Thursday, June 28, 2012

Review: "Ted"

"Ted" is funny when it's funny, and not when it's not, and boy is there a whole lot of that second part.

When it's on, this raunchy starring Mark Wahlberg and a computer-generated teddy bear contains some of the best laughs of any movie I've seen this year. Unfortunately, the dead spots in between the yucks grow larger and longer, until the funny stuff is the oasis and the rest of the movie is dry and endless as the Mojave.

"Ted" comes from the team behind much of Fox Television's Sunday animated comedy lineup: "Family Guy," "American Dad" and "Cleveland Guy." Seth MacFarlane directed and co-wrote the script with Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, and also does the voice of Ted. (Who sounds a heckuva lot like Peter Griffin from "Family Guy" with a heavy clam chow-dah ladling of Beantown accent.)

Their crude but witty humor is on full display in all its non-censored cinematic glory, personified by a magical plush bear who's horny as a beaver, smokes copious weed and uses the F-word liberally.

But MacFarlane et al are feature film novices, and it shows.

The setup is that John Bennett (Wahlberg) wished Teddy to life on Christmas Day when he was 8, instantly turning him into a worldwide sensation. But nearly three decades later, he's just another faded celebrity mooching off his best friend.

John has turned into a 35-year-old slacker who (barely) works at a rental car agency. His girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) recognizes that John can't grow up until he puts away childish things, but it's hard to split up these best buds.

Whenever the movie veers too long away from Ted and his antics, things come to almost a dead stop. The will-he-or-won't-he tension of John's big decision ends up becoming a dreadful bore, and pitiful attempts at pathos in between the fart jokes just stink up the place.

MacFarlane and his team are best at throwaway jokes and non sequiturs -- the same stuff, incidentally, that led to "South Park" mercilessly skewering "Family Guy" in one of their most famous episodes.

For instance, it's established that John and Ted are obsessed with the so-bad-it's-good version of "Flash Gordon" from the '80s. So when they get a chance to meet Sam Jones, who played the platinum-haired hero, it's a hilarious mix of pop culture references and self parody. Jones plays along gallantly, portraying a satirical, hard-partying version of himself a la Neil Patrick Harris in the "Harold & Kumar" flicks.

Other story elements don't work as well. There's a whole subplot of Giovanni Ribisi as an adult fan of Teddy who wishes to buy, borrow or steal him -- ostensibly for his kid, but really to satisfy his own creepy cravings.

It's a one-joke bit that goes nowhere, until Ribisi busts out some deliciously androgynous dance moves for no apparent reason. One thing has nothing to do with the other, but for a minute the laughs are switched on again.

That's the way it goes with "Ted," a comedic feast or famine. If you can stomach the long, dull stretches, you might find the prize worthwhile. For me, this bear story was overstuffed.

2.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Review: "People Like Us"

"People Like Us" is a tearjerker, and is pretty straightforward about it. I don't have an issue with movies that don't pretend to be something other than what they are. Where I do have a problem is when they aren't successful at it.

To wit: no tears of mine were jerked by this movie.

Speaking of jerks: "People Like Us" is filled with them. At some point during the film I kept thinking, "Wow, I really hope there aren't a lot of people like them in the real world." If there are, this is one sad, bitter little globe we're riding as it hurtles through space.

This wannabe-weepy drama is about a young jerk who is the son of an old jerk who up and dies, leaving young jerk with only bitter memories of old jerk. That, plus a shaving bag filled with $150,000 in cash and a terse note instructing him to deliver it to a single mother who turns out to be the sister he never knew he had.

Young jerk, whose actual name is Sam, is in a tough spot because he could really use the money himself. His gig is "corporate bartering," which means buying up overstock of various goods and sundries and trading it for something else. Except Sam bartered a little too fast and loose, and now the feds are breathing down his neck about some rotten tomatoes, or something.

(Quick aside: the federal inquiry is instigated by an unhappy client -- the one with the tomatoes -- and the investigator starts calling Sam and his boss the very same day it's reported to tell them they're being investigated. That's a pretty responsive bureaucracy.)

Anyway, rather than telling the woman, whose name is Frankie, the whole deal and plopping the money down, Sam start following her around, and also her 11-year-old son Josh. He does said stalking while driving his father's fire engine red 1972 Mercury Marquis convertible, a great flaming beast of a car, which somehow does not attract anyone's attention.

Soon Sam has ingratiated himself into their lives, becoming a father figure to young Josh and a support system for Frankie, who's a recovering alcoholic working as a bartender (a Hollywood fabrication, if ever there was one).

The problem with this plot is that it's one of those stories that pivots entirely on the fulcrum of the One Big Lie. An untruth is told -- or as in this case the truth is withheld -- and the rest of the movie turns into an exercise in waiting around until the moment when everything is revealed. So the only real surprise is in seeing how extreme the reaction to the truth will be. (In this case, it's over the top.)

The screenplay is by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Jody Lambert, who inform us this was "inspired by true life." Kurtzman, a TV veteran, directs with little sense of rhythm. The movie turns into a push-pull of characters coming together, then pushing each other away, then back again. It feels like a collection of encounters rather than a knitted whole.

The cast seems a little too perfect for their own good. Chris Pine as Sam brings little to the table that we haven't seen from other rogue-with-good-intentions characters. Elizabeth Banks plays Frankie with more success, as a tough woman putting up a good front over her nagging fears that she's a terrible person and a worse mother. Both are made-up to look scruffy and well-worn, but in a gorgeous Hollywood sort of way.

Michael Hall D'Addario is convincing as Josh, using spot-on facial expressions to show how he reacts to the adults around him with disdain or enthusiasm, depending on what mood strikes. Kids that age are like a combination safe, and few parents get it right more than once in a while.

Michelle Pfeiffer and Olivia Wilde have underwritten roles as, respectively, Sam's mom and girlfriend. They're composed less as flesh-and-blood people than as tools to facilitate Sam's emotional journey -- even if they have to behave illogically to do so.

"People Like Us" is the sort of story that would have worked better as a tiny-budget indie film with actors you never heard of. It feels like a meal that's been jazzed up with too much flimflam and unnecessary seasoning, instead of concentrating on blending a few key ingredients well.

Rather than making the audience sad, it makes us feel sad for it.

2 stars out of four

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Video review: "The Artist"

Here's an interesting fact: three out of the last four winners of the Academy Award for Best Picture have been foreign-made. Though the latest, "The Artist," is somewhat debatable in that it was shot in Los Angeles with a few recognizable American actors in supporting parts. But the filmmakers and lead performers are French.

