Tuesday, July 31, 2012
It doesn't have the reputation here in the States that it does overseas, but "Le Grande Illusion" (The Grand Illusion) is often referred to as the greatest film ever made, even besting perennial favorite "Citizen Kane" in some critics' minds.
I wouldn't quite line up behind them. But there's no denying the lovely poetry of this 1938 French film by Jean Renoir about Allied prisoners of war and their German captors. Set during the more gentlemanly era of World War I, it arrived at a time in a Europe when everyone surely knew another great cataclysm was upon them.
"Le Grande Illusion" is finally getting a Blu-ray release with a first-class transfer of a recently restored version of the movie.
The story centers on three French aviation officers: Lt. Marechal (Jean Gabin), Lt. Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) and Capt. de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay). They were all shot down, and react in different ways to the idea of being sidelined for the rest of the war.
Marechal and Rosenthal endeavor to find a method of escape, while the noble-born de Boeldieu finds himself drawn into a friendship with the German prison commander, Capt. von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) a fellow aristocrat. Horribly burnt, von Rauffenstein wears a stiff body brace, full uniform and spotless white gloves, indications of his carefully-cultivated ideals.
Through subtle dialogue and gorgeous cinematography, the film quietly punctures the notion that the best qualities mankind possesses -- bravery, compassion, humility -- are birthrights. True nobility is earned -- that's the lesson this cinematic standout imparts.
The blu-ray release comes with a number of features, some of which are recycled from previous DVD editions and some of which are all-new. The latter include a retrospective by critic Olivier Curchod, and an original negative of the film.
There are also featurettes on the restoration process, original trailers and other appreciations by film experts.
Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars
Monday, July 30, 2012
"The Stunt Man" was nominated for three Academy Awards, and deserved none of them.
Well, I will concede that Peter O'Toole has a memorable presence as an egomaniacal film director, who rides around in helicopters or on crane booms and appears, like a fourth-rate deity, to be everywhere at once. If he isn't exactly all-knowing about every move made by his cast and crew, he seems to have guessed at most of it.
But is this worthy of a Best Actor nod? I would conclude not, since it's not a particularly meaty role. O'Toole's Eli Cross shows up for a moment or two, speaks a few cryptic lines of dialogue, and then disappears. We never really learn much about him or what motivates him. He's not so much a character as a plot device. Not to mention, his role is really a supporting one.
Director Richard Rush and screenwriter Lawrence B. Marcus (who worked with Rush to adapt the script from Paul Brodeur's novel) also received Oscar nominations, the only ones of their otherwise un-noteworthy careers. (Rush would not make another movie for 14 years, and when he did it was the laughably bad sexual thriller "Color of Night," known universally as The Flick That Features Bruce Willis' Dick.)
It's pretty obvious that with "The Stunt Man" Rush and Marcus were trying to make some grand statement about ... well, that's where it gets a little fuzzy. About the emotionally traumatized veterans returning from Vietnam, certainly. About the vicissitudes and vagaries of movie-making in Hollywood, probably.
The plot is straightforward, but nonsensical. Cameron (Steve Railsback), a Vietnam vet on the run from the law, stumbles into a movie set where Eli Cross is shooting a war extravaganza that is supposed to be anti-war, but keeps missing expectations and is looking more like an action/adventure.
Cameron was involved in a car accident with a vintage Duesenberg careening off a bridge into the river, killing the production's head stuntman in the process. Eli realizes the fix Cameron is in, and also needing to conceal the death from the local head of police (Alex Rocco), who is constantly threatening to shut them down, casts Cameron to stand in for the stunt man.
Called alternately Burt (after the dead stunt man) or Lucky (for his death-defying antics), he falls for the leading lady, Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey), and becomes increasingly convinced that the director is trying to kill him.
Eli's motivations for making Lucky his thrall are entirely unclear. Why would he cast a total novice in such an important role, knowing he could screw up at any time and lead to another accident? Eli delights in demonstrating to Lucky that his crew will do anything he tells them to, including pretending that he's the dead stunt man. If that's the case, then why wouldn't he just choose another one of his real stunt men to impersonate the fallen one?
The sequences where the movie-within-the-movie are being shot are massive action set-pieces that last up to 10 minutes, as Lucky falls through roofs, climbs towers, is shot at with (he hopes) blanks and other astonishing feats.
Rush makes the choice to present the film shoot as if it would actually play out this way, with one long continuous take. If one were to try to do that, it would involve hundreds of crew members and extras, dozens of cameras and a logistical challenge that would make the planning of D-Day look like roshambo.
In reality, Rush must've used dozens of set-ups to achieve this bit of fakery. Nowadays, when knowledge about filmmaking techniques is pretty common, this would seem ridiculous. I wonder if back in 1980 audiences were really ignorant enough to swallow this hoo-hah.
Railsback strains mightily to bring some semblance of continuity to his character, but he's fighting the script. One moment Lucky/Cameron is serene and charming, and the next he's angrily relating his brutal attack on a police officer, spitting out the words like they're poisonous to his mouth. A little later, he's laughing and canoodling with Nina.
Some critics, notably Pauline Kael, hailed "The Stunt Man" as a brilliant bit of subversive filmmaking. That's quite a leap without a net.
2 stars out of four
Thursday, July 26, 2012
I am a "Step Up" virgin, somehow having managed to avoid -- excuse me, miss -- the first three flicks in the dancing-movie franchise. I actually went in thinking this was the third one, since it was in 3-D, and you know how clever they are about those numerals. But no, I learned afterward, this was actually the fourth.
Based on the enthusiasm of the audience at the promotional screening I attended, they better be gearing up for a fifth.
Alas, I am not the target audience for this movie, possessing about 20 years too many and some man parts. Not to mention, dancing is not my thing, neither doing it or watching it.
When it comes to dancing movies, I think no one has ever hit the sweet spot like the Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen films, who understood that the musical sequences have to move the story along.
In "Step Up Revolution," the dance numbers go on and on and on ... and on a little more. They're energetic and athletic and impressive, at least for a few minutes, and then they just keep hanging around. The final dance scene must sprawl along for 15 minutes and involve hundreds of performers, plus pyrotechnics, trampolines, bungee jumping and fog. There's always fog.
