Monday, April 21, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Cromwell" (1970)

Take a look at the photo that accompanies this column. You will note Richard Harris playing Oliver Cromwell in the movie that bears his surname, and Alec Guinness as King Charles I of England. Those two powerful actors are the best thing about the movie, and the way their characters are depicted are the worst.

Like most period dramas, "Cromwell" takes many liberties with the historical record. It cast two of the finest actors of their day as important figures, but fundamentally stirs up the pot of known facts until we're left with tasteless mishmash gumbo of truth and fiction.

Cromwell was a very controversial figure in British history. He was part of revolutionary movement led by Parliament that overthrew King Charles and, eventually, beheaded him. For a little more than a decade England operated as a commonwealth, and for the last few years led by Cromwell as Lord Protectorate. After Cromwell's death they tried to turn this position into an inherited one by giving it to his son, Richard, who served just a few months before the monarchy was restored and Charles II installed on the throne.

So despised was Cromwell by the Royalists that upon returning to power they dug up Cromwell's body, gave him a posthumous hanging and put his head on a spike, where it was displayed for a quarter-century. The head, still impaled by a chunk of wood, moved around among private collectors for centuries, eventually being buried in 1960. This is not the sort of behavior people display toward someone with whom they are mildly irked.
The film was written and directed by Ken Hughes, whose previous film was "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and who would later go on to make the little-remembered sequel to "Alfie" and the slasher flick "Night School." He makes the obvious but regrettable choice to position a movie about Cromwell as largely an antagonism between him and King Charles.

In actuality, Cromwell was a relatively minor figure until late in the British civil war of the 1640s, and the two men only met once during Charles' imprisonment. But the movie shows them exchanging  speeches, having public face-offs, engaging each other on the field of battle, and a bunch of other hooey. I'm not exactly sure where the image above came from, since it does not even occur in the movie -- possibly it's a production still.

Other similar "movie bullshit" invades the narrative, particularly with regard to military matters. "Cromwell" shows him playing a key role in the Battle of Edgehill, a key early defeat for the Parliament forces, but in fact Cromwell was not even present. It also depicts his decisiveness victory at Naseby as a prototypical victory of the outnumbered-but-righteous, but really the king's forces had a severe disadvantage in numbers.

Heck, they can't even get the famous moles on Cromwell's face right. The filmmakers place two large, very fake-looking (vaguely greenish) prosthetics on Harris' chin (correct) and above his left eye (wrong side). This was an easily avoidable error, since portraits of Cromwell and his death mask very clearly showed his benign growths.

Harris' lean, aquiline face doesn't exactly match Cromwell's lumpy one, though Guinness in makeup and beard is pretty spot-on for the deposed monarch. Other well-regarded actors of the day turn up in various roles -- Charles Gray, Nigel Stock, Michael Jayston, Douglas Wilmer, Geoffrey Keen -- including a very young Timothy Dalton as Prince Rupert of the Rhone, Charles' rash nephew.

Hughes earns points for trying to capture the warts-and-all aspects of Cromwell, portraying him as a powerful man with very lofty ideals who was also prone to being very judgmental, particularly when it comes to Catholics. A devout Protestant, his harsh treatment of the faithful in Ireland caused his name to be cursed aplenty there even today, and undeniably helped set the path toward the conflicts the Emerald Isle would later have with London.

The movie skips over this part, however, declining even to depict any of his tenure as Lord Protectorate, ending with his dismissal of Parliament in much the same fashion King Charles did years later, setting off the very conflict that brought Cromwell to power. Instead, we get one of those standard "great man" screen roll epitaphs.

The two lead actors are to be lauded for their convincing but very disparate performances. Harris burns with smoldering anger and righteous fury, his placid exterior often giving way to fiery declarations. Guinness, contrastingly, is restrained almost to the point of immobility.

His Charles is not an evil man, just someone raised to believe he and the land are one through God-given rights. He's actually something of a weakling, prone to taking bad advice from his counselors and his Catholic wife. Guinness even lends him a barely detectable stutter, almost more of a speed bump in his speech, to underline his reticence as a leader.

