Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Video review: "The American"


"The American" falls uneasily into the thriller category, but its real thrills happen in between the gunfire.

George Clooney plays Jack -- that's his name, at least some of the time -- a veteran assassin for hire. His last job went bad, some unknown forces are after him, and he's hiding out in a remote Italian village while he waits for more work.

Jack is exacting, meticulous and careful. He does not relish his work but takes pride in doing it well. He has learned through harsh lessons that personal connections are not worth the risk.

But he's getting older, his handler needles him that he's lost his edge, and two denizens of the village end up holding a strong pull for him: The friendship of a kindly priest, and the affections of the local prostitute.

Clooney gives one of his best performances, but it's a severely understated one that shows up mostly in his eyes and a tightening of his jaw. Audiences who have reliably turned out to see the actor in most everything he does largely stayed away this time.

It's their loss: "The American" is a spare, tightly-wound film whose attributes are not immediately obvious. This is less the story of a man who kills for a living, than what that life has extracted from his soul.

Video features are modest in scope, but what there is, is decent.

There are several deleted scenes totaling five minutes. They mostly serve to ratchet up Jack's paranoia.

An 11-minute making-of documentary is fairly standard stuff, though the part about shooting in Italy is enlightening. Everything is much more "informal," one producer says -- which apparently is code for long coffee breaks.

A feature-length commentary track by director Anton Corbijn, a veteran photographer who turned to film late in life, is a bit on the dry side. Could've been much more interesting if they had paired Clooney with him.

Extras are the same for Blu-ray and DVD editions.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 2.5 stars

Monday, December 27, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Woman of the Year" (1942)


The first of nine screen pairings of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy was the least of them -- of those I've seen, anyway. "Woman of the Year" is a farcical comedy more than a romance. It's notable that it's most remembered for an extended skit at the very end of the movie where Hepburn's egghead character makes a total mess trying to make breakfast, with toast shooting across the room and waffle batter blurping out of the griddle.

The lovey stuff is pretty forgettable.

Interestingly, the Spencer/Hepburn romances stick in the mind as middle-aged or even Golden Years couples -- most notably with 1949's "Adam's Rib" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" in 1967. Even in 1942 they were no longer whippersnappers: He was 42 and she 35. The enduring aspect of their nine films together was the depiction of mature love rather than the hotter, more single-minded flame of youthful passion.

She plays Tess Harding, a globe-trotting journalist who specializes in international relations -- think Thomas Friedman meets David Ignatius. He is Sam Craig, star sports columnist. They both write for the same newspaper, the New York Chronicle, but they've never met. When he overhears her on the radio dismissing baseball as a waste of time, he writes a screed denouncing her for being out of touch with the common man. She returns fire with a dismissive column of her own. Eventually the publisher invites them up to the penthouse to get them to kiss and make nice.

This they do with such ardor that they're soon an item. It's in the mold of cinematic romances of that time, in which they're in love by the second date and he's proposing marriage by the fourth. But trouble looms when she's only willing to give a tiny slice of her life to the marriage, and he grows resentful.

Directed by the great George Stevens ("Shane," "Giant") from a screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin -- which won the Oscar that year --"Woman of the Year" is only really interesting as an examination of early, half-hearted feminism. Tess is so consumed by her work that she's never even really thought of marriage and children. Her role model is her aunt Ellen (Fay Bainter), who's won every sort of civic award under the sun, but isn't truly happy because she's never been married. Aunt Ellen has her eye on Fay's own father (Minor Watson), who's been making unrequited moony eyes at her for 15 years since Tess' mother died.

The basic gist of all this interplay is that a woman can be brilliant, accomplished, acclaimed and successful, but she's not truly a woman unless she gives herself to a man.

There's a disturbing sequence toward the middle-end where Tess suddenly adopts a Greek refugee boy named Chris -- a lot of Chrises in Greece, are there? Maybe it's short for Christos -- who does not even speak English. Sam rejects the notion of adopting a child quite sternly, and eventually sneaks him out of the house and gives him back to the refugee home when Tess is away getting her Woman of the Year award. Then Sam packs his stuff and leaves.

The interesting thing here is that Sam is behaving in the classic female mode of this kind of movie -- rather than explaining to his spouse what is wrong, he simply acts more and more annoyed and hurt, expecting her to guess what is wrong with their relationship.

The sexual byplay between the stars is fairly overt, despite the era. I liked some of Hepburn's more kittenish mannerisms, such as purring "Huh-wo, daddy" at Sam when he comes home from work. Before they get married there's a bit where she brings him up to her apartment for a nightcap, and it's made pretty clear that she's enticing him, an overture he refuses because he respects her so darn much.

There's also another long comedy sequence built around a gaggle of interlopers intruding on their wedding night, until everyone finally gets the idea that they desperately want to have sex and depart.

Also worthy of note is Tess' secretary, Gerald (Dan Tobin), who acts as her gatekeeper and manservant. He's clearly supposed to be homosexual, which movies of the time broadcast through sartorial choices -- Gerald is never without a sweater-vest -- and a sing-songy speaking style. Gerald is repeatedly dismissive of Sam while he's courting Tess, and continues the unctuous manner after they're married.

The last line in the movie is after having reconciled, Gerald shows up with a bottle of champagne that Tess is supposed to use to launch a boat. Sam beckons Gerald out back, we hear a crash, and Sam returns with the broken bottle: "I just launched Gerald."

Another in a line of disappointing classics for me, "Woman of the Year" is more a captive of its time than a truly watershed film.

2.5 stars out of four

Friday, December 24, 2010

Review: "The King's Speech"


Everybody's bad at something.

Perhaps you can't shoot a basketball, or your spelling is atrocious. I for one have a terrible memory for names. What is universal about these myriad faults is that we all carefully protect our shortcomings by keeping them private, or finding a way to work around them.

(True fact: I keep a chart of my street block so I know what to call neighbors.)

But what if the one thing you were terrible at also happened to be the sole criteria by which everyone judged you? If your inescapable duty was confounded by your greatest disability?

Such was the fate of King George VI of England, who suffered from a crippling stutter. He was helped by an unconventional Australian speech therapist, and was able to serve as an inspiration to his people during the dark days of World War II.

"The King's Speech," the film about his struggle, is straight out of the school of Inspirational Tales from History. What it lacks in novelty it makes up for in executing this type of movie-making about as well as it can be done.

Colin Firth as the king and Geoffrey Rush as his therapist offer a pair of tremendous performances, in roles that pop off the screen notwithstanding the constraints of a slightly staid screenplay (by David Seidler).

Despite being a loving father and husband, dedicated Navy officer and utterly loyal to the monarchy and his nation, Prince Albert (as he was known before his coronation) was belittled by his family simply because he stammered. Public speeches were embarrassing, halting disasters, both for Albert and the people who had to listen to them.

His father (a brief but memorable appearance by Michael Gambon) regrets the new requirements technology forces upon the monarchy, like his annual Christmas speeches over the radio.

"Now we must invade our subjects' home and ingratiate ourselves," the king complains. "We have become actors!"

The second in line for the throne, Albert was safely shunted to minor appearances where he could keep a low profile, which suited him just fine.

It might never have mattered, until his brother Edward (Guy Pearce), after assuming the crown in 1936, abdicated a few months later to marry an American divorcé. It's interesting to see the different portrayals of this event: Americans regard it as a grand romantic gesture, while Albert and his family see it as foolish and mortifying.

At the prodding of his wife (Helena Bonham Carter), the soon-to-be-king seeks help from Lionel Logue (Rush), whose methods are unorthodox, to say the least. He demands the prince come to his office, rather than calling at the palace. On his home turf, Lionel insists they treat each other as equals -- even presuming to call the prince "Bertie," a familial nickname.

