Thursday, July 28, 2011

Review: "Cowboys & Aliens"

Perhaps I was expecting too much out of "Cowboys & Aliens" ... or at least, I was expecting something much different.

For a summer tent pole movie with a title like that, starring two actors  -- Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford -- who have played iconic action heroes, and directed by admitted fanboy Jon Favreau ("Iron Man"), I was expecting something loopier. Wacky hi jinks coupled with slick special effects.

What we get instead is a fast-paced Western oater in which the bad guys happen to be crusty boogums from outer space. Imagine "War of the Worlds," except the invasion happens during the days of six-shooters and saddles.

The result is a movie that takes itself way more seriously than any film with a title like "Cowboys & Aliens" ought to.

It's still a fun ride, and Ford gets to play a more multi-dimensional character than we've seen in awhile. Craig is less fascinating, squinting his way through the movie and stumbling through an unconvincing American accent.

The movie opens without preamble. A man wakes up in the desert, lacking boots, a weapon or even a memory of who he is. He's the epitome of the spaghetti Western Man with No Name, since he doesn't even know it himself.

He does have a strange metal doohickey attached to his left wrist, and when some cowpokes try to roust him, he discovers a freakish ability at hand-to-hand combat.

The stranger rides into town, where he is soon identified as Jake Lonergan, a notorious bandit with a $1,000 bounty on his head. He runs into trouble with the son of the local ranch boss, and finds himself arrested by the sheriff. There's also a strange, beautiful woman who knows how to use a pistol and seems very interested in Lonergan.

Things come to a head when Col. Dolarhyde (Ford), the ranch boss, arrives to spring his boy. He's a hardened Civil War veteran, takes guff from no man, and always gets what he wants.

It seems things will go very badly when suddenly the town is attacked by spaceships, which blow people to bits or lasso them with metal contraptions and carry them away. Lonergan's bracelet suddenly comes to life and shoots down one of ships, so he's recruited for the posse to track down the kidnapped townsfolk.

Things go on from there, and there wasn't much that was very surprising, although it was executed well. The secret of Lonergan's amnesia and laser bracelet are uncovered, the creatures reveal themselves in all their googly-eyed, crustaceous glory, and of course some American Indians will ride in as some sort of reverse cavalry.

Dolarhyde is the most interesting character by far, and the small army of screenwriters (six, including story credits) give him plenty of layers. At first he's just a hateful old boss, pushing people around with his wealth and gang of armed cowboys. But eventually we discover him to be more haunted than hateful, especially in his relationships with a longtime Indian employee (Adam Beach) and a young boy who tags along with the posse.

I enjoyed myself at "Cowboys & Aliens," but it's not the sort of experience that will linger in the memory. Instead of genre-bending kitsch, we got a gritty Western with creepy critters.

2.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Review: "Crazy, Stupid, Love."

"Crazy, Stupid, Love." reminded me of bits and pieces of movies I love, and that's always a good thing. And yet it does not feel like a rip-off or a rehash, but exists entirely as its own creation.

It's the story of Cal and Emily Weaver, high school sweethearts turned unhappily marrieds played by Steve Carell and Julianne Moore. Going over the dessert menu at dinner, he asks her what she wants and she announces that, after 25 years, she wants a divorce. This actually represents the high point of their evening.

But it's also the tale of Jacob, a smooth ladies' man who trolls his favorite nightclub like a shark hunting territorial waters. He wields pick-up lines and brash confidence as weapons to subdue his prey: pretty, gullible women. "You wanna get outta here?" is the final thrust of his attack, and when they leave with him Jacob notches another triumph.

Jacob spots Cal pathetically pouring his heart out at the bar, post-breakup, and resolves to help him. There's the superficial makeover stuff, of course, like ditching Cal's New Balance sneakers and Gap-meets-apathy wardrobe. More tellingly, Jacob wants to turn sweet-faced Cal into a killer like himself.

"I'm gonna help you rediscover your manhood," Jacob promises.

Jacob is played by Ryan Gosling, not exactly known for playing the sort of slick, shallow pretty boys we've seen entirely too much on screens lately (*cough cough* Ryan Reynolds *cough*). Later Gosling will get a chance to show off the superficial jerk's uncharted depths.

Other characters, who had been standing around the edges of the story, unexpectedly rush to the fore and briefly hold the center. Chief among them is Hannah (Emma Stone), a smart young woman about to take the bar exam and become a patent attorney. She and Jacob briefly meet early in the movie, and she is the one gal who sees through his shtick and blows him off, and yet we are certain they will meet again.

Gosling and Stone share the greatest non-seduction seduction scene in the history of cinema -- probably also the first, but then that's something, too.

Then there is Jessica, the Weavers' 17-year-old babysitter. She has her own dimensions and secret hopes, and is skillfully and heartwarmingly played by Analeigh Tipton, who I learn is a famous model in real life, but here is unaware of her beauty. Tipton has a great scene where Jessica tries to do something that is entirely out of her character, and fumbles at it charmingly.

And then we have Robbie, the Weavers' 13-year-old son, in an arresting performance by Jonah Bobo. Robbie is a hopeless romantic, but is also pretty observant about adult behavior, and has his parents' dilemma figured out perhaps better than they themselves do. I adored Robbie for his spontaneous, unembarrassed declarations of unrequited love -- and also for the way he stares down David Lindhagen (Kevin Bacon), the jerk who stole his mom away from his dad.

I was thinking that I would enjoy an entire film about Robbie, and that's when it struck me that screenwriter Dan Fogelman ("Tangled") has given us at least a half-dozen characters who are each deserving of their own movie. Heck, most flicks don't even give us one.

Co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa do a masterful job juggling the tone of "Crazy, Stupid Love.", which is often excruciatingly funny and sometimes mournful, and yet feels like it comes into these moods naturally rather than veering into them to facilitate the plot.

This is the sort of movie that shows us human emotions rather than tells us what they are supposed to look like. Like with Cal, who sneaks back to his former home at night to tend to the garden he knows has slipped Emily's mind. That's the whole of the man, in a moment.

