Thursday, October 31, 2013

Review: "Ender's Game"

Give Hollywood credit for tackling a science fiction novel that contains few of the easy entry points the genre usually provides for cinematic endeavors. In "Ender's Game" there are no cute robot sidekicks, no cool aliens as allies, not even the lightspeed spaceships, laser weapons and other cool hardware that populate the background of such movies.

Instead, it's a grim and bleak look at a future where humanity is facing extinction at the hands of a hive-like race of creatures known as the Formics. Asa Butterfield plays Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, a young boy who is also a brilliant strategist, finding himself being trained to lead Earth's defense against the invaders.

(According to the film's narration, children make for better commanders because their ingenuity is not bogged down by straitlaced adult thinking. It's a storytelling conceit; just swallow it and move on.)

The film, based on the novel by Orson Scott Card, largely plays out as a long game of psychological warfare and simulated combat, with Ender attending the elite off-world Battle School, where he must go up against his fellow child recruits, his gruff and demanding commander, and eventually the aliens himself. He is forced to hone his instincts for warfare while balancing them against his human compassion, exemplified respectively by his psychopath brother and his compassionate sister (Abigail Breslin).

If you think just because the movie stars a cast of mostly kid actors that it's a good fit for young audiences, think again. While the violence is rather tame and there's no swearing, the mental duress placed upon Ender is quite extreme. Audience members under high school age would likely find it dreary.

(Incurious adults, too.)

As a cerebral exercise, though, I found the film challenging and complex, supplying many questions and few easy answers about the morality of waging war. Ender's tactics are genius, but his willingness to sacrifice allies to achieve a win earn him the grudging respect of his teachers and fellow students alike.
(I'm not surprised to learn the book is recommended reading for U.S. Marines officer training.)

As Colonel Graff, Harrison Ford tackles a much darker role than we're used to. Graff sees Ender as his shining star, potentially the savior of humanity, and if that means putting a tender boy through the crucible of harsh lessons, he's more than willing to do it. Viola Davis plays a psychiatrist chartered to nurture Ender's psyche, so naturally she finds herself butting heads with Graff.

Ben Kingsley has a small but vital role as the last of Ender's instructors, a man with a tatooed face and mysterious past. Hailee Steinfeld plays Petra, a fellow cadet who stands up for Ender when he's abused by their team leader.

"Ender's Game" will not suit everyone's tastes. Writer/director Gavin Hood's plotting is sometimes suspect, and the story bogs down a few times. And if you go in expecting a light, action-heavy ripping space yarn, you'll likely walk away disappointed. For me, the moral complexities of the tale were tantalizing and way more ambitious than expected. This is thinking man's sci-fi.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Review: "12 Years a Slave"

It caused quite a sensation when it came out, but since 1853 the book “12 Years a Slave” by Solomon Northup has largely faded from memory. The movie adaptation by director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley brings the sin of slavery back into our faces with searing honesty about the brutality and dehumanization of an entire people.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, in an Oscar-worthy turn, plays Northup – an educated and talented musician and engineer from Saratoga, New York, kidnapped and sold into bondage in Louisiana, where he toiled and struggled to survive. Forced to take on the persona of “Platt,” he hid his abilities, including reading and writing, to pass himself off as a field laborer.

Over the next dozen years he experiences untold degradation and torture, having his back flayed until it is little more than a crisscross patchwork of scars. Separated from his wife and children, he can only imagine their own pain and torment. And he must submit to the rule of white Southerners who view him as a piece of chattel to be used and discarded as needs or whims serve.

Ejiofor brings an earnest grace to the role, an ordinary, intelligent man placed in hellish circumstances that defy logic. He holds onto his pride with great care, even violently defying an especially cruel overseer (Paul Dano) who can’t stand that a slave knows more about building houses than he does.
Even though he eventually learns not to make waves, he never loses track of his inner soul. Because of that, hope never truly dies.

If the film has a weakness, it’s that McQueen and Ridley overplay their hand. Northup’s life prior to his ordeal is an idealized existence in which whites and blacks live in perfect harmony -- eating at each other’s tables, shopkeepers enthusiastically offering their handshake and assistance.

