Thursday, August 29, 2013

Review: "Getaway"

The car in "Getaway" may be tricked out like a rolling Christmas tree, but the story is stripped down to shiny metal and bare essentials. A desperate man, in a car, on the run -- that's all there is to it.

A B-movie thriller with A-list crashes and stunts, "Getaway" doesn't have aspirations beyond a few scares and some good fun. That it delivers, though it's best to shift your brain into neutral to make things go faster. Even at a lean 90 minutes, the pacing is occasionally draggy.

Luckily, any time things get too talky and dull, more bad guys or police suddenly appear out of a side street to give chase, setting up another 10 minutes of roaring engines, grinding fenders and gravity-defying wipeouts.

Something like 90 percent of the action takes place inside the car, a smoking-hot Mustang Shelby GT500 Super Snake. (If you don't know cars: imagine a nuclear reactor on wheels.) Like other cinematic pony cars of yore ("Bullitt," "Gone in Sixty Seconds"), the 'Stang practically becomes a separate character in the movie, seeming to take on more attitude as it gets progressively beaten up.

The man at the wheel is Brent Magna, a former pro racer gone to seed. He's taken some jobs for some shady characters, but he and his wife (Rebecca Budig) have tried to put it behind them and relocated to Sofia, Bulgaria.

As played by Ethan Hawke, Brent resembles a wolf who's been starved too long and relishes getting back in the action. He returns to his apartment to find his wife kidnapped, and a mysterious voice on the phone (Jon Voight) calls him with instructions to steal a certain car.

Supercharged and armored, the Mustang makes mincemeat of the local constabulary. But the evil voice has installed video cameras all over the car so he can control Brent's every action, ordering him to follow instructions or see his wife killed.

At first the orders seem loony -- drive through a park full of people and deliberately smash up Christmas decorations. But gradually a method becomes clear, especially after Brent picks up a smart, mouthy kid (Selena Gomez) with a more than passing interest in his ride.

Rookie screenwriters Sean Finegan and Gregg Maxwell Parker have essentially put story elements from several other movies, notably "Speed," into a blender and cranked it up to high. The characters don't really emerge beyond their role in moving the plot ever forward, though we get some mumblings about Brent losing his nerve on the pro circuit.

Director Courtney Solomon ("An American Haunting") keeps things moving along pretty well, and his action-scene chops are rather good. He knows how to shoot car chases and stunts, and the editing is zippy and rhythmic.

Whenever the car slows down or stops, though, things quickly grow a little lazy, so a new chase is always just around the corner. This leads to the movie having a wash/rinse/repeat vibe.

No one will claim "Getaway" is a great piece of filmmaking. But it's a fleetingly entertaining chase picture that should satisfy your need for speed.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Video review: "The Great Gatsby"

Previous film adaptations of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel have been largely passionless affairs, pretty pictures with handsome people, behaving badly bloodlessly. Whatever one thinks of director Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge”), his films throb with energy and urgency, and his take on “The Great Gatsby” is no different.

It’s an uneven picture, occasionally head-scratching but always engaging.

You probably know the story: at the height of the Roaring Twenties, mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) sets up shop at a mansion on a Long Island lake that is the dividing line between old money families and the nouveau riche. Penniless bond trader Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is his next-door neighbor and confidante, who becomes enlisted in Gatsby’s quest to ingratiate himself with his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), a spoiled socialite on the opposite shore.

Gatsby throws lavish parties every weekend attended by all the New York rich, trying to lure the attention of Daisy, with whom he has a past. But she’s married to Tom, a brutish snob who views her as his property and Gatsby as the upstart trying to pilfer it.

Luhrmann co-wrote the script with Craig Pearce, which does a better job than other cinematic adaptations at finding the flesh-and-blood people underneath Fitzgerald’s feather-light characterizations. DiCaprio makes Gatsby a compelling figure, a man wrapped in self-delusion in pursuit of something pure. It’s not just Daisy he’s reaching for, but a vision of himself that is hopeful.

Whether you loved the novel or suffered through it in school, “The Great Gatsby” has never leapt off the page quite like this.

Video features are decent, with a handful of deleted scenes and a half-dozen featurettes focusing on various aspects of production, including the fashion, music and legacy of the 1920s.



Monday, August 26, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Funny Girl" (1968)

Not since "Cyrano de Bergerac" has a nose been so central to a film's conception.

José Ferrer's was fake, of course, in the 1950 classic, while Barbra Streisand's was all natural in "Funny Girl" 18 years later. Yet both noses operate the same way for the two characters: as their totem, their calling card, the object of their self-doubt and the source of greatest vanity.  Both Cyrano and Fanny Brice make their outsized proboscis the nexus of their self-identity.

The first half of "Funny Girl" is all about Fanny Brice became a Broadway star despite less-than-standard-gorgeous looks. Of course, the Broadway musical that formed the basis for the movie centered around the persona of Streisand, and her distinctive facial features became part and parcel of the package. Fanny Brice had a rather large honker herself, and (in)famously underwent a nose job in 1923.

This is where the movie is a sheer delight, as Brice constantly pokes fun of herself. After struggling in low-rent shows for months, she finally gets called up to the big leagues by "Flo" Ziegfeld (Walter Pidgeon) and balks at being asked to perform a song written for a conventionally pretty bride. ("I am the beautiful reflection of my love's affection...")

Instead she appears onstage opening night with a pillow under her dress, simulating pregnancy, and sings in a risque Mae West style. But then confronted with other gorgeous brides, she reacts as if slapped when placed face-to-face with their heaving bosoms, and cries out in despair when a mirror is held up to her own face.

This is funny, endearing stuff, and Brice later makes clear her intention: she wants people to laugh with her, to prevent them from laughing at her. She knows she's not beautiful, but firmly believes she's got the talent and the moxie to be a huge star. The first act of the film is about her convincing the rest of the world what she already knew.

