Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review: "My Old Lady"

Kevin Kline is in fine, fine form in “My Old Lady,” a movie that is not about his character’s wife. In it he plays a middle-aged man with a squandered life who finds that the incredibly valuable Parisian apartment he has inherited comes with a catch: the 92-year-old woman who already lives there, and isn’t about to leave.

She’s played by Maggie Smith, no slouch herself.

It seems Mathias Gold’s estranged father purchased the lovely chateau-sized place from Mathilde Girard more than 40 years ago under a “viager” arrangement. This especially French concoction involves selling a home at a low price, often to an elderly person, with the agreement that the seller will continue to live there, indefinitely. The buyer only gets the place when the seller dies.

Mathias, a failed writer, has little to show for himself other than two divorces and the clothes on this back. He used his last penny to fly to Paris to arrange the sale of his the apartment, which his hated father left him (unaccompanied by any funds, which went to charity).

Looking at a payday of millions of euros, he’s none too pleased to find Mathilde living there. A retired British teacher with an elegant if snippy personality, Mathilde has the legal right to stay – and even charge Mathias rent while he’s there!

(I feel compelled to point out that though the characters are supposed to be decades apart in age, Kline and Smith are actually only divided by 12 years -- yet another example of sexist showbiz ageism. Though both thespians have been blessed with stubbornly unchanged looks. And Smith had already been in the old biddy business for quite some time: she played a centenarian in “Hook” 23 years ago!)

Thus begins a sly contest of wills, as these two cagey warriors battle to outlast each other. To pass the time Mathias sells off some furniture for pocket money, gets advice from a real estate agent (Dominique Pinon), lines up a potential buyer and begins to take an interest in Mathilde’s daughter Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas), who also lives at the apartment and is more openly antagonistic than her mother.

Kline has always been one of the unlikeliest movie stars, a cards-down actor who always gives the sense of an internal complexity at work, only a peek of which he’s showing us at any given time. That’s especially true with the wily Mathias, who is presented as a loathsome opportunist, and yet is winningly charismatic and droll.

Writer/director Israel Horowitz, who adapted his own stage play, manages to craft a movie about a trio of characters, all of whom are deeply flawed in some way, and yet make the audience care deeply about them. Just when we might feel ready to judge them for some past action, new information comes along that makes those dark deeds, if not justifiable, then at least relatable.

Filled to the brim with smart, snappy dialogue and engaging characters, “My Old Lady” is one of those movies that keeps revealing new layers to itself. I certainly hope Kline’s turn, one of the best of his career, is remembered come Oscar nomination time.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (1989)

"Crimes and Misdemeanors" is perhaps Woody Allen's most ambitious film, and not his most successful. Though it was a substantial critical and popular hit, I found it rather dreary and ineffectual. It's a self-conscious exploration of morality, of whether belief in God or in humanist choices are incompatible, and whether dark crimes -- big and small -- can weigh down our souls like anchors in the ocean.

It's the sort of movie, in fact, where the two main characters, whose stories have paralleled without ever intersecting, bump into each other in the last scene and blatantly discuss the theme of the picture. It's the classic example of telling rather than showing, and I'm of the school that when you tip your hand too much into the light, the audience is quick to check out emotionally and intellectually.

In many ways "Crimes" reminded me of "A Serious Man," another movie by great filmmakers that I disregarded despite the widespread affection with which it was met. Both also focus on Jewish figures whose faith is called into question, though Allen's picture is more about the general question of faith in a higher power, while "Man" is essentially a rumination on Jewish theological imperatives.

Martin Landau received a Best Supporting Actor nomination from the Academy Awards, which is ridiculous for what is so clearly a leading role. He plays Judah Rosenthal, a very successful ophthalmologist who has reached the "great man" point of his career, where he collects awards and salutations in his final years before retirement. He has a loving wife (Claire Bloom) and daughter, a fabulous Long Island mansion, status and respect, and is by all measures a good person who does charitable work.

But he has a secret. For the past two years he's been carrying on an affair with a younger woman, a flight attendant named Dolores (Anjelica Huston). He recently broke it off and she's become unstable, threatening to confront his wife and making all sorts of demands upon him. Dolores appears ready to blow up his life if she can't have him, destroying his marriage and even having him arrested as an embezzler, since he confided in her about some financial improprieties involving the foundation he heads up.

