Thursday, August 28, 2014

Review: "The November Man"


"You can be a human being or a killer of human beings, but not both. Sooner or later, one of those will extinguish the other."

So says Peter Devereaux, and he should know. After more than three decades as a top CIA operative, he left a trail of bodies so long it earned him his unofficial codename, from which the movie "The November Man" takes its title. That's because after he comes through a place, one of his grizzled old handlers relates, nothing is left alive.

That analogy doesn't really make any sense -- of course plenty of things are still alive after November; that's how we get spring -- but then neither does much of the rest of the movie. It's a frenetic mish-mash of shootouts and bombastic dialogue, with some damsels in distress and vague geopolitical outcomes in the balance.

Pierce Brosnan optioned the rights to the book series by Bill Granger right around the time he was given the boot as James Bond in 2005. It's too bad they didn't actually make this movie back then, because it would've seemed a lot fresher.

Stop me if this sounds familiar: a past-his-prime spy is forced into taking One Last Job, but things go bad and he is forced to wade through a quagmire of thugs and bosses of uncertain loyalties, all the while sternly lecturing the whippersnappers about what a badass he is, before providing them a demonstration.

Liam Neeson, Kevin Costner and other have already taken their stab at this premise, with varying degrees of success. (Up next: Denzel Washington with this fall's "The Equalizer.") Now it's Brosnan's turn, and while he makes for a nicely creased, convincing geezer spy, the story never becomes coherent enough to land any real emotional punches.

The setup is that someone has a very big secret about Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski), a Russian pol in line to take over the presidency. It seems he was a bad boy during the Chechnyan uprising, executing people and even taking a young girl named Mira as his personal sex slave. So Federov wants to take out anyone who knows anything about it, while the Americans (Will Patton and Bill Smitrovich are the senior spooks on the scene) want to leverage Mira against him.

Trouble is, no one can find her. So they settle for the next best thing, Alice Fournier (Olga Kurylenko), an advocate against sex trafficking who counseled Mira. Devereaux gets brought in to do a simple "exfil" -- that's "sneak somebody out" in spy talk -- of Federov's assistant, who has the goods on him. Alas, nasty things happen, setting off a chain reaction in which everybody is after Alice, and Devereaux becomes the only one she can trust.

There are a couple of X factors, both in the forms of younger, lean and hungry assassins. Alexa (Amila Terzimehić) works for Federov, has the body of a ballet dancer, the beak of a hawk and the stare of a killer. David Mason (Luke Bracey) is a CIA stooge who used to be Devereaux's protégé, until an op went bad and they became antagonists.

Much of the screenplay by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek -- too much, really -- is concerned with a chess match of wits between Devereaux and Mason, with the young guy better at rough-and-tumble skills while the older chap plays the superior long game. It's the old "teacher still has a few lessons to impart to the student" shtick.

But then the movie morphs into a relationship story between Devereaux and Alice, with her bearing a terrible secret (which I figured out around the 45-minute mark). Neither dynamic gets enough air to survive on its own, and both end up suffocating.

Director Roger Donaldson has made some terrific thrillers, including "No Way Out," which ratcheted up the tension inch by inch. But "The November Man" ends up as a lot of gunfights interspersed with confusing dialogue.

Or to put it another way: "You can have a revenge saga or a May/November romance, but not both."






Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review: "Rich Hill"


“Rich Hill” is a pure and polished documentary, a Grand Jury prizewinner at Sundance, but can’t escape a fatal sense of incompleteness. It follows the travails of three dirt-poor teen boys in the titular Missouri town for a year or so, as they struggle against back-breaking economic and familial challenges no child should have to face at so tender an age.

Yet -- we leave them much as we found them, with little substantial movement in their squalid lives, and no real insight gained on the part of the audience. ‘Here they are,’ the movie seems to say, ‘and isn’t that terrible.’ We wait expectantly for something more. I never really felt like I got to know any of the boys much past the first five or 10 minutes spent with them.

Their situations range from just plain bad to seriously in danger of falling through the cracks.

