Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Video review: "Biutiful"

While it's not a film for everyone, "Biutiful" has rich rewards for those who appreciate sad foreign films with elliptical storylines.

I admit I'm not usually a fan of these types of movies, but this moving drama from writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Babel," "21 Grams") stars Javier Bardem in an Oscar-nominated performance as a man caught between worlds. It's a heartbreaking film that is a joy to watch.

Bardem plays Uxbal, a conflicted man working the back alleys and sweatshops of Barcelona. He tries to find jobs and homes for illegal immigrants from Asia and Africa. Uxbal genuinely cares about these people, but he makes sure to get his cut of the action.

Meanwhile, he's face with the certainty that his terminal stage cancer will soon claim his life, and he struggles to secure a future for his two children in the face of his ex-wife's erratic mental state. One of the immigrants, a woman named Ige, comes to live with his family after her own is torn apart despite Uxbal's interventions.

The best thing about the film is the relationship between Uxbal and his ex-wife, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez). We sense the years of abuse and estrangement forming an ocean between them, but the deep ties of affection still bind them together. Uxbal's greatest test is whether he can resist her bottomless neediness for the betterment of their children.

The only element that doesn't really fit into this strange but wonderful mix is Uxbal's supernatural ability to speak with dead spirits. It's the one piece of this sad, sweet gumbo that just doesn't fit.

Extra features -- the same for Blu-ray and DVD versions -- are rather modest in scope, but impactful.
There's about six minutes of interviews with the principle actors, and a featurette on some of the second-tier crew. Most interesting is a 21-minute documentary shot by Iñárritu during production on a Flip cam. It's packed with behind-the-scenes moments that are worth visiting.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 2.5 stars

Monday, May 30, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Monte Walsh" (1970)

As I've gotten older, I've found that I have more appreciation for movies that are not necessarily driven by a story. "Monte Walsh" is an excellent example; I think a twentysomething me would've found it a bit slow and uneventful, especially for a Western.

Yes, there are a few shootouts in this 1970 minor gem based on the novel by Jack Shaefer, who also wrote "Shane." But it's more a contemplation on the end days of cowboys, getting old and letting go of the way things have always been. I'd call it a character study in the mold of "Five Easy Pieces" or "Fat City."

With the relationship between two cowpokes at the heart of the film, it also very much reminded me of "Lonesome Dove." Lee Marvin plays the title character, a taciturn cowpuncher who silently laments the way the railroads, homesteaders and money men have slowly washed away the open freedom of the range.

Jack Palance, in a rare role where he plays a character of good heart, is Chet Rollins, who shares Monte's affection for the cowboy life but recognizes that its time is nearly over. He's been nurturing a quiet romance with a well-to-do widow in town, and eventually marries and settles down to run her hardware store. "Nobody gets to be a cowboy forever," he advises Monte.

Times are rough and work is hard to find. But Monte and Chet have a reputation for being able to do anything on a horse you can imagine, and are able to find jobs at the Slash Y ranch run by Brennan (Jim Davis), an old boss now overseeing the operation for a company back East known only as Consolidated.

The first third or so of the film is a lot of hootin' and hollerin' good times, as cowboys trade warm repartee or flying fists, depending on their mood. The bunkhouse life is comradely, and the cook makes good grub, even if he stinks to high even. In one funny bit, the cowhands forcibly give him a bath, and he retaliates by whipping up a batch of something that sends them all scurrying for the outhouse.

A singular dark note in the early going is the death of Fightin' Joe, an ancient cowboy who fought with General Hooker in the Civil War and took the name as his own. "I've had a good life," he tells Chet and Monte through sun-blasted blue eyes, and he seems to mean it. They see only a pathetic old man consigned to riding fence -- aka repairing the barbed wire line that marks the boundaries of the ranch -- a job the pair, still in their prime, consider beneath any respectable ranch hand.

Joe, apparently reenacting the great battle charge in which he took part, rides off a cliff and is killed. Worse yet, Brennan is forced by the Consolidated to lay off the three youngest cowboys, including Shorty (Mitch Ryan) -- so named not for his stature but his short fuse. Monte and Chet have teased Shorty mercilessly, but they respect his ability as a bronco-buster, and are sad to see him go.

When he comes to town Monte keeps company with Martine (French actress Jeanne Moreau), a foreign prostitute he affectionately calls "Countess." It seems likely that Monte has never considered there to be anything between them other than the occasional haircut and sex, but after Chet marries himself off Monte starts thinking about something more permanent.

Visiting Martine in the town 40 miles away where she has recently moved, Monte asks why they never got married, and is surprised and pleased to find that she has frequently thought of the idea, too. But first he needs a stake for them to get started, and he's at a loss as to how to make some good dough cowboying.

And then, an opportunity presents itself. Spotting a wild gray horse that Shorty had failed to tame that has been sold to a traveling wild west show, Monte resolves to teach him some manners. He rides the frantic beast around town, tearing down storefronts and crashing through a china shop (literally) before finally taming the gray. The owner of the show, having witnessed this display of genuine cowboy mastery, immediately offers him a job paying $30 a day plus expenses -- a fortune. But seeing the ridiculous get-up he would have to wear, he gruffly declines.

"I ain't spittin' on my whole life," he declares.

The tragic elements of the story, which had been hovering around the edges of the film, assert themselves with grim inevitability. Shorty and another wayward cowboy, desperate for money, confront Chet in his store and demand money. After an altercation, Chet is shot dead. Monte, compelled more by the unspoken code of justice of the range than any personal need for vengeance, hunts Shorty down.

Their final confrontation is sad, slow and moving. At different points each man has the other dead to rights in his gunsight, but declines to kill. Shorty and Monte both seem to recognize their roles without really embracing them -- Shorty knows he's done wrong, Monte knows he has to put his friend down.

When he finally shoots Shorty -- after the latter has deliberately holstered his gun -- Monte whispers to him in his dying moments about riding the gray. In the end, the cowboy life that has defined them is the only thing that connects the two men. As their way of life dies off, the fact that only one of them can live seems sadder than deciding which one it is.

"Monte Walsh" was the directorial debut of longtime cinematographer William A. Fracker, who only helmed three feature films -- including the underwhelming "The Legend of the Lone Ranger" -- before turning to television. David Zelag Goodman and Lukas Heller adapted Schaefer's book for the screen, apparently without much fidelity to his text. A 2003 TV movie starring Tom Selleck apparently was more loyal to the novel.

3 stars out of four

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Review: "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold"

"The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" is a documentary along the lines of director/co-writer/star Morgan Spurlock's breakout hit, "Super Size Me." It's a gimmick, but a pretty clever one.

Instead of gorging on McDonald's food and discovering that it makes you fat, Spurlock jumps headlong into the world of product placement in movies, television and so on. He doesn't do so in the most obvious way, by showing some of the most egregious examples and allowing us to laugh at the clumsy, naked crassness of it all (although there is a little of that, like the toadying employee offering his boss a Subway chicken teriyaki foot-long).

No, Spurlock -- whose filmmaking sensibilities run more to the arm-twisting of Michael Moore crossed with the look-at-me showmanship of a P.T. Barnum -- wants to illustrate the evils of marketing by loading his movie up with advertising messages and product placements.

