Monday, April 27, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison" (1957)

"Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison" is something of a forgotten relic, despite being nominated for two Academy Awards and the presence of some very high-wattage talent, including stars Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr and writer/director John Huston. It's a solid World War II adventure/romance flick that served as a precursor to "Cast Away" and other stories about characters surviving in isolation, though it hasn't aged particularly well.

Mitchum is generally regarded as one of Hollywood's greatest talents, if one who was somewhat under-acknowledged during his career -- including by himself, who often made dismissive comments about his abilities or the acting craft in general. Kerr, on the other hand, was widely regarded as one of the premier actresses of her day, as her six Oscar nominations (including one for this film) attest. Losing six times, she eventually was given an honorary Oscar.

I should note, however, that like many female performers before and after her, Kerr's career as a film star waned sharply starting around age 45 -- an almost magical number that serves to delineate the trajectory of everyone from Julia Roberts to Susan Sarandon. Some do successfully extend an ongoing career roll past this unfortunate sell-by date (e.g., Sandra Bullock), or come back from a lull stronger than ever (Meryl Streep).

Still, it's the rare film actress who enjoys a sustained career arc of undimmed popularity from their 30s to 60s, as untold male counterparts have -- Harrison Ford, Charleton Heston, Cary Grant, Paul Newman, to name just a few.

Based on the novel by Charles Shaw and adapted by Huston and John Lee Mahin, "Allison" is the tale of the title character, a meathead career Marine whose rubber raft washes up on a lonely island in the South Pacific after the submarine carrying his team was forced to submerge and strand them. (The movie was actually shot in Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, so as to take advantage of British film industry funding and tax revenue.)

There he finds a primitive village, completely deserted, but with a Western-built church atop the hill. There he stumbles across Sister Angela, a young nun in angelic white robes. She, too, has been stranded by her fellows. She and a priest came to the island to rescue another priest, but it turned out the Japanese had already attacked, capturing or killing everyone. Her companion died himself a few days later of old age and exertion.

The rest of the movie is the tale of their relationship as they struggle to survive and come to terms with their fate. Allison is natural-born survivor, the sort who could be plopped down most anywhere on the globe and find a way to get on. She's a bit more sheltered, but tougher than she seems.

Needless to say, they wind up developing romantic feelings for each other, and much of the tension is about whether she'll give in and forsake her vows, and if he'll ask -- or force -- her to.

They'd probably have stayed that way together, for months or years until the war ended, eating coconuts and breadfruit till they were rescued. But the Japanese take over the island, not once but twice, first as a tiny meteorological monitoring station, and later as a full-blown staging area holding thousands of enemy soldiers.

Allison and Sister Angela are forced to decamp to a well-hidden cave near the island summit, subsisting on whatever food they can pick, kill or steal from the Japanese. In one (over)long sequence, Allison sneaks into the enemy camp, armed only with his service knife, to pilfer some cans of food. He's cornered by a pair of Japanese in the supply depot, and must hide atop some bags of rice while they finish a long session of drinking sake and playing board games.

The Japanese leave as suddenly as they came, leaving behind a treasure trove of supplies -- not to mention some rather hefty-looking buildings that they apparently constructed in a day or two. Allison gets roaring drunk on the enemy booze and makes some vaguely threatening comments to Sister Angela about them being just like "Adam and Eve." Fearing a rape attempt, she runs off into the jungle, gets trapped in a downpour and falls deathly ill.

Allison nurses her back to health, but by now a major landing of Japanese have taken over the island again. (Fickle about their strategic deployments, they are.) Allison tries to steal supplies again but is forced to kill a soldier who discovers him, and it seems only a matter of time before they're captured or killed.

Narratively, there's not a whole lot going on in the movie. It's essentially just these two actors playing off each other. Kerr, not bothering to hide her natural-born Scottish brogue for this role, is a stalwart presence as a woman who has a strong sense of herself and her moral inner center. Even though she's attracted to Allison, we never really sense that she truly contemplates abandoning her faith for him. It's more a what-if temptation for her.

