpart in this movie. As Queen Bera, she rules with a benevolent but depraved hand, encouraging her people to engage in all sorts of debaucherous pleasures. Her brother, Astaroth (Stanley Baker), longs to overthrow her, and isn't particularly subtle about it. He secretly arranges a compact with the Elamites to attack the Hebrews and Sodom.

Astaroth spars with Lot from the get-go, and have a couple of duels in which the much older Lot easily bests him, despite using only a shepherd's crook as a weapon. The prince manages to deflower both of Lot's daughters (off-camera), Shuah (Rossana Podesta) and Maleb (Claudia Mori). As is typical for this type of movie, the children become resentful of their father and enamored with the glamorous ways of their adopted homeland.

Lot's primary relationship is with Ildith (Pier Angeli), a Sodomite slave and chief of Queen Bera's household retinue. She is given to Lot as a peace offering during their negotiations -- Bera agrees to allow the Hebrews to occupy the land across the River Jordan in exchange for a share of their crops. Ildith, used to the soft ways of the city, is mightily put out but eventually becomes Lot's second wife.

There's really not much to recommend about "The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah." A couple of the battle scenes are fitfully entertaining, and Granger has screen presence as the stiff-but-honorable Lot. Most of the people involved with the production apparently considered it the low point of their creative careers, and I don't find much reason to disagree with them.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Video review: "Strange Magic"

“Strange Magic” was a 15-year passion project by George Lucas, who said he wanted to make a movie for his daughters after all those science fiction odysseys. This animated musical filled with fairies and goblins and elves, though, ends up as a derivative and largely joyless romp through the enchanted forest.

The animation is decent to look at, with Lucas’ animation outfits in Singapore and California combining efforts. And it’s got an impressive voice cast, including Evan Rachel Wood, Alan Cumming, Kristin Chenoweth, Alfred Molina, Elijah Kelley and Maya Rudolph.

The story centers on Marianne (Wood), heiress to the fairy throne. She rejects her fiancé,  Roland (Sam Palladio), for being a cad, then is horrified when her sister, Dawn, is kidnapped by the evil Bog King (Cumming). His realm is the dank and shadowy antithesis to the fairy world of light and laughter. But somewhere in that crusty old chitinous shell is the beating heart of a guy who’s been knocked around by love.

There’s also the Sugar Plum Fairy (Chenoweth) creating love potions that wreak havoc, a love-smitten elf (Kelley), and the Bog King’s scolding mom (Rudolph), who just wants her son to settle down with a nice frog.

“Strange Magic” seems like an excuse to have faeries and princesses and goblins and get them all to burst into pop music standards, including the title tune. At times it seems like the characters finish a song, speak six lines of dialogue, and then start singing again. The story is just a weak thread in between the warbling.

Little kids might like it, but this is one for parents to pop in the DVD player and leave to go do other things.

Video extras are pretty skimpy. They consist of two making-of featurettes: “Magical Mash Up: Outtakes, Test and Melodies” and “Creating the Magic.”



Thursday, May 21, 2015

Review: "Tomorrowland"

Maybe you’ve seen the trailer for “Tomorrowland,” in which a young woman touches a pin and is instantaneously, breathtakingly transported to another place. Like me, you probably found it highly intriguing, but after watching it you didn’t really feel like you had any idea what the movie was about.

Well, I’ve seen the whole film now – and I still don’t have a clear picture of it.

It’s a weird cotton candy concoction. It wants to be fun and fluffy, but the film also has this determined air of mystery to it, like it resents sharing its secrets. And there’s some late portentous stuff that seems way too sour for what came before.

This is surely one of the most disappointing movies of the year, given expectations and the talent involved: star George Clooney, who seems to instinctively gravitate toward quality material or vice-versa; director Brad Bird, one of the top animation filmmakers (“The Incredibles”) who successfully made the jump to live action; Damon Lindelhof, co-creator of the TV show “Lost,” who wrote the script along with Bird.

I’m afraid this may also prove a disappointing review, since I feel like I can’t tell you very much about “Tomorrowland.” Its entire appeal is steeped in guarding its enigma, then slowly – too slowly – revealing itself. Even though I found the movie underwhelming, blurting out its secrets seems a disservice both to the film and its audience.

I’ll stick to things that are shown in the trailer, or you can figure out easily. Given the title and that it’s from Disney, you can guess that it has something to do with the utopian vision of the future from the ubiquitous theme parks. Touching one of these odd ceremonial pins immediately teleports you to a magical, soaring city of arches and scientific advancement -- at least for a while.

Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is a smart and gutsy teen who comes to be in possession of one of these pins, and tenaciously follows the thread of its mystery. This includes gaining the companionship of a strange young girl, Athena (Raffey Cassidy). She in turn leads Casey to Frank (Clooney), an isolated inventor who appears to be very, very angry at the world.

Together they have all sorts of adventures involving rockets, robots, cross-dimension travel and guzzling Coca-Colas. For a while it almost seems like a science fiction version of “The Da Vinci Code,” with famous locales and figures revealing long-shrouded purposes.