The middle section is taken up with her budding romance with gambler Nick Arnstein (Omar Sharif). Much is made of Sharif's dusky handsomeness, and there are several charming bits where Brice is both enraptured and vexed about nabbing a man so good-looking. One of her lyrics about their impending marriage comments that the groom will be prettier than the bride.

Then the film goes into a dark-and-dreary phase for the last our or so, as Nick's success is overshadowed by Fanny's. He becomes increasingly desperate to reassert his position as head of household and chief breadwinner, eventually leading him to an embezzlement conviction that sends him to jail for two years. They meet, briefly, at the film's end and agree to divorce.

On the one hand, it's always bracing to see a mainstream Hollywood film that doesn't conclude in the most obvious and expected way. A mainstream romantic film in which the couple splits up permanently in the end? That's pretty bold stuff for 1968.

Of course, the filmmakers couldn't completely depart from the real history of Fanny Brice, who had another high-profile marriage after the one to Arnstein. (Unbeknownst to me until recently, this was chronicled in a much more lightly regarded 1975 sequel, "Funny Lady.")

Not that they don't bother changing things around quite liberally. For instance, the movie ignores the fact that Fanny had already been married once before when she met Nick. And she's depicted as living in a lively blue-collar neighborhood, when Fanny's upbringing was actually quite comfortable. Screenwriter Isobel Lennart, who also wrote the book for the stage version, is obviously working in the "inspired by" mode of cinematic biography.

Not coincidentally, most of the songs occur before the final, sturm-und-drang portion. Now that I think about it, the only one I can recall toward the end is the showstopper finale of "My Man" -- an actual favorite that the real Fanny often sang. There's also the hilarious "Second Hand Rose," "Don't Rain On My Parade," "I'd Rather Be Blue Over You" and perhaps the film's most famous song, "People." I'm not a big fan of the latter -- it's smarmy and unmelodious to these ears -- but it went on to be a huge popular hit.

Sharif even gets elbowed into singing a couple of duets with Streisand. He wisely resorts to some low-key talk-singing in the Rex Harrison mode, and gets out of his leading lady's way.

Whatever you want to say about Streisand as a performer, there's no denying she's a home run queen as a singer. The emotion and personal style she puts into her songs is such a thrill. Though she's also quite good in the dramatic scenes, I think it was her self-deferential comedy and amazing singing that put her over the top with Academy Award voters, who gave her the Best Actress Award (which she shared that year with Katharine Hepburn, in a rare tie).

It was well-deserved, and announced Streisand as a major film star -- and later, filmmaker.

Director William Wyler, who was reaching the end of his great career and had never made a musical before, knew exactly how to photograph his star, and get a great, brassy performance out of her. In this case, I think it was simply enhancing the persona that was already there rather than getting Streisand to convince the audience she was something she's not. But still, a smart filmmaker sticks with what works.

Streisand had already been pretty famous before her movie debut, but "Funny Girl" will live forever for presenting a bold, slightly crooked new face to the world that nobody would soon forget.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Review: "The Spectacular Now"

The irony inherent in the title of "The Spectacular Now" is that living in the moment means you could be jeopardizing all the moments ahead of you. So it behooves you to make the right now terrific -- or at least convince yourself it is.

Perhaps that's why Sutter Keely is a walking fountain of self-affirmation, constantly commenting rosily on whatever his current situation is: "This is awesome!" "I love all of you guys!" "Together, we're invincible or something!"

As played graciously by Miles Teller, Sutter is the very model of self-composed joviality. He works so very hard at appearing laidback and uncaring. He's fine-tuned his patter to such a perfect pitch, fooling teachers, parents and fellow high school seniors, that he's even bought into his own myth.

Sutter is a man without a plan, and stubbornly so. When we first meet him he's crafting a college application essay sure to get a quick toss from every reputable institution in the U.S. He's writing blithely about getting dumped by his girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), with whom he was half of the most popular couple in school.

He blows off the breakup, and quickly latches onto Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley) on the rebound. She's a quiet, driven girl who practically disappears into the crowd of their school -- in other words, she's Sutter's polar opposite.

It's pretty obvious to anyone watching that Sutter is hoping to inspire enough jealousy in Cassidy to spur her back into his arms, but she soon hooks up with an overachieving jock (Dayo Okeniyi) and Sutter finds himself stuck.

It's also rather evident that Aimee is completely clueless in the ways of romance, even the teen kind, and takes all her cues from Sutter. He sort of latches onto her, and part of his personality begins to bleed into hers.

One of the primary ways is drinking. While occasionally getting blackout drunk at weekend parties, Sutter has achieved functional alcoholism at age 17, skating through the day with a near-constant buzz. He carries a flask and spikes his omnipresent oversized soda to keep it going.

Soon enough Aimee is following suit, and we sense it's only a matter of time before their pairing leads to disaster. Woodley, so good as the frustrated daughter in "The Descendants," practically aches with innocence, so clearly thrilled to finally "have a thing," aka to be defined in some way -- even if it is as the class cutup's girl.

Director James Ponsoldt, who directed last year's largely unseen "Smashed," is clearly fascinated by stories of addiction and self-destruction. While alcoholism isn't as front and center as it was in that film, "The Spectacular Now" is the story of people who are on their way to serious problems.

Alcohol is easily accessible, taken as matter-of-fact, and consumed copiously. Parents are largely absent or indifferent.

I especially liked the way Ponsoldt strives to make his actors seem like real teens, blemishes and all -- quite literally, in fact. Teller and Woodley display the spotty complexions and scars of flesh-and-blood young people.

The screenplay is by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who wrote the wonderful "(500) Days of Summer" a few years ago, based on a novel by Tim Tharp. Its strength is never feeling forced or constructed, the dialogue and exchanges organic and unforced.