Mitchum is something of a conundrum, which Mitchum often was. Even in his most straightforward heroic roles, Mitchum always had an element of danger about his characterizations. Allison seems like a man playing a role as the tried-and-true Marine, though we later learn he had a scrappy, crime-filled upbringing as an orphan. Here is a man who has done bad things in his life and set them aside, but appears capable of going back to them if needs be.

Huston and Mahin received their own Academy Award nomination for their screenplay, which is essentially a character study set against a war-romance backdrop.

Mitchum was just shy of 40 when this movie came out, his famous 48-inch chest starting to fall southward, sucking in his gut mightily in his own imitable way during a few shirtless scenes. With his barrel chest and broad shoulders, wide cheekbones and pointed chin, Mitchum resembled one inverted triangle perched atop another.

I also chuckled to myself at how this man who seemingly never gets to bathe or visit a barber always has perfectly coiffed hair.

Kerr is almost completely covered head to toe in her habit, though during her illness sequence we discover that she did indeed shear her famous red locks close to her head in the traditional nun style. That's a pretty brave move for a single scene -- possibly it's a wig, but it looks authentic.

I enjoyed "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison," which is a great-looking film featuring a pair of immensely charismatic stars. It's not remembered as a great film, which it isn't, but it certainly deserves more of a reputation than it has.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Video review: "Paddington"

“Paddington,” a British film adaptation of the popular books by Michael Bond, opened in the U.S. without much fanfare or media. In the biz this is known as ‘being dumped into theaters’ -- a practice usually reserved for low-budget fare of dubious quality.

I’m puzzled as to why “Paddington” received this treatment, since it’s probably the best live-action family film thus far in 2015.

Paddington is a young bear from Peru whose home is destroyed, and his elderly aunt and uncle forced into the old bears’ home. He decides to seek out the British explorer who befriended his family years ago and introduced them to the miracle that is marmalade.

He takes the name of the London railway station where he’s stranded and is taken in -- albeit temporarily -- by the Brown family (Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville play the mum and dad).

Paddington is portrayed using some excellent CG animation and the tender voice of Ben Whishaw. He’s a wondrous creation, with his shy charm and signature floppy red hat.

Director Paul King, who write the screenplay with Hamish McColl, keeps the tone light and the action delightfully goofy -- such as a flooded bathtub on the Browns’ top floor that goes for a ride.

Samuel Joslin and Madeleine Harris play the Brown kids, and Nicole Kidman rounds out the cast as the villainess, who’d like to see Paddington stuffed -- and not with marmalade. She’s got a great Cruella de Vil vibe going on.

Here’s hoping this wonderful, gentle movie finds a home of its own on video.

Video extras are a bit skimpy. The DVD has several making-of featurettes: “Meet the Characters,” “When a Bear Comes to Stay” and “From Page to Screen,” plus the “Shine” music video. Step up to the Blu-ray and you add only “The Making of ‘Shine’” featurette.



Friday, April 24, 2015

Review: "Little Boy"

"Little Boy" is a little film that, like its main character, seemingly has no friends. I guess I'll have to do.

This sweet and, yes, somewhat sappy movie is being released into a few theaters with very little fanfare or media. (No screenings were arranged for critics; heck, we weren't even told it was coming out. I had to backdoor it to the studio's publicity chief to beg an online screener.)

It's a faith-based production, which tend to be seen as less legitimate by the press and audiences of a certain persuasion. As if stories and characters that come from the wellspring of Christian beliefs somehow cannot be worthy as, say, the latest horror flick or mushy romance.

I was raised Catholic myself, and if "fallen" isn't quite the right descriptor that requires being added to that designation, then let's just say I'm a few floors down from flush.

Still, the religious aspects of the film are not a wall but an invitation. I found "Little Boy" to be an utterly charming picture with a terrifically engaging performance by young Jakob Salvati as Pepper Flynt Busbee.

Pepper is being raised in the idyllic California fishing town of O'Hare during World War II. Eights years old, he's still the size of a toddler. Earnest and intelligent, Pepper wonders if he really is a "midget" like he keeps getting called. The local doctor (Kevin James) isn't sure if Pepper actually has dwarfism, or if he's just a "little boy."