Andrew, 14, probably has the best circumstances of the lot. He’s tall, good-looking and athletic, does well in school and at sports, and shares a close love between his parents and sister. (No last names are used for any of the subjects.)

But Andrew’s father Willie works itinerantly, out of choice rather than necessity, as he favors odd jobs over being beholden to any one employer. (He also croons on the side as a rather decent Hanks Williams Sr. tribute act.) And his mother has serious health problems that often lay her up for days at a time, so Andrew acts more as caregiver than receiver.

As a result, money tends to run dry suddenly, usually necessitating the family pick up sticks and move somewhere else. One wrenching scene shows Andrew and his sister trying to remember all the places they’ve lived.

Appachey is 13 and seems to wreak havoc on everything he touches. Our first glimpses of him tell the tale: he lights a cigarette using a toaster, then accidentally flips his skateboard down a storm drain. There’s a telling moment where he starts to walk off, affecting manly nonchalance, but he turns around to hunker down on his knees to try to retrieve it because hey, it’s his skateboard – transportation, rebellion and identity all in one.

His mother is authoritarian and somewhat clueless, dispensing harsh parenting (and sometimes the back of her hand) to Appachey and his siblings in their shabby house, where clothes and trash are underfoot everywhere. After Appachey is put on long-term suspension for a fight at school, his destructive tendencies only seem to escalate. But somewhere inside there is a kid who dreams – he talks about his love for Chinese illustrations, and turns a frozen puddle into a muddy work of art.

Most disturbing of the trio is Harley, who seems to be simultaneously not very bright and extremely stubborn, which is a scary combination. His mother is in jail for attacking his father – the family claims she was protecting the boy from his dad’s sexual abuse – so Harley lives with his ineffectual grandmother. He’s frequently absent from school because he claims he doesn’t feel well. (The film’s website reports that he was subsequently diagnosed with a brain tumor.)

“I’m very easy to make mad,” Harley says about himself, and that’s the simple, scary truth. The filmmakers encourage us to sympathize with Harley – such as when they show him going around to other kids at school on his 16th birthday, asking them if they know what’s special about today, and nobody seems to have a clue.

But more often, I felt less like I was observing Harley’s struggles that intruding upon the descent of a boy desperately in need of help. This young man doesn’t need to have his story told; he needs a raft of social services, a strong parental figure and the privacy necessary to deal with his daunting issues.

There is definitely some value in “Rich Hill.” Directors Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos are technically skilled and chose a brave subject for their documentary. But it feels like the start of something noble, rather than the completion of that endeavor. This movie is a placeholder for a better one.






Monday, August 25, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Ten Commandments" (1956)


It's funny; when "The Ten Commandments" sticks to the letter of Biblical scripture, it's rather overwrought and stiff, despite the at-the-time incredible special effects of the parting of the Red Sea and columns of fire.

But the bulk of the early going, which is mostly Hollywood B.S. based on historical conjecture about Moses' life until age 30, is riveting and packs a lot of emotional punch.

I thought Charlton Heston gives a marvelous performance as a prince of Egypt who learns he's the son of Hebrew slaves, a man honor-bound to do the right thing even at great personal cost. Once he obtains the white fright wig and starts delivering declarations to the masses instead of speaking dialogue to other characters, though, the film goes into a mortal tailspin.

The great Cecil B. DeMille seemed to sense this, too, since about three-quarters of the film's famous 3 hour, 39 minute run time is devoted to the preamble of Moses convincing the pharaoh to "let my people go." Once they're actually let go, the movie speeds up to almost a dangerous canter, spinning fecklessly through the creation of the commandments, years of wandering in the wilderness, conflicts between the great Hebrew tribes, etc.

Nominated for the the Academy Award for Best Picture, "The Ten Commandments" ended up losing to another even more unworthy epic, "Around the World in 80 Days." Its lack of Oscar nominations in anything other than the "minor categories" is probably indicative that it wasn't really a favorite going in. It failed to garner any acting nods, though Heston got a Golden Globe nomination.