The entire film is, in fact, about its own making. Spurlock goes around to advertising agencies and corporate headquarters to pitch them to sign on as a sponsor of the documentary he's shooting about product placement. For instance, he tells POM Wonderful (a pomegranate juice maker) that if they sign on as the signature sponsor for a cool million bucks, he'll never been seen drinking anything else in the movie. And he's true to his word.

(Thus, for technical and contractual reasons, the film's actual title is "POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.")

Other sponsors, willing to risk Spurlock's reputation as a rabble-rouser -- albeit a smiling, apple-cheeked one -- come onboard. There are even actual 30-second commercials woven into the film starring Spurlock schlepping for companies like JetBlue, Old Navy and the Hyatt hotel chain.

In essence, he's selling out to find out what it's like to be a sellout.

There aren't really any profound truths or surprising insights to be found along this journey. By allowing the audience to tag along into the pitch meetings and listen in on the phone calls, we learn that most companies are fanatical about protecting their brand names, and that there are a whole lot of kooky and egotistical people involved in the marketing of these products.

But like "Super Size Me," it's an undeniably entertaining ride, with Spurlock as our engaging, impish host who brings a giddy enthusiasm to his merrymaking-slash-pranksterism.

The movie is less interesting in the (perhaps inevitable) sections where Spurlock questions himself and his project, and whether he's just becoming part of the problem he was trying to lampoon, and asks celebrities like Donald Trump to weigh in.

It's just an unnecessary downbeat to include things like professional scold Ralph Nader telling us how advertising is basically just professional-grade lying. But then, Spurlock punctures the sour mood by trying to hock a pair of shoes to Nader, who obliges.

Ultimately, the thing Spurlock sells best in "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" is himself.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Review: "The Hangover Part II"

Perhaps inevitably, the sequel to "The Hangover," the surprise comedy smash of 2009, cannot quite live up to expectations. It's still plenty funny, and it's doubtful many fans of the original will walk out disappointed. Still, the novelty has worn thin.

The only thing that really distinguished the first film from any number of comedies about boys getting debauched and behaving badly was its clever narrative construction: They wake up after a wild night of pre-wedding partying with no memory of what happened, and have to piece together events based on clues.
More than one person has described it as "Bachelor Party" meets "Memento."

"Part II" is pretty much a repeat, with the action moved from Las Vegas to Bangkok. The same players are up for another round: Stu, the confidence-challenged dentist (Ed Helms) who's the bridegroom this time; Phil (Bradley Cooper), the hedonistic alpha male; and Alan (Zach Galifianakis), the clueless man-child perpetually fascinated by a world that mystifies him.

The lost boy this time is Teddy (Mason Lee), the 16-year-old younger brother to Lauren (Jamie Chung), Stu's bride-to-be. The "Wolfpack" wakes up in a scummy Bangkok hotel to find Alan's head shaved bald, Stu's face freshly etched with the same tattoo on Mike Tyson's, and Teddy gone missing ... well, mostly missing.

Instead of a lost baby to serve as their mascot, there is a chain-smoking monkey and a wordless monk in a wheelchair. They've got until the next day to find Teddy and make the wedding in time.

Also popping up again is Chow, an Asian-American crime boss with very politically incorrect speech patterns and a nose for trouble. Actor Ken Jeong, who gave a rather revealing performance in the first film, raises his game to new, um, levels.

(I should point out that the movie's release was nearly scuttled by a lawsuit by the tattoo artist who inked Mike Tyson's face for copyright infringement. Fortunately, the justice system interrupted its trivial duties prosecuting rapists to lift the injunction.)

Director Todd Phillips, who co-wrote the screenplay with Craig Mazin and Scot Armstrong, still has a few fresh tricks up his sleeve. The dialogue is sharp as ever -- Alan describes himself as "a stay-at-home son" -- and the repartee between the fellows is somehow simultaneously combative and brotherly.

Still, other sequences seem practically preordained. A visit to a local monastery is bound to lead to the boys being laid low by chop-socky. An excursion to a seedy strip club results in some uncomfortable revelations for Stu that halfway clever audience members will see coming a mile off. And Paul Giamatti is ill-used as a blustery gangster who's a lynchpin for the plot.

If it were to stand on its own, "The Hangover Part II" would register as a better-than-average smutty comedy. Despite a few slow patches, it is loaded with gut-busting laughs. After its much brainier predecessor, though, it feels like a well-meaning kid forced to follow in the footsteps of his genius older sibling.

3 stars out of four

Review: "Kung Fu Panda 2'

I think I may have actually nodded off during "Kung Fu Panda 2." This is surprising, because I have never fallen asleep in a movie theater before. Also, because it happened not during the talkie scenes but in the middle of the martial arts action.

It may amount to no more than 10 seconds I missed, but I still feel compelled to report it. I've sat near famous critics who snored halfway through a screening, and it troubled me when that didn't show up in their review. It may be largely subjective, but movie criticism is still journalism, so it's our duty to report the whole of our experience of a film.

To wit: "Panda 2" literally put me to sleep -- albeit very briefly.

I'm not an ingrained panda-hater; I very much enjoyed the first film from 2008. The mix of excellently-detailed CG animation and goofy kid-friendly humor made for a jolly good time that appealed to adults as well as tykes.

But the sequel is just going through the motions. The comedy is again built around the slacker sweetness of Po, an animated version of Jack Black as a tubby panda. It worked last time around because he was a nobody poser who dreamt of fighting alongside the Ferocious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross).

But as we learned at the end of the last film, Po completed his unlikely journey to become the Dragon Warrior, the culmination of kung fu mastery. His pratfalls and clumsy antics don't jibe now that he's the baddest bear in the land.

Although I must say that for the beast who's supposed to be the best of the best, both Tigress and their teacher Shifu still seem to have his number.

Speaking of Shifu, voiced by Dustin Hoffman, he's kind of kicked to the curb in the sequel, showing up for a few scenes near the beginning and end. He speaks cryptically about a new threat that could "destroy kung fu," which is like saying you're going to destroy gardening. Even if you kill all the best gardeners, there's still going to be plenty of people around who know a thing or two -- same with chop-socky.

The new villain is Lord Shen, a peacock who dreams of conquering all of China. He's well on his way to doing it, too, thanks to a new invention: the cannon. (For a brief time, the movie had a subtitle, "The Kaboom of Doom," that seems to have evaporated.)

Gary Oldman does a good job making Shen a somewhat sympathetic figure with some parental abandonment issues. He's also a lot more menacing than you might imagine a brightly-hued peacock could be -- for those cascading feathers hide a small arsenal of knives.

Screenwriters/producers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, who also wrote the original film, make the unwise choice of giving Po some backstory to explore. Po has a goose for a father, and one thing I liked about the first movie was that no one seemed to question this ornithological oddity.

But now Po is sent to chase after the memory of his missing parents, and it gives the sequel a downbeat fibe that sucks the life out of the lighter material.

Rookie director Jennifer Yuh's fight scenes don't have the crisp clarity of the last movie -- the action is either flying by too fast, or they dial up the slo-mo so far it's like we're stuck in molasses.