Alas, nicknames like that tend to stick; soon all the other kids in town bully and mistreat him. His only friend is his dad (Michael Rapaport), who plays all sorts of games of imagination with him where they pretend to be cowboys, or pirates, or masked detectives, and so on. Their adventures always conclude with dad asking Pepper, "Partner, do you believe you can do this?!?"

The lad's faith is tested when Dad goes off to war and is soon declared a prisoner of war. Worse, Pepper follows his volatile older brother London (David Henrie) in taking his frustrations out on Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the local Japanese-American who suffers a similar ostracism from the townsfolk.

Father Oliver (Tom Wilkinson), the gutsy town priest, takes Pepper under his wing and advises him to keep his faith that his father will come home. The priest gives him a list of actions he must perform in order to build his faith: clothe the naked, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, etc. Chief on that list, which is part penance and part hope, is to befriend Hashimoto. The slow, tenuous way in which the boy opens up to the "foreign" stranger are quite stirring.

But the boy is also taken with the idea of Ben Eagle, a magician/hero of the serial movies and comic books Pepper consumes. When a live stage version of Ben Eagle comes to town, Pepper is picked out of the audience to perform a feat of telekinesis that, of course, he believes is real.

In the kid's mind, the teachings of the priest and the charlatan sort of get mashed up together. Pepper begins to think he's capable of actual super powers, pointing his hands and groaning with concentration. Every evening performs does his prestidigitations toward the setting sun, where his father is a prisoner.

It's a great-looking movie, with authentic period costumes and cars, and bright, sun-dappled cinematography. Visually and thematically, it reminded me a lot of "Forrest Gump."

Some might dismiss the story -- director Alejandro Gómez Monteverde co-wrote the script with Pepe Portillo -- as pure pap. And it surely is an earnest, sentimental picture. But I believe "Little Boy" earns its emotions, by carefully showing how the characters arrive at their feelings instead of just assuming they're there.

And Jakob Salvati holds our attention, and our emotions. With his open face and green-gray eyes, he evokes a sense of inner toughness and sensitivity in equal measures. Emily Watson also has a nice turn as his mother, dealing with challenges from several fronts.

I'm really glad I saw "Little Boy." Sometimes, you just have to exert your will -- and show a little faith -- to achieve your goals.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Review: "The Age of Adaline"

"The Age of Adaline" is a movie with a little going for it.

It wants to be a lush romantic tale with a science fiction twist -- beautiful young woman suffers a strange accident and remains young and beautiful forever. Like Dorian Gray and Orlando, Adaline Bowman wanders the decades, eschewing love but eventually drawn into entanglements that inevitably end with pain.

Emotionally, though, it's a remarkably staid film, with neither lead actress Blake Lively or the story providing much in the way to cause our hearts to go pitter-patter.

Until, that is, Harrison Ford shows up in the second half and almost rescues the picture with his raw, naked vulnerability.

Which, I'm aware, is a strange thing to say. Whatever else you think of Ford's thespian skills -- I happen to believe he's been gravely underestimated over his four decades of acting -- he's never been known as a particularly emotive performer. Gruff, hard everymen who occasionally let their veneer slip is more his line.

So to see him stripped bare, stammering with eyes that seem just on the edge of tears, is quite a thing to experience.

The rest of the film picks up on his tragic energy, and concludes with a great deal more emotional momentum, even if the plot is a bit predictable. It's like the movie suddenly remembers to get out of its own way.

Lively plays Adaline, born to a wealthy San Francisco family in 1908. She led a pretty normal life, we're told -- the strangely flat, precise narration is a pure bust -- until the age of 29. During a rare California snowstorm, her car crashed into an icy river, where she went into hypothermia and was then revived by an electrical current from lightning.

All this caused her DNA to undergo "electron compression" and ... actually, don't bother trying to figure out the science-y gobbledy gook; it all just means that she stopped aging. She soldiered on with her life, raising her daughter, until it became clear that she could no longer fool others with talk of miracle Parisian face creams to explain her unaging appearance.

Adaline went on the lam, taking up a new identity and existence every 10 years. And never let her guard down, we learn, except once.

