Tuesday, July 30, 2013
If you suffered through "The Smurfs," an un-entertaining combination of live action actors paired with CG-spawned little blue guys, then the sequel won't hold any surprises. There's lots of goofy slapstick, some kid-friendly gastrointestinal jokes, talking critters and a few sugary life lesson moments.
Hank Azaria, playing the evil wizard Gargamel, is once again the best thing about the movie, supplying a gleefully over-the-top performance that's more cartoonish than the smurfs themselves. Gargamel wants to extract the "smurf essence" from their bodies to fuel his plans to dominate the real world after being zapped there from the smurf universe in the last flick.
The joke is that since his banishment, Gargamel has become a world-famous magician, whose shows of fantastical illusions -- turning audience members into toads and whatnot -- are of course powered by real magic. Part of the fun is that he employs the same sneering, bow-before-me behavior, but audiences lap it up as part of his act.
The main plot is driven by Smurfette (voiced by Katy Perry), the only female, being smurfnapped by Gargamel, who actually created her before wise old Papa Smurf turned her good and blue. Now Gargamel wants Papa Smurf's magic formula.
Smurfette finds herself questioning her past, and chumming up with Vexy and Hackus, two of the gray-hued "Naughties" that the sorcerer has created as follow-ups to her. Vexy (Christina Ricci) is smart and tricky, while Hackus (J.B. Smoove) is brawny and doltish.
Papa Smurf (the late, great Jonathan Winters) intends to rescue Smurfette with his A-team of smurfs in tow, but through a typical smurf-up he ends up bringing Clumsy, Grouchy and Vanity (Anton Yelchin, George Lopez and John Oliver, respectively) instead. Predictable hijinks ensue.
Supplying the totally unnecessary human counterparts are Neil Patrick Harris, Jayma Mays and Brendan Gleeson. Friends of the smurfs from the last movie, they have to go through some paces about accepting others, choosing to be yourself, etc. Frankly, every minute with non-Gargamel people onscreen is deathly boring, though Gleeson getting turned into a duck has its moments.
It's pretty obvious that "The Smurfs 2" is intended for really small children and not grown-ups, which is why I brought my almost-3-year-old along for his take. This is someone who was delighted by the lackluster "The Croods" and "Despicable Me 2." I got a giggle or two out of him, but that's it.
If you won't believe a film critic, take it from a critic's kid: this one's a smurfing waste of time.
If you’ve checked out “Pacific Rim” in local theaters, you might already be familiar with director Guillermo del Toro. He got his start in his native Mexico, then came to Hollywood to make some commercially successful but not particularly good pictures (“Mimic,” “Hellboy”). In 2001, he returned to his native language to make a minor masterpiece, “The Devil’s Backbone.”
This moody, gorgeous horror/drama is now being issued as a Criterion Collection – the gold standard for video releases. It comes with a host of extra goodies, in addition to a sumptuous transfer of the film.
The story is set during the waning days of the Spanish Civil War. A young boy, Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is sent to a remote orphanage where strange things are happening. An unexploded bomb sits buried in the courtyard like a religious totem, and there are rumors of gold hidden somewhere underground, perhaps being used to fund the Republicans.
Carlos is assigned the empty bed that used to belong to Santi, who disappeared mysteriously and whose spirit is still lingering around. Meanwhile Jacinto, a former resident turned groundskeeper, has various swindles and schemes going on.
Rife with symbolism and dark portents, it’s a beautiful and genuinely frightening film, part ghost story and part coming-of-age drama. If you want to see a true representation of del Toro’s prodigious talents, start with “The Devil’s Backbone.”
As is expected with any Criterion Collection, the video includes a raft of exhaustive bonus materials. These include an all-new digital transfer of the film, and a feature-length commentary track and introduction by del Toro.
There is also a making-of documentary, archival interviews, deleted scenes, perspective from a Spanish Civil War expert, storyboards/sketches a new English subtitle translation.
Monday, July 29, 2013
"Broken Arrow" is a product of its time, but attempted to transcend it with a progressive view of American Indians compared to contemporary films. Consider that in 1950, Indians were pretty much always seen onscreen as red-skinned savages brought in to imperil the white heroes. Their lack of individual identities or even basic humanity made them operate much like zombies did in later horror films -- as an existentialist threat.
They were literally the red menace.
Directed by Delmer Daves, the film was written by Albert Maltz (Michael Blankfort received the screen credit since Maltz was blacklisted at the time). Although Jimmy Stewart opens the story with the narration that "everything you see is true," in fact the film is a highly fictionalized version of the events surrounding the peace treaty signed by Apache chief Cochise, based on the novel "Blood Brothers" by Elliott Arnold.
The plot is pretty straightforward. Tom Jeffords (Stewart) is a gold prospector and former Army scout who befriends Cochise during his long war with America. He persuades the great chieftain to refrain from attacking the mail carriers who carry the post through the Arizona territory. This leads to a tenuous armistice and eventually a peace treaty, though renegades on both sides continually work to stoke the fires of war.
The film goes out of its way to present a realistic portrait of the Apache people, from their bloodthirsty reputation as warriors to their strong belief in truth and loyalty, exemplified by Cochise himself. The story opens with Jeffords captured by the Apache for prospecting in their territory, but they let him live because he healed a wounded Apache youth.
However, just as their encounter is about to end, some other prospectors stumble along. Jeffords is gagged and bound, and forced to watch as the Indians decimate the white men. Two survivors are buried in the sand and their faces smeared with fruit juice to attract ants. Though the actual depiction of the torture is oblique, even the description is horrifying. However, the Apaches did not act without cause -- scalps of their tribe mates were found in the prospectors' saddlebags.
This sequence sets the tone for Jeffords' early encounters with Cochise, who is a hard man but a fair one. He's played by Jeff Chandler in an oustanding performance that earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. (Blankfort/Maltz and cinematography Ernest Palmer also earned nods from the Academy).
Chandler was a Jewish-American with dark, brooding good looks that lent him to ethnically exotic roles, much like Anthony Quinn. Giving the lead role to a Caucasian is somewhat ameliorated by the fact that most of the other Indian characters in the movie were portrayed by actual Apaches recruited from nearby reservations.
Jay Silverheels, a Canadian Mohawk best known for playing Tonto on television's "The Lone Ranger," has a brief but powerful appearance as rebel chief Geronimo, who defies Cochise's breaking of the arrow, signifying peace with the white man.
I should note, however, that the real Cochise was nearly 70 during the events depicted in the movie, while Chandler was barely into his 30s. Cochise died (of natural causes) not long after the signing of the peace treaty, which -- like most of the promises made by the U.S. government to native peoples -- proved to be fleeting.