In actuality, "The Artist" is a really film that transcends borders. It's a love song to silent American films, as seen from across the Atlantic.

If you haven't already seen this wonderful movie -- easily the best of 2011 -- you may be put off by the knowledge that "The Artist" is silent and black-and-white. Don't be. While certainly artistic, this film isn't arty.

Instead, it's a gorgeous and emotionally transporting celebration of cinema. Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, vainglorious king of Hollywood until the "talkies" invade and make him seem artistically antiquated. Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) is the spitfire ingénue who lands a bit part in one of his movies, and turns into a big star herself.

Dujardin is a delight as the narcissistic but generous-hearted Valentin. With a pencil mustache and raconteur's smile, he's part Errol Flynn and part Gene Kelly -- especially during the smash musical finale.

Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius gives us a film that is self-aware but not self-absorbed. Foreign or not, "The Artist" is a triumph.

Extra features are commendable, if not as extensive as I might like.

There's a blooper reel and a Q&A with the cast and filmmakers. A half-dozen making-of featurettes explore topics like the film score and costumes to the Hollywood locations used throughout the film.

Movie: 4 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, June 25, 2012

Reeling Backward: "The Bedford Incident" (1965)

Here's something that occasionally happens, and I'm not sure if it speaks well or ill of me. I'll start watching a movie, usually a classic one, that I think I've never seen. After a while -- sometimes as much as halfway through -- I'll start to realize that I have watched it before, and somehow banished the experience from memory.

Usually, of course, that means that I didn't particularly appreciate the movie the first time around, otherwise it would have stuck in the mind.

That was my experience with "The Bedford Incident," a 1965 Cold War cautionary tale that warns against the dangers of deterrence and mutually assured destruction, the two principles that largely guided U.S. foreign policy toward the Soviet Union and its other adversaries. An overly aggressive destroyer captain played by Richard Widmark pushes an enemy sub into a desperate situation where nuclear weapons are eventually unleashed, and everyone on both vessels are killed.

This line of argument is what's known in Latin as reductio ad absurdum, i.e. an attempt to show a line of thinking is faulty by following its implications to an absurd conclusion. It's generally a silly exercise that proves very little, other than presupposing some exceedingly unlikely outcomes.

Captain Eric Finlander (Widmark) clearly is supposed to be a modern Ahab, chasing his white whale with obsessive zeal. Of course, one doesn't generally rise far in the military by repeatedly disobeying orders and bending the rules, but that's exactly the sort of commander Finlander is. Recently passed over for promotion to admiral, we wonder how he ever made it past ensign.

"Bedford" is based on a book by Mark Rascovich, with a screenplay by James Poe. This was the first directorial credit for James B. Harris, who had been Stanley Kubrick's producer for a number of years before they had a falling out. Kubrick would go on to make "Dr. Strangelove" in 1964, an absurdist comedy with similar themes about the Cold War.

If you've never seen "Fail-Safe," you should check it out. It's a virtual carbon copy of the plot of "Strangelove," about a rogue plane erroneously sent on a mission to drop a nuclear bomb on Russia, and the American president must decide whether to shoot down its own plane. Except, of course, it's a straight, dour drama.

"Bedford" is a close cousin to "Fail-Safe," and about as effective in a stodgy sort of way. It's notable for Widmark's performance as a twisted man who sees himself as heroic, a bully who squashes other in the name of duty. In terms of dramatic tension, though, it's something of a bust.

The film starts with the arrival of two people on the U.S.S. Bedord: the new ship's doctor, Chester Potter (Martin Balsam), a long-retired reservist recalled to active duty; and Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier), a famous newsmagazine journalist. Potter is excited about returning to ship duty, but it's soon quashed by the indifference and contempt of Finlander, who sees no purpose in even having a doctor aboard his ship. After all, his men are too cowed to ever report to sick call, and the aluminum construction of the Bedford makes it unlikely to survive long in a firefight, anyway.

The role of Munceford in the story is hard to fathom. Given the star power of Poitier in 1965, one would think he's set up as the protagonist with Widmark as the heavy. In execution, though, Munceford is a rather passive character who mostly just hangs around in the background, snapping photographs and taking notes. He and Finlander have a couple of blow-ups early in the movie, then an "interview" that's fairly adversarial. But most of the time, he's below decks or out of sight and mind.

Finlander rarely lets his guard down, and rides his men hard. He's particularly brutal toward Ensign Ralston (James MacArthur), a green young officer who was a star athlete. Finlander believes he must be chopped down to size in order to improve, but ends up turning the kid into a quivering mistake waiting to happen. Indeed, Ralston dooms them all while working the weapons control and mistakenly hears Finlander order him to "fire one."

Strangely, the one seaman whom Finlander does appear to coddle is a nerdy, skittish type named Queffle (Wally Cox) who's his best sonarman. Queffle expertly tracks the Russian sub for 24 hours straight, until his brain finally overloads and he has to be taken to sick bay.

Also notable is Eric Portman as Wolfgang Schrepke, a German WWII U-boat commander who's aboard as an adviser to Finlander, who clearly regards him with some level of hero worship. He acts as the captain's Svengali, whispering in his ear and attempting (unsuccessfully) to moderate his thinking and actions.

I'm not sure why "The Bedford Incident" did not make an impression on me the first time I saw it. It's a well-acted drama that's never really dull, even if it feels utterly predictable. Still, Widmark's a treat in his role, so lovably hateable.

2.5 stars out of four

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Review: "Brave"

There's a whole lot of craftsmanship but not so much magic in "Brave," Pixar Animation's first foray into the sword-and-sorcery genre. It's a stout tale well-told of Scottish royalty and magic curses and finding your own fate. But the movie held few surprises for me, and at times seemed almost to be going through the motions.

"Brave" is also a departure for Pixar in that it's their first film in 13 forays that features a female protagonist. That may not sound like a big deal, but consider how girl-centric the first decade or two of Disney animated movies were. It's strange that we talk about the brave new world of computer animation, but in some sense it's still catching up.

It has become de rigueur at this point to comment on how much the animation has advanced in recent years, but that's because the digital artists keep refining and deepening their craft. The vibrant colors of the Scottish landscape seem to burst right off the screen, and the textures are so lifelike you can practically feel the coarse bristles of a bear clambering out of a river, sparkling water running off its glistening fur in jewel-like rivulets.