Ironically, it’s only in traveling to our nation’s capital (where slavery was still allowed in 1841) that he exposes himself to nefarious types who make a business of carrying off free blacks to the deep South, where they can fetch prices of $1,000. A decent, law-abiding man, Northup at first reacts with disbelief and threats to sue his oppressors. Defiance is soon (literally) beaten out of him, and a host of merchants warn him upon threat of death never to mention his real name or origin again.

At first Northup is placed in the hands of a genteel owner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who treats him with respect and makes use of the engineering skills of “Platt.” He even gives him a violin out of patriarchal devotion -- both to soothe the slaves and please his own ear.

But circumstances change, and Platt is sold to a vile man with a reputation for being stern with his slaves.
The film reaches its greatest emotional heights -- and depths -- under the reign of Epps, a plantation master played by Michael Fassbender. Conflating his religious beliefs with his inhuman instincts, Epps is a caricature of a character, frightening to behold but difficult to accept as truthful.

Fassbender is leering and electric, not content to just subjugate his slaves but fawn while doing so. A favorite move is putting his face right into theirs, practically nuzzling Platt or his favorite, Patsey, before putting them to the whip, or indulging his sexual cravings, or both.

Lupita Nyong’o is a terrific presence as Patsey, a slender reed of a woman who can pick three times as much cotton in a day as most men. But she must navigate the tumultuous river of jealousy springing forth from Mrs. Epps (Sarah Paulson), who fears that her husband values a slave more than his wife.

“12 Years a Slave” is a mesmerizing cinematic experience, easily one of the best of the year. I couldn’t help feeling, though, that the filmmakers would’ve better served the audience by exercising a little more restraint. By making the villain better resemble an actual human, the crucible of slavery would have had the weight of authenticity, and been made even more harrowing.

Review: "About Time"

Most romantic movies follow a familiar pattern so slavishly their endings seem preordained. The happy couple walks off into the sunset, there is maybe a proposal of marriage, perhaps snapshots of the wedding over the closing credits.

The charming and ambitious “About Time” reaches that point about halfway through, and keeps going. We follow the couple as their journey continues into settled marriage, child birth and rearing, struggles with careers and the loss of older loved ones. The fact it also involves time travel is merely a quirk.

I enjoyed the first part of the film, even as it seemed as if writer/director Richard Curtis was laboring to repeat his success with “Love Actually” from a decade ago. Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan and best known as one of the Weasley brothers in the “Harry Potter” movies, plays a typical uptight British romantic leading man, stammering adorably through his misadventures with women.

But just when the movie reached its natural stopping point, it continued onward and found a deeper, richer tale to tell about what it means to be in love. When you’re young and it’s new, love is about the flash and flame of passion. Later on, one must stoke the fire to keep it going, and learn to appreciate the low, slow burn of everyday life.

The story opens with Tim (Gleeson) age 21 and being given the news by his father (a spot-on Bill Nighy): all the men in their family have the ability to travel through time. Simply go into a dark place, clench your fists and think about a point earlier in your life, and you’ll be there.

There are caveats: you can only revisit times and places in your own life -- so Tim can’t, say, decide to take a jaunt with King Tut in prehistoric Egypt. The future’s off-limits, too. Mostly it’s an opportunity to revisit events that didn’t go so well and try again, dad instructs. Tim uses his trial run to return to a New Year’s Eve party where he failed to kiss the slightly awkward girl at midnight, leaving her crushed, and lay on a fantastic smooch.

This sets the stage for the rest of Tim’s time travel: “For me, it was always going to be about love.”

He spends the next hour or so of screen time wooing Mary (Rachel McAdams), a winsome American and fellow Londoner. They share a lovely blind date – literally in the blind; it takes place in a pitch-black restaurant with blind waiters – and hit it off. But Tim must redo the evening to help out a family friend (Tom Hollander) in dire need, and can’t be in two places at once.

First he must track her down, but finds in the week interval she has acquired a boyfriend. He tries again by intervening at the party where they met. He even hits rewind on their first night in bed to upgrade the lovemaking from adequate to epic.