On the flip side is Cliff Stern (Allen), a wannabe documentary filmmaker whose entire existence seems to be built around hollow aspirations for the sort of success Judah takes for granted. His marriage to Wendy (Joanna Gleason) is an empty husk, drained of all passion and joy -- they're just marking time until the inevitable. He spends most of his days watching old movies or trolling book stores, often in the company of the niece he dotes upon.

Cliff is given a huge opportunity to direct a PBS profile of Wendy's brother Lester, a famous television comedy producer and writer. Cliff can't stand his preening, self-adoring brother-in-law, played with full-bore snark and smirk by Alan Alda. (Lester has the habit of interrupting conversations so he can whip out a tape recorder to document his awful, but commercially viable, ideas for shows.)

But Cliff falls hard for Halley (Mia Farrow), a producer on the show. Lester also has an eye for the careful, cautious woman, who's just come out of a nasty divorce. So at first it's unclear if Cliff is wooing her just to spite Lester. But they find a genuine attraction between them while collaborating on Cliff's true labor of love, a documentary about little-known but brilliant philosopher.

The two characters share a lot of the same New York City bandwidth without ever actually tripping over each other, at least until the movie's end. Judah treats Lester's brother Ben (Sam Waterson), a rabbi who is going blind but seems to retains his full vision about the human condition and its perils. The two men are eventually brought together by a wedding that Lester is paying for, as Cliff and Wendy make their final appearance together before announcing their divorce.

It's pretty clear that Allen was using Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" as the basis for a modern riff on the themes of guilt and morality. Judah uses his scuzzy brother (Jerry Orbach) to have Dolores murdered, and then he spends of the rest of the picture anguishing over his terrible actions. He even visits her apartment after the deed is done, ostensibly to collect incriminating photos and journal entries but mostly, we suspect, to gaze upon her dead body and punish himself.

A doubter who grew up in a deeply religious family, Judah begins to feel the weight God's gaze upon him, and wonders if he'll ever be able to see the light again. When a police detective drops by to ask routine questions, he almost confesses his sins upon the spot.

Cliff, on the other hand, is guilty of much less serious acts of immorality -- desired, if not commissioned, infidelity -- and does not feel any remorse over how much he disdains his wife. It's a fairly typical Woody Allen character, full of neurotic bombast and nebbishy charm, and we feel greatly for the little fella when his worst fears are realized and Halley returns from a long assignment in Europe affianced to Lester.

Though it's more or less a straight drama, Allen can't resist throwing in bits of his trademark humor, such as Cliff's edit of the profile about Lester including cutaway shots to Mussolini. Or lamenting about his nonexistent sex life: "The last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty."

I adored Martin Landau's performance in "Crimes and Misdemeanors," but on the whole I found the juxtaposition with Allen's own character incongruous and unsatisfying. Allen tries to split the difference between two interesting characters, and loses his way.

Supposedly the filmmaker threw out most of the first act while editing the movie, and called back his cast for reshoots. I think the best movie he could've made would have been to write himself out of the picture.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Video review: "Godzilla"

It’s only been four months since the (latest) remake of “Godzilla” hit theaters, but already the movie has recessed into the dim fog of memory one keeps for so-so flicks.

This was one-half of a terrific summer action movie. Once big G finally arises from the ocean and starts laying the smackdown on his equally huge bat-like foes, “Godzilla” is as fun and entertaining a film as we saw all season. But you have to wade through the dreary first 60 minutes to get to the good 60.

Bryan Cranston plays a scientist whose life was turned upside by a deadly seismic event 15 years ago. Now he’s a loony loner spouting conspiracy theories, and is estranged from his son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a resolute soldier. But when monsters start wreaking havoc on cities in Japan, Hawaii and San Francisco, they put aside their differences to answer the call.

The middle section is truly stultifying, as talking-head generals and politicians debate the scientific and geopolitical repercussions of skyscraper-sized beasties doing a WWE imitation on their population centers.

Eventually “Godzilla” finds a sense of fun, but you may not find the wait worth it.

