Thursday, April 28, 2011

Review: "Certified Copy"

"Certified Copy" is a truly an international film. It's a French, Belgian and Italian production, set in Tuscany, spoken in interweaving languages of Italian, English and French, and was written and directed by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami.

The reality of the story shifts with the languages, and if we spend all our time trying to discern the puzzle of its plot, we won't be able to fully enjoy its subtle charms. The acting is extraordinary, by Juliette Binoche and William Shimell, and in the end we stop trying to understand the film and simply embrace the fact that it is true to itself, rather than any conventional understanding of narrative veracity.

That is the nature of the story, at least to start with. James Miller, a British author, has just written a new book bearing the same title as the movie, arguing that the distinction between an art forgery and the original is unimportant. Both should be embraced for their value as objects of beauty, not as commodities.

Miller gives a talk in an Italian city. He is middle-aged, handsome and charming in a detached, slightly cool way. What's extraordinary about Shimell's performance is that it is his first film role -- he's an opera singer by trade. I hope he makes more movies: His voice aside, here is a performer fully in control of his instrument.

Attending the speech, but leaving it early, is Elle -- although I don't believe we ever actually hear her name spoken. She is a harried single mother whose 11-year-old son seems to delight in teasing and vexing her. After forcing her to leave the author talk early to buy him a cheeseburger, the boy gleefully says he hopes she will marry Miller.

Indeed, they have a date set. An dealer in art and antiquities, Elle arranges for Miller to meet her at her shop to talk about his book. He suggests they go for a drive, and she takes him to a remote town to look at a revered painting that was later discovered to be a forgery. She thinks he'll be thrilled, but he's rather indifferent. Miller talks about embracing the emotional, sentimental nature of art, but he seems to have to summon it up for himself.

Their journey takes them to a cafe, where a curious thing happens. While Miller steps away to take a call, Elle talks with the Italian shopkeeper about the relationship between husbands and wives. The older woman (Gianna Giachetti) has mistaken Miller for her husband, and Elle does not correct her. She relays this to Miller when he returns, and from that moment on they talk and behave as if they are actually a married couple who have been together 15 years.

Are they pretending? Carrying on a charade to amuse themselves? I don't think so. Miller had stated unequivocally that he did not speak French or Italian, and yet he suddenly starts conversing in them flawlessly.

Whether pretend or not, their marriage is not a happy one. His work consumes him, taking him away for months on end, and she resents the way he acts as a visitor in the lives of his own family. Miller is different from the suave, slightly know-it-all author of the first half. He's distant and peevish, easily driven into a rage by an inattentive waiter at a restaurant.

Binoche is a revelation as Elle, the emotions pouring out of her face like wine from a decanter. Although she's lost some of the coquettish beauty of her early career, Binoche's face has more depth and versatility now. In both her roles here, she plays a woman consumed by a deep inner rage at being left alone so much of the time, when all she wants is someone to lean on through life.

What is the truth of the relationship between these two people? Are they strangers or distant lovers? For Kiarostami, it is both, and neither. He shows us how these two people would interact if they had just met in mid-life, and then draws a portrait of them deeply intertwined in a romance turned sour.

It's like an artist sketching a pair of models, first in once pose and then another, wearing one set of clothes and then switching. The circumstances are in flux, but the essence of who these two people are is unshakable.

In essence, "Certified Copy" is two movies, both lying to the audience, and both telling the same truth.

3 stars out of four

Review: "Fast Five"

"Fast Five" pops the highest gear of the "Fast and the Furious" franchise, beating all its predecessors in thrills and sheer watchability.

Of course, calling it the best of this lot is like singling out the tallest Pygmy. These movies are sheer silliness, improbable roadway mayhem interspersed with obligatory fistfights and gunplay, all coated with a noxious layer of adolescent macho posturing.

Still, give it props for (mostly) putting the brakes on the unpleasant stuff and hitting the accelerator on what the audience really wants, which is tons of crazy street action. Cars fly through the air, hurtle sideways and backwards at high speeds, and smash into each other at a prodigious rate.

I think of all the people who worked on this movie, the hardest job must've belonged to the guy in charge of procuring all the vehicles, because every day he had to send all these beautiful machines off to the set to be pulverized by director Justin Lin (who's helmed the last three "Furious" flicks).

Vin Diesel, after being absent for most of the second and third movies, is back as Dom Toretto, growly car thief/racer, who seems to invent chips to place on his burly shoulder. After being sprung from a prison bus by his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) and FBI agent-turned-partner Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker), they head down to Rio de Janeiro to hide out, where they raise the hackles of local crime lord Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida).

As an added bonus, Dwayne Johnson is added to the cast as Hobbs, a super-badass federal agent sent south of the border to bring in the trio after they're wrongfully accused of killing some DEA guys. Personally, I prefer Johnson in snarly action mode to the cuddly kiddie pictures he's been mired in lately. When you resemble The Rock, that's a whole lot of whup-tush staying in the can.

Of course, the audience is being set up for a throw-down between Diesel and Johnson, and the bald behemoths finally oblige around the 75 minute mark. Two 250-pound guys wail on each other for five minutes solid, throwing one another through windows and walls, and by the next scene neither one of them bears so much as a welt.

I also found it curious that Hobbs' law enforcement sidekicks stand with machine guns trained while a suspect pummels their boss, and never do anything to intervene. There's got to be something in the manual about that.

At over two hours, the movie's way too long, and the screenplay (by Chris Morgan) is a structural mess. The entire middle of the film is spent assembling a team (including Tyrese Gibson and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) to crack a vault in the much-hyped "impossible job" that every movie starring criminals seems to have.

After stealing cars, doing practice runs, stalking Reyes to get his hand print and myriad other schemes to beat a specific set of obstacles, it all gets tossed out the window for a last-minute case of "let's wing it." The payoff is a pretty spectacular sequence of CGI-assisted absurdity through the busy streets of Rio, but it sort of invalidates all the build-up.

I can't quite give the green light to "Fast Five," but any film franchise that's following an upward arc in its fifth go-round is welcome to rev it up again.

2.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Summer movie preview 2011

Welcome to the Summer of Movies 2011, an extravaganza of sequels and C-list super-heroes. It's hard to get too pumped about this year's offerings, since they bear such a startling resemblance to 2010, '09, '08, etc.

To wit: There will be a "Harry Potter" movie -- the last one (really), which lends it a bit of urgency. But still, after eight flicks in the past decade, only hardcore Harryites are still besides themselves with anticipation.

There will be a super-hero movie or three. But having already burned through those few supes who are true cultural icons -- to the point that both Superman and Spider-Man are getting rebooted -- ticket-buyers who didn't spend the entirety of their teen years inside a comic book store will scratch their heads trying to figure out just who the heck Green Lantern, Thor and Captain America are, beyond "that guy with the shield."

Sequels to previous summer blockbusters will dutifully arrive, whether live action -- "The Hangover Part II," "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" -- or animated -- "Kung Fu Panda 2," "Cars 2."