3.5 stars out of four

Review: "The Smurfs"

"The Smurfs" is about what you'd expect. It's a cynical attempt to capitalize off the notoriety of a piece of 1980s cartoon nostalgia. There was no muse whispering into anyone's ear about why this story had to be told; the only sound was the ka-ching of cash registers ringing up an ocean of toys and merchandising tie-ins.

The thinking goes something like this: Generation Xers, who grew up on the television show and now have small children of their own, might get a kick out of their kids being delighted by the same wacky little blue critters they watched in knee pants.

Except, there's little to delight in this film, which follows the blueprint of similar rip-offs like "Alvin and the Chipmunks," "Garfield" and "Yogi Bear." The cartoons are rendered with computer animation, unconvincingly paired with live humans, for an escapade of tame chases and fights spiced with some slightly crude jokes -- mostly involving posteriors and gastrointestinal quirks -- and life lessons.

I don't mind this sort of claptrap for kiddies if it's executed well and the filmmakers manage to invite adults along for the journey, or at least make it tolerable.

But there's nothing to recommend about "The Smurfs." Every obvious joke is covered, every morsel of cuteness is exploited.

Even the CGI isn't terribly impressive. (Nor is the 3-D, which is definitely not worth the ticket upgrade.) The Smurfs have a vague, fuzzy appearance, unlike the crisp detail we're used to in modern animation like "Kung Fu Panda" or "How To Train Your Dragon." When they hop on a human's shoulder or go in for a hug (which they do a lot), the actors do a bad mime performance.

You know the set-up: In an enchanted forest lies a village of oversized mushrooms, where lives 100 little blue humanoids "three apples high," 99 Smurfs and one female, who gets the accurate but sexist moniker of Smurfette (voiced by Katy Perry). Papa Smurf is their father and leader, although he didn't actually procreate, but created Smurfette and had the boys flown in by magical storks.

Papa Smurf is voiced by Jonathan Winters, who briefly did the voice of Grandpa Smurf on the TV show, where Smurf lineage was apparently more complicated. He gives Papa a deep, reassuring and rather bland sound, quite unlike the chirpier, gravelly tone of the late Don Messick, who made Papa sound like what he is: a wizened little gnome.

I was also disappointed that Hefty Smurf has been replaced by some new guy named Gutsy (Alan Cumming). It's the same basic character -- strong, garrulous, brave -- except now he wears a kilt and speaks in a Scottish brogue. What really makes it puzzling is that Hefty is actually glimpsed briefly, so why he got benched for this interloper is beyond me.

Anyway, a handful of Smurfs get chased by their archenemy, the human wizard Gargamel, through a portal into New York City's Central Park. They meet Patrick (Neil Patrick Harris), a young marketing exec who works for a big cosmetics company with a tyrant of a boss. He and his wife (Jayma Mays) are expecting a baby, so Patrick is having daddy/commitment issues, and the last thing he needs is a gaggle of Smurfs invading their tiny apartment.

(And by "tiny," I mean the sort of expansive, handsome, multi-room suite that real New Yorkers would pay seven figures for.)

To open the portal and get back home they need a blue moon, which are common enough on their world but strictly metaphorical on Earth.

I will give "The Smurfs" props for one thing: casting Hank Azaria as Gargamel. The tall, classically handsome Azaria is unrecognizable as the hunched, bald sorcerer with a hooked hillock of a nose and a burning desire to steal the Smurfs' essence for his spells. He's a gleefully depraved figure, and Azaria seems to recognize the material for what it is.

He's responsible for what little lemonade that could be wrung from this lemon.

1.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Video review: "Source Code"

"Source Code" has one of those plots that you shouldn't spend too much time thinking about. It's a high-tech house of cards, with a science fiction backdrop that hasn't quite crossed all it's t's or dotted its i's.

There's time travel, sorta, and "Matrix"-like control of the human mind by nefarious forces. At the center, though, is a touching human story about a man trying to make sense of extraordinary circumstances.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens, a helicopter pilot deployed in Afghanistan. He wakes aboard a speeding train, with a smiling woman (Michelle Monaghan) sitting across from him and talking to him like she knows him. He soon discovers that his consciousness has been projected into that of a man who's already dead -- because terrorists have blown up this train, killing everyone aboard.

Colter must repeat this scenario over and over until he discovers the identity of the bomber. In between his "missions," he finds himself in a strange metal pod, where a female commander (Vera Farmiga) whispers urgent instructions.

Even though the metaphysics of the story don't stand up to scrutiny, director Duncan Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley still manage to engage us with a sympathetic protagonist and the mystery of his plight.

Information on video extras was still a little sketchy at press time. According to preliminary reports, it will include a feature-length commentary by Jones and Gyllenhaal, interviews, trivia and experts talking about the science of time travel. I didn't get a review copy in time, so I can't say if these features are on both the DVD and Blu-ray versions, or just one.

Movie: 3 stars (out of four)
Extras: I (Incomplete)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Play Dirty" (1969)

I thoroughly enjoyed this little war drama/caper from 1969 starring Michael Caine. I admit I'd never heard of it before, but it came up under my Netflix recommendeds, so I jumped. Jolly good show, as they say.

Yes, it is something of a British knockoff of "The Dirty Dozen." A motley bunch of Allied criminals are tasked with an impossible mission during World War II, and even the commanders issuing the orders don't think they'll accomplish their objective. But they're expendable, so it's worth a go.

The X factor is Caine's character, Douglas, a straitlaced if somewhat lazy British officer content to while away the war overseeing the loading of ships at an African port. He's a captain in name only: He worked for British Petroleum before the war, and because he has some tertiary experience with oil, he's assigned to command a task force to blow up Rommel's major oil dump, crippling the German desert war machine that has confounded the Allies.

Except Douglas finds that he's hopelessly in over his head. The professorial colonel running the show (Nigel Green) has lost a string of English officers sent to "lead" his men into the field. The guy really running the show is Capt. Cyril Leech (Nigel Davenport), who was serving 15 years in prison for intentionally sinking his steamer ship for the insurance payoff when he was broken out and conscripted.

It's a fine, memorable performance by Davenport, as a man who's as calculating as he is black-hearted. He works for the Brits, but one senses that if the Germans offered him more money, switching sides would pose no dilemma for him.