Flash to 2015. Adaline, now going by the name Jenny, celebrates her 107th birthday with her daughter, Flemming (Ellen Burstyn), who is now quite elderly, and her only confidante. She's preparing to spend her next decade on a farm in Oregon, until she runs into an effusive man named Ellis, played by Dutch actor Michiel Huisman, who pronounces his name as "Alice."

He isn't a particularly interesting or engaging character. He's that tiresome cinematic canard, the charming guy who got fabulously rich at a young age but doesn't make a big deal out of it because, y'know, it's just money.

(Axiom: the only people who say they don't care about money are those who already have gobs and gobs of it.)

Ellis/Alice woos Adaline/Jenny with a fierce urgency bordering on creepiness. She eventually succumbs, of course, because otherwise there wouldn't be a movie. They go on a trip to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his parents, played by Ford and Kathy Baker ... and there I'll have to stop, to prevent giving away too much.

It may seem an odd comparison, but this movie reminded me in some ways of "Funny People." That 2009 Judd Apatow comedy started out very strong, but then about halfway through we stumbled upon a new character and storyline that knocked the whole movie off its rails.

"The Age of Adaline" is the opposite: it wanders the wilderness for nearly an hour, then Harrison Ford rides in like a white knight. Neither film winds up a total success, but it's better to gain vigor than watch it dissipate.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Review: "Ex Machina"

Moody and evocative, “Ex Machina” is a well-made science fiction thriller that I quite admired even as I realized it didn’t reach its full potential. It starts out with a very novel concept and moves forward with it in such a direct way that it held very few surprises.

It seems like a smart movie that outsmarted itself.

The idea is the creation of the first real artificial intelligence by mankind, manifested in a robot named Ava. She has been built as an expressly female entity with all the imperatives of attraction that entails. So a man -- technically brilliant but socially awkward -- interacts with her and begins to develop feelings.

This premise is not entirely original; other movies like “S1m0ne” and “Her” have explored the idea of a guy falling for a virtual construct, with varying degrees of success. Writer Alex Garland (“Never Let Me Go”), who also makes his directing debut, cleverly adds the idea of the third wheel: the man who created the robot, has hired the other man to test it, and watches the two of them interact with some apparent mix of scientific inquiry and malevolence.

The result is a weird, disquieting love (?) triangle in which three beings, one of them mechanical, wage a struggle of wills.

Oscar Isaac plays Nathan, a genius programmer who created Bluebook, the world’s dominant search engine, while still a teenager. (Think Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, combined.) Now he lives in a research facility in the middle of a vast mountainous estate, where the only way in is a two-hour helicopter ride. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a meek young coder in his employ, wins a contest for a special week-long stay with a life-changing (but unspecified) opportunity.

The underground domicile, with weird amalgamations of modern and traditional appointments, is something between a retreat and a prison. Caleb can go some places but not others. It’s comfortable, antiseptic and stifling. Like the hotel in “The Shining,” it serves as another character in the story.

Nathan lives there seemingly alone, bingeing on work, alcohol and exercise. He’s at once very charismatic and off-putting. He jokes with Caleb about having the men who installed his power grid killed afterward, and seems to enjoy the ambiguity his tone leaves in the younger man’s mind. He tells Caleb that he has created an A.I., and he has been chosen to test it to see if it can pass as human.

Caleb’s first interactions with Ava are hesitant and promising. She is an amazing creation, played by Alicia Vikander with some arresting makeup and CG effects. Her face, hands and feet are seemingly human, but the rest of her is a twist of metal parts, lighted circuitry and a geodesic mesh covering.

They interact through a glass wall; Ava has apparently never left the room in which she lives. Despite this distance, they soon start to share intimacies about themselves. Given the opportunity for more private conversation, they each reveal their suspicions about Nathan’s true motives.

Things go from there, which I will not reveal. Suffice it to say that on several occasions I thought Garland had an opportunity to take a sharp turn into bolder territory, and each time he chooses the straightforward course. There’s one bit where the story starts to wander down a more interesting path, but quickly retreats to the road more traveled.

“Ex Machina” hints at deeper themes that are largely left unexplored -- how men objectify women, can consciousness be created artificially, etc. But for what it is, I recommend the film for its dark imaginings.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Video review: "The Babadook"

One of the most chilling and original horror films of recent years, “The Babadook” didn’t even make it to theaters in most cities. If you’re up for some really imaginative thrills, give it a look on video… just keep a few lights on when you do.

