Monday, August 31, 2009

Bonus review: "Paper Heart"

Charlyne Yi is one of the those people you're probably vaguely aware of. She's a young (23) stand-up comedienne who's appeared in small parts in a few movies and TV shows, including as "one of the guys" in "Knocked Up." She's small, cute but disheveled, with a penchant for wearing pulled-up hoodies and flyaway hair drooping over her thick black-framed glasses.

Most distinctive is her way of talking, which comes out in a rushed stammer, like the very act of conversing is mortally embarrassing for her. If you've seen any of her stand-up, you know that the painfully shy persona is part of her act. Similarly, her first major film role in the quasi-documentary "Paper Heart" leaves us unsure where truth ends and play-acting begins.

It's difficult to say if "Paper Heart" should be called a mockumentary. Those films, like "Spinal Tap," feature made-up characters and events in order to spoof a particular slice of society. But "Paper Heart" is full of real people, using their real names.

Yi obviously uses her own moniker and persona. The film is about her belief that there's no such thing as love, or at least that she is incapable of it. Perhaps not surprisingly, early in the filming process she stumbles backward into a relationship with Michael Cera, the actor, using his own name and (we think) persona. Complicating matters further, we learn that Cera and Yi were once in a relationship in real life -- although, since this film purports (at least on the surface) to be their real lives, we don't know if what we're seeing is the actual substance of their romance, or some bastardized version served up for the movie.

If I were to guess, I'd bet on the latter. The notion that this whole piece is not a document of reality but an opportunity for clever comedy is further bolstered by the fact that the director of the film, Nicolas Jasenovec, is the third principle character in "Paper Heart" -- but he's played by an actor, Jake M. Johnson.

Most of the movie consists of Yi and Jasenovec (or his on-screen doppelganger, at least) traveling around the country, talking to people about love. There are a number of interviews with older couples who have been together for 30, 40, 50 years or more, and they share the stories of their meeting and romance.

One of the interviews is with a divorce court judge in Texas, with his wife who is an attorney he met on the job, who admits that he pressured his wife's boss to make her go out with him or lose her job. Yi conducts the interview in the courtroom, with the judge on his seat (but wearing a leather jacket instead of his robes) and his wife in the witness chair. This is where the film is at it's best, where we're stuck in this zone that's vaguely icky and uncomfortable, but also with heart-warming notes; the strange combination ends up inducing chuckles at the absurdity of it.

But most of the movie is concentrated on Yi and her relationships with Cera and the director, and at times it gets rather slow and draggy. I have to admit that part of my frustration with these sections was centered on Yi herself -- like Woody Allen, her on-screen shtick gets old in large servings. I never really connected to her, whether she's playing a character or herself, because either way it felt like a put-on. At least the movie didn't wander into obvious territory, with the director realizing that he's in love with his subject.

The live-action scenes are interspersed with nifty animated segments using crude cut-out figures and dioramas, with Yi as the puppeteer. The final one of these, which closes the film, is quite funny without really adding up to much. That's pretty much how I feel about the whole of "Paper Heart."

2.5 stars

Reeling Backward: "The Last Starfighter"

It's easier to see now, with a quarter-century of perspective, what "The Last Starfighter" was: A cheaply-made sci-fi flick looking to cash in on the popularity of the "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" franchises, which were in high gear when it came out in 1984.

But I admit I have a lot of affection for this film from loving it as a kid. And after checking out a new 25th anniversary DVD edition, I can say that my ardor was not misplaced.

Yes, there's no denying that the spaceships and other special effects look positively crude compared with what we have today -- or even with films of its own era. The Gunstar never looks like more than a bit of animation spliced in between some live scenes shot in the cockpit.

But "Starfighter" was the first serious attempt to use wholly computer-generated scenes in a feature film, and for no other reason than that it deserves a place in cinematic history.

And there are other reasons as well. Although we have had a slew of movies adapted from video games -- nearly all of them awful -- "Starfighter" is one of the very few movies that is about video games, or at least uses them as a major plot point. Off the top of my head, I can't think of another one.

Alex Rogen (Lance Guest) is an average American teen living in a mobile home park somewhere in the mountains. He's a prototypical example of the hero myth: A young man searching for a purpose in life. Alex doesn't really know what he wants, other than to get out of the dead end of the Starlite Starbrite trailer park.

In the meantime, he plays video games. Specifically, the Starfighter machine that recruits players to fight for Rylos and defend the Frontier against Xur and the Kodan armada. The game's screen shots look pretty convincing for arcade games of that period, although the controls are a bit more complex than the usual joystick and two buttons one saw an awful lot of.

One night Alex breaks the game record, which prompts a hilariously unlikely outpouring of trailer home denizens who emerge in their nightgowns and PJs to cheer on Alex and congratulate his victory. Having broken a few arcade records myself, I can assure you that the only reaction this gets from adults is a derisive snort about how much money you spent.

(Seriously, no joking, I got so good at the original "Spyhunter" that I could play for more than an hour on a single quarter. It usually ended up that I just quit the game out of boredom rather than play it to conclusion.)

Anyway, lo and behold, it turns out the game is not just a game, but a recruiting test for Rylos, which really is facing a threat from the evil Xur and his Kodan allies. The game was developed by the intergalactic huckster Centauri (Robert Preston, in his final film role), who shows up himself to transport Alex to Rylos.

The plot jumps back and forth between Rylos, where Alex is dubious about the notion of becoming a Starfighter, and life back at the Starlite. A robot called a Beta has been put in Alex's place, complete with a spot-on disguise, to keep people believing he's carrying on as normal. The Beta has a few problems interacting with Maggie (the achingly cute Catherine Mary Stewart, in full '80s hair tease), who wants to go camping up at Silver Lake and get naughty underneath the bedrolls.

Alex's space mentor is Grig (Dan O'Herlihy), a reptilian alien and navigator. When all the other Starfighters are killed in a sneak attack, Alex and Grig must tackle the Kodan fleet alone.

The smooth, unblemished surfaces of the Gunstar and other ships look too artificial to be convincing -- just like a video game, in fact. But over time you stop looking at the images and concentrate on the space action, which is pretty thrilling.

According to, "Last Starfighter" director Nick Castle and screenwriter Jonathan Betuel are working on a sequel due out in 2010. They've got me as an eager recruit.

3 stars

Sunday, August 30, 2009

New this week

I'll have reviews of "Extract," the new comedy feature from Mike Judge, and "Soul Power," a documentary about soul music.

The DVD review will be "State of Play," a journalism/political thriller with Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdams and Ben Affleck.

The classic film reviews will be "The Last Starfighter" and "Mutiny on the Bounty."

Hopefully, I won't be partaking in any street protests this week.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Stepping into the Blu

I've written extensively about next-generation video, particularly the battle between Blu-ray and HD DVD for supremacy. That war was decided more than 18 months ago, with Blu-ray the clear victor, but until now I've resisted adopting the format myself.

For awhile, the top reason was self-protection: I've been burned before as an early adopter of new technology. Just ask me about Commodore and Amiga computers, or the thousands of dollars I spent on laserdiscs. I was not about to be left with a library of films I could not watch anymore because my laserdisc player had broke, and you can't buy a replacement.

In the early going, Blu-ray players were not backward compatible with regular DVDs, unlike HD DVDs. But the Sony folks quickly realized that most people have at least a couple dozen DVDs sitting on their shelf, and don't like the idea of them becoming paperweights. So all the Blu-ray machines that have come out in the last couple of years can play DVDs. In fact, when I was looking at them in the store recently, I noticed the signage labels them as "Blu-ray and DVD players."

The other issue delaying purchase was price. Blu-ray players initially cost $500 and up, but have steadily come down in price. Just a few months ago, they still cost $300 or more. But the price has finally broken the $200 threshold, which is where I think you'll see a lot of people ready to make the jump. I've seen basic players for as little as $150, and even decent name-brand ones go for between $200-250.

Then Dylan, one of my two best and oldest friends, suggested I get a Sony PlayStation 3 instead. Now, I have not owned a game console literally since the Atari 2600. I still actively play games, but prefer the slower, more intellectually-bent kind that appeal to PC users like myself. I gave up World of Warcraft a few months ago, and have been piddling around with Left 4 Dead and Fallout 3 since then.