At times, though, I felt like the story focused too much on Sutter's problems and not enough on Aimee's motivations and emotional identity. He is the subject of the movie, and she is the object whom he acts upon.

But even if it is a character portrait rather than a star-crossed love story, "The Spectacular Now" lives its moments with bravery and truth.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Video review: "Epic"

“Epic” is an animated movie with a big name but a small story to tell. And I mean literally tiny -– it’s set in the secret world of the forest where miniscule creatures battle between good and evil.

One the one side is Leafmen, micro-sized soldiers who wear nuts, sticks and what have you as armor. They protect the land from decay and intrusion by the Boggans, little insectoid creatures led by the villainous Mandrake (Christoph Waltz).

The set-up is that this long-running war has happened virtually under the noses of humans, who are too lumbering and self-absorbed to see the wee critters. Except, that is, for a half-mad scientist who studies them without much success. His estranged daughter Mary Katherine (Amanda Seyfried) comes to visit and is accidentally shrunk down to the size of the Leafmen, and soon joins them in their quest.

It seems the old queen of the forest has fallen to Mandrake’s schemes, and unless a new magical seed pod is brought to just the right place at just the right time, it will bloom in darkness and evil will reign.

Narratively, “Epic” has too much going on, with a romantic side story involving M.K. and a wayward Leafman (Josh Hutcherson), a psychedelic wise man voiced by Steven Tyler, and a pair of sluggish doofs who act as comic relief.

The life-lessons parts are slathered on a little too heavy, with M.K. and her dad learning to bond, the young Leafman finds out that working together as a team isn’t so bad, and so on.

It is a great-looking picture, and director Chris Wedge (“Ice Age”) has a nice feel for action and landscape.

Fast-paced and filled with cartoony action, “Epic” should entertain little kids well enough, though their parents might be tempted to wander out of the room.

Video extras are quite good, and you don’t have to buy the most expensive package to get some nice stuff.

The DVD comes with several featurettes, including an educational one about real-life insects who use camouflage. There’s also a mobile app (for Android and iOS) that allows kids to color and create their own adventure, even recording their own voice, and play it back for others.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray combo pack, and you add another featurette and a comprehensive making-of documentary, “Mysteries of Moonhaven Revealed.”



Monday, August 19, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Rio Bravo" (1959)

One of the few things I disliked about studying cinema at New York University was the constant politicization of movies. As a student I was frequently bombarded with articles and professor lectures that shoehorned a political interpretation onto a movie that I didn't feel belonged there.

It wasn't just that these analyses nearly always came from a leftist perspective -- and by "nearly always," I mean 100% of the time -- while I swing to the right. It was the fact that films that were avowedly unpolitical still got this treatment. So you'd read something about action movies of the '80s and how they reflected a fascist, Reaganite mindset.

I thought it largely bull, and simply set most of it aside in my thinking about film.

It's hard not to place a political slant on 1959's "Rio Bravo," however, since John Wayne, director Howard Hawks and others involved in the production have explicitly described it as a conservative response to "High Noon," which they considered a bunch of pinko Hollywood claptrap.

Both films have a fairly similar plot, about a lone sheriff standing against a gang of outlaws coming to town. While Gary Cooper's lawman spent most of "High Noon" unsuccessfully trying to recruit local citizens to help him in the coming gunbattle, Wayne's John T. Chance conspicuously avoid asking for assistance. In fact, he gruffly turns down the offer of a blazingly fast gunslinger because the youngster had previously opted not to stick his nose in other people's business -- a move Chance himself had deemed most wise.

I don't think either film is overtly political, but you can read some things from an allegorical standpoint, particularly the individual's relationship to the larger community around him. Both men are respected for upholding the law, but when they become a target of the very forces they're meant to rein in, the townsfolk react in very different ways.

Cooper goes begging for help, and is ostracized. Chance makes it clear that he's willing to handle things more or less on his own, and is flooded with offers of assistance. Some, like Ricky Nelson as the confident whippersnapper Colorado Ryan, offer to help with their guns. Others, like Carlos the saloon owner (Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez) or rambling gambler Feathers (Angie Dickinson), come through with moral and logistical support.

For Feathers, that includes the proffering of herself as a sexual plaything for Chance to take or leave as he pleases. It's a strong, sensual turn by Dickinson as a woman who's empowered by her sexuality rather than burdened by it. She may use herself as a sex object, but it's her choice.

Dean Martin has one of his meatier film roles as Dude, Chance's former deputy who turned into a timid drunk after having his heart broken. He wandered back into town a couple of years ago, begging drinks wherever he can get them, even if it is a silver dollar thrown contemptuously into a spittoon by Joe Burdette, the local tough.

In the film's surprisingly dialogue-free opening sequence, Chance kicks the spittoon to keep Dude from debasing himself, and is rewarded by being knocked out cold with a chunk of wood swung from behind. This sets off a fight with Burdette, a bystander is shot and killed, and the rest of the movie is spent waiting for the U.S. marshall to come fetch Joe Burdette for trial, while his rich brother Nathan (John Russell) surrounds the jail with killers hired for a $50 gold coin apiece.

Much of the interaction between Chance and Dude involves the former tutoring the latter in the ways of manliness. At one later point, after Dude has sobered and taken up the badge again, another gunman repeats the dollar-in-the-spittoon joke. Dude, having successfully killed the man on the balcony who had the drop on him, is content to leave it at that, with his reputation restored. But Chance reminds him about the fellow throwing the coin, and Dude makes the man grovel for his impertinence.

Back at the jail is Stumpy, the cantankerous old deputy with a screechy voice and a hitch in his giddyup, played by the veteran character actor Walter Brennan. He's the sort of crusty-yet-sentimental creature who often populates the background of Westerns.

