Monday, September 29, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Harry and Tonto" (1974)

Jack Nicholson did not win the Best Actor Oscar for "Chinatown." Nor did Al Pacino for  "The Godfather Part II." Or Dustin Hoffman for "Lenny." Or Albert Finney for "Murder on the Orient Express."

No, the golden statuette went to stage and TV actor Art Carney, then best known as Jackie Gleason's dimwitted sidekick Norton on "The Honeymooners." He played elderly ex-teacher Harry Coombes, evicted from his rent-controlled New York City apartment, briefly ensconced at his son's middle-class suburban home and then off on a destination-less journey westward accompanied only by his tabby cat, Tonto.

In keeping with the tropes of the road picture, there's not much rhyme or reason to Harry's journeys, other than discovering new places and people. The plot is more or less determined by his encounters, some of them profound, some of them merely amusing, a few depressing. Carney carries the picture as a man of structure who finds that he's grown tired of his confines, and yearns to ramble.

(I do feel compelled to point out that Carney was actually only 55 when the movie came out, playing 70-something Harry. As a result, he became one of those actors, like Alec Guinness and Wilford Brimley, who was actually much younger than the populace thought the was. Carney rode the success of "Harry and Tonto" to a couple more decades of busyness in Hollywood in "old man" roles.)

Director and co-writer Paul Mazursky (with Josh Greenfeld) made movies that were largely about the in-between spaces that most films skip over. He seemed less interested in the big clanging events in life than what happens right before, or after.

His recent passing, along with that of Robin Williams, prompts me to recall the lovely "Moscow on the Hudson," about a gentle Russian who defects to the West. Mazursky was a strange species in Hollywood, an animal who could effortlessly swim in the intersecting tides of sadness, drama and laughter without ever seeming like he was stretching for an emotional crescendo that wasn't there.

His films also eschewed easy stereotypes and simplistic characterizations. Take Harry's eldest son, Burt (Phil Bruns), who takes in his dad after he is forcibly evicted from his apartment so it can be torn down for a parking garage. Normally this sort of guy is used in the  movies as a demonstration of middle-class desperation, the hard-working "family man" who finds himself estranged from his loved ones and bereft of his youthful passions. But while clearly high-strung, especially about the fates of his own young adult boys, Burt is portrayed as a loving son who looks out for Harry and genuinely cares about him, even if he can't fathom his motivations.

I also admired the depiction of Harry's grandson Norman (played by Joshua Mostel, Zero's boy), a gentle young man who is experimenting with various aspects of youth culture, including a vow of silence and mild-altering drugs. Harry, forced to share a room with the boy, is entirely non-judgmental about Norman's choices, even asking to borrow the books he's reading so he can better relate to the younger generation.

But ultimately Harry decides it's time for him to move on, especially after his best (only?) friend dies, a Polish radical, Jacob (Herbert Berghof), who angrily dismisses everyone he dislikes as a "capitalist bastard" -- even his own father. Harry's only real social structure was going to the store for groceries and treats for Tonto, good-natured banter with his fellow senior apartment dwellers and park bench conversations with Jacob.

Harry plans to visit his daughter in Chicago (Ellen Burstyn), but refuses to go through security at the airport when they want to X-ray Tonto's pet carrier. Similarly, a bus drive ends abruptly due to more Tonto troubles, so he buys an old jalopy for $250 and commences the road portion of the trip. Along the way he picks up a teen runaway (Melanie Mayron), who embarrasses him by revealing her breasts upon emerging from their hotel shower.

Other adventures include meeting a man who sells New Age-y medicinal health food (and blenders); a drunken stroll through a Las Vegas casino, where he brings an epic win streak to an end; a night in jail with an American Indian healer (Chief Dan George) who admits to practicing both good and bad medicine, depending on how he feels about the patient; reuniting with a long lost love, now wasting away from dementia in a  nursing home; a road quickie with a hooker; and bursting through the bluster of his other son (Larry Hagman), a failed real estate broker in Los Angeles.

The cyclical, episodic nature of the story lends a sense of deep perspective and sanguine wisdom gained. Harry flitters from here to there, seeing what each new day brings, and maintaining the same optimistic (but discerning) mood no matter what nature it may hold.