The battle scenes are staged well enough, though no one ever seems to swing their sword hard enough to do any real damage. The outfits and set design are marvelous, however, enough to earn an Oscar nomination for costumes (plus another for musical score).

"Cromwell" isn't a poor film, and the lead performances are certainly engaging. But in trying to shoehorn the messy, muddy reality of life into a neat storyline, the movie sacrifices too much of its authority.


Sunday, April 20, 2014

Video review: "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” didn’t make much of a splash in theaters last December, but it’s the perfect sort of movie to find a second life on video.

Heart-warming, funny, with a few gentle life-lessons moments that aren’t too preachy, it’s the sort of movie that doesn’t aim very high but hits the modest mark it does set for itself. The film is pretty much a reflection of star Ben Stiller, who also directed from a screenplay by Steve Conrad based on the iconic James Thurber story.

Walter is a meek, reclusive photo editor for Life Magazine, which is about to print its last edition. He daydreams about a grander life full of adventure, mostly involving a co-worker (Kristen Wiig) he’s sweet on.

When the photo negative for the last magazine cover is lost, Walter sets out on an unlikely quest that will take him halfway across the world, and give him some approximation of the wild escapades he’s always envisioned. This includes jumping into shark-infested waters, skateboarding down an erupting volcano and tracking a rare snow leopard in the mountains.

Still being a comedian by background, this version is funnier than previous cinematic iterations of Thurber’s tale. This does have the effect of making Walter a little less sympathetic than he otherwise might have been. Though the laughs are probably worth it.

No one will confuse “Walter Mitty” with great filmmaking. But it’s an earnest, pleasing movie without a lot of fuss or pretension.

The movie is being released on video with an ample amount of extras. The DVD includes a comprehensive making-of documentary, including featurettes on the music, sights and sounds, plus a gallery of reference photographs.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray version, and you add five deleted scenes and eight extended scenes, plus a music video of “Stay Alive” by José González.



Thursday, April 17, 2014

Review: "Bears"

Halfway between a nature documentary and a narrative film, "Bears" is a crowd-pleasing, family friendly flick about a mother bear and her two cubs struggling to survive through the changing of seasons in the Alaska wildlands.

I say "struggling" because there are numerous moments of peril where the giant grizzly bear, Sky, and her younglings Amber and Scout are stalked by a wolf, other bears and the ever-present threat of starvation. But nothing is terribly scary or permanent, so the movie should be appropriate for even the youngest audience members.

Obviously, real life in the untamed wild does not play out in a straightforward storybook way. So one definitely gets the sense that directors Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey are imposing a narrative that isn't necessarily there. There are plenty of editing tricks to make the danger seem more imminent than it is.

Start with the fact that the names used for the animals are gifted by the filmmakers, whose teams tracked the same bear family for a year. They even give monikers to the various predators who threaten them.

This can lead to some unintentionally humorous moments, such as when narrator John C. Reilly introduces a new "character" with heavy-handed drama: "This is Chinook, the outcast, banished from the meadow by Magnus."

Reilly, with his high voice and speech patterns closer to palooka than Shakespearean, would seem an unlikely choice. But he lends a bright, playful tone to the proceedings.

The photography is lush and gorgeous, showing the untamed hinterlands through the seasons of snow-bound winter, the blush of spring and the height of summer, with the promise of a feast of salmon. The latter isn't meant just for indulgent gorging; Sky must store up fat to see her cubs have enough milk to last through six months of hibernation, or they'll starve.

The high point is the salmon swimming upstream to their spawning waters, where Sky and other bears wait expectantly. The slow-motion footage is just wondrous, capturing serendipitous moments like a wriggling fish jumping right into a bear's outstretched jaws, or slapping against its forehead.