Longtime Wayne co-conspirator Ward Bond is around for a few minutes in the early going, as an old friend of Chance who is a little too vocal about the people needing to lend the sheriff a hand. For his trouble he's gunned down in the street by a Burdette assassin.

At nearly 2½ hours, "Rio Bravo" is notable for its languid pace without ever feeling like it's treading water. Screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman delivered a comfortable, naturalistic script based on a short story by B.H. McCampbell.

There's a lot of scenes that basically consist of just a bunch of guys hanging around the jail, talking, drinking and even singing -- Martin and Nelson team up for a particularly pleasing rendition of "My Rifle, Pony and Me."

As much as I try, it's hard for me to dismiss -- or embrace -- "Rio Bravo" as a "conservative" Western. You could make the argument that the genre naturally lends itself to an emphasis on individualism, which is the historic domain of right-wing thinkers.

But even if John Wayne & Co. set out to make a conservative repudiation of "High Noon," it's difficult to see it as anything more than a well-made, engaging Western that stands sturdy on its own two boots -- politics be damned.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Review: "Lee Daniels' The Butler"

What could have been a searing portrait of race relations in America seen through the eyes of a longtime White House butler instead becomes something like a cheap "Forrest Gump" knockoff.

"Lee Daniels' The Butler" is loosely based on the life of real White House butler Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents from 1952 to 1986. He was a witness to the tumultuous events of the mid-20th century, from school integration to the civil rights upheaval and Vietnam.

Director Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong, who based the movie on a Washington Post article by Wil Haygood, use this as a basis for the completely fictionalized persona of Cecil Gaines, played by Forest Whitaker. While it starts out as a strong character portrait, it soon morphs into a hard-to-believe sequence of events in which either Cecil or his son is present, Zelig-like, at every single pivotal moment in the civil rights movement.

(And yes, the official title is "Lee Daniels' The Butler" -- the studio even sent out a stern reminder to that effect. Personally I think including the name of a director or author in the title makes them seem incredibly insecure.)

Even worse was the choice to cast well-known actors as the presidents Cecil served. Most of the time they bear not a whit of physical resemblance to the Oval Office occupant they're supposed to represent, and their attempts to mimic their speech or mannerisms fall short. Thus, Robin Williams' Eisenhower seems pinched and feisty, while John Cusack as Nixon (!!) has an itchy, sad quality.

Liev Schreiber does an amusing through pretty standard LBJ parody, and James Marsden adds a New England warp to his vowels as Kennedy. Alan Rickman's Reagan is probably the best of the lot, capturing the Gipper's unseen warmth. Casting Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan seems like some sort of cruel in-joke, especially when she invites Cecil and his wife to attend a state dinner as their guests just so (it's implied) there will be some diversity in the room.

The main problem with the churning of administrations is none of them hang around long enough to make any substantial impression, so these appearances end up falling just north of cameos. One part where Cecil attends to Jackie Kennedy after the assassination, her clothes still stained with JFK's blood, is a cheap and false moment.

The movie is at its best when it peers at the relationship between Cecil, his often-troublesome marriage to his boozy wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), his children and his co-workers. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays the prankster head butler, and Lenny Kravitz is the more sedate wingman. The scenes where the White House staff hang out in the kitchen and back areas are lively and insightful, contributing to an Upstars/Downstairs vibe.

I enjoyed the section where Cecil talks about the two faces of the black house servant. You wear one face that is your own at home and among friends, but when white folks are around you must be non-threatening, indeed a non-entity -- "the room should feel empty when you are in it," Cecil learns.

He even manages to land his White House gig through strident obsequiousness. When a white manager suggests him to the black head butler, the latter takes affront -- and Cecil sides with him, saying he's right to want to hand-pick his own staff. Impressed with the way Cecil can disappear inside himself, he hires him on the spot, commenting that he'll "be a good house n*gger."

The part where Cecil tangles with his oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) over his evolution into a civil rights activist grows increasingly far-fetched. Louis manages to be at the forefront of virtually every iconic scene from the equal rights movement -- getting beat up at a diner sit-in, having police dogs and firehouses trained on him, being nearly burned alive on a torched Freedom Rider bus, even seguing into the nascent Black Panther movement.

Curiously, the moment when the civil rights era arrives on Cecil's doorstep, the 1963 march on Washington by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others, is not represented.

I think this ambitious film would have been better off as a rumination on the different paths African-Americans have taken toward equality and respect -- the way of the harsh revolutionary vs. the quiet insider. Instead, its story and emotions wander all over the map of the black experience, never finding a home.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Review: "Kick-Ass 2"

"This isn't a comic book! If you die, there is no do-over! There are no sequels!"
--Dave Lizewski, aka Kick-Ass

I lost track of how many times the characters in "Kick-Ass 2" reminded me that what I was watching was real, not just pretend -- as if to give weight to the proceedings that did not otherwise exist. The joke, of course, is this is very much a comic book movie, super-heroes get do-overs all the flipping time, and it's a sequel that is trying so hard to convince us that sequels and reboots are soulless affairs with little point for existing.

I'm not sorry they made a sequel to "Kick-Ass," or that I watched it. But it feels like the original's vital juices all got sucked out of it.

The 2010 film, directed and co-written by Matthew Vaughn based on the comic books by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., was shocking, hard-edged, hyper-violent and whip-smart. The sequel is jokey, surprisingly soft around the edges, sorta-violent and not half as clever as it thinks it is.

Writer/director Jeff Wadlow takes over the reins, and to his credit the characters haven't just been frozen in time since last we saw them. Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the rail-thin high school dweeb who first started the masked vigilante craze, is now a burned-out senior who looks like he's been living at the gym. Seeing so many would-be superheroes copycatting his style finally convinces him to get back in the game.