And maybe, just maybe, a few genuinely audacious, risk-taking films with a heart and a story to tell will fall into our laps in between the explosions and robots from outer space. Top candidates include "The Beaver," "The Tree of Life," "The Help," "Crazy, Stupid, Love" and "Larry Crowne."

Here's our rundown of the summer, with those boasting the most heated hype marked with a *.

*Thor (May 6) -- Chris Hemsworth plays the Norse god of thunder, banished to Earth by his wrathful father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Stripped of (most of) his power, Thor is vulnerable to the plots of his killer kid brother, Loki. Next summer, Thor will join Iron Man and Captain America in the launch of The Avengers, a wannabe mega-franchise.

The Beaver (May 6) -- Yes, we're all supposed to hate Mel Gibson, I know. But this off-kilter dramedy directed by Jodie Foster shows promise. Gibson plays a burnt-out corporate honcho who finds he can only truly express himself using a beaver hand puppet. Wacky, daring ... perhaps wonderful?

Bridesmaids (May 13) -- This comedy about good girls turning bad for a bachelorette party looks suspiciously like a gender-flip of "The Hangover," except for one thing: Kristen Wiig, star of "Saturday Night Live" and perpetual sidekick in the movies, finally gets a lead role.

*Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (May 20) -- Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley jumped ship from the Disney franchise to make room for more of Johnny Depp slurring his dialogue as Captain Jack Sparrow as he searches for the Fountain of Youth. Penelope Cruz is a new addition as a female swashbuckler and former Sparrow flame, as is Ian McShane as Blackbeard.

Midnight in Paris (May 20) -- After decades stuck in the Big Apple, Woody Allen suddenly can't seem to stop himself from going international. His 42nd feature film stars Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams as a couple who find their lives growing discombobulated during a visit to the City of Love.

Priest (May 20) -- An unlikely action movie star, Brit Paul Bettany plays an even unlikelier badass: A super-soldier who wields a cross and a daggers while hunting blood-suckers in a post-apocalyptic dystopia.

*The Hangover Part II (May 26) -- The surprise comedy hit of 2009, which also managed to be quite clever in its mixture of raunch and adept storytelling, sees the boys taking their act on the road to Bangkok. Ed Helms, Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis are all back for another set of misadventures, but despite rumors Bill Clinton will not appear to feel their pain.

Kung Fu Panda 2 (May 26) -- Here's a setup: an evil peacock, Lord Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman) is threatening to eradicate kung fu, right after dopey fuzz-butt Po (Jack Black) became the unlikely Dragon Warrior. It's just an excuse for another round of family-friendly mayhem and gastrointestinal humor.

The Tree of Life (May 27) -- There are few filmmakers who deserve to be called an auteur, but Terrence Malick -- "Badlands," "The Thin Red Line" -- is among them. Brad Pitt stars as a 1950s father whose offspring struggle to make sense of their lives decades down the road (Sean Penn plays one of the adult sons). Malick spent three years editing this film, so let's hope it's worth the wait.

Beginners (June 3) -- Writer/director Mike Mills draws on his own life for this sweet tale about how a relationship changes when a father comes out of the closet to his son at the age of 75. Starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer.

X-Men: First Class (June 3) -- This Cold War-era prequel to the "X-Men" franchise about mutant super-heroes explores the relationship of Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto before they became mortal enemies.

*Super 8 (June 10) -- A group of kids are shooting an 8 mm movie in the 1970s heartland when a train derails, nearly killing them and setting off a chain of events that hearkens back to an era of innocence, before summer movies were cynical and exploitative. Director J.J. Abrams has more or less admitted he's channeling early Steven Spielberg, so let's see if he can ride this two-wheeler over the moon.

Green Lantern (June 17) -- Diehard Generation X fans are quivering with delight at the prospect of a big-picture version of a regular schmo (Ryan Reynolds) who receives the gift of a magic ring, and a not-so-voluntary invitation to join an intergalactic force of do-gooders. But seriously, how many people under age 30 have even heard of him?

Mr. Popper's Penguins (June 17) -- Jim Carrey returns to the animal roots of his breakout role, "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective," for this adaptation of the beloved children's novel about a workaholic whose perspective is changed by six penguins who come to visit.

Bad Teacher (June 24) -- Hollywood sweetheart Cameron Diaz plays against type as a horrible teacher who's suddenly inspired to impart real lessons to her seventh graders to win the heart of a dreamy new substitute played by Justin Timberlake. With Jason Segal.

*Cars 2 (June 24) -- Could this finally be the film where animation powerhouse Pixar stumbles? Somehow, I doubt it. Race car hotshot Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and tow truck bumpkin Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) take their show on the road to Europe, where international intrigue threatens the World Grand Prix.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (July 1) -- The heroic shape-shifting robots are back for a third go-round with Shia LaBeouf returning as ... oh, heck. As if anyone could actually understand the plots of the first two "Transformers" flicks. Here's a synopsis: Metal-crunching CGI action interrupted by snappy one-liners.

Larry Crowne (July 1) -- Tom Hanks directs, co-wrote and stars in this comedy/drama as a middle-aged downsize-ee who goes back to school and finds himself smitten with his college professor, played by Julia Roberts in full beaming-smile mode.

*Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -- Part 2 (July 15) -- The fantasy saga of a boy wizard battling the dark lord Voldemort comes to a (hopefully) smashing finale. Never mind that even those who haven't read the books already know how it ends. This is the summer's 800-pound troll ... er, gorilla.

*Captain America: The First Avenger (July 22) -- Early buzz was worrisome, and some people (OK, me) still aren't happy about the casting of Chris Evans, who's an acting lightweight despite his new muscles. But the long-awaited trailer turned doubts into desire to see the saga of a 98-pound wimp transformed into a super-soldier. Set during World War II, expect a more grounded (i.e., no lasers or space ships) super-hero flick.

Friends with Benefits (July 22) -- Justin Timberlake stars ... hey, this guy's everywhere lately! ... anyway, he and Mila Kunis play hipster buds who decide to add sex to the relationship but remain platonic friends outside the bedroom. Which, in the history of the world, has worked exactly never times.

*Cowboys &Aliens (July 29) -- Yes, the title sounds like a bad joke. But director Jon Favreau ("Elf," "Iron Man") knows how to make fun movies. The idea of smashing up genres is popular these days, and pairing James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in a Western oater-meets-sci-fi extravaganza just feels right.

The Smurfs (July 29) -- The indigo animated cuties from the '80s get the "Garfield" treatment, with live action humans -- notably Neil Patrick Harris -- slumming with CG Smurfs.

Crazy, Stupid, Love (July 29) -- Hopes are high for this romantic comedy starring Emma Stone, Julianne Moore, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling as a pair of fledgling couples who tutor each other in the ways of love.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Aug. 5) -- James Franco stars in this prequel to the 1970s flicks with Charlton Heston -- before they "blew it up." No humans in chimp costumes here, but CGI with Andy Serkis, the same actor who played Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

The Change-Up (Aug. 5) -- Another body switcheroo comedy? We thought that genre finally had a stake driven through its hackneyed heart. But Jason Bateman stars as a married guy who envies the playboy lifestyle of pal Ryan Reynolds, and gets to sample it first-hand. And the trailer's actually funny.