The appeal of the PS3 is that it includes a built-in Blu-ray player. So I ended up doing lot of research to see if I really could hook one up to my home theater system and essentially replace my DVD player, while adding the gaming feature as a bonus.

Short version: Absolutely.

In the end, I ended up getting the PS3 Slim, the newest generation of the PlayStation that just came out, with the help of some birthday money from Dylan. It costs $300, so basically for a premium of $50 or $75, you're buying a Blu-ray player and getting gaming on top.

I'm pretty impressed with the Slim. It has built-in Wi-Fi, so I can connect to the online gaming network, browse the Internet, etc. I also really liked that it has a digital optical output, which is necessary to get Dolby Digital DTS sound. I put in a DVD last night, cranked up my system, and it sounded great. (I love seeing the little orange "DTS" symbol light up on my receiver.)

The one wrinkle in hooking it up was my television, which is about six years old now. It does not have HDMI inputs (the new highest standard), but the older YPR component jacks. I did have to shell out an extra 20 backs for a PlayStation adapter that would connect to my TV.

I'm still testing the unit out -- I did buy one cheap collection of games, the Orange Box, but haven't even had a chance to try it out yet.

I will confess that I feel like a Jurassic-era gamer handling these new game controllers, with their strange, ergonomic shape and assortment of buttons and thumb controls. My idea of a controller is a black rubber joystick and one rubber button. I feel like a cave man confronted with a steam engine.

Perhaps later today I'll go rent a Blu-ray movie, maybe one I already have on DVD, so I can test out the quality difference. I don't think it'll be as stark an improvement as people say, but for now I'm pretty happy with my step into Blu.

UPDATE: I went out and rented "Iron Man" on BR, since I have the DVD in my library and could pop one in after another to compare. As expected, it looks better, but it's not mind-blowing. Although I should point out that my older set is only capable of 1080i resolution, not 1080p. (If you'd don't know the difference, you can find out here.)

Blu-ray discs do seem to come with a lot more features; for example, a digital copy of the film to put on your iPod or other mobile device is almost standard on BR, although more DVDs are including it, too.

I didn't rent any games, although there was a decent selection at the local Blockbuster. They do want quite a lot to rent them though -- something like 15 percent of the purchase price. I guess it's a good way to check out a game before plunking down upwards of $60 to own it.

Reeling Backward: "Beau Geste"

Nineteen thirty-nine is the year that keeps on giving -- when it comes to great classic films, that is.

"Beau Geste" is one of those movies that has been somewhat shunted aside in film history. People speak well of it, but not in the same breath as the masterpieces of that era.

Directed by William A. Wellman -- who also helmed "A Star is Born" and "Battleground," both recently featured on Reeling Backward -- "Beau Geste" is an old-fashioned adventure tale about men seeking their fortune in distant lands, with strange enemies and even stranger so-called allies. In setting and tone it reminded me very much of "Gunga Din," made the same year.

I liked it well enough -- the story has Gary Cooper, Robert Preston and Ray Milland as adopted brothers who join the French Foreign Legion, with the mystery of a stolen sapphire hanging over them.

There's some wonderfully harrowing battle scenes, and the opening sequence is haunting and mesmerizing: A column of legionnaires roll up on a remote desert fortress. It seems to be well-defended, but as they get closer they can see that all the men manning the battlements are dead. There's no enemy in sight. How could all those men die standing up, with their hats still on their heads and their rifles clutched in their lifeless hands?

But I suppose what really put this movie over the top for me was the villain, who has instantly catapulted to my list of all-time great cinematic nemeses. Sgt. Markoff, played by Brian Donlevy, is a tough-talking, sadistic SOB who believes in whipping men into line, and shooting them if they don't. He has no trouble sacrificing his men if it means winning himself a medal and a promotion.

And yet, as one of the brothers acknowledges, he's probably the best soldier any of them will ever meet.

At one point, Markoff puts down a mutiny and is prepared to execute dozens of men, but when a tribe of Arab begins attacking the fortress, he rallies the men -- even the disloyal ones -- to fight like lions. It's also his idea to prop up the dead soldiers on the battlements, so it appears to the enemy that their numbers have not diminished.

The three brothers were adopted by Lady Pat and raised in comfort. (A young Donald O'Connor, before he made 'em laugh in "Singin' in the Rain," plays 12-year-old Beau.) But Lady Pat's husband, who is absent nearly all the time, has spent the family into ruin. Her only recourse is to sell the Blue Water, the biggest sapphire in the world, which is the family's greatest heirloom.

But the sapphire is stolen before the sale. Beau (Cooper), the oldest, writes a letter confessing to the crime, but younger brothers Digby (Preston) and John (Milland) suspect he did so in order to direct any blame away from the guilty party. They decide the only honorable thing to do is follow his example, so they too confess to the crime and leave the estate.

They all end up in the Foreign Legion, which is a motley crew of thieves and murderers. Keeping them under his iron fist is Markoff, who learns of the sapphire and means to have it for himself. Donlevy gives a great, scene-chewing performance, and was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role. Markoff's signature line -- "I promise you!" -- is used as an ever-present threat to those who would defy him.

If you watch the movie, make sure to look at Donlevy's feet -- he's wearing some pretty obvious elevator shoes to make himself appear taller. I guess he didn't want Markoff to look like a shrimp next to Gary Cooper and Ray Milland, both of whom stood a few inches over 6 foot.

I also learned a bit of trvia: In filming the scene where John fatally stabs Markoff, Milland apparently missed Donlevy's protective padding and really did pierce him through the ribs, resulting in a fairly serious injury.

"Beau Geste" -- which means "beautiful gesture" in French -- was based on the novel by Percival Christopher Wren. The 1939 version was not the only screen adaptation. There was a 1926 version, and the story was remade in 1966 with Guy Stockwell, Leslie Nielsen and Telly Savalas. There was also a 1982 TV mini-series, and google-eyed comedian Marty Feldman directed and starred in a 1977 spoof titled, very tongue-in-cheek, "The Last Remake of Beau Geste."

3.5 stars

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Review: "Shrink"

In general, I'm not a big fan of ensemble films. "Shrink" is the rare exception that works on nearly every level.

The problem with movies boasting a large number of characters with layered, intersecting storylines is that they tend to be inconsistent. Some characters and plots are engaging and interesting, while others are not. We end up squirming in our seat, impatient to get back to the stuff we like.

Take "Babel," a high-profile ensemble drama from 2006. I found the parts about Cate Blanchette and Brad Pitt as tourists in the Middle East exceedingly tiresome, while the sections about the shepherd father and his two sons were powerful.

When they're done right, which is rarely -- Robert Altman's "Nashville" and Lawrence Kasdan's "Grand Canyon" come to mind -- ensemble films remind us that we're interconnected, and evoke a sense of community and place.

For "Shrink," that place is Hollywood, and the community is a collection of movie actors, agents and wannabes loosely connected through their association with a psychiatrist, played by Kevin Spacey. Henry Carter, the "shrink to the stars," is best described as the main character, although it's more of a first-among-equals type of thing.

There's also Jeremy (Mark Webber), a hipster screenwriter who is a parking valet by day. And Jemma (Keke Palmer), a high school student who ditches class to watch movies. And Kate Amberson (Saffron Burrows), a big star who's taken a few years off to raise a family, and finding that her options are limited for "older" actresses (she's perhaps 37).

Some of the characters appear to be based on real-life figures. Shamus (Jack Huston) is a young Irish actor with brooding dark looks who immediately strikes it big before he's really had a chance to find himself as an actor, or as a person, and falls into the drugs-and-partying crowd.

Sound familiar?

Others represent archetypes, such as Robin Williams as an aging star who needs help resisting temptations of the flesh, and Dallas Roberts as a super-agent who's too busy making deals and threatening adversaries to bother with actually reading scripts or watching movies.

The agent-as-cannibal thing has been done before (including by Spacey, in "Swimming with Sharks"), but Roberts adds notes of humanity and dark humor that lets us accept his character as a real person, rather than a cartoonish caricature.

Carter is despondent over the suicide of his wife, and spends his days smoking copious amounts of pot in between therapy sessions and promoting his book, ironically titled "Happiness." Carter is clearly in a descending spiral, and gets confronted in an intervention by his friends, but he angrily defends his need to grieve.