The ending is a little abrupt, and tends to prompt thoughts along the lines of "Well, what was that all about?" In the end, Harry is still Harry, if now in a different zip code and with a broadened outlook on life.

If "Harry and Tonto" doesn't have a big overarching Something Important statement to make, it's out of design rather than happenstance. This is a beautiful tale about following wherever your feet and heart take you, and accepting what you find for whatever it is, rather than what you'd like it to be.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Video review: "Transformers: Age of Extinction"

For the record, I haven’t liked any of the “Transformers” movies. I was a little too old for the 1980s television show, but I’ve caught up with it since and wasn’t impressed. None of the more recent TV spinoffs, either. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that I’m a Transformer-hater. In my view, they’re less than meets the eye.

Mainly, it’s because I just don’t understand them. They’re supposed to be an ancient race of sentient robots who can change shapes … so why would they change into things like trucks and jets, which wouldn’t even be invented for millennia?

The fact that the entire enterprise was just a marketing ploy for a line of Japanese toys doesn’t help; the whole thing is the result of a mercenary, rather than creative, impulse.

So here is the fourth movie, “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” from director Michael Bay. All of the original cast is gone, notably Shia Labeouf, replaced by Mark Wahlberg as an obsessive inventor who stays up nights working on gadgets but somehow remembers to lift weights so he looks good in a tight T-shirt.

He buys an old semi-tractor trailer truck to fix up, and lo and behold, it’s actually Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen), leader of the good Autobots, who are now few and scattered. It seems a couple of human bad guys (Stanley Tucci and Kelsey Grammer) are using the metal remains of the dead transformers to create an army of new ones, so they need to be smashed up.

There’s also a nefarious transformer bounty hunter, who’s after Optimus so he can use his head for some familiarly murky end-of-the-world type nonsense.

The computer generated robots look better than they ever have, especially the action scenes, which have been slowed down enough for the eye to track. The characters and plot, though, are mere afterthoughts – oftentimes the movie seems like an unrelated string of action scenes.

This fourth Transformers flick – reportedly not the last – isn’t the worst of the bunch. But the franchise has yet to learn how to take on the shape of quality filmmaking.

The movie comes with a host of video extras, though you’ll have to shell out for the Blu-ray combo pack to get them – the DVD version comes with exactly nothing.

The centerpieces are an extensive interview with Bay on his approach to action movies, and “Evolution Within Extinction,” a comprehensive making-of documentary touching on all aspects of the production, with a heavy emphasis on the CG creation of the transformers.

There are also a handful of other featurettes, and an Angry Birds video game tie-in.

Movie: D
Extras: B-plus

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Review: "The Equalizer"

I know what you're thinking: Denzel Washington in a remake of the cheesy 1980s TV show, "The Equalizer," about an over-the-hill secret agent who helps out people in need?!? Our Denzel? Who's been a prime model of cinematic masculinity for ... well, a heck of a long time, actually. Still, why is he doing old-man roles?

I hate to break it to you, but Washington will be 60 in a few months. Sixty. Which makes him five years younger than Edward Woodward was when the show debuted in 1985.

In retrospect, the TV series was prescient about introducing a subgenre of filmmaking that's become quite prevalent today: the Geezer Spy Thriller. We've seen any number of aging big-name actors take to the field as late-in-life action stars, with Liam Neeson ("Taken") and Kevin Costner ("Three Days to Kill") among them.

The basic premise of these movies is the man, always a loner, always with a mysterious past, though there's pain and violence there, usually involving secret agent work for some shadowy governmental arm. He thinks he's given up that life of dark deeds, but circumstances and/or an inability to look away from evil prompt him to apply his deadly skills against a coterie of bad guys.

The tough young punks all dismiss him because he's old, aka less than a man, but he soon puts them in their places -- specifically, lying on the floor in a pool of their own blood.

Washington plays Robert McCall very close to the vest. He is defined by his stillness and passivity, at least until he springs into action. Bob works at Home Mart, a big-box hardware store a la Lowes or Home Depot, where he stocks shelves and pushes around dollies loaded with bags and such, and takes a good-natured ribbing from the younger employees. His apartment is tidy to the point of OCD, and is filled with classic literature books that he's making his way through.

