Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Video review: "Safety Not Guaranteed"

In addition to being one of my favorite films 2012, "Safety Not Guaranteed" also nabs the title of Best Movie Nobody's Seen. This tiny indie came and went from theaters quickly, but inspired plenty of passion among the few who bought tickets.

This quirky black comedy/drama is about a trio of journalists sent to check out a cryptic help-wanted ad for a companion to travel through time. "Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before," it concludes.

Aubrey Plaza, best known for TV's "Parks and Recreation," plays Darius, a cynical intern looking not so much for her big break as something to break the monotony. She finds it in Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the odd but oddly charming fellow behind the ad. Paranoid and defensive, he slowly starts to let his guard down, and a nascent romance begins to take form.

Along for the ride are Jeff, a 40ish reporter who's using the story as a ruse to get a free trip to his hometown, and Arnau, a shy Indian-American nerd who yearns to lose his virginity.

Everyone assumes Kenneth is a kook, but he doesn't seem like a very dangerous one. When strangers in sunglasses and black SUVs start following him around, it starts everyone to wondering if there's more to his bizarre plan than meets the eye.

Do people in this story really travel through time? I won't tell you, not only to save the surprise but also because it's not really germane to the success of this film. "Safety Not Guaranteed" does not dazzle us with sci-fi hocus-pocus, but studies what effect the possibility of its existence has on a small group of sharply-drawn characters.

What a daffy, dark, joyous ride.

Alas, extra features -- the same for DVD and Blu-ray versions -- are somewhat lackluster. There is no commentary track or anything to spend hours with. There are two brief featurettes: "A Movie Making Mission" and "The Ad Behind the Movie." You can also hunt around for a hidden time capsule Easter Egg.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 1.5 stars

Monday, October 29, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Billy Budd" (1962)

 "You in your goodness are as inhuman as Claggart was in his evil."
So says the master of the ship in "Billy Budd," the 1962 adaptation of the Herman Melville novel directed, produced, co-written and starring Peter Ustinov as the conflicted captain who utters that line. This gripping and overlooked drama presents two men as paragons of innocence and depravity, and uses them as a lens to peer at the reactions they inspire in the muddled masses of the rest of the crew. It's a morality tale writ in stark shades of gray.

"Billy Budd" was the first major film role for 24-year-old Terence Stamp. Despite playing the title role and the protagonist, Stamp was only nominated for a Best Supporting Actor award at the Oscars. It's obviously a leading role, but older established actors like Robert Ryan and Ustinov received first and second billing, respectively.

It's a full-blooded performance that's built on vacancy. In the commentary track accompanying the DVD, Stamp confesses that he was barely able to speak a word to Ustinov at their initial meeting, so impressed was he by the older man's "powerful aura." It turns out this was the exact quality Ustinov had been seeking, interviewing dozens of young British actors to find someone capable of profound passivity.

He wanted Billy to be a reactive figure who absorbed the worst in other men and returned it with a smile. Indeed, after condemning Billy to death by hanging, Captain Vere (Ustinov) literally begs Billy to despise him for choosing duty over morality. Billy, who gives his age as "17, or 19 ... or 18," responds with his usual quizzical puzzlement. "I did my duty, and you're just doing yours," he says. Vere is more tortured by Billy's absolution than any hatred he hoped to inspire.

When impressed into service in the British navy in 1797, Billy finds the crew aboard the H.M.S. Avenger to be quaking in fear of the cruel master of arms, John Claggart (Ryan). A vicious man who delights in having men flogged for the most minute of infractions -- and even manufacturing ones when they can't be found -- Claggart sees the entire world as an endless chase of prey and hunted. The surface of the sea is calm, he tells Billy, but beneath it every creature is a killer. It's the same on land or on board the ship, he insists.

There's some suggestion that Claggart, who is educated and worldly, once held a high position in the British kingdom and has now fallen low due to outstanding debts or some other scrape with authority. This is a man who does not limit his a vengeful eye to a single person, but casts it upon the whole of society. "I am what I am and what the world has made me," he declares.

Billy, who is guileless to the point of the appearance of idiocy, looks upon Claggart and only sees a man who is lonely and afraid. Claggart nearly succumbs to Billy's offer of friendship, the bile in his soul finally rising to drown any hint of human kindness, which he views as weakness.

It's a chilling performance by Ryan, who often played well-meaning loners. The way he pounds his baton against his leg with every stroke of the floggger's whip, his lips quavering with hunger as he counts the strokes, is one of the most revolting depictions of sadism I've ever seen on film.

Billy, as written by Melville and faithfully translated by Ustinov and co-screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen, is like an angel of God put on Earth unawares of his celestial grace. As a babe he was left on the door of a house in a silk-lined basket, hinting that he was the bastard child of a noble parent. With his nimbus of wavy blond locks, placid blue eyes and slightly androgynous beauty, Stamp truly seems like something not of this world.

Much of this is due to that aforementioned silence. Billy spends an astonishing amount of screen time just staring at and reacting to other actors. When he does speak, he does so in mellifluous tones that impart an organic sort of wisdom, like a child objecting to the wretched constructs of the adult world. "It's wrong to flog a man. It's against his being a man," he says on his first day aboard the Avenger.

Billy also suffers from unintentional silences. When sorely vexed, he is overcome by a stammer that prevents him from any speech. This is pivotal in the final confrontation with Claggart, in which the master-at-arms manufactures accusations of mutiny against Billy, who finally pummels him with a single blow to the chest. After he falls and cracks his head open on a post, the final contemptuous smile Claggart casts at Billy is the devil's sneer of victory.

"Claggart killed you the moment you killed him," Captain Vere tells Billy with sadness.

The officers overseeing the court martial are determined to set Billy free, seeing it as the just triumph of good over evil. But Vere insists their duty is to the laws of the wartime military, not their own personal sense of justice, and browbeats his underlings into returning a death sentence. The idea of stringing up Billy for killing the hated Claggart sets off a mutiny amongst the crew, but Billy quells it with his final, smiling words: "God save Captain Vere!!"

The cast of "Billy Budd" is spectacular. Melvyn Douglas plays The Dansker, an old Danish (he says) sailmaker who seems to have a religious background and acts as the conscience of the ship. The chief officers are ably played by Paul Rogers, John Nevill and David McCallum. Ronald Lewis has a memorable turn as Jenkins, the outspoken chief of the rigging crew who ends up a martyr to Claggart's cruelty. Lee Montague plays Squeak, Claggart's right-hand toady. And John Meillon plays Kincaid, who has his back laid open for insulting Claggart.

"Billy Budd" is a tremendous film, and seen in retrospect its single Academy Award nomination feels like a terrible oversight.

3.5 stars out of four

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Review: "Cloud Atlas"

Having not read the novel by David Mitchell, my guess is that "Cloud Atlas" is one of those books that was considered untranslatable to the big screen. The Wachowski siblings, the creative team behind the "Matrix" films, and their writing/directing partner Tom Tykwer, have accomplished about as successful an adaptation as could be hoped.

It's a sprawling, ambitious, troubling, occasionally glorious and often vexing film. A hair under three hours long, it links dozens of characters across a multitude of time settings, with the same set of actors playing multiple parts. These stories do not  unfold in temporal sequence, but instead cut back and forth with no transition for the audience. The abruptness is intentional.

So, one moment you can be watching Tom Hanks playing Zachry, a suspicious but good-hearted hunter in a post-apocalyptic primitive society hundreds of years into the future, and in a blink he has become Dr. Henry Goose, a nefarious physician/charlatan in the Pacific Islands circa 1849.