Screenwriter Thomas Moffett and director Jonas Pate -- both relative newcomers -- twist these characters together in a web of associations that's improbable, but feels authentic. Some of them are nice people, some are decidedly not, but hanging around with each of them feels like time well spent.

3.5 stars

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Review: "Taking Woodstock"

I liked everything about "Taking Woodstock" except for the concert itself. Or rather, I liked the movie up until the point the music started playing.

And that's because we already know pretty much everything there is to know about the iconic "3 Days of Peace & Music" from 1969 -- the acid trips, the rolling hills filled with people sleeping and grooving, the casual nudity, playing in the mud, etc. It is literally not possible to have lived in America over the past 40 years without being inundated with these images.

What is interesting and new are the events leading up to Woodstock, which are depicted by director Ang Lee ("Brokeback Mountain") in a fresh and vibrant manner. They deal with the tiny New York town of White Lake, which suddenly found itself host to the biggest rock concert in history. Most of the townsfolk are not happy about it, and blame the two local men responsible for bringing it there.

You may have heard of one of them, Max Yasgur, the unassuming dairy farmer (played by Eugene Levy) who hosted the Woodstock concert on his land. But many people (including me) didn't know the story of Elliot Tiber (renamed Teichberg for the film), who ran a tiny motel with his parents and played perhaps the most pivotal role in the concert happening in White Lake, or anywhere.

As played by Demetri Martin, Elliot is a timid, closeted gay youngster who lives in the Big Apple but spends most of his time helping his aged parents (Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman) run the equally decrepit El Monaco Motel. As president of the tiny local chamber of commerce, Elliot is perpetually dreaming up ways to promote the El Monaco, including an annual chamber music festival and using his barn to play host to a troupe of starving thespians with a penchant for doffing their clothes.

When Elliot gets wind that a major rock festival has been killed by the neighboring town of Wallkill, he contacts the Woodstock organizers and pitches the El Monaco to them. They reject it as too small, but make a deal with Yasgur. Soon organizers and construction guys are arriving by the dozen.

I enjoyed these scenes because they make clear what a major business venture Woodstock was -- in fact, Woodstock Ventures was the name of the company formed to put it on. The irony of an event devoted to free love being birthed entirely by people with money on the brain is delicious fare.

But once the concert starts up, the energy dissolves. Elliot wanders over to Yasgur's fields to check out the scene, and soon gets caught up in acid trips and orgies and all that.

There are a number of supporting characters, played by actors giving some adept performances. Unfortunately, they seem less like real people than contrivances of the script (by longtime Ang Lee collaborator James Schamus, based on Tiber's book).

There's Billy, a burnt-out Vietnam vet played by Emile Hirsch who keeps wading through flashbacks, and Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff), the Zen-like concert organizer who acts as if he knows something no one else does. The most artificial figure is Liev Schreiber as Vilma, a cross-dressing tough who provides security and dispenses assuring platitudes.

Elliot's parents seem like they want to be at the center of the story, but keep getting shunted to the periphery. Mrs. Teichburg has a penny-pinching mania that drives a wedge between the family, but the film never bothers to explore the source of her obsession.

Lee and Schamus should have forgotten about Woodstock, and stayed at the El Monaco.

2.5 stars

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Diary of a rabble-rouser

I am not, by nature, an outgoing person. I think I chose journalism in part because it involves learning about others without revealing too much of yourself.

The standards of objectivity preclude one from taking part in overt political demonstrations, even up to putting bumper stickers on your car or elections signs on your property. This mindset inevitably leads to a feeling of setting oneself apart from others: You're an observer, not a participant.

So today I found myself in the curious position of participating in my first public protest -- well, sort of. I stood for a little over six hours in the August sun in front of a union hall, trying to convince my former Indy Star co-workers to vote against an onerous contract that included, among many other nasty items, dropping the arbitration for myself and six others employees laid off in December in blatant violation of seniority rules. I, along with one other person, handed out flyers and talked to people as they were going in to vote.

In the grand history of demonstrations and union agitation, my actions rated about a 0.07 on the Richter scale. But I thought I'd share my thoughts about the day. (Hey, this way I'm still kinda/sorta a reporter.)
  • Believe it or not, my biggest concern prior to the protest was the sun. I am quite fair-skinned, and can sunburn in literally 10 minutes. My second concern was my back -- it tends to lock up after a lot of standing in one place. I made sure to bring a fold-up chair and heavy-duty sunscreen to address these seemingly minor issues.
  • I had to stay outside because the music hall was an official balloting site, so no campaigning can take place inside. I also checked it out with the union president to make sure they had no objections; they didn't. One of the officers even kindly offered me pizza.
  • I didn't want to have to bother with running back to my car to feed the parking meter every couple of hours -- one of my goals was not to leave my post unmanned for even a minute. So I parked in a free spot way north and walked about 15 minutes to the music hall.
  • Checking my reflection in the hall's glass doors, I worried that I would look scary to people. I was wearing shorts and a bright red polo shirt, but also had on a union cap and prescription sunglasses to protect my head. It has a subtle but certain psychological effect when people can't see your eyes. I tried to remember to remove the shades whenever potential voters neared.
  • The biggest trick of the day was figuring out who of those walking near were voters and who were just passers-by. I recognized about half my co-workers, but had to make some educated guesses on others. I ended up unintentionally accosting a couple of non-combatants when I asked if they were voting today, and they were just trying to catch the bus.
  • The flow of voters started at a trickle, just one in the first 20 minutes, but picked up as the lunch hour wore on. About half the people were willing to stay and talk a little bit about the case.
  • I finally got to meet the Star's sports columnist, Bob Kravitz. The sports guys often work crazy hours and are out of the office much of the time, Bob more so than others, and I'd joked that in my 3.5 years working there I never ran into the paper's highest-profile employee. We chatted for a few minutes, and he made some funny but intemperate comments about the contract situation I won't repeat here.
  • Perhaps I was being paranoid, but every time a police cruiser drove by, I worried about being rousted and arrested as a loiterer. Hey, considering the strong-arm tactics that have been brought to bear in this process, an anonymous 911 call is not that far a stretch. I even prepared for this contingency by printing out a message from the guild president granting me his blessing to protest, as long as I stayed outside. Nothing happened.
  • Of all the loopy scenarios I imagined happening, I didn't foresee the one that did: A counter-protester. Yes, really. One of the former Guild officers showed up around 2:30 p.m. or so and started handing out her own flyers urging people to approve the contract, arguing that a terrible contract is better than no contract. I suppose I could have argued with her that no contract that goes unenforced is worth anything, but I thought it best to be pleasant. We exchanged small talk and I offered her some sunscreen, which she slathered on copiously. Interestingly, she herself was laid off last month, but her case is not being grieved by the union because even though she had been there a decade, she was the least-senior person in her department. She departed after 90 minutes or so. I did not object in any way to her presence -- after all, she was exercising the same rights as me -- but I did find it very puzzling.
  • James Yee, one of the other seven awaiting arbitration, showed up promptly at 3 p.m., as promised, to spell me for a while. I hopped over to Bazbeaux for a bathroom break, some AC and refreshments. James ended up staying the entire rest of the day, which pleased me mightily. I enjoyed the company, and I think it made a lot stronger statement to have more than one of us there.
  • I asked as many people as possible if they knew the amount of the monetary settlement the seven of us would be getting. I would say about 80 percent of them did not. As I told the guild officers, I wish they had never introduced the idea of these settlements into the mix, because it resulted in a lot of misinformation. Some guild members were under the impression that we were partners in the negotiations and welcomed the settlement. It was simply appalling. When told the exact amount, people's jaws nearly bounced off the hot pavement.
  • A few people waved off my offer of a flyer, smiling and saying "Oh, I'm already voting no!" In general, I was very pleased by how receptive people were to our petitioning.
  • In fact, during the entire day only a single person gruffly refused a flyer or to talk. Ironically, it was one of the guild officers (past and/or present).
  • The conditions weren't too bad for the first couple of hours, when the sun was east of the music hall and provided some bit of shadow. It evaporated by 1:30 p.m. or so, and we were left in Sol's full glare. My sunscreen did its job where I applied it, but I ended up getting mildly burned through my shirt. My back did OK, too, although it was getting pretty stiff after 5 p.m. My throat was sore and I sounded hoarse. I spotted a fellow features denizen walking on the other side of the street and hailed him, but it kind of came out as a croak.
  • I do know that I swayed at least a handful of people's votes, because they told me so. As a lifetime observer, it was thrilling to know you're having a direct impact on the democratic process. I tried to tell everyone that no matter how they were voting, I thanked them for participating.
  • I arrived home to find dinner nearly ready. This is a rare thing in our household, since even before my layoff I did almost all of the cooking. It was rather nice.
  • The guild president called around 6:30 with the results: The contract was approved 56-45. I had rather expected this, but still held fantasies of a rejection, perhaps even a resounding one. So my last, best and final chance of again working for the Indy Star has evaporated.
So did my mini-protest accomplish anything? I had warned my wife that it was entirely possible that all of my agitation could end badly. I could have pissed off the company, alienated some colleagues and still lost.

