Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Reeling Backward: "The Battle of Algiers"

One of the more wonderful things about film is that it never dies.

Old celluloid can shrivel up and wither away, but a much greater effort has been placed on preservation. And now with digital formats, we can keep perfect copies of movies forever.

As a result, it's not unusual for an old film to be rediscovered many years later and find a new audience to appreciate it. One of those is "The Battle of Algiers," the great 1966 war film about a Muslim uprising in French-controlled Algeria between 1954 and 1962. The nationalities are like this: It's a story told mostly in French, about largely Arabic characters, made by Italians based on the account of one of the Muslim revolutionaries.

Given this pedigree, one would think the film would be overtly biased in favor of the Muslims, but director Gillo Pontecorvo and his co-screenwriter Franco Solinas persevere to prevent an unflinching look at the travesties committed by both sides.

It's a simply startling chronicle, so life-like and documentary in its feel that one would swear the filmmakers had actually witnessed the real events with their cameras.

The film was re-released during the early days of the Iraq War, and the parallels between the French and American positions nearly a half-century apart were startling. They faced a small but committed group of Muslim insurgents who captured the hearts and minds of the populace, even as they used outright terrorism and intimidation as tactics. The French tended to treat the populace with high-handed disdain, subjecting them to searches and capricious imprisonment that inflamed their passions. The French also resorted to torture to gain intelligence from captured insurgents.

A word on torture. There has been much talk about how the U.S. engaged in torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo -- pointing to waterboarding (which the government has acknowledged using on three detainees, including the 9/11 mastermind), sleep deprivation, isolation and forced kneeling position. I won't use this forum to offer my opinion on whether these methods should be used or not. But "The Battle of Algiers" starkly shows what real torture is. Muslim rebels are beaten to a bloody pulp, electrocuted and blowtorches taken to their bodies.

If you think the insurgents are angels in comparison, you're wrong. They stalk policemen and shoot them in the back. When the campaign ratchets up, they take to bombing public places like discos and other spots where wholly innocent people gather. Children are killed and maimed by both sides. It's an ugly cycle.

The film uses no main characters, rather showing the tale through the eyes of various members of an ensemble cast, representing actual historical figures. Two do stand out, however. Ali La Pointe (Brahim Hadjadj) is a young, fiery leader of the insurgents, who wants to take an eye for an eye at every turn. Jean Martin gives a positively chilling performance as Col. Mathieu, the French paratroop commander who'd given a free hand to quell the uprising, and uses it unsparingly.

More than 40 years old, "The Battle of Algiers" retains a fierce urgency, showing the infancy of the rise of Muslim extremists. Many of the same rhetoric and tactics shown in the movie are at play in the fields of Iraq and Afghanistan today. This film breathes, now more than ever.

Monday, March 30, 2009

New this week: "Adventureland" and "Slumdog" on DVD

The new movie review will be "Adventureland," a comedy about a bunch of young folks working at a theme park. The DVD review will be "Slumdog Millionaire."

Stay tuned. And of course, visit "The Film Yap" for more.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Catching up with "Sunshine Cleaning"

"Sunshine Cleaning" is that extreme rarity in Hollywood -- a mainstream movie directed by a woman (Christine Jeffs) from a screenplay written by a woman (Megan Holley).

Neither Jeffs or Holley were involved in "Little Miss Sunshine," but the producers are the same, as the advertising campaign for "Sunshine Cleaning" is quick to remind you. There's no road trip in the new movie, but thematically the two movies are blood siblings. They're about low-middle class families with troubled children and beat-down adults who yearn for something better, particularly from their professional lives.

Both movies even share Alan Arkin as the off-kilter but heartwarming grandfather -- although he gets to live through this movie.

The main character is Rose, played by Amy Adams, a former high school queen who's now stuck cleaning the houses of the people she formerly lorded over. She's got a smart but troublesome 7-year-old (Jason Spevak) whose school wants to either put him on medication, or expel him. Her vaguely punk sister Norah (Emily Blunt, one of the few Brits who can do a near-perfect American accent) skips between waitressing jobs while living with their dad, who is retirement age but is constantly working half-baked business deals with candy popcorn and consignment shrimp.

Rose never got hitched to the captain of the football team, but she is sleeping with him -- even though he's a married cop with one kid and another on the way. He does provide her the tip that the crews who clean up the nasty remains of crime scenes get paid big bucks for wiping up blood and bits of brain.

Soon Rose and Norah are tag-teaming as they visit the gruesome scene or murders and suicides wearing hazmat suits and wielding sponges. Both see it as a business opportunity, but it becomes something more to them. Rose, who's perpetually mortified by her fall from social grace, becomes a proud business owner who revels in the slight, but intimate way they share the last moments of people's lives. And Norah rescues some photos and personal belongings of a woman who killed herself, intending to give it to her daughter, but ends up befriending her instead.

"Sunshine Cleaning" is a slow-moving affair intended for grown-ups with the patience to enjoy the way the film languidly moves between drama and comedy, pathos and silliness. The plot is not a forced journey between point A and B, but rides a current that is content to get caught in eddies, and rush over rapids as the film finds its own pace.

It does strive at times to be quirky for the sake of quirkiness -- for example, the little boy using the CB radio in his mother's work van to ask questions of the heavens, which go unanswered. These moments break away from the natural mood of the characters, forcing them to do things they probably wouldn't do.

I'm not sure if "Sunshine Cleaning" is a movie that has really figured itself out. It's got some interesting themes and the acting is uniformly splendid -- Adams in particular -- but I get the sense it was built upon a series of ideas that never quite interlock with each other. Its pieces are often wonderful, but don't combine to produce a fully-formed whole. Still, it's a movie that sophisticated film goers won't want to miss.

3 stars out of four

Friday, March 27, 2009

Review: "Monsters vs. Aliens"

In terms of the quality of animation, we’ve reached the point where DreamWorks and Pixar are in a virtual dead heat. Pixar films (“Finding Nemo”) have traditionally looked better, but with “Kung Fu Panda” and now “Monsters vs. Aliens”, the underdogs have closed the gap.

“Monsters” is simply marvelous to gaze upon, particularly if you happen to catch it one of the theaters playing it in 3-D. There’s a density to the images, with an almost tactile feel, like they exist rather than are drawn. The action scenes are clear and smooth, and even the smallest background details seem to have been labored over.

But as storytellers, the DreamWorks folks are still understudies.

The best way to put it is this: DreamWorks animation is made to be entertainment, while Pixar animation is intended as art. “WALL·E” and its like go beyond cute characters and kid-friendly hijinks. They have something to say, and say it in a way that’s subtle and inventive.

With DreamWorks, any point to be made culminates in a single moment that practically announces itself: “And the moral of the story is…”

In “Monsters,” it’s when Susan, a woman who’s been turned into a 50-foot colossus, realizes that she’s been living her life through others – specifically, her smarmy, ambitious TV weatherman husband. When Susan declares she doesn’t need him anymore, it feels like a teachable moment aimed at children rather than an emotional epiphany.

Another distinction is that DreamWorks seems to go out of its way to cast only stars for its vocal performances, whereas Pixar finds the best voice actors to match the part, whether they’re famous or not. (Consider “WALL·E”: Sigourney Weaver is the only name actor, and she plays the ship’s computer.)

In “Monsters vs. Aliens,” virtually every major speaking part is done by a star. Reese Witherspoon is Susan, also known as Ginormica after a radioactive meteorite lands on her on her wedding day, leading to big developments at the altar. Kiefer Sutherland plays the tough old general who commands the secret military facility where all the monsters captured by the government are held. Rainn Wilson of “The Office” plays the many-tentacled villain, Gallaxhar.

This isn’t to say stars do a bad job. Seth Rogen is a hoot as B.O.B., a brainless, blobulous entity with a single eye that he often spits out and tosses around like a ball. (He was created during an experiment combining a tomato with a dessert topping.) And Will Arnett is amusingly guttural as Missing Link (just “Link” to his friends), a reptilian strongman.

Rounding out the team are Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), a scientist who accidentally turned himself into a garbage-loving bug, and Insectosaurus, a 350-foot grub.

When a giant robot is sent to Earth by Gallaxhar, the monsters are called out to save the day. Susan joins in to gain her freedom, since all she wants to do is return to her home in Modesto. But soon Gallaxhar himself, plus his army of cloned selves, arrives to finish the job.

The action scenes are high-spirited and well-staged, and there are a few nice gags here and there. The president (Stephen Colbert), ensconced in his “Dr. Strangelove”-esque bunker, orders his lackeys: “We need our top scientific minds on this. Get me India on the phone!”

But in the end, “Monsters vs. Aliens” is merely a well-done bit of entertainment for kids. Nothing wrong with that – but when your competition is “WALL·E,” it’s a long way to second place.

2.5 stars out of four

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Fried computer

So my computer is five years old, which makes it Methuselah in terms of PCs. I'd been putting off buying a new one, what with the whole being unemployed thing and all, but events conspired against me.