The theme here is that these actors are not simply inhabiting different roles, but represent different incarnations of the same eternal soul replicated over and over again throughout the eons, but facing much the same challenges in each reincarnation.

For instance, Hanks' character(s) struggle with summoning the courage to do the moral thing. For Dr. Goose that battle was obviously lost some time ago. For Zachry it's an ongoing struggle, with the forces of suspicion and hatred represented by Old Georgie, a devil in a top hat who whispers vile thoughts into his ear.

Zachry's time era is probably the most critical, acting as a framing device for the other stories. Sometimes we see the same person decades apart in their lives, but for the most part it is new incarnations each time around.

In Zachry's time, he is suspicious of Meronym (Halle Berry), a representative of a more technologically advanced alien culture, or possibly the remnants of humanity that survived the "Big Fall" of mankind. Meronym and other people of her ilk seem to have electronic devices implanted under the surface of their skin, while Zachry and his people have extensive facial tattoos.

Meronym has ingratiated herself into the people of the valley's tiny community, where they struggle to survive against wretched tribes of cannibals who raid from time to time. Meronym says she's there to help, and indeed heeds Zachry's plea to save the life of his niece, but it's clear she's there with an unspoken mission.

Other significant settings are the Pacific Islands in the mid-19th century, Cambridge of 1936, 1973 San Francisco, modern-day London and Korea somewhere in the 23rd century.

Jim Broadbent plays Timothy Cavendish, an itinerant publisher who hits the big time when his thuggish author executes the dream of what every writer wants to do to a critic, becoming a celebrity in the process. But money troubles and a hateful big brother leave him incarcerated in a mental hospital, which builds up to a septuagenarian version of "The Great Escape."

Ben Whishaw is Robert Frobisher, a brilliant but poor musical genius who takes on a position as assistant to a once great but now forlorn composer. Jim Sturgess plays Adam Ewing, a young man making a highly profitable business trip for his slavemaster father-in-law, and encounters the unexpected friendship of a runaway slave (David Gyasi).

In 1973 Halle Berry plays Luisa Rey, a crusading young journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot at a Three Mile Island-ish nuclear facility, and finds her life in peril.

Perhaps the most evocative setting is Neo Seoul of the future, a nightmarish landscape that seems to combine the worst elements of "Blade Runner" and "The Matrix." Here Doona Bae plays Sonmi-451, a "fabricant" -- aka synthetically created human slave -- who serves as a waitress  in trendy restaurant. One day she's liberated by a leader of the rebellion against this totalitarian society, and finds herself becoming the image and voice of a movement (and later, in Zachry's time, something much more).

"Our lives are not our own," Somni intones, underscoring the film's message. "From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime and each kindness, we build our future."

I will say that time does not drag while watching "Cloud Atlas." I looked at my watch exactly once, and was astonished to see that 2½ hours had already gone by.

But the various actors each playing three, four, five or more roles ended up being distracting, especially as I attempted each time to puzzle out who was who under the heavy layers of prosthetic makeup. I found that the mental energy I expended in this exercise left me unable at time to get emotionally engaged the characters' plight.

I also admit to being uncomfortable with some of the transformations. At various times Caucasian actors are made up to look Asian, and Asians as Caucasians, and African-Americans as whites or Asians or Latinos, and none of it very convincing. I did note that at no time was a non-African-American actor made up to look black. Consciously avoiding that risk of an unpalatable accusation of blackface only serves to make the other cross-racial portrayals seem even more squeamish.

"Cloud Atlas" is a bedazzling cinematic experience, though one that will no doubt leave some audience members confused and frustrated. For me, there was enough enchantment to overcome the head-scratching.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Review: "Simon and the Oaks"

"Simon and the Oaks" is one of those films that never stops surprising us. We think it's going to be about one thing, and for awhile it actually is, until it isn't. It's a human story that with an organic, messy feel to it, understanding that life rarely unspools in a tidy three-act narrative.

This Swedish drama from director Lisa Ohlin, based on the best-selling novel by Marianne Fredriksson, begins in 1939 as the war is breaking out across Europe. The populace is nervous and fearful -- especially after they hear about Jews being rounded up in neighboring Norway.

For a time the story focuses on the fast friendship of two young boys, Simon (Jonatan S. Wachter) and Isak (Karl Linnertorp). Simon is the son of simple blue-collar parents who live in a shack by the coastline, while Isak is the child of wealthy Jewish parents.

Simon's father, Erik (Stefan Gödicke) is perpetually befuddled by the shy, bookish boy who prefers spending time by himself to getting into fights with other boys -- which is Erik's idea of normalcy. He's upset by how much time Simon spends sitting in his favorite oak tree (actually, several oaks grown together), listening to the music in the wind through its branches. Simon's mother Karin (Helen Sjöholm) is quiet but strong, and urges Erik to agree to send him to the "fancy" school in town.

That's where Isak and Simon meet, instantly bonding. Simon visits Isak's apartment, and returns home with wondrous tales of elevators and amazing chandeliers. Despite his lavish appointments, Erik's life is far from perfect. His mother refuses to emerge from her own bedroom, constantly worrying about the Nazis. His father Ruben (Jan Josef Liefers) is supportive but a bit distant.

Time passes, and following a tragedy things move in unexpected directions. Isak moves in with Simon and his parents, and it seems the two families are nearly blended. Erik's pride is wounded by Ruben's wealth and his constant gifts and offers of financial assistance. At first Simon is thrilled to have his best friend so near, but then he grows resentful as Erik takes up woodworking and shipbuilding with Erik. Simon in turn is drawn to Ruben's penchant for music and art, and for a time it appears the fathers have swapped sons.

The story segues until after the war, with Bill Skarsgard and Karl Linnertorp taking over the roles of the teenage Simon and Isak, respectively. With his tall, stooped frame, milky skin and big liquid eyes, Skarsgard makes for an engaging figure. Simon goes off to university and comes home with new ideas and new disdain for his parents -- especially after they reveal a big secret that throws all the relationships of the two families into utter chaos.

The very definition of "family" becomes loose and too unwieldy to describe the situation in which these people find themselves.

Ohlin, who co-wrote the screenplay with Linda Aronson, focuses less on narrative continuity and more on particular moments in the characters' lives. Different people come to the fore of the story, and then fall back. Isak, after being so critical as a boy, recedes in to the background as they near adulthood. Erik seems to dominate young Simon's home life, but over time it becomes clear that his mother Karin is the real axis upon which his world turns.

Sjöholm's performance is a revelation, communicating oceans of emotional depth through very few words.

This beautiful, sad, elegiac tale perfectly captures the aching heart of Swedish life, a bittersweet mix of summer's rapturous joy and winter's deep song of regret.

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Vide review: "Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview"

"The smallest company in the world can look as large as the largest company in the world on the Web. [It] is going to be the defining social moment for computers."
--Steve Jobs, 1995
The portrait of Steve Jobs who emerges in this largely raw footage of the Apple giant in a 1995 interview with Robert X. Cringely is of a mastermind in exile. At that time Jobs, nearing age 40, had been booted from the company he founded in a garage with Steve Wozniak. A little more than a year later, he would return to the leadership position and turn Apple into the most valuable publicly-traded company in the world.

A year after his death, Jobs' prescience seems more otherworldly than ever. Talking at the very dawn of the Internet age, Jobs seems to intuitively grasp the implications of having computers everywhere in the world interconnected.