The first half of the movie or so consists of Douglas attempting to command the strike force, and Leech undermining his authority and disabusing him of the notion that he's in charge. This culminates with Leech intentionally sabotaging Douglas' efforts to haul their trucks up the side of a cliff using a clever pulley system. One of the trucks comes crashing down, and when the Germans discover the wreck they prepare to annihilate the infiltrators.

Fortunately, the brigadier general in command of special forces didn't trust Douglas' crew, so he sent another, more professional outfit to do the job -- essentially turning the first group into decoys. The Germans stumble upon this second group and prepare an ambush, with Douglas' gang watching from the top of the cliff. Douglas attempts to alert the other British soldiers by firing his pistol, but Leech puts a knife to his throat and forcibly twists the gun out of his hands.

After the Brits are massacred, they come down to loot the dead. Douglas, outraged, picks up a machine gun and threatens to shoot his own men if they don't bury the fallen soldiers. Leech points out that he would only have been able to kill one or two of them before dying himself, and Douglas agrees with his assessment. It's only at this point that Leech begins to develop anything resembling respect for Douglas.

The rest of the outfit isn't terribly memorable. There's a big blond guy who was accused of rape, and a Greek demolitions expert, etc. The only fellows who are remotely interesting are a pair of Arabs who don't speak any English and are pretty conclusively portrayed as being homosexual. They're silly and girly, holding hands and such, but it's notable that none of the other characters seem to have a problem with them being gay. For 1969, that was positively progressive.

At one point they capture a German nurse and force her to care for one of their injured comrades. Several of them corner her and attempt to rape her, but then one of the Arabs shoots the big blond in the ass. I enjoyed the editing here, which slyly cuts to the nurse patching up her attacker's posterior.

Things conclude in a typically nihilistic fashion for that era of war films. The Allies break through the German lines and begin to sweep across the desert, and suddenly the oil dump that needed to be destroyed becomes a crucial objective to be captured. Since headquarters is cut off from the men, they tip off the Germans about the impending attack, which ends successfully but with everybody except the two captains killed.

The ending is a bit abrupt and contrived. Leech and Douglas are hiding out in a village when the British army breaks through. Still wearing the German uniforms they'd use to infiltate enemy lines, Douglas concocts a white flag of surrender and marches out to greet the liberators. Alas, they're shot anyway. Why they wouldn't have just taken off their uniforms is, of course, the unasked question.

"Play Dirty" was directed by André De Toth (his final film) from a script by Melvyn Bragg and Lotte Colin, and was supposedly based on the exploits of some real-life special forces units like Popski's Private Army. Yes, it's a bit deriviative, but well-done and satisfyingly cynical.

3 stars out of four

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Review: "Captain America: The First Avenger"

Just a short review tonight. Joe's handling the main review of "Captain America: The First Avenger" over at The Film Yap, so tune in there for a full take.

I was surprised that it wasn't that bad. Fitfully entertaining, especially the first half. A pretty decent villain in Red Skull played by Hugo Weaving, wearing an impressive/scary crimson get-up that looked like it was done through makeup rather than CGI. Kudos for old-school cinematic tricks.

I retain my same opinion of Chris Evans' acting abilities. (Short version: Wet paper bag > Evans trying to act his way out of.) But I was at least pleased that they kept his performance subdued, and matched the downbeat (or at least grounded) nature of the character from the comics. Steve Rogers is a weakling who was given a chance to stand up to bullies, and never forgot what it was like to be unable to defend yourself or your ideals. That's pretty much what we get onscreen.

At least they didn't have Evans reprise his slick, shallow turn as Johnny Storm from the "Fantastic Four" movies. We've already had one super-hero movie this summer where they tried to wrap the fable of a comic book character around an underwhelming actor's smirky star persona. And we all know how that turned out.

I enjoyed the lengthy origin story of Rogers, a "90-pound asthmatic," selected to be the subject of the Super Soldier experiment, not because of his physical qualities but who he is in his heart. Stanley Tucci has a nice, small role as the scientist who mentors him before turning him into a super-hero.

There's also a long section where Captain America gets sidetracked, and I enjoyed this part because it had a cynical, realistic quality -- if someone really did get zapped like Steve Rogers, this is how it probably would have played out.

The portrayal of Steve Rogers as a tiny, scrawny guy (this time they did use computer animation) remains authentically convincing. They even did something to Evans' face to make him look wan.

The love interest with a female British agent (Hayley Atwell) assigned to train his unit was hit-or-miss, and I wouldn't have missed it if they'd eliminated that character and entire storyline from the film. Why do these movies always have to give the hero a girl to be sweet on? Isn't having extraordinary powers and fighting some lunatic baddie over the fate of the world enough to build your plot on?

Tommy Lee Jones kinda phones in his performance as the gruff commander of the Strategic Scientific Reserve, Captain America's outfit. He does have a great throwaway line during a chase that's a real keeper.

Things sort of go wobbly in the second hour. I didn't appreciate director Joe Johnston and his screenwriters breaking into a montage to demonstrate Captain America's growing status as a war hero. It felt lazy and short-shrifted.

Lord knows I'm a literalist, but would have liked somebody to explain why Captain America's shield returns to him after he throws it at bad guys. Yes, we learn it's vibranium, the rarest substance on earth, and can absorb any shock. Still doesn't explain the boomerang-ism.

And the finale, where Captain American makes a brave sacrifice in the frozen tundra, left me scratching my head. Oh, stuff your spoiler complaints -- the movie is called "Captain America: The First Avenger," so we already know he returns in next summer's tent pole movie. And the first thing we see is some guys pulling his popsicle-ized tush out of the ice.

Although Nick Fury's been recruiting his team for so long, I'd hate to have been the first guy who joined. He's spent years waiting around in the club house for the gang to be assembled. Plus, isn't by definition Fury himself the first Avenger?

Anyway, without totally giving it away, Captain America is in a position where (he says) he can't stop something from happening. And then he proceeds to demonstrate that, in fact, he does have control over the situation. But instead of going back the way he came, he decides he's going to throw himself on the figurative grenade. Maybe you can figure it out, I can't.

2.5 stars out of four

Review: "Friends with Benefits"

Boy, I could really feel "Friends with Benefits" trying.