Bob is very aware of the passage of time. He uses his watch to time most everything he does, from getting ready in the morning to taking out an entire room of armed bad guys bare-handed. Bob does most everything sans weapons; I can only recall him wielding a firearm one time in the entire movie. Mostly, he lures his prey in close, putting them at ease with his frumpy appearance and non-threatening demeanor, and then strikes like a cobra.

To say that he "fights" his opponents is to suggest that they ever have a chance of getting an upper hand on him. Most encounters are over in less than two seconds. Even his chief nemesis, an enforcer for the Russian mafia named Teddy, is clearly not his equal in hand-to-hand combat skills. He's played deliciously by Marton Csokas, ever so slithery and brutal. With his slicked-down hair and slimy manner, he practically seems to be secreting toxic oils through his epidermis.

Things come to a head when Bob defends a young prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz) he's grown friendly with. A non-sleeper, he visits the same diner every night around 2 a.m., bringing his own tea packet carefully wrapped in a handkerchief; like him, she's one of the regulars. She dreams of getting out from under her abusive Russian pimp, Slavi (David Meunier), and becoming a singer, but she's beaten to a pulp for her transgressions. Bob offers to buy her freedom, but Slavi is disinclined, and the bloodletting ensues.

This brings in a succession of ever-higher-ranking Russians to deal with the situation, and a subsequent rising body count.

Director Antoine Fuqua previously partnered with Washington very successfully in 2001's "Training Day," which won him his second acting Oscar. The two seem to intuitively get each other, as Washington's performance is fully vested with emotional and dramatic power. In lesser hands, this would probably seem like exploitative dreck, but cast and crew elevate the material to unexpectedly hefty heights.

Bob never seems like a mere killing machine, but a complex man with a simple outward facade. He takes no joy in slaying -- unlike the sadomasochistic Teddy -- but is not shy about putting his skillset to good (bad) use.

Fuqua's action scenes have a tendency to go a little over the top ... and then they go a little more. He uses slow-motion effects in the middle of the mayhem to an almost interminable degree. There's only so much one can take of water drops beading slowly off the brow of our hero, or him striding purposefully away from an explosion, contemptuous of the shockwave and debris.

A little slo-mo goes a long way, bro.

Screenwriter Richard Wenk makes the wise choice of only using the television show as a mere springboard to tell their own story. Bob, with his slouchy colorless clothes and brusque manner, bears no resemblance at all to the clipped British lilt, natty suits and trench coats of TV.

Despite some occasional bouts of silliness owing to taking itself too seriously, "The Equalizer" is a surprisingly effective psychological thriller, featuring a gruff but relatable hero and some eminently hiss-able villains. Liam Neeson may currently be king of the Geezer Spy genre, but Denzel Washing may just be the man to knock him off the throne.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Review: "The Boxtrolls"

I thought last year a slow one for quality animated films, but if anything 2014 has been even duller. “Frozen” finally came along at year’s end to brighten things up, and this time September has delivered its own wondrous surprise: “The Boxtrolls.”

This stop-motion gem is one of the best of its ilk since “Coraline.” It’s a whiz-bang collection of fun action, Dickensian backdrop, cute critters and one really nasty, yet pleasing, villain.

Based on a novel by Alan Snow, the story centers on the titular trolls, who live underground and wear old cardboard boxes instead of clothes. Though they tend to pilfer things left unattended, they’re more tinkerers who love to build junk than malicious marauders. They go by the names of whatever’s on their box: Fish, Shoe, etc.

I just love the trolls’ look, with pasty skin, pointy ears, tufts of random hair and big liquid eyes surrounded by dark patches like a domino mask, which makes them look like vintage cartoon burglars. They don’t really speak, using a collection of croaks, clicks and squeaks to communicate.

The boxtrolls have gotten a bad rap from the humans after they allegedly pilfered a baby years ago. Archibald Snatcher, a lowlife climber who yearns to wear one of the “White Hats” signifying town leaders, appoints himself chief boxtroll catcher, and sets about exterminating the population.