Cringely's interview, discovered in VHS tapes in a crewmember's garage, are decidedly low-tech, with squiggly lines and murky resolution. No doubt the fastidious Jobs, famous for his insistence that his products be beautiful as well as functional, would have disapproved.

Jobs, who has no reservation about hurling remonstrations at competitors and enemies, saves some of his nastiest barbs for Bill Gates and Microsoft.

"The only problem with Microsoft is that they have no taste," he says. "They just make really third-rate products. Their products have no spirit to them."

He also speaks about becoming rich so young -- he was worth $100 million at age 25 -- and some of his biggest missteps, such as tapping John Sculley to run their nascent company. Sculley would later push Jobs out in a battle for power.

"Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview" is a look at a genius after his big fall, but with eyes already on the pinnacle to come.

The video comes with decent extra features that take you deeper in to the Apple experience. Cringely and director Paul Sen provide a feature-length commentary track, and there's also an audio interview with Cringely. Andy Hertzfeld, who programmed the original McIntosh, sits in for an hour-long interview about the heady early days at the (then) scrappy little computer startup.

Movie: 3.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, October 22, 2012

Reeling Backward: "The Bridge at Remagen" (1969)

By 1969 American attitudes about warfare had changed considerably due to our being mired in Vietnam, and it's hard not to miss how this was reflected in war films about previous conflicts.

"The Bridge at Remagen" wears the clothes of a heroic war picture, but it's got a hippie-pacifist bent to it. And it's not just that the soldiers are depicted in a more realistic way, or that the story focuses more on the madness of war rather than the "band of brothers" ethos that had ruled heretofore.

What's most notable is the way the soldiers, both American and German, talk back to their superiors and defy orders that they consider inhumane or illogical. At one point, a surly sergeant belts a major after he's ordered them to undertake a dangerous mission that will cost many of them their lives. The major lies on the ground sputtering ineffectually about a court-martial, while his attacker ignores him and turns away to go about his duty.

I.e., in these sorts of pictures the soldiers do what's expected of them, but not before letting everyone know how they really feel.

In a John Wayne picture, this would be played out as the cowardly youngster cracking under pressure and taking a swing at the officer bearing the lonely burden of command. (The Duke probably also would've blocked the punch or decked the kid in retaliation.) In "Remagen," it's a rah-rah moment where the righteous upstart gives it to The Man.

George Segal plays Lieutenant Hartman, a young and effective platoon leader who's sick to death of the war. He and his men have been the bleeding edge of the Allied advance for awhile now, and they're bone-tired and fed up. When they get picked to lead the assault on the Remagen Bridge, Hartman can barely contain his anger.

Hartman is respected by his men because he's a cautious leader who strives to keep casualties to a minimum, but is not well-liked. And that's because he does little to curry their favor or loyalty. When one of his underlings calls him a cold bastard, he wheels on him and demands to know how much the man owes him in gambling debts. "$78.50 ... that's all you're worth to me," he sneers.

Of course, in the end Hartman manages to start behaving more in the mold of a kindler, gentler commander. As they take the bridge inch by bloody inch, the pain of every man who falls is etched on his face. In the end he "captures" the bridge head by wandering in a daze toward the German line, and is greeted by the enemy commander waving a white flag.

It's an act of resignation, not heroism, but the result is the same.

His right-hand man and antagonist is that surly sergeant, Angelo, played by Ben Gazzara. Angelo has a habit of raiding all the dead corpses for loot which he then sells to his fellow soldiers, bragging that he intends to come out of the war a rich man. Hartman expresses his disgust, but doesn't lift a finger to stop him. He also stops Angelo and the other men from raping a French woman they stumble across, and in return she offers herself to him as a reward -- which he refuses. He's just too exhausted to summon up even lust. Then comes the order to take the bridge.

Speaking of that bridge. Remagen was notable because it was the last intact bridge over the Rhine River, with the German fatherland lying upon the other side. A later, superior WWII movie, "A Bridge Too Far," would chronicle a failed plan by the Allies to capture other bridges leading into Germany in 1944. By the spring of 1945 as depicted in "Remagen," the Germans had destroyed all the other bridges and were waiting to blow up this one only because a large part of their army was still trapped on the wrong side.

Robert Vaughn plays Kruger, the German major who's tasked with destroying the bridge. His commanding general, a friend, secretly gives him an order to hold the bridge for as long as possible so the retreating German forces and civilians can get across. Kruger is promised 1,600 men and prime weapons and explosives to do his job, but upon arrival finds only 200 soldiers, most of them wounded or reserves who are green boys or old men, and weak industrial explosives.

This was another reflection of the times in which the movie was made. Rather than portraying the Germans as all vicious Nazis, or even as noble enemies, "Regmagen" shows the Germans as being a reflection of the Americans. Though the footmen don't give lip to their officers quite like the Americans do, the officers do question and twist their orders if they deem them inappropriate. Vaughn plays Kruger as a man of steely conviction whose resolve is drained by the ordeal.

Director John Guillermin stages some well-crafted battle scenes, including complex sequences involving tanks, mortars and artillery. It was interesting to me in that it actually showed how the foot soldiers interacted with the heavier arsenal. Usually we just see things from the perspective of the dogfaces on the ground. The tanks also move incredibly fast -- I'm not sure if I've ever seen another film where the steel beasts are shown rumbling along at breakneck speed like that.

The screenplay by Richard Yates and William Roberts is pretty much all Hollywood hooey, with the exception of what happened to Kruger and his superior officers -- they were executed for allowing the bridge to be taken by the Americans. Their intentions were good, trying to save countless thousands of German lives, but they still failed in their mission, though largely through no fault of their own.

As Kruger is about to be shot, he hears planes flying overhead and asks, "ours or theirs?" Told they are those of the enemy, he ponders, "But who is the enemy?" It's a heavy-handed moment, where one of the characters essentially blurts out the entire theme of the movie. Always better to show, not tell.

2.5 stars out of four

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Review: "Alex Cross"

An aggressively dumb drama/thriller, "Alex Cross" clumsily retraces the steps of other movies about lawmen hunting down depraved serial killers who taunt them along the way. With its simplistic characterizations and clunky dialogue, it makes you think of  "Se7en" or "In the Line of Fire" as remade by a bunch of 15-year-olds ... and not particularly talented 15-year-olds.

Morgan Freeman played the role of Alex Cross, a brilliant African-American psychologist/detective, in a pair of middling 1990s adaptations of the novels by James Patterson.

Tyler Perry has a less intellectual, more visceral take on the character. That's a great idea in theory, but his ham-fisted performance results in a guy who seems all over the map -- hot and cold, a paragon of righteousness one minute, a rule-busting vigilante the next. He doesn't seem so much a person as a conflation of emotional highs and lows.

Perry, known for putting on a dress as the wild-and-crazy grandma Madea in a string of comedies he wrote and directed, just isn't convincing in a grim lead role. The audience in the preview screening I attended tittered several times at moments that were intended to be serious.

They also were amused by his, ah, ample physique struggling through a number of fight scenes. Director Rob Cohen doesn't help, resorting to the usual hackery of quick edits, tight framing and a shaky camera. The final showdown between Cross and the villain should be enshrined in film schools everywhere as how not to shoot an action scene.