Even its spectacular sets, purported to be the largest ever built, didn't win in the art direction category, nor the extravagant and beautiful costumes. In the end, the film won only one Oscar for special effects.

In the foursome of screenerwriters' version of the tale, Moses was a Hebrew babe placed in a basket on the river Nile to escape the wrath of the pharaoh, reacting to the prophecy of a deliverer who would free the race of slaves. He was plucked from the waters by Bithiah (Nina Foch), sister of Pharaoh -- his name means "to draw forth" -- and raised as her own.

Flash three decades forward, and Moses has become the main rival of Rameses II, deliciously played by Yul Brynner in full strut-and-pout mode. The only son of Pharaoh Sethi (Cedric Hardwicke), the egotistical and vain Rameses seethes as his father favors his cousin to succeed him upon the throne. Moses has just conquered all of Ethiopia -- keep an eye out for Woody Strode as the King of Ethiopia, and later as one of Bithiah's bearers -- and succeeds in building Sethi's "treasure city" where Rameses failed.

The "brothers," as they refer to themselves, are not only competing for the crown but also the hand of Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), the "house daughter" who must marry the next pharaoh. She and Moses love each other deeply, though Nefretiri turns out to be quite the scheming vixen. It's she who reveals the truth about Moses' heritage to him. Later, now married to Rameses and mother to his child, she convinces the pharaoh to defy Moses' call to free the slaves, resulting in a series of plagues and a terrible backlash against her own family.

I should mention that at one point only Moses and Nefretiri know about his heritage, and he's all but wrapped up the throne. He could've just waited until the elderly Sethi died and then, as pharaoh, freed all the slaves by edict rather than resulting in thousands of horrible deaths. But, as I learned from years of Sunday school, religious types aren't too keen on you pointing out massive plot holes in the Good Book.

Edward G. Robinson has a terrifically fun role as Dathan, a Hebrew slavemaster who schemes against his own people and, when Moses is busy on Mount Sinai obtaining the word of God upon the stone tablets, whips them into a frenzy of idolatry. In perhaps the film's most ridiculous moment, Moses doesn't just break the tablets in fury, he actually hurls them at Dathan and the golden calf, causing them explode and fall into a rift in the earth that swallows everything.

(This leads directly to the second silliest, a throwaway line in the last scene where Moses is forced to explain how they got the remains of the Ten Commandments back, so they could be placed in the Ark of the Covenant and thus "Raiders of the Lost Ark" could be made. He blathers something about the stone tablets, "which were restored to us." So God replaced the exploded commandments, but only in their broken form?)

I was slightly cheesed off that at no point in the movie does Robinson sneer, "Where's your Moses now?!?" Turns out that was just a Billy Crystal routine, a bit of made-up showbiz lore, like Bogie never actually uttering the words "Play it again, Sam."

Other notable actors include John Derek as Joshua, a foolhardy stonecutter who becomes Moses' chief lieutenant; John Carradine as Moses' brother Aaron, who actually performs most of the miracles with his sibling's shepherd staff; Debra Paget as Lilia, a pretty Jewess who catches Dathan's eye; Martha Scott as Yochabel, Moses' real mother; Yvonne De Carlo as Sephora, Moses' long-suffering Bedouin wife; and Vincent Price as Baka, chief stone builder for the Egyptians.

I was struck how fleshy and sensual the movie is. Released prior to the MPAA system, it was awarded a "G" rating for its subsequent theatrical re-releases, which seems rather tame for a movie in which not a lot of clothing is worn, and women dance quite lasciviously on numerous occasions. In a rare bit of historical accuracy for this era of filmmaking, most of the cast is dusky-skinned, whether naturally or with help from makeup.

"The Ten Commandments" remains a great piece of entertainment, a full-of-itself package of Hollywood spectacle, at once haughty, laughable and glorious. I'll be interested to see if Ridley Scott's "Exodus," which is to be released later this year, can find as much treasure in the after-slavery portion of the Moses myth as this movie did in the before part.