There are also strange breathing exercises, tongue twisters, singing his words and, most memorably, spewing a string of expletives that in of itself earned the film an R rating. (It probably would've gotten a G otherwise.)

Lionel's lessons intensify as Albert takes up the crown -- even burrowing into his personal life. It is Lionel's professional opinion that no child is born a stutterer: Some kind of trauma compels them to be afraid of their own voice.

Firth is by turns droll, arrogant and sensitive as Albert/George -- the sort of pampered son who has more grit and wry humor than anyone suspects. Asked by his daughter what Hitler is shouting about in a newsreel, there's no hesitation to his comeback: "I don't know. But he seems to be saying it rather well."

Director Tom Hooper, who helmed last year's excellent "The Damned United," recognizes the material for what it is and emphasizes its obvious strengths. "The King's Speech" knows exactly how to get its point across.

3.5 stars out of four

Thursday, December 23, 2010

My Top 10 of '10


The year 2010 got off to a slow start cinematically, but picked up steam as we went along. By mid-June I was calling it the worst year for movies in at least a decade, but then late summer smiled on us with "Toy Story 3," "Inception" ... and even a "Twilight" movie that wasn't half bad.

A strong showing of Oscar-contending films in the latter months -- some of which won't hit local theaters until 2011 -- pushed the year into respectable territory.

Here are my picks for the best and worst of 2010.

THE WORST


First, the least.

In selecting the worst movies of the year, I should add the caveat that I haven't seen what are likely the absolute bottom of the barrel. A lot of the flicks that are truly awful, like the relentless annual issuing of a new "Saw" movie, are not screened in advance. It's a little game the studios and critics play: They know their movie stinks, so they don't show it to us, figuring no review is better than a bad review.

So these 10 films are the worst I saw in 2010, or at least that disappointed me the most.

1.   Yogi Bear -- I never thought I'd see a movie that made me look back fondly on "Garfield," but this aggressively awful CG-meets-live action romp sets a new high in low for kiddie fare.

2.    Machete -- Robert Rodriguez made a movie based on one of the fake trailers contained in the "Grindhouse" double feature from a few years ago. It's not nearly as much fun as it seems to think it is.

3.    Legendary -- WWE wrestler John Cena tackles a dramatic role in a movie about real high school wrestling. Tag this one out.

4.    Jonah Hex -- A silly comic adaptation of a bloody comic book, written by the guys who did those awful "Crank" movies.

5.    The Bounty Hunter -- Two likable stars, Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler, in a cynical movie that manages to dredge up every cliché of both the romantic comedy and buddy cop genres.

6.   Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time -- This big-budget summer flick from Disney featured a bunch of Caucasian actors pretending to be Persians, and a plot that pretended to be coherent.

7.    Repo Men -- I give it credit for some bold ideas, but this strange movie about thugs who repossess bodily organs out of live people should've been recalled for a rewrite or five.

8.    The Wolfman -- Hollywood hasn't made a werewolf movie in ages. And after this howlingly bad effort, it probably won't again soon.

9.  The Book of Eli -- An admittedly great-looking movie set in a post-apocalyptic world in which everyone is looking for the last copy of the Bible. Audiences needed a lot of faith to make it through this one.

10.  Wild Grass -- This effort from celebrated filmmaker Alain Resnais is like a parody of every stereotype of European art films: Dense, impenetrable and deliberately off-putting.

 

THE BEST


10.  Tangled -- Some have dismissed it as just another Disney princess movie. If the house that Walt built can still make them this good, I have no problem with many, many more.

9.    Biutiful -- This lovely, dreary Spanish-language film from director Alejandro González Iñárritu is notable mostly for its strong performance by Javier Bardem as a street hustler burdened with a soul and a death sentence.

8.   Freedom Riders -- The best documentary I saw this year. Stanley Nelson's film takes what we think is a well-traversed piece of Civil Rights history, and continually surprises and enlightens us.

7.    True Grit -- Joel and Ethan Coen's oater of a Western is not so much a remake of the John Wayne film as an entirely new vision based on the same book. It's darker, more violent, and better.

6.    Blue Valentine -- A tragic romance story about two people falling in love, intermixed with the same couple's marriage dissolving several years later. Two amazing performances from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams -- a Sundance Film Festival favorite, and now we know why.

5.   How to Train Your Dragon -- The best animated film of 2010, and it had some healthy competition. "Toy Story 3" will win the Oscar, but I deem this DreamWorks effort superior because it created a whole new world, and contained a sneaky theme about overcoming disability.

4.    Inception -- Truly the most audacious, original and innovative film of the year. Yes, the settings and world-within-a-world theme are reminiscent of other films ("Blade Runner," "The Matrix"). But Christopher Nolan's intricately-layered storytelling left audiences amazed and gasping.

3.   Winter's Bone -- Cold and sharp, this outstanding drama from co-writer/director Debra Granik is set among the cloistered confines of poor hill people, but never once does it look down upon them or treat them as a zoological exhibit. Terrific performances by Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes.

2.    127 Hours -- The cinematic performance of the year from James Franco, and another bravura directing job by Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire"). Forget the grisly details about a trapped mountain climber who cut off his own arm. This is the story of a lost soul who was saved by the boulder that pinned him.

1.    The Social Network -- The "Citizen Kane" for Generation Y. In its portrait of a New Media mogul, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, this film from director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin may have taken as many liberties with the facts as Orson Welles did with William Randolph Hearst. But it's a dizzyingly smart, verbose film that highlights how computer code is rewriting the way we communicate.

 

THE REST


Making lists of your favorite things is fun -- except for the anguish of having to leave deserving films off. Here are 15 more movies (in alphabetical order) that didn't make my Top 10, but vied for a spot:


The American
Exit Through the Gift Shop
The Fighter
Get Him to the Greek
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Kick-Ass
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
Morning Glory
Mother and Child
Rabbit Hole
Red Cliff
Salt
Splice
Toy Story 3

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review: "True Grit"


The Coen brothers' remake of John Wayne's signature role seemed like a bad idea. And yet, despite not departing significantly from the 1969 film in plot, they've managed to put an entirely new and highly engaging twist on "True Grit" in terms of tone and mood.

Wayne's outing as one-eyed drunkard/lawman Rooster Cogburn -- he won an Oscar for it, and Jeff Bridges probably will get nominated, too -- was a G-rated picture of high adventure and comedy. The Coen writing/directing duo, Joel and Ethan ("No Country for Old Men"), deliver an unsurprisingly darker version, both in the quantity of the violence and the timbre of the humor.

(Although, how this paean of bloody shootings, stabbings, hangings and severings got a PG-13 rating is another testament to the vagaries of the MPAA.)

Perhaps the Coens' "True Grit" is best thought of not as a remake of the Wayne film, but an entirely new interpretation of the novel by Charles Portis. It is told from the perspective of an older woman remembering the seminal experience of her life at the age of 14 -- her recollections no doubt colored by the passage of time and some intrusion of imagination.

Mattie Ross is surely the most obstinate, opinionated girl from Yell County, Arkansas. After her father is shot down by a no-account halfwit named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), she attends to all the affairs, including transport of the body and haggling with a local businessman over the disposition of his mules.

Mattie is played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld in a film debut that immediately announces the arrival of a young but formidable talent. Her clear-eyed, head-on performance is so immediate and pure that we do more than adore Mattie; we respect the hell out of the little son of a gun.

Set on hiring a U.S. Marshal to hunt down Chaney, she chooses Cogburn because he is reputed to be the meanest. We first meet him being grilled in a courtroom by a defense lawyer who demands to know how many men he has shot in the line of duty. "Shot or killed?" Cogburn lazily retorts, though it doesn't feel like bluster.