This hip romantic/comedy wants you to know that it's not just an average romantic comedy. It is aware that it's a romantic comedy, and acknowledges and mocks the convention of that genre -- even as it falls back on them time and again.

Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis -- two performers whose acting skills have not heretofore impressed me -- play a pair of best buds who decide to incorporate sex into the relationship while keeping the friendship intact.

Of course, this never works in real life, or in the movies. And the characters and script of "Friends" is smart enough to admit this before setting off into an adventure that the audience and the film both know will fail.

The movie seems to think that by announcing itself in this way, it can than proceed to do every predictable thing we know is going to happen, but because they called it beforehand it's cool.

This movie reminded me of a shy, awkward guy who approaches a girl at a bar and opens with, "You may think this is really stupid, but..." And then, having told her that what he's going to say is pitiful, he is surprised when she's inclined to think so, too.

Timberlake is Dylan, who works at a rambunctious start-up website in the crunchy Pacific Northwest. He's recruited to interview for a position as art director at GQ magazine in New York City, with Kunis playing Jamie, the headhunter pitching the job to him. Or rather, she's pitching him the job, because Dylan is very ambivalent about moving to the big city and going mainstream.

After a magical evening on the town, right down to a massive flash mob dancing in Times Square that Jamie arranged just for Dylan, he agrees. (I can only imagine if he'd said, "Yeah, I'm bushed, gonna just go back to my hotel room." That's a lot of phone calls to make.) Not only that, they find such a connection that they start hanging out as friends.

After a pair of crashes in their respective love lives, they decide to add sex to the bill of fare. No commitments, no mushy scenes of regret, just an exchange of physical needs -- not unlike a game of tennis, they reason.

There's a certain friskiness to their couplings, including some glimpses of Timberlake and Kunis' naked posteriors (or at least Kunis' body double, I suspect).
I don't need to go into detail about what happens next. Despite the movie's pretensions and look-ma-no-hands self-referencing, it still ends up right where you knew it was going to go.

In fact, the mocking of romcom convention often ends up backfiring. There's a number of bits when Dylan breaks into snippets of song -- ostensibly to comment on the intrusive use of music in romantic movies, but really I suspect to give Timberlake a chance to show off his golden pipes.

But then later, "Friends" employs the same syrupy, incongruous musical cues that it was just lampooning.

Director Will Gluck, who helmed last year's clever "Easy A," co-wrote the screenplay with Keith Merryman and David A. Newman. They do manage a few funny moments, and a couple of characters who were more interesting than the stars.

Woody Harrelson plays Tommy, a co-worker of Dylan's who is extremely enthusiastic about expressing his gayness. He's positively puffed up with happiness and wants the world to know it's because he loves men. I'd like to think that such an exuberant soul could exist and work at a straight men's magazine, though I tend to doubt it.

The great character actor Richard Jenkins plays Dylan's father, who's suffering from dementia. The writers give him one great scene in an airport that was so passionate and angry and true, I felt sorry that the movie around it was unworthy.

1.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Motion poster for "The Hunger Games"

Cool new bit of movie marketing: A "motion poster" for "The Hunger Games." Like Harry Potter brought to life...

Review: "A Little Help"

It's always interesting to see a tiny independent film with some big-name actors -- well, recognizable ones, anyway -- in the cast. By most accounts, these performers have enjoyed a level of success that most indie denizens can only fantasize about. So why do they opt to appear in grade-Z productions, no doubt for a small fraction of their usual salary?

Probably for the same reason any thespian worth their salt does: Because they want to be challenged, and perhaps get out of their comfort zone.

"A Little Help" is certainly different from how we've seen Jenna Fischer before. The bubbly, adorable star of "The Office" and several notable films -- and a Fort Wayne native -- gets to play damaged goods. It's a strong, brave performance, although I admit I kept detecting notes of comedy that perhaps didn't belong.

Writer/director Michael J. Weithorn, a TV veteran, bobbles between humorous and dramatic tones for the first half of the film, which ultimately turns dark and dour. I kept expecting black comedy, and just found more black.

Still, it's a decent feature film debut. Weithorn juggles a fairly large cast and manages to make every character seem substantial and authentic.

Besides Fischer, other familiar faces include Chris O'Donnell, Lesley Ann Warren and Brooke Smith.

What I found most interesting about this film is how all the characters seemed to divide into two different teams, without anyone ever noticing or commenting upon it. Basically, some of them are soulful screw-ups while the others are harsh yet sensible types.

Laura (Fischer) is definitely in the screw-up category. A thirtysomething dental assistant, Laura's in a failing marriage with Bob (O'Donnell) and has a 12-ish son, Dennis (a promising Daniel Yelsky), whose disregard for his mother is stupendous, even by preteen standards.

Laura's sister Kathy (Smith) is the polar opposite. Careful, pushy, Kathy resents always having to be the responsible grown-up to those around her. With the help of their equally persnickety mom (Warren) and emotionally absent father (a wonderful Ron Leibman) -- who'd rather spin tales from his day as a top sportswriter -- Kathy treats her kid sister like an annoying tyke, always getting into trouble.

Kathy's husband Paul (Rob Benedict) is closer to Laura in his outlook. Like his father-in-law, he deals with his wife's harsh buzz by checking out to self-medicate. He encourages his teen son, a budding musician, to pursue his dreams, even if it doesn't measure up to Kathy's notion of success.

When a life-changing event happens, it bends Laura's world askew. She was basically unhappy, nursing a borderline alcoholic craving for beer, but at least her world had some sense of stability. With all her safety nets removed, she's faced with exactly how little she's progressed since high school.

The individual scenes between characters are energetic and hefty, but put together they are less than the sum or their parts. An attraction between two characters seems prepared to become a major event, and then it's aborted, but the two still act as if they own the emotional weight of it actually happening.

I know one thing: In the eternal conflict between the cool kids and the grinds, I prefer to watch movies about the cool kids. But I'd much rather live with the more serious ones.

2.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Video review: "Arthur"

I daresay audiences missed the boat on "Arthur."

This cute and clever remake of the 1981 hit romantic comedy starring Dudley Moore manages to follow the plot of the original fairly closely, but results in a very different -- but nearly equally enjoyable -- film experience.