(Things are not helped, though, by a 3-D rendering that leaves many scenes in the forest or inside the castle murky and muddled. My advice: skip the upsell on this one.)

Perhaps the most startling feature in the film, even though it's one we see in most every scene, is the fiery red hair of heroine Merida (voice by Kelly Macdonald), the strong-willed princess. Merida cares more about archery and adventure than playing the lady of the castle, and her hair is a wild tumble matching her roving spririt.

This does not go across so well with the queen (Emma Thompson), who seems to have spent her entire adult life preparing her daughter to be wed. Royal tradition is that the first-born sons of the three great clans vie for the glory of her hand. But Merida -- who could probably best any of her suitors in a contest -- thinks she should be able to follow her heart.

Billy Connolly is a hoot as King Fergus, who had his leg torn off by a ferocious battle with a "demon bear" back when Merida was a girl, and aches for another crack at him. Robbie Coltrane, Craig Ferguson and Kevin McKidd play the heads of the three clans, and Julie Walters is the proprietor of The Crafty Carver, a shop hidden in the woods specializing in carpentry and ... other trades.

I don't want to give too much away, other than to say Merida makes a rash decision that throws the entire kingdom into turmoil. It also forces herself to take a closer look at her fractured relationship with her mother.

This is a brave step, in that in animated films featuring feminine main characters the mother figure is almost always absent, or is a blackhearted substitute.
Writer/directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman (who were assisted on the script by Irene Mecchi and Steve Purcell, who also co-directed) get points for taking familiar fairy tale tropes and standing them up on their head.

I just wish their original story felt fresher, and less predictable. There wasn't much that happened in the tale, either narratively or emotionally, that I didn't see coming a long way off.

I still recommend "Brave," because it's engaging and gorgeous to look at and is still better than 90 percent of the entertainment out there geared toward children. Placed against the mountaintop standards of Pixar, though, it falls a bit short.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Review: "Safety Not Guaranteed"

"Safety Not Guaranteed" is a movie that involves time travel, but it's not science fiction. Instead it's a funny/sad piece about a bunch of people whose lives are brought together by the prospect of going into the past, and what effect that possibility has on them.

Do people really travel through time? I won't tell you, not only because I don't want to give too much away, but as I said this question is really not critical to the movie's considerable success.

This oft-delightful indie acts as a counterpoint to "Moonrise Kingdom," the recent Wes Anderson film that I have criticized as being relentlessly quirky just for the sake of self-indulgence. The characters in "Safety" are also off-kilter and even weird, but watching them one senses their strange behavior occurs because of who they are, not because they're putting on a performance.

In a sense, the people in "Safety" appear odd because that's our outward perception of their inner core, whereas the folks in "Moonrise" behave strangely because they construct and maintain an identity based on others' reactions to their oddness.

Aubrey Plaza is probably known to most people as the super-acerbic girl on television's "Parks and Recreation." I've enjoyed her immensely on that show, but I've often watched her on it or the tiny supporting parts she's had in movies and thought, "I'd love to see what she could do with a bigger canvas."

Here's my answer, and what a joy it is. There are notes of her character on "Parks" -- a cynical young woman sullenly navigating a post-college landscape without much success or enthusiasm. But Darius is a much fuller, fleshier portrait with subtle layers. Here's hoping Plaza has more roles like this on the horizon.

Her counterpart is Mark Duplass as Kenneth, who places an ad in the paper seeking a partner for time travel. "This is not a joke," the ad insists. "You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before."

Darius, who interns at the fictional Seattle Magazine, is sent along with a veteran reporter and another intern to check out this odd announcement and write a story about the person behind it. Everyone expects it to be a big joke, but then Darius meets Kenneth and finds him, if not convincing, then utterly serious.

There are two kinds of weirdoes: those who are doing it for attention and those who think they're passing themselves off as normal but aren't. Kenneth belongs to the latter group. He works at a big-box store, wears an unattractive mullet, tools around in an ancient yellow Datsun 280Z and has weird conversations with his co-workers about our fixed perception of time.

After some hesitation, Kenneth agrees to take on Darius as his partner-in-training. Despite the fact that they practice shooting guns and his ramshackle house is filled with strange gadgets and drawings, Kenneth does not seem all that frightening.

He talks a lot of bluster about his smarts and skills, but it comes across as the innocent boasts of a 12-year-old who never grew up. When Darius asks about a rather strange feature of his anatomy, he goes into a sort of mental fetal position, and that's when she realizes how vulnerable he really is.

Her ostensible boss is also undergoing a form of time travel, though with very different motivations and results. Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) is 40ish and takes the assignment purely so he can reconnect with a hot girl (Jenica Bergere) he had a fling with back when. Along for the only partially willing ride is Arnau (Karan Soni), a timid, virginal nerd.

Just as Darius is realizing how much of a connection she has to Kenneth, things start to get serious when they break into a laser company, and men in black suits and sunglasses begin following them around.

"Safety Not Guaranteed" is a hard movie to pigeonhole. Director Colin Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly, both feature film rookies, have concocted an offbeat treat that keeps on surprising.

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Video review: "Big Miracle"

"Big Miracle" came and went at theaters without much of a ripple, but it's well worth checking out on video. This admittedly sappy story about three whales who get trapped beneath the Alaskan ice and elicit a flood of worldwide attention is certainly manipulative, but at least goes about jerking its tears in an expert manner.

John Krasinski plays a TV reporter yearning for his big break when he stumbles across three California gray whales caught in the encroaching ice, unable to travel south for the winter. Based on a true story from 1988, the trio soon attract hordes of television cameras, plus dozens of people looking to help.

Director Ken Kwapis and his screenwriters do a good job juggling a large cast of characters, including Drew Barrymore as the headstrong local Greenpeace leader; Ted Danson as an oil company CEO lending a hand for PR reasons; Dermot Mulroney as a National Guard helicopter pilot sent in to assist; Vinessa Shaw as a White House aide looking to burnish the president's environmental credentials, Kristen Bell as a hotshot reporter from L.A.; and John Pingayak as the chief of the local Eskimo tribe.

Despite its TV Movie of the Week feel, "Big Miracle" is a smart, tenderhearted flick suitable for the whole family -- and there aren't too many of those these days.

Extra features are pretty decent, and you don't have to shell out for the most expensive package to get some good stuff.

The DVD includes deleted scenes introduced by Kwapis, plus the director provides a feature-length commentary track. There's also a featurette, "Truth is Stranger Than Fiction," interviewing the real people behind the true story and the actors who portrayed them.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray addition, and you add a making-of featurette, "A Big Miracle in Alaska," plus a digital copy of the film.