Bridges goes completely sideways from The Duke in portraying Cogburn, whom he inhabits with a slouching, slurring, nonchalant competence. Rooster is overly fond of whiskey, and is the first to admit he has grown too old and fat for this line of work, yet there's no denying he gets the job done -- even if it means waylaying culprits rather than arresting them, and arranging facts to fit the outcome.

Mattie tags along through sheer stubbornness; she wants to see the job done, and if possible pull the trigger on Chaney herself. Joining them is La Bouef (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who wears flamboyant buckskin and might seem boastful if he didn't have the goods to back it up.

La Bouef has been hunting Chaney on another warrant for months, and throws in with them, despite Cogburn's constant insults and the presence of a girl. There's also a thrilling, slightly creepy hint of attraction between the Ranger and Mattie, despite at least 20 years age difference.

The Coens' world feels rich and detailed; the characters do and say things not just to further the plot but make us believe they have an expansive history of which we're only seeing a tiny slice.

Cogburn talks while he rides, ruminating over ex-wives and the Green Frog, a tavern he used to own and run. He circles rope around his bedroll to keep snakes out, which sounds like nonsense -- until you Google it and find out it works. (Their soft underbellies don't like the feel.)

The language of the dialogue is comically formal and stiff, with hardly a contraction: "The ground is too hard. If these men wanted a decent burial, they should have got killed in the summer," Cogburn notes.

But the Coens, who love to play around with the conventions of film genres, aren't just goofing: They're setting the audience up.

There's a scene about an hour in of sudden, horrible violence, and we sense the filmmakers have been easing a noose around our necks with the tongue-in-cheek humor and stilted talk. That sharp bloodletting is them jerking our heads back, like the snap of a hangman plying his trade.

Remake, re-imagining, call it what you will -- "True Grit" is truly the Coens' best movie in a decade.

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Year of the Whippersnapper


We're still more than a month away from the announcement of the 2010 Academy Award nominations. Many of the top-contending films have not yet been released in most markets. But I'm making a bold prediction: This year's acting nominations will be notable for the number of young actors given an Oscar nod.

James Franco (age 32) of "127 Hours," Ryan Gosling of "Blue Valentine" (30) and Jesse Eisenberg of "The Social Network" (27) seem like locks to earn Best Actor nominations. In the Best Actress category, Natalie Portman (29) for "Black Swan," Jennifer Lawrence of "Winter's Bone" (20), Michelle Williams (30) of "Blue Valentine" and Carey Mulligan for "Never Let Me Go" -- at age 25, it would be her second nomination in two years -- all appear to have very strong chances.

And in the supporting categories, more youngsters can be expected to compete: Christian Bale (36) for "The Fighter," Andrew Garfield for "The Social Network" (27), Hailee Steinfeld (14) of "True Grit," Amy Adams for "The Fighter" (36) ... and maybe Andrew Garfield again for "Never Let Me Go."

Longer shots out there also lack wrinkled brows or gray hairs: Leonardo DiCaprio (36) for "Inception," Noomi Rapace from "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (31) and maybe even the amazing 13-year-old Chloe Moretz for either of her standout performances of the year: "Kick-Ass" or "Let Me In."

So, tossing all caution aside, I'm ready to declare 2010 the Year of the Whippersnapper.

To understand how this is a break from regular Oscar trends, consider last year's winners: Jeff Bridges (age 60), Sandra Bullock (45), Christopher Waltz (53) and Mo'Nique (42). That's an average age of an even half-century.

The truth is that, although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has deigned from time to time to smile upon actors under the age of 40, the broader trend is for its voters to favor veteran thespians with some snow on the roof and a lengthy body of work to cement their reputations.

(In this predilection they would be reflecting ... themselves: The Hollywood Reporter says the average age of Oscar voters is 57.)

And even when younger performers do get nominations, they're usually the exception: One or two youngsters sandwiched between mature actors in their 40s, 50s and beyond.

But what's notable about 2010 is how performers in their teens, 20s and 30s are expected to make not just token appearances when the nominations are announced, but actually dominate the acting categories.

(For the purposes of this article, I'm using the age actors turned the year their film came out, whether or not the movie had been released by their birthday. Thus Matt Damon, a contender in the supporting actor category for "True Grit," was excluded because he turned 40 in October.)

It's true that in addition to the youths listed above, some seasoned names are expected to be read when the nominations are announced Jan. 25. Most notably: Colin Firth, the 50-year-old star of "The King's Speech" who's shaping up as the Best Actor front-runner; and Annette Bening (52), who will make a strong showing for her nuanced turn in "The Kids Are All Right." (Bening's equally strong work in "Mother and Child" has, alas, been mostly overlooked.)

But consider that if all those names at the top of this article did get nominated: Firth would be competing with a field whose average age is a hair under 30 -- while Bening would be surrounded by nominees who, on average, are exactly half her age!

All this is not to disparage the contributions of older actors and actresses. Personally, Hollywood's bias against actors over 60 and actresses older than 40 is something I continually bemoan. (The discrepancy between the genders is another article.)

As I look back on the year in film, though, what strikes me is the cinematic performances that really bowled me over, the ones that made me stand up and take notice, almost invariably came from someone under 40.

Consider young Hailee Steinfeld, who commands the first 30 minutes or so of "True Grit" with such gumption and fire that some observers are claiming her performance belongs in the leading role category of Best Actress. Or Chloe Moretz, whose incredibly foul-mouthed Hit Girl of "Kick-Ass" was the YouTube sensation of this past spring.

James Franco's turn in "127 Hours" was the most emotionally vibrant thing I saw on a screen in 2010, and although I'm not a fan of "Black Swan," even I admit that Natalie Portman gave the performance of her already lengthy career as a fractured ballet dancer.

Jennifer Lawrence, heretofore best known for TV's "The Bill Engvall Show," gave her teen character in "Winter's Bone" a tired inner wisdom that bespoke the maturity of someone in their twilight days.

Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling offered us a heartbreaking, detailed portrait of a couple falling and and then out of love in "Blue Valentine." Christian Bale's screwy, squirrelly bravado as a crack addict ex-boxer stole the show in "The Fighter." From the same film, who knew fresh-faced Amy Adams could come off so brassy, yet vulnerable?

And Jesse Eisenberg managed to create a character -- which may or may not resemble the real "Social Network" founder, Mark Zuckerberg -- who was reptilian and mercenary and yet, somehow, charismatic and sympathetic.

Yes, performers nearly always get better as they get older, with the ironic reality that the parts available to them grow correspondingly scarcer. But there's nothing like the thrill of seeing a new face making an impression for the first time, or a relatively familiar one surprising us with a role we never knew they were capable of pulling off.

In 2010, the youngsters led the parade.

Video review: "Easy A"


I hope things work out for Emma Stone.

"Easy A" was a smart, literate take on the sexual politics of the high school crucible. No surprise there, since it's based on Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter."
But it turns out this all-too-rare kind of movie doesn't bode well for its star.

Winona Ryder was a revelation in "Heathers," but after a few years on top her career fizzled after that whole shoplifting ordeal. (Meanwhile, her male peers got into much worse scrapes and sailed right along.) Lindsay Lohan looked like Ryder's heir after the clever "Mean Girls" a few years ago, and I think we all know what a cascading train wreck she's become.

Here's hoping Stone, who made quite an impression as a smart girl who pretends to be a floozy, keeps it real.

Olive is a nobody at her school, not so much disliked as anonymous. A virgin, she spreads the rumor that she slept with a college guy to stop her friends from pressuring her into sex. Turns out it gives her a leg up the social hierarchy.

After repeating the trick for a gay friend to stop the harassment he's been getting, Olive soon finds herself the most famous -- make that infamous -- gal in town. Soon every loser and geek around is bribing her to pretend they had sex.

"I fake-rocked your world!" she complains to one under-generous benefactor.
The movie's so smart, in fact, that some of the jokes will sail over the head of some audience members. There's a novelty: A film about high schoolers that challenges those who watch it, instead of indulging them.