Oh, and some kid named Moose jumps out and starts jittering around, and the audience went wild. I take it he was in a couple of previous "Step" movies. He wears a hat, shades, long hair and so much clothing I couldn't really even tell what he was doing, other than just sort of vibrating a bit. Everyone else was impressed with his vibrating.
Even though I haven't seen any of the other "Step Up" movies or read anything about them, based on this one I'm going to make an educated guess about the plot of all of them:
They're centered around a boy/girl story, two people who come together through their love of dance. But they're from different worlds -- he's probably from that naughty side of the tracks -- and the institutions of propriety (parents, school, authority) frown on their jitterbugging. There's some static with friends pushed aside by the newly-formed duo, and some turbulent waters, but then everybody just dances and all their problems go away.
To those who've seen the other three movies -- how'd I do?
Here, Sean (Ryan Guzman) is the guy and Emily (Kathryn McCormick) is the girl. He's a waiter at a swanky Miami hotel; she's the daughter of the fat cat hotel owner (Peter Gallagher) who wants to demolish Sean's down-market but vibrant neighborhood to build an even swankier hotel. Eddie (Misha Gabriel) is the best friend who gets pushed aside, if for just a little bit.
Eddie and Sean have been designing flash mob events starring a group of dancers called, simply, "The Mob." They're trying to get noticed and win a YouTube contest for $100,000, which they don't look like they really need because Eddie is a hacker with at least $25,000 worth of computer gear, and all Mob members own super-sweet classic cars decked out with neon paint jobs and those jumping hydraulic suspension thingees.
I don't know why poor characters in movies always own nice classic cars. I own one, and I can tell you they're horrendously expensive to keep up. A couple of years ago my car began literally collapsing in on itself; I don't want to tell you what it cost to fix. Minimum wage slaves should really avoid them and get a sturdy used Honda.
Oh yes, back to the dancing.
Attitudes on dancing have changed with the times. The World War II and Korean War generations were bonkers for it, by my dad made me to understand that it was all an excuse for the genders to rub up against each other in a socially acceptable way. Elvis shook his pelvis, and that was deemed dangerous, and then things got groovier, with less clothing.
The through line seems to be that dancing is something women really love and something men do just to get the women. The lone exception, at least cinematically, was the disco craze captured in "Saturday Night Fever," where the guys strutted like peacocks so they could ... well, impress the women and thereby get them.
Gals, in case you haven't figured it out by now, we just tolerate dancing -- and dancing movies -- for ulterior motives.
I did enjoy some of the highly-choreographed dance scenes in "Step Up Revolution." Whenever the music stops and the characters try to talk to each other, it's pure death. But never fear, another dancing scene will soon come along to please those for whom this movie was made. Personally, I'd rather just read a book.
1.5 stars out of four
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Love triangles often make for scintillating cinematic tales, but "The Deep Blue Sea" is generally a dreadful bore. Despite a spot-on performance by Rachel Weisz as a tortured British woman dallying between two men, the best way to describe my reaction to this tale was colossal indifference.
I think the main problem is that, as written by writer/director Terence Davies (adapted from a play by Terence Rattigan), Hester Collyer (Weisz) is an unrelatable character. We don't care that she suffers. It's possible to make a movie centered around a person the audience dislikes, but not one who simply doesn't interest them.
Hester is married to a rich judge (Simon Russell Beale), but it's a passionless coupling. He shows up from time to time to try to lure her back, but Hester's heart belongs to Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), a penniless former pilot. Alas, Freddie doesn't care for her the way she does him.
So instead of a triangle based on competing loves, this movie is about a circle of unrequited affection. Each character loves another who doesn't love them, and in turn is adored by one they don't. "The Deep Blue Sea" is the story three rudderless ships passing in the night.
Extra features are plentiful and substantial. Director Davies supplies a feature-length audio commentary, and there are also interviews with him, Weisz and Hiddleston. There's also a collector's booklet, and a featurette on the lush, dark look of the film.
Movie: 1.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars
Monday, July 23, 2012
"This is fictional life
Based on factual death."
So writer/director Samuel Fuller announces at the beginning of "The Big Red One," a World War II picture based largely on his own experiences as a soldier with the Army's 1st Infantry Division. As Fuller showed with "The Steel Helmet," he had a great flair for war stories that swell with a grizzled sort of authenticity.
Fuller had been trying to make the movie since the 1950s, and actually began scouting some locations until he butted heads with mogul Jack Warner. He had to wait another quarter-century before "Red" came out in 1980.
I think the wait probably served the film better, giving it more distance and perspective from the events portrayed in it, which spans 1942 to 1945, and most every front of the war in Europe from North Africa, Sicily, D-Day, France, Belgium, the invasion of Germany and the liberation of a Czechoslovakian concentration camp for Jews.
The delay also helped with the casting of the leading man, the gruff and taciturn Sergeant (no name ever given, or needed). The studio wanted to cast John Wayne, who no doubt would have insisted on a more purely heroic role -- sort of what he did in the underwhelming "Sands of Iwo Jima."
Instead, Fuller was able to cast Lee Marvin, whose steely countenance and gravel-pit voice is a perfect fit for the war-blasted commander of a rifle squad. Marvin fell backwards into acting, doing bit parts and villain roles, then became an unexpected leading man in his 40s and 50s.
If anything, at times Fuller makes Sarge a little too tough and unlikeable. I think of a scene where a green recruit steps on a tripwire and sets off an explosion. As the stunned man struggles to maintain consciousness, his flesh scorched and his body torn, Sarge blithely tells him the tripwires are not meant to kill, just castrate. He reaches down to the man's nethers, pulls up a horrific bloody pulp of flesh, and tells the kid it's one of his testicles. "That's why God gave you two," he barks, heaving the valuable piece anatomy over his shoulder like dog scraps.
"The Big Red One" has a deliberately episodic feel, concentrating on Sarge and his Four Horsemen, as the battalion commanders name the quartet of infantrymen who survive with him through every stage of the war. They are survivors, careful killing machines who know how to take life while preserving their own. The new recruits arrive and die so quickly, the core group doesn't even bother to learn their names.