Movie:3 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars


Monday, June 18, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Brian's Song" (1971)

We're going back to television! In writing last week's column on "Too Young a Hero," I was looking over the filmography of director Buzz Kulik and saw that among his credits is one of the most iconic television movies ever, "Brian's Song," which also gets mentioned as among the best sports flicks, too. It's universally regarded as the one movie that can get grown men to weeping.

The TV drama was so successful, in fact, that according to its Wikipedia page it actually enjoyed a theatrical run after its broadcast -- a feat I've never heard of another show replicating.

"Brian's Song" had become one of those objects that I knew more through its pop culture reputation than any first-hand experience with it. So I decided to extend my foray into TV movies for one more week.

I was mildly disappointed in "Brian's Song." Its production values and dialogue, while certainly good by the standards of 1971 television, have not held up well with the years. Seen in modern lights, the movie has an undeniable hammy tinge. And at 74 minutes minus commercials, the story of the friendship between two professional football players feels short-shrifted and hurried.

The teleplay by William Blinn is much overpraised, in my humble opinion, despite its Emmy and Peabody award wins. It follows a pretty standard and predictable three-act format: the meeting and initial rivalry between Chicago Bears running backs Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo; their deepening friendship as emnity gives way to comradely affection; and Piccolo's diagnosis and death from a rare form of cancer.

I'd use the term "television movie-of-the-week" as a put-down to describe the material, except that's exactly what "Brian's Song" is.

What saves the movie is the tremendous acting, with all due credit to Kulik's direction. It helped that the three main roles were all helmed by big-screen veterans: James Caan as Piccolo, Billy Dee Williams as Sayers and Jack Warden as crusty coach George Halas. Even the supporting parts, including the men's wives and fellow players, feel solidly rooted and authentic.

Caan had a corner on insouciant charm, and milks it for everything it's worth with his twinkly smile and easygoing grace. Williams has the harder role as the more internal Sayers, a man who had to be coaxed into uttering more than a few words in a row, and uses his facial expression and mannerisms to convey his character's almost timid reserve.

I feel compelled to point out that Caan and Williams were in their early- and mid-30s, respectively, when the movie was made, playing men who age from 22 to 26 -- the latter being when Piccolo tragically passed away.

What's notable is that Kulik and Blinn don't go for big, maudlin sentimental moments. The relationship between Sayers and Piccolo is kept distinctly masculine -- lots of teasing and joshing, but with a deep undercurrent of respect and ardor.

"I love Brian Piccolo, and I'd like all of you to love him to," Sayers says in the movie's most oft-quoted line, apparently a direct quote from a speech he gave.

The filmmakers play up the racial aspect of a black man and a white man bonding in 1965, and one memorable scene has Piccolo trying to motivate Sayers' rehabilitation from a dreadful knee injury by calling him the n-word, which is so ham-fisted and ridiculous that it only provokes peals of laughter.

In the talent department, Piccolo perennially plays second fiddle to the highly-regarded Sayers, who ended up having a terrific though injury-shortened career, becoming the youngest person ever inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. Something the movie doesn't show is that Piccolo actually didn't even make the Bears team the first year both men joined the Bears, being relegated to the modern equivalent of the practice team.

I confess that I did not tear up while watching "Brian's Song," or even come close to doing so. It's a well-done TV  movie, with splendid acting you don't normally see in that medium. But I found its reputation overinflated.

2.5 stars out of four

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Farewell, Mr. Sheehan

My high school Russian teacher, John Sheehan, has just passed after a long bout with cancer. This comes shortly after my dad, Jim Lloyd, also succumbed to cancer. I'd like to share what I wrote to him not long before he passed.
Ivan, I'm sorry it's taken me a few days to respond to your message. Thank you for sharing with all of us who were influenced by you, and care about you, about the next steps you'll tread.
As usual, it was done without preamble or prevarication, things I always appreciated about your personal, inimitable, style.
I guess my hesitation was due in part because your situation so closely parallels what's already been going on in my life. My dad has been on home hospice care for more than a year now fighting prostate cancer.
His brave battle has ended now. He died a little while ago.
Aside from my father, you are probably the man who has played the biggest role in shaping me into the person I have become.
I saw my dad last month when I was down in Florida, and we said our good-byes. I guess I expected him to hold out a little longer, but time is the one thing none of us can master.
I am hoping, and hopeful, that you will have much more time left with all of us. But I want to take a moment to express to you, before you go, what a good and noble way you spent your time on this stretch of existence (however your beliefs regard that span, whether transitory or finite).
I should hope that you already know this, but the world was a much better place for having you in it. I thank you for guiding and teaching me.
It would probably be best if I signed with my Cyrillic name; but you'll have to forgive me -- my Russian has almost completely departed me. These were the least of the lessons you taught me.
With respect and love,
Chris Lloyd

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Review: "Moonrise Kingdom"

I go back and forth on Wes Anderson. He's a very specific kind of filmmaker, to the point that there is now a recognizable "Wes Anderson style" that is much derided but little imitated. (Do a YouTube search to view some fun-poking examples.)

From the disaffected characters who speak their dialogue in deliberately flat cadences, to the oddball time-warping fashion sense, to the now-obligatory reliance on obscure pieces of music to punctuate and comment on the proceedings, Anderson's films are stylistic carbon copies of each other, merely swapping out storylines and characters (though many of the same actors reappear time and again).

The problem with that is there's a dread sense of sameness to his movies. It's like going to a bunch of different restaurants and ordering the exact same meal. There will be some variations in flavor, texture and certainly in quality, but you walk in knowing what you're going to get.

I liked "Rushmore," and liked "The Royal Tenenbaums" a lot, but "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" was so wretchedly unwatchable I didn't even bother seeing his next one, "The Darjeeling Limited."

Personally, I thought the best marriage of Anderson's aesthetic with the material was the stop-motion animation gem, "Fantastic Mr. Fox." Perhaps it was just because using fake furry critters instead of humans represented the first distinct break from his previous body of work, and that made it seem fresh.
His newest, "Moonrise Kingdom," is a return to the rut.

The sole variation here is that the spotlight is on children, while the adult characters populate the background. It's 1965 and on the isolated New Penzanze Island off of New England, 12-year-olds Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop decide to run away together. Of course since it's an island, they don't really have anywhere to go, but it's more a journey about rejecting where they come from than anywhere they're heading.