Speaking of that villain -- Matthew Fox is the film's one redeeming quality as Picasso, a mysterious killer who's a hired assassin but clearly relishes his gruesome trade more than a cool professional would. Looking like every ounce of fat has been boiled off his lean frame, Fox flashes a death's-head rictus grin that is truly unsettling. He seems like he wants to shiver his way out of his own skin.

The character's backstory is never really explored -- we see a newspaper clipping that says something about a rapist, and Picasso (he's never otherwise named) repeatedly blames Cross for turning him into what he is. But the screenplay by Marc Moss and Kerry Williamson doesn't follow through.

Their transcendently awful dialogue is truly something to behold. It's as if every time the characters are faced with a situation somebody asked, "Now what's the most obvious thing he/she would say here?"

For instance, when Picasso applies his sordid trade to Cross' family and he starts gearing up for revenge, his mother (Cicely Tyson) lectures him: "Look at you! Self-appointed judge, jury and executioner!"

Secondary characters are strictly by-the-numbers, like Edward Burns as Cross' laconic partner/best friend, the scrappy supportive wife (Carmen Ejogo) and the smarmy corporate types who sneer at the cops even as the lawmen protect them from being carved up by Picasso.

A bundle of clichés wrapped in heaping helping of awful sauce, "Alex Cross" is a total flop as Tyler Perry's crossover to serious moviemaking. Better dust off that oversized dress.

1.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Review: "Little Red Wagon"

An inspirational movie based on a true story, "Little Red Wagon" is a well-meaning drama with heart and pluck. From director David Anspaugh, the man behind the iconic films "Hoosiers" and "Rudy," it may sometimes wander off into treacly TV movie-of-the-week territory. But it's got its heart in the right place, and several of the performances are quite fine.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Charlie in 2004, a young boy in Tampa named Zach Bonner decided to collect some food and supplies for the people made newly homeless in nearby Punta Gorda, which bore the full brunt of the storm. Not yet 10 years old, Zach was so touched by their plight that he decided no child, anywhere, should be homeless.

What's a young kid to do about it? As it turns out, found a non-profit foundation, raise huge sums of cash and inspire thousands of people. The movie's story culminates with Zach's media-hyped walk from Tampa to Tallahassee to raise awareness about child homelessness. (In real life, Zach continued his walk in subsequent years to Atlanta, then Washington D.C., and then clear across the country.)

Chandler Canterbury plays Zach, and it's a tough role for any child actor who's in virtually every scene. But Canterbury tackles it with gumption, his big liquid eyes projecting the empathy that radiates out of his character, even toward strangers. The innate goodness of the kid shines.

Anna Gunn, best known for TV's "Breaking Bad," plays Zach's mom Laurie, a long-suffering single mother trying -- largely unsuccessfully, by her own admission -- to balance a son who's a one-boy charity and a  16-year-old daughter, Kelley, who chafes at always playing second fiddle.

Daveigh Chase has a great turn as Kelley, taking a role that could've come across as very screechy and juvenile and instead makes identifiable and full of immediacy. Several scenes portraying the clash between mother and daughter are full of energy and tears, and have a hefty sense of authenticity.

The screenplay by Patrick Sheane Duncan lays things out a little too pat, as we can see the peaks and valleys of Zach's journey coming, and know which turns the movie is going to take long before it steers into them.

There is also a certain type of scene that's repeated too often, as Zach lays out his bold plans before some individual or group of adults who could prove an impediment, and they immediately cave with offers of assistance and donations.

Paralleling Zach's journey is that of Margaret Craig and her son Jim (Frances O'Connor and Dylan Matzke), neighbors of the Bonners who move out of their subdivision because of financial problems and end up becoming homeless themselves. It's a clever storytelling device by Duncan and Anspaugh, showing how dauntingly easy it is to wind up on the streets.

I kept waiting for the two storylines to reconnect, but they never did in a satisfying way.

"Little Red Wagon" is named after Zach's foundation, which in turn got its moniker from the wagon he pulled around his neighborhood collecting donations. It's a simple, childlike metaphor for an impulse of absolute purity, and the movie about him.

2.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Video review: "Moonrise Kingdom"

In 1965 on the remote New England island of New Penzanze, 12-year-old misfits Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop have run away together. Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) both feel alienated in their homes -- Sam is an orphan who more or less lives at the Khaki Scouts camp, while Suzy barely gets any attention in the ramshackle house where her distracted parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) oversee a triplet of overactive boys.

Their escape sets the cloistered island folk into a tizzy, as they search desperately for the pair before they ... what, exactly? It's a tiny island, so they don't really have anywhere to go. Their journey is about running away rather than going somewhere.

The latest from filmmaker Wes Anderson ("The Royal Tenenbaums") is familiar to any who's watched his twee little whimsical movies -- disaffected characters speaking in deliberately flat cadences, punctuated by quaint snippets of obscure music, and highly stylized sets and costumes that make the whole thing feel like the inside of a precocious middle schooler's diorama.

"Moonrise" doesn't add anything new to the mix, so the result is a stale and turgid addition to the Anderson menagerie. After a career of making very personalized movies, this registers as an unattractive wallow in self-indulgence.

Bonus features, which are identical for Blu-ray and DVD editions, are rather modest. There's a making-of documentary, a tour of the fictional island, and a set tour hosted by Bill Murray.

Movie: 1.5 stars out of four
Extras: 2 stars

Monday, October 15, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Primary Colors" (1998)

"Primary Colors" has the perfect ending -- by which, I mean this 1996 drama embraces the imperfection, disappointment and disillusionment inherit in the American political structure.

The film directed by Hollywood legend Mike Nichols and written by Elaine May from the roman à clef novel by "Anonymous" -- later revealed to be then-Newsweek, now Time magazine columnist Joe Klein -- follows a familiar pattern for this type of political story. A young, smart protagonist gets caught up in the rise and/or fall of a deeply flawed but charismatic politician, and the True Believer gradually turns into a jaded cynic.

"All the King's Men" by  Robert Penn Warren more or less set the standard for the modern political novel, and has twice been made into movies (unsatisfactorily so on both occasions, imho).

"Primary Colors" didn't break any new ground, but it covered familiar territory with a terrific slate of performances and whip-smart dialogue. This film earned a couple of Oscar nominations -- for May's script and Kathy Bates' amazing, frenetic turn as an unhinged political operator -- but its reputation did not outlive its notoriety as a thinly-veiled portrait of Bill and Hillary Clinton circa the 1992 presidential election.

That's a shame; seen again nearly a decade and a half later, I'd call it a top-shelf political drama.

The thing I most liked about it was that the movie didn't shirk from its central message. These stories always reach a breaking point where the young turk confronts the older, idolized politician about their misdeeds. Inevitably, the main character rejects their mentor, deciding that it's better to be a loser with dignity than a winner who's swallowed all his principles for a chance to grab the brass ring and do some good.

Except Henry Burton, the idealistic young campaign manager played by Adrian Lester, doesn't turn away.

The final sequence shows Henry on the receiving end of a full-press charm offensive from Jack Stanton, the Bill Clinton stand-in memorably played by John Travolta, to stay with him and see him through into the White House. The movie transitions to Stanton and his wife Susan (Emma Thompson) dancing at their Inauguration party. Stanton is shown shaking hands with the people who helped elect him -- including Henry, before panning away to a majestic shot of a huge American flag.

Some have interpreted this ending to be more ambiguous -- that it's left unclear whether Henry is just there congratulating the new president, or did indeed stay on the campaign despite his moral crisis. I don't think so. Henry is shown smiling enthusiastically while he's shaking Stanton's hand, which contrasts sharply with the hard, noncommittal expression he had shown him a moment earlier.