Mark Hamill, in between "Star Wars" movies, had one of his more substantive roles as Griff, a marksman who is reluctant to kill, dubbing it "murder." Sarge tersely explains that if you've got generals giving orders and a piece of paper declaring it war, then it's simply killing. He should know, having accidentally murdered a German at the end of the last war four hours after armistice had been declared.
The movie is quite explicit that one of Sarge's jobs is to shoot any man who refuses to do his duty, and there's an amazing scene during the depiction of D-Day where he actually takes a few shots at Griff as a warning. Griff is all alone on the beach, pinned down by enemy fire, trying to blow a break in the barbed wire barricade using a bangalore torpedo. A half-dozen others have already died, and when Griff freezes up it's clear Sarge is not above adding another to that number, even if it's one of his Four Horsemen.
Robert Carradine is the narrator as Zab, a brash young writer constantly chewing on a cigar, who clearly acts as a stand-in for Fuller himself. There's a harrowing scene where Zab crawls across a line of dead men to bring news to the colonel, and pauses over the corpse of one man whose guts are splayed all over the place. His face almost touching the dead man, Zab calmly pulls a fresh cigar out of the man's pocket to replace his own sodden one.
Less prominent roles go to Bobby Di Cicco as Vinci, a loudmouth Italian, and Kelly Ward as Johnson, a farm boy with hemorrhoids.
In his review of the movie, Roger Ebert called "The Big Red One" the most expensive B-movie ever made, noting that A war films are always about the war, while B war movies are about the soldiers. I'd disagree with that -- "Saving Private Ryan" is clearly about the soldiers, and could hardly be called a B-picture. Both films have similar themes, about the bonds that men form during the horrors of battle.
Ultimately, they fight to survive and they fight for each other, not for a vague concept of "war." In his narration, Zab admits that they never understood what the war was really about.
"The Big Red One" was edited down considerably in its initial release, but today is available in an uncut version approaching three hours in length. It never feels like the movie dawdles, even as it sprawls over months and years of the war's progress. My only complaint might be the undue prominence of Siegfried Rauch as Schroeder, a stalwart German soldier who has several encounters with the squad (unbeknownst to them).
It's all setting up a final encounter that mirrors the opening one where Sarge stabbed a German to death after the war was officially over. Upon realizing Schroeder is still alive, the squad patches him up and saves his life, which Zab dubs the biggest joke of the entire unfunny war.
"The Big Red One" has been called one of the forgotten great war movies. I think that's overpraising it, but it's certainly a worthwhile and offbeat take on the genre.
3 stars out of four
Thursday, July 19, 2012
And so the Batman saga ends, not with a bang but an allegory. Director/co-writer Christopher Nolan has made it clear "The Dark Knight Rises" will be the last movie about the caped crusader -- at least that he will make -- and this knowledge seems to have freed him to make a superhero movie that's different from any other in the genre, one in which the superhero has grown tired of the mask and has to be convinced to put it on again.
It's notable that Christian Bale spends far more screen time out of the Batman costume than in.
It's a big, epic, sprawling movie that, like the last entry four years ago, is too overstuffed with tertiary plot lines and secondary characters for its own good.
And, of course, nothing can replace Heath Ledger's unique, disturbing presence as the Joker. Even though he was captured at the end of the last movie, and at one point Gotham City's prison is busted open for all the criminals to escape, there's no half-hearted (and misguided) attempt to cast another actor in that now-iconic role.
As the story opens, eight years have passed since the events in "The Dark Knight." Wayne has not donned Batman's cowl since then, with the populace mistakenly believing that he killed Harvey Dent, who actually went mad and became Two-Face. Dent has become a symbol of the peaceful good times that have endured since -- thanks in part to some draconian laws put in place in Dent's name.
When we first see Bruce Wayne, he seems to have aged 20 years. He has graying hair and a lined face, and walks around with a cane and a severe limp. He's become a recluse, rarely leaving his mansion despite the urging of loyal butler/henchman Alfred (Michael Caine) to do so. You quit being Batman, Alfred tells him, but you didn't start a new life.
The villain here is Bane, played by Tom Hardy underneath a strange metal mask of tubes and 30 pounds of muscle he put on for the role. Bane is a brilliant terrorist who's utterly unnerving, but whose motives never really come into clear relief. He emerges from a mysterious past, supposedly growing up in darkness inside a pit of a prison, and seems to have dedicated his entire life to destroying Batman and the city he loves. Why? We're never really sure.
When Bane first appears on the scene, Bruce resolves to get back in the game. He is cocky and confident in his gadgets and combat abilities, despite a doctor's assessment that he has no cartilage in his knees and scarred internal organs. He shouldn't even be skiing, let alone tangling with super-strong madmen.
Bane easily defeats Batman in personal combat and exiles him. Bane then steals something really, really powerful that belongs to Bruce Wayne and turns it against Gotham. And then he ... waits five months to unleash the destruction. Which just happens to be enough time for Bruce to convalesce and return to foil his plans.
Hardy makes a few bold performance choices, some of which pay off and some don't. Much has been made about his voice, which can be difficult to understand behind the metallic echo of his mask, which resembles a shark's maw coming at you. Beyond the comprehension issues, Bane speaks in an oddly-inflected pattern with a stiff sort of formality to it. He also has a habit of placing his hands on the lapels of his coat or armor, like a Dickensian barrister puffing himself up.
The other big addition is Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle, a slyly seductive jewel thief who tries to walk a risky line between loyalty to Bane and Batman. Neither really trusts her, or her either of them, but there's a connection between her and Bruce Wayne. He represents the 1% and she makes Occupy Wall Street-ish threats about "a storm coming" to wash away the privileged, which supplies an edge to their banter.
I should mention that no one ever actually calls her Catwoman, and she doesn't wear a costume, other than some minimalist sartorial adornment. It's a surprisingly beefier role than you'd expect, and Hathaway has a strong presence in it.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is another important new character as young police detective John Blake -- or, at least, seemingly important. Blake seems to be everywhere during the movie, popping up to assist Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman) with a key bit of evidence or even fight alongside Batman. But after the movie I started thinking about what purpose Blake plays in the story, and decided he's really not that pivotal at all, except for that part at the end where ... well, you'll see.
Matthew Modine is another new add as Gordon's right-hand man, Ben Mendelsohn plays a mercenary-minded industrialist making a play for Wayne Enterprises, and Marion Cotillard plays Miranda Tate, a former business partner of Wayne's who got burned on a bad business deal.
Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Bruce Wayne's R&D man, returns to the fold, and apparently has spare Batman suits and gear stuffed in just about every corner of Gotham. Most notably is a flying machine that's part helicopter, part jet and all seriously badass.
I saw this film in a genuine IMAX theater at the Indiana State Museum. More than an hour of the 165-minute film was shot on special IMAX film, and when that entire picture opens up from widescreen to a massive six-story wall of spectacle, it's quite tremendous. This one is definitely worth the ticket upsell.
"The Dark Knight Rises" isn't as good as the last film, but I wouldn't call it a disappointment. If anything, its faults arise from being too ambitious, too big and too much. A shorter film that focused on the dynamic between Batman, Bane and Selina Kyle might've been a better fit for this material. But that's the sort of movie you make when you're starting out something big, not wrapping it up.
3 stars out of four
Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Since "Singin' in the Rain" came out 60 years ago, it has frequently been called the greatest movie musical ever. Who am I to disagree?
So what is it that makes this comedy/romance so engaging, so memorable, so iconic? There's the music, of course -- several classic tunes like the title song, "You Are My Lucky Star," "Make 'Em Laugh," All I Do is Dream of You" and others.
Then there are the terrific dance numbers. Gene Kelly combined a ballet dancer's grace with an athlete's masculine intensity. The scene where he sloshes through the rain puddles in the street was an instant classic. And who can forget Donald O'Connor literally running up the wall?
For me, what makes "Singin'" sensational is the timeless quality of its story. Even though it's about a very specific Hollywood era -- the transition from silent to sound movies -- the basic parable of the strutting peacock who learns humility and compassion is a cultural archetype that still resonates.
And that cast! Kelly and O'Connor shone as matinee idol Don Lockwood and his sidekick Cosmo, while a teenage Debbie Reynolds became a star playing small-town girl Kathy Selden. Jean Hagen was a hoot as squeaky-voiced Lina Lamont, and Cyd Charisse performed a memorable pas de deux with Kelly.
In the end, the reason "Singin' in the Rain" is so great is that it was simply the best expression of the musical genre -- exuberant Hollywood razzmatazz, sweet love story, fall-down funny jokes and a poignant moment or two.
To celebrate the film's 60th anniversary, Warner Bros. has issued a special edition loaded with goodies.
A commentary track includes insights from various stars and filmmakers who worked on the movie, both living as dead -- Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor, Cyd Charisse, Adolph Green, Stanley Donen among them -- as well as reflections from modern practitioners of the musical genre like Baz Luhrmann.
"Singin' in the Rain: Raining on a New Generation" is an all-new documentary to go with some existing features repurposed from previous editions. There are also outtakes, a gallery of stills and featurettes about producer Arthur Freed's legacy at MGM.
Movie: 4 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars
Monday, July 16, 2012
The title "Bad Boys" has come to be associated with the awful Will Smith/Martin Lawrence buddy-copy franchise, but it has always made me think of this gritty 1983 prison drama starring Sean Penn, which stuck with me from my youth.
It was Penn's first lead role, and after the tremendous success of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" the previous year, he could easily have been typecast in Spicoli-type jobs for the rest of his life. Yet Penn took a hard left turn by portraying Mick O'Brien, a truly depraved teen who, in the opening minutes of the film, busts in a car window to steal an old lady's purse, and then smashes in the face of the good Samaritan who pursued him.
In making this young, remorseless thug identifiable and even relatable, Penn showed the first glimmerings of his potential as a serious dramatic performer. Of course, he blossomed into one of the best actors of his generation, a two-time Oscar winner before the age of 50, and seemingly destined for many more important roles and accolades.
His performance is even more impressive in that the screenplay certainly doesn't give him a whole lot to work with. As written by Richard Di Lello, Mick is gutsy but not particularly intelligent, and is given little impactful dialogue to say. Penn's turn is based more on his screen presence than anything his character says or does.
The plot is pretty straightforward. Longtime petty criminal Mick finally gets nabbed during a drug deal gone bad. He had been attempting to rob Paco Moreno (Esai Morales), a rival from high school, when they were intercepted by a third gang. In the ensuing chaos, Mick's best friend Carl (Alan Ruck, forever Cameron from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off") is slain and Mick runs over Paco's kid brother while fleeing police.
He gets sent to juvenile prison, which is the usual jungle of barely-controlled outlaw behavior, with various cliques and power centers. Before long, Mick has climbed to the top of the hierarchical heap. At this point, Paco is sent to the same prison for raping and beating Mick's girlfriend. The last 45 minutes or so is one big (over)long buildup to their inevitable showdown.
There are a couple of truly gasp-worthy disconnects from logic in the screenplay. The first and most obvious is that the warden has to house Paco in the same cell block as Mick, knowing full well their violent history, because "all the other centers in the state are full." This is patently absurd. The idea that nowhere in the state of Illinois is a single bed available for a juvenile offender is just ridiculous.
In fact, we are told several times that Mick and Paco are housed in C-block. So what, there was no room in A or B block? If you were certain two inmates are certain to come to murderous blows, one would take every precaution to split them up -- even if that means one of them gets stuck in solitary isolation for a couple of weeks.
The other big plot hole is the nature in which Mick ascends to being the "barn boss" of C-block. When he arrives Mick becomes the target of the two head inmates, "Viking" Lofgren (Clancy Brown) and "Tweety" Jerome (Robert Lee Rush). But he takes them both out in a tremendous brawl where he's armed himself with several cans of soda wrapped in a pillow case. After getting some time in isolation, Mick is named barn boss, receiving all the commensurate perks: assignment of prisoner work details, and a cut of the illicit cigarette trade.
Now think about that -- why would the prison supervisors allow positions of power to be determined by combat? That seems like a pretty laughably lousy way to maintain order. That approach is less rehabilitative than Darwinian.
These quibbles aside, I found the overall level of acting in the film to be as good as I'd remembered. Director Rick Rosenthal, who's spent most of his career in television, gets some very naturalistic, unornamented performances out of his young cast. (Most of whom, I should note, were in their early- to mid-20s playing teenagers.) I should also mention Eric Gurry as Horowitz, a brainy but disturbed kid who becomes Mick's right-hand-man. Gurry had a short but notable run of child acting roles in the 1980s.