In January I had a serious virus problem. I'd been paying for years of of McAfee virus protection, but I was still using the software that came with my computer, which was out of date. So it wasn't updating properly against any of the new viruses. In effect, my computer had let every little nasty bug in the door for so long, it had overwhelmed the system.

Jean's friend, a computer expert, bravely spent several hours trying to revive the patient, but it was to no avail. I had to do a system restore where I essentially returned the computer to its original state when shipped. This was very time-consuming, as there were several gigabytes of personal documents, e-mail and other stuff to be transferred, plus a gazillion drivers to re-install and so forth.

I make no secret of the fact that I'm an avid video game player. Aside from home office, the top use I get out of my PC is playing games. Mostly it's been World of Warcraft lately. When the latest expansion of it came out a few months ago, I noticed that my computer's performance running the game was markedly worse. Sometimes in crowded areas, my frame rate would drop to literally one.

I wanted to try some of the newer games like Left 4 Dead and Fallout 3, but there was no way my ancient computer could play those at anything other than crawling speed.

Somewhat dubious about Vista, I was determined to get my system to last another year, until the next operating system of Windows comes out. So I'd made some inquiries about what it would cost to upgrade my video card and RAM, and learned it would probably be around $250 or less. I made up my mind.

In fact, I was coming home from lunch with Jean on Wednesday when I thought of stopping off at Frys to see what components would cost me. But I decided not to, because I wanted to fiddle around with some sound editing software I'd downloaded (freeware) for use with my new weekly film podcast with Joe Shearer at TheFilmYap.com.

Without belaboring you with tale of my stupidity, I plugged the wrong cord into my computer and shorted it out. A fearsome crackling noise erupted, and the computer went dead. It started back up OK, but the sound card is fried. It cannot produce or detect sounds from a microphone. And since it's one of those integrated sound cards, it would mean changing out the motherboard to fix it.

In other words, I had just sealed my computer's fate.

Who knows, maybe I secretly desired a spanking new system and impulse guided my hand. I don't think that's the case, but it's possible. For what it would cost to fix and upgrade my computer, I could just buy a new one. So that's what I just did.

I'll probably be spending most of Thursday evening swapping things over, so this will be my last post on my old system. It's been good to me, except for these last few months, so I hate to see her go. Well, not as much as I hated to see the money I spent on a new computer leaving my wallet, but still, auld lang syne and all that...

DVD review: "Quantum of Solace"

It’s one of the better Bond flicks, but after the game-changing debut of Daniel Craig as Agent 007 in “Casino Royale,” “Quantum of Solace” was bound to seem something of a letdown.

Craig’s menacing, decidedly shtick-free take on James Bond still provides plenty of feral energy to the 22nd film in the franchise. And there are some nice character scenes between Craig and Judi Dench as M, where the boss shows some motherly feelings toward her rogue agent. But they seem more like interruptions between the giant action set-pieces.

The plot picks up right where “Casino” ended, with the capture of a member of the nefarious Quantum syndicate responsible for the murder of Bond’s lady love, Vesper. Bond digs further into the shadowy international cabal, even defying his British and U.S. spymasters to continue the hunt. It leads him to the seemingly benevolent Dominic Greene, an environmentalist businessman with plans to take over a South American country’s energy reserves.

Olga Kurylenko makes a memorable impression as Bond girl Camille, with her scars and sultry smile. But French actor Mathieu Amalric just isn’t very intimidating as Greene. In their final showdown, the burly Craig and pipsqueaky Amalric are so mismatched it looks a hobbit taking on an NFL lineman.

The two-disc DVD has a moderate amount of extra features, although it can be a bit repetitive as they use the same material in more than one of the seven featurettes, which total about an hour.

Craig and director Marc Forster are full participants in the extras, with Craig offering that his second Bond shoot was much more physically demanding than the first. One extra provides short clips from literally dozens of crew members, from the cinematographer to the set nurse.

Also included are two trailers and the theme song video with Alicia Keys and Jack White. Sorely missing, though, is a commentary track.

Movie: B
Extras: B-minus

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

May Wynn, meet May Wynn

So I took my own advice and started rereading Herman Wouk's "The Caine Mutiny." Just as fabulous as I remember.

But a short ways into the book, Willie Keith meets his girlfriend -- May Wynn. In my "Reeling Backward" review, that's the name I used for the actress who appears in the movie version. I thought I'd made a mistake, and used the character's name rather than the actress'. So I logged on here to fix it.

Wanna hear something really screwy? The actress' name is May Wynn.

In something that could only happen in Golden Age Hollywood, her name was changed to the name of her character in the movie, which was going to be her big break-out role.

After a little digging, I learned that big-wheel producer Stanley Kramer decided that the name of Donna Lee Hickey just wasn't going to cut it as a movie star. So he had her take the name of her character in the movie!

It does have a nice ring to it, with those two short syllables. Kramer liked it because it was impossible to mispronounce. Plus it has a positive connotation since it sounds like, "May win."

It's actually not the real name of the character, either. When Willie tells her he likes her name, she says, "That's good. It took me a long time to think of it." Turns out her real handle is Marie Minotti, and she's using May Wynn as her stage name.

So let me just lay out this scenario again: A fictional character gives herself a stage name, an actress is hired to play her in the movie, and the studio makes her change her real name to that of the character's made-up name. So May Wynn is a triple-fake name, or something.

Isn't that screwy? Imagine if in 1977 Carrie Fisher was forced to change her name to Princess Leia Organa. Or if Indiana Jones was played by a guy named Han Solo.

Anyway, May Wynn made quite an impression on me in the film, even though it's a small role. We first see her singing in a nightclub wearing this red dress that's really va-voom for the era. She had short, dark hair -- unusual for female stars of the time, long and blonde being the thing in the 1940s and '50s. She actually resembles my mother when she was a youngster ... very Freudian, I know.

Anyway, May's showbiz career was pretty short. She did a bunch of television for a few years after "Caine Mutiny," but Imdb.com lists no credits for her after 1959. She's still alive, reportedly living quietly in California. I'd be very curious to know: Does she still go by the name bestowed on her by a studio honcho 55 years ago?

On short movie stars

A recent comment on my "Caine Mutiny" review got me to thinking about short movie stars.

It's no secret that a lot of male movie stars are on the short side. Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze and Mel Gibson are among those pointed to as being on the smallish side -- beyond guys like Billy Crystal and Michael J. Fox, who are known to be quite little. But actors who portray heroic characters or action-oriented characters often end up being shorter than their oversized personas.

I think there's several things going on with this phenomenon:
  • Most men lie about their height anyway, adding 1/2" to 1". Usually they're giving their height while wearing shoes, or just outright fibbing.
  • For whatever reason, people want to think of heroes as being big guys. The hero myth is not a short guy with a pot belly -- it's tall, lean, nearly always dark-haired (but that's another blog post).
  • When you're dealing with stars and the hype machines studios surrounding them, every little detail of information is controlled. So they'll add an inch or two to a star's bio.
  • Most women, even the most modern, liberated ones, want to look up to their romantic ideal. People think it's funny when the male half of a couple is shorter than the female.
The result is all sorts of efforts to create the illusion that actors are taller than they really are. A lot of them wear special shoes, even when they're not on-set, that add a few inches. Tall extras have a harder time finding work in Hollywood, because smaller ones are preferred to make the stars seem bigger. They will even build platforms for the star to stand on or dig trenches for the co-star to walk in.

I've interviewed a few famous people, but nearly always on the phone. Still, I have a few confirmed celeb height sightings.

In the late 1980s or early 1990s, I ran into Roy Scheider at a movie theater in Orlando. He was filming that SeaQuest show at the time. I had always thought of Scheider as being a tall, rawboned guy -- perhaps because he often seemed to star with pipsqueaks like Dustin Hoffman and Richard Dreyfuss. Anyway, I sat right next to him and when we stood up at the end of the show, I was surprised to be staring him dead in the eye. So he was actually around average height.

I interviewed Haley Joel Osment last year or the year before; he's about 5'6".

Interviewed David Thewlis last fall. He's thin as a beanpole and very tall, probably 6'3"-ish.

Interviewed Phil Collins for the movie "Brother Bear," which he did the music for. He was tiny.

Met David Ogden Stiers while doing story on "Lilo & Stitch" -- huge guy, John Wayne territory.

I think there's also a certain amount of exaggeration going on when it comes to public sightings of movie stars -- in the opposite direction. People will say an actor who's 5'9" is really small, when in fact that's right about average.

Incidentally, when I said that all men lie about their height, I meant myself as well. Except it turns out I was mistaken. I'd always said I was 5'10", when in fact I thought I was 5'9" or 5'9.5". I just hadn't been measured since I was a teen. Anyway, I had a doctor's appointment a few months ago where they measured me, and I came up exactly 70 inches (without shoes). But still, I thought I was shorter than that, so I believed I was lying, even though it turns out I was accurate. So, all men lie about their height.