The movie takes a long, long time to get rolling. It feels like a roller-coaster in which two-thirds of the ride is clickety-clacking up that first big rise. The last 45 minutes or so are pretty engaging, but some of the twists are more jerky than thrilling.

Clooney is dyspeptic and missing his usual facile charm. Robertson is buoyant and enthusiastic, though the script often has her saying or doing patently ridiculous things. Young Cassidy has terrific screen presence; somehow she speaks in a very clear British accent, yet I struggled to understand her words.

“Tomorrowland” is a story for and about dreamers, those who dare to strive for something better and never give in to the naysayers. It’s a beautiful sentiment, but the problem with that is sometimes the naysayers are right. And though I dreamed of adoring this movie, I must say: nay.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Video review: "American Sniper"

When I wrote my initial review of “American Sniper,” the movie wouldn’t hit theaters for another month. I opined that it might not do well commercially given its subject matter, the Iraq war, and its portrait of a man who kills prodigiously for a living.

A half-billion dollars and a half-dozen Oscar nominations later, I’m glad to pronounce myself totally off the mark. One of the best movies of 2015, “American Sniper” is the deeply affecting story of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL credited with 160 combat kills.

Bradley Cooper, known for playing smooth operators, is barely recognizable as Kyle. An unapologetic patriot, Kyle uses his sniper skills to take out threats to his comrades on the ground. Sometimes this involves dreadful choices, such as whether to shoot a boy holding a grenade running toward American soldiers.

It’s perhaps the best performance of Cooper’s career, totally submerging himself into the part of an unremarkable guy who discovered that he was the perfect instrument of war. Needless to say, this wreaks havoc on his private life back home with his wife (Sienna Miller) and kids. In between four tours in Iraq, Kyle struggles to fit in amid a staid world of lawnmowers and kids’ birthday parties, sensing threats on the wind.

The actual combat scenes are the real heart of the film. Rather than taking us into the midst of chaos, director Clint Eastwood shows the eagle’s-eye view of the sniper, perching on rooftops to get the best vantage point for their kills. The editing, camera work and sound effects are all top-notch.

It can be a tough movie to watch, but “American Sniper” is well worth your time.

Bonus features are a bit on the modest side, and are the same for DVD and Blu-ray editions. Both come with two making-of documentaries: “Making of American Sniper” and “One Soldier’s Story: The Journey of American Sniper.”



Thursday, May 14, 2015

Review: "Far from the Madding Crowd"

I will admit to an embarrassing aversion to a lot of 19th century Western literature in general, and the British kind in particular. I've always found much of this writing long-winded and self-indulgent, as if the authors took pen in hand more for the idolatry of their own prose than crafting a compelling story and vivid characters for their readers.

Even short books like Bram Stoker's "Dracula" seem needlessly inflated with a sense of self-importance. Why write 300 words, the thinking seems to be, when 3,000 will do?

Movie adaptations of this oeuvre tend to do well though, since the process of turning a book into a film is largely a process in elimination -- whittling the narrative down to its purest essence. I've not read Thomas Hardy's "Far from the Madding Crowd," but I have an inkling I like the movie version more than I would the novel.

Carey Mulligan plays Bathsheba Everdene, a spirited young woman who inherits a large farm in the English countryside. A sort of proto-feminist, Bathsheba sets about running the enterprise and a small army of workers on her own, resolving to bring successful crops of wheat and barley seed to market and strike deals with her male counterparts. She will rise before anyone else in the morning and be the last in bed.

"It is my intention to astonish you all," Bathsheba informs her farmhands.

But love, as it is wont to do, invades the Everdene farm. Bathsheba finds herself the object of not one, or two, but three urgent male suitors. Left to her own devices she would prefer not to marry at all. But whether out of a sense of propriety, necessity or just pure whim, she begins to negotiate the minefield of romantic intentions, many of them misplaced.

The first is Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a sturdy and stoic shepherd who pitched his woo when Bathsheba was still a penniless helper at her aunt's farm. He proposes marriage after they've shared only one or two conversations, and apparently this was not unusual for the time. Back when people saw marriage as a mutually agreeable accommodation; you got hitched and then worried about falling in love.

Bathsheba rejects Mr. Oak, somewhat haughtily, and later he loses his entire flock and becomes a wandering laborer. He eventually finds his way to Bathsheba's farm, and becomes her employee. Their relationship is confusing and strained -- at one point she seeks his advice about a personal matter, then dismisses him after he responds with counsel not to her liking.

(In this, I see that the thought patterns of modern women are not dramatically different from those of their fictional 19th century counterparts.)

In a girlish fit, Bathsheba sends a valentine to William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a rich and stodgy middle-aged bachelor who reputedly had his heart broken long ago. He interprets this as a romantic overture and, you guessed it, immediately responds with a proposal of marriage. He promises her whatever she wants, including her independence in continuing to run her own farm. She recognizes the promise of such an offer, but again demurs -- after stringing Boldwood along for a few months.