I would never advise people to buy a ticket to a movie but not walk in until the halfway point. But on video… well, let’s just say that if, during the early going, your finger gets a little jittery hovering over the Chapter Skip button of your remote control, I won’t judge.

The video comes equipped with a nice host of extras, divided into two sections. “The Legendary Godzilla” looks at all aspects of the production, from special effects to casting the actors, and creating the look of the M.U.T.O.s, Godzilla’s ancient enemies.

“MONARCH: Declassified” is supposedly a host of “evidence” showing how the governments of the world hid knowledge of Godzilla’s existence for decades. Fun, quirky stuff.

Features are the same for the DVD and Blu-ray combo pack versions.



Thursday, September 11, 2014

Review: "The Drop"

"The Drop" is an intriguing, atypical movie. It starts out with a lot of disparate characters and story elements, some of them related, much of it not. Over time they gradually float towards each other, each piece locking into place in a way that might not have seemed obvious at first.

The experience of watching it is like stumbling upon a disassembled pocket watch, and then witnessing the little gears and springs drag themselves, with almost gravitational pull, into a cohesive whole again. The actual process of putting itself back together can be a bit tedious at times, but at some point everything clicks together.

This is another film based on the writings of Dennis Lehane, who also penned the screenplay. Movies based on his work have been up ("Gone Baby Gone"), down ("Shutter Island") and vastly overhyped ("Mystic River"). Here is a film that seems to contain the Lehane mythos boiled down to its inky essence. The story happens almost entirely inside one seedy bar, and the few frozen city blocks around it.

Tom Hardy plays Bob Saganowsky, who sloshes drinks at Cousin Marv's Bar. Bob speaks in a clinched little croak, almost whiny; he isn't terribly bright and is passive almost to the point of transparency. There are rough types who come into the bar, and some try to get a rise out of Bob, but they leave unsatisfied, because it's like kicking a sweet puppy who only comes back for more.
He is, in short, a mook.

Cousin Marv is mostly a figurehead these days, an aging hulk who barely moves from his corner table. His name's on the bar, and he used to run a little action on the side -- he was, he says, somebody who made people sit up when he walked in. But he got pushed by some tougher Chechen mobsters, and flinched, and now it's their bar and he just runs it.

James Gandolfini could play controlled rage better than just about anybody, so Marv is a fitting final screen role for him.

The title comes from the process of picking one bar at random to be the place where all the gambling and other dirty money winds up for the night -- "the safe for the entire city." It soon becomes clear that somebody's looking to hit Marv's the night it's the drop, and Bob gets caught up in the tide of events.

One night Bob is walking home from work and comes across a bloodied puppy dumped in a trash can. The woman who lives there, a waitress named Nadia (Noomi Rapace), helps him patch the dog up, but insists Bob adopt him as his own. He blanches at first, but finally takes on the little pitbull, whom he dubs Rocco. This is, for him, a major addition to his tiny universe, which essentially consists of just the bar and keeping up his dead parents' tidy brownstone.

Accepting the responsibility of the dog changes something in Bob ... or does it? Hardy's performance is one poker face behind another, so we're never quite sure what's going on the other side of that lunkhead mien. Dribs and drabs of information leak out to suggest there's more there. He and Nadia start seeing more of each other, hesitatingly -- it's like two wounded animals sniffing the other's wounds.

Other characters' orbits intersect with that of the bar. There's a perpetually smiling police detective (John Ortiz) who sees Bob at the same church every morning, and wonders why he never takes communion. He starts investigating a stick-up at the bar, and then noses into old crimes that have become part of the neighborhood lore.

There's Eric Deeds (an imposing Matthias Schoenaerts), a hustler with a past connected to Nadia. He casts a baleful eye at Bob for seemingly mysterious reasons, stopping by the bar or his house, claiming Rocco is actually his dog, and dropping idle threats. (Somehow, he makes an umbrella seem weapon-like.)

And then we have the Chechen boss, Chovka, chillingly played by Michael Aronov. He expects Marv and Bob to recover the money stolen during the robbery. You can see the wheels turn in Bob's head, slowly, and in Marv's head, slightly less slowly -- if they could find the money, wouldn't that imply they were in on the job?