Is that what has transpired? Was it worth it? Once it was clear that the company was demanding the union throw the seven of us under a bus, should I have stepped off the curb and indulgently placed my head under the bumper? Compromised my principles and my rights to make it easier on my former co-workers?

I honestly don't know the answer to these questions. All I know is that I stood outside all day and did not merely observe and report, but got involved and made my voice heard.

I lost. But if there really is nobility in defeat -- if that's not just a story we tell to make ourselves feel better -- then perhaps I found a little of it.

Thank you

So, as I posted earlier, the contract vote for the Indy Star guild passed today, on a narrow vote of 56-45. I'm obviously disappointed, as this agreement includes dropping the arbitration for the seven of us who have been waiting since last December for our hearing.

But rather than slink and sulk, I see it as a day for holding my head high. I can honestly say that I did everything in my power to convince people to vote against this awful, unfair contract. I (along with James Yee) spent the afternoon in front of the music hall, handing out flyers and talking to people as they went in to vote.

So, rather than vomit up a bunch of accusations and bile, I want to take this opportunity to thank my former colleagues.
  • Thank you to the Guild officers who have spent months negotiating with what might as well be a brick wall. I know you hate this contract almost as much as I do. And I know you feel like this is the best deal you could get. There's a toll one pays in your position -- professional, psychological and spiritual. It is not unappreciated.
  • Thank you to the other six of the "December Seven," as we have been dubbed in recent blog posts and conversations. I appreciate the efforts you made on behalf of all of us. No one wants to be tossed into a lifeboat, but having crew mates like you makes it a little easier.
  • Thank you to everyone who took a few minutes today to stop and talk to myself and/or James Yee about our situation and how this vote affects us. Some of you I was meeting for the first time; some I already counted as close friends. It was satisfying either way.
  • Thank you to those who voted "yes" on this contract. Yes, I know it may seem strange to be offering kudos to those who effectively sealed our fate. But I know that each of you had your own decision to make, based on your own personal circumstances. Were our positions reversed, I might well have voted the same way. My sincerest hope is that you never find yourself in my situation, depending on former co-workers to defend your rights.
  • Most of all, I want to thank the 45 who voted against this contract, and in favor of keeping our arbitration. You chose to take a stand, and just because it failed does not mitigate the fact that you stood up for what was right and true. Bless you.

Indy Star Guild approves contract 56-45

If nothing else, at least I get to scoop everyone else.

I'll follow up with a longer post later on. But as I said to everyone I saw and talked to today, I want to thank everyone who voted, no matter how you voted.

DVD review: "Duplicity"

A clever, sexy caper, "Duplicity" marked Julia Roberts' big return to leading-lady status after several years of sporadic supporting roles. Audiences seemed to shrug with indifference, but might want to give it a second look now that it's out on video.

"Duplicity" again pairs Roberts with her "Closer" lover, Clive Owen, as a pair of spies who turn their espionage skills to making a killing in the private sector so they can retire in leisure. Their game is to triple-cross a pair of cosmetic companies, one led by Paul Giamatti and the other by Tom Wilkinson, and cash in on the secretive new product one of them has in the works.

Roberts works for one corporation, but secretly spies for the other where Owen is on the security team, and meanwhile they're maneuvering to have the formula for themselves. Much of the film is concerned with the various schemes and crises that emerge as they draw nearer to their goal.

But really the film is about their relationship, and whether two people who have spent most of their lives deceiving others can truly ever be in love, which at its core is an expression of trust. The scenes where the pair meet up in clandestine locations and verbally spar, trying to test each other's loyalty, are reason alone to justify a rental.

Extras are confined to a single item: A feature-length commentary track by writer/director Tony Gilroy ("Michael Clayton") and editor/producer (and brother) John Gilroy. The pair make for entertaining and informative guides, providing behind-the-scenes insights as well as casual banter.

Among other things, Gilroy reveals that he originally wrote the screenplay for Stephen Spielberg, with the proviso that if he passed on it, he'd let Gilroy direct. The siblings also note that the film's opening scene in Dubai was a half-hearted addition that they ended up liking so much, they put it before the title sequence that originally began the film.

Movie: 3 stars
Extras: 2.5 stars

Monday, August 24, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Notorious"

In many ways, "Notorious" is the most quintessentially Hitchcock film.

The voyeurism that marked Alfred Hitchcock's movies is in clear evidence, with the many extreme close-ups and tracking shots, which were highly unusual in 1946 American cinema. There's one shot of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman embracing, and the camera slowly rotates around their heads -- a trick Hitchcock would use again, for example in his masterpiece "Vertigo." The overall effect in this movie is of following a subject, or being followed. Since it's a movie about espionage, it gives the audiences an unsettled, borderline paranoid mood.

There's also the classic use of the MacGuffin -- an object or other plot device that is used to drive the story, but which remains ill-defined or whose importance is never really made clear. It doesn't really matter what it is, in other words, only that everyone wants it. Hitchcock's films were replete with microfilm or sinister powders or such things that had the main character being chased around nilly-willy. In "Notorious" the MacGuffin is bottles of wines that turn out to contain a mysterious black sand.

And the misogyny that was often part and parcel of Hitchcock's work was never stronger than in "Notorious." Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, a German-American playgirl who is used as a Mata Hari by intelligence agent Devlin (Grant) to infiltrate a Nazi cel in Rio De Janeiro. Devlin, who recruits her after her father is convicted as a traitor, is at first repulsed by her constant boozing and loose morals. But he eventually falls for, only to learn that his assignment is to use Alicia as bait to lure out Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), one of the Nazi co-conspirators.

Grant's performance is particularly icy and cruel, as opposed to his usual cocksure charm. At one point he admits that he's always been afraid of girls -- something feminist film theorists have had a field day with.

There's one great scene where Alicia is meeting with Devlin at a horse race to update him on her snooping, and she playfully tells him, "You can add Sebastian's name to my list of playmates" -- a not-at-all subtle indication that she has slept with him. The look that comes over Grant's face, one of anger and humiliation, quickly sours into an image of pure contempt.

Devlin's associates (the redoubtable Louis Calhern plays Devlin's boss) also speak contemptuously of Alicia, even though she's supplying them with invaluable intelligence about their enemies, because she's using sex to get what she wants. It goes without saying that these gentlemen would not be so quick to disparage one of their own employing the same tactics. When Alicia agrees to marry Sebastian to further the ruse, they view it only as an opportunity for them to dig up dirt on their foes.

Claude Rains had one of those truly magnificent film careers, nearly always as a supporting man (he was nominated for the Oscar four times, including this film, never winning) but occasionally in the lead. His portrayal of Sebastian is most interesting -- he is never shown committing an overtly evil act, even after he discovers Alicia's role as a spy. He and his iron maiden of a mother begin to slowly poison her, but it's the old lady who actually does the deed. Sebastian is shown as a decent guy who just happens to be working with his fellow Nazis. He also seems to truly love Alicia -- they previously had a fling years ago, which was what helped make Alicia the perfect mole.

It's interesting to think what it would be like to remake this movie from the perspective of the Claude Rains character, with an overbearing mother and a mysterious stranger who keeps showing up in an attempt to steal your wife away.