Sunday, August 24, 2014

Video review: "The Walking Dead: The Complete Fourth Season"


“The Walking Dead” is one of those television shows that seems to garner affection and resentment in equal (and extraordinarily large) portions.

An avid watcher since its inception, I’ve been both transported and annoyed at the show’s portrayal of a post-zombie apocalypse, based on a popular comic book series. In the past, such as the interminable farm sequence during season two, the storyline has gotten stuck in a quagmire that drags on and on. The survivors talk and quarrel, with little narrative momentum.

(At one point there was actually an episode featuring only a single “walker,” bringing us dangerously close to having an utterly zombieless zombie show.)

Season four, however, largely managed to stay away from these pitfalls. Some of the more vexing characters have been mercilessly killed off – good riddance, Lori! – and the show runners and writers seem to have found the magic sweet spot between gruesome splatterings of undead and dramatic tension.

The first half of the season is mostly concerned with the decline of the group’s sanctuary at a former prison, and its ultimate destruction at the hands of the Governor, the main villain from season three – who also gets his own compelling solo story thread.

In the latter half, former lawman Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and the other main characters are scattered to the winds, and must struggle to endure and regroup. Particularly affecting is the plight of Daryl (Norman Reedus), a country boy with mad survival skills and a dark shadow on his soul, who falls in with a band of brutal killers.

We also get to catch up with Carol (Melissa McBride), the timid wallflower-turned-Machiavellian warrior, who was banished from the group last season and takes steps to reconstitute her own little family unit, with breathtakingly tragic results.

By keeping things constantly on the move, “The Walking Dead” realized perhaps its finest season yet.

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Review: "If I Stay"


The harsh truth is that kid stars, even fantastically talented ones like Dakota Fanning, Abigail Breslin or Haley Joel Osment, basically get one shot to transition from child roles to adult ones. A few make it, but most don't.

Part of it is looks. (Again, this is tough love time.) The physical features that make for an irresistibly cute kid -- huge liquid eyes, cherubic cheeks, Popeye chin -- don't look so good on an adult face. Part of it is a talent that fails to evolve from simplistic portrayals of a child's emotions to the more nuanced, hidden expressions of grown-ups.

Chloë Grace Moretz would seem to have a leg up, since even as a kid she's usually played characters who seemed much older than their years. I first remember her from "(500) Days of Summer," playing Joseph Gordon-Levitt's younger but world-weary sister. Of course, most people know her as the pint-sized, homicidal Hit Girl from "Kick-Ass."

If "If I Stay," based on the book by Gayle Forman, is to be her jump into more adult roles, then it's a stumble. It's not that she's bad in it -- if anything, she's the best thing in the wobbly romantic supernatural drama.

The problem is the movie around her is not equal to her abilities. It's another one of these stories about people severed from their mortal existence, who must watch on from a ghostly perspective as life turns on without them. Here, as the title implies, her character is trying to decide if she should hang onto a life that she has come to see as meaningless, or return to chase a love that seems lost.

This film contained absolutely no surprises for me. I knew everything that was going to happen before it did, from the very moment Mia Hall (Moretz) first stumbles upon teen heartthrob Adam (Jamie Blackley) to the last glimpse we see of them.

I don't need a movie to constantly throw twists and surprises at me, or labor to keep the audience on edge. But when we know exactly where it's going and are just waiting around for the story to arrive, we feel like the film is just going through the motions.

The set up is that Mia and Adam are musicians from opposite worlds: he's a confident rocker, she's a wallflower cellist. Their initial courtship is almost painful to watch, as if the cocky guitarist feels like he's doing the unpopular girl a favor by wooing her.

The romance gets a little better, but not much. His band starts making a name for itself and doing tours all over the Pacific Northwest, while she's still got another year of high school to finish and an application to Julliard to fret about. The separation strains their relationship, and they're officially quits when Mia's family is involved in a terrible car accident.

I'm not giving anything away by stating that most of her family members are severely injured or killed. Mia herself wakes up next to her body, a wraith who follows herself to the hospital to witness her surgery and subsequent coma. She must decide whether to fight on or (literally) walk into the light.