But mostly "Kung Fu Panda 2" just lacks the novelty of the original, which found a sweet spot in between martial arts and goofy animated critters, and milked it for every last laugh. This one feels like leftovers that have curdled.

1.5 stars out of two

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Video review: "Gnomeo & Juliet"

A second-rate rip-off of "Toy Story" mixed with a dose of Shakespeare, "Gnomeo & Juliet" is a British animated film that is meant to be enjoyed by the very youngest audience, and merely tolerated by their parents.

The set-up is that the star-crossed lovers, and all of their kin, are garden gnomes made of clay. They go about their business in the split backyard of an English duplex, tending their gardens and whatnot. When humans come around, though, they revert to their familiar (and tasteless) statuesque forms.

Gnomeo (voice by James McAvoy) is the hell-raising son of the matron of the Blue gnomes, while sweet Juliet (Emily Blunt) is royalty of their arch-enemy Reds. When they fall in love, it sets up a war between the clans, with the unfortunate ones ending up in a pile of smashed bits.

Directed by Kelly Asbury ("Shrek 2"), "Gnomeo & Juliet" has some fairly clever ideas, but always chooses the lowest common denominator when it comes to humor and characterization. The movie is pitched at about a pre-kindergarten level, and anyone more than a few years above that will find themselves frequently bored.
In this terrific age of animation in which we find ourselves, this film just doesn't measure up.

Extras are a bit sparse in the DVD version, and don't substantially improve even if you upgrade to Blu-ray.
The DVD has a "Crocodile Rock" music video, and featuettes with Ashley Jensen (who plays the princess' frog sidekick) and Elton John. That's it.

If you choose the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack (available in both 3D and regular versions), you get all the DVD stuff and several deleted or alternate scenes, including two alternate endings. There's also a "Fawn of Darkness" featurette.

Movie: 2 stars out of four
Extras: 2 stars

Monday, May 23, 2011

Reeling Backward: "The Man in the White Suit" (1951)

It's so interesting to me to think that Alec Guinness was largely thought of as a comedic actor in his early prime. My regard for him is based on his iconic dramatic roles in "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Star Wars." His first credited screen roles were in adaptations of "Oliver Twist" and "Great Expectations," but he gained his fame as the star of Ealing Studios comedies like "The Lavender Hill Mob," "Kings and Coronets" and "The Ladykillers."

When I set aside my bias, his proclivity to merrymaking is understandable. Guinness had a thin, good-looking face with a slightly rubbery quality. It's a common trait of comic leading men, to have features that are generally classically handsome but seem slightly sabotoged -- a googly eye here or a schnoz a bit too long there. Steve Carell and Leslie Nielsen are good examples. Guinness' sharp bird nose and watery eyes helped him play characters who were misfits on the margins of society. He made for a kindly but stubborn rebel.

"The Man in the White Suit" is a comedy, but with a strong socio-political message. Guinness plays Sidney Stratton, a brilliant chemist working as a janitor in a textile plant who discovers a fiber that is virtually indestructible and never gets dirty. Even oil and grease wipe off like magic.

The first half of the movie is fairly conventional, and not all that interesting. Sidney attempts to complete his experiment successfully, which is hard considering he's doing most of his work on the sly. He's thrown out of the plant owned by a young up-and-comer named Corland. He's played by Michael Gough, best known to modern audiences as Alfred in the original "Batman" movies of the 1980s and '90s. His physical appearance remained remarkably unchanged over the intervening decades, and even he even wore similar eyeglasses in both roles.

The result of all the typical laboratory scenes of bubbling tubes and random explosions is the titular white suit, which turns out to be just as impervious as advertised. It even glows in the dark, the only downside of its miraculous construction being that you can't dye it.

Birnley (Cecil Parker), a wealthy cloth magnate, intends to make a killing selling the stuff exclusively. But soon, wiser minds -- or at least more cold-bloodedly rational ones -- prevail. A bunch of other industry titans converge on Birnley's factory and convince him it would be disastrous. They're led by Sir John Kierlaw (Ernest Thesiger), an ancient capitalist who leers like a bird of prey, wrapped in layers of robes that frame his head like a mantle, and coughing spasmodically. He's literally as rotten on the inside as the out.

The big twist is that the unionized workers, who had initially embraced Sidney as one of their fellows who made good, also come to oppose the miracle cloth. Like the owners, they realize that they would essentially be manufacturing the means of their own obsolescence. Yes, the new clothes would sell like hotcakes -- once. Since they never need washing or replacement, once everyone in the world had the clothes they required, there would never be a need to make more.

I rather liked Vida Hope as Bertha, a tough worker gal who takes a shine to Sidney. She has blunt features and even blunter manners, but in her few scenes we sense a loneliness behind the bluster. It's clearly implied that she's attracted to Sidney, and he's so clueless he doesn't even notice. He's crushed when Bertha reveals that she and the other union members want to suppress his invention, too.

I was much less enamored with the female lead, Birnley's daughter Daphne, played by Joan Greenwood. She speaks in these long drawn-out vowels and intonations of upper-crust Britain that frankly are grating. Imagine Kate Hepburn playing a spoiled rich brat, and about two octaves lower. Daphne is a clever girl with strong streaks of both morality and opportunism. She agrees to take a payoff from Kierlaw to use her womanly charms to entice Sidney into dropping the whole matter, but is thrilled when he resists her advances.

The last act is a farcical affair with lots of chases and slamming doors. The big reveal at the end is that Sidney's invention was a fluke, and the white suit falls to pieces the moment his pursuers lay hands on him. He walks off into the sunset, assured that he'll find the solution to the problem.

I enjoyed "The Man in the White Suit," even as I recognized its many limitations. The common Ealing theme of one man (or a few) up against the establishment is so familiar that we more or less known in advance how things are going to play out, so there are few surprises. But Guinness is charming as the brilliant but socially inept inventor, who dares to invent something entirely new out of whole cloth.

3 stars out of four

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Review: "The Beaver"

How wonderfully unexpected "The Beaver" is. Just when you think you've got it figured out, this daring and heartfelt film takes another astonishing turn.

The story of a wasted man who finds he can only talk through a furry hand puppet, it wears the clothes of a comedy, but there are sequences of the blackest moods imaginable. Audiences will be kept reeling, not knowing when to laugh and when to bask in the solemn weight of tragedy.

At the screening I attended, the same scene often produced the opposite reaction in different people. Normally I cringe when people guffaw at what is clearly intended to be a serious moment, but with "The Beaver" I didn't mind because the movie's appeal is centered in its ambiguity.

It's hardly a perfect film. Surprisingly, because it's directed by a woman, Jodie Foster, the female characters seemed underwritten, existing mostly to facilitate the emotional journey of the males in their lives. And the film makes a sudden left turn near the end that I know is going to alienate half the audience.

All I can say is it was a thrilling experience to go into a movie without any notion where it was headed. In an era of safe filmmaking with stories and characters tied in uniformly neat bows, "The Beaver" operates outside the box ... and then it kicks the box down the street.

The film's unruly success is anchored by its wayward star, Mel Gibson. I know, we're all legally required to hate Mel these days, because some hateful stuff spills out of him in unguarded moments. To quote Captain Renault from "Casablanca," I'm shocked, shocked to discover that human frailties exist among the above-the-title folks.