Sam is an orphan living with foster parents, but actually spends most of his time at Camp Ivanhoe, a summer camp for the Khaki Scouts of North America. The man/boy commander, Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton), acknowledges that Sam was the least popular scout, but is still chagrined by the resignation letter he leaves behind.

Suzy has three younger brothers, and lives in a rambling multi-story house called Summer's End with her three younger brothers and parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray), who are both distracted lawyers. Suzy wears neon-colored eye shadow (apparently impervious to the elements) and loves to read books where girls go on adventures in fantasy lands or on alien planets.

After meeting at a church play a year earlier, they've been corresponding by mail and planning their escape, which throws the entire island into a state. Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), whose position appears to be nautical but represents the only semblance of police power, is brought in to lead the search with the help of the Khakis. Hovering around the edges of the story is Tilda Swinton as Social Services -- that's how she refers to herself, no name -- threatening to whisk Sam off to an orphanage.

Sam and Suzy are played by newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, respectively. They both seem like engaging performers, but it's hard to judge their true talent since Anderson (who co-wrote the screenplay with Roman Coppola) requires them to say all their lines in unemotive declarations. They always sound like they're announcing themselves rather than talking to each other.

(Both are also rather mush-mouthed, and I often struggled to understand what they were saying. I suppose you could make the argument this makes them sound more like authentic kids, but verisimilitude has never been Anderson's bag.)

My biggest problem with "Moonrise Kingdom" is that it's a coming-of-age story in which both the children already behave like cynical, melancholic adults. If they're this jaded and disconnected at 12, how are they going to stand each other at 42?

Consider this exchange of dialogue after a violent encounter with the other scouts, and the Khaki mascot pooch has been slain with an arrow:

Sam: They got him right through the neck.
Suzy: Was he a good dog?
Sam: (pregnant pause) Who's to say?

That sure doesn't sound like any kid I knew. For that matter, why does Sam wear a coonskin hat, despite it being the scorching finale of summer? How come he smokes a pipe? Why is Suzy obsessed with Benjamin Britten's "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," in which different pieces of symphonic music are layered upon each other one by one as a learning exercise?

I think these elements exist in the movie simply because Anderson finds them delightfully quirky, and includes them simply for the sheer juxtaposition of eclectic bits ‘n’ pieces. He's like a hipster standing at the wardrobe of pop culture, plucking out things he likes and trying them on.

Often the ensemble is a genuinely innovative collage of colors and patterns, a bold new way of looking at old things. Sometimes, as with "Moonrise Kingdom," the result is so blastedly twee and self-satisfied that we just want to sigh, pat the movie on the head and tell it to run along.

1.5 stars out of four

Review: "Rock of Ages"

"Rock of Ages" is a soundtrack with a visual component tacked on. It's not so much a musical movie as music, with a movie.

Based on a Broadway show, "Rock of Ages" is virtually non-stop singing. The story is told through the lyrics and tunes of 1980s rock hits, sometimes intermixed with each other. Occasionally the characters will cease singing long enough for a few lines of dialogue -- but even then there's a beat going in the background, and you know the talkie part is just setting up the next number.

The experience of watching it is akin to listening to a runaway jukebox stuck in the 1970s and '80s, except the voices are replaced by those of actors who can't sing as well as the original artists.

Not that some of them aren't good, and occasionally really good. Among the latter is Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx, a wastrel rock god who's part Iggy Pop, a little bit Axl Rose and a smidge of Brett Michaels (at least the hat). Cruise's pipes are surprisingly good, doing an impressive rendition of the keening wail beloved in that era.

In fact, Cruise is the best thing in the show. It's a shrewdly comedic performance, part celebration of '80s rock excesses but with a heavily ladling of satire. One scene where he seduces a Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman) is the movie's rollicking high point.

Even though it's technically a supporting part, Cruise steals every scene he's in, and whenever Jaxx disappears for too long the film deflates.

Certainly the main characters are dreary. Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta play Sherrie and Drew, youngsters who dream of making it big in the music biz, but end up working at the fictional Bourbon Room in Los Angeles. Of course, it's only a matter of time before they get to take the stage themselves.

Neither actor is a particularly adept singer, and Hough has one of those pinched little-girl voices that sounds like she's singing through a keyhole, a la Britney Spears. She even imitates Spears' colossally annoying affection of starting every stanza with a little croaky sound.

Sherrie is the prototypical small-town girl from Tulsa, living in a lonely world, and Drew is a city boy, so of course their signature song is "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey, a band that gets a heavy rotation throughout the movie. Other tunes include ones by Styx, Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister, Poison and other acts Generation X-ers like myself grew up on.

I find it amusing that back in the actual '80s, these songs were disdainfully described by our elders and betters as representing the nadir of rock 'n' roll, a glammed-up shadow of the good ol' days. And now they're being held up as paragons of the genre.

I take note that in the time this story is set, 1987, the '50s were seen as the heyday. No doubt in 25 years today's Millennials will be middle-aged sell-outs looking back on the halcyon days of Lady Gaga and Kei$ha, God help us.

Alec Baldwin plays Dennis, the owner of the Bourbon, which has rock 'n' roll soaked into its timbers but is perpetually on the verge of going out of business. It's being helped in that regard by the new mayor (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who's leading a Tipper Gore-esque crusade against smutty rock 'n' roll. Of course, she does so via singing and dancing, and is ultimately and unsurprisingly revealed to be a former Stacee Jaxx groupie.

Russell Brand plays Lonny, Dennis's right-hand rocker, and they share a romantic musical interlude that manages to be funny without being homophobic. Paul Giamatti is agreeably sleazy as Jaxx's mercenary agent, who robs the Bourbon of the take from Stacee's farewell concert.

Mary J. Blige, the only real singer in the mix, has a nice turn as the manager of a strip club where Sherrie ends up during her inevitable down-and-out phase. Drew's pit of despair is much funnier, as he gets recruited into a pop boy band, complete with rainbow-colored gangsta preppy outfits.

Director Adam Shankman does much the same thing with "Rock of Ages" he did several years ago with "Hairspray," which was sort of a 1960s version of this. He supplies a lot of energy and color, but the whirlwind winds up being more exhausting than invigorating.

At 123 minutes, screenwriters Allan Loeb, Justin Theroux and Chris D'Arienzo (based on the musical book by D'Arienzo) seemed to have a hard time knowing when to quit while they were ahead. Since the story is built entirely around songs, cutting it down would've meant eliminating tunes, and one gets the sense the filmmakers spent so much energy getting the rights to the songs they couldn't bring themselves to lop a couple out.