The Help (Aug. 12) -- Based on the best-selling (and controversial) novel, this drama examines the relationships between African-American maids in 1960s Mississippi and the well-heeled white families who employed them. What a cast: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Sissy Spacek, Bryce Dallas Howard, Cicely Tyson. This generation's "Steel Magnolias"?

30 Minutes or Less (Aug. 12) -- Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari play a pair of losers blackmailed into a robbing a bank really, really soon. From the "Zombieland" director.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (Aug. 12) -- Mexican director Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth") remakes a TV movie that scared him to death as a child. With Katie Holmes as a woman who moves into a mansion with goblin squatters.

Conan the Barbarian (Aug. 19) -- Hey, Arnold's still around. And the original Conan novels by Robert E. Howard actually took the character into his late 60s. So why do a reboot with a no-name actor (Jason Momoa) as the Cimmerian killing machine?

Fright Night (Aug. 19) -- A remake of the 1980s cult classic about a teen battling the new vampire neighbor, played by Colin Farrell in a clever bit of casting.

Our Idiot Brother (Aug. 26) -- Paul Rudd stars as a gentle-hearted hippie doofus forced to move back in with his family after some trouble with the law. Despite the set-up, it's a little more high-minded than your average stoner comedy.

The Debt (Aug. 31) -- This drama (delayed from a 2010 release) examines three Israeli agents struggling to come to terms with their actions 30 years earlier. With Sam Worthington and Helen Mirren.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Commentary: Swimming down the video stream

Last summer I wrote that, despite the advent of more digital download options, I thought DVD/Blu-ray represented the best format for home video. I still generally feel this way, but to borrow the title of a wonderful 1988 movie, "Things Change."

The biggest shift came in November, when Netflix -- which represents three-fifths of all on-demand movies sold -- announced a new online-only membership plan, and increased the number of titles available for instant viewing.

Plus, many more options for downloading or streaming movies have ramped up: Amazon Instant Video, Apple iTunes, Hulu Plus, Wal-Mart's VUDU, to name a few.

I still hold that a physical disc is the best option for watching movies. The picture and sound quality is unbeatable, and you don't have to worry about filling up your memory drive or getting your entire film collection zapped by a thunderstorm.

But for casual viewing, whether on the big-screen TV in your living room or on the go with your mobile device, streaming/downloading has many advantages. If you're just renting, it's a lot cheaper than shelling out to buy a disc. And the ability to choose your movie and start watching it within seconds (via streaming) is a consumer's dream.

Until recently I was working at home with our son, and when I needed to distract him for a few minutes there was nothing easier than using Netflix to call up a Barney or Care Bears video. (Hey, he's 6 months old, so no accounting for taste.)

The analogy I make for discs vs. downloads is your friends vs. your Facebook friends. Your friends are solid, real and valuable to you. Your Facebook friends are folks you want to stay loosely connected with -- the ease and convenience of doing so online means you don't have to lose sight of them completely.

In the same way, streaming video is for movies you want to watch right now, and convenience is paramount. With more choices available online, it becomes a more attractive option.

Still, the vast majority of titles are only available as a disc. For instance, if you want to watch "Things Change," you'll have to have Netflix mail you a disc -- it's not available for streaming.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Reeling Backward: "The Wings of Eagles" (1957)

"The Wings of Eagle" is supposed to be a biopic of naval commander and screenwriter Frank "Spig" Wead, a tribute from John Wayne, John Ford and others who knew him well. It wants to be epic in scope, but ends up feeling like ham-fisted Cliff Notes version of a man's life.

The film loiters way, way too long on Wead's early days as a hell-raising test pilot, then jumps ahead through long sections of his life after he is paralyzed in an accident and becomes estranged from his family. At one point something like 10 years slips by in a single edit, and suddenly Wead is a rich and famous writer living in a Beverly Hills mansion. Then World War II breaks out and, despite having limited mobility with two canes, he somehow gains a commission as an officer aboard a naval carrier.

Watching it, I thought of a better title: "The Ellipses of Spig Wead."

The film, directed by Ford from a screenplay by William Wister Haines and Frank Fenton, never quite decides what tone it wants to strike. Up until the accident, the movie is fun-n-games with a little undercurrent of darkness about Wead's long-distance relationship with his wife, Min (Maureen O'Hara). Then it suddenly turns on a dime and tries to become an inspiration life story.

There's a long section with Wead in the hospital, laid up in traction with a broken neck, as his friend "Jughead" Carson (an excellent Dan Daily) visits him every day for nearly a year, urging him to wiggle his big toe. "I'm gonna move that toe!" he repeats over and over, a mantra that's supposed to be heartfelt but comes across as just plain silly.

I have to say I found the relationship between Wead and Min rather unconvincing, despite a nuanced performance by O'Hara. Spig will abandon his wife and two daughters for years at a time, then show up on her doorstep and within a matter of minutes, has her falling into his arms again. Min is supposed to be a tough, sassy redhead, but she sure is an easy touch when it comes time for wooing.

John Ford even briefly caricatures himself in the character of John Dodge, played by Ford mainstay Ward Bond, a slick Hollywood honcho who favors dark sunglasses, even indoors.

I also found it interesting that this is one of the very few films in which John Wayne appeared without his hairpiece, in the later sections as Wead grows older. This is especially noteworthy in that Wead himself still had a full head of hair at the time of his death.

I get the sense "The Wings of Eagles" was created to serve two purposes: As a tribute to Frank Wead, and an opportunity for John Wayne to play a more subtle character than we're used to seeing from him. It's not particularly successful at either.

1.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Review: "Potiche"

"Potiche" is a delightful mix of farce, sex comedy, paean to women's liberation and soft-pitch socialism. As if you couldn't discern from that description, it's French.

This amusing, heartfelt film comes from writer/director François Ozon, who made the creepy/sexy psychological thriller "Swimming Pool," adapted from a play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy. Set in 1977, it stars Catherine Deneuve as a trophy wife who takes over the umbrella factory of her rich industrialist tyrant of a husband after he falls ill, and finds the new role awakens long-dormant desires about the direction of her life.

Deneuve -- nearing 70, and still radiant -- is a completely engaging screen presence as Suzanne Pujol, living a life as carefully coifed as her bouffant hairdo. She oversees the household staff, jogs through the verdant countryside, writes snippets of joyful poetry, and knits. Accused by her daughter of being secretly miserable, Suzanne insists it can't be so, since she made the decision to be a happy person.

(The film's title is French for a decorative vase of little usefulness, and is also a slang term for a trophy wife.)