The movie is often raucously humorous – the part where Tim gets to try out various chums as his best man so he can experience how awful their wedding toasts would be is just gut-busting funny.

If this sounds too gimmicky, like a Brit version of “Groundhog Day,” then you’ll be happy to know that Curtis cuts the antics off just before it becomes tedious. Instead Tim must deal with the outlier realities of being able to alter events, including a heartbreaking one involving children.

“About Time” morphs from a frothy romcom into an insightful meditation on life, love and cherishing the immediacy of workaday existence. As time goes on (and backwards, and forwards) Tim finds himself less and less tempted to hop back to put a new spin on things. We also learn poignant things about his father, who mostly used his “extra days” to read books and spend time with his children.

I admit I went into “About Time” expecting little. Instead, I discovered a romantic movie with a mountain of smarts as well as heart. That doesn’t happen too often.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Video review: "Monsters University"

Between “Planes” and “Monsters University,” the Pixar/Disney animation empire appears to be stuck in a rut. Once a fountainhead of original storytelling and innovative characters, lately they’ve been spinning out sequels that seemed to spring more from the minds of the marketing department than the creative wing of Walt’s shop.

“Monsters University” is a perfect example of the current state of Pixar -- an agreeable romp aimed squarely at the kindergarten-and-down crowd. It features a lot of cool screwy monsters, the estimable vocal talents of Billy Crystal and John Goodman, and not much else.

We’re going back in time to the college days of green, one-eyed ovoid Mike Wazowski (Crystal) and hirsute blue BMOC Sully (Goodman). Instead of pals they’re rivals squaring off to see who is the best scarer around.

When the top fraternities won’t take them, they’re forced to join the unhallowed ranks of Oozma Kappa, a frat full of losers that includes a middle-aged salesman, a two-headed monster with a split personality and a flaky dude who looks like a big purple “U.”

Playing the heavy is Helen Mirren as Hardscrabble, the old-school dean who doesn’t exactly take a shine to the big-headed frosh pair. She throws Sully and Mike out of the scare program, and to get back in they’ve got to pull together a team of reject monsters and win first prize at the annual Greek contest.

It’s mostly old hat, with a few funny bits and life-lessons moments. It gets a passing grade.

Video extras are quite good – provided you’re willing to spring for the more expensive Blu-ray/DVD combo. The DVD contains only with an audio commentary track and “The Blue Umbrella,” a charming little Pixar short film.

The Blu-ray package adds deleted scenes and nine making-of featurettes, including how to “age down” monsters who appeared in the original “Monsters, Inc.”



Monday, October 28, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Magic" (1978)

"Magic" is one of those good movies that, for whatever reason, saw its reputation fade as the years went by. It got good reviews and box office when it came out in 1978, and arrived right around the beginning of the horror film boom of the late '70s and 1980s. But it didn't have the lasting cultural impact of, say, "Halloween," which came out the same year.

It's probably a mistake to toss "Magic" into the horror bin, since it's more a psychological portrait of a deranged mind than a movie whose primary vocation is to scare you. Certainly, director Richard Attenborough and screenwriter William Goldman (who adapted his own novel) are not names associated with cheap slasher flicks.

Still, it features a lot of the same tropes of horror films, and what fame it does have is usually framed in terms of Anthony Hopkins' performance as a creepy precursor to that in "Silence of the Lambs." And, of course, the kicker ending is in the classic horror mold -- giving the audience a final thrill while setting up the possibility of a sequel (wisely left unmade).

For the movie Hopkins had to learn a number of difficult skills: magic tricks with cards, coins, and of course ventriloquism. His work with the puppet Fats -- a leering, oversexed, R-rated version of his character's own crushingly repressed id -- is so good, in fact, that we wonder if there wasn't a little help from the sound looping department.

Hopkins' lips and teeth barely seem to move at all, and if it weren't for a slight tremor under the jawline, I'd chalk it up to Hollywood trickery.