Leopoldine Konstantin plays Sebastian's mother, in a memorable performance. Since Sebastian is seen as such a nice guy, even something of a wuss, she represents the most villainous figure in the film.

One of my favorite games is spotting mother-son cinematic pairings in which the actors portraying them are actually about the same age. Claude Rains was 57 when this film came out, while Konstantin was but three years older. There's one scene where they're interacting in a close two-shot (i.e., both their heads are visible in the frame) and you can see how smooth and unlined her face is, compared to Rains' elegant but craggy features.

3.5 stars

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A message to my Indy Star Colleagues: Please vote no

Newspaper Guild members at the Star are set to vote on a contract proposal this Tuesday. They are voting on a counter-proposal to the company's last, best offer that included a 12 percent pay cut. Gannett agreed to reduce it to a 10 percent cut in exchange for dropping the arbitration for seven employees improperly laid off in December, including myself.

On behalf of the seven of us, we're asking you to please vote no.

Obviously, this agreement would be detrimental to us, as we would lose our right to have our case heard before an arbitrator in exchange for a pittance of a monetary settlement, which we had no hand in negotiating.

But beyond the fate of us seven, the reason we need to uphold the arbitration is that no contract is worth anything unless we're willing to enforce it.

I'll be attending the informational meeting today from 2-4 p.m. today, and will be happy to answer questions from anyone who wants to contact me. My e-mail address is posted here on my blog under my profile.

New this week

This week I'll have a review of "Taking Woodstock," the new look at the '60s iconic concert directed by Ang Lee.

The DVD review will be "Duplicity," starring Julia Roberts, Paul Giamatti and Clive Owen.

For look-back film reviews, I'll have Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious" and 1939's "Beau Geste" starring Gary Cooper.

Friday, August 21, 2009

New "Avatar" trailer

So I am invited to a press screening tonight that I've declined to attend. Normally I try to go to all the screenings the studios offer local critics, especially press-only ones, to encourage them to keep showing them to us.

But this is for a trailer, not an entire film. The studio is trying to build hype for "Avatar," coming out in December, which is the first feature film directed by James Cameron since 1997's "Titanic." (I'm not counting his undersea IMAX film.)

The reason is simple: Reviewing a preview is an exercise in futility. Anyone who watches the trailer for "Inglourious Basterds" and then goes to the see the actual film knows that.

Heightening my puzzlement, I easily found the trailer available online, which I've embedded below. I will say that "Avatar" looks pretty amazing. But for my review of the actual movie, you'll have to wait until it comes out.

Review: "Adam"

The main challenge of any cinematic romance is that it has to be a two-way street. The audience has to accept not only that the couple is in love, but believe that each character is capable and willing of falling for the other.

The problem with "Adam" is that we never buy them as a plausible romantic pairing. It's very easy to see why the title character, played by Hugh Dancy, would fall for Beth (Rose Byrne), the sweet, pretty girl who moves into the floor below him. What we have trouble understanding is what she sees in him.

Adam suffers from Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism that makes social interaction very difficult, mostly due to a lack of empathy for others. Adam rarely looks people in the eye, has difficulty recognizing humor, and cannot distinguish between honesty and rudeness (for instance, when asked if he wants to see baby videos, he emphatically responds, "No, thank you").
Sounds like quite a catch, doesn't he?

At one point Beth, who is a teacher and aspiring children's book writer, asks the school psychologist about Adam's condition. After hearing the list of characteristics, she hesitantly follows up: "So, not exactly prime relationship material, right?"

In another scene, Beth's father (Peter Gallagher) gives that familiar speech that many fathers, real and reel, have given to their daughters about a certain boy not being right for them. It's meant to be a pivotal moment, where young love is challenged by the cold rationality of the old. We're supposed to cheer when Beth tells her dad off. But in this case, we're left with the nagging suspicion that dad is right.

"Adam" is a well-intentioned movie. Writer/director Max Mayer approaches his characters with sensitivity, and I didn't sense any motive to exploit Asperger's or those who have it. At one point Beth gives Adam some chocolates, and he quips, "I'm not Forrest Gump, you know!"

Still, we are asked to accept that Beth would fall in love with a guy who's not just socially awkward, but with tangible and deep-seated psychological problems. That's a big leap, and I don't think Mayer and his cast quite clear it.

Dancy gives a charming, technically sound performance, and we do end up with a fondness for Adam. I can't say the same for "Adam."

2 stars

Reeling Backward: "3:10 to Yuma"

It is a strange thing to experience a movie remake before the original film. That's how it went for me with "3:10 to Yuma," which was remade in 2007 starring Christian Bale and Russell Crowe. The 1957 original with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin was a respected Western, but isn't considered one of the giants of the genre. Certainly, its reputation does not come close to matching that other 1950s Westerns like "Shane," which starred Heflin in a similar role, or "High Noon," to which thematically and structurally "Yuma" owes a great debt.

After having finally seen it, I'd say that not only is the original superior to the remake, but "3:10 to Yuma" deserves a slot right up there with the best Westerns of its era.

In many ways, "Yuma" is more of a psychological thriller than a pure Western. Oh, there's plenty of gunplay and horse riding and all that. But the heart of the movie is a long sequence -- 45 minutes at least -- that takes place in a hotel bridal suite, where regular joe Dan Evans (Heflin) is standing guard over notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) while waiting for the train that gives the film its title.

Wade's gang has been alerted to his presence, and gathers outside to spring their boss. Meanwhile, the hired guns bought by moneyman Butterfield decide they've had enough, and desert them, leaving only Dan, the fat Butterfield, and the town drunk Alex Potter (Harry Jones) to stand against Wade's men.

Dan is no lawman -- just a down-and-out rancher who needs the $200 bounty Butterfield has offered to any man who will bring Wade to justice, and put him on the train to the prison in Yuma. Much like his character in "Shane," Heflin plays a regular guy who feels compelled to stand up not just for justice, but to prove to his wife and two sons that he has what it takes.

In that hotel room, Wade needles and threatens Dan, offering him bribes that increase in size as the train's arrival time draws near. And Dan is clearly tempted -- at one point asking, "Are you sure nobody'll ever know?" It's only after Wade's men shoot the town drunk that his mind is made up.

That shooting scene is quite astonishing for its depiction. First, it showed the shooter and the victim in the same frame -- something you didn't see in Westerns prior to that time. Not only that, but Potter is shot in the back by one of Wade's men. And when he falls over, you can clearly see a smoking hole in the middle of his back. For 1957, this is pretty brutal stuff.

Glenn Ford gives one of his best performances as Ben Wade. There's a sly intelligence and sinister charm about him. After knocking off Butterfield's coach, he and his gang ride into the next town and inform the marshal about the robbery. After the posse takes off, Wade casually remains behind to woo the barmaid, played by Felicia Farr (who was Jack Lemmon's wife in real life).

In another bursting of the old Hollywood code, it's clearly implied that Wade and the barmaid have sex. He is shown coming in from the back of the bar, arranging his clothes, and she emerges a few seconds later. Again, one has to think of this in the context of cinematic portrayals of the time -- even dissolving on a couple kissing and then fading in with them anywhere near a bed was considered scandalous.

One of the things I did really like in the remake was the performance of Ben Foster as Charlie Prince, Wade's sadistic lieutenant. In the original, Prince was played by Richard Jaeckel, who had a long career playing a tough guy on film and television. In both cases, there's a devotion to Wade that borders on the homoerotic -- though obviously less overtly in the 1957 version.

"3:10 to Yuma" was directed by Delmer Daves, based on a story by Elmore Leonard, and the excellent cinematography was by Charles Lawton Jr.

3.5 stars

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Review: "Post Grad"

I actually feel kind of bad about not liking "Post Grad." It's got a great bunch of actors that I enjoyed spending time with. It's directed by a woman, from an original script by a woman, and lord knows we need more of that.

But this flick about a girl trying to figure out what she wants to be struggles with its own identity crisis.

It can't decide if it wants to be about the girl's loopy family, who are all a bit weird but share tender bonds, a la "Little Miss Sunshine," or about her romantic entanglements with the close friend who clearly wants more, and a Latin neighbor who's sexy despite being a cat owner.