Her husband Robert (Fabrice Luchini), while diminutive in stature, is a giant when it comes to riding roughshod over others, whether it's his workers or his own family. He's a serial philanderer, including with his secretary Nadège (Karin Viard), and tells Suzanne her job is not to have opinions of her own but merely to support his.

As the story opens the union is threatening a strike due to Robert's draconian outmoded work conditions. One thing leads to another, and soon Robert is laid low by a heart attack, and Suzanne is tapped as a consensus pick to watch over things until his return. Lo and behold, she turns out to be a natural at a more maternal, hands-on style of management, and things dramatically improve.

(It helps that the unions' most critical demand is new bathrooms.)

The X factor is Maurice Babin, an old communist revolutionary who's now the town mayor and local representative to Parliament. He egged on the nastiest protests against the Pujol clan, but now steps in as Suzanne's secret counselor and ally. Complicating things between them is a long-ago fling from their mostly forgotten youth, but a few embers still give off heat.

Babin is played by Gérard Depardieu, and there's some nice romantic chemistry between him and Deneuve, despite that Depardieu is apparently following the Marlon Brando School of Late Life Rotundity for Acting Icons. Seriously, guy, time to push away from the dessert tray.

Suzanne's children, Joëlle (Judith Godrèche) and Laurent (Jérémie Renier), at first laugh off their mother's newfound enthusiasm for business leadership. But soon they're converts, working at mom's side and rooting on her growing ambitions.

Ozon directs with a breezy light touch, cascading the audience in a rainbow of DayGlo colors, feathered '70s hair and disco pop tunes. There are even cheesy musical cues I swear were lifted straight out of the "Charlie's Angels" TV show.

It doesn't add up to more than an entertaining piffle, but it's nice to see a French film that doesn't drown its audience in melancholy. OK, there is a sad moment or two ... it is French, after all.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Video review: "Rabbit Hole"

"Rabbit Hole" is the sort of movie that's made for video. What the studios call a "prestige" picture, it didn't get much of a theatrical release and barely cracked the $2 million threshold at the box office. But it's the sort of film that grownups will settle in to watch in the comfort of their homes, where they can appreciate its subtle charms.

Nicole Kidman deservedly received an Oscar nomination for her role as Becca, a brittle woman struggling to deal with the death of her young child. Aaron Eckhart as her husband Howie and Diane Wiest as Becca's mother, though, failed to receive the recognition from the Academy Awards they should have.

Based on the play by David Lindsay-Abaire (who also wrote the screenplay), "Rabbit Hole" is about how people internalize a tragedy, dealing in the best way they can without realizing that swallowing all that pain inevitably erodes the soul.

Becca's anger resides on the surface, as she lashes out as others as a way to rein in her guilt. Howie seems more put-together and stable, but there's a cauldron of bile underneath ready to ooze out the cracks in his facade.

Wiest is a knockout as a blue-collar church-goer struggling to comprehend the person her daughter has become. Strong supporting performances also come from Sandra Oh as the empathetic leader of a support group for grieving parents, and Miles Teller as the introspective teen whose fate becomes intertwined with Becca and Howie's.

Director John Cameron Mitchell brings a steady hand, letting his cast plumb deeply without a single moment where they play to the cameras. We feel like we're peeking in through a window on a set of real lives unfolding, and if were to step away that world would continue evolving whether we were there to witness it or not.

Video extras are the same, whether you opt for the DVD or Blu-ray edition.

Several deleted/extended scenes are included, plus a feature-length commentary track by Mitchell, Lindsay-Abaire and director of photography Frank G. DeMarco. It's a welcome feature, but in a film that relied so heavily on the performances of its actors, to not include any of them in the commentary seems odd.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 2.5 stars

Monday, April 18, 2011

Reeling Backward: "No Highway in the Sky" (1951)

"No Highway in the Sky" was an early progenitor of the disaster flick genre, and quite possibly the first film ever made about a commercial airliner in peril. A quarter-century later, this sort of thing would become fodder for a movie-going public with a ferocious appetite for things that crash, burn, erupt or sink. Of course, then came the inevitable "Airplane" spoofs, followed by the whole thing coming full circle with modern plane disasters like "Red Eye," "Air Force One" and "Flightplan."

The latter picture most resembles "No Highway in the Sky," in that it's about a socially awkward scientist trying to convince everyone that the airplane is unsafe and must turn back, immediately. No captain every follows this advice, at least in the movies.

I imagine the film was quite bothersome to the nascent commercial airline companies when it came out in 1951, especially with that title explicitly contrasting the safety of the American highway to the dangerous, untested machines hurtling through the air. Within a few years flying would surpass driving as the preferred -- and safest -- mode of long-distance transportation. 

Jimmy Stewart plays Theodore Honey, a British scientist -- with a curiously absent English accent -- working for a large airline company, the Royal Aircraft Establishment. This is not exactly a plausible-sounding name for a real company, but then "No Highway in the Sky" is a pretty awful-sounding title, too. The film is based on the book by Nevil Shute, adapted for the screen by R.C. Sherriff, Oscar Millard and Alec Coppel, and helmed by journeyman director Henry Koster.

Honey is a widower who lives alone with his 12-year-old daughter Elspeth (Janette Scott), wears only one suit and can't remember the number of the apartment where he has lived for the past eight years. It's the classic cinematic genius archetype, his head so filled with physics and high-end mathematics that the mundane challenges of the workaday world leave him baffled.

Honey is running an experiment about the reliability of the tail section of the new "Reindeer" propeller airliner. He's convinced that metal fatigue will cause the tail to fall off after 1,440 hours of flight time, based on his calculations. One Reindeer already crashed under mysterious circumstances, and Honey is sure it was the tail section that caused it.

His experiment involves shaking a Reindeer tail in a laboratory to see if it'll snap off. Unfortunately, he's only allowed to run the vibrating machine for eight hours a day, due to noise complaints from the neighbors. It seems like Honey's only function is waiting around in that vast hangar, hoping the tail will split off.

He's recruited by a new forward-thinking company executive (Jack Hawkins) to fly out to the site of the Reindeer that crashed. Honey resists at first, saying that scientists must concern themselves with facts and not be swayed by the emotional factor of human lives and relationships. Indeed, Honey had not even told anyone about his theory that the tail sections will fall off until the exec questioned him about his work.

Honey has, in fact, never even flown on a plane before -- I enjoyed Stewart's gangly crab-walk up the boarding stairs, like a man suddenly plopped on the moon and told to traverse the foreign landscape. In fact, well into the flight he learns that the plane is in fact a Reindeer, and one of the oldest ones with more than 1,400 hours of flight time.

Honey appeals to the captain to turn back -- we already know how that ruena out -- and then turns his attentions to two women aboard the flight. Marjorie (Glynis Johns), a young and helpful stewardess (don't bark, that's what they called them then) tries to control the situation of a passenger causing a panic. The other is Monica Teasdale, played by the great Marlene Dietrich, a famous movie star. Because Honey's deceased wife adored Teasdale's pictures, he tries to warn her about their impending doom. The actress at first is put off by this strange man, but then puts faith in his analytical mind. When the plane lands without incident, though, she dismisses him.