Director Michaël R. Roskam takes his time -- too much, really -- building up the suspense, but the plot of "The Drop" eventually gets there.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Fall film preview 2014

Spaceships! Sequels! Hobbits! Kiddie cartoons!

If that movie lineup sounds familiar, that’s because it looks a lot like the one from fall of last year -- or even this past summer. It seems Hollywood really believes in the mantra, “They liked it the first time, they’ll like it the seventh.”

At least the latter part of 2014 is light on super-hero flicks. Not that they’re unworthy; we just had quite a raft of them over the past few months, and it’ll be nice to trade them in for some more serious fare angling for Oscars -- spandex for starched collars, so to speak.

So here is our preview of fall films (release dates subject to change). Ones I think look particularly promising get a gold star ().

A Walk Among the Tombstones (Sept. 19) -- A kidnapping thriller starring Liam Neeson? Sounds like a retread, but the twist here is Neeson plays a disgraced cop hired by a mob boss to find out who killed his wife. Think hard noir.

This is Where I Leave You (Sept. 19) -- A quartet of adult siblings -- Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver and Corey Stoll -- must deal with the death of their father and their (alive) and overbearing mother (Jane Fonda).

The Boxtrolls (Sept. 26) -- Stop-motion animation gets a jump-start in this delightful-looking tale of ugly trash-collecting critters who like to dress themselves in old boxes. Voices of Ben Kingsley and Elle Fanning.

Jimi: All Is by My Side (Sept. 26) -- The long-gestating biopic of guitar legend Jimi Hendrix finally arrives starring Outkast’s André Benjamin in the title role. He has limited acting experience and Hendrix’s estate balked at granting the rights to any of his iconic songs, so…

The Equalizer (Sept. 26) -- The “Geezer Spy” genre gets another try with Denzel Washington tackling a reprise of the cheesy 1980s TV series. He plays a home improvement store drone who helps crime victims by night. The Lowes Ranger?

Annabelle (Oct. 3) -- A prequel of the hit horror flick “The Conjuring,” starring that creepy doll in her origin story.

Gone Girl (Oct. 10) -- One of the most hotly anticipated movies of early fall, this drama from David Fincher (“The Social Network”), based on the fanatically popular book by Gillian Flynn (who also wrote the screenplay), stars Ben Affleck as a seemingly perfect husband who may or may not have something to do with his disappeared wife (Rosamund Pike).

The Judge (Oct. 10) -- Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall play battling father and son lawyers whose relationship changes when the dad is accused of a serious crime. With Vera Farmiga.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (Oct. 10) -- The beloved children’s book by Judith Viorst gets the big screen treatment starring Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner as parents of a precocious 11-year-old boy having a moment.

Birdman (Oct. 17) -- OK, there is one super-hero movie this fall, but it’s an offbeat black dramedy from “Babel” director Alejandro González Iñárritu starring Michael Keaton as a washed-up actor who mounts an unlikely Broadway production about a masked man he used to play. With Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Zach Galifianakis.

The Best of Me (Oct. 17) -- The newest mushy romance/drama based on a Nicholas Sparks book stars Michelle Monaghan and James Marsden as a couple rekindling their teenage love.

Laggies (Oct. 24) -- Keira Knightley plays a 30-ish woman whose life is stuck in neutral. She decides to get away for a while by bunking with teen Chloe Grace Moretz and falls for her dad (Sam Rockwell).

St. Vincent (Oct. 24) -- Bill Murray could be looking at another Oscar nomination for one of his signature funny/sad characters, a misanthropic loner who reluctantly babysits/mentors the troubled young boy next door. Co-starring Melissa McCarthy.

Horns (Oct. 31) -- Daniel Radcliffe wakes up after a personal tragedy to find that he’s sprouting demon’s horns from his head. With Juno Temple.

Whiplash (October) -- This indie darling took top honors at Sundance Film Festival and stars Miles Teller as an aspiring jazz drummer taken under the harsh wing of a fearsome conductor (J.K. Simmons).

Interstellar (Nov. 7) -- The latest from bold filmmaker Christopher Nolan (“Inception”) stars Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway as astronauts from a dying Earth who make a desperate space journey through a wormhole. Minds, prepare to be tripped.

