Monday, October 20, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Charade" (1963)

"Charade" has sometimes been described as "the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock didn't direct," but I'm not sure if that's really fair. Hitch often included bits of puckish and morbid humor in his films, but when it came time for scaring people, he was deadly serious about his craft.

This 1963 romantic thriller, by contrast, is fizzy and fun. Though there are a few moments where Audrey Hepburn, as wan heroine Regina Lampert, aka "Reggie," is imperiled, they are fleeting and frightening only in that sort of way you know everything is going to be alright. After all, she's the star of the picture, and if anything really dire happened to her, the show would be over.

When I say Hepburn is the star, I mean truly that: she far outshines co-star Carey Grant, but she's meant to. He is the moon who basks in her reflected light; he reacts to her rather than the other way around. Romantically, she is clearly the pursuer and he the pursued prey, wielding the shield of propriety to fend off her advances: 'Come into your room? Alone? At this time of night? Heavens!'

In this way director Stanley Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone essentially made a proto-feminist feature film. In some sense Hollywood has backpedaled since then -- nowadays it's almost unthinkable to have a star of Grant's stature in a movie in which he plays second fiddle to an actress.

The basic plot is that she's a widow whose husband was murdered, and now three strangers are chasing her around Paris, claiming she has $250,000 that belongs to them. (That's about $2 million in today's dollars.) Grant shows up as Peter Joshua, a dashing stranger who gets embroiled in the intrigue. She falls for him hard, even when it turns out he's in cahoots with the criminals... sort of. It gets more complicated from there.

The film has an interesting progeny and legacy. Stone and Marc Behm wrote the spec screenplay, but no studio was interested. So Stone turned it into a book, and suddenly everyone in Hollywood wanted it. Thus he turned it back into a screenplay. (Behm got a story credit.)

When they released the film, Universal Pictures improperly copyrighted the movie, so "Charade" became part of the public domain immediately. The fact that anyone could release their own version of it on video, or play it on television, probably helped the film remain popular over the years. It didn't even get an "official" video release by Universal until the awful, unnecessary remake starring Mark Whalberg came out in 2002, when the original was tacked on to the DVD as a bonus feature.

There was also a brouhaha over Hepburn's utterance of the word "assassinated," which was changed to "eliminated" in the wake of JFK's murder.

The movie is a total lark, more comedy than anything else. But I adored the cartoonish villains, the Parisian locales and the genuine romantic chemistry between Hepburn and Grant.

"Do you know what's wrong with you?" she asks as they part at the end of their night. "No, what?" he responds, setting up endless possibilities of Hollywood riffs. Instead, she looks at him pensively and exhales, "...nothing!" A beautiful line, and again usually the sort of thing the guy says to the dame, not vice-versa.

Grant was 59 when the movie was made to Hepburn's 33, though as I've noted before he seemed to stop aging at 38, looking much the same until he was deep into his 60s. Still, he felt self-conscious about the age difference and had the filmmakers add in several self-deprecating references by his character.

Unlike most older stars who fade away or segue into crotchety grampa roles, Grant had a daughter, his only child, at the age of 62 and decided to retire from acting to become a full-time daddy. Apparently he was just as magical in his final role as all his onscreen ones; Jennifer Grant wrote a loving tribute.

The bad guys are:
  • James Coburn as Tex, a tall, preening showboat with a Southern drawl and a mean disposition.
  • George Kennedy as Scobie, who's even bigger and even meaner than Tex, plus he has hook/weapon prosthetic hand.
  • Ned Glass as Neopold Gideon, an older intellectual type, a turncoat who tends to have sneezing fits when he's nervous or endangered.
  • Walter Matthau as Hamilton Bartholomew, a shady CIA man who claims to be helping out Reggie but is actually after the money himself. I'm not really giving anything away here, since Matthau practically smokes with suspicion from his very first scene. Not to mention, despite ostensibly being the Paris bureau chief of a federal government division, he's never able to muster up any actual resources to assist her.
The trio of chase men are introduced in a terrific scene: they each show up to Reggie's husband's funeral, and make close inspections of the body to ensure he's really dead. Scobie even sticks a pin in it -- literally.

In another rarity of mainstream Hollywood films, it's actually Tex, rather than Peter or Reggie, who has a flash of insight and figures out what her husband did with the money.  

But then the bad guys start showing up dead one by one, so suspicion falls on Peter, whose real name turns out to be Alex Dyle... or is it Adam Canfield ... or maybe Brian Cruikshank. One of the cleverest lines of dialogue is the very end, when Reggie and ... her man have gotten engaged, and she proposes they have lots of boys, "so we can name them all after you."