The film suffers from an ill-advised (and historically bogus) romance between Jeffords and Apache maiden Sonseeahray (played by Debra Paget, another dusky-skinned Caucasian). Their courtship and marriage ends up dominating the entire middle of the film, and her death, though tragically portrayed, feels inevitable and cheap.
"Broken Arrow" ends rather abruptly, with Jeffords wandering off into the mountain country, heartbroken but filled with resolve that his wife's murder "put a seal upon the peace."
Of course, nothing of the sort happened. In real life, Jeffords became the Indian agent for the territory, though he was later removed from his position via a political campaign by his enemies. He rambled around, working as a stagecoach driver, lawman and prospector.
I don't mind the historical inaccuracies of "Broken Arrow," but the love affair feels like it was dreamed up in the office of a studio chief, worried about the story not having enough appeal for women moviegoers. The friendship between Cochise and Jeffords, and their attempt to forge a peace neither of their peoples wanted, is strong enough storytelling material to not need the addition of grautious smooching.
Thursday, July 25, 2013
I wish Aubrey Plaza had made this movie a few years ago when she was just starting out as the acerbic April on TV's "Parks and Recreation." It's a classic transitionary role perfect for a new star, playing a high school goody-goody on a mission to lose her virginity before college.
When you're 23 or 24 playing 17 or 18 is a stretch, but still doable. Plaza is 29, so when they put her in the right clothes and makeup she looks exactly like ... someone pushing 30 playing a teen.
I also wish "The To Do List" was just plain better than it is.
It's part of the chicks-can-do-raunch-too movement, of which I am fully supportive. Comediennes have grown tired of their male counterparts eating up all the sex-and-cursing bandwidth, and have launched their own front with "Bridesmaids" and the like.
Written and directed by Maggie Carey, "List" certainly doesn't shy away from the dirty talk, though depictions of sex acts are more coy than flagrant.
The setup is that class of '93 valedictorian Brandy Klark is a total grind who's deliberately ignorant of even the basics of sex. Sister Amber (Rachel Bilson) is a party girl and her parents (Clark Gregg and Connie Britton) are pretty buttoned up, so she determines to achieve her deflowering before summer's end, as sort of a rite-of-passage meets science project.
Brandy being the methodical brainy sort, she researches sex acts and makes a comprehensive list of everything she wants to do. We've seen gosh knows how many sex comedies in which young lads determine to lose their cherry. But Brandy's list looks more like the chapter titles on a porn DVD.
She even has her sights set on the ultimate prize: going all the way with Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), a dude-ish older guy who works at the same pool where she does during the summer. Meanwhile, waiting in the wings is Cameron (Johnny Simmons), a nerdy classmate and longtime pal who'd like to be more than the warm-up act for Rusty.
Bill Hader plays Willy, the slacker pool manager who's both her boss and chief teaser; Andy Samberg is a rocker and potential checkmark on Brandy's list; Donald Glover and Christopher Mintz-Plasse play hangers-on and hopefuls.
The primary other relationships in the story are with Brandy's best buds, Wendy (Sarah Steele) and Fiona (Alia Shawkat). I liked the foul-mouthed repartee between the trio, which combines hardcore sex talk with a certain sweetness. They all call each other "Pancake" while discussing the intimate details of their sexual encounters.
The main problem with "The To Do List" is that it's structured like a series of skits rather than a cohesive narrative. The characters are merely props for the jokes. Plaza tries hard to find the neurotic center of Brandy, but it's tough when the script calls for her to be brazen one minute and a wallflower the next.
There are some individually funny scenes and throwaway jokes -- make sure to check out the graffiti that gets sprayed all over the pool house by a rival gang. And there's one instant classic bit where Plaza pulls off a water joke that's ... well, let's just call it a reverse "Caddyshack."
I think Aubrey Plaza has serious potential as a comedic lead actress, but this movie feels like a stumble. If you want to see her in something infinitely more clever and less bawdy, check out last year's "Safety Not Guaranteed." That little-seen gem should be on everyone's to-do list.
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
There are plenty of dumb movies, a few smart movies, and even fewer too-smart movies. “Trance” is one of the latter.
This twisty psychological thriller from director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) is full of fake-outs and never-minds. The film spends so much time fooling the audience, it forgets to really engage us or make us care about the people we’re watching.
The trio of main characters end up as chess pieces, moved around for the convenience of the plot.
James McAvoy plays Simon, an art auctioneer who gets beaten into a coma during the botched robbery of a famous, valuable painting. He wakes up with amnesia about the event, which doesn’t sit well with Franck (Vincent Cassel), the dogged head thief. He and his goons pay Simon a visit and put the squeeze on him.
Turns out Simon was in cahoots with them all along, but now he can’t remember where he stashed the painting. They turn to Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), a psychiatrist and hypnotist, to help him pore through his memories for a clue.
This unlocks all sorts of strange stuff going on in the mind of Simon, who may not be the mild-mannered schlub he appears to be. Soon there’s a love triangle and a three-way competition for the loot in the offing.
Boyle’s visual style is hyperkinetic and gorgeous. But you’ll probably end up feeling more dizzy than entertained.
Bonus features are sumptuous. They include deleted scenes and a “Trance Unraveled” easter egg. Plus a making-of documentary and several featurettes on hypnotherapy, the film’s distinct visual look, a final script rewrite and other topics.
The Blu-ray also has a retrospective of Boyle’s movies and “Eugene,” a short comedic film by Spencer Susser.
Monday, July 22, 2013
Made nearly three decades after the events it depicted, "Battle of Britain" is an exercise in deliberate hagiography. It's a British movie extolling the heroism and and strategic thinking of their own kind during the summer and fall of 1940, when the over-matched Royal Air Force stopped Hitler's planned land invasion of the U.K. long before it even got started.
It's a big-budget spectacle with an all-star cast, including Michael Caine, Laurence Olivier, Trevor Howard, Christopher Plummer, Susannah York, Robert Shaw, Ralph Richardson and Edward Fox. A young Ian McShane even turns up as a novice pilot with a family of young children who are imperiled during the London bombings.
The cast is distinctly subservient to the aircraft, however, with very few characters getting any sort of development. Pretty much the lone exception is Plummer as a Canadian pilot married to a British section officer. He needles her to ask for a transfer so they can be nearer, but bound by a sense of duty, she puts him off.
It's notable that York wears a short pouffy bob haircut and modern makeup, resulting in a look that transposes 1969 for 1940. She could easily be one of Austin Powers' flower-power girls via a quick wardrobe change.
Director Guy Hamilton and screenwriters James Kennaway and Wilfred Greatorex (working from the book "The Narrow Margin" by Derek Dempster and Derek Wood) approached the material with the apparent goal of making the most historically accurate account possible. Much of their efforts went toward recreating the airborne battles, gathering together a sizable air force of actual WWII craft, or close approximations.