Finally there is Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a hot-headed sergeant who gives up the military life to seduce Bathsheba. He had nearly wed Fanny (Juno Temple), one of Bathsheba's former workers, but sees the  monetary benefits of aiming higher up the social scale. Predictably, once Troy and Bathsheba are wed he quickly becomes bored with the life of a country gentleman, drinks and carouses, running up large gambling debts.

Directed by Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg based upon a screenplay by David Nicholls, "Far from the Madding Crowd" is a gorgeous-looking film, lush with color and beautiful imagery.

The story is all restrained emotions and unspoken declarations in that very British way. This is the sort of the movie in which characters take an hour and a half to say, "I love you," and even then they don't just blurt it right out.

It's sort of a pastoral version of "The Remains of the Day." Carey Mulligan is an endearing screen presence as always, and her three would-be husbands all display some aspects of the Byron-esque romantic ideal man, though they all are found wanting in other areas.

I enjoyed the movie for what it is, which is to say if you've "Remains" or "Room with a View" or "Little Women" or any of a few dozen other films, you pretty much know you are getting the same thing.

Review: "Mad Max: Fury Road"

Some movies distract and entertain you; others leave you bored or strained. A few bedazzle, or puzzle us with their flaws, but many more start to fade the moment you leave the theater. What's truly rare is a cinematic experience that is utterly transporting, that captivates you so completely the guy sitting in the seat next to you could have a heart attack and you might not notice.

"Mad Max: Fury Road" is one such film. People walked out of our screening in a daze; they were winded and tired. It's like finishing a marathon: the first thing you do is catch your breath.

Watching this sequel/reboot to the storied apocalyptic death race series, the first from writer/director George Miller in 30 years, is such an assault on the senses it will leave you battered.

It's essentially one two-hour-long chase, with former cop Max Rockatansky unwillingly caught in the middle. It's an orgy of blood and fire, horsepower and hand-to-hand combat, a nightmare pastiche of humanity's last ride played out on the scorched Australian desert. (Actually, Namibia.)

The screenplay by Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris paints a dense, detailed world that we only get tiny glimpses of at any given time. We experience characters and make up elaborate backstories to go with them. This is the sort of movie you have to see several times to completely rap your brain around.

Max is, of course, played by Tom Hardy, the first time Mel Gibson hasn't occupied the role, having gotten too old and rant-y. Hardy fashions his version of the character closer to the vest, motivated less by rage at a world that has robbed him of everything so much as haunted by those he failed to save.

His Max is mad, but mostly at himself.

When we first see him he's still riding the sun-beaten pan in his iconic black police V-8 Interceptor, searching for gas, food and a moment of respite from roving bands of scavengers. But that lasts just a few minutes, as he is captured by the War Boys of Immortan Joe, a local warlord who controls the flow of water from his mountaintop citadel. Max is turned into a "blood bag," a source of clean blood and organs for Joe's soldiers.

Immortan Joe is played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also was the main villain in the original "Mad Max." He's a terrifying vision, a Darth Vader-esque figure who's viewed as a god by his stable of chalk-white War Boys, but he's actually a decrepit old man held upright by his armor and breathing mask, which is fashioned into a fearsome death's head grin of fangs.

Joe sends regular runs to nearby Gastown to trade for fuel, heavily armed convoys centered around a war rig piloted by one of his chief lieutenants, called Imperators. Furiosa is one such, a fearsome woman with a prosthetic arm played by Charlize Theron. But Furiosa has betrayed Immortan Joe by stealing his bevy of "wives," actually sex slaves who are used to breed his twisted sons.

Max gets brought along for the pursuit by Nux (Nicholas Hoult), one of the War Boys, who live very short lives due to their mutations, reliance on rage-inducing drugs and dreams of entering Valhalla with Joe's blessing. Through a series of circumstances, Max throws in with Furiosa and her distressed damsels. They voyage toward a "green place" in the east where they can live free; but as we know from these sorts of tales, apocalypses have few oases.

The car chases and combat scenes are simply breathtaking. Miller attained much of them using old-fashioned stunts and practical effects, augmented by computer generated imagery. We see cars reduced to bits of junks even as they're still hurtling forward, with bodies flying off this way and that. Furiosa proves herself Max's equal -- at least -- in survival skills and sheer badassery.

The film is a technical marvel, with vivid cinematography by John Seale, crisp editing from Margaret Sixel and a thrumming heavy metal musical score by Junkie XL.

I loved how Miller uses imagery and themes from the three previous Mad Max movies and weaves them into a new synthesis that feels organic and evolutionary.

For instance, the War Boys, with their skull-like paint, seem an offshoot of Scrooloose, the odd boy among the lost children from "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome." And Max is propped up on the front of a car like the hostages in "The Road Warrior." The vehicles are all bastardized combinations of salvaged pieces, such as Immortan Joe's death machine, which is two 1959 Cadillacs welded on top of each other.

"Mad Max: Fury Road" is the rare remake that matches its predecessors in audacity and originality. This is what movies are made for.