This is one of those movies where people with life-threatening injuries are depicted with just a hairline cut or two on their face, their hair artfully arranged on a pillow. There's little sense of true peril.

Directed by R.J. Cutler from a script by Shauna Cross, "If I Stay" is tired and uninspired filmmaking. The romance, told entirely through flashbacks, is an uneven jumble of contradictory emotions and motivations. At one point Adam says, "I'm not going to be that a-hole who keeps you from going to Julliard." Then, two scenes later, he is the jerk who doesn't want her to go to Julliard.

I hope that the rule doesn't hold true for Chloë Grace Moretz, and that she gets another shot at a grown-up gig. Some kids deserve mulligans.




Review: "When the Game Stands Tall"



“When the Game Stands Tall” is a very good and very atypical sports drama. The hook is that it’s about the longest winning streak in American sports history, as the De La Salle High School Spartans from Concord, Calif., went 11 years without losing -- 151 wins in a row.

But the man at the middle of that story, Bob Ladouceur, seems almost embarrassed about the win streak. In fact, the sport of football is practically secondary to the lessons he’s trying to impart -- about giving a perfect individual effort, relying and being relied upon by those around you, and forming a bond of brotherhood that will help ease the journey from boyhood to manhood.

Played with a calm, almost monotone voice and personality by Jim Caviezel, Ladouceur was repeatedly courted by big college football programs waiving huge paychecks. But he chose to remain at De La Salle until his retirement last year, because he felt he had something to teach high schoolers that would be lost on men at university.

Upon hearing one of his players promise before a game that he would rather die than fail to give his best effort, the coach sternly corrects him and provides the sort of perspective you never hear in a sports flick: “Collapse -- not die. It’s a high school football game.”

He is in many ways the polar opposite of the central character in “Coach Carter,” which was also directed by Thomas Carter. While that coach was an immense personality who took the extraordinary step of benching his entire team of starters, Ladouceur is the sort of fellow who disappears in a crowd. He barely speaks from the sidelines during games, occasionally grabbing a player’s shoulder pads so he can whisper play calls into his ear.

The story, written by Scott Marshall Smith (“Men of Honor”) based on the book by Neil Hayes, follows the team through the tumultuous 2004 season, when a team of relatively unseasoned players blew the winning streak in their opening game and then lost their next game, putting not just their season but the entire identity of the school on the brink.

It’s an interesting and appealing twist on the old saw of taking a bunch of misfits and turning them into winners. Here, we glimpse the highs and lows of the sport, as winners become losers and must carefully, painstakingly earn their way back to the top.

The De La Salle program isn’t like most others. It’s a Christian school, so the players’ and coaches’ faith plays a pivotal role in their ethos. They literally walk onto the field hand-in-hand with each other, both as a sign of their fraternity and to psyche out opponents. Players are made responsible for each other’s performance, even writing out their goals for the next season and another teammate charged with holding them to it.

Challenges await as one season ends and preparation for another begins. A beloved player (a charismatic Stephan James) is murdered two days before leaving for college on a football scholarship. Ladouceur endures troubles on the home front (Laura Dern plays his wife, Matthew Daddario his son) and a personal setback. The team’s captain and star running back (a solid Alexander Ludwig) is ridden hard by his superfan dad (Clancy Brown), who pushes him to strive for the state touchdown record rather than leading the team.

I also enjoyed Michael Chiklis as Terry, Ladouceur’s jumpy assistant coach and best friend; Joe Massingill as Beaser, a stolid offensive lineman; and Jessie Usher as Tayshon, a lightning-fast but callow wide receiver who resists his coach’s altruistic teachings.

“When the Game Stands Tall” succeeds by shunning almost every trope of the rah-rah sports genre, celebrating selflessness and solidarity over outsized personalities and individual glory. This is a movie about what it takes to be great, rather than reveling in any one win, or many.