They also used a large number of realistic replicas, both life-size ones on the ground and flying models. The special effects are decent enough for 1969, although it isn't too hard to detect the shifts between real and replica aircraft.
Explosions on the ground look too much like rigged effects -- such as how a lone airplane on the ground will be hit dead-on by a single bomb, with no other explosives landing nearby. That's simply not how cluster bombing of that era worked; that tactic involved hordes of bombs being dropped at once, hoping a small percentage would detonate on target.
They also employ not-very-special effects for the flying explosions, which appear to have been hand-drawn directly onto the celluloid. The result looks something like when you successfully hit your target in an early 1980s arcade game.
Coming out a year after "2001: A Spacey Odyssey" and only eight years before "Star Wars," the effects in "Battle of Britain" were already anachronistic.
The film is mostly fair to the German side, though the lack of comparable Teutonic stars as counterparts to the English ones belies the notion of a truly balanced depiction. But we get to see how the cockiness of both sides' pilots soon crumbles into fatigue and despair.
The movie does illustrate how the tides of war, and even human history, can be changed by the smallest of events.
Hitler had expressly decreed that London was not to be bombed, with the Luftwaffe instead concentrating on wiping out the British airfields along the coasts. But during a run a German Heinkel bomber goes off-course, and the pilot decides to dump their payload before heading back. In retaliation for some minor damage near the outskirts of London, the Allies organize a bombing run of their own on Berlin -- something the leaders of the Third Reich had vowed would never happen.
Vexed, Hitler and company shifted the focus of their airborne attacks from the airfields to the British capital. This resulted in terrible loss of life -- but it also gave the RAF a chance to recover sufficiently to start mounting a serious air defense. Most historians regard this blunder as a turning point in the war.
At the start of the movie, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding (Olivier) had unctuously predicted that they would have to inflict losses on the German attackers in the neighborhood of 4 to 1 to have any hope of winning the air battle. Eventually, the German losses indeed became too high, and the plan to invade Great Britain was scrapped.
I think "Battle of Britain" is one of those movies that recedes as time goes by, rather than its reputation swelling. Seen now, it's an often dull litany of aerial sequences interrupted by talkie exchanges of dialogue on the ground with little impact. The film's only real enduring legacy is the fact that its aerial footage was reused many, many times in other cinematic portrayals -- including "Midway" and "Hope and Glory."
Part of this had to do with the considerable skill with which those sequences were shot (minus the hokey fake explosions). But also with the fact that the airplanes used in 1969 simply weren't available later on.
A serviceable if unremarkable WWII war film, "Battle of Britain" exists mostly as a marker of great deeds rather than truly capturing them.
Thursday, July 18, 2013
"The Conjuring" dredges up nearly every trope of the exorcism subgenre of horror, and faithfully puts its characters and the audience through the paces. It doesn't do much of anything that we haven't seen before, but what it does it does mostly well.
Director James Wan gained notoriety with "Saw," kicking off the (thankfully) now-waning "torture porn" fad. Here he turns to more cerebral frights, based on building a sense of dread mixed with sudden scares. The first half really drags, but once they get to the hard stuff of demonic possessions and thrashing exorcisms, it's a genuine thrill.
(I should point out that the R rating from the MPAA seems hard to justify. There is no cursing, sex or drugs, and though there is a constant threat of violence, very little of it actually occurs. "Overly forbidding" wouldn't seem to be part of the association's charter, but there you have it.)
Usually with these sorts of movies, the focus is on the family plagued with an ominous spirit, and the paranormal experts show up about halfway through. Here, the demonologists are just as much a part of the story as the haunted.
Like many movies of this ilk, we're assured that the events we're seeing are based on a true story. Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) were real-life occult investigators, who tried for decades to get a movie made about themselves. The idea is that although they have a really strange job, the Warrens are perfectly normal folks with a strong marriage, Christian values and a loving daughter.
We get to see them presenting film and audiotapes of their disturbing cases on college campuses, and it's pretty eye-opening stuff. One possessed man has bloody tears and speaks Latin, despite having only a third-grade education. Of course, what they encounter in the movie is far worse than anything they've seen before.
Parallel to the Warrens' story is the Perrons, Carolyn and Roger (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston). It's 1971 and they have just bought an old farmhouse cheap at auction to live with their five daughters, ranging in age from cute little pixie to surly teen. The house seems like a dream come true until, as they say, strange things star to happen.
Things go bump without explanation, clocks stop at precisely 3:07 a.m. every night, and the younger girls start to see things looming in dark spaces. They bust through a boarded-up stairwell and find a basement loaded with all sorts of cool stuff that just screams, "Evil spirits residing here!"
The strength of the film is depicting the Warrens as careful, rational people with lives outside their demon-hunting. For instance, Lorraine is a clairvoyant, meaning she can get a sense of the spiritual aura of things and people just by being near them. But their ghostly encounters each cost her a little piece of her own emotional stability.
Farmiga brings a matter-of-fact calm to her role, an unflashy sort of competence and groundedness that offsets nicely with her character's supernatural talents. The kid actors all acquit themselves nicely, particularly Joey King as the initial target of the spirit's ire.
I respected the craft with which "The Conjuring" was made, and its attempt to insert a little sober rationality into a familiar ghost story. It won't haunt your dreams, but this film will creep you out sufficiently for a couple of hours.
Wednesday, July 17, 2013
Is there anything tougher than being a socially awkward 14-year-old? How about having your parents recently divorced, too? And being dragged off to an unwanted summer vacation with your mom’s vaguely hostile new boyfriend?
That’s the premise of “The Way, Way Back,” the insightful and charming new comedy-drama in the mode of “Little Miss Sunshine,” which also reunites two of its key stars, Steve Carell and Toni Collette.
That’s where the similarities end. Here Carell plays the jerk, Trent -- has there ever been a redeeming movie character named Trent? – who’s dating Pam (Collette), mother of Duncan (Liam James).
Trent is a real piece of work. A car salesman, he drives a beautifully refurbished 1970 Buick Estate Wagon, which as someone points out shows really poor taste in cars. Who puts their energy and money into restoring a vehicle that was considered uncool even when it was brand new?
Trent rides Duncan like a cruel jockey whipping a tired quarter horse. When we first meet them, Trent is demanding that Duncan rate himself on a scale of one to 10. After browbeating a “6” out of the hapless lad, Trent offers his own rating of “3,” saying he doesn’t see much effort from the introverted teen.
“Let’s try to get that score up, huh?” Trent concludes, thinking this is encouragement.
Pam is kind-hearted and loving, but is stuck between her excitement at new romance and wanting to protect her son. She soon gets lost in the whirlwind of drinking, dancing and clam bakes that consumes the adults on the unnamed coastal town where they spend the summer.
Other attendees in the ongoing party include Betty (Allison Janney), Trent’s boozy next-door divorcee, and married pals Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet). As Betty’s smart, winsome daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) points out, these summer vacations are like “spring break for adults.”