"Rock of Ages" has a few genuine thrills, most of them centering around Cruise's fun, freewheeling turn as Stacee Jaxx. Most of the time, though, it feels like an iPod stuck in shuffle mode.

2 stars out of four

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Video review: "In Darkness"

"In Darkness" is one of the most depressing and sobering movies you'll ever see, and I mean that as a compliment.

This Polish film was nominated for a best foreign language film Oscar, and is absolutely deserving of that honor. It's the true story of a group of Jews who hid out in the sewers beneath their town to escape the Nazi regime, existing among the filth and squalor for more than a year with the help of a non-Jewish worker.

Well... "help" is a relative term. Socha is an inspector of the sewer lines, but is really a dabbler in various schemes to enrich his family's meager station. If that means stealing, or taking bribes, or extorting money, then so be it.

Robert Wieckiewicz plays Socha with conviction and a rough sort of purity. His blocky face and burly torso give the impression of a man not inclined to giving up easily.

When a group of Jews break through into the sewers from their ghetto prison, Socha is more than happy to take their money to keep them safe.

Over time, though, his selfish motives begin to soften, and he starts taking risks to keep the survivors safe -- even when the Jews' money runs out, and the endeavor begins to endanger his own family.

Some people may tire of troubling tales from World War II, but you could never exhaust all its stories of human grace and debasement. "In Darkness" has both, told with power and filthy majesty.

Video features are the same for DVD and Blu-ray editions, and are limited to just two featurettes -- but they're both eminently consequential.

The first is "An Evening with Agnieszka Holland," a 29-minute sit-down with the director, one of the greatest female filmmakers of all time, as she reflects on her long and amazing ("Europa, Europa") career.

The other is "In Light: A Conversation with Agnieszka Holland and Krystyna Chiger," in which the director talks with one of the actual Jews portrayed in the movie, who was just a child at the time. Needless to say, it's a very emotional encounter.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, June 11, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Too Young the Hero" (1988)

I've occasionally made exceptions to the Reeling Backward column to include television movies, and I'm doing so again for a little-known drama from 1988 called "Too Young The Hero." I'm doing so not because it's particularly well done, but because the subject material is so compelling.

Rick Schroder stars as an underage seaman serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II. What makes the story of Calvin Graham so astonishing is that he had just turned 12 when he enlisted, fabricating a notarized letter from his mother stating that he was 17. Graham served honorably -- including earning two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for heroic actions during the Battle of Guadalcanal -- before he was discovered, imprisoned and eventually discharged shortly after his 13th birthday.

He was quite possibly the youngest person to see combat in post-Civil War U.S. military history.

The TV movie shined a light on a not-too-well hidden secret of the American military during WWII: Many of the soldiers who fought and died in defense of their country were underage. We pride ourselves upon being a "civilized" nation when it comes to war -- as if there is such a thing -- but as a people we were more than happy to turn a blind eye to mere boys fighting and dying in uniform.

With a little research, I learn that estimates are that about 300 Americans age 16 or under died in the military during the war. With that, we can extrapolate approximately how many total boy soldiers there were.

Given that about 416,800 servicemen died out of nearly 16.6 million who served, the mortality rate for soldiers during the conflict was 2.5 percent. If the death rate was the same for underage soldiers, then that 300 dead indicates something like 12,000 enlisted men were secretly too young to serve.

In other words, about one out of every 1,385 soldiers who served during the war was concealing their age.

Even that excludes 17-year-old recruits, an age that still seems pretty appalling by modern standards. You can actually still enlist in some branches of the American military at age 17 with parental consent, although newer rules prohibit them from being stationed overseas. Nonetheless, approximately 60 17-year-old soldiers were believed to have served in Iraq and Afghanistan during 2003-04.

Schroder was a good choice to play Calvin, being about 17 at the time they started filming. Director Buzz Kulik shoots him in different ways so that he seems convincing as both a 12-year-old and as a 17-year-old. In uniform, he certainly looks like a pretty baby-faced seaman, but there were also probably a lot of 18-year-old recruits who looked much younger than they were. The officers and petty officers give him an extra look, but don't ask too many questions as he performs his duties well.

The story is told in flashback as Calvin sits and rots in a military brig, awaiting some sort of dispensation on his case, and he relates his tale to various fellow prisoners. The story concentrates largely on his efforts to get into the Navy, which are primarily economic in reason -- forced out of his mother's house by his abusive stepfather, Calvin lives with his brother on the streets for awhile until his sibling joins the Navy at age 14.

The teleplay by David J. Kinghorn is based on an unpublished manuscript by Graham and a ghost author, and contains a mix of factual events and Hollywood corn. The guards at the military prison are pretty brutal to Calvin, which seems suspicious as he tells everyone he meets that he's only 12. I don't know about you, but if a very young-looking prisoner claimed they were a kid, I'd probably spare the rod a bit  more than they do.

One scene is interesting, and probably authentic. Calvin sees the base dentist, who takes one look in his mouth and announces that he's only 12 -- because his adult molars haven't come in yet. "You've still got your baby teeth, kid!" The dentist orders him to take his file and report to the commander for discharge. Instead, while the guy's back is turned Calvin simply drops his file in the pile of other processed recruits. It's one of those ridiculously simplistic ploys that probably would have actually worked back then.

The battle scenes aboard the battleship U.S.S. South Dakota are about what you'd expect of a TV movie -- cheap-looking recreations paired together with grainy stock footage of actual WWII combat.

The last half-hour or so of the movie stumbles and fumbles, as Calvin grows more morose and attempts to contact his sister to help get him out, a strategy that eventually succeeds after she goes to the newspapers and blares out his story to the world. A very young Mary-Louise Parker plays the sister.

The TV movie actually played a role in Graham's real life. He rejoined the military as a Marine, but suffered serious injuries in a fall and was discharged. He spent decades fighting to have his dishonorable discharge from the Navy changed to an honorable one, something President Jimmy Carter did in 1978, restoring some of his medals in the process.

A few months after "Too Young the Hero" was televised, President Ronald Reagan restored the rest of Graham's medals and disability pay amounting to just under $5,000. That's a rather cheap price for the extraordinary story of someone who served so young.