Other Hollywood icons have abused their children, like Joan Crawford, or drugged and sodomized a 13-year-old, like Roman Polanski. Even Charlie Chaplin had an insatiable desire for underage girls (even if he often ended up marrying them). Yet I still watch their movies and am transported above the sulfurous bile of their earthly failings.

In Gibson's case, his recent notoriety actually ends up helping the movie. The screenplay -- an original (in the truest sense of that word) by rookie Kyle Killen -- starts right off with Walter Black (Gibson) already down in his pit of despair. We don't really know how he got to the bottom, but Gibson's troubles act as a shorthand for the self-loathing descent he obviously experienced.

Walter is the CEO of Jerry Co., a floundering toy manufacturer. He cannot speak to his wife Meredith (Foster) or their sons, young Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) and high school senior Porter (Anton Yelchin). Or really summon the energy to do anything but sleep.

Finally kicked out by Meredith, he discovers a frayed old beaver hand puppet in a dumpster and puts it on. Awaking from a stupor the next morning, he finds the puppet talking to him in a low-rent British accent (I thought of Ray Winstone). He introduces himself as The Beaver and tells Watler he's here "to save your miserable life."

Soon Walter and The Beaver have reunited with the family, and everything's hunky-dory again. Meredith is a little put off by the puppet at first, but when Walter produces a card from his psychiatrist authorizing it as therapy, she's thrilled to have her husband back again.

Not so much Porter, who so despises his dad he compiles a list of the similarities he shares with him, which he keeps as a list of shame. Porter has a side business writing term papers for classmates, and is gobsmacked when the cheerleader valedictorian (Jennifer Lawrence) taps him to craft a graduation speech for him.

I don't want to give away any more, because the film's serendipity is its main charm. "The Beaver" always kept me guessing, and even though it ventures into places some people may not like, I respect it as an exercise in genuinely brave movie-making.

3 stars out of four

Review: "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides"

"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" is simultaneously more and less coherent than its three predecessors.

Compared to "Curse of the Black Pearl," "Dead Mine Chest" and ... alright, I confess I don't really even remember the titles that well, so utterly forgettable were they in their total embrace of popcorn movie aesthetics. Anyway, compared to the first trio of films, "Stranger Tides" at least has a story that is relatively comprehensible, and keeps its roster of main characters trimmed to a manageable level.

At the same time, new director Rob Marshall's action scenes are murky and hard to follow. (A largely useless 3-D version doesn't help.) Say what you will about Gore Verbinski's slick, soulless and heavily CGI-assisted escapades on land and sea, but the man knew how to stage a sword fight.

Marshall, known for musicals ("Chicago," "Nine"), just can't find the rhythm. He falls back on the tricks of the inept pretender, chopping the action into frenetic bits that don't really seem to fit together.

Johnny Depp is back as Captain Jack Sparrow, slurring his dialogue with more zest than ever. The novelty of the character had worn off after the first movie, but he's still plenty of fun to have around.

His main foil is a female pirate, Angelica, played by Penélope Cruz. She and Sparrow had a fling once upon a time, and he even confesses to having "stirrings" beyond a momentary debauch. Alas, his vagabond ways asserted themselves and he left her high and dry. Now she's back to make his life miserable, and/or stir the embers.

I liked that the movie allows Angelica to have a little scar on her face and a little snarl to her personality. The screenplay (by "Pirates" vets Ted Elliott and Terry Rossario) goes beyond rendering her as a damsel in distress who knows how to use a sword, and allows her character to have as much duplicity and questionable moral character as Sparrow.

Turns out Angelica is the daughter of the infamous Blackbeard (Ian McShane), who's after the Fountain of Youth that Sparrow holds a map to. Sparrow assumes that Angelica is simply conning the old pirate, and from the way he looks at her it's clear Blackbeard has had the same thought.

I admit to being rather disappointed with Blackbeard. He's got a magic sword that he can use to make his ship ensnare his enemies with rigging, but that hardly compares to the octopus-faced terror of Davy Jones or the skeletal undeath of Captain Barbossa. For all he's hyped up as the mother of evil piratry, Blackbeard just comes across as a grump with a curious tendency to let people live a lot longer than necessary.

Speaking of Barbossa, he's back again, played with a churlish twinkle by Geoffrey Rush, despite having been killed off once or twice. He's lost a leg but gained a writ of clemency from English King George in exchange for finding the Fountain before Blackbeard or the Spanish.

At 137 minutes, the movie is way longer than it needs to be, and several scenes bog down under the weight of their obligatory nature. For example, Keith Richards is trotted out again for a cameo as Sparrow's pirate daddy, with no more success than last time.

An extended sequence involving mermaids fares a little better, and the sea vixens are both magically alluring and terrifying. They can also, for some reason, shoot webs like Spider-Man.

Sam Claflin and Astrid Berges-Frisbey turn up as a young missionary aboard Blackbeard's ship and a mermaid with a conscious, who soon begins some inter-species romance. Like the now-departed Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley from the first "Pirates" flicks, they're pretty to look at, slightly dotty in their behavior and totally unnecessary to the plot.

Actually, now that I think of it that's a fair description of "On Stranger Tides" and the rest of the franchise: pretty, dotty and unnecessary.

2 stars out of four

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Video review: "The Rite"

"The Rite" is pretty much a one-trick pony: What if the exorcist became possessed himself?

Nearly 40 years after Linda Blair shocked audiences with some demonic neck-twisting and pea soup spewing, we've seen virtually every iteration of the exorcism routine. "The Rite," based on a nonfiction book by Matt Baglio, aims to drag exorcism into the 21st century by basing itself on real cases of demonic possession chronicled by the Catholic church.

Except... it's not real, really. The character Baglio used as his main character was a middle-aged priest, not a handsome young seminary student (Colin O'Donoghue) doubting his faith. And his mentor in the ways of exorcism (Anthony Hopkins) did not fall victim to possession himself.

So, "The Rite" is a mix of real-world religious lore and Hollywood hooey. I wouldn't mind the sham, except the end result is generally not very compelling, except for some nice scenery-chewing by Hopkins in the latter section where his eyes change color and his skin goes blotchy and cracked (well, more so).

This is a PG-13 horror film -- a contradiction in terms to purists like myself -- so the violence and taunting of religious mores never goes too far over the edge. It's Blasphemy Lite.

Extra features are nothing special. If you buy the DVD version, all you'll get are a handful of deleted/extended scenes totaling about 13 minutes, none of which is terribly consequential.

If you upgrade to the DVD/Blu-ray combo pack, you'll get a few more goodies, including an alternate ending with a creepier flavor, and a digital copy of the film.

A nearly 7-minute making-of featurette is interesting insofar as it introduces the real priest Baglio based his book on, and demonstrates how far afield the movie travels from it. In fact, the journalist character representing Baglio himself is changed to a hot Italian woman for O'Donoghue to make moony eyes at.