(No attempt is ever made to explain how these people don’t have to work for weeks and months at a time.)
Trend has his own kid, a snobby girl named Steph (Zoe Levin) who’s a few years older than Duncan and wants nothing to do with him, taking him with her when forced to and ditching him as soon as possible. Susanna is also part of that crowd, though she seems none too thrilled about it, reads books instead of gossiping and appears to have an inner life. Perhaps inevitably, Duncan develops a crush on her.
Just when things look like they couldn’t possibly get worse for Duncan, he stumbles across the Water Wizz, a dilapidated water theme park run by a motley crew of fun-loving adults.
(From my childhood memories, water parks are exactly like regular amusement parks in that people will wait in line for 45 minutes for a two-minute ride, with the notable difference being that you’re standing there mostly naked while the sun broils your skin to a nice medium-well.)
Duncan gets recruited by the loquacious manager Owen, who actually lives above the Water Wizz central office like a debauched fallen demi-god. He’s got a co-manager he’s sweet on (Maya Rudolph), though his lack of responsibility is a constant roadblock.
Something unexpected happens and Duncan finds the mentor/protector he needs in Owen, who teaches him to loosen up, and stand up to Trent. Sam Rockwell is terrific as Owen, who’s all shtick on the outside but harbors dark recesses. One of the loveliest things about their relationship is Owen being utterly astonished that someone would look up to him.
Soon Duncan is ditching his seaside retreat to go fold towels and stack chairs every day, which escalates tensions with Trent. Here’s a hint if you’re dating someone with a teenage kid: if they’d rather go work a menial job than hang out with you during the summer, things aren’t going so well.
“The Way, Way Back” was written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, Oscar-winning screenwriters for “The Descendants” taking their first step behind the camera. They both also have key supporting roles as burnt-out Wizz workers.
It’s a knockout directorial debut, a feel-good picture about a kid who learns not to feel so bad about himself.
Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Saccharine and starry-eyed, "42" places Jackie Robinson on a pedestal and peers in awe at the baseball icon. Writer/director Brian Helgeland's biopic of the first African-American to play major league baseball tries and largely succeeds to get at the real man behind the myth. But it also ladles on the hagiography in portions too huge to choke down comfortably.
Chadwick Boseman aptly plays Robinson, one of the top players in the Negro League who was carefully selected to integrate baseball. Branch Rickey, the legendary general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, knew he needed a player who could not only hit and field, but also accept the slings and arrows of white society without showing any public protest.
The result was a trying rookie year for Robinson and his wife (Nicole Beharie) as he endured racial taunts and threats from fans, opposing teams and even his own dugout.
Helgeland takes us behind the scenes to show us what the constant assault on his dignity cost Robinson -- in one crackling scene, serenely accepting the racial epithets hurled at him by an opposing manager, then shattering his bat in frustration off the field.
Harrison Ford is excellent as Rickey, a crotchety wheeler-dealer with a secret sentimentality he labors hard to conceal. At first the performance seems cartoony and over-the-top. But Ford slyly shows us how Rickey used his outsized personality and kitschy mannerisms as a prop to get his way.
The movie's best moments are in exploring the relationship between baseball player and boss, the traditional power dynamic swaying and crumbling as the men development genuine respect and affection for each other.
"42" may too often indulge in hero worship instead of character development. But there's no denying this film packs a humdinger of a wallop.
Extra features are rather disappointing. The DVD edition comes only with a single featurette, "Stepping into History," about the integration of baseball. Upgrading to the Blu-ray version adds two more mini-documentaries: "Full-Contact Baseball" and "The Legacy of the Number 42."
For a movie that hits a solid double dramatically, it's a shame they saw fit to bunt on the video goodies.
Monday, July 15, 2013
Watching "Bully" was compelling enough to make me want to investigate the film oeuvre of director Larry Clark further, and I thought going back to his controversial debut movie, "Kids," was a logical choice.
Clark has an interesting biography for a filmmaker. He made his name as a photographer, specializing in lurid portraits of young (often underage) subjects engaged in drugs and sex. He made his first attempt at filmmaking in his early 50s, recruiting a 19-year-old skateboarder named Harmony Korine to bang out a script reflecting the wastrel lives of himself and his peers floundering around New York City.
(Korine has gone on to a fitful cinematic career of his own, recently directing "Spring Breakers.")
The cast was made up entirely of unknown amateurs, with two now-famous actresses making their debuts: Rosario Dawson and Chloe Sevigny. Both are vibrant presences in the film, especially Dawson, who comes off incredibly naturalistic and at ease.
Justin Pierce is also very good as Casper, though Leo Fitzpatrick is often leaden and unconvincing as Telly, the ostensible lead character. Other characters float in and out of the action, hanging out with Casper and Telly as they wander around the city, drinking, smoking dope, getting into fights and having indiscriminate sex.
The story unfolds on two separate tracks, initially divided by gender. Ruby (Dawson) and Jennie (Sevigny) talk boisterously with their girlfriends about their sexual escapades, while Telly, Casper and a bunch of guys do the same. It's both shocking and funny, listening to kids ranging from age 12 up to maybe 16 discuss things like blow jobs and anal sex.
We suspect that at least some of them are bluffing about their experiences, but we know Telly is not. The very first scene involves him convincing a 12-year-old girl to have sex with him. With his angular, scrawny body, crooked teeth and mush-mouth speech, Telly does not seem like much of a Don Juan. But his specialty is enticing and deflowering very young virgins -- whom he then immediately disposes of.
One of his conquests was Jennie, who never had sex before or since. Ruby, though, has had enough sexual partners to fill a lifetime, and she's worried about having AIDS. A flashback scene shows her getting tested at a local clinic a week earlier, with Jennie coming along for moral support, and getting tested while she's there. The Q&As with the clinic nurses are disturbing, both for the bored tone of the questioners and the shocking answers Ruby provides.
It's soon revealed that Ruby is OK, but Jennie is HIV positive. It's important to keep in mind that in 1995, having HIV was considered a virtual death sentence. The only question was how long you had to live.
Since Jennie only every had sex with Telly, it stands to reason she got HIV from him -- which also means his roving conquest of the city is exposing who knows how many very young girls to the disease. She sets off to find Telly and warn him, and especially any girls he might be wooing, of the danger.
Beyond this narrative thread, there really isn't much story in "Kids." Much like the early half of "Bully," Clark's camera just follows the kids around in a cinema verite style as they indulge in disturbing behavior. Indeed the film, which received an NC-17 rating from the MPAA, was perceived as a documentary by many audiences.