That's mostly due to the casting of British comedian Russell Brand in the title role. Brand, known for his bad-boy image and hedonistic film characters, plays a sweet, almost innocent man-boy multi-millionaire happily drinking and partying away his life.

Unlike Aldous Snow, Brand's hedonistic character from "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Get Him to the Greek," his Arthur has a good streak a mile long -- hidden underneath a wastrel life of debauchery.
Brand shows us the character's vulnerable and tender side, and it's something we've never seen out of him before. Turns out the Brit known for hard-core comedy has a softie inside.

As in the original, Arthur is threatened with disinheritance unless he marries a woman from an appropriate family (played by Jennifer Garner in rhymes-with-witch mode). But then he falls in love with a sweet working-class girl (Greta Gerwig) and decides to risk it all, with the tacit approval of his servant/life-lessons teacher Hobson, played by Helen Mirren.

Audiences stayed away in drove from this remake, but for once the reboot was actually a welcome one. Brand creates a thoroughly charming character who actually makes us forget about Dudley Moore, if only for a little while.

Video extras are the same for both Blu-ray and DVD versions, and are a bit disappointing.

You get "Arthur Unsupervised," a behind-the-scenes look at production with Brand and Director Jason Winer. It promises "fun footage, outrageous photos and ad-libs too wild for theaters." Meh.

There's also a gag reel and 10 minutes worth of deleted/extended scenes.

There's also a combo pack available that includes Blu-ray, DVD and digital copies of the film.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 2 stars

Monday, July 18, 2011

Reeling Backward: "The Tenth Man" (1988)

I don't usually write about television movies, but 1988's "The Tenth Man" has more cinematic roots than most TV.

It was based on a novel by Graham Greene, whose work has been the basis for a number of movies -- "The End of the Affair," "The Quiet American," "The Third Man," etc. And director Jack Gold had plenty of feature film experience as well as television.

And, of course, it stars a trio of magnificent English film actors: Anthony Hopkins, Kristin Scott Thomas and Derek Jacobi. Given that pedigree, I'm willing to give it an honorary inclusion into the Reeling Backward club.

It's a tragic tale about fear and regret, and the impossibility of escaping the past. Its hero begins the story in shame, and ends it with a brave sacrifice. He is a liar and a coward, and yet culminates his journey ennobled.

Hopkins plays Jean Louis Chavel, a wealthy French barrister who is rounded up by the Nazis in the early days of the German occupation of France. There is no reason for his arrest, or I should say there is no particular reason that he should be among those arrested -- he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Germans are plucking men off the street at random to hold as hostages. Whenever the French Resistance stage any sort of violence, a few of the prisoners are executed.

(I should note that although all the major characters are French, everyone speaks in the finest upper-crust British accents -- one of those conceits of filmmaking we're asked to just swallow.)

Sure enough, after some trouble the Germans announce that three of 30 Frenchmen will be executed in the morning. As an added twist of the knife, they will force the prisoners themselves to choose from among their number the condemned. After drawing lots, Chavel is horrified to find he has gotten one of the three pieces of paper with an "X" on it.

After breaking down in a tearful display, Chavel offers to give 100,000 francs to any man who will take his place. When this fails to net any takers, he increases the deal to include everything he owns, including his mansion estate in the countryside near Paris. Michel Mangeot (Timothy Watson), a sickly young man, agrees to the bargain, and sees to it that Chavel himself makes out the legal papers leaving everything to Michel's sister and mother.

Interestingly, the title refers not to Chavel, who is actually the 27th of 30 prisoners to draw lots, but Michel, who nabs the 10th ballot. Or perhaps it's just a reference to one in 10 men being executed ... but that would mean there were three Tenth Men. No, I think it's Michel. I'm always fascinated by movie titles that don't mean what they appear to, like "The Last of the Mohicans," which refers not to Hawkeye but his adoptive father, Chingachgook. 

Flash to the end of the war, and a bedraggled Chavel emerges from prison, bearded and wearing ragged clothes. Finding a ring in the cobblestones near the Seine River -- which he had contemplated hurling himself into -- he pawns it for enough money to travel to his former estate. He finds the grounds overgrown and the shutter hanging askew, but otherwise the house is intact. Chavel is startled to discover that it is not in fact abandoned, but still occupied by Michel's sister Therese Mangeot (Scott Thomas) and her elderly mother (Brenda Bruce).

He gives Therese a fictitious name, suspecting that she may blame him for the death of Michel -- a wise move. Turns out she is boiling with rage, waiting for the day Chavel returns so she can spit in his face and shoot him (though not necessarily in that order). He tells her he was in prison with her brother and knew Chavel, so she hires him as a servant. His main job is to alert her if Chavel should ever turn up.

There's a bit of literary conceit there, especially the idea that Chavel's former neighbors and the local priest (Cyril Cusack) wouldn't recognize him after being away just three years and growing a beard.

You can probably guess what happens next: Chavel finds himself falling for Therese, but can't bring himself to declare his true identity and feelings, knowing she burns with hatred for him.

It's a very subtle, interior performance by Hopkins, the sort of thing that typified his career before he won an Oscar for "Silence of the Lambs" three years later. The way his eyes fall to the floor, and his hands rub his forehead and cheek, it's almost like Chavel is trying to hide from himself. It would be interesting to know what sort of man he was before the war, bu the movie doesn't provide much illumination before he's thrown in prison.

Things grow more melodramatic in the last third or so with the arrival of an impostor (Derek Jacobi) claiming to be Chavel. The son of one of the other prisoners, he heard the story of Chavel and decided to make use of it. He's on the run from the authorities for collaborating with the Germans and needs a place to stay for the night. But smartly sensing the odd dynamic unfolding in the Chavel mansion, he decides to make a play for bigger stakes.

I enjoyed "The Tenth Man" for the most part -- the acting is splendid, and it has a dour, sober quality and an authentic period feel. Sort of "Masterpiece Theatre" meets Dostoevsky.

2.5 stars out of four

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Of shirts and full employment

I've been meaning to make this blog post for awhile now, but just haven't had the time. That is in a certain way a good thing, because I've been so crazy over my head with work that things like non-movie blogging tend to get shunted aside.