Guess I'll have to start saying I'm 5'11" or even 6 foot. Why not? The stars do it...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Reeling Backward: "The Caine Mutiny"

Here's an embarrassing revelation: If you'd asked me if I'd ever seen "The Caine Mutiny," I would have told you yes. It's considered one of the more iconic performances of Humphrey Bogart's career, particularly the latter stage. The image of him rolling those ball bearings in his fist while muttering away as the unstable Captain Queeg is indelible, and I know I'd seen clips of it many times.

But shortly after starting up the movie the other day, it became apparent to me that I hadn't seen it all the way through. I think because it's one of those movies that gets replayed on TV a lot, I'd seen snippets of it here and there, and I had sort of absorbed it into my consciousness without ever getting the total experience.

Well, I've rectified that now, and it's a fine movie, and Bogie is indeed great in it, and it's a noble adaptation of Herman Wouk's book, which came out only three years prior to the 1954 movie.

But it's not perfect. And I think I know why: Willie Keith.

In the book, Willie is the central character and the guy through whose eyes we see Queeg. He grows quite a bit as a character, too, going from a pudgy spoiled rich boy to a lean and seasoned Naval officer. But in the movie, he becomes more or less a supporting player.

There's a few scenes of his life off the ship, where he's wooing a nightclub singer (a knockout May Wynn) and dealing with his overbearing mother. But aboard ship, Keith takes a back row to able performers like Bogart, Fred MacMurray and Van Johnson; in the courtroom scenes, Jose Ferrer and E.G. Marshall take center stage. Willie just sort of fades into the background.

Robert Francis' performance as Keith doesn't help; he's bland and unemotional, and looking up his profile on Imdb.com I'm not surprised to see that "Caine" was one of his first, and last, starring roles.

The real dynamic is between Bogart, Johnson and MacMurray, with the former playing the righteous but dimwitted executive officer who relieves Queeg of his command, and the latter as the clever but week-kneed communications officer who goads him into doing it.

I was intrigued by how physically small Bogart appears in the movie compared to the other actors. It is not uncommon for male movie stars to be short, but there are a whole host of tricks filmmakers use to hide this (such as: hiring short extras, putting the star in lift shoes, or putting him on hidden platforms or runways, or shooting him from a low angle so he seems to loom). It seems like a conscious decision was made to have him appear small. According to a little Web research, Bogart was on the low end of average height, 5'8", while both Van Johnson and Fred MacMurray were a few inches over 6 foot. Perhaps because Queeg is the villain of the piece, having him appear small adds to the conniving portrayal. Queeg has a furtive, almost rat-like quality to him.

I enjoyed "The Caine Mutiny" very much while recognizing its flaws. Mostly, it makes me want to re-read Herman Wouk's great book.

UPDATE: While researching May Wynn's history, I learn the reason that Robert Francis didn't have a long career is that he died in a plane crash in 1955 at age 25.

Monday, March 23, 2009

New review this week: "Aliens vs. Monsters"

The new film being reviewed this week will be "Aliens vs. Monsters," the new animated film from DreamWorks. They've been nipping at Pixar's heels for several years now -- are they ready to take the mantle of king of cartoons?

The DVD review will be "Quantum of Solace," the 22nd James Bond flick.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Catching up with "Taken"

"Taken" has been out for awhile now. It was released with little hype or advertising in the midst of a historically slow time at the box office, starring Liam Neeson, who's a well-respected actor but not exactly a huge star. And it's become the sleeper hit of 2009 -- nearly $130 million as of this writing. So I figured I had to see it.

It's a solid thriller, with Neeson as a retired CIA agent who goes after the kidnappers who grabbed his teen daughter while she was vacationing in Paris. Nothing terribly original, of course, as we've seen movies before about fathers who go after their child's kidnappers ("Ransom") and too many flicks about ex-spooks to count. But it's executed with a spare, intense style that reminded me very much of the '90s film "Ronin" starring Robert De Niro.

What makes it effective as a piece of fiction is Neeson's character. While fantastically skilled with the usual array of superspy abilities -- shooting, hand-to-hand combat, adroitness with gizmos -- there is absolutely no ego about him. He does not revel in killing in any way. It's simply the job to him, one he has grown very good at, but which he executes in the same way as any skilled craftsmen. He does not love his work, even though he's one of the best there is at it.

There's a great scene where Neeson talks on the phone with his daughter's kidnappers, and he slowly and calmly explains to them that he has the means and the will to find them and make them pay for what they've done. He offers them the chance to just let her go, and he'll forget it. Of course, they don't, so soon he's on the hunt.

The action scenes are staged very well by French director Pierre Morel in only his second time at the helm (he's been a cameraman and cinematography until recently). There's plenty of kinetic motion and fast editing without getting the action all jumbled up into a confusing mess (i.e., the last two Jason Bourne movies).

"Taken" isn't anything new, but it's a familiar form done very well. It deserves its success.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Time to Yap

Two heads are better than one, they say, so two critics should have a more resonant voice than solo.

That's the idea behind The Film Yap, a new Web site debuting today that is a partnership between Indy.com critic Joe Shearer and myself.

Visit it at www.thefilmyap.com.

Before you ask: No, Captain Critic is not going away. The Film Yap will feature reviews of new movies and DVDs that first appear here. Joe will also share some of his writings on our joint site.

But we also plan to produce plenty of original content specifically for The Yap. We've already recorded our first podcast, which we hope to make a weekly feature, which should be up soon. We're still populating the site, but there's already plenty up for you to read now.

In addition, we'll have interviews with notable film folks, ruminations on various topics related to movies, and hopefully plenty of feedback (i.e. yap) from our viewers.

We're really excited about this new partnership, so please visit the new site as well as CaptainCritic.blogspot.com.

Review: "Knowing"

Since winning a Best Actor Oscar 13 years ago, Nicolas Cage has been perhaps the strictest adherent to the “One for me, one for them” school of choosing roles. He’ll do a small, serious film for artistic reasons, like starring in Martin Scorsese’s “Bringing Out the Dead,” and then immediately follow it with a crassly commercial bit of tripe.

I don’t know if it’s cynical, but it’s good way for a star to retain his box office clout while also finding time for more personal projects that don’t generate much heat at the ticket booth. It’s led to some wonderful, offbeat performances in quirky movies that few people saw – go rent “The Weather Man” or “Matchstick Men” for two finer examples – sandwiched in between some absolute bubble-gum dreck: “Ghost Rider,” those “National Treasure” flicks.

After watching “Knowing,” I honestly don’t know which category it falls into.

At first blush, it certainly seems to be a small, intense thriller about a scientist who encounters some disturbing numbers that appear to predict the future. But it builds and builds upon itself, the events taking upon a broader and broader sphere of impact, until the movie reaches juggernaut proportions, with some huge action set-pieces straight out of a summer blockbuster.

The final act may leave some audience members feeling cheated, but I thought director Alex Proyas (“Dark City”) and his quartet of screenwriters earned the outsized ending, slowly and painstakingly ratcheting up the pressure, and the mystery.

Cage plays John Koestler, an M.I.T. scientist who’s raising his son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) after the death of his wife. They live in a huge house that was once grand but is deteriorating under their feet. Things seem OK on the surface, but underneath there’s a dry rot to their relationship, too.

The mystery begins when a 50-year-old time capsule is opened at Caleb’s school. All the other kids got a picture drawn by a student from 1959, but Caleb received a page filled with numbers written by a disturbed little girl. John gets hold of the numbers and figures out they indicate the date of every major accident or tragedy over the last five decades, complete with the number of people killed.

Of course, there’s several more dates that have yet to happen, so it’s up to John to try to outpace these prognostications of doom. He tracks down the daughter of the girl who wrote the numbers (Rose Byrne), who has a child of her own. Meanwhile, creepy blonde guys in black overcoats turn up, menacing the children and leaving little black rocks as totems.

“Knowing” veers back and forth between some wonderful moments of tension and menace, but whenever they have to stop and have a long dialogue scene where John puzzles things out, the movie crashes to earth.

Proyas is a great visionary for mood and visuals, but when it comes to the meat-and-potatoes work of moving the plot from point A to B, his direction turns pedestrian. I kept wanting the overcoat guys to show up again to get things back to spooky.

I can’t tell you much about the last half of the movie, since its appeal lies in taking you to unexpected places. Suffice to say that some of it truly is unexpected, and some of it we’ve seen a dozen times before. With “Knowing,” you never quite know what you’re going to get.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Richard Propes joins the IFJA

I'm pleased to announce that the Indianapolis Film Journalists Association has added a new member, Richard Propes.

Richard is an independent critic -- literally. He runs the Web site, www.theindependentcritic.com. I encourage you to swing by there and check out his work.

He was voted in last week by our six inauguaral members, bringing us up to seven. The IFJA is a new group of newspaper, broadcast and Internet critics dedicated to promoting quality film in the Hoosier State. Our hope is that our collective muscle will get the studios to bring more screenings here. We also plan to give out awards at the end of the year.

Welcome, Richard!

DVD review: "Twilight"

“Twilight” is one of those movies that lives better on the page than the screen. Stephanie Meyer’s novel about a teenager who falls in love with a vampire was not exactly literature, but it was a fast-paced, fun read that got tween girls’ hearts going pitter-patter.