About that NC-17 -- the depictions in the film aren't really that outrageous, other than showing underage characters having sex and doing drugs, though some of the actors were actually over 18. (Sevigny was 20 when the film was shot, but with her short blonde pixie cut, looks about 14.) Even though the actors are sometimes partially or fully undressed, Clark's camera carefully avoids showing breasts or genitals -- unlike "Bully," which practically leers at its cast's young bodies.
Clark seems to have a fixation for a certain body type: extremely lean and hairless, stuck somewhere between adolescence and adulthood. The actors always look underfed, and it's notable that although we see them smoking and drinking up a storm, they hardly seem to eat at all. It seems likely that Clark's film contributed to the "heroin chic" look of the 1990s.
"Kids" is hardly a great piece of filmmaking, but several of the performances are standouts, and there's something strangely alluring about his rambling scenes of underage children sitting around, talking trash and getting high.
Clark seems to make no judgment about their bad behavior, merely depicting things going on around us that we'd rather pretend don't exist. Despite its rough ages, there is a vitality and immediacy to "Kids" that is potent and memorable.
Thursday, July 11, 2013
Robots versus monsters. At its heart, that's what "Pacific Rim" is all about. And yet, this science fiction thriller is so much more.
Start with the obvious dimension: size. These creatures who rise from the sea, and the human-controlled metal automatons that confront them, make Godzilla seem like a yappy little dog. Director Guillermo del Toro brilliantly shoots these behemoths so they seem to envelop the screen; the eye can't track all of them at once. We're constantly reminded of their sheer immensity.
At a pivotal juncture, one of the robot guardians, called jaegers, picks up an ocean tanker ship and uses it like Casey Jones to wallop one of the toothsome beasties upside the head.
Like I said, big.
But what makes this picture really soar is that del Toro and co-screenwriter Travis Beacham take something old and turn it into something exciting and new and energizing. Essentially what they've done is take two Japanese film genres, kaiju (strange beasts) and mecha (robots), and melded them together.
It's wildly entertaining, a dizzying, dazzling flick. In a summer of sequels, rip-offs and remakes, "Pacific Rim" stands out not just for its elite quality but its original verve.
The setup is that beginning in 2013 (gulp!), these monstrous kaiju start emerging from a portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, laying waste to whole cities and millions of people. All attempts to close the inter-dimensional pathway fail, but the world's nations pool their resources to build the jaeger robots to kill them.
"To fight the monsters, we created monsters of our own," we learn.
The robots are so massive, it takes the brains of two people to control one. They're connected in a psychic bond called the Drift, where all thoughts and memories are shared. So the best teams tend to be composed of family members or loved ones.
Cut to 2020, and the jaegers have the kaiju on the run. But then hotshot pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and his brother encounter a new type of creature that changes the game.
Jump forward again to 2025, and it looks to be end times for the human race. Global leaders have abandoned the jaeger program to focus on an ineffective seawall strategy, and there are only four of the mechanical giants left to mount a last-ditch effort. Marshal Stacker Pentecost (a commanding Idris Elba), head of the unit, recruits Raleigh to man one of the older jaegers, dubbed Gipsy Danger (which bears a more than passing resemblance to the robot in "The Iron Giant").
Like the jaegers, which were continually improved with each new generation, the kaiju appear to be adapting and evolving -- and emerging from the portal more and more frequently. It's an entire bestiary of critters, which are vaguely dinosaur-like but come with a variety of appendages and shapes. The jaeger command gives them appropriate code names, like "Knife Head."
The fight scenes are awesome and epic, taking place both in (and under) sea and on land. They smash through entire buildings like butter. Though there is a little of the "Transformers effect," in which it becomes hard to comprehend exactly what's going on when the titans grapple.
There are a couple of key subplots. One involves Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), the Marshal's protégé and wannabe jaeger pilot who is gunning to be Raleigh's partner. The other has to do with Newton Geizler (Charlie Day), a hyperactive kaiju expert who semi-worships them, and comes up with some crazy ideas on how to learn their strategy.
Also look for del Toro favorite Ron Perlman as a loathsome but charming black market dealer in kaiju biological trophies. Would you believe the things are so honkin' big, their skin lice are the size of bulldogs?
Ultimately, "Pacific Rim" doesn't add up to more than a fun time -- but what a time it is. I don't think there's any movie this year I've enjoyed more.
Wednesday, July 10, 2013
I think it's pretty clear to most observers that the whole vampires-as-passionate-lovers shtick is about played out. So it's curious to see director Neil Jordan, who helped kick things off with the 1994 film version of "Interview with the Vampire," making a movie that plays out like a high-minded twist on the "Twilight" flicks.
"Byzantium" boasts Jordan's signature stylistic flourishes and sexual undercurrents. A favorite recurring theme of his, the mysterious stranger with a game-changing secret, is here represented by Eleanor. As played by Saoirse Ronan, she's over 200 years old but perpetually caught in adolescence after being turned into an immortal blood-drinker by her own mother, Clara (Gemma Arterton).
Arterton and Ronan are only a few years apart in age, and indeed their characters identify themselves as sisters to avoid suspicion. They've been traveling the world for two centuries, on the run from the brotherhood of vampires that views them as outlaws.
While Eleanor is smart, cultured and finely mannered, Clara is a low-born trollop -- literally. After being turned to prostitution at a young age and giving up her baby to a convent, she's never been able to shake her bent toward sexual exploitation. She makes an itinerant living as a stripper or prostitute, and is always scheming up a new con job.
While Clara kills wantonly and sometimes for pleasure, Eleanor only feasts upon people who know they want to die -- usually the old and lonely, with whom she shares a few intimate moments before exchanging need for need.
Their past catches up to them, and after a gruesome encounter they flee to an unnamed beach resort town, the sort of place populated by cheap carny workers and musty retirement residents. Clara quickly latches onto a sad sack (Daniel Mays) who inherited an old hotel, and soon they've set up shop there.
The story plays out in a mix of high and low concepts. Flashbacks to their origins have a novelistic feel, a tragic tale of woe amid the petticoats and arrogant noblemen. The modern sequences, though, have a moody feel and a sleek visual look. They're joined by a framing device in which Eleanor writes out her forbidden story, longhand of course, and tosses the pages into the wind.
Ronan, whose liquid blue eyes and bland prettiness tend to steer her toward passive roles, displays an impressive range of moods and emotions -- even scaring the wits out of a nosy teacher who asks too many questions. Arterton has a swashbuckling verve as the libidinous Clara.
I quite enjoyed the performance of Caleb Landry Jones as Frank, a shy boy who notices Eleanor and begins to gravitate toward her. A sickly young man, Frank is perpetually hunched and peering, and Jones croaks out all his dialogue as if he's ashamed of the words he has to utter. It's a stylized but affecting performance, and we feel Frank's sense of estrangement from the world around him, and how he would see Eleanor as a kindred soul.