What's most notable about "Bad Boys" is the level of authenticity the cast and director bring to the proceedings. These are not cutesy kids doing naughty things. Most of the inmates in C-block are serious offenders who have murdered, maimed and raped. Even the nerdy Horowitz killed three people firebombing a bowling alley. He was targeting some bullies who beat him up, and his only regret is that he killed the wrong three people.
This was the only produced screenplay by writer Di Lello, though he did have a story credit on "Colors," another Penn film. Despite the criticisms mentioned earlier and a certain predictability to the last third of the story, it's still a bold original work that takes the trouble to look at some disturbed teenagers with more than simplistic strokes.
Penn and Morales take on a noticeable change as they transition from the streets of Chicago to the inside of the prison. Penn takes on a thousand-yard stare common among the long-term incarcerated. And both actors swell with prison-forged physiques they did not have before -- the formerly skinny Morales' arms approaching Stallone-esque proportions.
I fondly regard "Bad Boys" among other films of the late 1970s and early '80s that formed deep impressions on me at a time I was first becoming seriously interested in movies. I've enjoyed these occasional visits down memory lane to catch up with these flicks and see how they stand up after so many years.
"Bad Boys" is seen in retrospect as a mostly forgotten but seminal movie that launched a lot of careers.
3 stars out of four
Friday, July 13, 2012
I was all prepared to dislike "Ice Age: Continental Drift." The series has not captivated me in its three previous iterations. Though the animation from Blue Sky Studios has been duly impressive, the characters and plots seemed decidedly downmarket -- crafted more for obvious appeal to kiddies than genuine amazement and storytelling craftsmenship.
Plus, these movies seem to come out every three or so years like clockwork, piling up reliable mountains of dough, not to mention inescapable toy and marketing tie-ins.
Heck, I'm not even truly sure if I saw the last one, 2009's "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs." Manny, the mammoth lead character voiced by Ray Romano, has somehow acquired a teenage daughter (Keke Palmer) that I have no memory of. Last I recall, he was still wooing wife-to-be Ellie (Queen Latifah).
Along with laconic sabre-tooth tiger Diego (Denis Leary, sounding bored like only Denis Leary can) and goofball sloth Sid (John Leguizamo), this cast of critters has certainly faced every prehistoric peril imaginable. First it was an ice age, then global warming, then the return of the dinosaurs.
I wonder if we'll ever see: "Ice Age: Natural Selection Bites," when the dwindling food supply can no longer feed Manny's bulk, and Diego decides he'd rather have a Sid snack than run with his adopted pack.
So, to sum up, my expectations were pretty low.
Therefore I was pleasantly surprised by a reasonably entertaining bit of family fun. The main characters are still cloying to me, but other aspects overcome the staleness. There's a spectacular action sequence to open things as the planet's land masses start pulling apart from each other -- due to the misadventures of the Scrat, the acorn-obsessed beastie who's sort of the mascot of the series.
All I can say is, the Scrat may seem pathetic but his survivability and outsized impact on planetary development actually make him the most powerful creature on Earth.
The new film also boasts a really terrific villain, Captain Gutt, a baboon pirate voiced with dastardly aplomb by Peter Dinklage. He even gets to sing a clever sea shanty with an assist from Jennifer Lopez, who plays Gutt's snow leopard first mate, Shira.
The pirates ride around on gigantic floating icebergs, stealing booty (food is pretty much the only valuable) and enslaving survivors of the continental catastrophe.
There are several other new additions who add some hot sauce to the mix. Wanda Sykes plays Sid's Granny, who's a combination of every old-person joke in the book, but she sells it and has several very funny moments. Aziz Ansari voices Squint, a hyperactive rabbit on the pirate crew, who yearns to move up the masthead. Nick Frost adds more comedic relief as a dim-witted elephant seal.
And Josh Gad plays Louis, a tiny molehog who's sweet on Peaches -- that's Manny and Ellie's daughter; the prospect of their coupling raises some urgent anatomical issues.
The story's about what you'd expect. Manny and his best pals get separated from the rest of their clan, and spend the rest of the movie trying to get back together. They run afoul of Captain Gutt, foil his plans, and he goes on one long revenge kick. Meanwhile, Manny's daughter has to learn to resist peer pressure and Be Herself.
"Ice Age: Continental Drift" held few surprises for me, but I have to admit that the execution by the filmmakers and voice cast is impressive. For lowbrow distractions for tykes, one could do worse.
2.5 stars out of four
Wednesday, July 11, 2012
"In space no one can hear you scream."
Sometimes great movies can spring forth from a well of tainted motives. "Alien" is a watershed, a lodestone, often called one of the most influential (and copied) films of the last half-century.
What it is not, though, is the act of pure cinematic creation that most people ascribe.
Director Ridley Scott, making just his second feature film, planned to do a period costume drama, perhaps an adaptation of "Tristan and Isolde." Then he saw "Star Wars" and realized that space adventures would be the new big thing. He quickly jumped aboard pop culture's sci-fi bandwagon.
The other movie genre that was doing gangbusters in 1979 was horror films, particularly the slasher variety in which young, comely females are stalked by a seemingly unkillable killer whose gruesome, thrusting slayings have a not-terribly-subtle undertone of sexual penetration.
Scott and screenwriter Dan O'Bannon simply took the two hottest things going in Hollywood and melded them together. (O'Bannon would go on to underscore his horror movie bona fides by penning the zombie flicks "Dead & Buried," "The Return of the Living Dead" and "Lifeforce" over the next six years.)
As if to leave no doubt, the tagline for the movie's poster (above) seemed tailor-made to appeal to "Star Wars" fans who were old enough to buy tickets to an R-rated horror flick.
None of this, however, detracts from the boldness and artistry of what they created. If "Alien" is just a slasher film in space, then it's one executed with flawless craftsmanship.
In Scott's hands, the commercial space barge Nostromo becomes a vast, haunted landscape filled with inky pools of shadow and dilapidated equipment. Despite a lack of character development, each of the actors managed to create a distinct, memorable presence.