(On a side note, I think we need to add to the list of annoying cinematic racial stereotypes. We had the Magic Negro, in which a black character exists solely for the purpose of enlightening the white folks. Now it's the Smokin' Latin, in which a guy who rolls his R's shows up to tempt the heroine.)

Alexis Bledel plays Ryden, who's just graduated from college and can't find a job. Her plan was to land a gig at Happermann & Browning, the top publishing firm in Los Angeles, and discover the next great American novel. But her arch-nemesis, who took the valedictorian spot from her, nabs the job instead (played by Catherine Reitman, who fittingly steals every scene she's in).

Ryden is forced to move back in with her family. The roster: Dad (Michael Keaton), who's always chasing one cockamamie scheme or another; mom (Jane Lynch), who's dealing with a young son with a head-licking fetish; and grandma (Carol Burnett), who's dying (maybe) and wants to stretch out the agony for everyone else.

The scenes with Ryden growing exasperated with her relatives are a bit contrived, but are the most enjoyable. Where the film runs off the rails is whenever romance creeps in.

Adam (Zach Gilford) is Ryden's best friend who's smitten with her. Adam is trying to decide between law school and singing, and based on the one song he has in the movie I'd say he should seek out a mountain of torts and burrow in.

The normal thing for a movie like this is for the guy to hide his feelings until the end of the film, when he declares his love and the music swells. Here, Adam openly teases Ryden about how she doesn't return his affections. I credit director Vicky Jenson and screenwriter Kelly Fremon with avoiding the most obvious route, but they end up making their main character seem heartless and/or stunningly unobservant.

The Smokin' Latin (Rodrigo Santoro) lives across the street and directs infomercials, but seems OK with it, which alone should be grounds for Saint Peter to deny him the Pearly Gates.

The movie bounces back and forth between family hijinks and awkward scenes with Ryden and her suitors, with no apparent bridge between them. At one point dad gets arrested for hocking stolen belt buckles, and the younger son enters a pink coffin in a boxcar race, and I think it's in these scenes where the movie's true heart lies.

If "Post Grad" had a resume, all the lovey stuff is filler that's supposed to make it seem more appealing, but which was better left out.

2 stars

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Review: "Inglourious Basterds"

The idea of a kooky, hyper-violent World War II comedy with Quentin Tarantino doing his usual mishmash of eclectic music and circuitous dialogue sounds like a delightful romp -- especially when paired with Brad Pitt as the Appalachian-twanging bandit leader of a group of Jewish-American soldiers sent behind enemy lines to wreak terror on the Nazis.

Except for one problem: The "Inglourious Basterds" are bit players in their own flick.

If you've watched the trailer for the new film written/directed by Tarantino, then you've already seen a good chunk of the entire screen time of Pitt and his crew. There's essentially one scene of them bashing in Nazi skulls, and away they go. They reappear a couple more times, but only as supporting figures in another plot line.

The bulk of the sometimes-thrilling, oft-onerous 2½-hour running time is occupied with four other characters: Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent), a Jewish girl hiding in the open as a Parisian cinema owner; Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), nicknamed the Jew Hunter, who kills her family in the film's opening sequence; Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a famous German film star secretly spying for the Brits; and Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a German war hero and star of a Joseph Goebbels propaganda film based on his battle exploits.

Landa is by far the most compelling of the foursome. As played by Waltz, the colonel is a slithery and cunning adversary, whose modus operandi is to engage his victim in social banter until he finds a weakness, and then burrow into that crack in their facade like a boll weevil.

Kruger has a pivotal role in the film's best sequence, a meeting between Hammersmark, a British agent and two of the Basterds in a basement pub to set a plot to blow up Shoshanna's theater, where Zoller's film is set to premiere. The scene starts on a frivolous note with churlish parlor games, but suspicion and hostility are ever so patiently ratcheted up. We can practically smell the fuse burning.

This is Tarantino at his best, using his gift with dialogue and mood to stir the waters, subtly at first but with increasing turbulence.

Less engaging is the Shoshanna/Zoller storyline, in which the German soldier becomes smitten with the clearly unreceptive French (he thinks) woman. This culminates in an impromptu lunch date between them and Goebbels that just goes on and on.

Oh yes, the Basterds. Pitt plays Lt. Aldo Raine, his accent dripping with Tennessee molasses, who demands his eight Jewish recruits each gift him with 100 Nazi scalps -- and he's not talking figurative scalps, as Tarantino demonstrates in one unnecessary close-up after another.

Sudden, gruesome violence is a signature ingredient of the Tarantino gumbo, and others also crop up. There's a kinetic scene set to deliberately incongruous music (in this case, David Bowie's "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)"). A Mexican standoff takes place -- in fact, two characters have a debate about whether they are engaged in one. And Diane Kruger gets to be the latest actress to showcase her feet for extended close-ups to serve Tarantino's icky fetish for females' lowest appendages.

The name "Inglourious Basterds" comes from a cheapie 1978 Italian flick starring Fred Williamson and Bo Svenson that was basically a knockoff of "The Dirty Dozen," and bears no resemblance to this film other than the wartime setting.

Like "Death Proof" and the "Kill Bill" duology, Tarantino's newest work is that of a blazing cinematic talent who only seems to be interested in making movies that satisfy his own off-kilter, retrograde fantasies. Perhaps one day he'll invite us in.

2.5 stars

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

DVD review: "The Last House on the Left"

For fans of the horror genre, these are dog days.

Between wimpy PG-13 watered-down scareflicks that elicit more derisive laughs than fear, and grisly "torture porn" movies that substitute carving of flesh for ratcheting up tension, those of us who enjoy films that truly frighten have not had much reason to anticipate the latest offerings.

Perhaps it's no surprise that horror merchants have turned to remaking classics of the genre for an unsuspecting new generation of fans. The "Halloween," "Friday the 13th" and "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" franchises have all enjoyed lucrative recycling.

"The Last House on the Left" is the latest and, surprisingly, best example of this trend. This remake of the 1972 debut of director Wes Craven ("Nightmare on Elm Street") actually manages some genuine thrills.

It's certainly violent -- and the unrated DVD version pumps up the blood-letting over what audiences saw in theaters -- but director Dennis Eliadis has a nice eye for composition as well as a flair for generating a sense of paranoia.

Both the original and remake employ the set-up of Mari, a teen girl vacationing at a remote house with her parents. While out to score some pot, she and a girlfriend are captured by a gang of murderers, who torture and rape the girls. As it happens, the killers show up on the doorstep of Mari's parents, who eventually discover that the unexpected guests are their daughter's tormentors, and seek revenge.

Garret Dillahunt gives a satisfyingly creepy performance as Krug, the head of the gang, who is trying to initiate his young son into his twisted sense of manhood.

As for extras, it's very meager fare. There are a handful of "deleted" scenes, most of which are just slightly re-edited versions of existing footage. And there's a very brief making-of featurette that is little more than marketing hype, where the filmmakers tell each other how great they are.

Movie: 2.5 stars
Extras: 1.5 stars

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sorry, kid

So I got this e-mail this morning. I'm sorry to say it's not the first time this has happened.

My name is _______ and I am a huge fan of yours. I have seen all three Back to the Future episodes which, in my opinion, were awesome! Emmett Brown is, also in my opinion, a genius, a hero, and the greatest scientist of them all and believe me, I never stop thinking about him! If you cannot personally reply to this email, please, please get your agent to reply to it on your behalf. I would really love to hear from you, even if it's your agent.

He is, of course, referring to the actor Christopher Lloyd.

I remember a few years ago when I was working in Florida, and a local bookshop asked me to do a presentation about the literary roots of the "Star Wars" films. I think one of the new trilogy was coming out. Anyway, they put up flyers all around town that basically said, "Christopher Lloyd to talk about Star Wars."

One kid showed up with glossy still photographs of the actor, hoping to get some autographs. He was just crushed. I wrote back to this e-mailer, knowing he will be, too.

Such is the life of being a film writer who shares the name of a well-known film actor.

Reeling Backward: "Destroyer"

"Destroyer" is a pretty conventional bit of World War II propaganda. It's amazing to think now about how the movie industry was turned to promoting the war effort. I'm not sure if people even stopped and thought about it -- back then, everybody assumed we were all in it together.