The Theory of Everything (Nov. 7) -- This biopic of Stephen Hawking stars Eddie Redmayne as the famed astrophysicist, focusing on his early life and romance before being diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). With Felicity Jones.

Big Hero 6 (Nov. 7) -- A teen robotics expert builds his own bodyguard in this Disney animation flick based on a lesser-known comic book.

The Homesman (Nov. 7) -- Tommy Lee Jones directed, co-wrote and stars in this Western about a claim jumper who helps a tough pioneer (Hilary Swank) escort three mentally troubled women through dangerous territory.

Rosewater (Nov. 7) -- Don’t expect this to be a hit in Iran, as it details the detention and torture of a Western journalist (Gael García Bernal) by the Islamist regime. An unlikely directorial debut from TV jokester Jon Stewart.

Dumb and Dumber To (Nov. 14) -- Geriatric dimwits? A reprise of the comically dumb duo of Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels seems like a desperate effort to cash in on faded glory. But the trailer’s actually funny, and the Farrelly brothers are due for a hit.

Fury (Nov. 14) -- Brad Pitt plays a World War II tank commander who takes his crew on a dire mission behind enemy lines. Directed by David Ayer, who made the terrific but hardly seen “End of Watch.”

Foxcatcher (Nov. 14) -- Steve Carell plays waaaaay against type as a wealthy Olympic wrestling philanthropist who murdered one of the team athletes. Co-starring Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo. Directed by Bennett Miller (“Capote,” “Moneyball”).

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1 (Nov. 21) -- In a familiar move, the final book of a popular film adaptation gets split into two movies. In this half, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) embraces her role as a key figure in the rebellion against the oppressive Panem regime.

The Imitation Game (Nov. 21) -- The story of mathematician Alan Turing, who helped crack the Nazi’s Enigma code during World War II. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley.

Horrible Bosses 2 (Nov. 26) -- Insert your own joke here; it’ll probably be funnier than anything in the movie.

Penguins of Madagascar (Nov. 26) -- The “Madagascar” franchise of animated flicks are winding down, so here’s the spinoff starring those adorable penguins who speak and act like G-men.

Wild (Dec. 5) -- After a troubled few years professionally and personally, Reese Witherspoon tries to be taken seriously again in this true story of a feckless woman who makes a 1,100-mile journey on foot after tragedy and finds herself transformed. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club”).

Exodus: Gods and Kings (Dec. 12) -- This year already saw controversy over a revisionist take on the story of Noah; are we ready for an action-hero iteration of Moses? Christian Bale plays the Biblical Jewish prophet, now reconfigured by director Ridley Scott as a badass warrior. With Australian Joel Edgerton, incongruently, as Egyptian pharaoh Rhamses.

Inherent Vice (Dec. 12) -- Paul Thomas Anderson and Joaquin Phoenix, who made the kooky and occasionally brilliant “The Master,” team up again in this loopy ‘70s tale of a drugged-up private investigator poking into the disappearance of a former girlfriend. With Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson and Reese Witherspoon.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Dec. 17) -- Even I, an ardent lover of all things Tolkien, have grown weary of how far astray director Peter Jackson & Co. have wandered from the gentle children’s book by J.R.R. As humble hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) reaches the conclusion of his epic journey to free a mountain of gold from a dragon, can they stick the landing?

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (Dec. 19) -- Hapless museum guard Ben Stiller travels across the Pond for more adventures at London’s British Museum with friends old -- Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) -- and new -- Sir Lancelot and a pharaoh (Ben Kingsley).

Annie (Dec. 19) -- An African-American Orphan Annie? And Daddy Warbucks? Traditionalists might blanch, but Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis and winner Jamie Foxx seem like a perfect fit for this update.

Mr. Turner (Dec. 19) -- Perpetual sidekick Timothy Spall gets a shot at a leading role in this drama from celebrated British auteur Mike Leigh, about the life of painter J.M.W. Turner, an influential early Impressionist.

Into the Woods (Dec. 25) -- The Broadway musical gets an adaptation at the hands of Rob Marshall, who knows a thing or two about that (“Chicago”). It’s an ambitious interweaving of various famous fairy tales, from Little Red Riding Hood to Cinderella. Starring Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick and Johnny Depp.