Henry caved. He stayed in the fight because he wanted to win it.

Why do I think so? Because the young man had expressly said so himself. The grandson of a legendary civil rights fighter, Henry is sick of always being the ideological purist whose candidate never wins.

Even more important than Stanton's schmoozing of Henry, the key exchange of the film comes more than an hour earlier. Henry is confronted by his estranged girlfriend, March, who as a reporter from the "Black Advocate" peppers Stanton with some uncomfortable questions about using influence to get his arrest at the 1968 Democratic Convention expunged.

March: "That's the kind of man you want to work for, somebody who just wants to get elected?"
Henry: "No, I want to work for a man who fights the really good fight, and then watch a Republican get elected."
March: "What's the difference? Can you tell?!?"
March: "Yes! I can tell the difference between a man who believes what I believe and lies about it to get elected and a man who, well, who just doesn't give a fuck! I'll take the liar."

This demonstrates with stark clarity that Henry is not a wide-eyed naïf wearing rose-colored glasses. He is fully aware of Stanton's flaws -- that he's a serial womanizer, that he'll lie through his teeth if it helps him get ahead in the polls, that he is both cursed and blessed with an almost pathologically need to be liked.

But Henry is still entranced by the notion of someone who shares his progressive political ideals and actually has a shot of getting into office and acting upon them. He's willing to accept a mountain of dirt to reach the pinnacle of power.

I think perhaps the reason "Primary Colors" didn't have staying power is that it was such a product of its time.

Klein drew barely concealed sketches of real-life political players and personalities, leaving no doubt who was standing in for who when it came to the film version -- Billy Bob Thornton as high-strung redneck campaign manager Richard Jemmons, aka James Carville; Emma Thompson as the ambitious political wife who resents subsisting in her husband's shadow, a la Hillary Clinton; Caroline Aaron as domineering Clinton "Friend of Hillary" Susan Thomases, and so forth.

And, of course, Travolta was doing a spot-on impersonation of Bill Clinton, right down to the rolly-polly physique and salt-and-pepper pompadour. He nails Clinton's obsequious speech patterns, the way he piles on the sugary Southern accent and makes everyone in the room feel like he's talking directly to them.

So audiences saw all this and regarded it, perhaps not incorrectly at the time, as "the Clinton movie."

With the passing of years and some distance, though, the film takes on its own character and weight, like a bottle of wine that seemed bitter when it was bottled and has only grown richer with time.

It's notable that the one important character without a direct correlation to real life is also the most interesting, and pivotal. Kathy Bates' Libby Holden, the Stanton's longtime friend and self-described "dust buster," doesn't even show up until nearly an hour into the film. Her job is to put down any dirt about Jack Stanton that crops up, as harshly as possible.

In perhaps the film's most famous scene, Libby holds a gun to the privates of a sleazy attorney who has fabricated a recording of Stanton speaking to a woman claiming to be his mistress. It's a blowsy, chaotic, terrifically funny scene, though completely ludicrous.

A proud, loud lesbian woman, Libby shows up in Stanton's down-home campaign headquarters, wearing a Stetson hat and throwing the f-word around liberally among the genteel Southern ladies. She perches herself in Henry's office and surveys the roomful of campaign workers through the window, selecting a comely young gal with a pixie haircut to be her personal assistant, and lover -- as if the latter were automatically part of the job description of the former.

The trashy Jemmons, who had earlier and spectacularly unsuccessfully tried to pick up the same girl, at least had the decency to make a personal (if unappealing) appeal.

Libby just sort of blows into the movie like an Arkansas twister, wrecking things left and right and sucking up all the air wherever she goes. In her own caustic way, she's every bit as engaging a figure as Stanton himself.

She ends up making the choice that Henry couldn't, and taking it a step further -- sacrificing herself to save both Stanton's political viability and her own blazing sense of right and wrong, carefully though she does conceal it.

And we mustn't forget that Libby, as we are reminded several times, has been in and out of mental institutions. I think "Primary Colors" says something by having the character who'd been in the loony bin be the one who chooses the path of righteous indignation.

The non-crazies usually end up living with the grubby compromises.

3.5 stars out of four

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Review: "Here Comes the Boom"

"Here Comes the Boom" is the perfect star vehicle for Kevin James, because in many ways it's a reflection of his persona -- goofy, flabby around the middle, a little bit crude but with a soft, heartwarming center.

The movie, about a high school teacher who fights in mixed martial arts bouts to raise money, has a slightly amateurish feel to it and swings wild on a lot of its storytelling punches. But it connects when it counts.

A number of observers have pointed out that "Boom" is essentially a comedic version of last year's "Warrior," in which Joel Edgerton played a teacher who gets back in the ring to earn cash for his family. Scott Voss' motives are in some ways even purer -- he wants to save the job of his pal the music teacher, Marty (Henry Winkler), who faces the axe when the entire music program is threatened with extinction.

Scott was a champion wrestler in college, but that was 20 years ago and time has taken its toll not just on his body but his soul. A former Teacher of the Year a decade ago, the biology instructor is barely phoning it in, showing up late and reading the newspaper while his kids chatter among themselves.

Malia (played by Filipino songstress Charice) is the smart girl in the front row craving for a mentor, but Scott is too wound up in his own cynicism to show any interest. His only act of initiative is continually hitting on the health teacher, Bella (Salma Hayek), whose mouth says no-no but whose eyes say maybe-maybe.

When the evil principal -- are there any good principals in movies anymore? -- threatens to shut down the music program, Scott offers to come up with the $48,000 needed to save it. He doesn't really have any idea how, and his notion of teaching night citizenship classes barely brings in enough to bother.

It does spur an encounter with one of his students, a burly Dutchman named Niko, played by real-life retired MMA fighter Bas Rutten. Niko is a muscle-bound bundle of giddy personality, happily jumping around or singing as the mood strikes him. Rutten can't really act, but he brings a lot of enthusiasm to the role.

Through Niko he gets the idea of getting in the MMA ring, despite a total lack of experience. His first bout goes badly, getting knocked out by a kick within the first two seconds. But he learns to play defense, with the goal of losing but not getting hurt. The money starts piling up.

Then a funny thing happens: Scott gets angry and wins a bout. Astonished by the fact that the winner gets paid twice as much as the loser, he starts really putting himself into training. Now the wins start coming, and before long real-life UFC announcer Joe Rogan comes calling to offer a high-profile fight in Las Vegas.

The usual sideline stuff happens. The principal finds out about the fighting and thinks the involvement with MMA reflects badly on the school. The students pass around YouTube videos of their teacher's most embarrassing fight, but nonetheless start to form some respect for him. In turn Scott begins to actually teach in the classroom, and Bella warms up.

It's scriptwriting 1-2-3, with all the pieces falling together in seemingly preordained order. James co-write the screenplay with Rock Reuben and Allan Loeb, while James' frequent co-conspirator Frank Coraci directs.

The fight scenes are well-staged and occasionally thrilling, as Scott loses his green luster and actually starts to show some confidence in the ring. As an MMA brawler James is not unconvincing -- his torso is thick but not jiggly, and he has a powerful chest and shoulders. Even though he's a funnyman, it helps that he actually can appear a little intimidating.

"Here Comes the Boom" -- the title is based on a song by the heavy metal band P.O.D. that Scott plays on his walks from the locker room to the ring -- will not be confused with quality filmmaking. It's often ham-handed and obvious. But Kevin James is an amiable screen presence, and this movie seems infused with his spirit.