Can you imagine our modern-day entertainment industry cranking out films supporting the American military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, one after another, almost from the day our troops set foot in the Middle East? The very idea is ludicrous.

Back then, movie stars also joined the military in droves, or at least flew around selling war bonds and other such things. After making "Destroyer," Glenn Ford enlisted with the Marines, where he spent the war working as a motion picture technician and hosting a radio program.

Up until then, Ford's film career was nothing to shake a stick at. After the war he came back with "Gilda," his big breakthrough role. (On a side note, I've had "Gilda" DVR'd for awhile now, and keep meaning to get to it. But for whatever reason, I've had a hankering for war pictures recently.)

It's interesting to think of Glenn Ford as a young man, and playing a character who's cocky and headstrong. The star persona of Ford is of a man who's middle-aged but still physically capable, with deep convictions and sense of honor, who believes in thinking before acting -- basically, he was Dad. But perhaps I'm conditioned to think of him that way, since like most people of my generation my first experience with Glenn Ford was playing the father in "Superman."

Here he plays Mickey Donohue, a naval chief who butts head with Steve "Boley" Boleslvaski (Edward G. Robinson), a tough old sailor who's just come out of retirement to fight in the war. Boley served aboard the first destroyer John Paul Jones during WWI, and became a shipbuilder who helped oversee the construction of her replacement. When he learns that the ship will be commanded by an officer he used to serve with, he agrees to re-enlist.

Things don't go smoothly for Boley. He has the right ideas about how to keep a crew tight and orderly, but he's simply so far behind the times that he keeps lousing things up. He orders the gun crews to keep their sights right on target aircraft, rather than leading them, because he never had to fight against airplanes in the first World War. He doesn't even know that the new artillery guns are loaded from the breech, not from the muzzle.

Eventually Boley gets busted down in rank, and now must report to Donohue, his arch-enemy. Little does he know that the much younger Donohue has been wooing his daughter (Marguerite Chapman) during shore leave.

At one point it appears that the new John Paul Jones is a cursed ship, and gets reassigned to mail-carrying duty. A bunch of the crewman request to transfer off, and Robinson gives a rousing speech where he invokes the story of the ship's namesake. Of course, they decide to stay on. Because that's the way things were back then -- or at least, how Hollywood would like us to think it was.

3 stars

Sunday, August 16, 2009

"G.I. Joe" down to 38 percent on Tomatometer

I previously posted about the fact that the studio deliberately kept "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" from legitimate film critics. It was part of a strategy to control how the big-budget summer film was presented to audiences.

The film's backers were even bragging about how the flick had one of the highest ratings on the Tomatometer over at Rotten Tomatoes, the site that rounds up the reviews from critics big and small. At the time of my last post, it was at a 91 percent "fresh" rating -- meaning that 91 percent of the reviews were positive. This was because the only ones the studio deigned to screen the film for were carefully selected Web bloggers, some of whom were given a cushy junket in an implied exchange for positive reviews.

Well, the rating for "Joe" is now down to 38 percent, now that more of the unbiased press have reviewed the movie. When a film is not screened in advance for critics, some outlets run follow-up reviews, but many don't bother. So we can only guess at what the full critical reaction to "G.I. Joe" was.

Incidentally, I've been trying for months to get listed on Rotten Tomatoes, but I'm not getting any response, despite meeting their criteria. Joe Shearer, my partner at The Film Yap, has had the same lack of luck.

New this week

I'll have reviews of Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" as well as "Post Grad."

The DVD review will be the remake of "The Last House on the Left."

For classic film reviews, I'll have the Western "3:10 to Yuma" and the World War II Navy film "Destroyer," starring Edward G. Robinson.

Thanks for swinging by!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Fair reflections

So Jean and I decided to hit the Indiana State Fair last night, and I thought I'd share a few thoughts.

We did try this year's signature fair food, deep-fried pizza. It's actually just fried dough with tomato sauce smeared on top and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. It's not bad, but certainly not worth $5.

The most jaw-dropping food item offered was easy to pick: Chocolate-covered bacon. It sounds like some kind of joke from "The Simpsons." But nope, it's for real. We talked to one guy who got it, and he was surprised that it was cold. Not grown cool from sitting out too long, but intentionally cold. He said they cook the bacon and then freeze it. I'm guessing the chocolate coating wouldn't adhere to hot bacon. Anyway, he said it wasn't bad, but I wasn't about to try it. Again, overpriced: $5 for three slices.

We also got some chocolate frozen custard from the state dairy booth, and some of those ribbon fried potatoes. We got the potatoes last year, and I think we'll have to skip them in the future. They basically just taste like potato chips. It's $6.50 for a plate, but it is quite a huge portion.

We also got a lemon shake-up for $5, bringing our total food purchase to $21. Considering we didn't eat dinner, I guess it's not too outrageous.

We rode our bikes to the fair, which I highly recommend. I understand parking is $5 this year, and by the time you've nosed your way through traffic and walked to the ticket booth, you won't get there any faster than biking. There is a free biking parking area on the Monon that's monitored by fair staff; the only downside is that it closes at 8 p.m. We chained up our bikes just outside there.

Jean enjoyed the tractor parade, saying she'd never seen such a thing. Having spent most of my life in the South, I've seen plenty of them.

We didn't do any of the rides. That sort of thing gets old after a stomach full of fried fair fare. Many of the rides seem designed to shake the food right out of you. Perhaps it's a money-making tactic. Plus, they disguise the cost of the rides by selling tickets to them, with a certain number for each. For the higher-end rides, it works out to like $5 per person per ride.

I was surprised by how many people were wearing flip-flops. Don't get me wrong, I wear them all the time myself. But walking for hours on end in such things is like announcing, "Plantar faciatis, come on in!"

Jean also commented on all the young girls wearing shirts that fit them tightly around the belly, when they have bodies that beg for something a little more billowy. It was an orgy of muffin tops.

We did get to learn the difference between a donkey, a jackass, a burro, a mule and a hinny. Feel free to quiz me.

We popped in on many of the exhibits, although one of the downsides of going at night is that a lot of that stuff is closed down. We did not see the cheese-sculpting show.

Altogether, a great fair once again this year!

UPDATE: I got a note today from Anne Valentine, legislative director for Gov. Mitch Daniels, letting me know that there IS free parking available for the state fair. I've added her message with the site where you can find the free parking below:

I’ve been a fan of your blog for months now, but wanted to mention something on your post about the State Fair. I know there are some out lots that charge $5 for parking, but the Fair has an abundance of free parking available (see: Most days of the Fair, there is free parking available. There is also free park and ride – Glendale Mall. Wonderful that you rode your bike the Fair, but I just wanted to offer a correction to your “I understand parking is $5 this year.”

Reeling Backward: "A Star Is Born"

"A Star Is Born" has been made into three movies: the 1937 original starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March (which is the one I'm reviewing here); a 1954 musical version with Judy Garland; and a 1976 rock 'n' roll version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. In all three the basic story is the same -- a fading star falls in love with a young up-and-comer, and resents seeing their star eclipsed.

In the 1954 and '76 versions, there was no question that the woman was the star of the picture. But in 1937, it was Gaynor whose career was fading, while March was in the midst of a long and distinguished career. By 1938, Gaynor's run as a Hollywood star was effectively finished, much like the character of Norman Maine. This film, directed by William A. Wellman, starts with the Gaynor character as the focus, but the story's emphasis shifts more and more to her husband as time goes on.

"Star" is a decent picture, but not the masterpiece it's made out to be. There were long stretches in the middle where I was fairly bored. I found it interesting, though, for its cynical and bleak portrayal of the Hollywood biz. It's essentially a critique of the star-making machine that ruled during the Golden Age of the 1930s and '40s, from the very people who were perpetrating it.

Esther Blodgett (Gaynor) is determined to be a star, but is warned by her grandmother that holding onto a dream so tightly often leads to heartbreak. To want something so badly, you must be willing to sacrifice everything for it. Oliver Niles (Adolphe Menjou), a big-time producer, gives her essentially the same advice. In her case, it's her relationship with Norman Maine (March) that withers.

The producer is depicted as a fairly benign figure, operating at the whim of whatever he thinks will generate the most publicity for the studio. As the film opens, it's Norman Maine. But when the light of Esther -- renamed Vicki Lester for her showbiz moniker -- begins to eclipse Norman's, the supposed old friend is quick to give him the boot.