At a crisp 77 minutes, "Bears" is simple, uncomplicated movie-going. Whether it's a true documentary in the purest sense is open to debate, but not its obvious entertainment value.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Review: "Under the Skin"

Now let me just be clear about one thing: “Under the Skin” is not for everybody. In fact, it’s not for most everybody.

Some of you may be tempted to just look at the positive score I gave this movie or read a little bit of the review, and then will get P.O.’d when you hate the movie. In the next few paragraphs I’ll tell you some things that should give plenty of warning if you’re one of those for whom this film was not intended. I am hereby resolved of all blame if you can’t be bothered to read the whole thing.

“Under the Skin” is an art film that wears the clothes of a horror/sci-fi thriller. An American woman played by Scarlett Johansson drives a van around Scotland picking up strange men, luring them to an isolated place with the implication of sex, and then killing them. That’s pretty much the whole thing.

Supernatural forces are at work here. The woman is clearly not human; she does not have empathetic feelings toward her victims, at least not at first. Possibly she’s an alien sent here to harvest humans. And the men don’t just die; bewitched by her seductiveness, they wade into a pool of inky black goo and become absorbed, or something.

It’s unclear if the goo is a literal body of liquid or a representation of her powers. Actually, a great many things about “Under the Skin” remain unclear … but that’s as it’s intended.

In many ways the movie, directed and co-written (with Walter Campbell) by Jonathan Glazer, based on the novel by Michel Faber, reminded me of the filmmaking of Andy Warhol.

For those not familiar with the cinematic endeavors of Warhol and know him only as the guy who made art out of Campbell’s soup, he once made a movie titled “Empire” that was nothing but an eight-hour-long shot of the Empire State Building. Another, “Sleep,” was five-plus hours of a guy sleeping. In other words, he enjoyed screwing around with his audience.

While there’s nothing approaching that level of challenge in “Under the Skin,” clearly Glazer & Co. are not trying to spell everything out for us. Mostly it’s an exercise in mood and emotion, and I found the movie never ceased to engage me.

Glazer (“Sexy Beast”) carefully and methodically – slowly, some would say – uses skittery music, burbling sound effects and dark, evolving images in a way that scares us without any outright “boo” moments. Johansson is compelling and dangerous, managing to be incredibly menacing and, later, strangely sympathetic.

Most of the men she encounters look like everyday joes, and speak with Scottish accents so thick it’s at first comical, and then frustrating. I understood maybe 15 percent of what they said. Again, I think Glazer did this on purpose; after a while, we stop trying to understand their words and concentrate on how they’re ensorcelled by her.

Eventually, she encounters a man with a severe facial disfigurement, whose emotional pain and loneliness seep out of his skin like perspiration, and it knocks her off her stride. A mysterious motorcycle rider (played by real-life racer Jeremy McWilliams) who had been acting as her cohort morphs into her hunter, and we suspect this is a cycle that has been repeated before.

You may have also heard that Johansson does her first nude scene in this movie, and I’m here to report that is true. And honestly, it’s not that big a deal. This is a film about how a predator uses her body to lure men to their death, so being coy was not really an option. Nudity can sometimes be distracting in movies, but in a few cases it would be disingenuous not to have some nakedness; this is one of those times.

At first we only see Johansson from great distance and/or in high contrast shadows, and I was thinking this was going to be one of those deals where a big Hollywood star bravely goes nude-ish. But later, as the unnamed protagonist finds herself more connected to her human disguise, the camera becomes closer and more intimate in its gaze.

Hopefully, I’ve sufficiently educated you on whether there’s a chance you’ll enjoy “Under the Skin” … although “enjoy” isn’t really a word you associate with a movie like this. I found it eerie, unnerving and disturbing. There’s one scene on a beach where the woman shows such utter disdain for human life it actually left me shaking. Others may walk out of this movie simply shaking their heads.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Men" (1950)

According to legend, when they first cast a young unknown stage actor in his first film, "The Men," the producers and cast thought they'd made a staggering mistake. During pre-production rehearsals, he mumbled his lines without barely any intonation, and wouldn't even look others in the eye.