"Charade" also marked the first collaboration between Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, earning an Oscar nomination for original song.

Part screwball comedy, part spy thriller, and a whole lot romantic, "Charade" is what nowadays we would call the perfect date movie. A lot of these movies are forgettable, but not this one.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Video review: "The Purge: Anarchy"

I’m always leery when a low-budget movie becomes a hit and then we see a sequel churned out a year later. The gestation time for most features films is about five years from conception to theatrical release, so most things done in a fraction of that time tend to be hasty and sloppy.

“Crank something out, cash in” is the byword.

“The Purge: Anarchy” bucks this trend by actually being superior to its 2013 predecessor. While the first film was more a schlocky horror film edged with social commentary, the sequel falls into the straight action/thriller category.

If you’ll recall from the last movie, things are set in the dystopian near-future where the United States has been taken over by a group of patriarchal dictators. Once a year they hold the Purge – a single night in which any crime, from assault to murder, is perfectly legal. The idea is for the collective unconscious to jettison itself of all those pent-up negative emotions.

Sounds great – unless you’re one of those who gets pent on.

Frank Grillo, as the unnamed protagonist, is out for some sort of revenge. But when he sees some masked marauders threatening helpless folks, his better instincts take over. Soon he’s defending a whole group of victims from the ultra-rich puppet masters who control the gangs and use the purging to maintain power.

A ludicrous but effective mix of action, scares and 99-percenter outrage, “The Purge: Anarchy” is a catharsis from awful sequels.

Video extras are barely so-so. The DVD comes with a making-of featurettes, “Behind the Anarchy,” including interviews with principle cast and crew. Upgrade to the Blu-ray combo pack and you add some deleted scenes.



Thursday, October 16, 2014

Review: "Fury"

One of my favorite things to do as a critic is to point people to great movies they’ve probably never heard of. Case in point: “End of Watch,” which was in and out of theaters so fast in 2012 you probably missed it even if you didn’t blink.

Writer/director David Ayer’s next film, the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle “Sabotage,” similarly disappeared without a trace. I’m hoping that won’t be the case with his latest, “Fury,” a World War II action/drama starring Brad Pitt that mostly takes place inside a single Sherman tank.

Fair notice: this a grim, dark movie about the dank corners hidden away inside men’s souls. It makes “Saving Private Ryan” seem like a lullaby.

The battle scenes are gruesome, and what happens when the shooting stops is often even more troubling. American soldiers are portrayed not as decent men who sometimes commit evil deeds in the heat of combat, but killing machines who only want to murder the Germans before the krauts murder them.

What a pitiable world Ayers has drawn for us. Unlike most WWII movies that are set when the Nazis still have the upper hand, here it’s April 1945 and the Germans are offering their stiffest resistance before the collapse they know is inevitable.

The soldiers are all scarred, grimy beasts; the German landscape is an open wound, ripped and gasping; the detritus of war lies all around, smoking armored hulks like prehistoric behemoths brought low. It’s not so much that death and carnage are everywhere, but everywhere is death and carnage.

To wit: when the fresh young recruit, Norman (Logan Lerman), is assigned to the crew of the “Fury,” the battered tank that has survived many battles, his first duty is to clean out the bloody mess left by his predecessor. While doing so, he finds part of the man’s face, perfectly intact, staring at him.

So again I say: not for the squeamish, this.

Pitt has a stout, merciless role as Don, aka “Wardaddy,” the sergeant who commands the Fury. His face done up with scars and hair chopped in a deliberately unattractive fop with shaved sides, Don is sure-handed and unrelenting with the enemy, and the same with his crew. He’ll let them bicker and bitch, but when it’s time for them to perform he will brook no hesitation.

When Norman fails to spot and kill a German soldier with an anti-tank gun, and absolutely horrific results ensue, Don makes personally sure that the lad will not flinch next time, using brutal but effective means. He’ll let the Neanderthal gunner, Grady (Jon Bernthal), indulge his base instincts, but only up to a point.

Don takes a softer hand with Bible, a thoughtful young man played thoughtfully by Shia LaBeouf, and Gordo (Michael Peña), the rock-solid tank driver. The sergeant has promised all his men he will keep them alive, but their latest mission will test that pledge.

The Fury is assigned to a platoon of five tanks to guard a crossroads against a force of fresh German troops, who are threatening the advancing division’s supply line. If they fail, the entire Allied advance will ground to a halt and the war could last months longer.

Ayer shows an expert hand for the battle scenes, keeping the focus on the men inside the Fury while giving a pulse-jumping view of the action outside. Tracer bullets and ordnance flash at the screen like lasers, lending the proceedings an eerie stuck-out-of-time feeling. An encounter with a technologically superior Panzer Tiger is especially effective.