Movie: 1.5 stars out of four
Extras: 2 stars

Monday, May 16, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Tokyo Joe" (1949)

I'm beginning to realize how much Hollywood reused story lines that had proved successful. "Casablanca" was a big hit, so that basic set-up -- Humphrey Bogart as a man of dubious loyalties in an exotic land, centered around a saloon, involved with nefarious dealings and a notorious woman -- was recycled several times. "To Have and Have Not" was an example previously covered in this space, and now I've stumbled across another: "Tokyo Joe."

This 1949 film with a B-movie feel is not widely remembered, and perhaps the reason is that it so closely resembles "Casablanca." The big difference is that instead of being an expat firmly rooted in his adopted homeland, Bogie plays a guy returning after a long absence. In other words, she doesn't walk into his gin joint, he walks into hers.

I should note that "Tokyo Joe" was not the movie I was expecting to see. I'd ordered it up in my Netflix queue along with a bunch of other World War II flicks -- those following the Reeling Backward column may have noticed the trend -- and I thought "Joe" was about an American pilot during the war. Joe Barrett was a pilot during the war, but the film is set in roughly the same year it came out, and Joe has long retired from military life.

He comes back to Tokyo to check on the status of the bar named after him, but not until being hassled by the American military. He's given only a 60-day visitor's pass. Joe arrives back at the bar to find it miraculously untouched by the many bombing raids, but not doing much business in the postwar funk that seems to grip the entire land. His friend Ito (Teru Shimada) is running the place, just getting by but better than most in Japan these days.

After refreshing their judo skills on each other -- in a rather painful-looking scene -- Joe and Ito have a discussion about the relationship between Japanese and Americans these days. Most Japanese feel guilty about having attacked Pearl Harbor, and shame at having been defeated by another power when their leaders told them they were invincible. The fact that the Americans have generally treated the Japanese well only feeds their shame.

Joe is astonished to learn that his wife Trina (Florence Marly), whom he thought dead, is still alive. He rushes over to her house, but finds her married to a British diplomat, Martin Landis (Alexander Knox). Joe abandoned her right before the war, and she divorced him in the interim. There's an interesting scene where the two men confront each other, and Joe tells Landis right out that he plans to win Trina back.

The romance between Joe and Trina is singularly unconvincing. Marly plays a Russian, with a not-terribly-good accent that sounds like a vaguely European lilt ... perhaps even, Swedish?

She has a blonde icy look and an impossibly tiny waist that made me ill every time I looked at it. Her confession to Landis that Joe holds a strange sexual power over her -- she doesn't use those exact words, but her description of wilting at the mere sight of him is enough -- is not borne out in her scenes with Joe, which are oddly flat.

In order to stay in Japan, Joe starts an air freight company with Japanese crime boss Baron Kimura, played by the great Sessue Hayakawa, as his secret partner. As near as Joe can figure out they're only hauling frozen bullfrogs, but it's not long before something more sinister turns up.

Joe later finds out he has a daughter with Trina, and Bogart's scenes with the girl are genuinely touching and a bit funny. Here's this hard-boiled guy -- Joe was prepared to resort to blackmail to force Trina back to him -- totally melting at a 7-year-old pixie.

The ending of "Tokyo Joe" is notable for its ambivalence. Joe is forced to choose between obeying the American military or Kimura, and appears to capitulate to Kimura, who is holding is daughter hostage. Things work out so that Joe saves the day, but is shot by Kimura and near death. As he's toted away on a stretcher, it's entirely uncertain if Joe will live, and if he does if Trina will choose him or Landis, and if the girl will ever find out her father's identity.

In an era when Hollywood loved cut-and-dry endings, "Tokyo Joe" is notable for the way Humphrey Bogart never steps fully into the light, or out of it.

2.5 stars out of four

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Review: "Bridesmaids"

Yes, "Bridesmaids" is pretty much a rip-off of "The Hangover" with a genitals swap-out.

The novelty that it's gals wading into a pool of raunchy humor with glee is still enough to carry it over the top, along with a winning performance by Kristen Wiig as a loser who keeps getting her faced rubbed in her own misery, and still comes out smiling.

The comedy is broad and predictable enough that I pretty much always saw it coming -- and yet I still found myself laughing when the jokes arrived right on target.

Wiig plays Annie, the former owner of a failed Milwaukee cupcake shop, whose life is going nowhere fast. Heck, she's not even stuck in neutral, she's slowly rolling backwards.

She's got a dead-end job in a jewelry store she hates, lives with a pair of weirdo British siblings, and the closest thing she has to a relationship is being used for sex by a gorgeous but vapid playboy (an uncredited Jon Hamm).

Then her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) suddenly announces her engagement, and we're off to the races of debauchery and gross-out humor.

Tagged as the maid of honor, it's up to Annie to plan the shower, bachelorette party and everything else. But she keeps getting elbowed aside by Helen (Rose Byrne), Lillian's newfound friend in Chicago. Helen is beautiful, rich and outwardly charming, but clearly wants the spotlight as top wing-woman.

At the engagement party, Helen and Annie turn well-wishes to the bride and groom into a spiraling case of one-upswomanship, and it's a matter of time before the conflict blows up.

Two other gals round out the crew. Wendi McLendon-Covey plays Rita, a married friend who provides a glimpse of wedlock past its prime. Rita has three teenage boys, and describes the activities and hygiene of this sub-species of humanity in ways that are detailed, revolting and, alas, completely accurate.

Then there's the Zach Galifianakis role of the groom's sister invited along out of a dutiful sense of compulsion. Like Alan from "The Hangover," Megan is vertically challenged and horizontally blessed, with social skills not so much stunted as still in latency.

Megan pretty much epitomizes the entire movie. Even though the character is familiar (the kind term) and obvious, I couldn't get enough of her. Melissa McCarthy attacks the role with brio, and gives Megan a sort of unassailable confidence that's somehow reassuring -- even when she does things like propose a "female Fight Club" in which they beat each other senseless.

Wiig, who co-wrote the screenplay with  Annie Mumolo, holds it all together. Her Annie is a sweet girl with a bit of a mean streak, who's been hammered so much by life that we enjoy watching her fight back. Even a scene where she makes a colossal drunken spectacle of herself on a plane flight only makes us want to hug her, and wait for the next laugh.

Things get interesting with the arrival of Rhodes (Chris O'Dowd), a Wisconsin state trooper who keeps pulling Annie over in her deathtrap of a jalopy and begins a flirtatious back-and-forth. Like Annie's roommates, he's English, giving the movie an explicably British tang.

The crudity of some of the humor isn't quite up to "Hangover" standards, but it approaches. There's nothing like a bunch of women in frilly wedding dresses getting a bad case of food poisoning to prove that gals can do revolting physical comedy as well as the boys.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Review: "Everything Must Go"

"Everything Must Go" will quickly be labeled as Will Ferrell's "Punch-Drunk Love," in which juvenile funnyman Adam Sandler went into serious dramatic mode and proved he had real acting chops, when he cared to exercise them.

"Everything" isn't nearly as good and Ferrell doesn't show nearly the range and depth Sandler did. But it's an engaging character study, solidly handled by rookie writer/director Dan Rush, and gives a little insight into the sort of career Ferrell might have had if he hadn't made his bones playing nincompoops and running around bare-assed.