Snatcher is voiced heroically by Ben Kingsley, in one of the best vocal performances in recent memory. Snatcher chews and growls his words as if they are poison to his mouth – not unlike the fine cheeses favored by the White Hats, which he craves to share despite the fact they make him swell up like a landed jellyfish. And he’s got a buxom alter ego.

He has a trio of henchmen who range in malevolence from reluctant to gleeful – Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade and Tracy Morgan do the voices. The nicer pair proclaim themselves the good guys, but worry they’re really evil stooges.

Isaac Hepstead-Wright provides the voice of Eggs, a human boy who was the baby kidnapped by the boxtrolls, though there’s more to it than that. He’s grown up with them and is convinced he is a boxtroll, despite evidence to the contrary. (He insists his ability to use English is a “speech impediment.”)

Eggs finds himself stranded on the city streets topside, where he encounters Winnie Portley-Rind (Elle Fanning), daughter of the local lord (Jared Harris). Willful and obstinate, Winnie is infuriated by her parents’ continual ignoring of what she has to say, particularly with regard to the truth about the boxtrolls.

Directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi are animation veterans without a lot of experience in the top seat, but prove to be top-notch visualists and storytellers. Irena Brignull and Adam Pava wrote the screenplay.

My guess is the stop-motion work has been augmented with some computer-generated effects, since there some things – like smoke dissipating from Snatcher’s various steamworks contraptions – that couldn’t be achieved otherwise.

I’m no purist myself – whatever works onscreen, works. This is a movie of dense layers, from the grimy cobblestone streets and buildings to extreme close-ups of the characters, which are incredibly detailed and facially expressive. (And those wonky teeth – so British!)

“The Boxtrolls” is the sort of delightfully inventive family picture that parents might be tempted to indulge in a second viewing – on their own, with the kiddies tucked in at home.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Informer" (1935)

"Stagecoach." "The Searchers." "The Grapes of Wrath." "How Green Was My Valley." "Drums Along the Mohawk." "Young Mr. Lincoln." "My Darling Clementine." "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." "The Alamo." "How the West Was Won." "Mister Roberts." "The Quiet Man." "How the West Was Won." "Rio Grande."

John Ford arguably directed more iconic movies than any other Hollywood filmmaker. Unlike Hitchcock or Welles, who never earned the plaudits during their lifetimes commensurate with their body of work, Ford was well recognized by his peers: his four Academy Award wins for Best Director are a record that will likely never be surpassed.

(He won two more Oscars for his wartime documentaries.)

Interestingly, none of his Oscar wins were for Westerns, the genre with which he is most associated. His first, 1935's "The Informer," is probably the least known of the bunch. Based on the novel by Liam O'Flaherty, it was previously adapted into a 1929 British film before Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols had their own crack at it.

The result was a resounding success, winning four of its six Oscar nominations, losing the Best Picture race to the Clark Gable/Charles Laughton version of "Mutiny on the Bounty." Star Victor McLaglen won for Best Actor, and Max Steiner took the musical score prize. Nichols won the screenwriting Oscar, but became the first person to refuse to accept an Academy Award, citing the ongoing screenwriters guild strike.

The members of the Academy apparently didn't hold it against him -- Nichols would go on to be nominated three more times.

McLaglen is hardly your standard matinee idol. A huge man with a barrel chest, craggy face and balding pate, he mostly resembled an albino ape with an Irish brogue. (He often affected that accent for his roles to the point American audiences assumed he was an Irishman; actually he was a Brit born in Kent who was raised in South Africa.)

McLaglen gives an exuberant performance as Gypo Nolan, a dimwitted bruiser and petty thief who was court-martialed out of the Irish Republican Army for endangering the rebels with his inability to keep a secret or maintain a low profile. For some reason, the IRA guys here are all represented as young, good-looking fellows wearing long trench coats and narrow-brimmed fedora hats, almost like proto-Bogarts.

Gypo is not just dumb; he seems to have absolutely no control over his thoughts and urges. He essentially exists as pure id, his mouth and his fists immediately carrying out whatever thoughts spark inside his primordial swamp of a brain. He swaggers this way and that from moment to moment, becoming increasingly inebriated (a McLaglen specialty) as the story goes on.