Although I'm ready to ramp down from the insanity of the last couple of months, being overloaded with work is better than having no work. I lost my job at the Indy Star in December 2008, and did not find another full-time job until April 2011. Things were finally going well in the months before I found my new job -- I was doing the stay-at-home Dad thing with our new baby, and had enough steady freelance work to bring in a decent income.

Then the job appeared, as suddenly and unexpectedly as the old one went away, the baby went into daycare, and I kept a large chunk of my freelance duties. The bucks are rolling in now, and I have no free time at all, but I'm proud in some way to complain about how busy I am.

A few weeks ago I found myself doing something I had not done since being laid off: Dropping shirts off at the cleaners to be washed and pressed. And it got me thinking about the little ways our lives change when jobs come and go.

I divide my wardrobe into two areas: Work clothes and casual. I have perhaps 15 decent button-up shirts that I set aside for business attire. I wash everything else at home, but the dress shirts I've always taken to the cleaners because A) I'm terrible at ironing, and B) I hate doing it to the point that I didn't even own an iron or board anymore.

It was a modest luxury, getting those beautiful crisp shirts back from the cleaners, something I spent perhaps $25 a month on. I didn't really think about the money, since I made enough for small time-savers like this. I figured, I do my own yard work and change the oil on my cars myself to save dough, so dammit, someone else can iron my shirts.

When I abruptly became unemployed, even tiny luxuries went out the window. We had managed our finances well, so there was no immediate crisis, but things we had grown accustomed to, like going out to dinner once or twice a week and having your shirts pressed, became expenditures that had to be curtailed.

So the end result was I just didn't wear my nice shirts. Sometimes I would look at them wistfully, hanging neatly on the left side of my clothes rack. Then I'd grab an old T-shirt from the right side for a day of writing and changing diapers.

Even when I started making enough freelancing that we could afford it, I resisted wearing these shirts, because then I would have to pay to have them cleaned. I suppose I could have washed them myself and endured the wrinkles. But it was more of a mental block than a rational decision.

Part of me felt I didn't deserve to wear the good shirts -- I was an unemployed bum, and nice business attire is for people who have jobs.

Again, that's not logical, but it's a symptom of the toll losing your job takes on your psyche, in ways big and small.

Anyway, I'm wearing the good shirts again, and taking them to be pressed a couple times a month. When I went back into my neighborhood cleaners for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by name, despite having not stepped foot in there for more than two years. I guess I was one of their more regular customers, who brought in steady if modest business, and they were glad to have it back.

And I'm happy to give it to them.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Ghosts 'n Goblins game

Arcade Games

Review: "Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows: Part 2"

Harry Potter's epic journey ends with power and majesty. For 10 years and seven previous films, we've waded through oceans of exposition and endured ever-burgeoning layers of new characters and mythology to absorb. All building to: This.

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" does not disappoint. It is easily the best film of the series, mainly because we no longer feel the filmmakers stringing us along to set up yet another movie. People die, many of them central characters, and the audience recognizes the finality of these events.

In the final showdown with the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, in still-creepy bone-white makeup) there are several sequences that will last with me.

A terrifying chase through a maze with serpents of fire in pursuit. An assault on Hogwarts School by an army of Voldemort's Death Eaters, complete with lumbering trolls and wraith-like Dementors, that approaches the battles of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. A sad but illuminating journey through the mind of Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), the Hogwarts professor of shifting loyalties.

And, of course, Harry's final toe-to-toe magical battle with Voldemort. Daniel Radcliffe has grown so much in this role, and he brings it all together in this last movie, showing us the character's bravery and contradictions, his rage and grief. The Harry Potter of "Deathly Hallows" is no longer a young boy excited by magic, but has turned out much like LoTR's Frodo, aged before his time and regretful of the events in which he's been chosen by fate to play a pivotal role.

There's also an element we haven't seen out of Voldemort before -- fear. Early in the story he realizes that Harry, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) have stumbled upon the secret to his forbidding dark power. By splitting his soul into hidden objects called Horcruxes, he's given them a chance to destroy him.

For those like me who have not read the series of books by J.K. Rowling, it can be a little difficult at times to keep up with the spinning narrative. At one point Harry pulls out some little golden doohickey that acquired somewhere in his travels, which I could summon no memory of. And then the thing it contains, which we had been told was the secret to Voldemort's downfall, ends up playing no role in their confrontation.

Contrastingly, diehard fans may complain about the film not containing every morsel of detail from the books. Such a thing is impossible -- even when director Peter Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves split the last book into two movies.

In that sense, this final film may be more satisfying to those who are innocent of Rowling's novels than the untold millions who have voraciously consumed them.

("Part 2" is being released in 3-D, and a more worthless and distracting use of that technology I have never seen. It adds little depth to the action, and dims the movie unnecessarily.

3.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Review: "A Better Life"

"Let's go home."

With those words -- spoken at the very of the end of the film -- director Chris Weitz ("About a Boy") and screenwriter Eric Eason establish the underlying theme of their stark, sobering new drama, "A Better Life." It's about a gardener living in Los Angeles, trying to move up the economic ladder so he can send his teenage son to a better school away from the gangs and urban grime. A familiar American saga.

One problem: He's an illegal immigrant, and must spend his life struggling in the shadows.

This film is not a pro-open borders diatribe. Weitz and Eason use the immigration issue not as cheap agitprop but as the backdrop for a deep and truly moving human story about people caught in a web of screwy public policy and arbitrary enforcement.

Make no mistake, though: The cumulative effect of this story serves to bolster the view that people like this man are part of our national fabric, and deserve to stay here and thrive if they can.

Demián Bichir gives an amazing, Oscar-worthy performance as Carlos Galindo, a simple Mexican man who has been living in the U.S. for about 15 years. He speaks fluent English, works from dawn to dusk, and worries constantly about his son Luis (José Julián, in an astonishing film debut). His wife left long ago.

Carlos is faced with a dilemma, and an opportunity. His boss Blasco (Joaquín Cosio) has made enough money to return to Mexico and buy a ranch, and wants to sell his truck and business to Carlos. Carlos resists -- he likes things just as they are. He and Luis have a tiny house (Carlos sleeps on the couch), a tidy garden and steady if meager income. In a word: Stability.