Voice has often seemed an important element to Hopkins' body of work, much more so than most actors. The flat, metallic sound he gave Hannibal Lecter reflected the timbre of a man who had barely spoken for more than a decade (mostly because he deemed his few visitors unworthy of his speech). Hopkins is also known to be a really good mimic -- including dubbing the lines of the late Laurence Olivier for the restored footage of "Spartacus."

Here he employs a high, reedy tone that tip-toes right up to the edge of being shrill. For the dummy, it jumps whole hog right into screechy. In this sense the way Fats sounds parallels his looks, which are meant as a crude caricature of his partner's own visage.

Hopkins plays Corky Withers, a failed apprentice magician whose first attempt to appear on stage is a horrible disaster. The story opens with him relating the tale of his bombing in flashback to his dying mentor. The old man advises him that since he lacks anything like charisma or showbiz flair, he needs a gimmick.

Flash to a year later, and Corky is on the verge of hitting it big, playing sold out performances and appearing several times on "the Carson show." He has now incorporated Fats into the act, using him to tell off-color jokes and operate as his own personal court jester, hurling insults and put-downs at the guy working his levers.

His own TV show is in the works, and eel-ish agent Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith) advises him that the only formality is a medical exam. This sends Corky running off into hiding, leaving New York City for his hometown in the Catskills. It appears he knows the doctors would conclude something is wrong with his head, so he doesn't give them a chance.

There he hooks up with his old high school love interest, Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margret), whom he never had the courage to approach when they were youngsters. Now trapped in an unhappy marriage to a brute (Ed Lauter), she at first resists Corky's overtures -- played mostly through Fats' persona, who can flirt and cajole while Corky can't get past a stammer.

Ann-Margret has verve and sass, and seems to exist as a thinking, independent character who isn't just there to be acted upon by the male protagonist. That wasn't always an assured thing in the 1970s (or now).

Attenborough and Goldman tease the audience with the possibility of something supernatural going on with Fats -- that he's actually a sentient being who only plays the part of a ventriloquist's dummy. On a couple of occasions we seem to catch his head moving on its own, but it's always in the corner of the screen and/or out of focus.

Of course, the most glaring evidence is when Fats stabs Peggy Ann's husband to death with a switchblade -- it's shot to suggest that the dummy is wielding the knife. But we can see it's a human hand holding the blade, and after the man falls dead, dragging Fats to the ground with him, the curtain behind where the dummy was sitting parts to reveal Corky.

The point is that while Fats isn't really alive, Corky thinks he is. Their ongoing conversations with each other are actually symptoms of a split personality, or at least a manifestation of Corky's darker instincts. (Of course, this doesn't explain the ending, where Peggy Ann starts talking in a voice similar to Fats', suggesting Corky's delusion has been passed on to her.)

One of the things I most liked about the movie was the distinction Corky makes between "magic" and "tricks." Tricks, to him, are a set-up -- something the magician has arranged in advance with special equipment or a volunteer who's in on the gag. Corky insists that he performs magic, which he defines as simply a skill that has been practiced and honed so that it appears to be extraordinary.

Fats, for his part, tells Peggy Ann that "Corky does magic. I just do tricks," emphasizing the opposition between their warring personalities. In essence Fats is Corky's trick, the prop he uses to get the audience to pay attention to his magic act, which otherwise wouldn't impress them.

I haven't read Goldman's book, but I wonder if it explores the process of how Corky evolved from nobody loser to huge ventriloquism success. My guess is no.

It's merely supposition, but if I were to fill in the blanks for Corky's missing year, I would say he forced himself to sell out his purist magic principles by adopting the cheapest, moldiest carny sideshow trick: the ventriloquist dummy. Self-hatred drove him to endow the object of his parallel success and degradation with seething hatred.

Here's one thing I know: I would've loved to have seen the Corker & Fats television show.

"Magic" is a very good and borderline terrific proto-horror film that showcases Anthony Hopkins at his nervy best. Hopefully the movie can conjure up a new generation of admirers.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Review: "The Counselor"

Cormac McCarthy is a glorious novelist, and many of his books have been turned into exceptional films -- "The Road," "No Country for Old Men." But his first attempt, at age 80, at an original screenplay falls flat on its Gucci boot heels.