Dietrich's character is really unessential to the story, but having her around jazzes things up. Dietrich -- 50 years old and without a line on her iconic face -- has a mesmerizing effect on any film, and her presence is used to good effect here.

Honey sabotages the plane by pulling up the landing gear while it's grounded, causing it to collapse and be destroyed. The last third or so of the movie is concerned with the aftershocks of this incident, in which Honey is accused of insanity and ineptitude. In an unlikely turn of events, Marjorie comes to live with Honey and his daughter, taking care of them during his travails.

The plot is pretty contrived hokum, even by the standards of a nascent airline industry that was uncharted territory for 1951 audiences. In the end, of course, Honey is proved right all along and vindicated.

The airline honchos, played by Hawkins and Ronald Squires, seem awfully accommodating to an oddball egghead whose ideas are threatening a major blow to their company's reputation and financial standing. As the inquiry commences and the pressure mounts, they're shown to be firmly in Honey's corner, if trying not to be too obvious about it. Perhaps my own encounters with the corporate world of late have left me cynical, but I doubt men in their position would be doing anything other than frantically covering their own tail sections.

I should note that the airplane is a model, both in its ground scenes and in the air, and not very convincing in either case. When Honey collapses the Reindeer, part of the engine tears open to reveal a hollow wooden frame. The passenger compartment and especially the cockpit are laughably cavernous -- the pilot and co-pilot are joined by no less than three other officers working their own stations along a corridor between the pilots' seats and the passenger cabin.

"No Highway in the Sky" is notable for its nascent depiction of both airline travel and disaster film dynamics. Unfortunately, it's not very skilled at executing either one.

2 stars out of four

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Review: "Rio"

"Rio" is fun, and forgettable. It's a competently-made animated film crafted specifically for the toddler set, who may enjoy the bright colors and boingy action. Older kids and parents will find themselves, if not quite bored, then only modestly engaged.

Still, it's got appealing stars like Anne Hathaway and Jesse Eisenberg doing the voices, and two or three songs worth tapping a toe. I can't quite recommend it, at least not for anyone north of kindergarten age, but the cinematic world is not poorer for having it around.

This film is from Blue Sky Studios, the animation outfit behind those middlebrow "Ice Age" flicks, and director Carlos Saldanha takes a break from prehistoric mammals for a story about modern-day tropical birds. The original -- and I use that term loosely -- screenplay is by Don Rhymer, veteran of bottom-dwelling comedies like "Big Momma's House" and "Deck the Halls."

Eisenberg voices Blu, a rare blue macaw poached from his Brazilian rainforest home as a young'un and shipped to frozen Moose Lake, Minnesota. Things worked out, though, and he was adopted by Linda, a kind-hearted bookworm of a girl who grew into the owner of a bookshop (Leslie Mann, in a nice emotive vocal performance).

True, he's nervous nelly who's a little too fond of his domesticated lifestyle, and never got around to learning to fly. But he's happy.

Or was, until Linda gets talked into bringing him back to Rio de Janeiro by Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro), an avian scientist. It seems he's got the only female blue macaw left in the world, and Linda has the only male -- no word on how Tulio learned this fact, I should note -- and in order to save the species, they've got to make some beautiful eggs together.

But it turns out the lady-in-waiting, Jewel (Hathaway), is not so patient with the dweeby Blu, wanting only to escape to freedom. They're birdnapped by an unscrupulous thief, chained together, and spend the rest of the movie in one big chase to see if they can escape the bad guys, fall in love and learn to fly, not necessarily in that order.

The Rio viewed in this movie is the prototypical image of sun-kissed beaches, colorful buildings and fun-loving people who are perpetually partying in the street. That Rio de Janeiro doesn't exist for me anymore after the bleak truth of "City of God," knowing the paint-splashed tin-roof domiciles hide a festering cancer of crime and crushing poverty. It's not fair, but I resented this movie from trying to pull the veil back over Rio.

Though predictable, the film is not without its charms, derived mostly from a large cast of colorful -- and mostly feathered -- critters. Jamie Foxx and play a pair of local birds who offer Blu romantic advice, and croon a soulful tune or two. George Lopez voices Rafael, a toucan and family man who'd prefer to party at Carnival. And Tracy Morgan plays a slobbery bulldog who can't quite decide if he wants to help the birds or bite their heads off.

Jemaine Clement is a real treat as Nigel, a killer cockatoo who works for the bad guys. He's a dastardly villain, though in a very PG-rated sort of way, sneering in his featured song, "I poop on people and blame it on seagulls!"

Hathaway sings a little too, and I find the sound of her voice never fails to make me smile. Actually, I think the entire cast sings at one point or another, and even the pinch-voiced Eisenberg adds a stanza or two in a surprisingly pleasing tenor.

I'm torn over "Rio." There's enough good stuff here that small children will probably enjoy it, at least in fits, but adults like me will find themselves checking their watches. It never quite achieves liftoff.

2 stars out of four

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Video review: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1"

A lot of people were upset that the final book in the "Harry Potter" series got split into two movies.

]Personally, I don't mind. At 2½ hours, Part 1 of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" is so jam-packed with narrative, it's hard to imagine what a mess it would've been if the filmmakers had tried to cram in a few hundred more pages of story.

Not even the most powerful spell could've saved the movie.

As it is, this penultimate finale to the saga of a boy wizard battling his evil nemesis moves along at a crisp pace under the steady hands of director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves, who collaborated on the last three Harry Potter movies.

Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters have effectively taken over the government of the wizarding world, and begun a reign of terror aimed at killing Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint). Their mission is to find the Horcruxes in which Voldemort has split up pieces of his soul, rendering him effectively immortal.

The mood is darker than previous Potter films, and it's nice to see the series growing up with the young trio of actors at its center.

Video extras are rather paltry with the DVD version, but an upgrade to the Blu-ray/DVD combo brings a wealth of goodies. The DVD contains only eight deleted/extended scenes totaling 11 minutes.

The centerpiece of the Blu-ray is a "Maximum Movie Mode" -- an interactive feature of pop-up scenes detailing various features of the production, hosted by actor Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy). There are other featurettes on topics like an on-set competition between the three stars, a round of golf in which Rupert Grint and others reflect on the series, and the making of the soundtrack.

The combo pack also includes a digital copy of the film, and a sneak preview of "Part 2."

Please note, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1" will be released on video Friday, April 15.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, April 11, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989)

Although it hasn't aged particularly well since winning the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1989, "Driving Miss Daisy" is an exquisitely-acted slice of cinematic comfort food that evokes the look and feel of the Old South -- or, at least, how we would like to remember it.

Looking back on this film directed by Bruce Beresford from a screenplay by Alfred Uhry, based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, it feels a little quaint and musty -- like a room in your grandmother's well-tended house that seemed magical when you were little, but upon reaching adulthood seems cramped and a little stale-smelling.