Despite a solid performance by Robert Pattinson as immortal Edward Cullen, the tortured heartthrob who’s forever 17, the movie is a mostly bloodless affair. It’s great-looking as directed by Catherine Hardwicke, and Melissa Rosenberg’s screenplay was extremely faithful to the novel (perhaps too much). But Bella, the protagonist who returns to her childhood home in the perpetually rainy town of Forks, is simply too passive a character to anchor a movie. She has little to do except wait for Edward to turn up again and do something amazing, like leap through trees at bullet speed or stop a careening van with one hand. Kristen Stewart’s glum, vacant performance doesn’t help.

Luckily for the movie’s teeming legions of female fans, the two-disc DVD comes packed with enough extras to keep them entertained for hours. It will be released Friday at midnight.
There’s the usual theatrical trailers and other promotional material, like a Q&A between the cast and fans at Comic-Con, plus three music videos by bands whose songs appear in the movie.

There’s a decent hour-long making-of documentary that shows how Hardwicke eschewed computerized imagery to film as much live action as possible, plus quite a raft of deleted and extended scenes.

Hardwicke, Pattinson and Stewart also team up to do a feature-length commentary track. It’s a pretty giggly affair, as Hardwicke coos warmly over her young stars, and Pattinson repeatedly remarks on vital topics like how much they had to pluck his eyebrows. A few interesting tidbits emerge, such as the fact that a then-17 Stewart attended classes in the same high school where they shot the film.

Disappointingly, there’s no mention of Hardwicke’s very public split from the sequel, which was announced shortly after “Twilight” came out. DVD extras isn’t the place to air dirty laundry, apparently.

Movie: C-minus
Extras: B-plus

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Spellbound"

I found another Alfred Hitchcock movie I don't like.

Few, if any, Hollywood directors were as productive and consistently good as Hitchcock. From the time he started making pictures in the U.S. in 1935 until his last big hit in 1964, he directed 37 films, while starting up an important television franchise, too. It's simply astonishing how many classics came out of that three-decade period: "Psycho," "North by Northwest," "Vertigo," "To Catch a Thief," "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "Lifeboat," "Notorious," "Strangers on a Train," "Rear Window" -- it goes on and on.

But Hitch also made some clunkers, although a lot of people are reluctant to admit it. I never cared for "The Birds," which its silly plot about killer pigeons, and "Marnie" is absolutely laughable.

I'd never seen "Spellbound," which is considered to be one of his major works, until recently. And it was a real let-down.

There's the approach to psychoanalysis that's absurdly simplistic -- all you have to do is get the patient to remember their repressed memories, and voila! No more crazy.

Add to that the cliche of a man and woman meeting and immediately falling in love. Especially Ingrid Bergman as a cold, calculating psychiatrist who's willing to pitch her entire career and go on the lam with a man she's only just met, while he was posing as the new head of the clinic where she works. Turns out he's an impostor with amnesia who believes he killed the doctor he replaced.

So, here are the facts:
  1. He's nuts. And maybe a murderer.
  2. In the course of 24 hours, she falls in love with him enough to ignore point #1.
  3. They run away together, her theory being to cure him before the police capture them.
Not exactly brainiac behavior, and her character is supposed to be super-smart.

Also, "Spellbound" contains bar none the worst fake skiing scene in cinematic history. They're careening down a mountain together, going really really fast. The long shots of the stunt doubles look like they're going down a 45-degree grade at least 30 mph. But in the close-ups, their bodies stay perfectly smooth, never jostling up and down or side to side. They look like two people standing on an escalator.

I've never gone in for a lot of feminist film theory, but I have to say the much-touted misogyny of Hitchcock is on full display here. Every single male character makes some kind of cutting remark about Ingrid Bergman in particular and the female gender in general. "There's nothing I can't stand more than a smug woman!" "Women make the best psychoanalysts ... until they fall in love. Then they make the best patients!" "Listen to yourself, it's baby talk!"

Obviously he got a lot better, but in one of his first film roles, Gregory Peck is just cringe-worthy. I lost count of the number of times he swooned. I think Peck prepared for this role by practicing to faint without hurting himself. Then he comes out of his spell, flashes a big smile and pours on the showbiz charm. Granted, the character is supposed to be crazy, but did he have to be so smarmy?

Hitchcock is deified more than just about any other American film director, and deservedly so. But let's not blind ourselves to the fact that amidst all those great films, he made some flicks like "Spellbound" that are worthy of ridicule.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Reflections on Gary Cooper, the naif

I've been watching a few old Gary Cooper movies lately, and I was struck by the fact that the roles are so similar. They say the definition of a movie star is an actor who always plays himself, and in that regard Cooper was the quintessential star.

In "Pride of the Yankees," "Sergeant York," "Meet John Doe," "High Noon" and other roles, Cooper always seems to be playing the country bumpkin or otherwise naive character. He gets manipulated and roped into bad things by scheming folks. Even in "High Noon" where he plays a sheriff who's essentially abandoned by the townfolk to a crew of gunmen soon to arrive, there's an almost childlike innocence to the role. With his big, puppy-dog eyes and rangy frame, Cooper resembled a Labrador who was genuinely hurt when he got kicked.

Cooper was one of the few actors who segued seamlessly from silent to sound pictures, although he was mostly a bit player before the talkies came around. His slow line readings and pauses add to his persona as an innocent -- a common sight in all his movies is of Cooper, silent or stammering, his eyes churning as he tries to think of something to say. I don't mean to say that Cooper always played idiots, but his forte seemed to be unsophisticated, simple men who are easily swayed, but with a core set of values in the bedrock of their souls.

Watching "Sergeant York" the other day, I was surprised by how little fighting there is in what is ostensibly a war picture. Most of the Howard Hawkes-directed picture is set in the hills of Tennessee as York evolves from a hard-drinking troublemaker into an upstanding Bible-thumper who initially tries to get out of the World War I draft because of his religious beliefs. Of the 135 minutes of running time, only perhaps 15 deal with actual combat.

According to some accounts, the real Alvin York refused to authorize a movie version of his life unless Gary Cooper was the actor who would portray him.

It's interesting to think about the big male stars of that era, and how they each had such tightly-defined star personas. John Wayne was the big tough cowboy or soldier; Jimmy Stewart was the tenacious, excitable do-gooder; Cary Grant was the sophisticated rogue; and Gary Cooper was the naif. One wonders: Did these profiles emerge from their roles, or were studio honchos actively pushing them into them?

Monday, March 16, 2009

It's amazing how busy you can stay when you're unemployed

It's pretty astonishing how busy you can keep yourself despite not having a job.

Today is a pretty good example of how one can keep moving without ever really getting bored. Thought maybe some people would be interested or amused by the itinerary of an unemployed journalist.

8 a.m. -- See Jean off to work, then shower up. Spend some time reading the paper, stopping in at a few web sites I visit daily (several journalism job sites are on that list, of course).

9 a.m. -- Update my blog, including writing Tuesday's entry on Gary Cooper. I also do a few last editing tweaks on a museum exhibit review piece I'm doing for a national magazine, and turn that in.

10:30 a.m. -- Not for the first time, check my doorstep to see if my DVD of "Twilight" has arrived. Since I've gotten in to the video review gig, I've learned that most companies send their review copies out to press pretty early. (I already have the rest of March's DVDs and a couple for April.) But "Twilight" is late. The review is due Tuesday, so I have some time. But, interestingly enough, if a DVD has a lot of extras, it takes a lot longer to do the review than reviewing a new film. If they've got 10 hours of extras, it becomes quite time-consuming.

10:35 a.m. -- I update the fact that I'm waiting for my Twilight DVD on Facebook, and a colleague critic comments that he received his copy last week. Great.

11 a.m. -- Still no DVD. I have a backup lined up: "Punisher: War Zone." I really would prefer to review Twilight, for personal reasons of course, but also because it's the big video release of the week. Since I only review one a week, it makes sense to hit the biggest.

11:15 a.m. -- Time for some food. I don't eat breakfast, except rarely, because my stomach just doesn't like food first thing when I wake up. But I love breakfast food, so scrambled eggs and hash browns are just the thing for lunch. Mm-mmm.

11:30 a.m. -- I communicate with a colleague via e-mail about a project we're working on together. Something will be announced soon. Shhhh.

11:45 a.m. -- Time for some yard work. I get out the Toro leaf blower and get our large back deck (mostly) cleared of old leaves and junk. A strange white dog comes up our driveway to say hello to Sterling the wonder poodle, but then thinks better of it and turns around.

12:45 p.m. -- Success! "Twilight" has arrived. Unfortunately, it has an absolute ton of extra material -- deleted scenes, music videos, a making-of documentary, and a feature-length commentary track. Why couldn't it be like "Australia," which had two deleted scenes and that's it?