This story of drug intrigue along the U.S./Mexico intrigue is a murky mess, all character but little plot. The movie at one point actually loses track of its main character, an amoral (and never-named) attorney played by Michael Fassbender. In the final act, McCarthy and director Ridley Scott start introducing a bunch of new characters played be recognizable actors, who say a few lines and disappear with little consequence to their appearance.

It's almost as if there was a raffle entered by a bunch of thespians who wanted to say they were in a Cormac McCarthy film.

A strange undercurrent of sexual energy runs through the movie, with many encounters between characters having the feel of a power-trip seduction. There's very little actual sex, though, and one comes away believing these people like to talk about sex more than actually engage in it.

Penelope Cruz plays his girlfriend and soon-to-be wife, a sweet and unsullied woman who has no idea her man is in deep with the Mexican drug cartel. He provides her the high life of magnificent houses, cars and meals, and she's innocent enough to accept that he earns his pile defending low-rent criminals (like Rosie Perez, who has a strong, single scene).

The counselor has an association with Reiner (Javier Bardem), a flashy club owner and drug kingpin, and decides to go in with him on a big narcotics deal. The lawyer thinks this will be a one-off, but Reiner knows better. The two men like each other's company, so going into business seems like the next step.

Hanging around the edges is Malkina, Reiner's cruel cat of a girlfriend, played by Cameron Diaz in a performance shockingly devoid of any nuance. Malkina is a predator in every way -- for money, sex and attention. As if the filmmakers hadn't made this point clearly enough, they gift her with a cheetah pattern tattoo all over her body, and a pair of the actual animals as pets/guardians.

My biggest problem with this movie is that all the characters speak as though their dialogue was written for them. Everything sounds very arch and constructed, as if we're supposed to revel in the resplendence of McCarthy's prose instead of believing these words would actually fall out of somebody's mouth. It's the sort of thing that works on the page but not on the screen.

Example: "Isn't that a little cold?" "The truth has no temperature."

Considering the story revolves around drug trafficking, the actual mechanics of the plot are left rather unclear. We never actually see or hear from the cartel people, though shadowy go-betweens turn up and depart without much rhyme or reason. The truck hauling the drugs -- we're never even told what kind it is, other than it's a lot -- has all sorts of adventures on the road, changing hands several times. The counselor and Reiner get blamed for the loss, even though they were just victims, and spend the rest of the movie on the run.

Brad Pitt appears a few times as Westray, a slithery associate of the counselor who also has some skin in the game and delivers apocryphal warnings about what's to come.

This is the sort of movie in which early on, we are told about a particularly nasty way for someone to die. And we know we're just marking time until one of the people we're watching meets that grisly fate.

This is the sort of movie that is bewitching to actors, since they get to speak a lot of pretty dialogue and wear cool clothes and engage in conversations where everyone's trying to pretend how smart they are. But for audiences it's a listless wander through the desert, where the scenery is pretty but the map was lost long ago.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Video review: "The Conjuring"

It’s been a down year for animation but a hot time for horror, with “The Conjuring” one of the latest movie to scare up a lot of cash at the box office.

This summer hit stars Vera Farmiga as a demonologist who’s a clairvoyant to boot. Lorraine Warren and her husband Ed (Patrick Wilson) were normal, everyday people who investigate hauntings and participate in exorcisms as a vocation. In 1971 they encountered one of their worst cases ever, which formed the basis for this rollicking “true life” tale.

A couple moves into a lonely farmhouse with their five daughters and things start going bump in the night. All the clocks stop at the same time in the middle of the night, and a secret lair in the basement produces strange sounds and drafts. Eventually evil forces start threatening the children, so the Warrens have to team up to cast them out.

(Strangely, the film received an “R” rating from the MPAA, despite having no cursing and little gore.)
The strong part of the film is its focus on the exorcism duo as protagonists equal to the haunted couple. By depicting the Warrens as grounded folks who just happen to have made their careers in the occult, it makes the proceedings feel more plausible.