Sigourney Weaver, practically a movie novice, calmly embodied the role of the level-headed warrant officer Ripley (we didn't even learn her first name until the 1986 sequel). Ripley was also one of the first action-movie female leads ... though she's something of a stealth protagonist. Up until the point where Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) perishes at the talons of the alien, most audiences members assumed he was the main guy.
And how can we fail to mention the unforgettable alien -- or should we say, trio of aliens: the insectoid "facehugger," the phallic "chestburster" and the full-grown creature, which (to quote myself) "is so black and spider-like, it seems less like an organism than null space brought to life."
Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, who created the alien designs, is as much responsible for the success of the "Alien" franchise as anyone. Though it must be pointed out that after "Aliens," the series became more and more mercenary -- finally pairing up with the "Predator" flicks for a profit-pursuing crossover.
And of course, this summer has brought us "Prometheus," Scott's breathlessly awaited prequel to "Alien," which has left audiences as baffled as the original left them terrified. (My own take: narratively, "Prometheus" is a mess, but still a worthy cinematic experience.)
Whatever the highs and lows of its offspring, "Alien" was truly the mother of invention -- or, at least, inspired amalgamation.
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Somebody's still got a jones for the horny crew from the "American Pie" franchise.
The first "Pie" movie in almost a decade -- at least one that didn't go straight to video -- barely made its $50 million budget back here in the U.S. But it hauled in another $175 million overseas to become a solid international hit.
Who knew folks in Japan and Brazil needed a fix of has-been actors eking out a few more bucks from the movie that (briefly) made them stars?
Jason Biggs, Alyson, Hannigan, Seann William Scott, Tara Reid, Mena Suvari, Chris Klein and the rest of the gang are back for their 13th high school reunion, and dealing with unrequited dreams and lowered expectations about life.
Jim and Michelle are married with a kid, and find the steam has leaked out of their bedroom. Slick jock Oz has become a famous but vacuous TV star, while Stifler is now a rather pathetic figure still cruising for chicks and brewskies long past his expiration date.
There are a few funny riffs and tawdry sex jokes, and Eugene Levy as Jim's awkward dad is always worth a laugh. But mostly, "American Union" feels like it's cashing a check.
Say what you will about the motivations for making this movie, but the filmmakers have certainly approached the video release with gusto. Both the DVD and Blu-ray versions are loaded with extra features.
The DVD includes both the theatrical and unrated version of the film, plus seven deleted scenes, a gag reel, several making-of featurettes and a feature-length commentary track by co-director/screenwriters Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg.
Upgrade to Blu-ray, and you add 13 extended scenes and alternate takes, an interactive "yearbook" of the characters and several additional featurettes. Probably the most ambitious feature is an "Out of Control Track" in which Biggs, Scott, Hannigan and other cast members pop up onscreen with banter and even put-downs of their fellow actors.
Movie: 2 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars out of four
Monday, July 9, 2012
I'm a sucker for post-apocalyptic stories, and "The Omega Man" is something of a lodestone for fans of this genre. It's based on Richard Matheson's 1954 novel "I Am Legend," which also was the basis for a 1964 Italian cheapie, "The Last Man on Earth," starring Vincent Price. And, of course, there was the underwhelming 2007 Will Smith adaptation.
(At night, when I'm plagued by dreams of crappy movies, I hear Smith in my head: "Get offa my caaaaaaaaaaarrrrr!!")
George Romero has cited the book as his main inspiration for 1968's "Night of the Living Dead," which more or less launched zombie movies and sparked the modern rise of horror films.
There's the bones of a great, great story in there, but none of the films have really done it justice. In some ways they've all been a captive of their era. If the 2007 movie relied too much on CGI boogums and Smith's by-then wearisome star persona, then "The Omega Man" represents the pinnacle of '70s cheese.
Everything from the clothes to the rock 'n' roll-ish soundtrack to the jive-talkin' black girl serve to anchor the movie firmly in its time, post-Woodstock but pre-Watergate. It was a moment of both hope and disillusionment, when many people were questioning not only our government but the entire American way of life.
But people were not yet jaded and cynical, and there's an almost naive note of hopefulness to the film. It's the sort of flick that can end with the hero dying, but he's set mankind up for salvation before expiring.
I'll say this for "The Omega Man": it certainly stands out in the memory. The image of a track-suited Charlton Heston tooling around an empty Los Angeles downtown carrying a submachine gun stuck in my mind from childhood. It's the sort of movie I probably saw on television as a fairly young child, and took with me through my teen years. I probably didn't actually see it for a second time until I was in college.
But the main reasons the film has entered the pop culture subconscious are mainly relating to its innate hokiness. Chief among them are the plague-infested survivors of the germ warfare that killed most of humanity, who have albino skin, white hair and pupils, and tool around in dark robes and wear Ray-ban sunglasses.
The effect is supposed to be unnerving, but their silly appearance coupled with their penchant for religious-intoned chanting make them seem like Disco Monks.
They call themselves The Family; their nemesis Robert Neville, a former Army colonel and scientist, refers to them as plague victims. They're definitely not undead, and indeed during the course of the story Neville discovers that he can turn someone in the end stages of transformation back to normal.
In the book, Matheson referred to them as vampires, since they were light-sensitive and drank blood.
Metaphysically speaking, a few questions are left unanswered. Will those infected with the plague die if left untreated, or do they simply transform into Disco Monks and continue that way the rest of their lives? If so, the exact nature of the conflict between Neville and the family is unclear.
Their cult-like leader, Matthias -- a former TV newscaster before the world blew up -- sees Neville as the final representative of the old world order. Once he's gone, Matthias will be free to remake the planet as he sees fit. Of course, he could go ahead and do that right now, except for the daytime when their eyes cannot stand the sun.
Neville's motivations are even more unclear. Heston plays up his character's intense loneliness -- talking to the bust of Caesar with whom he plays chess, etc. If the plague victims are destined to die out, then why does he feel compelled to hasten their progress, and put himself at risk? And if he can't or won't cure them, why not just avoid them? Could it be that his antagonism with Matthias & Co. is the only human-like interaction he has left?
The film is set in 1977, two years after the supposed end came. The detritus of mankind is holding up pretty well, considering. Neville has several cars in his garage, and an apparently inexhaustible supply of gasoline to run them, and the generators that power his compound. (Never mind that gas starts to go bad after just a few weeks. By 1977, all he'd left would essentially be varnish.)