"Everything Must Go" bills itself as a comedy-drama, but there are no laugh-out-loud moments or even wry smiles. The film aims to draw a portrait of human foibles, not puncture them for humorous effect. It's based on a Raymond Carver short story, "Why Don't You Dance," and he wasn't exactly a bundle of mirth.

Let's hope the studio isn't marketing this movie to Ferrell's usual fan base, because the people who enjoyed "Step Brothers" and "Land of the Lost" are going to storm out in a huff. Those who remain, though, will enjoy the film's bittersweet charms.

Ferrell plays Nick Halsey, a veteran salesman having the worst day of his life. He's fired from his well-paying job after his six months of sobriety end in a major relapse on a business trip.

After slashing the tire of his smarmy boss' (Glenn Howerton) car, he loads up on beer and arrives home to find all his possessions moved out onto the front lawn. The locks on the house are changed, and a letter from his wife informs him she's left him. For good measure, his bank account is frozen and his company car is repossessed.

Lacking the means to do much of anything, Nick's ambitions end at getting plastered and camping out in his recliner. (His one bit of fortune is living in Phoenix, where it doesn't rain much or get very cold.)

The irritable next-door neighbor (Stephen Root) complains, and Nick appears about to be run off by the cops, until his friend and AA sponsor Frank Garcia, a police detective, intervenes. Frank gets a permit for a five-day yard sale to get the authorities off his back, after which, Frank promises, he'll come back and arrest Nick himself.

At first humiliated and angry about being a squatter on his own property, Nick soon becomes surly and resentful. He recruits Kenny (a terrific Christopher Jordan Wallace), a clever neighborhood kid left by his mother to his own devices, to coordinate his sale. Of course, he refuses to actually sell anything when made an offer.

Across the street is Samantha (Rebecca Hall), who's just moved in. Nick makes a tepid overture toward friendship, and she reciprocates. She's a photographer waiting for her husband to wrap up his job in New York and join her. But after learning Nick's whole story, she finds herself the target of his less sunny side.

"I'm no different from any of you," Nick insists, indicating the whole neighborhood. "I just don't hide in my house."

"Everything Must Go" has the feel of a short story. The narrative is carefully bookended, so we can only pick up hints of Nick's life prior to meeting him. He was a high school jock with a lousy father. Nick and his (unseen) wife have a serious fascination with Japanese culture, even turning their swimming pool into a koi pond.

And there's even the suggestion that Nick's alcoholic blackouts are more than just binges, but wellsprings of malevolent behavior. When Nick seeks out an old high school acquaintance (Laura Dern) and she tells him he has "a good heart, and that doesn't change," we wonder if she's right.

The problem with Will Ferrell in this role is that his comedic persona is built around presenting a seemingly normal front, showing us the cracks in that quotidian facade, and then gleefully diving into and widening those fissures.

Watching "Everything Must Go," I kept expecting Ferrell to do a double-take and start riffing to the camera. I'm glad he never does, but the fact that we wait for it subtracts from the experience.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Video review: "Blue Valentine"

"Blue Valentine" exquisitely nails the joy and heartache of love. Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling give tender, frank performances as a couple enjoying the first bloom of romance, and then sparring through its dissolution years down the road.

Writer/director Derek Cianfrance uses an unconventional narrative structure, intercutting scenes of young love between Dean and Cindy with a parallel storyline set a decade or so later, as their marriage crumbles beneath them. From the outset, we know their relationship is doomed, which lends a poignancy to its charming, uncertain inception.

The scene where, on their first date, Dean strums on a ukulele and sings in a funny warble while Cindy dances for him is utterly heartbreaking, because we realize this moment represents the happiest they will ever be together.

Observing the cold stalemate of her parents' marriage, Cindy wonders how she can trust her feelings, since they can fade over time. In the older version of herself, she has reached this point, even if she isn't quite ready to admit it to Dean, or herself.

For his part, Dean seems to have no ambition in life other than being a husband to Cindy and father to their daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka). He works a menial job and is content to do so, mainly because it allows him to start drinking with the morning sun, and be home in time to greet Frankie after school.

Cindy, who feels stifled professionally and emotionally, can't comprehend why Dean is so willing to tread water in life when she wants to swim for the far shore. His suggestion of their going to a tawdry couples' motel for a fling in the "Future Room" is a pathetic portrait of their marriage: He thinks they have a future, and she doesn't.

A Sundance hit that didn't light any fires at the box office or awards -- Williams was nominated for an Oscar but, inexplicably, Gosling was not -- "Blue Valentine" is sad, sweet movie-making for grown-ups.

Extras, which are the same for both DVD and Blu-ray editions, are solid if unspectacular. There's a making-of documentary, commentary track, handful of deleted scenes and "home movies" on the set.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, May 9, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo"

I found myself getting really annoyed at "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," because the first half was all about the pilots getting mushy with their girls. To quote the kid from "The Princess Bride," you go to war movie expecting lots of action, and everyone keeps kissing all the time.

Fortunately, the movie redeems itself with a second act that is decidedly dark and dreary, and an extended air combat sequence that's still amazing nearly 70 years later. It incorporated some actual footage from Col. Jimmy Doolittle's bombing raid on Tokyo a few months after Pearl Harbor, so no wonder.

Militarily, the raid was inconsequential. Negligible damage was done to Japan's war-making industry, and all 16 of the B-25 bombers were lost -- crashing when they ran out of fuel, or the crew ditching before reaching this point. A large number of the servicemen who participated in the raid were killed, wounded or captured.

But the fact that American soldiers were able to deliver a sting right to the heart of the Japanese empire, a little more than four months after the devastating attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet had raised doubts in many Americans' minds about their ability to defend themselves, boosted morale by an unmeasurable factor. Doolittle, who at first thought he'd be court-martialed as the brains behind a colossal failure, later admitted the raid was conceived entirely for the sake of appearances. He won the Medal of Honor for his efforts.

Spencer Tracy plays Doolittle, but it's really a pretty minor role. He shows up every once in a while to give the pilots and crews a pep talk and a little strategy, then disappears for a long while. Considering the cast was mostly a bunch of unknowns -- Van Johnson and Robert Mitchum were not yet household names -- many have opined that Tracy took the role merely to help the project gain financial backing.

If so, Tracy was giving a leg up to the career of Johnson, whose work I've enjoyed discovering through the Reeling Backward journey. (See previous columns here, here and  here.) One of the few blond (or reddish-blond) male movie stars, "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" was his first lead role, and I'm guessing the story was constructed to emphasize his romantic appeal.

Of course, reality is not always what Hollywood would like it to seem. Johnson was fairly open about his gay lifestyle for the time, until the studios cracked down and forced him into a charade marriage. He also suffered serious injuries to his face during a 1943 car accident, including a metal plate in his head, and heavy makeup was usually used to conceal the scars on his forehead.

Ironically, his character Ted Lawson and his wife Ellen have a running joke about their shared handsomeness -- "How'd you get so cute?" "I had to be, to get such a good-looking fella" -- and he ends up losing a leg and having his face sliced open. It was unclear to me if the filmmakers simply removed the makeup to reveal Johnson's actual scars, or painted their own.

Ellen was played by Phyllis Thaxter in her first screen role, who is indeed exceptionally cute, especially the way she squints when she smiles. She would go on to have a long career in film and television, playing Ma Kent in her final film role in 1978's "Superman."