2.5 stars out of four

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Review: "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted"

I have not been a fan of the "Madagascar" animated films, but the third one won me over. Perhaps it's a result of my becoming a parent, but I see now how the franchise's combination of kid-friendly boingy action, annoyingly catchy musical numbers and cutesy, simplistic life lessons is never dull to the kindergarten-and-down crowd.

After the packed screening I attended, literally dozens of tots were shaking their booties in the aisles as they imitated the tunes, especially a particularly egregious ditty called "Afro Circus," written and sung by Chris Rock. It consists of just those two words with a few "polka dot" throw-ins, but apparently to wee ones this is sublime comedic styling.

By all rights we should judge our entertainment by a higher standard than just keeping our offspring distracted for an hour and a half. But that's the yardstick by which "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted" operates, and judged in those terms it's slickly effective.

As the story opens, the gang from the zoo finds themselves stuck in Africa, wanting to get back to their home in New York City. Their friends the penguins, who talk like spies out of the "Mad Men" era, have ditched them to play high rollers at the casinos in Monte Carlo, so that's where they follow.

The group dynamic remains virtually unchanged since the birth of the franchise. Alex the lion (Ben Stiller) is the ostensible leader, who puts on a brave face but has a neurotic craving for attention. His best bud Marty the zebra (Rock) is the goofy sidekick who sometimes yearns to be leader of the pack. Hypochondriac giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) and groovy hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith) have hooked up into an interspecies couple, the sheer mechanics of which beggars the imagination.

While in Monte Carlo they run afoul of Captain Chantel DuBois, head of the animal control unit. Voiced by Frances McDormand, DuBois makes for a dastardly Ahab-like villain who chases the gang all over the globe, jurisdiction be danged. With her hook-sharp nose, roomy hips and squared shoulders, DuBois is a formidable enemy.

Alex and the gang end up hiding out with the Circus Zaragoza, a motley collection of animals whose act has grown stale. Passing themselves off as fellow circus critters, the four friends resolve to add some Cirque du Soleil extravagance into the drab proceedings.

The new partners include Stefano, an exuberantly Italian sea lion (Martin Short) who dreams of being considered of average intelligence; Gia (Jessica Chastain), a feline trapeze artist who rests her hopes -- and affections -- on Alex; and Vitaly (an excellent Bryan Cranston), a Russian daredevil tiger and one-time star of the show, who got burned performing his signature act.

I should also mention Julien, the lemur king voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen, who's back to sing his "move it, move it" song again and supply some mildly suggestive humor. The computer-generated animation is a smash, particularly a couple of the big circus show numbers, which grow pleasantly psychedelic for awhile.

Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, who co-directed the first two movies, are joined by Conrad Vernon for a threesome that knows this material and its limitations, and focuses on what it can do best. Darnell also handles the screenplay, joined by indie filmmaker Noah Baumbach, best known for eclectic fare like "The Squid and the Whale" and "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou." (Someone need a paycheck?)

I'm not sure if I'd call "Madagascar 3" good bad movie-making, or bad good. Either way, I grudgingly admire the way it expertly achieves its own low expectations. This positive review is not so much a recommendation as a surrender.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Review: "Peace, Love & Misunderstanding"

"Peace, Love & Misunderstanding" is one of those movies where you genuinely enjoy hanging out with the characters, but the story unfolds with all the surprises of the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. As time goes on, you find yourself liking the people you're watching less and less because you know what they're going to do long before they get around to doing it.

For a movie that professes to teach us to get past our insecurities and think more freely, it does so with astonishingly conventional storytelling tropes.

This dramedy is set in the town of Woodstock, which because of the eponymous concert holds mythic status among that portion of the Baby Boom generation that never grew up, and their fresher disciples.

Jane Fonda plays Grace, a sort of queen mother of the hippies, who eschews possessions but owns a magnificent piece of idyllic farm property outside of town. She grows (and smokes) a lot of pot, paints portraits of landscapes both geographical and anatomical, howls at the moon with fellow aging females, protests wars (any will do), bangs drums and pretty much every other stereotype of crunchy Earth Motherhood you can think of.

Her character is actually not the protagonist, but rather the flighty nexus around which other characters and their stories orbit.

Grace's daughter Diane (Catherine Keener), who supposedly was born at Woodstock, has rebelled against her mother's rebellion by becoming a conservative, uptight lawyer who hasn't seen her mother in 20 years. But Diane's own life is crumbling around her, with her husband (Kyle MacLachlan) curtly announcing one day that he wants a divorce.

She decides to trundle up her two teenage kids and head to mother's to ... well, apparently to form the basis of a screenplay. (Certainly no other logic applies. Who, in a time of extreme emotional duress, seeks to pile on more conflict?)

 Jake (Nat Wolff), still in high school, thinks life is a film, and he wants to be the director -- mainly because it allows him to shoot video of everyone instead of interacting with them. (He bristles when people call him a budding Spielberg, preferring to be associated with the more iconoclastic Werner Herzog.) Jake is painfully shy around girls, until he meets the winsome Tara (Marissa O'Donnell) at one of his grandmother's protests.

Zoe is the older child, already a student at Columbia, who has continued the rebellion streak in her family by becoming a vegetarian, peace-loving poetry lover. (In one of the movie's funnier bits, Jake complains that Zoe once had her Barbie dolls hold a war crimes tribunal for his G.I. Joes, and beheaded them.)

Zoe is more like her mother than she'd care to admit, presenting herself as open-minded but really rather dismissive of anyone who doesn't share her views. That includes Cole (Chance Crawford), the cute guy who works in a butcher shop (at least it's organic), smokes tobacco but not marijuana ("I like reality," he explains) and even hunts animals recreationally. Their relationship has a proverbial, almost slapsticky I-hate-you-until-the-moment-I-realize-I-love-you flavor.

Since both kiddies have exchanges of goo-goo eyes with a townie, Diane isn't about to be left out. Her match is Jude (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a songwriter/carpenter who takes her skinny-dipping, beckons her onstage to sing at a concert and tells her she needs to untie the balloon of her spirit from the sandbag of her inhibitions, or something.

(Somehow, I suspect this pitch would seem less dreamy if it were coming from a potbellied guy with rotten teeth instead of a handsomely grizzled Jeffrey Dean Morgan.)

Director Bruce Beresford shot his first short movie in the 1950s, and has made some gems along the way ("Tender Mercies," "Driving Miss Daisy"). He has a nice, light touch with his actors, and helps lend a sense that the characters are more fully drawn than they really are.