Monday, August 18, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Duke of West Point" (1938)



There's a long though not terribly busy cinematic tradition of stories about young men attending military academies. In my lifetime there has been "An Officer and a Gentleman," "Taps" and "The Lords of Discipline." Nearly all of them tie together the themes of boys coming of age and free spirits struggling under the yoke of military culture. (Perhaps notably, there haven't been any mainstream films since the 1980s that I can recall.)

It turns out they were making "cadet movies" even back in 1938. "The Duke of West Point" is about an American-born but British-raised fellow, Steven Earley, who struggles to fit in with his Yank brothers. Or rather, he spends the first half of the movie as an outsider and scamp with little regard for the traditions of the United States Military Academy. Then he faces his great crisis and spends the last act struggling to reconcile himself with his adopted community.

I thought it a rather good comedy/drama, and enjoyed discovering it as part of my extended, open-ended classic film education. I had never heard of Louis Hayward, who plays Earley, and found him to be a charming twinkly leading man in the Cary Grant tradition. His character always seems a little smoother and effortless than everyone around him.

Hayward had a lengthy career, first in films in a lot of adventure and swashbuckling roles -- including the first screen iteration of Simon Templar, aka "The Saint" -- before moving on to television work. He was successful enough in "Duke" to land a three-picture deal and cement his career.

I should point out he was almost 30 years old playing a character who is a freshman, and later a sophomore in military college. It seems Hollywood has always feared casting actual teenagers as themselves.

The story is fairly straightforward. Earley, the son of an American colonel-turned-diplomat, is a BMOC at Cambridge who returns to the Americas to attend West Point, something every son going back five generations has done. He's a facile fellow, good at most everything he tries, especially sports and the ladies. He smugly assumes his life of easy achievement will continue at West Point.

Quickly dubbed "Duke" for his British accent and suave, superior manner, Earley does seem to take it all in stride in the early going. He quickly draws the ire of his "yearling corporal," Cadet Strong (Alan Curtis), a second-year student who takes it upon himself to school the striplings in the ways of the Point.

Things build, seemingly unavoidably, to a mano-e-mano bout of fisticuffs between the two. In a rare break from Hollywood tropes, the hero actually seems to take the worst of it from the oafish antagonist.

He does get along well with his two roommates, Jack West (Richard Carlson), the straight-arrow son of a poor widow, and Sonny Drew (Tom Brown), a flamboyantly enthusiastic cadet who sometimes gets picked on for his eager-beaver ways. They both later get to play a key role in the education of Earley -- as the unwitting recipient of charity and a George Gipp stand-in, respectively.

Joan Fontaine has an early memorable role as Ann Porter, the daughter of "Doc" Porter (Charles D. Brown), the medical trainer for most of the sports team. Doc washed out as a cadet years before, and gets to have a stirring speech about places like this getting into the blood of young men -- not unlike Charles S. Dutton role in "Rudy" many decades later.

Ann is ostensibly the girlfriend of Strong, though she seems to regard him more as disposable arm candy than the other way around. Earley makes a full-court press for her attentions, including sneaking out of barracks after hours -- a court-martial offense. Much of the fun-and-games tone of the early part of the movie derives from the cat-and-mouse games he plays with Strong and others to flout the rules on her behalf.

The big transition is when Earley sneaks out again and is caught, though this time for non-selfish purposes. Wishing to protect the reputation of others, he lies about his activities that night. As a result, he is allowed to remain at West Point but is "silenced" -- aka, no other cadet will speak to him or even acknowledge his presence (with the exception of his two buddies).

After so much laughter and romance, it's a startling change in tone, and not a transition that director Alfred E. Green and George Bruce manage completely. We keep expecting Earley to have a big laugh at the whole thing, but after a time we begin to realize how much his treatment weighs upon him.

He resolves to earn back their trust by becoming the best cadet that ever was -- top of the class academically, the unquestioned star of the football and hockey teams, and so on. It does little avail him of their affections.

A lark that segues into a study of a man's mettle, "The Duke of West Point" is a little-remembered but worthy soldier in the military school genre.





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