More problematic is Hit-Girl, the pint-sized terror who spewed vile curses while literally chopping up bad guys with her arsenal of blades and guns. Now she's a trembly 15-year-old freshman, uncertain of her place in the world and feeling ostracized by the mean girls at school.

Chloë Grace Moretz is one of the brightest lights of her generation, but her character's back-and-forth dithering gets really old, really fast. We know she's eventually going to put the purple wig back on again, so everything until then feels like marking time.

There's a long sequence where Hit-Girl gets sucked into the bitchy schemes of the ruling clique, led by Brooke, deliciously played by Claudia Lee. It's like the movie goes all "Heathers" for a time, and while it's engaging enough in its right, this section belongs in another movie.

Rejected by Hit-Girl in his quest for a partner, Kick-Ass hooks up with a bunch of other supers, who dub themselves Justice 4 Ever. These include Battle Guy (revealed to be Dave's oldest friend), Dr. Gravity, Night Bitch and Insect Man. For wannabes, they sure come up with lackluster names for themselves.

They're led by Colonel Stars and Stripes, a deranged fascist played by Jim Carrey, nearly unrecognizable under a mountain of prosthetics. The Colonel teaches his disciples not to use foul language, but sees nothing wrong with siccing his attack dog (also masked) on the nether regions of his foes.

Of course, you couldn't have a super-hero story without a villain, and it's Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Chris D'Amico, former Kick-Ass friend-turned-foe after the latter killed his mob boss father.

Recognizing that his super-power is that he has gobs of money, he gives himself a new (unprintable) moniker and sets about recruiting an evil army. His own costume is salvaged from his mother's S&M outfits, which aren't improved by his wearing them.

This leads to the inevitable showdown between the two teams, which carries a certain amount of thrills -- especially Hit-Girl's faceoff with Mother Russia, a former KGB enforcer vividly portrayed by bodybuilder Olga Kurkulina.

I didn't hate "Kick-Ass 2," but I didn't particularly like it, either. The movie just sat there for me, going through the motions of the original but with the violence and swearing toned down about 40 percent. What's most clear is that very little ass is actually kicked.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Video review: "Olympus Has Fallen"

Maybe we give too many points to originality. I'd rather see a really well-done rehash of old material than a wholly original movie without a dram of flair and wit. "Pacific Rim" may just be a mash-up of monster and robot movies, but it was giddy and fun. "After Earth" was a brand-new idea, but disastrously executed.

"Olympus Has Fallen" is hardly a novel flick. Start with the fact that it's one of two movies out this year about terrorists taking over the White House. And the plot is barely more than "Die Hard" with a zip code change.

But this action/thriller from director Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day") is a zippy, taut distraction. It's entirely implausible, but the sort of movie where you can park your brain in neutral for a couple of hours and have a good time.

Gerard Butler plays Mike Banning, a disgraced Secret Service agent who gets trapped in the White House when North Koreans attack. (I said implausible!) With the rest of the president's detail wiped out, he turns into a one-man wrecking crew, while the POTUS (Aaron Eckhart) and secretary of defense (Mellissa Leo) are trapped in the underground bunker by the sneering villain (Rick Yune).

There's some political intrigue, a side plot involving the president's kid hiding in the building's secret spaces -- though thankfully no lame tacked-on romance. Mostly it's Butler mowing through bad guys and trading insults via radio with the mastermind.

If that sounds a lot like John McClane taunting Hans Gruber while knocking off his henchman from twenty-odd years ago, that's because it is. But the very reason Hollywood recycles old ideas is because they're good ones.

"Olympus Has Fallen" may not be new, but sometimes something old is a better bet.

Video extras are rather modest. There are five making-of featurettes touching on standard subjects like stunts, special effects and casting the film. Add in a blooper reel, and you're done.



Monday, August 12, 2013

Reeling Backward: "The Desert Rats" (1953)

"The Desert Rats" is a quasi/sorta sequel to "The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommell" with James Mason reprising his role as the famed German military tactician. I didn't care for the first film, as described in a previous column, but the follow-up is quite a ripping good war picture, as the old-timers are wont to say. (They are also wont to use antediluvian terms, like "wont" and "antediluvian.")

Instead of being a sympathetic, heroic figure, this time Rommel has a supporting role as the arrogant German commander, speaking mostly German and inspiring terror in all those around him. The focus, rather, is on the Australian troops who defied him during the long siege of Tobruk, a turning point in the World War II African front.

The film was directed by Robert Wise, one of Hollywood's most successful genre-hopping directors, and it was just Richard Burton's second American film, released when he was age 27. Burton was one of those actors who always seemed older than he really was -- when I first started watching the film I thought it was made in the mid-1960s, when in fact it came out in '53.

It's not that he appeared prematurely aged, despite his life of hard drinking and smoking; rather, his manly bearing and clipped line readings tended to make him seem more authoritarian and older.

Burton and Mason share one great scene together, where both men are wounded and being treated in a German medical tent, after Burton's character has been captured. Both actors taunt and sneer at each other, a mano-a-mano combat of words by two bloodied but proud men. It's also practically a contest to see which thespian can display better diction.

As far as historic fidelity goes, "The Desert Rats" is a total wipeout. Start out with the fact that the title got its nickname from an entirely different British outfit. In the film the Australian 9th Division holds the seaside base of Tobruk against Rommel for over eight months, allowing time for a newly-formed Allied army to forum up in Egypt and head west to oppose him. The real Aussies began referring to themselves as "the rats of Tobruk" in defiance of German propaganda that labeled them so.

Virtually everything that is depicted, from the personnel to the military tactics, was a fabrication by screenwriter Richard Murphy. The key sequence in which the British commanders allow Rommel's Panzers to penetrate their outer defenses as a trap is a concoction, as is the daring commando raid undertaken to blow up a German ammunition dump. And in actuality, the Australians were withdrawn after five months and the latter portion of the defense held by British troops.