"Byzantium" builds up to some fairly predictable plot turns, so the movie didn't hold many surprises for me story-wise. But it did make the idea of the eternal undead living amongst us seem fresh and even a little sexy again, which I didn't think possible. When you don't treat them as fare for teenybopper fantasies, vampires can actually seem cool.
Tuesday, July 9, 2013
Perhaps the most amazing thing about “The Gatekeepers” is not just what these men say, but the fact that they are even saying it at all.
This Academy Award-nominated documentary from director Dror Moreh gathers all six surviving heads of Shin Bet, the secretive Israeli security agency. In personal interviews accompanied by newsreel footage, it recounts the history of Israel over the past few decades, as the tiny Jewish nation struggled to gain legitimacy surrounded by Muslim aggressors, and to address the issue of Palestinians living within its borders.
These half-dozen gray heads have clearly been burdened by the secrets they’ve had to keep, and grab the opportunity to speak forthrightly about Shin Bet’s triumphs and failures.
Some of what they have to tell is very disturbing. “No strategy, all tactics” is how one describes Israel’s approach to the Palestinian question. By that he means they spent so much effort on combatting terrorism, they never really formed a broader plan of what to do to foment peace in the long term.
But as enlightening and frightening as their revelations are, just the fact they felt comfortable sitting down with a filmmaker and laying it all out remains the film’s most astonishing feature.
For a corollary, imagine the directors of the CIA and/or FBI stepping forward to give their account of their agencies’ flubs and stupidity going back to Cold War days. It’s almost unimaginable.
Video extras are limited in scope, but meaty. Moreh provides a feature-length commentary track, and also sits down for a Q&A about the making of the film.
Monday, July 8, 2013
It's impossible to underestimate the power of expertise. Despite whatever natural gifts we may have, it only comes with endless hours, days, weeks, months and years of practice to hone our skills. Whether it's writing a coherent paragraph or throwing a perfect spiral pass, only time and experience allow us to become truly superlative at our endeavors.
Many have heard of the "10,000-Hour Rule" posited by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, "Outliers." It states that it takes that much time practicing a specific task to become an expert in it. The most famous example is that The Beatles played thousands of gigs between 1961 and 1964 before they broke out big.
The point is that academic study is no substitute for practical hands-on experience.
It reminds me of a story I often relate to show the difference between being an expert and a dilettante. While my 1969 Mustang spent the better part of a year in the shop being restored, I arranged to help out with the work to keep the bill down. I spent many Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings scraping paint, working on the interior and other odd jobs. I probably got in the way of the real mechanics more than I actually contributed, but I enjoyed being part of the process and learning something about how cars are put together.
Near the end of the restoration, the boss instructed me to install the light fixture on the rear bumper that illuminates the license plate. (Even though technically he was working for me, part of our agreement was that while I was in his shop, I had to do what he said.) I had the plate with the wire sticking out of it detached from the bumper so I could put in a new bulb, and then it was just a matter of screwing it in. But I couldn't get the light to come on. I checked and rechecked the connection, tried a different bulb, and spent probably 15 minutes futzing around with this light and couldn't get it to work.
Finally I gave up and asked the boss to come look. He eyed the problem for approximately a second and a half, then took the dangling plate and held it up so it touched the bumper. Immediately the light flickered on. He patiently explained that the metal fixture needed to be touching the bumper to close the electrical circuit.
Now, having been a halfway decent high school science student, I already knew this. But I'd never worked hands-on with something like this, so I couldn't grasp the simple nuts-and-bolts of how things worked. To the mechanic, who'd spent literally decades taking cars apart and putting them back together again, this was a no-brainer. But it stumped a non-expert.
This is very much the unstated subject of George Plimpton's 1966 book "Paper Lion," which became movie starring Alan Alda two years later. Plimpton had already written a book about pitching to major leaguers in the All-Star Game, and gone a few rounds in the ring with a champion boxer for another piece. He was convinced by his editor at Sports Illustrated (David Doyle) to try to replicate the feat as a quarterback in the National Football League.
The basic idea was to see how an everyman athlete would fare against elite professionals. The answer, not surprisingly, is that they would get their rear end handed to them. This is exactly what happens to Plimpton, though the movie is more interesting for its behind-the-scenes portrait of NFL players just as the league was coming to dominate American sports.
Plimpton shows up at training camp for the Detroit Lions with only the coaching staff aware of the ruse. Plimpton, who was 36 years old at the time, claims to have been playing semi-pro ball for the Newfoundland Newfs. In reality, his only experience playing quarterback was in co-ed touch football games with friends in Central Park.
Still, the other players more or less accept him for what he seems to be: an over-the-hill rookie taking a final, unlikely shot at a roster spot in the NFL. They joke about his Harvard alma mater and spindly body -- a weigh-in scene claims him as 175 pounds, though I'd guess Alda was actually about 20 pounds under that -- but no one dismisses him out of hand.
Until, that is, Plimpton engages in his first real practice scrimmage, and shows himself to be incapable of receiving the snap from the center. It's one of the typical little skills any serious football player acquires, knowing how to position the hands so the snapper knows you're there but doesn't break your fingers with the ball. Because Plimpton lacked that commonplace ability, the players immediately knew he was a charlatan.
This is probably the most interesting section of the movie, as Plimpton, having been revealed as an SI writer, struggles to fit in with the players and their unspoken code of honor. In an amazing bit of casting, not to mention logistics, all of the actual Lions players and coaches depict themselves, including Alex Karras, Joe Schmidt, Roger Brown, John Gordy, Mike Lucci and so on. Vince Lombardi and Frank Gifford even turn up.
A few of the performances are wooden -- Schmidt speaks all of his dialogue as if from a cue card held just off-camera -- but most of the players are completely naturalistic and believable.
At first the players are offended that an amateur would be inserted amidst their ranks. One gives a speech about how unlike boxing and baseball, football is a total team effort. Everyone has to know what everyone else on the field is doing. If they don't, error and injury usually occur. Having one inept man in the huddle can result in disaster.
Now, this palooka might have given up 70 I.Q. points to Plimpton. But in his native environment, he's the genius while the brilliant writer is the dimwit.
Director Alex March, a TV lifer who only directed one other feature film apart from this one, makes the bold choice of layering dialogue on top of itself, so the audience feels like it's really in the midst of a bunch of bantering guys. For the final sequence involving a preseason game against the St. Louis Rams, March apparently filmed a real game with the players miked up, and used their extemporaneous mutterings to great effect.
Years later, Roger Altman would use this same technique in "Nashville" and other great films.
Of course, this being a Hollywood movie instead of a straight piece of journalism, things get changed around a bit. The most notable is that Plimpton never got into a real game with another team. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle found out about his presence on the team in the middle of a preseason game, and at halftime Schmidt was ordered not to put Plimpton into the game under any circumstances.