Extras are the same for DVD and Blu-ray editions, and are just so-so.

There's a gag reel and Emma Stone's audition tape. The centerpiece is a feature-length commentary track with Stone and director Will Gluck.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 2.5 stars

Monday, December 20, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Seven Days in May" (1964)


"Seven Days in May" is considered one of the all-time great political thrillers, but I found the 1964 film directed by John Frankenheimer a bit stiff and theatrical. It's still a good ripping yarn, but hardly worthy of the accolades that have been heaped upon it.

Partly is that its subject matter -- about an attempted military coup of the United States -- felt a bit stale, even in 1964. The nuclear age spawned a tidal wave of anxiety and fear, and movies like this played upon them. Frankenheimer's own previous film, 1962's "The Manchurian Candidate," touched upon very similar themes.

Also in 1964 we had "Fail Safe" and "Dr. Strangelove," two movies with schockingly similar stories about a runaway American military setting off war with the Soviet Union, that approached the subject from polar opposite ends -- straight and satirical, respectively.

I can only imagine what it must have been like in that year, right after the assassination of an American president for reasons that still remain murky, with all these movies coming out about sinister plots to subvert the presidency and the democratic process. In some ways, it makes the previous decades' duck-and-cover drills seem reassuring.

Rod Serling wrote the screenplay based on the book Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, which was the best-selling novel in the country for almost an entire year. Serling's version centers around three pivotal characters: General James Scott (Burt Lancaster), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Jordan Lyman (Fredric March), president of the United States; and Col. Martin "Jiggs" Casey (Kirk Douglas), the man caught in the middle.

Lyman has just agreed on a proposed treaty with the Soviets to disarm all nuclear weapons. A great outcry has risen up against the movie, calling it foolish, and a gripping opening scene shows a riot between protesters in front of the White House. (Astonishingly, this was shot in front of the actual building. President Kennedy, before his untimely demise, gave his permission due in part to his relationship with Kirk Douglas.)

Scott is the shadow leader of this movement, and Jiggs Casey is his unknowing right-hand man. Casey's internal radar is set off by some communications among senior military leaders over secure channels regarding a wager on the Preakness horse race, to be held next Sunday. Only the leader of the Navy (an uncredited John Houseman) has declined to place a bet.

Casey also gets a visit from "Mutt" Henderson (Andrew Duggan), an old friend who says he's just been given a new post at eComCon -- an installation he's never heard of. With a little digging, it turns out to be a secret military base in the Texas desert established by Scott to train special forces for a military takeover.

Interestingly, the wondering part is quite small -- Casey immediately goes to the president with the plot, and from there it's a battle of wits between the president's advisers and Scott and his cohorts to outflank each other. Lyman was scheduled to attend a huge military practice operation on the Sunday in question, and he correctly guesses that he would have been kidnapped and possibly executed while in Scott's custody.

This is the part of the movie I found weak. Once the president learned of the plot, why wouldn't he immediately fire Scott and have him arrested? There's this whole long section where Lyman frantically searches for proof of his joint chiefs chairman's treason before he can make a move. He sends top advisor Paul Girard (Martin Balsam) to coerce the Navy holdout into signing a confession, while the lush of a senator from Georgia, Raymond Clark, is dispatched to drive around in the desert looking for this mysterious military base. (Edmond O'Brien earned an Oscar nomination for his colorful portrayal.)

All this is hooey. All the president's cabinet and advisers serve at the pleasure of the chief executive, and can be dismissed by him or her at any time, for any reason. Lyman could fire Scott because he doesn't like the way he parts his hair.

There's a powerhouse of a scene near the end where Scott and Lyman confront each other, alone, in the Oval Office. The president reveals that he knows all about the plot, laying out his evidence in a prosecutorial fashion. Scott angrily denounces Lyman as a "weak sister" whose treaty amounts to a willing surrender to the enemy. Lyman persistently demands that Scott resign, and Scott refuses.

It's a fun scene, with Lancaster thundering away about protecting the country, and March makes a tidy speech about democratic processes must be respected or the nation into an abyss. Great acting, fiery dialogue, and all built on a premise that's utterly ridiculous. (My understanding is that in the book, Scott immediately resigns when confronted by Lyman.)

There's also a whole left-handed side plot about Ava Gardner as Scott's former mistress who supposedly has some incriminating letters written by him. Casey, pretending to pitch woo at her, gets his hands on the letters and turns them over to the president to use as leverage against Scott. But Lyman resists the urge to use the underhanded tactic -- which is supposed to demonstrate what a noble character he is.

It's a good, engaging movie -- great-looking, too, with top-notch photography and production design -- but it tends to fall apart when you start kicking the tires and peek under the hood.

3 stars

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Review: "Yogi Bear"


I'm all for dopey flicks designed to keep small children entertained, or at least distracted, for a while. I've got a rugrat myself now, so I'm sure I'll soon be making the acquaintance of Sponge Bob, Barney and Elmo.

But does programming for kids -- I won't deign to call it filmmaking -- have to be as aggressively bad as "Yogi Bear"?

Straight from the lame school of "Garfield" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks," "Yogi" stars live humans interacting with computer-generated versions of cartoon characters. The effect is not convincing, nor is it expected to be. Every minute Yogi and his vertically challenged sidekick Boo Boo are onscreen, they're calling attention to the fact that they're not really there.

Dan Aykroyd does a reasonable facsimile of Yogi's voice, which was originally done by Daws Butler, who was doing a knockoff of Art Carney's character from "The Honeymooners." Justin Timberlake provides the voice of Boo Boo, and instantly wipes out all the good feelings I had about his burgeoning acting career after "The Social Network."

If you remember, Yogi is "smarter than the average bear," and traipses around Jellystone Park with Boo Boo scheming up ways to steal food from visiting humans. Yogi has a major craving for, as it comes out in his rollicking speech, "pick-a-nick baskets."

Tom Cavanaugh plays Head Ranger Smith, who inherited his post from his father and has spent his whole life learning the ins and outs of Jellystone. Alas, attendance has been dropping for years, and his only companionship is dimwitted Ranger Jones (T.J. Miller), who's a rookie but already has eyes on the top job.

Things get shaken up with the arrival of Rachel (Anna Faris) -- or, as Yogi dubs her, "movie-maker lady." She wants to film a documentary about Jellystone's famous talking bear. Though I don't know how famous he can be if nobody comes to the park to see him.
Needless to say, Ranger Smith and Rachel are soon making moony eyes at each other.
The evil mayor (Andrew Daly) is facing a shortfall, and wants to close down Jellystone and auction off its prime acres to the timber company. So it's up to Yogi, Rachel, Smith and Boo Boo to come up with the cash.

Now, think about that last paragraph. The mayor of a city is going to shut down a massive park encompassing thousands of acres? What kind of park like that is inside municipal limits? And even if it were, Jellystone (a parody of Yellowstone) is clearly a national park under federal jurisdiction.

This movie is dumb, dumb, dumb. At 80 minutes long, it felt like eternity sitting through it. My advice: Run. Run now. If your kids really want to see Yogi Bear, show them some of the Hanna-Barbera cartoons.

1 star out of four

Review: "How Do You Know"


What a charming mess of a movie.

James L. Brooks doesn't make a lot of films, directing only six over the past three decades. But the writer/director's efforts are usually good ("As Good As It Gets") and sometimes great ("Broadcast News").

His latest, "How Do You Know," is a discombobulated casserole of attractive performers giving wry, clever performances. It's a classic love triangle, with a federal indictment and paternal conflict thrown in.

Since the cast is so likable, and Brooks is famous for his touch with actors, I'm left to conclude that the film's fatal flaws lie with the script. It feels less like a coherent narrative than a series of vignettes in which the characters say improbably witty things and act in ways that aren't tethered to rational behavior. We sense them performing for the camera.