His work in front of a camera didn't seem much better at first. In the movie he's constantly tucking his chin, turning away from the person he's speaking to and darting his eyeballs this way and that. Hardly the standard M.O. for cinematic acting of that era, with its ethos of "Stick out your jaw, and puff up your chest."

Of course, Marlon Brando wasn't your everyday actor playing a standard leading man. Ken "Bud" Wilcheck is an Army lieutenant who was shot in the spine during the war and left a paraplegic. "The Men," written by the great Carl Foreman ("High Noon"), was one of the first mainstream movies to address soldiers dealing with paralysis.

At a crisp 86 minutes, the film is a fairly straightforward drama that makes all the obvious choices, but nonetheless manages to wander into daring territory. Start with the fact that it was shot at the Birmingham Army Hospital in Van Nuys, where both Foreman and Brando spent time living with the soldier-patients prior to shooting. Eventually, dozens of them would appear in the film.

It's pretty obvious watching the movie, directed by Fred Zinnemann in one of his earliest feature film efforts, to discern who the professional actors are and who are the real soldiers. The best of the amateurs is Arthur Jurado as Angel, a body-building paraplegic with dreams (cut short, naturally) of buying a house.

His name was Angel, because if you were a Latino character in a Hollywood movie between 1940 and 1970, it was contractually required that your name be Angel.

Jack Webb is solid as Norm, the acerbic intellectual of the bunch, and Richard Erdman has fun as Leo, the wise-cracking flimflam man. But it's no surprise that Brando steals the show, showing the mix of volatility and seductive power that would become his hallmarks. He even manages to spend a great deal of the film topless or wearing one of those tight-cropped T-shirts he would make so famous two years later in "A Streetcar Named Desire."

It's funny; Brando's career was often marked by its physicality, split into two phases: lithe and corpulent. He never really seemed to have an in-between, though I guess the days of "The Godfather" and "Last Tango in Paris" hit that mark the closest.

I won't bother with a treatise on The Method versus other schools of acting -- frankly, I just don't care how a performer finds their center or sense memory or all that jazz. I judge an actor by what's up on the screen, and I think anyone watching "The Men" in 1950 knew a major new talent was on hand, even though the film flopped financially.

The dialogue isn't the greatest; Foreman was still developing as a writer. After Angel dies -- because all characters named Angel in Golden Age movies die -- Bud stews to his fiance, Ellen (Teresa Wright): "If he was normal, he'd have had a chance. You try and you try, but you're still behind the eight-ball."

That ain't exactly the Bard, but Brando still makes it sing.

Perhaps as a prisoner of its age, the story is forced to revolve around a romance. Bud at first refuses to see Ellen following his injury, but is convinced by the stern-but-caring doctor (Everett Sloane) to come around. They eventually reconcile and marry, but then the movie takes an unfortunate step where the open-hearted young woman who was more than ready to embrace life with a man in a wheelchair suddenly has second thoughts, literally on her wedding night. 

It's a false moment, and sets off one narrative stumble after another during the last 20 minutes or so.

The real heart of "The Men" is given location by its title: the camaraderie, strained and often backbiting, between this hospital ward full of brave men all suffering from the same physical and psychological wounds. If only Foreman, Zinnemann and producer Stanley Kramer had stuck to their instincts, given the boot to the dew-eyed girl, we might've really had something. 

Instead, "The Men" is justly remembered as what it is: a cinematic stepping stone.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Video review: "Great Expectations"

I know, I know … you’re thinking to yourself, why should I care about the (seemingly) 3,074th version they’ve made of “Great Expectations” for film or television?

Short answer: because the new version that came out at the end of last year is one of the most emotionally engaging adaptations of a Charles Dickens’ novel I’ve ever seen.

You may not even be aware of this iteration, directed by Pete Newell (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”) and starring an impressive cast, including Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Jeremy Irvine, Robbie Coltrane and Holliday Grainger. It didn’t get much traction, barely making it into U.S. theaters.