5:50 p.m. -- Finished watching "Twilight" DVD and extras. I skimmed through the music videos and some of the trailers. But I feel obligated to experience all the real extra material -- how can one be a real critic if you cut corners? I should mention that Sterling went into hyperactive barking fits every 20 minutes or so. I try Jean's suggestion of picking him up and holding him, but it doesn't work. I have to stop and back up the commentary track several times. Also, somewhere in here I nuke some leftovers for dinner.

6:30 p.m. -- Finish writing DVD review (I'm a fast writer -- 15 years of newspaper deadlines will do that to you). Communicate with friend over some glasses I may have left at her house while watching her kitties over the weekend.

6:40 p.m. -- Write this blog post. Also talk to Jean on phone; she's going to spin class so I won't see her till late.

6:50 p.m. -- (I'm writing in future tense now, since I haven't done this stuff yet.) Leave for screening of movie "Knowing." It's sunny and nice out; think I'll take the Mustang. I filled it up with high test for 28 bucks yesterday, so I don't feel bad about burning up the road at 14 m.p.g. or so. Plus, the screening's at AMC Castleton, so there's a large parking lot where I can park it far away from the other cars and their evil swinging doors.

7:30-9:30 p.m. -- Watch "Knowing." Hopefully they'll start it right on time; I hate when they have promotional people doing little spiels that push things later. Some of us are working here, folks!

10 p.m. -- Arrive home; time to start writing review. I try to take my time with reviews, since it's a lot harder than straight news writing. But even a rush job will take me an hour at least. Two hours is not unusual. I'd like to have three, but after midnight my mind will be mush.

So that's about 16 hours, give or take, of reading, writing, watching and blogging. Except for the lack of a weekly paycheck, it's even more exhausting than working!

New review this week: "Knowing"

The Nicolas Cage drama opens on Friday, and I'll have a review for you then. Since it's about precognition, does anyone out there already know what kind of review I'll give?

For the DVD review, I'll have either "Twilight" or "Punisher: War Zone," depending on which arrives in time.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Review: "The Class"

There is a long and noble cinematic tradition of inspiring movies about heroic teachers who take a gaggle of troublesome students and steer them onto the path of greatness.

“The Class” is not one of them.

To be sure, this French drama – which was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and won the Palm d’Or at Cannes – takes place almost entirely in a classroom populated by an array of 14- and 15-year-olds with varying degrees of smarts and sass. And there’s a young, handsome teacher who clearly would like to bring out the best in them. But that doesn’t always happen.

The film is shot by director Laurent Cantet in a loose documentary style that makes you believe all this is unfolding naturally before your eyes. That’s not an accident, because the teacher, Mr. Marin, is played by François Bégaudeau, a real teacher who wrote the book on which the movie is based about his own experiences teaching at an inner-city Parisian school. And, in most cases, non-actors using their real names play the students.

The story unfolds organically over the course of a school year in a French language class. At first, Marin’s attention focuses on one or two students, but over time they recede into the background and other students come to the fore.

Khoumba, a girl that Marin had in last year’s class, has suddenly grown insolent, challenging the teacher and refusing to read when called upon. Their confrontation leads to a stand-off in which they essentially refuse to speak to each other, and the learning process ceases for her.

Later, the attention of the class, and “The Class,” shifts to Souleymane, the tall boy who sits in the back and won’t do any work. For a moment there’s a glimmer of hope, as Marin encourages Souleymane to use a collage of photos of his family to substitute for the self-portrait he has refused to write. When the teacher congratulates him and hangs the pictures up for everyone to admire, the boy thinks a joke is being played on him, so unused is he to praise.

Soon, though, his bombastic behavior contributes to an unfortunate incident that results in serious repercussions for student and teacher.

Many of the students are from immigrant families, and the clashes, both between class and instructor and between students, often take on a multicultural bent. For instance, the students (accurately) accuse Marin of only using traditional French (i.e., Caucasian) names when demonstrating proper grammar.

It’s a brave performance by Bégaudeau, since he’s essentially playing himself, and as a teacher he is well-meaning but leaves a lot to be desired. In attempting to relate to his students in order to help them learn, he ends up engaging them one-on-one in verbal combat. It’s understandable, since 15-year-olds are pretty much genetically designed to push a grown-up’s buttons. Ironically, it’s in trying to be their friends that Marin most often treads into becoming their tormentor.

The portrait of French public education is also fascinating, and perhaps encouraging to those who think American schools are the root of Western decay. We see behind closed doors as the teachers bluntly evaluate a student’s prospects and degenerate into petty bureaucracies – at one point, a discussion over the price of coffee in the teacher’s lounge overshadows one about a troublesome student.

This exquisite and sobering look into a Parisian school will inspire and demoralize anyone who has ever stood in front of a classroom, or sat in one. Most teachers genuinely want to help their students learn, though their execution is often imperfect and even can make matters worse. That’s the lesson of “The Class.”

3.5 stars out of four

Review: "Race to Witch Mountain"

I’m guessing nobody arrives in Hollywood looking to make their mark and thinks, “My big dream is to do the remake of a modestly successful kid’s action flick from 30-odd years ago.”

OK, so “Race to Witch Mountain” ain’t David Lean. But this aliens-as-teenagers romp sets such low expectations for itself, you almost feel a little pity for it. Not as sorry as for anyone over the age of 12 who has to sit through it, of course.

This remake of 1975’s “Escape to Witch Mountain” is made (barely) passable by the presence of Dwayne Johnson, the former wrestler who’s morphed into a family-friendly Disney action star. Once it became clear that he wasn’t content to be another musclehead ultra-violent action star a la Schwarzenegger or Stallone, Johnson drifted to more comedic and offbeat roles, like a gay bodyguard in “Be Cool.” He has a natural easygoing charisma, and his willingness to engage in wholesale self-mockery helps an audience take a shine to him.

Of course, when you’re six-and-a-half feet tall and built like the former pro defensive tackle he is, Johnson can’t be cast in dweeb roles. (I doubt he and Johnny Depp are competing for parts.) So in “Race,” he plays a tough ex-con who drives a taxi in Las Vegas. Then the siblings from outer space jump into his cab, and we’re off to the races.

And this movie is one big long race. There’s car crashes, fist fights and plenty of explosions, although nothing remotely disturbing. I suppose the blend of non-bloody action and winsome kids with super-powers will appeal to the wee set. But for their parents, it quickly becomes a tedious circle of tired stunts.

The alien duo are played by AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig, in hyper-bright blonde hairdos. They talk in funny perfect English – “We require the transportation services of your vehicle” – but are childlike enough to pick up a stray dog along the way for no good reason at all. (I can just hear a producer giving the screenwriters notes: “Hey, kids like dogs. Can we give them a pooch?”)

The girl alien, Sara, can levitate stuff and read minds, while her brother Seth can walk through doors by changing his molecules around. They’re here on Earth to bring back clues about how to solve their own environmental problems; otherwise, the aliens are going to invade and conquer the humans. They have to get back to their planet in time to save this one.

Carla Gugino shows up as a UFO expert who’s the only one who will believe these Mentos-fresh teens are really from outer space – and to make moony eyes at Johnson, of course, with Sara as the mind-reading matchmaker. “She thinks you’re very handsome … and smarter than you think you are.”

Of course, there’s a nefarious government stooge (Cirian Hinds) out to capture the extra-terrestrials and turn them into a junior high dissection experiment. In scenes that are becoming overly familiar at the movies now, the feds ride around in black SUVs and use computers to seemingly track the movement of every person on earth, all the time.

The other heavy is an alien assassin sent to prevent the kids from accomplishing their mission. He has creepy black armor and laser blasters on his wrists and looks really ugly without his mask, and is pretty much a total rip-off of the dude from “Predator.”

“Race to Witch Mountain” is harmless fare – fun for kids, blandly entertaining, not violent enough to get worked up about. But is it really necessary?

2 stars out of four

Thursday, March 12, 2009

More newspaper layoffs: 50 in Miami Herald newsroom, 4 features writers

There's a list going around of the 50 journalists who lost their jobs at the Miami Herald today in the latest whackety-whack that is to today's newspaper industry what the sound of the teletype was a generation ago.

You'll notice that there are four features reporters' names on it. I counted one business reporter and one sportswriter, and a couple of bureau reporters.

Sadly, this proportion seems to echo what's happening when newspapers make cuts: Features writers are always the first to go, and always the department hit hardest. Even though features is generally one of the smallest departments at any paper, a majority of the reporting jobs lost usually come from there.

When they laid off 20 of us from the newsroom of the Indy Star in December, nearly one-third of the bodies were from the features department (or, using the term employed by senior managers and no one else, the "My Life" department). Four reporters, a copy editor and a page designer lost their jobs. (Technically, the designer was part of the visuals department, but she worked full-time on features products.)

No sportwriters, business writers or any metro reporters were laid off. After features, the department hardest hit was the Northside bureau. If you look at the sort of things they write about in the North tabloid, you'll see that it looks more like a features section than a metro section.

It's depressing that features is always at the bottom of the totem pole, everywhere you go. I spent the first half of my career on the "hard news" side, so I saw first-hand how devalued folks on the "soft news" side were (starting with that term.)