Still, it's mostly a showcase for two finely-written characters, and the actors who portray them. That's how "Driving Miss Daisy" registers now: Marking the coda of one great acting career, and the rise of another.

Jessica Tandy made her bones on the stage, but had many memorable film appearances beginning in 1932, including "The Seventh Cross" and "The Birds." Already in her 70s, she stepped into a major career revival in the 1980s and '90s with "The World According to Garp" and "Cocoon" and its sequel, capped off by her Oscar win for Best Actress for "Miss Daisy," becoming the oldest actress (at 81) to win the statuette. She would be nominated again a couple years later for "Fried Green Tomatoes," and died in 1994.

"Driving Miss Daisy," along with "Glory" that same year, vaulted Morgan Freeman into stardom at the age of 52, beginning a 20-year run of screen roles that is, in my estimation, unmatched by any other actor in the modern era. "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves." "Unforgiven." "The Shawshank Redemption." "Se7en." "Kiss the Girls."  "Amistad." "Deep Impact" (portraying a black American president). "Bruce Almighty" (playing God, no less). "Million Dollar Baby." "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight." "Gone Baby Gone." "Invictus."

Five Oscar nominations, and one win. Amazing. Only Tom Hanks' run in the 1990s is even worthy of comparison.

Even when "Miss Daisy" came out more than 20 years ago, many people were critical of it because of its portrayal of a deferential black man playing servant to an rich, elderly white woman. All of the "Yes'ms" and "Yessirs" coming out of Hoke Colburn's mouth grated on the ears of a younger, more assertive generation of African-Americans -- especially filmmaker Spike Lee, who still speaks ill of "Miss Daisy" winning Best Picture when his film of the same year, "Do the Right Thing," did not even garner a nomination.

(Lee is correct in his assessment that "Right Thing" is the superior film, but doesn't seem to realize how much his harping diminishes him.)

Daisy Werthan is a member of a small community of Atlanta Jews prominent during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She is wealthy but denies it -- in fact, her main objection to her son Boolie (Dan Aykroyd) hiring a driver for her after she crashes her Chrysler is that her friends will think she's putting on airs. She's furious when Hoke picks her up right in front of the synagogue after services, "like the queen of Romania."

Their relationship progresses with an unsurprising but still genuine thawing period. Daisy teaches the illiterate Hoke to read, he helps her in the garden, and eventually learns to stand up for himself. "Hoke, you're my best friend" is her declaration after 25 years together, and its utterance surprises her as much as it does Hoke.

As a confirmed classic car nut, the automobiles in the movie were a gorgeous feast for these eyes. I could barely stand to see Miss Daisy crash her brand-new Chrysler, but was rewarded by its replacement with a maroon 1948 Hudson Commodore. That gave way to a black 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood 75, and Miss Daisy stayed in Caddies from there on in -- a 1965 and 1972, I believe.

3.5 stars out of four

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Review: "Arthur"

Hollywood finally figured out what to do with kinky British comedian Russell Brand, and it turned up in the unlikeliest of places: A remake of a 30-year-old romantic comedy starring Dudley Moore.

Brand, best known for his hedonism-embracing rocker Aldous Snow in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," combines a verbose patter of self-effacing commentary with the hair and dress code of Keith Richards circa 1975. He has often rubbed American audiences the wrong way, though he's a big star across the pond.

I recently heard an interview Brand did with NPR's Terry Gross, and was struck by how thoughtful and well-spoken he came across. Perhaps that paved the way to embracing his charming performance as Arthur, an impish millionaire man-boy who drinks only well-aged booze, but has defiantly resisted any maturation of his own.

It is, of course, Dudley Moore's signature role from the 1981 film written and directed by Steve Gordon who, alas, died young the year after it was released. I admit I resisted the idea of this remake -- and by such young hands, too. This is the first feature film for both director Jason Winer and screenwriter Peter Baynham.

But the two films, while nearly identical in plot, are largely divergent in their tone and humor. Brand creates a distinctive character based on his own persona, rather than trying to mimic Moore. He is by turns hilarious and touching, with an inner core of sweetness we haven't seen from him before.

Put it this way: If Aldous Snow -- also seen in the quasi-sequel to "Sarah Marshall," "Get Him to the Greek" -- was defined by a complete lack of guile in obscuring his loathsome core, then Brand's Arthur uses the trappings of the spoiled rich playboy to conceal the fact that he's really gentle and vulnerable inside.

No doubt you've also heard about the film's big casting twist, putting Helen Mirren in the role of Hobson, the stern servant played by John Gielgud in the original movie. Hobson's job, indeed her very life is given over to managing Arthur's drunken debauches and steering him ever so subtly -- and usually ineffectively -- toward the light.

Mirren turns out to be a grand slam, allowing a little bit of maternal warmth to shine through the relationship.
The basic story is unchanged. Arthur, a continual embarrassment to the Bach family, is ordered to marry a respectable woman by his powerful and emotionally distant mother (Geraldine James), or be cut off from the vast familial fortune. He reluctantly agrees, but then meets a dazzling poor girl who steals his heart away.

Naomi is played by Greta Gerwig, an indie film star who occasionally pops up in mainstream movies. She has a radiant smile and some smarts, too, and is initially resistant to Arthur's overtures. She eventually melts, though, after he makes some pretty extravagant overtures for their first date.

Jennifer Garner plays Susan, the all-too-wrong fiancée for Arthur. She's the hard-charging daughter of a manly-man construction magnate (Nick Nolte), and sees Arthur as part fix-it project, and part keys to the CEO chair of the Bach conglomerate.

The biggest compliment I can give to the new "Arthur" is that it made me forget about the old one, or at least not mind that they remade it. Rather than a bland retread, Russell Brand gives us a thoroughly funny, charming and irresistible character.

3.5 stars out of four

Review: "Your Highness"

The sword-and-sorcery genre isn't exactly going gangbusters. After a brief heyday of schlocky movies in the early 1980s and a high point with the "Lord of the Ring" trilogy, things have been pretty sketchy for fantasy films. But that hasn't stopped the "Pineapple Express" crew from unnecessarily spoofing them.

Like "Pineapple," a modern ode to toking weed from 2008, "Your Highness" isn't nearly as funny as it seems to think it is. Danny McBride and James Franco play princely brothers on a quest to stop an evil warlock from bringing about end times, and they get a helping hand from Natalie Portman as a female warrior who kicks butt, and then shows hers.

The running joke is that it's a Dungeons & Dragons kind of world, but everyone acts and speaks like modern hipster doofuses. Thus McBride is a portly lay-about who'd rather smoke "glorious herbs" than go questing, and tosses the f-word about a lot more liberally than we're used to hearing in sword-and-sandals flicks.

McBride, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ben Best, also ladles on a generous helping of raunch -- including a wicked woodland king with a coterie of nude female retainers, and a minotaur who's a lot more, um, amorous than the mythical beast of yore. (How they got the latter past the censors, even with computer-generated imagery, boggles the mind.)