The movie works better as a war picture than a character piece. We never quite get all the way inside the heads of the characters, so their peril doesn’t carry as much emotional freight as you’d expect. And a scene inside the apartment of a German woman and her cousin goes in many different directions at once, like a grenade, rather than focused, like a sniper’s bullet.

Still, this is one depiction of war destined to linger in our memory. At times this movie almost seems like a pugnacious middle finger to the classic war epics, in which disparate men come together for a violent but altruistic cause. “Fury” crushes the notion of the nobility of war under its grinding, pitiless treads.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Review: "Men, Women & Children"

"Men, Women & Children" is an audacious, ambitious film that dives into the deep end of cinematic contemplation and, eventually, disappears beneath the ripples it commenced. But not before a heroic effort.

It's not so much a coherent story as a mirror turned around at the audience, daring them to consider how we live today, how the digital age has bent and distorted the way we approach love and sex -- especially teenagers, who have never lived in a world without instant communication and universal access to visual gratification.

This is one of the rare movies I wish was longer; its sprawling narrative and heady themes needed more space to give themselves a full workout. Director and co-writer Jason Reitman ("Up in the Air") ends up drowning in the same trouble that afflicts most films with large ensemble casts and intersecting storylines: it moves on too quickly when it should linger, and tarries when it has outlasted its purpose.

If the notion of underage kids communicating graphically about what they'd like to do to each other is shocking to you, then you might sympathize with Patricia, played by Jennifer Garner. She monitors every step her daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) takes online -- she reads the girl's text messages before she sees them, deleting if she finds them objectionable. Using tracking software on Brandy's phone, mom knows her daughter's whereabouts 24/7. Indeed, Patricia, with her pained expression and wounded eyes, doesn't seem to have a job or a personal life, only a cause: to keep kids safe online -- even if it means stripping them of any semblance of freedom.

Needless to say, Brandy is driven to seek release, and finds it with Tim (Ansel Elgort), another wayward soul. He's the star running back of the football team, but quits mid-season so he can have more time to play Guild Wars, an online role-playing video game. He's bereft by a personal loss, and in Brandy sees a companion with whom to drift. They plug the rents in each other's fragile psyches, forming a relationship that is -- by the standards of other couplings in the film -- remarkably healthy and not dictated by sex.

On the other extreme is Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), a 16-year-old who flaunts her sexuality instinctively, aided by a mother (Judy Greer) who enables her Hollywood ambitions. They take risqué, but not obscene, photos of her and post them on a website -- including private shoots for paying customers. What's scarier than the idea of a mother basically pimping out her daughter is that neither seems to fully grasp the impact of what they're doing.

Most affecting is the story of Allison (Elena Kampouris), a painfully thin girl wracked by twin, intermarried crucibles: anorexia and being the last female (she thinks) in her social circle who hasn't "hooked up." She visits websites where beauty-obsessed girls provide emotional support to willingly starve themselves -- Google it; they're real -- and fantasizes about the football player she's known since seventh grade. Her body is an unruly burden to her, both her corporeal heft (any) and her wretched virginity.

The stories of some of these kids' parents also float in and out of the foreground. Most notable, though not as interesting as it sounds, is Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt as a married couple whose sex life has turned cold, and they each use the Web to fulfill their needs with strangers.

It's an interesting idea, especially in that it's she craving sexual adventure while he mostly pines for simple intimacy, but their path seems more pathetic than dangerous. Meanwhile, their 15-year-old son has grown impotent after being burned out on hardcore porn.

"Men, Women & Children" gives us an almost entirely bleak view of lust in the 21st century, but that's not its problem. By focusing on too many characters and tales, the film's dark, brave message loses signal strength. There either needed to be a lot more of this movie, or a lot less.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The League of Gentlemen" (1960)

There was a time when Jack Hawkins was Britain's top movie star. This might not seem likely, since he didn't get serious about acting until he was about 40 and, while certainly handsome, his bulldog-like visage did not naturally lend itself to romantic or leading roles.

Nevertheless, his skills as a thespian kept him quite busy in movie-making even after his star fell, usually in supporting roles as authoritarian figures -- sometimes deluded ones -- in "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Lawrence of Arabia" and many others. A heavy smoker, Hawkins even continued to act after having his larynx removed in 1965 due to throat cancer; other actors dubbed his lines until his death at age 62.