Reese Witherspoon is an actress who an audience instinctively wants to hug. No matter the role she brings a plucky, sweet indomitability to her character. Something to do those big, guileless blue eyes paired with that stubborn chin of hers. "Spunk" is a word that was created with Witherspoon in mind.

She plays Lisa Jorgensen, a veteran of the U.S. women's softball team. But at age 31 she's lost a step, and soon finds herself without a job. Strapped of options, she agrees to move in with her new boyfriend, Matty, a professional baseball pitcher.

Owen Wilson plays Matty as a little boy who never grew up, though he's been infused with a good deal of juvenile libido and New Age-y malapropisms. Matty's not a bad guy, and he wants to treat Lisa right, but he's too used to having everything handed to him to be truly capable of thinking of another.

Lisa is horrified when, after spending her first night at Matty's swank Manhattan apartment, he offers a pink sweat suit to wear from a pile of them he keeps for just such occasions, in a variety of sizes. That's typical for Matty, who puts an agreeable spin on piggish behavior.

The X factor in her life is George, a corporate exec who is the target of a government investigation into wire fraud. A straight arrow, George has no idea what it's about, but the company gives him the boot and treats him as a persona non grata -- even though his father (Jack Nicholson) is the founder.

George and Lisa hook up on a blind date, just a night for each of them to get away from their troubles for awhile, and find a spark there. Even though he's morose and self-deprecating over his situation, George still impresses her as the sort of decent guy Matty only think he is.

George is played by Paul Rudd, a supporting actor who's finally getting his big shot in leading roles. Rudd smiles and kvetches, and somehow we like him for all his obvious weaknesses. (By the way, Witherspoon and Rudd were actually a cinematic couple before back in 1998's forgettable "Overnight Delivery.")

I liked all of the cast, even though I didn't really buy them as real people. Nicholson adds some droll moments as George's dad, who cares deeply about is son but is also working the angles to protect his own hide. And Kathryn Hahn is a delight as Annie, George's worrywart secretary and the one person from work who doesn't ostracize him when times get tough.

"How Do You Know" contains never a dull moment, but plenty of quizzical ones where we don't really understand what's going on or why the people we're watching do what they do.

2.5 stars out of four

Review: "TRON: Legacy"


The thing everyone remembers about 1982's "TRON" are the light cycles and the discus fights. I watched it again recently (having barely any memory of it) and was surprised to find these action sequences -- which represented some of the first computer-generated imagery -- comprised barely five minutes of the film.

"TRON: Legacy," the much-delayed sequel to the original that flopped at the box office but became a cultural touchstone, is all about the toys. There are light cycle duels, discus fights, some aerial dogfights, and about a dozen other new kinds of CGI mayhem.

Of course, with the benefit of nearly 30 years of technology, everything looks waaaay cooler. The special effects of "TRON" are laughably crude now, while those of "TRON: Legacy" are cutting edge.

The movie aims for a little soul, too, and that's where it gets self-indulgent and silly. The first film seemed to poke fun at itself a little, or at least recognize its modest ambitions as lite sci-fi for kiddies. But the sequel has to go all save-the-world apocalyptic on us.

Still, it's an undeniably entertaining flick, a cornucopia of eye candy and family-friendly violence.

If you don't remember the plot of the original, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) was a rebel video game designer who got zapped into the world created by computers. It's a place populated by Programs, who here are thinking, sentient beings trying to carry out their intended function. As a User, Flynn is essentially a god, and uses his powers to tumble the reigning tyrant.

No doubt you've heard about the new movie's big trick, which is that Jeff Bridges plays dual roles as Flynn and Clu, the program he created to run things in a more benevolent fashion. Clu took over and remade things in his vision, and Flynn's fate has remained a mystery for the past 21 years.

All things now rest in the hands of his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund), who is officially the inheritor of his corporate empire, but is more interested in pulling a little cyber-terrorism on the company. That, and leading the police on chases aboard his Ducati motorcycle -- boy, I wonder where that skill will come in handy!?!

Sam has serious abandonment issues, so when his dad's old partner Alan (Bruce Boxleitner, who also plays the briefly-seen title character, Tron) says he got a message from Flynn's old arcade headquarters, it piques Sam's interest. Needless to say, he soon finds himself transported into his dad's digital world and forced to fight in the gladiator-style games.

The look of everything in rookie director Joseph Kosinki's world, from the costumes to the vehicles to the buildings, is sleek and shiny. As before, everything is edged in colored lights to announce its allegiance -- white for Sam and other good guys, red for the baddies, and Clu gets his own special burnt orange to let you know he's in charge.

There's a lot of other gobbledygook cluttering things up. Something about "Isos" -- isomorphic algorithms, or special programs that weren't created but just spontaneously evolved. Flynn, eventually tracked down in a self-imposed exile that's part Zen warrior and part Jeff Lebowski, says these Isos are the panacea to all mankind's ills, and will solve healthcare, science and philosophy conundrums.

Old Jeff Bridges looks great, haunted and resigned to his fate, but the young version represented by Clu isn't so convincing. The eyes don't read quite right, maintaining a doll's placidity, and when Clu attempts a smile it looks like someone slipped a switchblade between his ribs.

There's been a lot of talk from technology-embracing directors about using CGI to allow older actors to play their younger selves, or vice-versa, or even digitizing John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart up from the grave. For a movie that makes pretensions at warning us about the limits of technology, "TRON: Legacy," while indisputably fun, still shows a few of its own.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Review: "The Fighter"


A lot of boxing movies profess to be about human relationships, when all they really care about is staging mayhem in the ring. Take a look at the "Rocky" movies, in which the fighter's personal life became more and more of a sideshow to the bloodletting.

"The Fighter" is a true anomaly, then: A moving drama about two brothers in which boxing is merely a backdrop for their familial tussles.

Mark Wahlberg plays Micky Ward, a welterweight legendary for his ability to withstand punishment, and Christian Bale is his brother Dickie Eklund, a former contender turned crack addict. Dickie is "The Pride of Lowell," their rough-hewn hometown, skating by on the past glory of having once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard (but lost the fight).

Wahlberg is a solid, emotionally resonant presence as Micky, the little brother perpetually in the shadow who learns to step into the light. But Bale is lights out as Dickie, in a vibrant performance as a skeevy, squirrely screw-up who knows he's a burden on others, but can't shake his bad habits.

With his face leaned out to almost emaciated, broken smile and patchy hair, Bale is a striking, pitiable figure who nevertheless seems to have boundless reserves of energy and cockiness. He's a walking car wreck, and we can't look away.

David O. Russell directs -- his first feature in six years; payback for nasty run-ins with George Clooney and Lily Tomlin? -- with a steady, sure hand. At first glance the Ward/Eklund clan seems like a ridiculous caricature of blue-collar resentfulness and big, awful hairdos. But over time we come to care about this screeching, warring clan.

Melissa Leo, in a terrific performance of her own, plays their mother Alice, whose love for her children is so deep that doesn't see how she strangles them. She insists on acting as Micky's manager and keeping Dickie as the trainer, despite the fact his career is languishing, and Dickie doesn't even show up to workouts.

An HBO camera crew is following Dickie around, and he loudly tells everyone it's for a documentary about his comeback -- despite the fact that he is 40 years old and, as Micky observes, "doesn't have a tooth in his head that's his own." Later, he will be embarrassed by the reflection it shows.

After a promising start, Micky's had a bad run of losses. His situation isn't helped by Dickie cajoling him into a last-minute bout against a fighter who's 20 pounds heavier -- in a sport where ounces and inches are carefully measured and leveraged.