His fictional performance in that game actually matches one Plimpton related in his book during inter-team scrimmage, when he managed to lose yardage on five consecutive plays. Another scene invented for the movie shows him scoring a touchdown during practice, but he later learns it was a set-up. But in the end the coaching staff and players respect Plimpton for his efforts, taking his hits without complaint, and all sign the game ball for him.
Another major disparity with reality is the presence as Karras, then one of the most popular players in the NFL, as one of the top supporting players. In actuality, during the preseason Plimpton spent with the Lions, which was 1963, Karras was suspended from the league for gambling. He's still an amiable presence, part bruiser and part back-slapper, and it's no surprise that he would go on to a healthy television and film career after his term on the gridiron ended.
In addition, the movie shows Roger Brown being traded to the Rams, something that didn't happen until 1966. Schmidt also wasn't the coach during 1963.
Lauren Hutton made her film debut in "Paper Lion" as Kate, though it's never quite clear if she's supposed to be Plimpton's assistant, his lover or some combination of both. She's a vision of loveliness, of course, and draws a lot of attention from the other Lions.
"Paper Lion" isn't a particularly well-crafted movie. March's camera work is a bit confusing, especially during the football scenes. Alda is a feisty presence, though, and I enjoyed the way the film brutally shows what it's like on the wrong end of a quarterback sack.
Tuesday, July 2, 2013
The first “Despicable Me” was a bit of a disappointment to me, mostly because I liked the idea of an animated world dominated by super-villains, unencumbered by drippy do-gooders. Of course, the entire story arc was about dastardly scientist Gru learning to find his inner daddy instincts as he adopts three adorable little girls -- trading death rays for unicorns, so to speak.
With "Despicable Me 2," we're already past the hump of Gru's transformation: he's a good guy now, retired from the world domination shtick. His vast underground lair, populated by yellow stump-like minions chattering incoherently, has been given over to producing "delicious jams and jellies."
But then he's recruited by the Anti-Villain League, a global spy agency fighting baddies like his former self. They want Gru to find out which of his ex-colleagues has stolen PX-41, a serum that turns anyone injected with it into an indestructible purple rage monster.
Gru, again voiced with an enthusiastic Slavic dialect by Steve Carell, relishes the chance to get back into the game. Turns out the jam thing wasn't working out -- his ancient assistant (Russell Brand) quit, and even the minions thought the stuff tasted horrid.
It's a whole lot of slapsticky action, mostly involving those minions, some gastrointestinal humor and even a side plot about his oldest daughter (Miranda Cosgrove) having a love interest. Gru does not take well to the idea of suitors, but look at from the boy's perspective: your sweetie's dad resembles a Bond villain.
Of course, Gru's got his own thing with the ladies going on. Kristen Wiig voices Lucy, a junior AVL agent who approaches absolutely everything with over-the-top enthusiasm. She's assigned to be his partner, and things start to get a little touchy-feely.
They set up shop as pretend bakers in a mall, where they start scouting out the fellow store proprietors as potential suspects. Gru insists the florid, hefty owner of a Mexican restaurant looks like El Macho, a villain thought dead after riding a rocket strapped to a shark into a volcano. (Like he said, macho.) But his opinion is dismissed by the League uppity-ups.
Directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud and screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul have a lot of fun with this material, keeping it fast and loose. They keep returning to those crazy, gibberish-spouting minions -- which isn't a surprise since Coffin and Renaud supply the voices.
At one point the yellow guys start disappearing, fodder for inevitable experiments with the PX-41. Gru, distracted by the job, his girls and Lucy, doesn't notice at first: "We're going to have to revisit your guys' vacation time ... I can't find anyone lately!"
Visually the film features the same exaggerated biology and zippy action as last time. Lucy looks stretched out like a piece of taffy, and Gru is an amalgamation of round and sharp shapes, punctuated by that nose that could double as a shiv (and so inconvenient for kissing!). I'd advise skipping the 3-D upgrade, which exists only for a few moments of levity where stuff flies at the audience.
"Despicable Me" is essentially more of the same. It's light, amusing, rather unambitious, but agreeable.
So what’s up with a Lone Ranger movie where Tonto is the chief character? Who wears an expired crow on his noggin and death-head war paint? And the titular Ranger is a whiny, kvetching, annoying ball of tics who saps the film of energy every time he’s onscreen?
What it is really is “Pirates of the Caribbean 5,” with Johnny Depp morphing his doofy Jack Sparrow character into a loopy, reimagined Tonto impression.
“Pirates” director Gore Verbinski returns with screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (plus Justin Haythe) for a redo of the same formula: big action set pieces, cackling villains, a bevy of bizarre secondary characters and plot twists, a tone that veers between slapstick and ominous, and Depp pulling out another one of his precious, strange-for-strange’s-sake performances.
The result is a swollen mess, alternately inane and dull. There are a few crumbs of entertaining bits, like the birdseed Tonto keeps trying to feed to his bird-helmet. But they get buried under an avalanche of ill-conceived story concepts.
Here the Lone Ranger isn’t even a ranger; rather, he’s freshly-minted district attorney John Reid (Armie Hammer) returning to his Texas hometown in 1869. His train is hijacked by confederates of notorious outlaw Butch Cavendish, who’s being transported to his hanging.
(William Fichtner terrifically embodies the sun-creased blackheart, who has a silver tooth, wicked lip scar and a tendency to eat portions of his dead enemies. Cavendish is so good, in fact, the character feels wasted in the movie around him.)
John’s brother Dan (James Badge Dale) is the local Texas Ranger captain, and puts together a posse to go after Cavendish. He reluctantly includes John, whom everyone dismisses as a city dandy.
You know what happens next: the posse is trapped and cut to pieces, with only John surviving. He’s revived from death’s door by Tonto, who dubs him a “spirit walker” who can’t be killed in battle.
The running joke of the movie is how unfit John is to don the Lone Ranger’s domino mask. He can’t shoot, hates guns even, and is indifferent at the standard cowboy skill set. In fact, Tonto would have much preferred his brother Dan be the one brought back to life. He calls John “kemosabe,” which here means “wrong brother.”
Depp is clearly having a ball with the Tonto character, who speaks in the familiar broken English from the TV show and has an imperturbable mien. He is constantly stealing from dead bodies, replacing valuables with odd bits of junk, a practice he refers to as trading.
Tonto’s worst trade was one he made as a boy, which has an elaborate backstory involving two conniving white men, a river full of silver, a heavy-chained pocket watch and that crow.
All this might seem enough plot for a decent Western action/comedy. But then Verbinski & Co. pile on layer after layer of material, junking up the works.
There’s a paltry romantic triangle between Dan and John, with Dan’s wife (Ruth Wilson) and young son (Bryan Prince) caught in the crossfire. Tom Wilkinson shows up as the enterprising head of the railroad company connecting East to West. Barry Pepper is a preening, Custer-esque cavalryman.