The most depraved figure is the studio publicist, Matt Libby, played by Lionel Stander. I must confess that I only knew Stander from his role as the crony Max from that awful "Hart to Hart" television series, when he was an old bear of a man. It's hard to even think of a guy like that being young.

Libby sees everything through the prism of publicity, including how to stage the marriage of Norman and Esther/Vicki. He's furious when they sneak off for a quickie wedding at a remote town hall, rather than the big shindig he had planned. The Libby character also comes off as a Jewish caricature.

March gives a fine performance, especially toward the end after he becomes a sad-sack has-been, moping around and trying to hold onto the tattered shreds of his dignity, and stay off the booze. Considering how he starts out as a dashing, rapscallion gentleman drunk and ends up as such a pathetic figure, the film is also notable for tackling alcoholism in a scathing way.

This was my first Janet Gaynor movie. She has Betty Boop features -- exceedingly round face, tiny bow-tie mouth and big, puppyish eyes. I doubt a woman with that sort of face could make it as a star in Hollywood these days. Christina Ricci comes close, but her career hasn't exactly been gangbusters lately. Today's female stars tend to be have beautiful but bland faces. I think I prefer the old Hollywood days, when faces with character were the ideal.

3 stars

Thursday, August 13, 2009

More losses in Indy Star features

When I started work at the Indy Star in June 2005, there was a directory of features reporters taped next to the mailbox for our department. It listed 16 names. This did not include editorial staff at INtake (which became, which became Metromix Indy), which at the time numbered about a dozen.

As an old editor once told me, "Politicians lie, but numbers don't." And the numbers for Star features reporting tell a very demoralizing tale.

After a couple of new departures, the number of features reporters at the Star will be down to an eye-popping eight. This includes both the old Star features and INtake staff, which were combined in January 2007.

Today I learned that Neal Taflinger, the prolific nightlife and music reporter/Web guy, has given his notice. I'm not revealing any secrets, since Neal -- known about town as Taffy -- has posted his move on social media. Joining Taffy on his way out the door is Konrad Marshall, arts reporter, who had already announced his attention to leave at the end of August.

Here's a roundup of the survivors. The beats listed are somewhat amorphous, since as you can imagine everyone is picking up other bits of coverage these days:

T.J. Banes - home/garden
Amy Bartner - nightlife/dining
Barb Berggoetz - health/fitness
Jenny Elig - fashion/lifestyles
Jay Harvey - jazz/classical music/dance/theater
Jolene Ketzenberger - food/dining
Cathy Kightlinger - Talk columnist
David Lindquist - pop music

My best wishes to those remaining, who carry on the thankless task of trying to keep lifestyle and arts coverage going.

Check out the new American Craft magazine

Back in April, I was hired by American Craft Magazine to write a review of the European Design exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. It was a fun but challenging assignment, as I have never pretended to be a visual art critic. Still, after attending the symposium, and having interviewed IMA director Maxwell Anderson and design chief R. Craig Miller numerous times about the European show, I thought I did a decent job of critiquing the show.

Anyway, long story short, the story got held from their May/June issue, and has now been published in the August/September issue, which should be on local newsstands now.

Unfortunately, my story is not available on the magazine's web site. I spoke with the editor via e-mail the other day, and she said they like to hold some content for the print version only. I guess I should feel special. So if you want to read my wonderful pose about the IMA show, you'll have to slap down some money for a copy.

I'm a little disappointed that the article didn't run while the IMA exhibit was going on, but it will be traveling around the country. So hopefully somebody will read the review and be inspired to go catch the show, which is not to be missed.

New podcast at The Film Yap

This week's show is about cinematic depictions of aliens interacting with humans, whether (more or less) peaceably in the new "District 9," or head-to-head conflict like "Enemy Mine."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Review: "District 9"

One of the most thrilling movie experiences one can have is walking into a film you know next to nothing about, and being completely transported away to a wholly unexpected destination.

"District 9" is a South African film about an incursion of aliens coming to live on Earth, and being rounded up into a ghetto that gives the movie its name. That's pretty much all I knew about it beforehand.

It sounded like a knockoff of "Alien Nation," a 1988 James Caan flick with a similar theme. "District 9" starts out on an off-kilter, almost humorous note, but keeps layering in surprises and deeper subtexts.

The film unfolds in a documentary style. Our first encounter is with a buffoonish character named Wikus Van De Merwe, who sits in an office and talks in a bouncy sing-song pattern. It turns out he's a bureaucrat with MNU Alien Affairs, the public/private association tasked with overseeing nearly 2 million aliens housed in a shantytown outside Johannesburg.

Through archival footage we learn that the aliens' ship appeared one day over the city, sitting motionless and uncommunicative. Humans eventually cut into the craft and found a horde of starving aliens. Bug-like and chitinous, the aliens -- dubbed "prawns" in the same derogatory way people use terms like "gooks" -- did not seem to have much knowledge of the technology they carried with them.

It was theorized that these creatures were the worker drones of an insect-like alien race, and they certainly didn't seem very smart. They mostly scavenged bits of junk, and seemed to have a particular jones for cat food. So they were hoarded together and put into District 9 more than 20 years ago.

Now the human locals want the aliens moved to a concentration camp out in the countryside, and Wikus has been put in charge of the eviction and relocation. He was chosen solely because he is the son-in-low of the MNU chief, and because he's too out of his depth to oppose the heavy-handed tactics employed by the company's mercenaries. (The head merc is played by David James, who manages to be scary even when he's not doing anything.)

I don't want to say anything more about the plot, other than the relocation mission goes horribly awry, and Wikus finds himself forced to share the aliens' perspective.

Wikus is played by Sharlto Copley, who I was astonished to find is a first-time actor. Copley transforms his character over the course of the film from an inept corporate flunky into a sympathetic figure that the audience roots for. What a debut.

The aliens themselves are entirely computer-generated. Even their voices are not done by actors, but employ a series of clicks and scritches.

Director Neill Blomkamp, who co-write the script with Terri Tatchell, initially keeps his camera far away from the aliens, allowing them to be seen as scary and (literally) inhuman. As the story progresses, he moves in closer and closer on their faces, and picks out one in particular, who uses the human-given name Christopher Johnson. Christopher has a young son and seems craftier than his fellows; the walls of his shack are lined with bits of computers that he's evidently not using just for decoration.

"District 9" was based on a 6-minute short film by Blomkamp, which was discovered by Peter Jackson of "Lord of the Rings" fame, who then scraped together $30 million to make a feature version. I'd say Blomkamp hit the lottery, except it's audiences who are the real winners.

3.5 stars

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

DVD review: "The Class"

"The Class" received some of the highest grades of any film last year, including a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination, and the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. And this was not the result of some stuffy cinephiles indulging in grade inflation.

This mesmerizing French drama unfolds in a cinema verite style in a Parisian classroom, where a multi-racial group of students take on a well-meaning but misguided young teacher. The instructor is played by François Bégaudeau, who wrote the book and screenplay based on his real-life experiences as an inner-city teacher.

I liked the way the school year unfolds organically, with some of the students commanding center stage as the movie begins, but eventually receding into the background as other figures come to the fore.

One girl, Khoumba, has a confrontation with the teacher that ends in a sort of detente where they have disengaged as learner and pupil. And at one point the teacher appears to have made a breakthrough with Souleymane, the tall boy who sits in the back and refuses to do his work, but later on an altercation escalates the tension for the entire class.

The DVD includes some extra features that are fairly limited in scope, but shed a great deal of light on the film's genesis.

An incisive 41-minute making-of documentary takes us right into the classroom where director Laurent Cantent trained multiple cameras on the classroom and encouraged his actors to improvise. Not only that, but he worked with them in workshops for months before shooting began, and their contribution helped in completing the screenplay. There's also some newsreel footage of the students reveling at Cannes.

Less interesting is a commentary by Cantent and Bégaudeau for only two pivotal scenes. Their discussion is interesting enough, but they actually stop and rewind the action so we can cut to the two talking heads. A full-length commentary track, minus the annoying cutaways, would have gotten higher marks.

Movie: 3.5 stars
Extras: 2.5 stars