Micky doesn't even have the confidence to approach Charlene (Amy Adams), the plucky bartender at the local hangout, without a shot in the arm from his father (Jack McGee). He takes her to see a subtitled movie on the snobby side of town, not because he's trying to impress her but because he's ashamed to show his battered face in Lowell.

Charlene and Alice are like oil and water -- not to mention Micky's seemingly endless gaggle of sisters, who label Charlene "MTV girl" and see her as pulling their brother away from the family. These women seem silly at first, but you realize the bond they zealously protect is the most important thing in their world.

I kept expecting "The Fighter" to spill into the boxing ring and stay there, but screenwriters Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson wisely keep the focus on the braying, barking family. If you take out the big fight at the end -- which, tellingly, isn't among those Ward fought that sportswriters have dubbed the greatest contests ever -- I doubt there's even 10 minutes of boxing action.

Here's a gut-punch lesson: Sometimes those closest to you can be a poison. And sometimes you've swallowed so much of that venom, you can't stand to have it out of your bloodstream.

3.5 stars out of four

Review: "Tamara Drewe"


"Tamara Drewe" is a story about writers, and does a lovely job of depicting the interior worlds they inhabit, and the fragile egos that often accompany a lifetime spent mostly inside one's own head.

It's a comedy, but in that distinctly British mode that always involves a generous ladling of misery. It succeeds as a comedy of manners and observation, though it errs in presenting us with a wide array of interesting characters, and then selecting the least compelling among them to drive the story.

The film is based on a comic strip by Posy Simmonds that is essentially a modern take on Thomas Hardy's fourth book, "Far from the Madding Crowd." The screenplay by Moira Buffini even gifts us with a Thomas Hardy scholar, one of a half-dozen or so authors living at Stonefield, a writer's retreat in the idyllic (and fictional) village of Ewedown.

An inside joke is that the Hardy expert, who's been toiling away on a book about him for two years, spends much of his time convincing others that Hardy is not a dreadful bore.
"Tamara Drewe" is anything but dull.

Stonefield is the demesne of Nicholas Hardiment, a successful writer of crime novels all featuring the same hero, and his long-suffering wife Beth (Tamsin Greig), who manages the farm and the writers-in-residence, while bearing his numerous affairs. Nicholas is played by Roger Allam in a spot-on performance as a man who holds nothing but condescension for those around him, including his fans, but is smart enough to conceal it.

Storytellers are really liars and thieves, Nicholas sermonizes, and seems intent on proving his own platitude.

The guest writers are mostly would-be and wannabe authors, and one suspects Nicholas only keeps them around for the extra income. Glen, the Hardy scholar, is the only American in the group, and seems more interested in sticking his nose into Stonefield's ongoing passion plays than finishing his book. Glen is played by Bill Camp in a wondrous turn that lets the audience see him thinking.

Things are shaken up with the arrival of Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton), a local girl who was mostly known for her impish sense of humor and huge nose. She's since had the nose bobbed into a cute lightly-freckled button, and has become a thriving columnist for a London newspaper.
The ostensible purpose of her return is to fix her family's old home up for sale, but there's clearly some puckish pride in showing off to the yokels how luminous she turned out.

All the men at Stonefield are instantly transfixed the moment Tamara climbs over the neighboring fence wearing short-shorts -- none more so than local handyman Andy Cobb (Luke Evans), who had a fling with her when they were teens. She hires Andy to renovate her home -- which used to belong to his family -- and maybe measure her personal drapes.

Things spin sideways when Tamara falls for Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper), the drummer and songwriter for a famous rock band, Swipe. Soon the tiny town is atwitter over a famed musician residing in their midst. Andy, meanwhile, can't believe he lost out to a guy who wears makeup.

It's around this point that the plot takes an unexpected, and for me unappreciated, turn. Two 15-year-old girls (Jessica Barden and Charlotte Christie), who had been acting as sort of the local Greek chorus commenting on the comings and goings and trystings of the main characters, suddenly jump into the driver's seat and speed off.

Things eventually get righted, but I kept yearning for the focus to return to the flighty Tamara, the drolly narcissistic Nicholas and the self-deprecating Glen. Instead, we spend an entire reel of film with the screechy, whiny, manipulative brats at the fore.

I don't hold it too much against the film, though, because director Stephen Frears ("The Queen") has such a great touch with his actors, that everything that comes before or after that wrong turn is such a delight. These characters are so vibrant, flawed and alive, I just loved spending time with them.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Video review: "Despicable Me"


Sometimes you like where a movie starts out, but not where it ends up. Such is the case with "Despicable Me," an animated caper about a world populated by super-villains -- no heroes in sight.

Unfortunately, the film starts out snarky and clever, and slowly devolves into a retread of the Grinch story: Black-hearted baddie learns the value of love, and friendship, and little girls who adore unicorns. It's still a fun flick, more for tykes than teens.

Steve Carell voices the Russian-sounding Gru, who has a bulbous body, skinny toothpick arms and legs, and a nose that could be used as a weapon. He looks like a cross between Dr. Evil and Uncle Fester.

Gru dreams of being top dog of the criminal underworld, but so far his best caper is swiping the JumboTron from Times Square. Meanwhile, his nemesis Vector (Jason Segel) foil's Gru's plan to steal the moon by making off with the shrink ray he just stole himself. How rude!

Gru recruits three orphan girls as his unwitting accomplices, and soon finds his heart's no longer in the whole world domination thing. Now it's ballet recitals and quality time instead of building killer robots.

Maybe it's the boy in me, but I wished the movie had given the trio of girls the boot, and stuck with the wicked stuff.

Extra features, just like the movie, are geared more toward small children than general audiences.

The DVD version comes with a commentary track by directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, a featurette on the film's music, "The World of Despicable Me" and a game, Gru's Rocket Builder.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, and there's several more games, a 16-minute feature on the voice cast, and Gru-Control: Funny pop-up features during the movie starring Gru's yellow minions.

Best of all: Three all-new shorts starring various characters from the film. My fave: Minion Orientation Day!

Movie: 2.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, December 13, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Tron" (1982)


"Tron" is at once a supremely silly movie and a groundbreaking one. Watching it nearly 30 years on it's hard to think that Disney saw it as anything other than a merging of "Star Wars"-style science fiction with the rising video game craze -- more market convergence than artistic endeavor.

A simple metric I use to measure the impact a film had on me is how much of it I remember years down the road. The less that sticks with me, the less it mattered in my cinematic life. And I have to confess that I remembered virtually nothing about "Tron." When I saw the trailers for the sequel, "Tron: Legacy" coming out this week, I was mystified by references to Flynn and CLU and Master Control Program.

And yet, for millions of others, "Tron" has endured.

Its special effects, which frankly looked chintzy back in its day and appear comically simplistic now, still represented the first major Hollywood film to employ computer-generated imagery, or CGI, on a large-scale basis. Yes, it was crude stuff, but it was the first stumbling steps of a whole new realm of filmmaking technology.

"Tron" is best seen as the maiden voyage of an expedition that has led us to wonders like Gollum from the "Lord of the Rings" movies and "Avatar."

Hey, Christopher Columbus' ships were leaky deathtraps that took months to cross the ocean, but they got him where he needed to go.

Watching it again recently, it was much better than I remembered. It's still a somewhat dimwitted kiddie flick, but is still enjoyable in a schlocky kind of way.

The thing that most stood out for me is that the title comes not from star Jeff Bridges' character, but from Bruce Boxleitner's. Bridges plays Kevin Flynn, a talented young video game designer ousted by the mega-corporation Encom. It seems the boss, Ed Dillinger (David Warner), stole several of Flynn's game designs and now he's hacking into the system in search of proof and a payday.

Alan Bradley (Boxleitner) still works at the company, and has come up with a security program that will not only protect their system, but also serve as watchdog over the Master Control Program, or MCP, to which Dillinger has turned over an increasing amount of control. Master Control, as is the wont of all 1980s computers, grows sentient and moves to eliminate the interference of those pesky humans.