Then things really get out there. Helena Bonham Carter plays a brothel madam with a past, plus an ivory leg with a shotgun hidden inside. And there are border wars with the Comanche – ostensibly Tonto’s people, though they are quick to disavow him as a loon.
And a mystical quest in search of an evil “wendingo” spirit. And a pale horse with seemingly supernatural powers. And corporate power struggles. And cannibal rabbits.
Oh, and the whole thing’s wrapped in a mournful framing device set in 1933, when a century-old Tonto, now relegated to circus sideshow, recounts his tale to a curious lad.
The absolute low point is when John and Tonto walk into a dangerous den and pull the old "we're the health inspectors" shtick, something used in every buddy cop movie, ever. Except it's 1869, when there were no such thing as health inspectors. When they complain the pickles in the bar are not refrigerated, I waited for someone to respond, "What's refrigeration?"
At a tick under 2½ hours, “The Lone Ranger” goes all in on “more is more,” until the audience wishes there was just less.
Or as Tonto might say, “Ten dollar for ticket to movie … not good trade.”
“6 Souls” is more interesting to ponder as a cinematic failure than as an actual movie.
It stars some very talented performers, including Julianne Moore and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. And the Swedish directors, Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, certainly know how to make a movie visually interesting – the film is a slick blend of muted colors and inky shadows.
So how come this horror/thriller is such a complete disaster?
It helps to know the film was shot five years ago, and hung around the studio’s vault gathering dust before finally being shunted out to pay-per-view and a modest theatrical run this spring.
Screenwriter Michael Cooney breaks out that moldy oldie of a story concept: multiple personalities. That stopped being a fresh idea for a screenplay about 40 years ago. Never mind that most psychiatrists consider it bunk.
Actually, heroine Cara Harding (Moore) is among them. The story opens with her dismissing split personalities as a figment. But then she’s introduced to a patient, David (Rhys Meyers), who appears to be the real McCoy.
David is a shy, sweet Southerner confined to a wheelchair. But Adam is a brash lothario who walks unimpeded. Rhys Meyers emotes each of these shifts between personalities by going into a twitching, spasmodic orgy of tics.
Other personalities manifest themselves as time goes by, and we soon lose track of who’s who. Plus a supernatural element enters late in the game, along with a hillbilly mystic muttering something about curses and the Devil.
What’s supposed to be scary instead comes across as incredibly goofy … then tiresome.
As for video extras … there aren’t any. Nada, zip, zilch – not even a theatrical trailer. This only lends credence to the notion that “6 Souls” got dumped by its studio.
Not that it didn’t deserve it.
Monday, July 1, 2013
I had never heard of "The Stranger," but it was actually Orson Welles' most commercially successful directorial effort -- the only one, really. Coming out in 1946, it played on a lot of anti-Nazi hysteria about fascists hiding out among us after World War II. Welles is the supposed mastermind of the Holocaust, Franz Kindler, while Edward G. Robinson is the dogged G-man on his trail.
It seems Kindler has passed himself off as doddering professor Charles Rankin, who works at a boy's school in the Rockwellian town of Harper, Conn. He's even set to marry lovely girl next door Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), whose father is a Supreme Court justice (Philip Merivale), don'cha know.
It's the perfect disguise ... well, actually no. The best place to hide would not be in the heart of your greatest Allied enemy's country, where hordes of investigators are searching for runaway Nazis. All those stories about Hitler secretly living in Argentina were batty, but at least the Fuhrer hypothetically chose the right sort of location.
Switch it around and ask if it makes sense: If the Axis had won the war, do you think General Eisenhower would've hidden out in Hamburg, Germany?
The story is filled with a lot of holes and illogic, but it decently boils the plot. It also features some wonderfully inky photography by Russell Metty. Welles would later be associated with the film noir genre, most notably "Touch of Evil," but it was interesting to see him doing some early dabbling in that visual style.
There are a couple of scenes where Robinson acts in virtual darkness, with just one eye or a slice of his jaw clearly visible in the light. Welles also uses a lot of extreme close-ups, especially on himself, which has the intended disconcerting effect. (It also shows that Welles, at age 31, still struggled with acne.)
Oddly, the cinematography did not receive an Oscar nomination, but the film's one nod from the Academy was in the category where it most definitely did not deserve to be lauded: the screenplay. It's a jumble of mismatched characters and plot devices, with people doing things not because it makes sense but because the story needs to get from point A to B.
The script has a somewhat mysterious provenance, too. Victor Trivas received the Oscar nomination for Best Original Story, but Anthony Veiller is actually credited with penning the screenplay. Decla Dunning also helped adapt Trivas' story, and reportedly John Huston and Welles himself tinkered around with it, too.
Wilson, the Nazi hunter played by Robinson, has an especially tough job in catching Kindler. Despite being the wunderkind of the Third Reich, he was very secretive and no photos of him are available. He decides to free Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne), a collaborator of Kindler's, from prison in the hopes he'll lead them straight to the main quarry.
This is exactly what happens, but Kindler kills Meinike before Wilson can make the connection, having been bonked over the head with a sandbag in the gym. Kindler leaves Meinike's body just a few steps into the forest surrounding the town, throwing a few shovelfuls of dirt and leaves over it.
For a supposed genius who conceived and executed the mass extermination of Jews, Kindler has a pretty weak M.O. for disposing of one dead man.
Wilson makes the connection that Rankin is Kindler because of a comment during dinner. Kindler advocates an extreme form of retribution against the defeated Germans -- basically, wipe them all out, including women and children. He also disputes that Karl Marx was a German, because he was a Jew. He also has a keen interest in fixing the town's elaborate clock tower, and Kindler was known to be a nut for the stuff.
The creepiest, and most effective part of the film is Kindler/Rankin's relationship with his wife. Mary at first defends her husband, refusing to believe the man she fell in love with could be a mass murderer. But as he comes to see her as the weak link in his alibi, Kindler soon turns his evil eye upon her.
All this leads up to an inevitable confrontation up in the clock tower where Kindler is hiding out after his cover his blown. Because, yeah, that's the last place anyone would think to look for him! But a Nazi who's stupid enough to hide out in America is probably also dumb enough to hole up in a place that everyone in town knows he frequents, and lacks any sort of escape route.
The final showdown is kind of interesting, even if the build-up to it is daffy. Notably, it's Mary who fires the fatal shots that lead to Kindler's death -- the betrayed woman exacting her revenge. The depiction is also rather violent, with Kindler getting impaled by the sword of the mechanical angel in front of the clock, which continually trades places with a winged devil. Subtle enough for you?
With its heavy-handed symbolism and dippy character construction, "The Stranger" is hardly one of best films in the Welles oeuvre, even if it is one of the better-looking.