Thadeous (McBride) is the envious brother of Fabious (Franco), heir to the throne and veteran of many adventures. Having just returned from his latest one, Fabious reveals the maiden he rescued, Belladonna. She's played by Zooey Deschanel, in a role that asks her only to sing a short song and act loopy, and wastes her considerable talents.

Leezar (Justin Theroux), the aforementioned evil wizard, kidnaps Belladonna so he can pluck her virginity at the exact moment of a twin lunar eclipse, thus giving rise to a dragon only he can control, or something.
Fabious insists that his younger brother accompany him on this most perilous quest, which Thadeous does only reluctantly, bringing along his nebbishy manservant Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker) to get in the way of any arrows or blades coming his way.

During their journeys they encounter Isabel (Portman), perhaps the greatest fighter in the land, who saves their bacon and then rebuffs the piggish advances of Thadeous. After much consternation and fisticuffs, they eventually band together to defeat Leezar.

The action scenes are staged clumsily and without any flair, although some of the special effects scenes are cool to look at.

I will admit to responding to four or five good jokes in "Your Highness," mostly one-offs and throwaway lines that tickle the funny bone fleetingly, and then are gone. When director David Gordon Green, his cast and crew are trying to build a sustained comedic mood, though, the film goes flat.

What a buzzkill.

1.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Review: "Of Gods and Men"

It's one thing for a film to explore why men would choose to become monks, embracing a bleak existence of quiet contemplation. It's quite another to replicate that experience for the audience.

"Of Gods and Men," won the Grand Prix at last year's Cannes Film Festival for its portrayal of eight French Christian monks living in largely Muslim Algeria in the mid-1990s. It's based on a true story, but since it's not generally well-known I won't reveal their ultimate fate. Suffice it to say the film is not about what happens to these holy men, but the choice they make.

As the story opens, the country is under increasing attack by Islamist extremists who are targeting Westerners. The monks, some of whom have lived there for decades, must choose whether to abandon their mission or stay and risk death.

Director and co-writer Xavier Beauvois takes us into the monks' inner lives, showing in loving detail their prayers, hymns and private conversations. We feel their anguish, and learn that while these men ranging from middle-aged to ancient are ordained in the church, they are by no means saints. They have their failings, doubts and petty clashes.

But the sad, harsh truth is that two hours spent inside a Trappist monastery turns out to be achingly dull. Watching this film, we feel like fidgety children at Mass, kicking the pews and sending our mind out to wander in a failing attempt to make time pass faster.

I spent plenty of my youth in services, and this movie mostly succeeded at dredging up a lot of suppressed memories of aching boredom.

When Beauvois and co-screenwriter Etienne Comar focus on the plight of the monks and their fateful choice -- not unlike that of their Savior -- "Of Gods and Men" takes on a vibrant energy, as we plunge into this crisis of life and death, faith versus reason.

But during the times the film follows the monks on their quotidian tasks -- planting and harvesting, dispensing medical care to the villagers, cooking and eating, praying and singing -- it feels like a verite-style documentary of that which is just not terribly interesting.

The performances by the ensemble cast are uniformly good, though a few stand out. Lambert Wilson plays Christian, the troubled head of the order who unwittingly places his own feelings before his fellows. Jacques Herlin plays Amédée, the oldest and perhaps most centered of the monks. Olivier Rabourdinis portrays one of the youngest and most impetuous.

I especially enjoyed the great French actor Michael Lonsdale as Luc, the obstinate old monk who's also a doctor. Lonsdale, perhaps best known in the U.S. for his role as the relentless inspector in "The Day of the Jackal," radiates intelligence like few actors can do -- Sidney Poitier comes to mind. You can practically hear Luc thinking.

2 stars out of four

Review: "Win Win"

I was expecting "Win Win" to be a black comedy, which it is not, but was still pleased with what I found. It's a wonderfully acted little drama about a tight-knit group of ordinary people whom we get to know and like, despite their quirks and flaws.

And it stars Paul Giamatti, who is to film acting what pizza is to cuisine: Even when it's bad, it's still pretty good. Even when the movie around him is shaky ("Duplicity"), he finds interesting notes to add. When he's got a sharp supporting cast and inspired direction, as Giamatti does here, watch out.

Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a middle-aged family lawyer whose life gets turned upside down when he takes on the guardianship of an elderly client. Then the old man's grandson shows up looking for a home and something to count on, and he turns out to be a wrestling prodigy, which just happens to be Mike's passion as coach of his old high school team.

Writer/director Thomas McCarthy, a character actor who made his debut behind the camera with 2003's "The Station Agent," constructs a movie that's not really about wrestling, though there's plenty of action on the mats.

It's more about a guy who feels rudderless in life, and then here's this kid with plenty of his own problems, but has this one zone of perfection where he's in absolute control. Mike, whose legal practice is deflating and whose team hasn't won a match all year, craves that sensation of being master of his own fate.

(I feel compelled to disclose that there were some serious projection problems at the press screening I attended, and the dialogue was hard to hear during the first half, and occasionally winked out entirely.)

Mike's wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) is the calm, rational ying to Mike's jittery yang. He's kept her in the dark about their financial troubles, and doesn't even bother to tell her he agreed to become guardian of Leo Poplar (Burt Young), a client with dementia, in order to collect the $1,508 monthly check from the state. Leo desperately wants to stay in his own house, but Mike deposits him at Oak Knoll, the local old folks home.

Mike's not a bad sort, specializing his practice in helping old people even though it isn't the most lucrative form of lawyering around. But he's got two young daughters, a nice house with a mortgage, the wrestling team to turn around, and on top of all that the boiler in his office basement announces its need to be replaced with persistent knocks and bangs.

Then Kyle (Alex Shaffer) arrives one day looking for Leo, who didn't even know he had a grandson. His daughter Cindy (Melanie Lynskey) is a druggie incommunicado for the last 20 years. Apparently she disappeared into rehab without even bothering to tell Kyle.

Kyle comes to stay with the Flahertys, strictly on a temporary basis, but the kid takes root quickly and begins to bloom. Then he tags along to wrestling practice, and Mike and his assistant coach Vigman (Jeffrey Tambor) are wowed by his viper-fast moves.

"I don't think we can teach him anything," Vigman admits.

Eventually Cindy turns up to reestablish her relationship with her father -- at least the part that involves his money -- and her son.

The dialogue is terrific, rolling off the actors' tongues with an ungilded grace, though I did find the screenplay lacking in a couple of aspects. Kyle comes across as something of a cipher, an uncommunicative wall -- even for a teenager.

The movie is less about the relationship between Kyle and Mike than what happens to Mike by meeting Kyle, and it would have been rewarding to see more give-and-take.

There's also Mike's best friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale), a scene-stealer going through a classic mid-life crisis, whose need to associate himself with Kyle's athletic success is even more desperate than Mike's. He's going through a nasty divorce, and I wanted more of his story arc.