In the best Hollywood tradition, Murphy, having taken a real, dramatic event and made up virtually everything about it for his script, was rewarded with an Oscar nomination.

And he deserved it. "The Desert Rats" is a war adventure, not a historical drama, and its allegiance is to its own semblance of truth, not a factual one.

Burton plays "Tammy" MacRoberts, aka Mac, a British infantryman captain who's given lead of an Australian outfit when their commander buys it. Over the course of the long siege, he is promoted to major and then a field promotion to lieutenant colonel, and placed in charge of several battalions.

The Aussies are naturally distrustful of having a British officer command them, and the resentment grows to near-mutiny level when Mac orders the Australian lieutenant (Charles Tingwell) court-martialed for leaving his post during a barrage to rescue a fellow officer. After getting a talking-to by both an Australian confidante and the British general, he agrees to withdraw the charges.

Eventually, Mac garners the respect of his troops and does them proud. His main access point in this endeavor is Tom Bartlett (Robert Newton), a middle-aged private who turns out to be an old schoolmaster of Mac's. He is deferential to his old teacher, repeatedly referring to him as "sir" despite their wide distance in rank and showing favoritism toward Bartlett in terms of cushy assignments.

Bartlett is an interesting character to have dropped into the middle of a film like this, and despite a fine performance by Newton -- best remembered for playing Long John Silver in Disney's Treasure Island" -- the character never really quite fits in. A self-confessed drunk, failure and coward, Bartlett moved to Australia to start a new life and enlisted while intoxicated when war broke out.

Near the end Bartlett volunteers for the most dangerous assignment there is, manning the forward sentry post where soldiers last about four hours before being killed. In movies of this sort, it's virtually a requirement that a character such as his die a noble death, but here Bartlett survives and is cheered by his fellow soldiers, becoming the unofficial mascot of their defiance.

As a footnote, I'd like to point out that "Rats" is one of those testosterone-laden movies in which no women have speaking roles, or are even seen. At one point we see a photograph of Mac's wife, as he comments that he's only seen her for a week since they got married in 1939 (the events take place in '41) and he's never met his son.

Wise and Murphy keep the action focused on the men and the military strategy, rather than making the mistake so many war pictures do of bringing in a bunch of mushy romance and secondary plots to distract us. At a crisp 86 minutes, "The Desert Rats" is all business.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Review: "Elysium"

"Elysium" isn't an awful movie, but it could've been a really good one. Its high potential only seems to underscore its failings.

It's a politically-themed science fiction drama about a dystopian future where the divide between the haves and the have-nots has quite literally grown into an impenetrable chasm between two worlds, with the elite floating serenely above the Earth's surface in a massive eponymous space station. The political stuff is obvious but effective, and seen as a straight-ahead chase picture it's quite engaging for stretches.

Its problems arise from a combination of heavy-handedness and bone-headedness. Writer/director Neill Blomkamp, who made the wildly original "District 9" a few years ago, asks us to invest in a story premise that makes absolutely no sense, no matter how you turn it around to peer at it. He would have us believe that the world's rich and powerful have lost every trace of humanity, even to the point of condemning billions of people to die when they could easily save them with little effort.

Furthermore, they would stubbornly hold onto this life-saving technology even if sharing it could solve all of the problems on their little slice of utopia, too. So they're both selfish and stupid.

In the year 2154, the planet has become one big garbage dump filled with disease, violence and overcrowding. Max DeCosta is a born troublemaker, a legendary car thief now trying to go straight as a factory worker that builds the robots that brutally enforce law and order. We get to see just how brutal in the opening minutes, when Max has his arm viciously broken by a robot cop for no reason while he's on his way to work.

With his boyish, wholesome looks, Matt Damon is a bit unconvincing as a sarcastic badass. Even with a shaved head and multitude of tattoos and scars, he still looks like a choir boy wearing his Halloween get-up. As near as we can determine through flashbacks to his childhood, Max's only dream in life has been to get to Elysium, since it represents something more than his squalid little life.

After an industrial accident at his plant leaves him irradiated with only five days to live, Max's urgency to reach Elysium grows urgent. That's because there they have these miraculous medical beds that can instantly heal all injuries and cure all wounds. Unless Max gets to one of these Magic Cure Boxes, he'll die.

But the rich and haughty do not like the downtrodden to use their Magic Cure Boxes because ... well, we're not really sure what their objection is. They're so common on Elysium that every house and public building has one. The residents use them constantly, not only to heal themselves but to keep their (almost entirely Caucasian) flesh looking young -- even cosmetic alterations like hair and eye color, and little scar designs they seem to favor.

Meanwhile down on Earth, deadly disease and injury still reign, so it doesn't take a whole lot of guessing to deduce the people would like to get themselves up to Elysium and hop inside one of the Magic Cure Boxes for what ails them. The steely Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster) shoots down as many incoming shuttles as she can, but still many "illegal immigrants" get through. (Subtle enough for you?)

Max strikes a deal with Spider (Wagner Moura), a hacker/crime boss, to do a job for him in exchange for a trip to Elysium. To help him survive his radiation sickness and be more effective in combat, he's outfitted with a clunky exoskeleton that's literally screwed into his body, making him fearsomely strong. He's even got a little TV screen and computer on the back of his head for mining "brain data."

They're supposed to kidnap a highly-placed Elysium executive (William Fichtner) who's on Earth for business, and tap his brain for financial data. Little do they know he and Delacourt have hatched a plan to stage a coup of Elysium by rebooting their entire computer system, and that rebel code gets zapped into Max's brain, too.

The rest of the movie plays out as one big long chase, as Max attempts to get a ride to Elysium while being hunted by Delacourt's hand-picked operative, a cackling bad guy named Kruger (Sharlto Copley). We're told that Kruger is mentally deranged and responsible for a bunch of war crimes. He's supposed to be maniacally evil and bombastic, but with Copley letting his South African accent unfurl at full speed, it's hard to even understand much of what he says.