The Interview (Dec. 25) -- Funnymen Seth Rogen and James Franco already got in trouble with real-life Korean dictator Kim Jong-un because of this fictional story about tabloid TV stars who land an interview with him, then get recruited by the CIA to assassinate him.

Big Eyes (Dec. 25) -- Offbeat director Tim Burton is back with a bio of artist Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), who tried to claim credit for the ubiquitous midcentury portraits of large-eyed waifs actually created by his wife, Margaret (Amy Adams).

Selma (Dec. 25) -- Is America finally ready for a cinematic portrait of Martin Luther King? David Oyelowo tackles the civil rights icon as one of the leaders of the seminal 1965 drive for voting rights in Alabama.

Paddington (Dec. 25) -- Nicole Kidman plays a taxidermist who wants to stuff a talking, red-hatted bear -- and not with his favorite treat, marmalade -- in this adaptation of the popular children’s books.

Unbroken (Dec. 25) -- Angelina Jolie takes another turn behind the camera in directing this amazing true story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), an Olympic runner who suffered a terrible ordeal as a Japanese prisoner of war during WWII.

Maps to the Stars (date TBA) -- Horror auteur David Cronenberg tackles the hypocritical Hollywood scene in this ensemble film about a nobody girl (Mia Wasikowska) who infiltrates the life of a faded movie star (Julianne Moore) and a young driver (Robert Pattinson). With John Cusack.

Men, Women & Children (date TBA) -- Hollywood wunderkind Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air”) takes a look at love and lust in the Internet age, starring Adam Sandler as a porn addict and Ansel Elgort (“The Fault in Our Stars”) as a World of Warcraft nerd.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Theirs Is the Glory" (1946)

I've long been a vocal advocate for "A Bridge Too Far," one of the last of the big-budget World War II spectacles and, in my mind, one of the most underrated. It didn't make much of an impact in the States, but was a big hit overseas.

Screenwriter William Goldman noted in his classic tome about the Hollywood biz, "Adventures in the Screenwriting Trade," that the British are very fond of memorializing their disastrous military adventures, while Americans tend to shy away from them.

So it was a surprise to me to discover "Theirs Is the Glory," a 1946 film shot a year after the actual Battle of Arnhem. While "Bridge" depicted the entirety of Operation Market Garden, a bold and (many feel) rash attempt to punch through into Germany and end the war by Christmas 1944, "Glory" focuses on the battle for the last of the series of bridges the Allies were trying to capture. (The bridge that was one too far.)

What's amazing about the film is that it contains no actors or studio mock-ups of the battle site. The actual men who participated in or witnessed the fighting returned to the town of Arnhem one year after the actual events and recreated them for the cameras. "Glory" also contains extensive footage of the actual battle itself shot by newsmen and military photographers.

As a military strategy, the quest for the Arnhem bridge over the Rhine was too clever by half. Paratroopers from the First British Airborne Division, who by necessity are only lightly equipped, were dropped well behind enemy lines near the town and charged with capturing the bridge. This they did, with great derring-do.

Unfortunately, they were only supposed to have to hold it for two days. The column of Allied tanks got bogged down in the mission of linking up the captured bridges, giving time for the German forces to respond and, as one general memorably orders in "A Bridge Too Far," "flatten Arnhem."

Out of some 10,000 paratroopers dropped for the Arnhem operation, only about 2,000 successfully escaped when their forces withdrew after nine days. The rest were killed or captured -- most of the latter being too severely wounded to retreat.

The concept for the film is novel, but it's a better idea than a movie. It ends up playing out like a bunch of disconnected footage of soldiers running hither and fro, in between obvious showbiz pyrotechnics simulating artillery, and falling down from non-existent bullet wounds.

The soldiers are obviously not actors, and don't do very good jobs of portraying themselves. They tend to speak in stilted sentences in that very blasé British way, in which men in terrible peril seem not at all concerned about it. It gets so silly, it reminded me of that scene in Monty Python's "Life of Brian" in which an English soldier is mildly perturbed by a tiger biting off his leg.