Traditionally, features was where the best writers (i.e., wordsmiths) in the newsroom gravitated. It was the place where they tried to do real storytelling, serious coverage (including criticism) of the arts, and essentially breathe some life into the paper. Yes, there was often some silly and frivolous stuff in the features section, but it balanced out the more sobering (especially these days) timbre of the rest of the paper.

Features is, if you will, the dessert of a satisfying newspaper meal. It should be the part you really want to read, as opposed to the stuff you feel you must read to be a well-informed citizen.

But, when push comes to shove, and dollars turn into cents, newsroom managers in Indianapolis and Miami, and everywhere, always turn to the features department first. Always it was, and always it shall be...

DVD review: "Milk"

Sean Penn is just amazing in “Milk,” playing Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician elected to public office. What’s most incredible about his Oscar-winning performance is that it’s so different from anything he’s ever done before. Harvey Milk could fire up crowds in his call for gay rights, but he was not an angry man trying to buck the system. He was cunning and charismatic and delighted in co-opting the political machine, so that’s how Penn plays him: a subtle charmer.

Director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black do a great job of showing Harvey’s political ascent – the scenes of Milk and his partner Scott (James Franco) building a political movement out of their Castro Street camera shop breathe with an organic authenticity, helped by an impressive array of supporting actors. The film is less successful at portraying Milk’s personal life; his relationship with a flighty Latino boyfriend is so underwritten as to become comical.

There’s a decent array of extra features on the DVD, but it’s notable for the total absence of participation by Van Sant and Penn. Although both are glimpsed in the bonus material, they never speak directly about making this movie, and there’s no commentary track. Three brief deleted scenes add little, though one where Milk dresses up as a clown for a publicity stunt is visually arresting.

Of the three featurettes, the best is “Remembering Harvey,” a 13-minute documentary in which many of Milk’s real-life allies depicted in the movie, including Cleve Jones and Anne Kronenberg, reminisce about the man and his legacy. Carol Ruth Silver, who co-sponsored Milk’s anti-discrimination legislation, starkly admits his death helped the gay rights movement: “It’s a sad thing to say, but martyrdom works.”

A 14-minute doc, “Hollywood Comes to San Francisco,” consists of the usual blather and self-hype from the actors and filmmakers; Josh Brolin lets us know that he think Milk’s sacrifices were akin to those of “Jesus, and Gandhi.” Well.

Movie: B-plus
Extras: C-plus

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A note to my Facebook friends

I've decided to stop pasting the first portion of posts here onto my Facebook page. From now on, I'll only link the blog post and describe what it is.

The reasons are simple: I want to drive page views and, especially, comments to this forum. Too often, people are reading only the small portion I put on Facebook, and leaving any comments there.

I need the traffic, and Facebook doesn't.

Facebook surfers will still be able to swing over here to read the newest blog posts; you'll just have to click the link to do so.

Reeling Backward: "Au Revoir les enfants"

"Au Revoir les enfants" is one of those modern foreign films that I'd been aware of since it came out in 1987, but never got around to seeing. Jay Boyar, the critic who I grew up reading in the Orlando Sentinel, often cited it as his favorite film of all time. I can see why.

This masterpiece -- for that's what it is -- by the great French director Louis Malle tells the story of two boys of about 13 years at a boarding school during World War II. One is an upper-class boy, smart and self-centered. The other is a Jew hiding out from the Nazis under an assumed identity.

Most of the boys at the school come from rich families, and resent being sent out of Paris by their parents to the squalid school run by clergymen. They delight in trading sexual insults and tormenting Joseph, the poor boy who works in the kitchen and dabbles in black market trade with the schoolboys.

Julien is the top student in his class, very bright and inherently decent, but plagued by the self-doubts and the tendency toward bravado of boys that age. "Intelligent, but pretentious" the teacher writes on his essay, seemingly describing the boy himself.

Into this jungle of adolescent angst enters Bonnet, a new student who's at least as smart as Julien, but more considerate. He can even play the piano well for the pretty female teacher who is the object of lust for every male in the school (played by a very young Irene Jacob).

Julien and Bonnet start out as antagonists, but slowly, gradually form a bond that's irrevocable. Malle (who also wrote the screenplay) perfectly captures the nature of boyhood friendship -- the mix of competition, put-downs and other devices they use to hide any notion of sensitivity, and hence (in their minds) weakness. At one point, they have a knock-down fight in the schoolyard, and a little while later Julien is inviting Bonnet, who is poor, to have dinner with his visiting mother. One suspects that the fight was merely cover for an overt act of kindness.

The Nazi machine eventually descends on the school, setting the boys at odds and causing fear to race through the faculty.

"Les Enfants" was nominated for two Oscars, Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay. Beyond a moving drama, it's a spot-on document of occupied France and the relationship between boys on the verge of becoming men.

I do admit that the film seems a little dated today, if only because there have subsequently been so many movies to explore the Holocaust from the perspective of children, or the plight of Jews hiding out from the Nazis. Just within the last few months, I've seen "The Piano" (again) and "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas." So watching "Les Enfants" right after, I observed the strings of similar themes being plucked again. Of course, Malle's film predated those others by 15 or 20 years, so the criticism is muted by circumstance.

In looking up their resumes on Imdb.com, I was disappointed to learn that the two actors who did such wonderful jobs as Julien and Bonnet, Gaspard Manesse and Raphel Fejito, essentially ended their performing careers with this film.

I hope people have been enjoying the "Reeling Backward" feature -- I've tried to do at least one a week. I'm watching a lot of old movies these days (I also saw "On Golden Pond" and "Run Silent, Run Deep" over the weekend), so there's plenty of source material to choose from. No matter how many movies you watch, there are always hundreds or thousands more to be seen.

The cinematic past is like a treasure chest that never empties.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Reflections on the Seattle P-I

Even as you're reading this, they may have already announced the closing down of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The Hearst-owned daily had been put up for sale with a deadline of 60 days, with pretty much the full knowledge that no buyer would come forward.

I feel bad for all the fine journalists there who are about to lose their jobs, as I did for all the folks at the Rocky Mountain News, which also folded recently. The San-Francisco Chronicle and Tuscon Citizen are also in danger of going under.

The PI has special significance for me, though, in that for a number of years I'd hoped to work there. Some years ago I went to a features journalism conference, and a senior editor from the PI (I won't say who) approached to tell me that they had been one of the judges in the arts criticism contest that I had won, and how impressed they were with my stuff.

I can't begin to tell you what this meant to me, personally and professionally. I was doing fine work at a smaller paper, but I felt like I was stuck playing Triple-A ball, so to speak. To have a big-city metro editor tell me I had the goods ... well, I was over the moon.

Anyway, we kept in touch and there was some fairly serious talk for awhile about becoming film critic there, although it never materialized. Movie critic Bill Arnold has kept the torch burning there until the PI's demise.

So it's ironic for me to think about. Here I am, having moved to Indianapolis nearly four years ago without knowing a soul here, now happily married and part of the community but laid off from the Star. If the sands of fate had shifted but a little, I could be in Seattle waiting for my paper to close its doors. Either way, it's sobering and it's sad.

Monday, March 9, 2009

New review(s) this week: "Race to Witch Mountain" and also "The Class"

I'll have a review of "Race to Witch Mountain," a reboot of the Disney classic from the '70s starring Dwayne Johnson (I don't think he's going by "The Rock" anymore). I may also have one of "The Class," the French nominee for Best Foreign Language Oscar last year.

The DVD review will be of "Milk."

In case anyone's wondering if the screening situation has gotten any better: It has, but not by much. The studios seem to be lining up screenings for most of the upcoming big stuff, but a lot of smaller releases are falling by the wayside.

Update: "The Class" review is a definite.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Have pets, will work (or try to)

It may sound silly, but the biggest challenge I've had since I've been working from home is dealing with pets.

We have three cats and a dog, and usually they're quite joyful to take care of. The cats pretty much do their thing, and now that it's getting a little warmer (65 today!) they're going outside more. Even Sterling, our surgically-repaired pup, had been used to being left alone all day long before Jean and I got married.

Well, they seem to go buggo during the daytime. Sterling barks and barks and barks at the mailman, passing trucks, or his own imagined tormentors. I was doing a phone interview with a freelance client in January and the dog went off so loudly the guy stopped talking and made a quip about "this interview going to the dogs."

The cats have their own set of challenges. Most people's cats are distant and aloof, staying hidden for hours or days at a time, never paying their masters any mind unless it's feeding time. I wish I had this problem. Our cats are affectionate -- too affectionate, if you can believe there is such a thing.

They simply want to be at the center of things all the time. They want to be petted and fed scraps and otherwise catered to. Half the time when I'm blogging, I'm doing it with a feline curled up on my lap, or trying to type even though I can't see the screen because somebody is pacing back and forth on my desk.

When I worked at the Star, I occasionally worked from home, but it wasn't really my bag. I like going into an office every day and interacting with other folks. At least the kind with only two legs...

Friday, March 6, 2009

Review: "Watchmen"

I loved this movie, but I’m not sure if you will.