(It's the "Bane" problem all over again: It's difficult to be really scared of someone when you can't comprehend their nefarious mutterings.)

Movies like this often have a totally unnecessary romantic interest, and here it's supplied by Alica Braga as Grey, a childhood friend of Max's who is now a nurse and mother of a little girl who -- wait for it -- is dying of end-stage leukemia. Soon their destinies are linked.

These characters never really seem to mesh together. Delacourt in particular is an impenetrable puzzle, with Foster supplying her own odd accent and mannerisms. She regards the Elysium leadership as spineless mamby-pambies who won't do what's necessary to fight the illegal infiltrator scourge.

Here's the thing, though: If the only problem they have on Elysium is the unwanted immigrants, and the only reason the Earth residents want to get to Elysium is so they can use the Magic Cure Boxes, why in the world wouldn't they just install a few planetside? Forget the idea that Elysium-ites are completely selfish and self-serving -- what do they lose by sharing their technology if it keeps out the riff-raff?

As he showed with "District 9," Blomkamp is a talented and original director who comes up with great ideas -- it just seems like he didn't think this one through very well. He's also one of those filmmakers who's good at staging action scenes from a distance, but when it gets down to hand-to-hand combat everything becomes a blurred mess. (Hand! Foot! Elbow! Fist! Knee! Knee! Knee!)

I think "Elysium" wants to be an allegorical tale about how the problems of the future mirror our own today. But it's trapped inside the body of a summer action movie, setting up characters and plot paces that are momentarily engaging but don't make a lick of sense when you take two steps back.

Review: "Planes"

Pixar Animation has been a wondrous success story, churning out hit after hit that pleased children while stirring the emotions and intellects of grown-ups. "Finding Nemo"? "Wall·E"? Those weren't just great pieces of entertainment for kiddies; they were works of great art.

Lately we've seen the inevitable doldrums period, where ideas are being recycled and productions are being handed over to a new wave of creators. "Cars 2," "Brave" and "Monsters University" were pleasant enough, but missing that spark of creative flourish that had been the Pixar hallmark.

This is the first time, though, that it feels like they just weren't trying very hard.

I suppose "Planes" isn't really a Pixar movie, since it doesn't carry the label and comes out of the larger Disney umbrella corporation -- with an animation arm from Mumbai, India providing much of the heavy lifting.

But it's a direct continuation of the "Cars" universe -- "From Above the World of Cars," to use the poster tagline -- was executive-produced by Pixar kingpin John Lasseter, and features the voice talents of some key Pixar veterans (Brad Garrett, John Cleese, John Ratzenberger).

Those who would like to quibble about me knocking Pixar for the lackluster qualities of a movie that's technically not a Pixar product are missing the point. The very fact that the once-infallible geniuses would be willing to spin out a down-market clone of their intellectual creation is a demonstration of how the studio has lost its stamp of specialness.

"Planes" feels like a made-for-TV flick with a higher-than-average budget for CG animation. Overall the looks of the film are decent, although the humanizing of aircraft doesn't work quite as well as it did with cars. With their windshields as eyes and propellers as noses, their outstretched wings make them seem like they're perpetually telling you how they did something thhhiiiisss muuuuuuuch!

Alas, the storytelling is not on par with the visuals. Screenwriter Jeffrey M. Howard and director Klay Hall, who both got their start with Disney "Tinkerbell" videos, approach the material with preadolescent assumptions and mindset.

It plays out as a pretty standard be-who-you-are message, with Dusty Crophopper as a lowly crop-dusting plane who dreams of competing in the Wings Around the Globe race.

He's sort of a diametrical opposite of Lightning McQueen, who suffered from too much confidence. But the familiar roles of curmudgeonly older mentor and humorous truck sidekick are filled by Skipper (Stacy Keach), a brokedown Navy legend, and Chug the goofy fueler (Garrett).

Dusty faces some setbacks, but manages to get into the race and make a serious run at it, impressing the doubting crowds and surprising sneering longtime champ Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith). He also befriends El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui), a Mexican stunt plane with an outsized personality, and Ishani (Priyanka Chopra), the Far East champion.

Rounding out the cast are Cleese as an unctuous Brit flyer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a French Canadian racer and Teri Hatcher as Dusty's mechanic/coach.

There are few surprises in the plot, including some nefarious schemes by the villain and the facing of fears by the good guys. In Dusty's case, this includes a phobia of heights -- funny stuff for a plane, huh? Right?

Dane Cook, a rather generic comedian and actor, makes for a pretty generic vocal stand-in for Dusty. He doesn't have a particularly memorable voice, and doesn't infuse the character with any distinct inflections or personality.

Bland and too afraid to soar for the heights -- much the same could be said for "Planes." Whether you want to label it Pixar or not, it's like watching a play in which all the stars broke their legs at once, and the audience has to make do with the understudies.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Video review: "Oblivion"

I seem to have gone sideways from the consensus on a lot of films in 2013 – none more so than “Oblivion,” a science fiction epic starring Tom Cruise that was greeted  unenthusiastically by ticket-buyers and critics. For my money, it’s the most engaging and thought-provoking sci-fi movie since “The Matrix.”

Set in the dying days of the Earth, the story is about the last two people left on the planet. Jack (Cruise) and Vicca (Andrea Riseborough) live in a glass pinnacle in the skies, tasked with guarding the massive machines that are turning the world’s oceans into energy. The rest of humanity has already decamped into space for the long journey to a new home.

The machines are under continual attack by the alien “scavs” that brought about this calamity. Jack repairs the drones that protect the transformers, while Vicca coordinates with headquarters in orbit.