The setup is that Gypo, penniless and friendless in 1922 Dublin, rats out an old friend on the lam (Wallace Ford) in exchange for a 20-pound reward from the police. Unfortunately, his friend is caught at his mother's house and refuses to be taken prisoner, and is gunned down by the police.

Gypo had hoped to use the money to buy steamship tickets to America for himself and his sweetie, Katie (Margot Grahame), who has recently been forced to selling herself on the street. His 20-pound fortune now becomes blood money, a deadly albatross hanging around his neck and spilling out of his pockets as he goes on one long bender of drinking and carousing.

Gypo at one point declares it "the greatest night of my life," and he means it, despite his genuine sorrow for his good friend's death as a result of his actions. Always forced to be the mindless muscle, the guy who stays in the back and takes orders, Gypo revels at becoming the "cock of the walk," buying everyone rounds and bursting into an exclusive party of hoity-toity types.

He takes to going around holding his meaty fists in the air like a triumphant prizefighter, shouting his own name with a crescendoing emphasis on the latter syllable: "Gih-POHH!!" It's his cry out to the world, a man celebrating a brief interlude as the center of attention, a bonfire that's bound to burn out.

Of course, his time on this mortal coil is ticking downward. The IRA quickly figures out that it was him who fingered their compatriot. And with every pound Gypo drops at various pubs, fish 'n' chips counters and saloons, it's not hard to put together who claimed the filthy lucre.

Preston Foster plays Dan Gallagher, the local IRA commandant, who knows he has to enforce the code against snitchers but it reluctant to condemn another man, especially one so pure of heart as Gypo. By "pure of heart" I don't imply that Gypo is angelic -- far from it. What I mean is that the towering lummox hasn't an ounce of deceit or falseness in him. Whatever he's doing or feeling at any given moment, he gives himself over to that completely.

At first pathetic and imbecilic -- watching him fritter away his money on whiskey and hangers-on, his dreams of finding a new life in America almost immediately dashed -- Gypo eventually becomes a tragic, sympathetic figure. At the end when he's finally caught he pleads, "I didn't know what I was doing!" And it really is true.

After he escapes (briefly) from the IRA and runs to Katie, he demands to know where the 20 pounds he gave her is -- forgetting, in his drunkenness and stupidity, that there were only a few crumpled notes left when he finally handed them over.

Heather Angel plays Mary McPhillip, the sister of Gypo's betrayed friend. She has a romance with Gallagher that feels ill-placed within the story of Gypo's descent and ultimate absolution. Una O'Connor plays her mother -- her name may not be recognizable, but her face is, a character actress often called upon to play ridiculous older women, such as the pinch-faced maid in "Witness for the Prosecution."

"The Informer" isn't a great movie, but it shows off John Ford's burgeoning talent for using landscapes to his benefit, weather sprawling vistas in Monument Valley or the mist, dank streets of London. And McLaglen is a revelation as the flawed, pitiable Gypo.

Known to be extremely hard on actors -- Ford was dubbed "the only man who could make John Wayne cry" -- he also knew how to get great performances out of them.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Video review: "The Rover"

Australian writer/director David Michôd’s first feature film, “Animal Kingdom,” garnered a lot of attention four years ago, not to mention an Oscar nomination for Jacki Weaver. His follow-up, “The Rover,” is a bold and innovative sophomore effort, though only intermittently engaging.

It’s set 10 years after a global economic collapse. Different nationalities have moved to Australia for undisclosed reasons. The outback has never looked so dry and spare, seemingly just a collection of roads interrupted by strips of shantytowns. There’s some electricity, and a little commerce, but mostly it’s just a bunch of tired people playing out the string.

Enter our (never-named) antihero, played by Guy Pearce. His sullen stare and studied silence lend a clue that he’s not to be messed with. When a band of criminals crash their truck during a getaway, they steal his car. He manages to get the truck going again, and takes off after them. In fact, he seems quite willing to die to get his car back. Why? The vehicles seem like a fair trade.

Along the way he encounters Rey (Robert Pattinson), the dimwitted kid brother of one of the robbers, who was left behind, shot up and dying. Our man takes him to a doctor to get stitched up, then holds him hostage to help find the brother, and his car.