Sometimes it's better to be liked than respected.

2.5 stars out of four

Review: "Argo"

"Argo" is not a deep movie, but it is an extraordinarily well-crafted one. It's a political thriller in which we go in knowing the outcome, but the film continually surprises us and keeps us dancing on a razor's edge of suspense.

After "Gone Baby Gone," "The Town" and this film, director/star Ben Affleck has established himself as a serious artist behind the camera -- a weighty counterpart to the flighty star-making roles of his youth and tabloid twisting of his personal life. His direction is subtle yet impactful, touching the audience's emotions without seeming like he's trying to wow us.

Everyone knows the story of the 1979 uprising in Iran that deposed the U.S.-installed despotic shah in favor of a Muslim theocracy. The American embassy was overrun and dozens of diplomats held hostage for 444 days, being released on the day of the inauguration of Ronald Reagan (whom the Iranians feared would turn their country into a parking lot).

A largely forgotten footnote is that a half-dozen diplomats escaped the embassy and hid out in the home of the Canadian ambassador. They were smuggled out in January 1980 by the CIA, which concocted a convoluted and seemingly ludicrous cover story.

To wit: the American spies faked the commissioning of a science fiction adventure movie titled "Argo" -- such cheap knockoffs of "Star Wars" were not uncommon in those days -- even going so far as to option an existing screenplay, hire some veteran Hollywood figures as faux producers and stage a media event to announce their plan to shoot in Iran.

Then Tony Mendez (Affleck), the agency's top "exfil" man, would fly into Tehran, meet with the Iranian culture ministers, and fly out with the ambassador's "houseguests" posing as a Canadian film crew.

Even Mendez himself, a laconic sort not given to hyperbole or excessive speech, acknowledges that it's a long shot. But it beats the other plans on the table: having the diplomats ride bicycles 300 miles to the border, or pose as agricultural officials come to help the local farmers grow crops -- in the dead of winter.

"This is the best bad idea we have," Mendez' boss (Bryan Cranston) announces to the top brass.

The story segues into a fun 'n' games section, where John Goodman and Alan Arkin play showbiz old-timers who are just cynical enough about moviemaking to sign on. Goodman's character, John Chambers, was a real Oscar-winning makeup artist -- he did Spock's ears on "Star Trek" and the gorilla masks on "Planet of the Apes" -- who also helped out the CIA from time to time by disguising spies.

Arkin's character is a composite, but he gets some of the movie's best lines. "John Wayne's in the ground six months, and this is what's left of America," he snorts while watching TV footage of the American hostages.

Screenwriter Chris Terrio, adapting Mendez' book about the operation, shuttles back and forth between the action taking place in Tehran, Washington D.C. and Hollywood, building tension block by block. Especially effective is the cross-cutting between two press conferences, one in which the producers announce the production of "Argo" and the other where the revolutionaries spew vitriol, labeling all of the diplomatic staffers spies. (In fact, only three were.)

Also compelling is the painstaking reconstruction of secret documents that were shredded in the moments before the embassy fell, which are stitched together piece by piece by a small army of Iranian children and female weavers. We watch as these papers, including photographs of the missing diplomats, are slowly reconstituted, and it serves as the sands of an hourglass counting down the time they have left before discovery.

"Argo" is visually arresting, both for cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto's washed-out colors and the grooming styles of the Americans. It's a litany of Cheetos mustaches, huge owlish eyeglasses and bowl haircuts that would seem like exaggeration -- until we see photos of the actual people during the end credits and discover the resemblance is spot-on.

Everything in "Argo" fits together with clockwork precision; there is not a second of flab in its two-hour running time. The award season's first lock for a Best Picture Oscar nomination has announced itself.

3.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Video review: "Prometheus"

Narratively speaking "Prometheus," director Ridley Scott's long-awaited prequel to his seminal 1979 space/horror film "Alien," is one big mess. But it's still a worthy cinematic experience, a potpourri of Scott's flair for sumptuous visuals and sly, creepy mood-building.

Set some decades before Ripley and her gang encountered the black and spidery beasties, Scott and his screenwriters take us back to those same dangerous locales and unnerving themes. The protagonist is again a female, archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), who thinks she's found an invitation from the creators of all life. It turns out to be more of a deathtrap, as the crew is slowly dwindled one by one.

Along for the ride is Charlize Theron as a hardcase representative of the profit-minded company financing the mission, the usual collection of disposable crewmates, and an android assistant named David (Michael Fassbender) who, like all of his ilk, turns out to be less helpful than his cheery nature might suggest.

Things really get strange when they discover a massive alien ship filled with vials of black goo, video records of an accident killing most of the crew, and a 10-foot-tall bald humanoid with a seriously bad attitude. At one point Elizabeth finds herself with an alien creature growing inside her, though in a different method than we've seen in the other movies, and has to submit herself to a horrifically invasive medical procedure to get it out.

The experience of watching this film is akin to wandering in a daze, as you find yourself constantly asking questions, and receiving responses that only provoke more questions. But even if the movie is on some levels unsatisfying, that's because it leaves you wanting more.

"Prometheus" is a real head-scratcher, a riddle of a movie that doesn't really care about finding any answers. The odd, discomfiting journey is its own reward.

Ridley Scott is (in)famous for releasing director's cuts of his movies, but if you want one you'll likely have to wait a few years. Although the video packages being released now contain about 15 minutes worth of deleted/extended scenes, including a new opening and ending, the theatrical version of "Prometheus" is all you'll get.

Interestingly, the film is only being released as a Blu-ray/DVD combination -- there isn't an option for a solo DVD.

The two-disc version comes nicely loaded with features, including two separate commentary tracks by the filmmakers and access (via tablet computer) to a database on the alien culture.

Spring for the four-disc collection, and you'll also receive all sorts of making-of goodies, including pre-visualization drawings and videos, behind-the-scenes peeks and more.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 2.5 stars

Monday, October 8, 2012

Reeling Backward: "The Long Riders" (1980)

I had always taken "The Long Riders" to be an overstuffed bit of Hollywood hooey, a sensationalized account of outlaw Jesse James and his gang that, in terms of historical fidelity, landed just this side of "Young Guns."

Turns out it's actually truer to the facts than most Western tales of its ilk.

It certainly has a gimmicky feel, what with the unprecedented in Hollywood history casting of three sets of real-life brothers to play siblings and members of the James-Younger Gang -- the Keaches (James and Stacy) as the Jameses, the Carradines (David, Keith and Robert) as the Youngers and the Quaids (Randy and Dennis) as the Millers.

Actually, four: Christopher Guest and Nicholas Guest have small turns (basically three scenes) as Charlie and Bob Ford, wannabe members of the gang who eventually were allowed by Jesse to join -- after everyone else had quit, been killed or imprisoned.

The Fords, of course, were the ones who betrayed and murdered Jesse James, with Bob shooting him in the back of the head while James was unarmed and had his back turned. This scene is depicted in "The Long Riders" in a curiously flat way, with little visceral impact. It feels more like a tacked-on coda than an essential part of the story.

Narratively, the film seems smaller than its story. At a mere 99 minutes, the movie has to cover a lot of plot spread out over a number of years, with various members of the gangs romancing and marrying women in between robbing banks and trains. Each romantic relationship is essentially given one or two scenes in a fleeting attempt to lend them weight.