The Family has been moving through the city every night, burning every last vestige of technology they can get their hands on, yet Neville is able to pop into pretty much any store and find perfectly preserved goods, a little bit dusty, ready to take off the shelf. Also, when he's driving around the empty streets of L.A., you can see the traffic lights are still working. (This is probably a continuity error rather than something the filmmakers intended.)
"The Omega Man" is also notable for its interracial love affair between Heston and Rosalind Cash, playing the leader of a small group of survivors, mostly children. Whoopi Goldbert has said that their passionate kiss was one of the first onscreen couplings between a white man and a black woman in popular culture. (It would take a little while longer for the reverse-gender scenario.)
That's fine and good, but Cash's character, Lisa, is a walking gumbo of Black Power cliches, wearing brightly-colored African outfits (not so good for hiding out from psychopathic killers), an Afro three times the size of her skull and a mouthful of ridiculously over-the-top dialogue. She transitions from keeping a gun on Neville to sleeping with him so quickly it's positively dizzying.
I keep expecting her to call him a "honky," which is one of the few low spots "The Omega Man" manages to miss.
1.5 stars out of four
Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Even Disney occasionally makes a bad animated movie, but "Treasure Planet" isn't one of them.
This 2002 blend of hand-drawn animation and CGI was a dazzling science fiction version of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic, "Treasure Island." Alas, not too many people thought so -- it was savaged by critics and bombed at the box office. The directing team of Ron Clements and John Musker, who'd made hits like "Aladdin" and "The Little Mermaid," were effectively marooned and didn't make another movie for seven years.
I'm glad to see the House That Walt Built is giving "Treasure Planet" a nice present with a handsome 10th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray release.
The bones of Stevenson's novel are there, but with a sci-fi twist smattered with zany cartoon sidekicks and villains. Jim Hawkins is a teen rapscallion who longs to escape the drudgery of working in his mother's inn, when a dying pirate gives him a star map to an entire planet filled with riches. Chased by marauders, they commission a ship to find the treasure.
But John Silver, posing as a humble ship's cook, is planning mutiny. Little did the old swashbuckler know he'd take such a shine to young Jim.
An engaging voice cast includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brian Murray, Martin Short, David Hyde Pierce, Michael Wincott and Emma Thompson. The cast of characters includes a feline ship's captain (who nonetheless takes a shine to Jim's canine professorial friend), android crewmates and a robot left all alone on an empty planet, Wall·E-like, who's missing a few important circuits.
Hopefully a few of the many folks who missed this gem a decade ago will pick it up and discover a little bit of lost treasure.
Bonus features are as good as you'd expect from a special edition like this. Clements, Musker and some of the film's producers take part in a pop-up commentary that includes additional footage of the film. There are deleted scenes, including a different ending and prologue, music video and a featurette, "The Life of a Pirate Revealed."
Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars
Monday, July 2, 2012
No, this column is not about the much-lauded documentary film from last year that looked at kids pushed to the margins of their school community. Instead, I'm catching up with the 2001 drama from director Larry Clark, based on the true story of a group of youngsters who brutally murdered the friend they claimed had been verbally and physically abusing them.
Clark made a name for himself with 1995's "Kids," which like this film focuses on very young (sometimes underage) individuals who smoke, drink, do drugs, have random sex and engage in criminal and violent behavior with little thought or feeling. Clark is a chronicler of a wastrel generation that exists largely in the fevered nightmares of parents and outlier cases of extremist behavior.
"Witness, and lament" seems to be the message of Clark's cautionary tales -- which nonetheless get an undeniable kick out of lurid depictions of the aforementioned sex and drugs.
Like "Kids," "Bully" was a very polarizing film that many critics did not react to very positively. I can see why. Its performances by then mostly-unknown lead actors are often riveting, especially Brad Renfro, Nick Stahl and Rachel Miner. Other cast members, though, deliver amateurishly wooden turns.
Over time, the movie falls into a river of sameness, so we feel like we're watching endless scenes of the kids hanging out in their bedrooms, smoking pot, riding around aimlessly in cars and using the f-word with a frequency to make Scorsese and Tarantino wince.
The film essentially divides itself into two parts. The first is fun-n-games as the characters party and hook up with each other. They're rebels without a clue, but it's difficult to deny the lurid allure of their bad behavior. The second half deals mostly with the planning, execution and fallout of the murder itself.
Despite the description I've provided, I actually found the former section more disturbing. Clark's camera oozes languidly up and over the bodies of his subjects, girls and boys alike, including full-frontal nudity and rather graphic depictions of sexual couplings. I'm certainly not a prude, but much of this seems ladled in unnecessarily, and lingering longer than it needs to. I think of one shot where a girl is answering her phone while getting a pedicure; the camera's gaze stops at the intersection of her short-shorts, where her outer labia peeks out. I suppose her lack of care about exposing herself is supposed to show her wanton nature, but I just felt creepy in that moment, like a peeping tom assisted by the filmmaker.
I do give high marks to Clark for capturing the south Florida haze of the early 1990s, where everyone seems to live in the same low-squat type of house and depend on their cars and their parents' generosity for their freedom. In this regard he crystallizes the boredom and aimlessness of spent youth in the balmy heat of the Sunshine State where I grew up.
Renfro plays Marty Puccio, a lifelong friend of Bobby Kent (Stahl), and also the recipient of his abuse. While working in a sandwich shop together, Bobby slams Marty's head into a display case while they're serving two young girls. Despite this, the boys make plans to meet them later for dates -- which consists entirely of sex in Bobby's car.
Ali Willis (Bijou Phillips) is the proverbial wild girl, already a teen mother and not slowing down one bit despite that. She jumps from boy to boy like a leapfrog, and the very idea of committing herself to any one of them would strike her as bizarre. She later agrees to hook up with Bobby again on the dare that he's into some really weird stuff.
Lisa (Miner) is the quieter one, but in some ways more dangerous. After having sex with Marty (which we suspect is her deflowering) she insists that she loves him with all her heart. Even when she announces her pregnancy to him and Marty physically assaults her, Lisa remains hopelessly committed.