Screenwriters Christina Mengert and Joseph Muszynski, though, have a tendency to build their writing around individual scenes and particular lines of dialogue rather than develop a coherent whole. As a result, the “Peace, Love & Misunderstanding” registers as a collection of Important Moments rather than a fully realized story.

2.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Video review: "John Carter"

I rise now in defense of "John Carter." Unfairly labeled as a disastrous flop among the worst in cinematic history, the action/fantasy was neither as much of a money-loser as the studio accountants would have you believe, or nearly as bad as naysayers claim.

Indeed, "John Carter" has made $272 million worldwide, exceeding its reported production budget of $250 million (which, granted, does not include marketing and distribution costs). Once video and TV receipts are counted up, the movie should break even or even pull in a modest profit.

As to quality, it's certainly an uneven picture with a dizzying array of characters and mythology to grasp. But it's also an ambitious package of eye candy and CGI action, the biggest spectacle this side of "Avatar."

Taylor Kitsch plays the title character, a regretful Civil War veteran who gets zapped to the surface of Mars, which in this vision based on the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, is very much inhabited. In fact, a war between different factions of Martians has been raging for 1,000 years, and John Carter finds himself caught in the middle of it.

Because of the different gravities, Carter finds he has amazing powers, especially the ability to leap hundreds of feet into the air. In addition to the Martians, there is a four-armed race of nomads called Tharks, and a mysterious group, the Therns, who whisper into the ears of the Martians and give powerful weapons to those they favor.

Give "John Carter" a chance on video -- you'll find a fun flick that exceeds expectations.

Bonus features are quite good. The DVD comes with an audio commentary track by director Andrew Stanton ("Finding Nemo") and other filmmakers, and a featurette following the 100-year journey of Burroughs' pulp novels to the screen.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, and you add several other goodies. There are a number of deleted scenes with commentary; "Barsoom Bloopers;" "360 Degrees of John Carter," a look at the complicated filmmaking process of the one the movie's biggest scenes; and "Disney Second Screen," an interactive journal that extends the mythology of the movie.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, June 4, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Hondo" 1953)

"Hondo" isn't one of John Wayne's best Westerns, but it diverges in a few notable ways from the rest of his six-shooter work. In 1953 Wayne had the sort of clout that he could hand-pick his projects and directors, and this film was made through his own production company.

"Hondo" underwent a frame-by-frame restoration a few years ago, and is being released on Blu-ray tomorrow, June 5, in its first-ever widescreen presentation on video. Click the link below to find out more -- it also comes with a nice collection of extras.

Wayne & Co. found a short story by a then largely unknown Western writer, Louis L'Amour, and turned it into a screenplay stamped with Wayne's signature laconic style. James Edward Grant, a Wayne favorite, handled the script, a lean, atmospheric exercise coming in at a mere 84 minutes.

They used 3-D technology to film it, with some difficulty, and the film did relatively well at the box office. Interestingly, L'Amour penned a novelization of the movie that became a best seller, and did much to boost his career writing novels. Certainly, Hollywood took notice of him, with dozens of subsequent adaptations of his work.

But the most consequential thing about "Hondo" to me is that it's essentially a romantic drama that wears the dusty, fringed clothes of a Western. There are plenty of gunfights and chases -- using the all-too-popular 3-D technique of having stuff fly at the camera. But the heart of the story is about love and loyalty.

Geraldine Page, a bona fide Broadway star who used this movie to segue into a very successful film career, plays a prairie wife who falls in love with Honda Lane, a prototypical Wayne protagonist in many respects -- a hard, lonely man of action who lives by his own stubbornly independent credo.

Hondo's intro is pure Wayne myth-making. He stumbles in out of the desert, parched and horseless, bearing only a Winchester rifle, pistol, ammo belt and scruffy mongrel named Sam in tow. Sam is his companion but not his servant, and does what he likes, which is how  Hondo prefers it. His motto is to let other people do what they want to do, even if he knows it to be foolish or wrong, as this is the same courtesy he expects others to extend to himself.

Mrs. Lowe -- her name is credited as Angie, though I don't believe we ever hear her called that -- is a stubborn ranch wife, overseeing her rambunctious 6-year-old Johnny (Lee Aker). She repeatedly insists to Hondo that her husband is rounding up cattle and shortly to return, but they both know this to be a lie.

This have a confrontation where they make their feelings for each other plain. It includes Lowe making the extraordinary statement (for a Hollywood film in 1953) that she knows she's a homely woman. Hondo does not refuse this point, only stating that her inner qualities of steadfastness make her more appealing than any superficial traits.

Page is not of course anything in the same galaxy as homely, but director John Farrow (who won an Oscar for his screenplay of "Around the World in 80 Days") deliberately shoots her in a way to play up a dowdy sort of plainness.

Page, an early devotee of Method acting, does a yeoman's job with her part, which as written isn't terribly sophisticated. Her reactions and off-kilter line readings give her performance a showy sort of distinctiveness. It isn't a particularly authentic portrayal of  a 19th century ranch wife, but it does stand out from the drab sort womenfolk that generally populate these sorts of movies. Page received the first of eight Academy Award nominations for her turn.

(I should also note that L'Amour also received a nomination for best motion picture story, but L'Amour and the film's producers asked that it be withdrawn since it was based on a story that first appeared in a magazine, and the Academy complied. I'm not sure if there's any other occurrence like that in Oscar history.)

Frequent Wayne sidekick Ward Bond is around, playing a cantankerous ally named Buffalo Baker. James Arness, the future "Gunsmoke" star, has a small role as a Hondo antagonist who later saves his life, and is given Hondo's prize rifle as a reward. They have a brief fistfight, which is noteworthy for the fact that the looming 6-foot-7-inch Arness was one of the few actors who could make the 6'4" Wayne seem less intimidating.

"Hondo" has also been praised for a relatively progressive view of American Indians. Vittorio, the Apache chief (played by an Australian, Michael Pate, alas), is certainly fierce and bloodthirsty. But he has good cause -- Hondo himself notes that it's the whites who broke the treaty, not the Indians. Vittorio tells Mrs. Lowe that all his sons were killed by white raiders, yet he spares her and Johnny because he deems the young boy a brave little warrior for defending his mother from them.

Hondo himself is part Indian, living among the Apache for five years, took a squaw, and openly admires their ideals -- especially their hatred of lying. In the film's last moments, after the Apache have been driven off from their attack on settlers and the cavalry, Hondo notes that it's an end of a way of life, and a good one at that.

3 stars out of four