The only pairing of any impact is between Cole Younger (David Carradine), who puts on an air of studied nonchalance, and Belle (Pamela Reed), a worldly prostitute who wants him to make an honest woman of her. He's content to let them have their fun whenever their paths cross, and have nothing tying him down. He tells Belle he loves her specifically because she's a whore.

In one of the film's most memorable scenes, she marries a half-Indian named Sam Starr and forces the men to fight over her with cruel-looking oversized knives. Cole wins the duel but abandons Belle in disgust at having to prove himself to her.

This story thread is notable in that, as near as I can determine, it is the only part of "The Long Riders" that is a pure Hollywood concoction. Despite its highly stylized texture, the movie is actually pretty faithful to the  historical facts.

I should amend that to say it is faithful to the general narrative of recorded history, though it alters or muddies some details. For example, an 18-year-old brother of the Youngers, John, is killed in a chance meeting with some agents, and it's depicted as a terrible crime because Jim (Keith Carradine) asserts that his kid brother never rode with the gang or committed any crime. In fact, John did do some robbing with them.

Similarly, the battle with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which has been hired to track them down, escalates to tragic heights when the lawmen throw a smoke bomb into the Younger matron's house and it explodes, killing their 15-year-old half-brother. The boy was killed, but he was really only nine years old. Not depicted is that the Youngers' mother was also injured in the attack and had to have her arm amputated.

In that age, I would think that chivalrous Southern gentlemen (at least in their minds) would be more riled about their mother being attacked and maimed than anything else. These changes actually serve to make the assault seem less outrageous than it really was.

Stacy and James Keach made this film as a labor of love, producing and co-writing the screenplay along with Bill Bryden and Steven Smith. James has an intriguing take on Jesse James, playing him as a preternaturally serene leader who sees himself as smarter and more important than the members of his gang.

James Keach later segued away from acting and turned more to directing and producing. Johnny Cash and his wife June were so taken with "The Long Riders" that they befriended Keach, and asked him to produce their biopic "Walk the Line."

I hadn't seen "The Long Riders" in at least 20 years. Despite the film's storytelling flaws, I found myself still admiring it on several levels.

The performances throughout have a terse, organic authenticity -- we never feel like the actors are trying to impersonate a historical identity, but use it as a springboard to draw their own characters. For example, I enjoyed the simmering tension that exists between the Jameses and Youngers, erupting at the worst of times.

"The Jameses ride with the Youngers," one of the latter insists, annoyed by references to the Youngers being part of the Jesse James outfit.

There's also a nice quiet scene aboard a train -- for once, they are traveling inside as passengers rather than riding up on horses outside to rob it -- where Cole confides to Frank that he hopes one day to write a book about his memoirs. Frank scoffs at this idea. This is a nod to Cole's actual later life, where he spent more than 20 years in prison and started a respected newspaper for the inmates. He eventually won parole and spent his final days starring in a wild west show with Frank.

The James-Younger Gang effectively met its end with an ill-advised raid on a bank on Northfield, Minn. Why the former Civil War bushwackers, who confined nearly all their felonious activity to Missouri and surrounding states, decided to travel hundreds of miles north to knock over a bank is unclear.

Things go awry -- the film implies the townsfolk knew they were coming and set a trap for them -- and the outlaws are caught in the street and torn to pieces. Though none of the Jameses or Youngers are actually killed in the conflict, their wounds are missive. I vividly remember Keith Carrradine getting shot through the face, a bullet going in one cheek and exploding out the other. Cole famously was shot 11 times, which the prison doctor dubs a record, but one of dubious distinction.

The town of Northfield still celebrates the bloody event with an annual reenactment -- much the same way my former home of Ocklawaha, Fla., reenacts the Ma Barker shootout every year.

I think three things make "The Long Riders" a noteworthy film, or rather three people: director Walter Hill, cinematographer Ric Waite and composer Ry Cooder.

Hill's staging of the violence has a horrifying sort of loveliness. He often resorts to fetishistic slo-mo to capture the impact of bullets ripping through the characters' flesh, or bodies hurtling through the air after impact. The excellent action scenes are aided by Waite's elegiac camera work, which juxtaposes moments of cringe-inducing violence with poetic compositions.

Both filmmakers seem enraptured by the long gray duster coats the gang always wear. This, along with their lack of masks and penchant for calling each other by their real names, often and loudly, makes one wonder why it took the Pinkertons so long to find them.

Cooder's old-timey musical score, mixed with actual songs from the era performed at weddings and saloons, is positively a delight to listen to. It's more at the forefront than most music in movies.

"The Long Riders" is more or less a forgotten Western, made during the artistic valley of the genre between 1969 and 1991, when "Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid" and "The Wild Bunch" made the format seem anachronistic, and Clint Eastwood breathed it back to life with "Unforgiven."

Though hardly deserving to be counted among those films' numbers, it's certainly more memorable than its non-existent reputation suggests.

3 stars out of four

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Review: "Frankenweenie"

"Frankenweenie" is another repackaging of previously used material from Tim Burton, but its dazzling black-and-white stop-motion animation and sweet tone -- despite the creepy horror film undertones -- wins the day.

This movie is a remake of Burton's own live-action short film from 1984 that launched his career: misfit boy heartbroken over the death of his dog reanimates the pooch using mad-scientist methods. But Burton and screenwriter John August use this concept merely as a launching pad to deliver an homage to classic horror film tropes, especially the Universal menagerie of creature features.

I really loved how the entire cast of characters, even the supposed "normals" like Victor Frankenstein's mom and dad, seem a little sinister and hollow around the eyes. Victor himself (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is a slightly morose loner who likes to tinker with making movies (stop-motion, of course) and experimenting in his suburban family attic.

Things get especially good when we get to Victor's classmates, every one of whom looks like they stepped out of a classic horror flick.

There's the blonde girl with the spaced expression who seems to be straight from "Village of the Damned," the tall kid with the Frankenstein monster's shoulders and Peter Lorre's lisp, and so on.

Best of all is Edgar E. Gore (get it?), a humpbacked kid with a three-tooth overbite from hell.

Deliciously voiced by Atticus Shaffer, Edgar acts as Victor's toadying sidekick-turned-blackmailer, demanding that Victor teach him the secret to pet resurrection. Of course, he spills the beans to other kids and soon all sorts of terrifying creatures are besieging the town of New Holland.

The inside joke is that, other than Victor, the children aren't doing this because of their love of knowledge or the desire to get their critter companions back. No, they're all out to win the prize at the Science Fair.

"They like what science gives them, but not the questions that science asks," laments Victor's condescending-but-wise teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), who resembles Vincent Price and comes from a vague Eastern European country where, he says, even his plumber has a Nobel Prize.

Victor is the only one with pure motives. He absolutely adores Sparky, a scrappy little mongrel who resembles a Jack Russell Terrier interbred with a throw pillow. Alas, Sparky wanders into traffic and is smushed. When Victor witnesses Mr. Rzykruski use electricity to stimulate the muscles of a dead frog, it's not long before he's brought back Sparky in zombie form.

Sparky doesn't realize he's undead, though the fact that his tail or ear keeps falling off might serve as a hint. He's criss-crossed by stitches and has two metal bolts sticking out of his neck -- which Victor uses to "recharge" him from time to time -- but is more or less the same joyful pup.

The film takes almost an hour to really get going, but by the time the town carnival is being assaulted by giant reptiles and a mummy gerbil, it's a genuine hoot.