That’s the most honest review I can give of the film version of “Watchmen,” which to the hardcore geekarati (like me) is the Holy Grail of comic books. Probably most people have never heard of it. But to its small army of fans, the 1986 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons represents the pinnacle of art in a medium generally dismissed as pulp confection.

Hollywood has tried and failed for years to turn out a movie translation, until now. Director Zach Snyder (who co-write the script with Alex Tse) delivers a stunning and bold vision that will in all likelihood enthrall those familiar with the graphic novel, but has an equal chance to leave non-fans mystified.

This is, after all, the super-hero comic book that subverts every tradition of the costumed hero. Set in an alternate reality of 1985 where Richard Nixon is still president and nuclear war with the Soviet Union looms, this is a world in which only one hero actually has super-powers. And the blue-skinned, all-powerful Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) strolls around naked and seems more interested in tachyons than the lives or deaths of petty humans.

Most of the “heroes” are psychological messes, like the repressed Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), or outright mental cases, like Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), who walks around beneath a mask of shifting ink blots, and preys upon the criminal underworld like a rabid redeemer.

Rorschach is obsessed with punishing the wicked; helping the defenseless is just a casual by-product. He makes the Dark Knight look cuddly.

As the story opens, an older crime fighter named the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has been murdered. The Comedian was the punch line and perpetrator of his own sick joke: He happily killed and maimed in the name of justice, whether as a costumed vigilante or pawn of the American military. Once they had served out their usefulness, though, the government outlawed super-heroes like him.

Rorschach suspects someone is offing costumed heroes, and sets about to warn his old comrades.
Most are living quietly in retirement, like Nite Owl, puttering around in his basement of super-gadgets gathering dust, and don’t want to be bothered. Dr. Manhattan is so consumed with his energy experiments that he barely acknowledges the existence of his girlfriend, Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman). Laurie is a former super-hero herself, although she only did it to follow in the footsteps of her mom, one of the original crime fighters. And Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) seems most interested in cashing in on his colorful career to build his conglomerate empire.

Without belaboring the intricate details of the plot, suffice to say that events build far beyond the concerns of a few middle-aged has-beens to the imminent destruction of all mankind.

Snyder, as he did in translating Frank Miller’s “300” to the screen, faithfully (almost obsessively) mirrors the look of the comic – right down to the gruesome, blood-spurting violence that earned “Watchmen” its very deserved R rating.

The biggest problem in putting the static novel into motion is the ensemble cast: Six main characters, each with their own layered personas and backstories. Even if the movie ran beyond its already considerable length, it would be hard to prevent some of the heroes, such as Nite Owl, from receding into the background.

And some of Snyder and Tse’s attempts to spin in topical references, such as our reliance on fossil fuels, feel forced.

The one unmitigated triumph is Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach – all of the character’s mesmerizing, disturbing black-and-white code of justice is right there on the screen. (Haley even got the “hurm” right … fanboys will know what I mean.)

My guess is that “Watchmen” will polarize audiences and critics to an even greater degree than “300” did. Some people reading this are going to hate it. Others will be thrilled to see the vision of their beloved comic book breathed to cinematic life. It all depends on from where you’re watching.

3.5 stars out of four

Review: "Che"

There are many things I could have expected from a movie about Ernesto "Che" Guevara. It could have been exhilarating, a portrait of a heroic revolutionary figure who has become an icon all over the world more than 40 years after his death. It could have been exasperating, a non-critical whitewash of a man personally responsible for dozens of murders and an avowed Marxist enemy of the U.S. It could have been some mix of these, showing the light and dark in the man, the contradictions and hypocrisy. It could have been about how his name became legend, the way history and hype get twisted together.

What I could have never expected from "Che" is what it is: Boring.

I mean really, really boring. Stultifyingly dull. Get-up-and-walk-out boring. Truly, deeply uninteresting.

Director Steven Soderbergh and his co-screenwriter Peter Buchman have made a movie -- actually, two movies -- about the life of Che that diminish Guevara to a field commander in a never-ending jungle rebellion. Benicio Del Toro makes a valiant attempt to breathe life into the controversial historical figure. But instead of showing the ideas that illuminated Che's successful revolution in Cuba with Fidel Castro, and his failed one in Bolivia, we get the minutia.

"Che Part One" and "Part Two" clock in at over two hours each, the first tracking the Cuban uprising and the second the Bolivian one. But it's not about the passion, but the tiny details of running a revolution. Most of the movie consists of Che and the gang hunkered down in the village, running from government soldiers, finding food, occasionally fighting a chaotic gun battle.

I must have lost count of the number of times the rebels go into some village and talk to the peasants, buy some food from them, and give them a little free health care. (Che famously was a physician before he became a revolutionary.) Or how many times two groups of rebels meet in the jungle, and they go around hugging each other. They even hug each other the same way: Arms around the shoulders, three pats on the back. Scenes will go on for several minutes like this, Soderbergh apparently feeling it necessary to show every single greeting between comrades. Hug, pat pat pat; hug, pat pat pat; hug, pat pat pat.

The tone is set by the opening minutes of each film. Soderbergh shows us a map of the country where the story is set (Cuba, then Bolivia) and then slowly, excrutiatingly, illuminates the major cities, the names of the provinces, and so forth. This goes on and on. And on. Several minutes of screen time, sitting there playing like a grade-school geography film strip.

All I can say is: Where was the editor?

At what point does an editor tell his director that nobody wants to watch this stuff? That, "Hey, I know you spent weeks in the jungle getting some of this footage, but it drags the movie down, you've got to cut it out?" It never happened here, and we're left with this 255-minute abomination.

Part one is certainly better than Part Two, since the action is interspersed with some scenes of Che's visit to New York in the early 1960s to speak to the United Nations. At least here we get to see some of the philosophy behind the guerrilla.

I've talked to a few other local critics about the movie, and several of them feel like there's a good 2.5- to 3-hour version of "Che" inside the bloated mess. But I disagree. Soderbergh and the gang failed when they set forth to film the process rather than the passion of being a revolutionary. The fact that they did it uncritically only adds to the mess. Since they based their material on Che's own writings, we never see any of the nasty stuff Che did. For example, the movie Che keeps telling his disillusioned men they can leave anytime they want, but he was known to shoot defectors on a frequent basis, often personally.

I could have taken a version of "Che" that unfairly elevated its subject, but not one that dragged him down and turned him into a pedantic bore.

1.5 stars out of four.

DVD review: "Australia"

One of last fall's bigger tent-pole releases, "Australia" crashed and burned at the box office. Yet this booming, mammoth-budget epic was an example not where filmmakers fell short or set forth with stingy ambitions, but a case where they overreached and tried to do too much.

"Australia" (PG-13, 165 minutes) is a huge movie -- not just in terms of stars (Jackman and Nicole Kidman) and production values, but thematically and conceptually. It's a romance-adventure set against the backdrop of a looming World War II.

The first two-thirds plays out like a mile-high Western, with Kidman's English lady Sarah Ashley trying to drive her cattle to market with the aid of Jackman's surly-yet-sexy cowboy known only as The Drover, pitted against a power-mad cattle baron (Bryan Brown) and his green-eyed henchman (David Wenham). The last act focuses mostly on Nullah (Brandon Walters), a half-caste Aboriginal boy with magical powers.

With its two major stars and director/co-writer Baz Luhrmann all Aussies, "Australia" clearly wants to be the signature film for its namesake country. But the blend of adventure and apologia for the treatment of native tribes is an uncomfortable mix. The result is a sprawling mess overstuffed with subtext and tertiary storylines.

The digital transfer is excellent, as the movie is simply gorgeous to gaze upon. But films of this sort of epic scope tend to suffer when shrunk down for home entertainment, even on a big-screen television.

Extra DVD features are shockingly skimpy -- consisting entirely of two very brief deleted scenes. No commentary, no making-of documentary, zip. That's a shame, because whatever artistic aspirations "Australia" failed to achieve, this noble failure never lacked for ambition.

Grades: movie: C+; extras: D-

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The IMA's new European Design exhibit: Wow

I just managed to get a short sneak peek at the new European Design show opening this Sunday at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. This is one of the most ambitious exhibits the IMA has ever attempted, the first major retrospective of modern European design.

All I can say is: Wow.

Even for people who are intimidated by art, this is a very fun and accessible exhibit. It challenges people to consider art in a new way by taking objects, some of them mass-produced for very functional purposes, and putting them on display as a piece of art.

I'll be attending the exhibit's symposium the next two days, as I'm writing a review for a national magazine. With a show like this, the challenge will not be in finding things to write about, but picking from a wealth of objects and topics to explore.

Critics now squabbling over how much of their turf remains

There's a bit of a Web battle going on out there amongst movie critics. And the subject is: How many of us are there?

It's a sad state of affairs when we can't even agree over how many of us have lost their jobs, and how many are left.