But he cobbles together the money, borrowing a chunk from his sister, who married an American and got her green card. The moment when he drives the well-worn truck to meet Luis at his school and announces that he now owns it is a seminal one in their relationship. Luis is at that stage in teen life where his father is something to be ashamed of, and the glimmer of hope and respect in the boy's eyes is like gold to Carlos.

The next day, Carlos drives his truck to the corner of a local garden store where migrant workers loiter looking for work: He needs a helper. The beaming look on his face as eager men crowd into his window tells all you need to know: Six years earlier, it was Carlos waiting in this very spot to be picked by Blasco. He chooses a kind-faced fellow he previously met, and they begin trimming bushes, mowing lawns, etc.

In a year, Carlos figures, the debt on the truck will be paid off, he and Luis can move to a nicer home with a better school, and perhaps he can even afford to take weekends off to spend time with his son.
Disaster strikes when his helper steals the truck, and with it all of Carlos' hopes and dreams.

He and the boy begin searching desperately for the truck, traveling all over the city in a long sequence that deliberately recalls the great Italian film, "The Bicycle Thief." Here is another working-class man whose entire existence hinges on regaining possession of a mode of transport.

The added twist is that Carlos has nowhere to turn for help from the authorities. There's a pivotal scene right after the truck is stolen where he looks around desperately for a policeman, but after finding one realizes he cannot report the theft.

Through this journey, a man and son reach a breaking point in their small family, and threats from gangs and immigration authorities loom constantly. "A Better Life" is a harrowing epic writ small, a vision of our country's promise and failings.

Carlos Galindo personifies the American Dream, as it actually is rather than how we would like it to be. This is one of the best films of the year.

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Video review: "Rango"

I can't think of a movie I had more fun at so far in 2011 than "Rango," a loopy, occasionally psychedelic animated flick starring Johnny Depp as a bug-eyed lizard. A domesticated pet who lives in a terrarium and invents companions and theatrical productions to amuse himself, he's literally a chameleon, and not just when it comes to the shade of his pebbly skin.

He ends up lost in the Mojave and stumbles into the town of Dirt, populated by every manner of desert critter imaginable. Things are tough in Dirt -- there's a gang of tunneling thieves waiting on the edge of town, a local crime boss looking for newcomers to squish, and the rumor of a slithery gunslinger named Rattlesnake Jake heading back their way.

Through a combination of wild circumstance and his own even more far-fetched boasting, the lizard finds himself appointed sheriff of Dirt, dubbing himself Rango to better suit his new role. Of course, there are all those aforementioned troubles that he's now expected to tackle.

Although kids will surely enjoy it, "Rango" is really a cartoon for adults, stuffed with highbrow humor and sly pop culture references.

Please note, "Rango" hits video outlets on Friday, July 15.

Video features are quite impressive, and you don't have to spring for the top-of-the-line edition to get good stuff.

The DVD version includes both the theatrical version of "Rango" plus an extended cut. To accompany both versions is a feature-length commentary track by director Gore Verbinski and several of his key crew members. There's also a collection of 10 deleted scenes, including an alternate ending, and an educational short about desert animals.

Opt for the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack and you add a number of other goodies, including a digital copy of the film. There's also a virtual tour of Dirt, a doc about this first foray into feature-length animation by Industrial Light & Magic, and a picture-in-picture feature where you can watch the movie in storyboard form.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars out of four

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Review: "Horrible Bosses"

"Horrible Bosses" had me, and then it lost me, and then it got me back again. This often clever, sporadically vexing comedy takes the premise of Alfred Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" and turns it into a horny goofball affair. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing.

Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day play three working stiffs who each have what the title says they have. They resolve to kill their evil bosses, with each doing another's boss to throw off suspicion.

Of course, because they're angsty modern men rather than calculating killers, they mess the whole thing up and get into a bunch of comedic scrapes -- or one big one, depending on how you count it.

I enjoyed the set-ups as we meet the bosses, learn the trio's personalities and how they mesh. The section where they slowly come around to the idea of offing their supervisors, try to find a hit man and ultimately resolve to do the deed themselves isn't very funny, and seemed to go on and on.

Director Seth Gordon and his trio of screenwriters needed to give this script another wash or two.

But once the movie hit its stride during one long night of hi jinks, it's a decent enough laugh-fest to garner it a marginal letter of recommendation.

Bateman, the rare child star who turned into a fine adult actor, has a very specific sense of comic timing. He usually plays variations on the same character -- the precise, easily perturbed and slightly anal-retentive nice guy who is vexed by the vagaries of others. In this case it's Dave Harken, played by Kevin Spacey riffing on his "Swimming with Sharks" character. Bateman plays Nick, who's been busting his hump for eight years to land a promotion ... one guess if he gets it.

The archenemy of Kurt (Sudeikis) is his boss' son, a coke-head with a horrid comb-over played by Colin Farrell. When the old man bites it, the son is put in charge and demands that people be fired to squeeze more profits out of the company to fuel his partying. Sounds like some newspaper executives I know.

Most people would not acknowledge Dale's (Day) problem as a real dilemma. A recently engaged dental technician, Dale is being sexually harassed by his dentist, Julia, improbably played by Jennifer Aniston. Julia's favorite trick is to knock her patients out with gas and then try to grope her subordinate.

My problem with these bosses is that they're all cartoons. They do not exist anywhere outside a Hollywood screenplay. Take Aniston's Julia. She could have any man she desired, so why would she pick on the short, hirsute and excitable Dale? It's like she has a hobbit fetish or something.

Farrell's character, Bobby, has the potential to be the most interesting, with his complete lack of empathy for fellow humans and a house crammed full of pinball machines and paintings of himself. ("A douche bag museum," Nick dubs it.) Unfortunately, the movie spends the least amount of time with him, so don't get to know him well enough to truly hate him.

Spacey's a treat playing nasty, since he does it so well. Jamie Foxx turns up as a heavily tattooed con with a colorful name.