Things begin to happen that make Jack doubt the truth of what he knows. Both his and Vicca’s memories were wiped as part of their mission, and it soon becomes clear that the situation is very different than he comprehended.

I can’t tell you much more without spoiling the experience. But suffice it to say that “Oblivion” is an ambitious mix of existential pondering, action scenes and unexpected plot twists.

Forget what the herd says – rent or buy this one today.

Video features are quite good, headlined by a feature-length commentary track that includes both director Joseph Kosinski and Cruise. There are also deleted scenes, a comprehensive making-of documentary and an option to watch the entire film with an isolated musical score.



Monday, August 5, 2013

Reeling Backward: "The Eagle Has Landed" (1976)

"The Eagle Has Landed" is a pretty preposterous movie based on a ridiculous premise, but a terrific cast almost pulls it out of the garbage heap. Director John Sturges -- veteran of several terrific pictures including "The Great Escape" and "The Magnificent Seven" -- has a keen eye for composition and knows how to stage action scenes very well.

But this was also his last film, ending his career on something of a sour note (though commercially the movie was quite successful).

I'm not sure what Sturges really could have done with the material, based on a novel by Jack Higgins. The setup is that the Germans come up with a cockamamie plot to kidnap Winston Churchill. In late 1943, the war is considered already lost by most high up in the Third Reich, but they figure capturing the bull of England can at least delay the inevitable for awhile, and increase the morale of the Axis.

Robert Duvall plays Radl, the colonel charged with coming up with a plan to grab Churchill. The idea came from the real-life rescue of Benito Mussolini by German paratroopers from the mountain ski resort where he was being held by the Italians who deposed him.

His commander (Anthony Quayle) gives Radl the assignment out of disgust, calling it a silly joke. Write up a contingency plan so somebody can stick it in the bottom of their desk, is how he puts it. Radl laughs along, but as he pokes into the intelligence he learns that the idea actually has merit. Churchill is scheduled to vacation in the remote (fictional) coastal town of Studley Constable. It would be a simple matter to sneak in a team of soldiers, snatch him up and get out on a disguised ship.

I liked the Radl character quite a lot. A decorated hero, now relegated to unimportant duties by his wounds -- he's missing an eye and, apparently, his left hand is a prosthetic. Duvall gives him a sad, noble quality, the weary soldier who knows he serves a corrupt and loathsome regime but offers his full loyalty nonetheless.

Michael Caine plays Steiner, the disgraced paratrooper colonel selected by Radl to lead the mission. When we first meet Steiner, he and his men are returning from a tough fight on the Soviet front, and encounter German soldiers putting Jews aboard a train.

Inexplicably, Steiner goes into a rage, strikes another officer and helps a woman captive attempt to escape. Instead, she's shot and killed. He and his men are court-martialed and assigned to suicidal duty in the English Chanel, so Radl's offer is their only chance to be regain honor.

Why would a loyal soldier of the Reich object to the well-known plan for the Jews? It's never really made clear, and the Steiner character remains something of a mystery until the end. Caine and Sturges reportedly battled during production, and it resulted in the main character remaining distant and unrelatable.

Donald Pleasence also has a terrific little turn as Heinrich Himmler, who personally authorizes the Eagle mission via a letter signed by Hitler himself, which may or may not be a forgery. It's soon clear that Radl is Himmler's catspaw, to be used and disposed of based on the outcome of the operation.

Donald Sutherland has a corker of a role as Liam Devlin, an IRA insurgent who gets recruited into the mission by the Germans. He's a red-headed charmer and brawler, sent ahead to infiltrate the town as a marsh warden -- a position of dubious meaning to these American ears. He carries a shotgun and patrols the countryside, so I gather he's a constable of some sort.

While spying things out, Devlin falls for local lass Molly (Jenny Agutter), almost 19 and an accomplished equestrian. Their affair is perhaps the most outlandish aspect of the whole over-the-top story. Despite knowing Devlin for a grand total of two days, Molly is somehow willing to betray her countrymen, and even kill one of them, to protect a German spy.

Devlin gets into trouble with a local tough who has a sweet eye on Molly. Upon their first meeting at the local pub, he refused Devlin's offer to buy him a drink. After Devlin pummels the man in a bout of fisticuffs, the old gravedigger throws a bucket of water on the man's face to revive him, and offers the movie's funniest line:

"Well Arthur, looks like he bought you a drink after all!"

The whole cast acquits themselves well, and all of the half-dozen leads are terrific in their roles, even as the script (by Tom Mankiewicz) requires them to do and say some pretty zany stuff.

I should point out that this is a rare World War II movie in which English and American actors play Germans, which makes for some strange audience dynamics as the action plays out. Late in the game we're introduced to an imbecile American reserve colonel played by Larry Hagman, who frets about the war ending without him getting any combat experience.

When he learns about the Churchill plot, he declines to inform his superiors and rushes off with a few men to stop take on the Germans himself. Steiner's seasoned men quickly dispatch the Yanks in a sequence that almost reaches Keystone Kops levels of comedy -- until we remember these are American soldiers fighting and dying (poorly).

The film ends as absurdly as it progressed. Steiner, his entire command decimated, refuses to flee and impersonates an American soldier (Jeff Conaway), continuing the mission to kidnap Churchill, alone. He manages to make it to the mansion where they've hidden him, sneak up and kill him, dying himself moments later when guards arrive.

The young American captain (Treat Williams) marvels at his audacity to single-handedly murder the British leader -- but then we learn that the dead man is the double of the real Churchill, who's actually meeting with FDR and Stalin in Tehran.

In other words, the entire enterprise was a ruse. It's a fitting end for a movie about a made-up plot that was a joke until it became something more.

I loved the cast of "The Eagle Has Landed," but it fails Gene Siskel's test of whether you'd prefer to watch the same people doing almost anything else instead.