Over time, the two men develop an unlikely bond. Pattinson is a marvel, displaying an innate sweetness and more than passable Southern accent. They each have something to teach the other: Rey needs to toughen up, and his crusty friend needs to be reminded where the last nugget of his humanity resides.

 "You should never stop thinking about a life you've taken,” he says. “It's the price you pay for taking it."

“The Rover” is essentially a mystery, in which we try to puzzle out who this strange man is, what is the source of his anger and pain, and whether he’s really as bad as he seems to be. The plotting is a bit tedious at times, and even at 102 minutes the film could probably have used an editing trim. It’s a worthy effort, if not an entirely successful one.

Video extras, which are the same for DVD and Blu-ray versions, are limited to a single featurette, “Something Elemental: Making The Rover.”



Thursday, September 18, 2014

Review: "This Is Where I Leave You"

I'm not sure if "This Is Where I Leave You" is the most original film ever made, but what it lacks in freshness it makes up for with delectable actors and snappy scenes. The Altmans are borderline crazy, self-obsessed and narcissistic, but somehow 103 minutes with them feels like time well spent.

Directed by Shawn Levy ("Night at the Museum") from a screenplay by Jonathan Tropper, based on his own novel, the movie brings together the four adult children of the Altman clan after their father passes away. Mom Hillary (Jane Fonda) is a real piece of work, a showboating therapist who wrote a best-selling book, "Cradle and All," in which she spilled the intimate details of her kids' tumultuous upraising.

They have not, unsurprisingly, turned into well-adjusted adults. And they're none too pleased about their mom's insistence that they sit Shiva together for seven days, per their father's dying request. (This, despite being only partially and nominally Jewish.)

Judd (Jason Bateman) is the fulcrum, the character upon which all the others pivot. A successful radio producer and one of those guys who seems to have the perfect little life planned out, he's thrown for a loop when he catches his wife sleeping with his boss.

Sister Wendy (Tina Fey) is brittle and angry, mother to two young kids and married to an on-the-go businessman who can't put down the phone and work for even a few minutes, not to mention witness the miracle if his child's potty training.

Paul (Corey Stoll) is the oldest and most responsible, the one kid who stuck around in his hometown to take over the business from his father. He and his wife (Kathryn Hahn) have been trying without success to get pregnant, and the pressure and constant questions about their progress is like splitting a rail.

The baby of the clan is Phillip (Adam Driver), born years after the others and partially raised by them. A natural-born screw-up with an impish talent for needling others, Phillip is dating a much older woman (Connie Britton) who acts as his enabler and sugar momma.

The filmmakers essentially throw this grab-bag of resentment, sibling rivalry and neuroticism into a pot and set it to a slow boil. There are arguments, jokes, bonding, more fighting, and so on.

It doesn't sound like much, but the cast really drives the material to terrific heights. They click in a way that you rarely see large ensemble casts do; usually each actor is trying to accomplish their own goals for their character and sacrifice the group dynamic. This is the sort of movie that you can't imagine any other performers in those roles.

A few minor characters flit in and out of the foreground. Across the street is Hillary's dependable friend Linda (Debra Monk) and her son Horry (Timothy Olyphant), a former beau of Wendy's who suffered a terrible brain injury years ago. He sort of wanders around, helpful but forgetful, like a more verbally proficient Boo Radley.

Wade's estranged wife (Abigail Spencer) turns up, pleading for a second chance and with more drama to share. Penny Moore is a townie (Rose Byrne) who's stoked a long-burning fire for Wade, and he's at a low point where those glowing embers are looking pretty good. I also enjoyed Ben Schwartz as a young rabbi who can't outrun his horndog teen reputation and nickname.

Despite not a lot of screen time to spread around to every character's story, the film does a good job of making each of them distinct and relatable.

"This Is Where I Leave You" plays out fairly predictably, but I didn't mind the lack of surprises because the journey getting there is so caustically funny and unexpectedly heartwarming. When the Altmans aren't verbally punching each other -- sometimes physically, too -- you want to give them all a good squeeze.

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