The cleverest conceit of writer/director Steve Lisberger's script is having all the principle actors play dual roles inside the computer world. Here, all computer programs are thinking individuals who want to carry out their intended functions, only to have them blocked or usurped by MCP. The concept of humans or "users" creating and controlling them has been forbidden, and those who persist in believing thusly are treated as part of a cult.

I also loved that everything there happens on computer time -- which is to say, very very fast. Someone refers to something deep in to the future as being 200 nanoseconds away. The long, evil reign of Master Control began earlier in the same humans' day, when Dillinger shut off his programmers' access.

Boxleitner, of course, plays Tron, who is something of a resolute knight-errant, questing to restore faith in the Users. Flynn's hacking program is Clu, which was captured by Master Control and "de-rezzed" early in the movie. Then Flynn himself is atomized by a laser and transported into the computer world, where as a User he finds he has certain god-like powers to manipulate reality.

Warner had three roles: Dillinger, the voice of MCP, and as Sark, the evil general who carries out its orders. Master Control is Sauron-like, an unmoving entity who wields great power despite being little more than a disembodied voice and face.

Warner has a great, laughable line where they're trying to break through a force field in pursuit of Tron, and he turns to his henchman and shouts, "Bring in the Logic Probe!" For pure '80s cheese, this dialogue rivals "No! Not the bore worms!" from "Flash Gordon."

Cindy Morgan plays the love interest of Alan, Flynn and Tron. Flynn finds that Alan has stolen his girl in the real world, and finds the dynamic replicated in the computer one. As is often the case in movies of this sort, the lead female is completely unnecessary to the plot, and could be written out of the story with little effect.

I was surprised to find that the video game sequences with the light bikes and discuses, which are what everyone seems to remember most about the movie, take up such a small part of it. I still haven't puzzled out the deal with the Recognizers -- those strange, obelisk-like structures that fly around the computer world in search of prey.

I did enjoy "Tron," though it's sort of like my fondness for "Clash of the Titans" -- basking in its nostalgic glow while recognizing the hokiness of its charms.

3 stars out of four


Thursday, December 9, 2010

Review: "The Tourist"


I enjoyed "The Tourist." It's a skillfully-made bit of weightless piffle. No, it will not add anything memorable to the cinematic lexicon, or the filmographies of its stars, Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. But has its charms, and they are not to be easily dismissed.

The film is directed by German filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck -- I had to check his name six times to make sure I had the spelling right -- who directed the outstanding film, "The Lives of Others," in 2006. (If you haven't seen it, get thee to a Blockbuster, or your Netflix account.) The film is gorgeous to gaze upon, with its loving, almost fetishistic ogling of the city of Venice. If I were working for the Venice Visitors Bureau, I'd be pre-ordering copies of the DVD by the barrel full.

For viewing pleasure there is also Angelina Jolie. I commented to some of my fellow critics after the screening that watching Jolie is practically a sustaining entertainment unto itself. If a movie consisted of just footage of her walking around her house, doing chores and such, I'd probably watch it. Yes, I've heard people (mostly women) comment about the strange, sinewy contours of her body and how they don't match her face. Personally, I think that's part of her appeal -- she has an otherworldly quality. She's like Galadriel from "The Lord of the Rings" -- so beautiful it is in some ways terrifying.

Johnny Depp is not nearly so lovely -- after decades of defiance, his boyish face is finally starting to swell and droop a little -- but I adored the sad quality he gave to his character, Frank Tupelo, a community college math teacher from Madison, Wisconsin. Frank is a mark, a patsy. Elise Clifton-Ward (Jolie) chooses him to sit next to on the train from Paris to Venice simply because he matches the height and build of another man. Elise, who you may have figured out by now is a spy, is using Frank as a decoy to convince the small army of other spies and gangsters tailing her that Frank is the man they're after.

But she begins to feel badly for flirting with him, because Frank is such a sweet sad sack of a man. He smokes one of those fake electric cigarettes so he can get his nicotine fix without annoying others, wears his hair long and his beard short, and favors clothes that resemble what The Tramp character dresses like whenever he strikes it rich in one of Charlie Chaplin's movies. Frank tells Elise that his wife left him, though the spies -- who are constantly photographing and checking everything -- soon learn that she died in a car accident.

The plot is a classic Hitchcockian one built around false identities and double-crosses and a MacGuffin. In this case the red herring is Frank Pierce, Elise's former lover and the one everybody is after. Shaw, the British mobster (Steve Berkoff) Pierce stole billions of dollars from, wants his money back and a pound of flesh. The British government, with the aid of the local Italian police, wants Pierce for back taxes -- though how a government can tax stolen money is a bit unclear. Paul Bettany plays the unctuous spymaster pulling all the strings.

The story makes little sense, but it's not supposed to. There's a big ballroom scene, simply so we can look at a lot of gorgeous people dressed to the nines. There's a boat chase or two, because it's Venice, damnit, and not having one would be like setting a movie at Niagra Falls and nobody goes over. There's a big surprise ending, though if you're cleverish you'll have guessed at it long before it arrives.

You've probably guessed by now that I'm not really interested in reviewing this movie, but I like talking about it. Maybe that's because it's like a fancy sundae, a concoction of sweet thrills and empty calories. We shouldn't take too long admiring it, because it'll melt if we do. Just scoop it up, enjoy the sugary rush and smile.

I found it really interesting that in this movie, wherever Angelina Jolie goes, every single man (and many of the women) stop whatever they're doing to stare at her. I don't mean sneak furtive glances, but stop in their tracks, turn their heads and watch as she walks by. It actually grows to be comical. I mean, I just wrote a few paragraphs ago about how I think she's so hubba-hubba, but c'mon -- the entire world doesn't halt just because a pretty girl is in the vicinity.

It reminds me of some feminist film theory I read back at NYU that had to do with looking. The camera gazes at women in much the way that men do, the thinking went, and it becomes a game of ping-ponging voyeurism: We watch the woman being stared at by the men, and she's aware of their gaze and responds to it, and so forth. I thought it mostly hooey, but they'd have a field day with this movie.

I'll keep going. Jolie's other big movie this year was "Salt," in which she also played a spy. There was a scene early on where she has to escape out of the CIA building where she had been a double agent, and there's a long sequence where she gets trapped outside on a ledge, barefoot after dumping her unwieldy pumps, and we get quite a leering look at her legs. I remember a lot of female observers saying the whole setup was just an excuse to show off Jolie's assets. Maybe so.

Except in "The Tourist," Johnny Depp gets stuck in almost the exact same situation: On the run, out on a ledge and traipsing across rooftops without shoes and wearing only his PJs. So there. Although I'll admit Depp's legs aren't as comely.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Review: "Black Swan"


Desperately desiring to be profound but often profoundly silly, "Black Swan" takes high-minded American cinema down a notch or three. This unrelentingly serious drama about a ballerina's psychotic breakdown while preparing for the lead in "Swan Lake" is swamped by a hip-deep layer of theatricality and artifice.

Director Darren Aronofsky ("The Wrestler") and a trio of screenwriters present us with a trio of main characters, and one or two tertiary ones, who we do not for a second believe could exist in the real world. As Nina Sayers, the ingenue tapped to be the ballet company's new leading light, Natalie Portman draws a character so repressed and fearful, it's like she stopped growing at the age of 8.

Perpetually tremulous and paranoid, Nina makes for one pitiable protagonist.

After the aging star -- played by Winona Ryder, and doesn't that make us all feel old -- is given the boot, egomaniacal director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) taps Nina to play the Swan Queen, even though he has doubts about her ability to tackle the darker twin role of the Black Swan.

Thomas is every cliché of the domineering patriarchal artist rolled into one, right down to his insistence on bedding his leading ladies.