Despite the tame PG rating, I wouldn't recommend "Frankenweenie" for very small children, who might find the dead pets and scary moments a bit too much.

The great cast is rounded out by Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara, each of whom voice several characters, and old Burton standby Winona Ryder as the Goth girl next door.

"Frankenweenie" is an amalgam of previous stories and themes Tim Burton has been churning out for nearly three decades now. Even if, like Sparky, it's not exactly fresh anymore, there's still some juice in there.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Video review: "Dark Shadows"

The long, painful decline of Tim Burton from one of America's freshest filmmaking voices to hack-for-hire director has been going on for over a decade now. Other than the occasional, fleeting return to a semblance of his former form -- "Big Fish," "Corpse Bride" -- he's mostly spent his time remaking musty intellectual properties like "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Alice in Wonderland."

Sad to say, but audiences have happily followed him down the rabbit hole of mediocrity. His recent films have made exponentially more money than his previous, more personal work.

That is, until "Dark Shadows." With this remake of the cult favorite TV show from the 1960s, audiences couldn't wrap their heads around Johnny Depp as a fish-pale vampire awoken during the 1970s and forced to co-exist with his less-than-groovy descendants (Michelle Pfeiffer and Chloë Grace Moretz among them).

Meanwhile, he must renew his battle with the witch (Eva Green) who imprisoned him long ago out of a twisted sense of love.

Gothic themes and macabre elements have always been part and parcel of the Burton package. But here it often seems like he and Depp are making a strange movie just for the sake of being strange.

The result is a curiously flat affair, not particularly scary and even less funny.

Here's hoping Burton's next movie -- yet another remake, but at least of his own short film "Frankenweenie" -- will fly higher. If not, it's time to put a stake through the heart of his career.

Video extras are a barely a step above so-so, and virtually non-existent of you don't spring for the Blu-ray edition. The DVD comes with only a single feature, a making-of featurette about the cast and their characters.

Go for the Blu-ray and you'll get eight more featurettes, focusing on such topics as the town of Collinsport, the extensive makeup process to turn the winsome Depp into a creepy bloodsucker, recapturing the fashion and music of the '70s and the film's special effects.

You also get six deleted scenes.

Movie: 2 stars out of four
Extras: 2.5 stars

Monday, October 1, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Tokyo Story" (1953)

"Isn't life disappointing?"
"Yes, it is."
So goes the most pivotal exchange in Yasujirō Ozu's masterpiece "Tokyo Story," and indeed the only real exchange of consequence. It's a morality tale, writ large ... or more specifically, writ long. And ... slowly.

Whatever else you want to say about the filmmaker many observers consider Japan's greatest ever, Ozu certainly...       ...is very....                           ...deliberate...                                       ...about his...                                                      ...pacing.

I sought out "Tokyo Story" because it's consistently been ranked on those surveys by movie critics of the best films of all time. In fact, recently there was much hubbub when Sight and Sound magazine came out with its new rankings and "Vertigo" had displayed "Citizen Kane" after its long run at the top of the perch.

Less ballyhooed was that "Tokyo Story" had moved into third place on the critcs' list. And indeed, in an accompanying survey of film directors, Ozu's film claimed the #1 spot.

The best movie ever made, according to a group of esteemed directors? This I had to see!

Now I'm left playing the heretic. I found this movie to be a tremendous letdown. It's less a story than a tone poem, a morality lesson brought to life -- and then smothered under the weight of 135 minutes of turgid storytelling.

Actually, I'm not sure if storytelling is even the right word to use in regard to "Tokyo Story." I don't think Ozu's trying to tell a story here so march as impart some wisdom through a rigid prism of his own creation. The characters, the dialogue, the cinematography are all geared toward broadcasting a message about life's bitter disappointments.

In some ways, it's like kabuki theater, without the makeup and dancing. The characters do a form of dance, but through their mannerisms and the veiled meanings of their seemingly benign words. They smile almost constantly and use polite language, even as they're using it to demonstrate how little regard they have for each other.

The plot is quite simple. A Japanese couple in their late 60s (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) journey from their remote, backward village to visit their adult children in the big city. Their eldest son (So Yamamura), a doctor, and daughter (Haruko Sugimura), who runs a beauty salon, are busy with their own lives and can barely afford to spend any time with them.

They shuttle their parents back and forth between their homes, until finally shipping them off to a seaside spa. Ostensibly this is for the parents' relaxation, but really it's to get the old couple out of their hair. The oldsters cut their visit short and return home, where the mother soon dies. The children, including their other son, a train worker, depart soon after the funeral -- though the daughter first demands some of her mother's things as keepsakes.

Throughout it all, the old couple demonstrate forbearance and acceptance of how shabbily they are being treated, though in quieter moments they acknowledge that few parents are ever completely satisfied with how their children turn out.

Ironically, the only person who shows them genuine kindness and affection is their widowed daughter-in-law (Setsuko Hara). Since the death of her husband in the war, she lives in a poor apartment building mired in lonelinesss, but gladly takes her in-laws on a sightseeing tour around Tokyo, taking a day off work to do so. In the end, the daughter-in-law is proved to be more of a true child to the old couple than their harried natural offspring.

The film does boast a naturalistic sort of beauty. Ozu shoots in a very formal way, with nearly all the shots inside the tiny cramped interiors of the Japanese  homes. Lacking furniture in the Western sense, Ozu positions his camera low to the ground in the center of every room, and has his characters assemble themselves in front of it.

He mixes these static shots with straight-ahead closeups of the people speaking directly into the camera, as if addressing the person they're talking to.

It's a languid, languid affair. I found my mind wandering often while watching the film, and even letting my finger waver over the fast-forward button. (I resisted.)

I'm not going to spend the rest of this column berating "Tokyo Story" for being so dull, or defending why I veer so sharply away from the critics and filmmakers who so admire it. Rather, I'll talk about the nature of art.

Can good art be boring? I don't think so. Art can enrapture us, leave us bedazzled, shock us, disgust us, perplex us and challenge us. These are all legitimate functions of art. But the one thing that marks art as a failure is when it simply fails to engage us.

One of the smartest people I ever met on the subject of art is Maxwell Anderson, late the director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. He often spoke of patrons having "an encounter with art," and I think that best sums up the relationship between people and works of creation. We go into an encounter with art not knowing what we are going to get out of it -- but we hope it will be something notable.

I was completely disengaged in the watching of "Tokyo Story." Even as I recognized its unadorned cinematic beauty and the message Ozu was trying to convey, I felt like I was being lectured rather than spoken to. This film feels like it was made by the director for himself rather than any hypothetical audience. We are bystanders rather than participants in its craft.

Andy Warhol famously made a pair of films, "Sleep" and "Empire," that consisted entirely of static shots of a man sleeping and the Empire State Building, for six hours and eight hours, respectively. With these intentionally unwatchable films, Warhol was trying to make a statement about ... what? I think Warhol was engaging with his own sensibilities and playfulness rather than trying to enlighten or entertain an audience. Indeed, his epic snooze-fests only approach the audience with a notion to antagonize them.

I don't think Ozu was trying to punish his audience; I don't think he was thinking about them at all when he made his movie. He was trying to satisfy his own internal compass as an artist. That's commendable, but it doesn't necessarily mean the movies he makes are worthwhile.

I read some observer who wrote that those who find "Tokyo Story" dull simply aren't looking deeply enough to marvel at its internal working parts. I think I have glimpsed the interior of Ozu's supposed masterwork -- there just isn't much going on.

2 stars out of four