Anyway, roughly the first half of the movie -- it's 138 minutes, rather long for that era -- is taken up with the training for the Doolittle raid, about which the pilots and crews are kept completely in the dark. The fact that the main part of their preparation was how to get a mammoth B-25 to take off in 500 feet or less should've been a pretty big hint that they'd be launching from the deck of an aircraft carrier.

As much as I enjoyed Johnson and Thaxter's chemistry, I struggled to get through this section. It's fairly prototypical World War II propaganda-type stuff, with every soldier a good American who doesn't gripe or slack off and gets along with his comrades.

It's the "swell guy" routine -- that's Ted, he's a swell guy! And that tall fella, we call him Shorty, he's from New Orleans, what a swell guy! Hey, have you yet Bob, he was best man at Ted's wedding, he's a little on the glum side, but a swell pilot!

One yearns for a morose outsider, a la William Holden in "Stalag 17."

Bob, by the way, was played by Robert Mitchum in one of his early film roles. "Thirty Seconds" gave a big boost to his rising stardom, and soon like Johnson he was a top leading man. The other major role is Robert Walker as David Thatcher, the gentle-natured mechanic/gunner aboard Lawson's "ship" -- as they referred to their aircraft -- nicknamed "The Ruptured Duck."

Right around the time I was starting to lose patience with the movie, they take off on their bombing raid. It's an astonishing sequence, at least 30 minutes long, with hair-raising shots of the plan flying just a few dozen feet above the ocean, and later the hilly Japanese landscape, to avoid detection.

Director Mervyn LeRoy and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (who adapted Lawson's book) make this sequence absolutely thrilling, despite the fact that the Duck never gets into any dogfight situations with Japanese Zeroes. The raid was such a surprise, it seems, that few anti-aircraft forces were effectively deployed.

Alas, the gaping hole in Dolittle's plan was what happens to the flight crews after the bombing, beyond a vague directive to "land in China." In fact, none of the 16 B-25s landed safely. Most crashed somewhere along the Chinese coastline, or the crews intentionally ditched them or bailed out. Two crews were captured by the Japanese, and another was interned by the (supposedly friendly) Soviet regime.

Unexpectedly, the film follows the wounded Lawson and his men on their terrible journey to safety, aided by the Chinese natives currently under the harsh thumb of the Japanese. A little-known piece of history is that the Japanese killed an estimated 250,000 Chinese citizens while searching for the American air crews. The movie shows them burning a village the Americans had just left, but I had no idea the retribution was on that scale.

Every one of Lawson's crew is seriously injured except Thatcher, who heroically guarded and tended to his mates. Lawson eventually loses his leg after it becomes infected. The film ends with an odd denouement in which Lawson, recuperating in a Washington D.C. hospital, refuses to allow Ellen to see him because of his injuries. Of course, with a little (likely fictitious) assistance from Doolittle, they are joyously reunited.

I don't often say this, but "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" is a film that's due for a remake. I enjoyed the movie, despite its overly long and mushy first half, but the dramatic way the Doolittle raid was planned and executed is riveting stuff.

 3 stars out of four

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Review: "Thor"

I think "Thor" is going to produce mostly groans from professional critics and huzzahs from audiences -- at least the fanboys who grew up reading the Marvel Comics version of the Norse god of thunder.

I was not among them; as a youngster I read comic books, but not Thor, who struck me as an arrogant clod. However, I knew all about the gods of Asgard, reading gobs of Norse mythology (I was a strange kid) in visits to the local library. The Norse gods seemed simultaneously more accessible and badass than their Greek/Roman counterparts -- at least they wore armor instead of a sheet.

Like Thor himself, the movie about him is overly puffed up and self-serious, and suffers from moments of pomposity as it reaches for the grandiose. But the character experiences a satisfying arc of change, turning into a genuinely heroic figure whose magic hammer does some serious smiting.

Plus, I admit I'm a sucker for celestial rainbow bridges, evil frost giants, sorcerous trickery and all the other claptrap of Norse lore.

Thor is played by Aussie actor Chris Hemsworth (it seems like all the action stars are from Down Under lately), best known for playing Jim Kirk's dad in the reboot of "Star Trek." He packed on thick slabs of muscle for the role, and is convincing as a born warrior and crown prince of Asgard who still has much to learn about the humility and sacrifice required of a true leader.

Thor spends most of the movie on Earth stripped of his powers, a result of an action-packed 30-minute opening sequence in which Thor and some comrades invade Jotunheim, the world of their frost giant enemies. For his arrogance, his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) banishes Thor and confiscates Mjolnir, the all-powerful hammer that is the source of his power.

He falls to earth in the desert, where he meets astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) when she runs him over with her van. Thor is haughty and dismissive, until he finds out he's as vulnerable as any mortal.

Meanwhile, Mjolnir also appears, half-buried in rock, waiting Excalibur-like for a worthy hero to lift it free. It also draws the attention of some government spy-types (led by Clark Gregg) who place the hammer in lockdown.

The heavy is Loki, Thor's brother and a master magician who is supposed to be a trickster, despite a glum, self-loathing performance by Tom Hiddleston. Loki desires the throne for himself, though some family secrets are dredged up to complicate his plans.

As a sub-villain, I enjoyed Laufey, the frost giant king (played via CGI by Colm Feore), who has baleful eyes and a malevolent sort of patience.

Directed by Kenneth Branaugh from a script by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne, "Thor" has about a half-dozen too many characters. Thor's four warrior buddies are about three sidekicks more than necessary, and Jane has her own duo of hangers-on, including Stellan Skarsgård as her scientific mentor.

There has been snide talk on the Web about some of the Norse gods being portrayed by non-Caucasian actors. I suppose they have a point -- I don't recall any Vikings showing up in the pantheon of African deities -- but for my money Idris Elba, as the Asgard guardian Heimdall, has an even more commanding presence than Odin. Heimdall guards the entrance to the gods' realm, and his sight can extend into other worlds.

That's much cooler than any silly hammer, if you ask me.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Review: "In a Better World"

I've noticed a curious trend with the winners for the Academy Award for best foreign language film.

It seems like in recent years, somewhere between two and four of the nominees will have gotten a U.S. release by the time of the Oscars, and a clear front-runner will emerge. Then, a nominee seemingly out of left field that few people have seen will win the statue.

I have harrumphed when wonderful films like "Pan's Labyrinth," "Waltz with Bashir" or "Biutiful" get stiffed by an interloper. Then, months later, the Oscar-winning film finally comes to these shores, and I find myself nodding in agreement with the Academy.

"The Lives of Others," "The Secret in Their Eyes" and "Departures" were all examples of latecomers deserving to win the best foreign film prize. Add the 2010 Academy Award winner, "In a Better World," to the list.

This stunning film from Danish director Susanne Bier ("After the Wedding") is a searing emotional journey between the polar edges of the human heart, both violent and pacifistic. It does not settle for simple answers, recognizing that sometimes fighting back is the most satisfying response to aggression, but understanding that violence almost always begets more of the same.

No one in "A Better World" is entirely a villain, and even the most saint-like character has flaws and doubts.