It tells the story of a widowed Australian mother, Amelia (Essie Davis), whose son Samuel (a terrifically emotive Noah Wiseman) has started to exhibit strange, even violent behavior. He worries about a fictional character named Mister Babadook, a shadowman who haunts those who learn about his existence.

Samuel’s antics grow more troublesome; eventually, he is expelled from school and his nightmare visions invade their home. A mysterious children’s book with horrible imagery turns up, warning of what’s to come.

Writer/director Jennifer Kent, making her feature film debut, uses a clever mix of paranoia and subtle special effects to evoke the dread of the invading entity. Babadook’s power seems to feed off the grief and fear of his victims. His evil taint seeps into their souls and they become physical manifestations of his malevolence.

I also appreciated the creepy, atonal soundscape, and the way the Babadook says his own name -- a cross between a children’s nursery rhyme chant and growling epithet.

No less a personage than William Friedkin, director of “The Exorcist,” called “The Babadook” the most terrifying film he’s ever seen. It’s not quite that scary, but it’s up there.

Video extras are decent. There are deleted scenes, interviews with cast and crew and a making-of documentary short film. Bonus: “Monster,” the 2005 short Kent made that formed the basis for this film.



Thursday, April 16, 2015

Review: "Unfriended"

Though it's not quite the game-changer that "The Blair Witch Project" was, "Unfriended" is an innovative and bold twist on the horror genre. The entirety of it takes place through the computer screens of six teens communicating with each other via Skype, Facebook, IM, Google searches and so on.

They're being hounded by an Internet troll, who claims to be their friend Laura Barns -- which is impossible, because she killed herself a year ago after being harassed online. But this unknown entity, which calls itself "billie227," invades their video chat room, seemingly takes control of their computers, and threatens to start killing them one by one if they log off.

If you think this may not seem like enough narrative to sustain a feature film -- even one that barely crosses the 80-minute mark -- then you'd be dead wrong.

Director Levan Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves cleverly layer in additional story elements as time goes on and the threat level increases, along with the body count. It borrows liberally from classic horror tropes -- such as the virginal "nice girl" as the main character -- while burrowing itself deeply into the instant-everything culture of today's teenagers.

Their computers, smartphones and ear buds are not just tools; they're biometric accessories they rely upon to augment and enhance their interaction with the world at large (even when they never leave their rooms).

The idea of the "ghost" haunting the characters translates easily to the anonymity of the Web, where people feel free to treat each other in a loathsome fashion because of the remove from their intended victims. The characters are represented through thumbnail video boxes transmitting from their webcams (which change in size and position to reflect who is currently the main focus).

Shelley Hennig is Blaire, the heroine. The movie opens with her flirting with her boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), doing a tame striptease and promising to consummate their relationship on prom night. Their friends join the video chat just in time to break it up ...along with a mysterious hanger-on.

Adam (Will Peltz) is the headstrong one of the bunch, quick with an insult and our prime suspect as the person who posted the embarrassing video of a drunken Laura that pushed her to commit suicide. Val (Courtney Halverson) is the rich snob whom the others just tolerate. Jess (Renee Olstead) is the party girl who's not as tough as she projects. Ken (Jacob Wysocki) is the tech nerd who we suspect helps the more popular kids with their homework.

If most of the cast members look like they're closer to 30 than high school algebra classes, that's because they are. Hollywood loves to make movies about teenagers, but pathologically shuns the real acne-and-awkwardness of those years. So actors in their mid- to late-twenties get the job. (Hennig is the most convincing of the bunch.)

Things go from there, with billie227 quickly offing one of the kids to prove its power, then forcing the rest to play a revolving game of "Never Did I Ever." They're forced to reveal the horrible things they've done online and to each other. It seems these seemingly normal upper-middle-class kids are capable of great cruelty and selfishness.

And that, perhaps, is the hidden subtext behind "Unfriended" -- the banality of inhumanity we all experience, or contribute to, whenever we log onto a computer or mobile device these days. We have seen the face of evil, and it is a reflection of ourselves that reverberates through a million virtual connections.