"The League of Gentlemen" represents one of his few post-1950s leading roles. It's a bank heist movie directed by Basil Dearden with a distinctive, clever twist: the robbers are not professional criminals but former British military officers who have fallen on hard times. Not only is it a chance for the eight men to collect £100,000 each -- about $2 million in today's dollars -- but they get to use their wartime skills in a peacetime setting.

As Lt. Col. Norman Hyde, Hawkins is the unctuous brains of the operation. The only one lacking a criminal record or black mark on his military dossier, he's incensed at being cashiered after 25 years of loyal service, dismissed "redundant." He certainly doesn't appear to want for money -- Hyde lives in a large, secluded mansion and drives a Rolls-Royce. In the film's tipsy opening sequence, he emerges from a sewer grate at night wearing a natty black tuxedo.

There appears to be more backstory there, but screenwriter John Boland, adapting the novel by Bryan Forbes, purposefully keeps it close to the vest. Hyde lives alone, out of choice rather than economic necessity, and lets the dishes pile up in the kitchen. There is a large portrait of a handsome woman in the foyer -- actually Deborah Kerr -- and when asked if she is his wife and is she alive, he announces, "Regrettably, the bitch is still going strong."

Testy language for 1960! I was also surprised by a brief shot of a chestful of nudie magazines, with bare breasts clearly visible.

Hyde researches the military records to find the perfect other seven men for the job:
  • Lt. Edward Lexy (Richard Attenborough ... I know, I'm fixated) -- Radio man and somewhat weaselly ladies' man.
  • Maj. Peter Race (Nigel Patrick) -- An itinerant gambler and black marketeer of impeccable breeding, he becomes Hyde's second-in-command after an initial antagonism.
  • Captain "Padre" Mycroft (Roger Livesey) -- A quartermaster dismissed for gross indecency, he now impersonates a priest.
  • Maj. Rupert Rutland-Smith (Terence Alexander) -- A decent, reserved chap kept economic cuckold by his wealthy, younger wife.
  • Capt. Frank Weaver (Norman Bird) -- Bomb disposal leader who was drunk when his squad was blown up.
  • Capt. Stevens (Kieron Moore) -- Ousted for homosexuality -- "odd man out" is how Hyde describes him, in the only suitable language for the time -- he's reliable muscle.
  • Capt. Martin Porthill (Bryan Forbes) -- Booted for killing Greek separatists, he now sponges off older women.
Despite a limited amount of time to personalize each character, the actors do a wonderful job of building a distinctive persona that allows them to stand out from each other. Attenborough and Livesey in particularly are quite charismatic, in very different ways. Livesey steals the show in a sequence where they impersonate active-duty military officers to steal arms from the local army station. He pretends to be a general and uses the opportunity to lord it over Hyde and Race.

There's a lovely fun scene where Hyde first gathers them all at a swanky club, after having invited them to read an American pulp fiction novel, "The Golden Fleece," that describes exactly the sort of bank robbery Hyde is proposing. After declaring them all "crooks of one sort or another," he proceeds to detail each man's shame individually, and then declare the operation as their chance to get their revenge on the system that betrayed them.

The rest of the movie proceeds as a fairly typical crime caper: the planning of the job, brushes with danger, internal conflicts between the men, followed by the actual heist itself. It goes off perfectly, but their little company -- which they cheekily dub "Co-Operative Removals Ltd." -- is betrayed by the one small detail they overlooked.

British movies were not covered by the Hollywood Production Code, in which lawbreakers always had to be shown receiving their comeuppance. But that appears to be the case with "The League of Gentlemen," in which they are all carted off in the same policy lorry at the end.

The robbery scene is almost anticlimactic. It's mostly notable for the scary-looking gas masks the men wear after smoking out the whole block around the bank. Complete with breathing tubes and a metallic voice projection device used by Hyde, they make for a positively frightening bunch.

I enjoyed "League" for what it is, a rapscallion crime caper, though I admit to being a bit disappointed that it was not what I thought it would be. I expected a harder-edged serious crime drama, something like Stanley Kubrick's early work, in which Hyde is consumed by rage at British societal structure and bent on revenge.

But this isn't existential crisis; it's fun 'n' games. That's all well and fine, but I'd like to see the version where Hawkins gets to play a homicidal maniac in a tux.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Video review: "X-Men: Days of Future Past"

Once storytelling franchises have been around while -- especially ones involving science fiction and/or super-heroes -- it can be hard for filmmakers to find enough creative real estate to let their imaginations sprawl. After all, histories have been set, great and terrible deeds done, characters evolved or killed off, and it's a bad notion to retread over familiar territory.

So what to do? More and more, these movies are going retcon.

Retconning is when a new set of creators essentially reboots everything we know about a mythos, blanking the slate so they can start over from a zero point of their own choosing. "Star Trek" did this recently, and now the X-Men comic book heroes have, too.