Director Brian Desmond Hurst, a more than competent journeyman, tries his best to lend some narrative momentum to the proceedings, spotlighting a few soldiers and focusing on them. But in the end "Glory" feels like what it is, a pastiche starring non-professionals.

So it becomes more interesting to me to see how this little-known film (at least in the U.S.) affected "A Bridge Too Far." I was struck by the similarities of several sequences, and wondered if Goldman was inspired by them (or if he even saw the film). "Bridge" was based on a book by Cornelius Ryan that was published three decades after the events; perhaps Ryan was influenced by "Glory."

The Liv Ullman character, a local Dutch woman who aids the Allied soldier, seemed to have her look and demeanor modeled after a person in "Glory." She even wears a similar woman's suit and also has a religious bent.

One of the most harrowing sequences in "Bridge" is a night crossing of a river using flimsy little boats, with the soldiers getting cut to pieces by German crossfire. There is a very comparable scene toward the end of "Glory," though here it is the withdrawal from Arnhem rather than part of an earlier advance.

"Bridge" has a nerve-wracking bit where the Brits have been forced back from their supply drop sites, and the Allied planes continue to rain down ammunition and other supplies that they desperately need but can't get to. In both movies, a single soldier scrambles out to try to retrieve one of the massive tubes, but dies for his gallantry.

Johnny Frost is a memorable character in "Bridge" played by Anthony Hopkins, a gallant young officer who leads the forces holding the north side of the Arnhem bridge long past anyone's expectations. There are remarkably similar scenes in each film where Frost and his soldiers, now wounded and without hope, lie together in a bombed-out building essentially awaiting their fate. Frost bravely gives the command for those who are fit to escape back over the river.

In "Bridge," though, this is the opportunity for one of the best bits of dialogue in the movie, where a young soldier tells a story about why he always has an umbrella, even in combat, because he doesn't want to be mistaken for a German and knows "no Jerry would carry one."

It may be Hollywood bullshit, but it's smashingly good B.S.

Even though it's not a very good film, mostly what "Theirs Is the Glory" does for me is reinforce how good "A Bridge Too Far" is, in imposing a cohesive story on a massive series of events and large array of people. Goldman's screenplay is really superb, giving us a dozen or so distinctive characters and letting the action play out through their eyes.

The movies have often -- rightly -- been accused of changing around historical records for their own purposes. But sometimes you have to "showbiz up" the tale to get at the nut of the truth. "Glory" tries for verisimilitude and is dull; "Bridge" spritzes things up and soars.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Video review: "Words and Pictures"

Maybe it’s because of Robin Williams’ recent passing, but “Words and Pictures” reminds me a lot of “Dead Poets Society.” Though instead of featuring one brilliant, kooky and passionate teacher, we get two – and they fall in love.

The setup is that the pair, who both work at an elite prep school, are antagonists whose clash of philosophies and personalities drives their students to creative heights. Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) is a famous painter now suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. She claims not to care about forming personal relationships with her students or colleagues; for her, it’s all about creating images that sear themselves onto the brain and the soul.

Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) was once a famous writer, now a wastrel drunk who serves as the school’s longstanding jester and provocateur. Despite his self-destructive tendencies, “Mr. Mark” cares like hell about inspiring his pupils, cajoling them through highly unconventional means – he dubs haiku poetry “the first Twitter.”

After hearing Delsanto make disparaging comments about the power of words, Marcus launches an unofficial war on pictures, which carries them through the school year and various developments, including him being threatened with the loss of his job.

Binoche and Owen make for an appealing couple, a pair of gorgeous middle-aged loners who are so wrapped up in their own egos and miseries that they can’t grasp the golden prize right in front of them. Their banter is caustic and even mean-spirited, yet somehow the magnetic pull between them shines through the insults.

Smart, quirky and sexy, “Words and Pictures” reminds us why learning, and teaching, can be so enriching.

Extra features are somewhat scanty in quantity but substantial in quality. Director Fred Schepisi, a veritable Hollywood legend (“Barbarosa,” “Roxanne,” “Six Degrees of Separation”) still cranking out movies in his 70s, provides a feature-length commentary track. There’s also a 19-minute making-of featurette.



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