The story revolves around two 12-year-old boys, Elias (Markus Rygaard) and Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), in a pair of performances amazing from performers so young, stark and unadorned. Bier, her young actors and screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen perfectly grasp what it is like to be a boy on the verge of manhood, when possibilities for both good and evil are endless, and relationships with friends gain heft as those with parents fray.

Theirs is a world where fathers are loving but largely absent, where bullies roam the school unhindered and abuse is simply to be endured ... until.

Christian is the new boy at school, the son of a recent widower. It is unspoken but firmly understood that he blames his father (Ulrich Thomsen) for, in his eyes, abandoning his mother and then abandoning Christian himself with his frequent business trips. Christian has grown hardened, both toward his remaining parent and the world at large.

On his first day at school he spies Elias being picked on by the schoolyard thug, Sofus (Simon Maagaard Holm). Elias is sweet-faced and harmless, with big liquid blue eyes and an expression of innocence. Christian stands up for Elias, and as a result becomes a target himself. Until, that is, he escalates the situation in a shocking turn.

Don't you know that violence never solves anything, his father asks him?

"It does if you hit hard enough the first time," Christian responds with icy calculation.

The other major figure is Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), Elias' father and a doctor who works in the most wretched corner of Africa, stricken with poverty and warlords. Anton is a healer, and it pains him that the only wound he cannot mend is the one he left on the heart of his wife (Trine Dyrholm).

While he is at home, Anton breaks up a fight between Elias' little brother and another boy, and the other boy's father (Kim Bodnia) reacts with rage, slapping Anton in full sight of the Elias and Christian.

The boys' budding machismo cannot comprehend why Anton does not fight back. He explains it to them, and then takes an extraordinary step to prove his principles, but we sense that he's really convincing himself. The boys, for their part, are not persuaded and take matters in a dire direction.

"In a Better World" is an absolutely gripping cinematic experience that had me by turns boiling with rage and tearing up at moments of absolute tenderness. This wonderful film has mastered both extremes.

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Video review: "The Green Hornet"

"The Green Hornet" is what happens when smart people set out to make a dumb movie.

This hipper-than-thou would-be comedy can't decide if it wants to be a spoof of a super hero movie, or on homage to one. Director Michel Gondry and star Seth Rogen, who co-wrote the screenplay with Evan Goldberg, mock the conventions of the genre while indulging in them.

Interestingly, the Green Hornet -- who's best known to younger generations for a 1960s TV show co-starring Bruce Lee -- is one of the few costumed crusaders who didn't originate in a comic book. He started out as the star of a serial radio show in the '30s, followed by some cheapie movies, and only then did he show up in comics form.

Rogen plays Britt Reid, a petulant playboy and heir to a Los Angeles newspaper fortune. When his father dies mysteriously, he learns that the family mechanic Kato (Jay Chou) secretly built daddy an arsenal of weapons and gadgets, including a tricked-out 1965 Chrysler Imperial dubbed Black Beauty.

They decide to fight crime, but pose as criminals in order to infiltrate the underworld led by kingpin Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz), who frets about his drab image.

Gondry ladles on the slo-mo fight scenes and cool stuff like the Green Hornet's sleeping-gas gun -- which makes up for Britt's decided lack of combat prowess. The running joke of the movie is that despite being the sidekick, Kato is the real muscle, and brains, of the outfit.

There's one or two really good laughs, but mostly "The Green Hornet" fails to sting, either as a super-hero flick or a send-up of one.

Video extras are pretty good, especially if you upgrade to the Blu-ray version.

The DVD edition is still decently stocked, with a feature-length commentary track by the filmmakers, gag reel and two featurettes on the writing of the screenplay and rebirth of Black Beauty.

The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, several more featurettes and a couple of Easter Eggs, including Chou's addition tape.

Go for the 3-D Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, and you'll also get animated storyboard comparisons.

Movie: 1.5 stars out of four
Extras:3 stars

Monday, May 2, 2011

Reeling Backward: "The Lost Weekend" (1945)

For 1945, "The Lost Weekend" was an exceptionally brave film. It was an uncompromising look at alcoholism, at a time when addiction was considered a personal failing to be swept under the rug of polite society. It certainly wasn't the sort of subject matter a country just coming out of the horrors of World War II seemed eager for. In fact, most people in Hollywood thought it was box office poison.

So much for underestimating audiences. It went on to be a big commercial hit, and won the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay. It cemented the career of director Billy Wilder, proving that the previous year's "Double Indemnity" was no fluke. And it made a star out of Ray Milland, who hesitated taking the role after Cary Grant and Jose Ferrer turned it down.

It chronicles the four-day weekend of a struggling writer who reaches the absolute bottom of his drinking nightmare. It's based on an autobiographical account by author Charles R. Jackson, whose novel was adapted for the screen by Charles Brackett and Wilder. Wilder supposedly became interested in the subject of a brilliant writer haunted by booze after working with Raymond Chandler on "Double Indemnity."

The question people always ask is how somebody as smart and talented as Don Birnam (Milland) could allow himself to become a slave to whiskey. The film adroitly shows how even a brilliant mind can become soured by bending its entire power toward finding the next drink. "The Lost Weekend" doesn't pull any punches or engage in any Hollywood puffery -- Don's soul-wrenching misery is displayed with harsh candor.

Perhaps the most cringe-inducing scene is when Don finds himself in a stupor in a busy nightclub and realizes he doesn't have enough money to cover his tab. He swipes the clutch bag of the woman sitting next to him and ducks into the men's room, intending to remove the money and return the purse unnoticed. But a crowd has gathered to find the culprit, and he's humiliated and thrown out onto the street.

Less convincing is a bit where Don is hallucinating in his apartment and imagines a bat flying around the room. I realize it was 1945, but special effects were still more advanced than a bad-looking puppet on a string. But it's only a brief interruption of the dark mood Wilder and company create.

What's really impressive is that Milland isn't afraid to show off the character's terrible self-loathing. He puts on the veneer of the charming writer/drunkard, evoking Shakespeare and Hemingway as he describes the world around him in the dulcet tones of barroom poetry. Later, though, we glimpse the scared little man who's so obsessed with his own failure that he can't even appreciate the love of Helen St. James (Jane Wyman), the woman who's spent the last three years dealing with his binges.

In an era of John Wayne Westerns and heroic war pictures, depicting a man so cowardly was downright radical.

There's a couple of strong supporting performances I really enjoyed. Howard Da Silva plays Nat, the owner/proprietor of Don's favorite watering hole. Nat is his blue-collar confessor, dispensing cheap rye whiskey and grim advice. Nat -- who pronounces Don's last name "Boin-um" -- cheerfully warns Don that if he keeps drinking, he'll end up jumping off a building or throwing himself in front of a subway. Nat cares about his best customer, but knows to keep him at arm's length.

Doris Dowling is quite a presence as Gloria, a prostitute who works out of Nat's and has been carrying on a low-level flirtation with Don. I love how she strokes the nape of his neck with her finger whenever she walks by him -- safe from the Production Code, but highly sensual. With her slightly asymmetrical face and cool screen presence, she would go on from "The Lost Weekend," her first credited role, to a long career in film and television.

3.5 stars out of four