This bold new film, the best super-hero flick since "The Avengers," looks at a post-apocalyptic world where nearly all mutants have been destroyed by the menacing robotic Sentinels. Clawed, nearly unkillable warrior Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is sent 50 years into the past to occupy the mind of his younger self, and must convince the Professor X of that era (James McAvoy), who is wallowing in a pit of self-pity, to take action to prevent the terrible tide.

That means diverting power-mad frenemy Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and shape-shifting skulduggerer Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from their mission to make mutants the master of regular humans rather than the object of their hatred. Needless to say, they're not happy to go along.

There's one scene that may just be the most entertaining action sequence of the summer, and it involves a new mutant named Quicksilver who is so fast he practically lives in his own dimension of time.

A satisfying mix of action, convincing characterizations and plot twists, "X-Men: Days of Future Past" delivers one for the ages.

Video extras are quite hefty, and include deleted scenes with audio commentary by director Bryan Singer, a gag reel, gallery and several making-of featurettes.



Thursday, October 9, 2014

Review: "The Judge"

“The Judge” has all the hallmarks of a labor of love, and all the weaknesses. It features a couple of top-notch performances but it’s overlong and meandering, including a lot of stuff better left on the cutting room floor -- or better yet, in the screenwriters’ wastebasket.

The film stars Robert Downey Jr., who is the producer and put the project together with his wife, Susan, to create a legal drama in the vein of “The Verdict” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Unlike “The Verdict,” which was a character piece that should’ve won Paul Newman an Oscar, “The Judge” is more of a star vehicle for Downey to do what he does best.

We’ve seen him play this character for a while now, which is a variation on Downey’s own star persona -- super-smart guy, light-speed verbosity, can be alternately charming and bullying, a fundamentally good man who sometimes has to convince others, and himself, of that fact.

In this iteration he is Hank Palmer, a high-powered attorney who escaped his hated tiny hometown of Carlinville, Ind., but is called back after a tragedy, and then must deal with another. His opposite is his father, Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), an upstanding local judge for the past 42 years who regards Hank as an unwanted guest. There’s obviously an ocean of bad blood between these two.

Nick Schenk wrote the screenplay, later fixed up by Bill Dubuque, from a story that director David Dobkin and Downey (uncredited) came up with. Dobkin is a curious choice, known entirely for comedies both good (“Wedding Crashers”) and not so much (“Fred Claus”).

I think Dobkin needed to stand up to his star/boss a little more, and reel in some of the more sprawling aspects of the story and Downey’s performance. Downey is an amped-up powerhouse of a performer, much in the vein of John Malkovich, and left to his own devices tends to chew up the scenery. He does enjoy a few quieter moments where he’s just reacting to people or circumstances, and those are his best in the movie.

(Full disclosure: I interviewed Dobkin and Downey for a local TV station at the Indianapolis premiere, and had to miss the first 10 minutes or so of the movie to do so.)

Duvall is just splendid, and his performance only seems to grow sharper as the movie goes on. Judge Palmer is cussed and cantankerous, and demonstrates little superficial love to his two other sons, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), a former baseball prospect gone to seed, and Dale (Jeremy Strong), the mentally impaired baby who spends most of his time fiddling with 8mm film. To Hank, he shows only open hostility.

Things grow more complicated when the judge is charged with running down a man on a bicycle with his car, and Hank is eventually brought in to defend him, after the local yokel attorney/antique dealer (Dax Shepard) proves spectacularly unequal to the task.

The last half of the movie is mostly taken up by the trial, as Hank faces off with a slick prosecutor brought in special from Gary named Dwight Dickham (an intimidating Billy Bob Thornton), who seems to bear some kind of grudge against the Palmers.

There’s a strong through-line of a narrative in “The Judge,” but also way too many unnecessary elements. We’ve got Hank hooking up with an old flame (Vera Farmiga), who adores Hank for all his faults, including “that hyper-verbal vomit thing you do” -- which is a much better description of this Downey trait than the one I gave above.

And there’s drama about the dashing of Glen’s major league dreams, the death of the judge’s wife, a nasty old criminal case that haunts the current proceedings, a visit from Hank’s daughter, a kittenish bartender at the local pub (Leighton Meester) who hooks up with him and is later revealed to be … well, it’s just creepy.

There’s a lot good going on in “The Judge.” But at 141 minutes it needed a serious editing trim and/or screenplay rethink to hone it down. The essence is a triangle story with Downey, Duvall and Thornton each supporting one leg, and you don’t really need anything beyond that to muddy things up.

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