A little background. For the past two-plus years, Sean Means at the Salt Lake Tribune has kept a definitive list of all the movie critics who have lost their jobs. I've helped him out from time to time with a comment or a heads-up:

Now a new list has emerged that purports to show the number of remaining critics left. David Poland at MovieCityNews.com has compiled a list with 126 names on it, which sounds astonishingly high.

People have jumped on his criteria, noting that he includes some names of people who have been let go in the last couple of months, as well as a whole lot of people who write for Web sites. As my friend Roger Moore at The Orlando Sentinel has noted, there's a big difference between a paid full-time critic who must adhere to professional standards, and some blogger who accepts free junkets and other swag from the studios in exchange for positive reviews. (Yes, it does happen.)

I'm somewhere in the middle of all this debate. I was never a full-time critic, even though I've done movie criticism on a part-time basis throughout my 15-year newspaper career. Now I'm publishing here on the Web, but it doesn't exactly pay the bills. (Last time I checked, my Google AdSense earnings were up to about $4.) I write on a freelance basis for several newspapers in Florida.

It would seem that according to Poland's criteria, I should have a place on his list. But I disagree. For the same reason, I did not ask to be placed on Means' list when I got laid off, since I wrote lots of movie pieces but only occasional reviews for The Indianapolis Star.

Here's the part we hopefully can all get along on: The ranks of critics have been decimated by the downturn in the newspaper industry, and that's bad for us, bad for readers and bad for newspapers.

Update: Already more bad news to add. As my pal Bob Bloom at The Journal & Courier in Lafayette notes, Frank Gabrenya, the longtime movie critic at The Dispatch in Columbus, was part of a group of 45 people let go earlier this week. Sad times never stop.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Reeling Backward: "The Life of Emile Zola"

Paul Muni was a giant of the Golden Age of cinema who tragically has been forgotten by a large swath of cinephiles. Perhaps it's because he was such a chameleon. He used makeup and facial hair to take on so many personas, that it was said that few people knew what he really looked like. Among his roles was the lead in the original "Scarface," an escaped convict in "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" and the title role in "The Story of Louis Pasteur." He won the Oscar for that last one, and was nominated a total of six times for Best Actor.

"The Life of Emile Zola" has a misleading title -- it's not really a complete biography of the celebrated French writer/provocateur. It concentrates mostly on the final stage of his life, when Zola risked his comfortable existence to champion a military officer who had been railroaded into a treason rap. Public sentiment ran high against the would-be traitor and anyone who would defend him. Zola triumphed in setting Alfred Dreyfus free, and died shortly thereafter.

The film is a bit tedious during the first half, but really kicks off when it gets to the trial portion. Zola writes a letter accusing the French military command of covering up the affair, knowing that it will get him hauled into court on libel charges. This, he slyly calculates, is the only way to reopen the Dreyfus affair. Things go badly for a while, and Zola even has to flee the country for a time.

Muni is a wonder in the lead role, aging from an angry young man who would rather starve than compromise his principles to a rich and famous author who can bend the levers of power to his will. The underlying theme of the story is about remaining true to the desires that first animated you. Zola loses his way for awhile without even knowing it. The Dreyfus affair stokes his passions back to life.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

How are the Oscar losers doing?

It's been more than a week now since the Oscars were handed out, and my mind turns to those who left the Academy hall empty-handed.

The winners get to make those gushing speeches in front of a billion people, and have their pictures taken holding the little gold statue, and get feted and congratulated until the sun comes up. But what do the losers do? I've always wondered about their state of mind. Everyone repeats the cliche of "It's an honor just to be nominated," but of course they really wanted to win. Even Richard Jenkins and Melissa Leo, stars of tiny little indie movies who had zero chance of prevailing, must have entertained scenarios in their head of walking briskly up to the podium and getting handed an Oscar.

So how must it feel for the Mickey Rourkes and Meryl Streeps and Viola Davises, who had legitimate shots at winning? Rourke in particular was quite vocal about how much he'd like to win, and what it would mean for his career. He was riding a magical wave of redemption, a fairy tale story that isn't complete unless he gets to take the prince home with him (a little gold-plated one).

I don't have a very good point of reference to compare to. I've won my share of journalism prizes, and been honored to do so. But I'll admit that the arbitrary nature of the process is confounding. I once had a story win the top award in the regional SPJ (Society of Professional Journalists) contest covering all of the Southern states, but failed to win anything in the same category in the state SPJ contest. And I'll admit that occasionally I've won an award for stuff I did not feel constituted my best work.

So to all those who are sitting empty-handed and empty-hearted, buck up. There's always next year.

Monday, March 2, 2009

...and "Che"

I'll also have a review of "Che," opening locally in Indianapolis this Friday.

New review this week: "Watchmen"

Back in 2001, I wrote a column explaining to readers that I was going to have a hard time remaining objective about a forthcoming movie: "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring."

You see, it was my favorite book. I'd loved it since childhood, so any film version would have to compete with the thousand imaginary reels that already spun through my head. I was either going to love the movie or hate it with every fiber of my being.

(I loved it, of course, as I did "The Return of the King," although I gave the middle installment, "The Two Towers," a less glowing review.)

It's time to issue another warning, because "Watchmen" is coming out this Friday. In fact, as you're reading this I've probably already seen the movie.

Alan Moore's apocalyptic tale is the Holy Grail of comic books. If ever a work deserved the snobby term of "graphic novel," this is it. It's the only comic book ever to win a Hugo Award, science fiction's highest honor. During college, I wrote a paper comparing and contrasting "Watchmen" with John Milton's "Paradise Lost." (Got an A, too.)

Moore took every conceit of the costumed hero genre and turn it on its head, shattered it and subverted it. A hero who's an impotent schlub? A vigilante who takes a butcher's axe to criminals? A power-mad hero who is willing to literally destroy the village in order to save it -- times a thousand? That's the dark world of "Watchmen."

They've been trying, unsuccessfully, to make a film version almost since the book came out in 1985. Terry Gilliam, one of my favorite directors, took the longest crack at it back in the 1990s. Zach Snyder finally made it happen, although for a while it looked like a lawsuit over ownership rights to the material would keep the movie from being released. (They resolved it, just a few weeks before the opening date.)

We'll have to see if Snyder is the one to breathe "Watchmen" to life. I loved his remake of George Romero's "Day of the Dead." I had mixed feelings about "300." The serious critic in me recognized that it was a tremendously silly movie, but the 15-year-old in me loved it. We'll have to see which side prevails with "Watchmen."

I think he made the right choice in casting little-known actors in the roles; I'm not sure how audiences would react to a Bruce Willis Nite Owl or Brad Pitt as Dr. Manhattan.

I'm curious, and anxious, to see how Snyder handled a lot of the material. Are they really going to have the all-power Dr. Manhattan walk around naked? Are they going to keep the gruesome violence in place? (The film is rated R, another good sign -- watering this movie down for a PG-13 would have been criminal.)

So watch for a review of "Watchmen" this Friday. I'm hopeful, and terrified, of what I'll find.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Catching up with "The International"

"The International," a spy thriller starring Clive Owen, hasn't caught on with audiences. That's surprising, since it has as its chief villain an entity that everyone seems to be pretty P.O.'d at right now: a bank.

Owen plays a burned-out Interpol agent hot on the trail of an international bank that's been dabbling in arms sales. Seems they're trying to cash in on the debt incurred by various military conflicts around the world by fomenting them in the appropriate places. Naomi Watts plays a New York D.A. working with Owen.

It's a terribly underwritten female lead part; ostensibly Owen and Watts are co-equal partners, but as is usual in Hollywood, the guy gets the meatier role. At one point near the end he gives her speech that essentially translates as, "All the really hard and dangerous stuff is about to start, and that's my job, so run along home and take care of your kids." I don't normally go in for a lot of feminist film theory, but you don't have to be Gloria Steinham to get riled by the shabby treatment of female characters.

"The International" is a well-executed potboiler, although it's hard to shake the feeling that we've seen it a hundred times before. Plus, all the people that the good guys track down have a nasty habit of dying soon after. Apparently everyone involved in the bank is constantly being watched by other bank toadies, ready to pull the trigger on them rather than let them give away their secrets.

This gets a bit old, and quickly. At one point Owen and Watts talk to a politician who provides them with a lot of juicy information. They ask for more time, and he says he'll tell them everything they want to know right after he gives this speech. I actually turned to Jean in the theater at this point and said, "Yes, I'd be happy to help you, but I'm scheduled to die in the next scene."

Sure enough, he's soon wearing his brains externally.

For a movie about financial malfeasance, there sure is a lot of violence, and well-staged by director Tom Tykwer. There's one long shootout inside the Guggenheim Museum that's as good a piece of cinematic action I've seen in a while. Owen has just captured the assassin he's been chasing, and immediately a gang of gunmen open fire on them. The two adversaries immediately become partners, dueling the enemy in the Guggenheim's iconic corkscrew rotunda. I was fairly blown away by this sequence; I can't imagine the museum folks would let them tear apart the place, so the set design is pretty impressive.

"The International" isn't exactly fresh, but it's well-done middling entertainment on a Saturday night. It's worth the coin.

2.5 stars out of four