Still, these quibbles are from someone who's not complaining about the meal, just wishing he had more of it.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Video review: "TRON: Legacy"

Like its predecessor nearly three decades back, "TRON: Legacy" is a silly movie wrapped in a bubble-gum package of dazzling computer-generated imagery.

But unlike 1982's "TRON," this new Disney movie takes itself a little too seriously at times, going all apocalyptic and Deep Thoughts on us when what the audience really craves is light-bike races and discus fights between warriors limned in neon.

Fortunately, there's enough of the latter in "TRON: Legacy" to make the former bearable.
Twenty years after the disappearance of rogue video game designer-turned CEO Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) gets zapped into the same world of computer programs, where everything looks sleek and shiny.

It seems Flynn's quest to achieve a utopian world with the help of a program he created called Clu -- also played by Bridges, aged backwards using CGI -- has backfired miserably. Sam's mission: Find his dad, defeat Clu and remake this universe in a kinder, gentler fashion.

The movie gets downright turgid when Flynn starts talking about "Isos," special computer programs that supposedly will even solve our healthcare woes. (Take that, individual mandate!)

Thankfully, there's always another blissfully fun scene around the corner, such as when the gang invades a nightclub run by a Ziggy Stardust clone (Michael Sheen).

"TRON: Legacy" is at its best when it thinks the least.

Extras are a little on the underwhelming side.

The DVD version has only two featurettes running just over 10 minutes each: One about casting the film, the other about the cutting-edge computerized visual effects.

When you move up to the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, you add another 10-minute featurette on how the sequel came together. It's interesting mostly in the revelation that showing a few minutes of test footage at a Comic-Con convention helped secure backing to make the final film.

There's no commentary track or digital copy, which grates. There is a "Disney Second Screen" interactive feature that allows you to learn more about the film as you watch it -- but it's only available as an iPad app, or on a computer equipped with a Blu-ray player.

Cutting people out of the experience because they lack the favored technology just seems so ... un-Tron-like.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 2.5 stars

Monday, April 4, 2011

Reeling Backward: "The Long Voyage Home" (1940)

"The Long Voyage Home" is a curious animal. It stars John Wayne, already a major star in 1940, who gets top billing in this adaptation of a Eugene O'Neill play about the salty, often cruel life of sailors aboard a merchant marine ship.

And yet Wayne's character is not one of the most important in the story -- in fact, he's essentially a bit player.

Wayne barely speaks more than a few lines of dialogue throughout most of the movie, finally getting to string a couple sentences together in a scene near the end. But for the most part, other members of the ensemble cast rotate in and out of the limelight, with Wayne off to the side and in the background.

Imagine "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" with Jack Nicholson in the Martini role (played by Danny DeVito) and no McMurphy in the ward. That'll give you an idea how strange it is to see John Wayne in the margins of his own movie.

True, John Wayne was not quite yet JOHN WAYNE -- having just had his big breakout role a year earlier in "Stagecoach," also directed by longtime collaborator John Ford. But still, it's one thing to see the star of a picture relegated to a secondary role, and quite another when they have barely any screen time and hardly say a word.

It's a good film, a less plot-driven movie than a meandering look at the nomadic men who make their life on the high seas for various reasons. The cinematography by the great Gregg Toland -- his next film was "Citizen Kane" -- is a gorgeously bleak swath of shadows and light that makes the ship seem like its own world rather than just a dingy old merchant vessel.

The S.S. Glencairn is a slow, decrepit, rusty ship making one more long trip across the Atlantic. "An old hooker" is just one of the many colorful epithets the captain and crew lovingly (we think) use to describe the ancient bucket.

As the story opens, the Glencairn is docked in the West Indies, but most of the crew has been forbidden shore leave due to the secrecy of their next voyage. In an arresting opening shot, the men stand on the deck casting yearning glances at the beach, where native women writhe half-dressed. The gal in the foreground wears a blouse that barely clings to her shoulders as she runs a hand over her considerable cleavage -- pretty hubba-hubba stuff for 1940.

It's a typically motley crew. Aside from the stern captain (Wilfrid Lawson), the man who seems most in charge is Driscoll, an Irishman with a fondness for drink and trouble. Having gotten into a scrape with the law on shore, Drisc barely makes it back on board, scrambling up the anchor chain, to make roll call.

There's also Cocky, the acerbic ship's steward; and Yank (Ford mainstay Ward Bond), a lusty brawler and Drisc's right-hand man; John Qualen as Axel, a Swede who's small but feisty; and Donkeyman (Arthur Shields), who's given up on the land and is always ready to sign on for another voyage, no matter how bad the last one was.

Wayne plays Ole Olsen, a big Swedish farmer who's been promising his mother for the past 10 years he'll come home after the next voyage. Invariably, he and the boys go ashore for "one last drink" to celebrate his departure, and the next thing he knows he's signed on for another.

When he does talk, Wayne does so in what must be the worst Swedish accent in the history of cinema. Coupled with the fact that he looks about as Swedish as Sammy Davis Jr., and you've got a strong nominee for Wayne's worst screen performance.

Wayne, as has often been said, was not an actor but a movie star. He was good at playing one character: Himself ... or, at least, what the public believed to be his star persona. When Wayne tried to stretch himself into more exotic roles, he usually crashed and burned. I've never seen 1956's "The Conqueror," in which Wayne plays Genghis Khan -- yes, really -- but I hear it's howlingly bad.

The Glencairn crew nearly jumps ship when they learn their next job is a hold full of ammunition for the British. That means going through the War Zone patrolled by German U-boats hunting for ships bringing supplies for the war effort, and a huge target on the ol' Glencairn.

"The Long Voyage Home" was actually based on three different plays written by O'Neill, one of which bore that title, that were set during World War I. It's not much of a stretch to change the setting to WWII, since the life of a seaman wasn't very much different in the intervening quarter-century or so.

Much of the first half of the film is devoted to piercing the mystery of Smitty (Ian Hunter), a crew member with a mysterious, haunted past. He speaks the King's English like an aristocrat, and tries to jump ship after picking up their explosive cargo but is arrested and brought back.

Driscoll and the others come to believe Smitty is a German spy, but after opening the mysterious black box he hides under his pillow, they discover he's a disgraced officer who has run away from his family. It's quite a poignant moment  where Drisc reads a letter out loud from Smittie's wife in which she refuses his request to tell their two children he is dead.

The last third or so of the movie is one long bar crawl, as the men from the Glencairn are set up by some unscrupulous club owners. Ole, his ticket for Stockholm and last two years' wages sewn inside his coat, is drugged and shanghaied aboard another ship. His drunken crewmates stage a daring rescue, but Drisc is knocked unconscious and captured, replacing Ole as a conscript. The next day, newspapers reveal the ship was sunk in the Channel.

What does it all really add up to? "The Long Voyage Home" is long on character and atmosphere, and not really concerned with telling a story. It's a worthwhile film, especially for those wanting to explore John Ford's non-Western oeuvre. Even if John Wayne, the ostensible star, is woefully misused.

3 stars out of four