"Horrible Bosses" isn't horrid, and sometimes it feels like punching a clock. But there's more good than tedious, and having to watch it didn't make me hate my job.

2.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Video review: "Of Gods and Men"

"Of Gods and Men" is a loving tribute to Trappist monks living in isolation in the largely Muslim nation of Algeria in the 1990s. It's based on a true story, and is a tale of tragedy and bravery, of men who put their faith and devotion to their fellow humans ahead of their own well-being -- even their very lives.

It is also, truth be told, exceedingly dull at times.

Director Xavier Beauvois, who also co-wrote the film that won the Grand Prix at Cannes Film Festival, patiently follows these holy men on the quotidian tasks of their daily lives -- praying, singing, tending gardens, cleaning kitchen pots, etc.

I'm guessing his idea was to immerse the audience in the existence of the monks, both their deep spiritual thoughts as well as their petty conflicts and drab chores, so as to better identify with them. Perhaps I'm shallow, but mostly it convinced me that the life of a Trappist monk is dreadfully boring.

When the film focuses on the fateful choice the monks have to make after Islamic extremists threaten Westerners in the area, "Of Gods and Men" hits a powerful chord. It's a shame they didn't make a shorter, more intense movie that focused on their dilemma rather than their daily life.

An interesting note on this video release: As near as I can determine, "Of Gods and Men" is only being issued as a Blu-ray or a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack -- no standalone DVD version available. I believe that's the first major film release with which I've seen that.

The combo pack comes with only two extras. The first is "The Sacrificed Tibéhirine: Further Investigation," an 18-minute documentary looking at the real case of the murdered priests, and revisiting the actual monastery where they lived. The other is "Merrimack College Augustine Dialogue IX with author John W. Kiser," a 41-minute religious-themed chat with the author of a book about the Tibéhirine monks.

Movie: 2 stars out of four
Extras: 2.5 stars

Monday, July 4, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Sid and Nancy" (1986)

"Sid and Nancy" is a film about repulsion. It's the story of the punk rock movement, which embraced nihilism with a swagger and a sneer, or at least it did in its early days with the Sex Pistols and the rest. Soon The Police were singing ballads and Billy Idol came along to give it a slick MTV veneer, and punk was co-opted and commoditized like a thousand rebellions that came before.

Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen were not sell-outs. Maybe if they'd lived long enough, they would have embraced being part of regular society instead of spurning it. But they died young, after Nancy was stabbed to death -- mostly likely by Sid -- and he overdosed on heroin in 1979 before his trial for her murder.

The interesting thing about modern pop culture, say since 1955, is how people embrace those who spit on social norms. Rebellion became cool, which is how Sid Vicious and the Sex Pistol could become icons despite their obvious disdain for those who listened to their music and showed up to their concerts.

Even by the Sex Pistols' standards, Sid (Gary Oldman, in his breakout role) was out there. Ostensibly he was their bass player, but even his band mates acknowledged he was a terrible musician who might as well have been playing a different song. When not on stage he was usually drunk or high ... and often on the stage, too. He cut himself with razors and got into fights just for the pleasure of the violence.

Johnny Rotten, the anarchic but calculating frontman for the Pistols played by Andrew Schofield, sums it up by calling Sid "a fabulous disaster."

The film was directed and co-written (with Abbe Wool) by Alex Cox, who had a brief heyday with this film and "Repo Man," and then disappeared deep into low-budget indie obscurity. He approaches the material with energy and wit, though the film doesn't have as much emotional punch as it should.

This is, after all, the story of two people who threw their lives away on drugs and what today we would call co-dependency. Sid and Nancy were in love, or at least what they conceived of as love, but they were too enamored with the rush of heroin and other hard drugs to have much empathy for anyone but themselves. In the film's depiction, Nancy broke up the Sex Pistols because she pulled Sid out of their orbit and into hers.

Something I don't think the movie sufficiently touches on is just how young Nancy and Sid where. They projected a world-weary cool, but they were naifs: Sid was just 21 when he died, and Nancy was a mere 20. Most people that age are considered a smashing success if they've managed to move out of their parents' house -- these two sought to bring the world to its knees when they were still teenagers.

Both Oldman and Webb were around 30 when the movie was made, and those few years make all the difference in terms of capturing the wild, noxious innocence of youthful rebellion. Ironically, if Cox had cast actors who were the appropriate age, they probably couldn't have pulled off the performances.

Oldman lost a lot of weight to play the role, and in one scene where we see Sid and Nancy walking away from the camera, we can see that he's actually thinner than Webb -- who was borderline scary-skinny herself.

Webb is an abrasive presence as Nancy -- so off-putting, in fact, that we wonder what in the world Sid ever saw in her. In my experience people who get into relationships with someone who's openly abusive to them do so because their self-worth is so low: They think they don't deserve any better. Since Sid arrives at the beginning of the movie fully formed, we don't grasp why he was attracted to her, since she so obviously sought only to glom onto somebody -- anybody, really -- who was famous.

Oldman and Webb nail the surface of these people, but we never get inside their hearts and heads. Their characters remain a spectacle, to be amazed at and pitied, but never understood.

Much of the attention about Vicious and Spungen, and by extension this film, centered on the circumstances of her death. But I found that the least interesting thing about the movie. If Sid hadn't knifed her in a haze of drug-induced fighting, then she was already set on the path leading to a similar demise.

Sid's was just the final one of the proverbial thousand cuts.

The film's crowning achievement is depicting the soul-sucking toll that drugs take on the talented and the naive. It's notable that Cox doesn't depict Sid and Nancy actually shooting up until near the end of the film; the lateness serves to underline just how exacting heroin addiction is, since its abusers end up becoming amateur physicians with an encyclopedic knowledge of a wide range of pharmacological effects.

In the beginning, junkies take drugs because they think it intensifies their personality. Later, when they're hooked, they find they need that razor's edge all the time, despite the fact it becomes harder to reach and maintain. Eventually, drugs replace the people they were, and they turn into mere vessels to an all-consuming craving. They become their addiction.

Heroin didn't just kill Sid and Nancy's romance; it overwhelmed and consumed it.

"Sid and Nancy" is an often engrossing tale of human degradation substituting for love. What a horrifying trade to make.

3 stars out of four