But this may just be the best film of 2013 that nobody saw. Fiennes and Bonham Carter both deserved Oscar nominations for their fine, vibrant performances.

You know the story: a young penniless orphan (Irvine) is given an inheritance and an introduction into London society by an anonymous benefactor. He makes a mush of it, squandering his fortune and falling for a chilly, distant girl protected by her brittle ward, Miss Havisham (Bonham Carter).

Dickens himself felt that “Great Expectations” was his greatest work, but previous movie versions have tended to be stilted and unapproachable. Give this one a chance, and you won’t find yourself disappointed.

Extra features include deleted scenes, a making-of featurettes, photo gallery and more.




Thursday, April 10, 2014

Review: "Draft Day"

"Draft Day" has a reliable veteran star (Kevin Costner) and an old-hand director (Ivan Reitman) but a pair of rookie screenwriters, and it shows.

Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman fall into the newbie trap of thinking more is more. They've got a great, uncomplicated premise: the general manager of the Cleveland Browns football team is desperately scrambling to make a splash on NFL Draft Day, furiously working the phones and making seemingly desperate trades as the minutes tick by.

Made with the full cooperation of the National Football League and ESPN, plus the participation of dozens of football luminaries and media figures, it has the authentic feel of a peek behind doors than remain largely closed to fans. Now, that's an intriguing enough premise out of which to milk plenty of drama, laughs and tears.

But the screenwriters keep going, and going ... and then they go a little further. They pile challenge after interpersonal challenge atop the head of their protagonist, Sonny Weaver Jr. (Costner). It's supposed to ratchet up the tension, but the story ends up with so many distractions it's hard for the main narrative to gain traction till the end.

Start with the fact that he's got an overbearing team owner (Frank Langella) who'd like nothing better than to can his GM if the day doesn't play out right. And Sonny's dad, the legendary coach of the Browns, died last week ... after Sonny fired him the previous season. He's got his brittle mother (Ellen Burstyn) butting into his affairs. Plus he's been having an affair on the sly with an underling (Jennifer Garner), and now she wants to be more than the secret girlfriend ... oh, and they've just learned they're having a baby, too.

And that's before we even get into the minutia of the actual football draft, with the various potential players, their parents and agents, and assorted intrigues.

Sonny suspects the sure-fire #1 quarterback (Josh Pence) is a bust. He's rather pick the lower-profile defensive player of proven character (Chadwick Boseman). There's also pressure to choose a sleek running back (Arian Foster) who's the son of a favorite Browns player.

The movie finally comes through after a very slow start, and the last 45 minutes or so are extremely engaging as the actual draft drama plays out. Just when you think he's done, Sonny whips out another card from up his sleeve.

Frankly, Costner is probably about 15 years too old for this role. (A maverick guy in his mid-40s contemplating fatherhood and putting down roots is fascinating; pushing 60, it's just pathetic.) But he brings a well-worn, no-nonsense solidity to the role. His Sonny feels put-upon and doesn't carry a big ego, but there's a well-tended fire in his belly. He's a naturally cautious guy desperate to throw one long bomb and hope for the best.

I also enjoyed Denis Leary as Vince Penn, the new-ish coach of the Browns who's constantly knocking heads with his boss. Puckish and manipulative, a guy who clearly thinks he's the big fish in what he considers a small pond, Vince has his own ideas about who to draft. And if that means throwing his GM under the bus to get his way, then that's what winners do.

Reitman, better known for comedy and lacking a genuine hit for 20 years, hits his stride just when the material does, when the actual draft starts. You've got that built-in pressure of having to make your pick before the time runs out or getting leapfrogged by other teams, a tension that Reitman uses well to his advantage.

(That made sound like showbiz hooey, but it's actually happened a couple of times in recent years.)

This movie would have been much better served, though, by winnowing down the side characters and subplots and focusing on the meat of what is a really compelling story. That's playing to your strengths, something every good veteran should know.

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