In fact, it is at Lisa's urging that the plot to kill Bobby is hatched. She recruits others into the mix, even a "hitman" who turns out to be merely another adolescent loser with gang tattoos, and insistently calls for Bobby's head. "I want him dead tonight," she says on more than one night, until the deed is finally done.
Bobby is indeed depicted as a loathsome creature -- a good student from a good family who hid a blackhearted side from grownups. The movie never really explores his nature enough to understand where this terrible bravado and caustic mindset come from. His father is shown as stern and demanding, but is that enough to push him into virtually raping girls, battering his best friend bloody and bruised, and tempting gay men with promises of Marty's favors?
The homoerotic relationship between Bobby and Marty is given much screen time. Though they never actually have physical contact (beyond Marty's blows), it's clear that Bobby at least sees Marty as a sex object to be exploited.
The wind-up and aftermath of Bobby's slaying are disappointing -- though the actual killing has a chilling spontaneity, no doubt reflecting the actual crime, which is well-documented. Lisa convinces everyone that Bobby is the center of all their problems, even though he actually exists largely outside their social circle. It would seem that if nature were allowed to take its course, he would simply wander away from their lives, going off to a good college while they continue their post-graduation adolescent torpor.
Seven people took part in Bobby's killing, and it is of course absurd to argue that one person could bully seven others to the point where they felt self-defense was their only recourse. Indeed, several of those convicted had never even met Bobby before the night of the murder. Marty, simply by virtue of being Bobby's best friend, was given the harshest sentence of electrocution, though that was later changed to life in prison. Everyone else has already finished their sentences (though at least a couple are currently incarcerated for other crimes).
Interestingly, Lisa received one of the lighter sentences in the case, even though she was the wellspring from which the entire crime was born. Her child was later discovered to be Bobby's, not Marty's -- a brief and confusing scene in the film suggests Bobby raped her after beating up Marty, though the record appears to show she had willing sex with both of them.
There is no doubt that "Bully" is a bold movie, highly disturbing and engaging. But after an hour or so of stoking our prurient interests, director Clark's movie devolves into surely the lamest whodunit in the history of cinema, with the suspects in a dimwitted race with each other to see who can spill their secret the fastest. "Bully" is more interested in teasing than teaching.
2 stars out of four
Sunday, July 1, 2012
Let's just get this out of the way: no, there was absolutely no need for this reboot of the Spider-Man movie franchise. The first film came out just a decade ago, and the last one was a mere five years ago -- and was underwhelming at that.
From what I understand, "The Amazing Spider-Man" had to be made or the rights to the iconic comic book hero would've lapsed. As motivations go for spending a reported $220 million on a movie -- or even $220 -- it's a pathetically shabby one.
But that's the studio honchos. The filmmakers and cast, however, have attacked the material with pure hearts and dedication, and come up with a genuinely terrific super-hero movie.
(Of course, the studio bosses are the ones who hired the movie-makers, so let's give them that credit.)
The most obvious question people will have about this new version of Spider-Man is how it differs from the previous trilogy, starring Tobey Maguire and directed by Sam Raimi. Without giving too much away, the answer is: quite a bit.
This Spidey is more of a throwback to themes of the original comic books, in which young high school student Peter Parker is a socially outcast science whiz who gets bitten by a radioactive spider and finds he can climb walls, lift cars and sense impending danger. He's lost and shut off, especially after his wise father figure, Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen), is killed by a robber Peter could have caught but chose not to.
Andrew Garfield's Peter is much more alienated than Maguire's relatively smooth and serene take. Garfield stammers, won't look others in the eyes and hunches his shoulders like he's trying to collapse into his torso.
His lady love isn't Mary Jane Parker, but Gwen Stacy, who's just as smart as him and is played by Emma Stone, one of the best actresses of her young generation. It's a bit of a mystery why a brainy, popular girl like her would fall for the nerdy Peter, but Stone offers little grace notes that help us feel the connection.
Director Marc Webb's only other feature film was the wonderful "(500) Days of Summer," which had approximately 1/30th the budget of this movie. It was a bold choice to pick him to helm a mega-budget production like this, but one that has paid lovely dividends.
Webb chooses to go light on the CGI to depict Spider-Man's web-slinging -- at least initially. For awhile, he's more akin to one of those parkour guys, bouncing around walls like an Olympic-grade gymnast. Webb lets us to see Peter slowly grow into his powers.
Another interesting change is the use of Spidey's webs. In the previous films, the web-slinger utilized them almost exclusively for locomotion, whereas here it's an integral part of his fighting style. Also notable is that they're not an organic part of his package of spider powers -- as many have pointed out, if it was then the webbing would come out of his butt instead of his wrists. Instead, it's a bit of technology that Peter "liberates" from a huge corporation and adapts for his own use.
That company is Oscorp, known from the other movies as the brainchild of Norman Osborn, aka Green Goblin, who is absent here. Instead, Oscorp's top scientist plays the heavy. Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) is a leading herpetologist looking to perform cross-species DNA splicing.
He has a very personal motivation: Connors wants to use the regenerative powers of reptiles to regrow his missing arm. After some mad scientist experimenting, he turns into the fearsome Lizard, full of scales and muscles, who soon tangles with Spidey.
Rounding out the cast are Sally Field as Peter's Aunt May, Irrfan Khan as an Oscorp toady and Dennis Leary as the stern police captain who views Spider-Man with contempt -- and also happens to be Gwen's father.
"The Amazing Spider-Man" does take a while to get going. Like an epic roller-coaster climbing that first big hill, the first 75 minutes or so carefully -- sometimes painstakingly -- build up the characters and the universe. But in a moment, you can feel the movie achieve takeoff. For the next hour, it's an amazing ride of action-scene thrills and visceral twists.
Even though I found the first section slow-going at times, I realized as I was watching the latter part that the movie had earned its emotional capital so it could pay off dividends.
Webb and his trio of veteran screenwriters -- James Vanderbilt, Steve Kloves and Alvin Sargent (who also penned the last two Spider-Man films) -- clearly are gearing up for another run of several movies. There's a vague framing story involving the disappearance of Peter's parents that tickles us with possibilities without giving anything away.
Based on this strong reboot, though, I hereby withdraw any objections to more Spidey flicks.
3.5 stars out of four