Lastly, and least credibly, is Mila Kunis as Lily, the new dancer who becomes Nina's understudy/doppelganger. With her imprecise but vibrant dancing style, Lily was born to play the temptress Black Swan, just as Nina was meant to be the pure, virginal Queen.

Kunis has the face of an angel and the voice of a Valley Girl (a perfect fit for her day job, voicing a TV cartoon character). Lily is carefree and flirtatious, and keeps seeking out the clearly unreceptive Nina for friendship, even after their encounters become progressively confrontational.

Barbara Hershey plays Nina's fantastically over-protective mother, who makes Mommie Dearest resemble June Cleaver. A former dancer herself, mother crushes her daughter with infantilizing TLC as if to prevent her from ever growing into something other than a "frightened little girl."

As if mother's projection of her failed aspirations onto her daughter wasn't obvious enough, Aronofsky and company hammer it home in one groan-inducing scene where she drops a mention to her own career: "The one I gave up to have you."

As opening night draws closer, Nina grows more and more anxious about her ability to perform -- and her mental state becomes more and more unhinged. After Lily is named her understudy, she becomes convinced the interloper is out to sabotage her career and take Nina's place at center stage.

The result is a lot of computer-generated imagery of Lily's face morphing into Nina's and back again. She even starts to develop a rash on her shoulder that matches the winged tattoo Lily just happens to have on her back.

And Portman and Kunis share a supposedly scorching bedroom scene in which the actresses elevate coyness into comedy.

Is Lily really just Nina's repressed sexuality bursting to get free? Are they disparate souls blending into one? Splintered fragments of Aronofsky's high-speed blender puree of Tchaikovsky's ballet?

Who knows? And, in the end, really cares?

This mush-brained psychological thriller is basically Ingmar Bergman's "Persona" as interpreted via "Fight Club," pressed through the sieve of a high school drama class festering with personality conflicts.

2 stars out of four

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Video review: "Inception"



With a few months' distance, "Inception" is looking more and more like the most audacious movies -- and certainly one of the finest -- of 2010.

Writer/director Christopher Nolan's ("The Dark Knight") fever dream of a sci-fi thriller puts together a team of thieves who steal into their victim's subconscious. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), the best in the business, has spent so much time in "dreamspace" that he has trouble discerning it from reality -- especially a projected image of his wife, who has the nasty habit of showing up to sabotage his missions.

Then Cobb receives the ultimate challenge: Tapping into the dreams of a multinational corporation CEO (Cillian Murphy) not to pilfer information, but to plant an idea that he'll think is his own. It's called inception, and it's dangerous and, most experts deem, impossible.

Yes, "Inception" has a plot so labyrinthine that it may require multiple viewings to make sense of it all -- which is why it's the type of movie that's a perfect fit with home video.

As Dom and his crew navigate twisty constructed realities -- lavishly rendered via computer animation -- the stakes keep getting higher the deeper they go.
What a thrill ride for the intellect.

Extra features are a bit scarce in the DVD version, but upgrade considerably with Blu-ray.
The DVD contains just four featurettes on the making of the film, mostly having to do with production design issues like creating the Japanese castle seen in the opening sequence.

The centerpiece of the Blu-ray features is "Extraction Mode" -- a pop-up feature with about 50 minutes of video covering many aspects of production.

Also interesting is "Dreams: Cinema of the Subconscious," a 44-minute documentary hosted by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt talking to scientists specializing in dreams. One expert even likens dreaming to the everyday state of psychotic patients.

Other goodies: Art galleries, a 14-minute motion-comic prologue, a digital copy of the film, and the complete musical score by Hans Zimmer.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, December 6, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Of Mice and Men" (1939)


I've always felt that the characters of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" were more allegories for different facets of humanity rather than believable, flesh-and-blood people.

It's pretty obvious, for example, that the gigantic man-child Lennie Small represents the undeveloped id -- pure, innocent, harmless in thought but capable of an instinctual lashing out at those who hurt him. Lon Chaney Jr., not yet typecast as the monster in endless creature features, made Lennie an iconic character whose rolling speech patterns and fumbling charm would influence generations of portrayals on stage and screen.

His partner, George Milton, is the common man who yearns for a better life away from back-breaking ranch work bucking bales for some uncaring boss. He and Lennie share a dream of owning their own stake, a little place where they can "live off the fat of the land." As played by Burgess Meredith, George is resolute but not stubborn, clever but not calculating, doesn't look for a fight but doesn't back away from one, either.

Curley, the pugnacious son of the boss, is fiercely protective of his beautiful new wife, and has a chip on his shoulder the size of the moon -- particularly against big men like Lennie. Short-statured but a former semi-pro boxer, Curley (Bob Steele) is in some ways Lennie's shadowy reflection -- impulsive, instinctual, vindictive. He never seems to think more than one step ahead of his actions. He can only hold a few thoughts in his head at time, mostly blind rage and jealousy, in much the same way Lennie is fixated on small soft creatures and objects he can stroke.

Both men are singular in purpose -- Lennie to adore, and Curley to despise.

Curley's wife -- played by Betty Field and credited as Mae, though she's only known in the book as "Curley's wife" -- is deathly bored by life on the ranch. Without anything to do or anyone to talk to, she takes to flirting with and teasing the ranch hands, knowing full well it will send Curley into another rage and have him giving "the old one-two" to some unlucky employee.  We suspect that even though Curley's wife expresses disgust for all the fights she causes, she secretly harbors joy for holding the center of attention.

From the 1939 film, I'm most intrigued by Slim (Charles Bickford), the mule skinner and "prince of the ranch." Slim is looked up to by all the other ranch hands, and is the one man Curley dares not provoke. He takes an instant liking to George and Lennie, though he's careful not to show favoritism. Slim is the only character who understands that George kills Lennie out of love and pity, after he oafishly breaks Curley's wife's neck when she foolishly invited him to stroke her hair.

For me, Slim's critical moment comes in the showdown between Carlson (Granville Bates), a crusty older worker, and Candy (Roman Bohnen), the one-handed old man. Carlson can't stand the stink of Candy's ancient, decrepit dog, calling it a travesty to keep the animal alive when it's no use to itself. Candy is deeply attached to the animal, perhaps his only true friend in the world, and looks to Slim to defend him.

But Slim admits it's probably for the best that the dog be put down, and Candy allows Carlson to take it outside and shoot it in the back of the head -- the same way George will later kill Lennie, and for much the same reasons.

Slim, I think, represents the best of mankind, the rational and upstanding side, that nevertheless often stands aside and lets evil come to pass. The natural state of humanity is to be kind to each other, Steinbeck says -- holding George and Lennie up as an imperfect example -- until the twisted selfishness and moral rot represented by, respectively, Curley and his wife warps the way things were intended.

Slim, unafraid to stare down Curley and defend his own reputation, is reluctant to interfere when others become a target. It's an old-school notion of virility, in which a man must stand up for himself, or he's worthless. Slim allows the brewing trouble between Curley and Lennie to boil over not because he's afraid, but because he believes it's not his business to get involved.

It's interesting how the reputation of this film has waned and peaked over time. Directed and produced by Lewis Milestone from a screen adaptation by Eugene Solow, it received four Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. It was the first major film adaptation of a Steinbeck property, rushed into theaters before 1940's "The Grapes of Wrath," which went on to enjoy a much more hallowed reputation.

The 1939 version saw something of a revival in the 1970s and '80s, including a stage adaptation at the Steppenwolf Theatre starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich, which they would go on to reprise in a 1992 film directed by Sinise. Still, other than Lon Chaney's portrayal of Lennie, his film has faded in memory, and unfairly so.

Aaron Copland's evocative musical score -- his first for a feature film -- was also nominated for the Academy Awards.

3.5 stars out of four