Directed by James Wan (“Saw”), “The Conjuring” starts out rather slowly, but when things get into full brimstone-and-holy-water mode, it’s a heckuva thrill ride.

Extras are just so-so. The DVD comes with a single featurette, “Scaring the ‘@$*%’ Out of You.’ Upgrade to the Blu-ray combo, and you add two more features: “The Conjuring: Face-to Face with Terror,” a making-of documentary, and “A Life in Demonology,” a look at the real-life Warrens.



Monday, October 21, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Before Sunset" (2004)

In preparation for the arrival on video of "Before Midnight" -- which most of my local colleagues insists belongs among the year's best films -- I realized I hadn't seen the middle film in its entirety. I recently watched "Before Sunrise" again, and was again ensorceled by its depiction of youthful aspirations and intensity.

Set nine years later when the characters are in their early 30s, "Before Midnight" is a film about gravitational pull. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) meet again for a single day's encounter, this time in Paris. He has written a best-selling book about their meeting in Vienna, with a barely-disguised account of how they came together in a lush meeting of souls.

As you will recall, they vowed to meet again at the train station six months later. In the original version of his book, Jesse wrote that they did meet again, began a serious romance, got married and discovered everyday life with each other did not hold the allure of that one magical day. Céline notes this is the most realistic outcome, but rather downbeat. Jesse agrees, and confides that his agent convinced him to leave it out, ending the book on the same ambiguous note as the movie.

In reality, he made the appointment and was crushed when she didn't. She couldn't because of the death of her grandmother, but I suspect that she might not have shown even without a good excuse. You'll remember that it was he who first proposed getting off the train in Vienna, and in writing the book it's obvious that he is the more outgoing and proactive of the two. Her lack of the same level of commitment -- which she underscores by pretending to forget whether they had intercourse or not -- seems like a rather transparent attempt to gain the upper hand.

The acting is once again so splendid and naturalistic, and director Richard Linklater's role here is mostly to disappear and have his follow these people around the city as the stroll through gloomy-gorgeous Parisian streets, sip coffee in a cafe or ride a boat through the canal. The dialogue feels organic and unscripted, which is a testament to how good it is. Delpy and Hawke both received a screenwriting credit along with Linklater, and the trio scored an Oscar nomination for their efforts.

Jumping to the end of this movie, it becomes clear that neither of their lives have measured up to the majesty of their time in Vienna. Céline has been stuck in a parade of "bleah" relationships that she secretly undermines because has no romantic hope for herself. Jesse is trapped in a loveless marriage that he only stays in because of his devotion to their son. "I feel like I'm running a small-time daycare with this person who I used to date," he sums up, miserably.

After performing a guitar waltz that she wrote about their "one night stand," Céline does an enticing little dance and lip synch to a Nina Simone song. Clearly, she is luring him in, even while pushing him away: "Baby, you're doing to miss your plane." "I know," he responds, and we sense he knew from the moment he saw her in the bookstore that he hadn't planned on flying back to his life in New York City.

In some ways, the ending of this movie is both more and less ambiguous than the previous one. The audience is left to their own conclusions about what happens next, but the cues are there. Near the end Jesse confides that he only wrote the book in hopes that it would reconnect him with Céline.

Fate has not been kind enough to get them back together on its own -- despite learning they lived in New York over the same period of time. So Jesse has made one last, desperate attempt to find the woman of his dreams. Being a cynical, ironic Generation X hipster he recognizes his endeavor as ludicrous. But he can't resist a chance at catching lightning in a bottle.

For Céline, being pursued across continents and being immortalized in a work of art are her lifeline to the possibility of a deep, meaningful relationship -- something she's mostly given up on.

Even without knowing that the third movie resumes their journey after several years of marriage, the compass was already pointing in the direction these characters would take. In "Before Sunset," like real life, you must work your own magic.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Review: "The Fifth Estate"

Sometimes we whisper.

As a journalist, my first instinct is always toward transparency and holding governments and other institutions of power accountable. As a citizen, though, I understand that some things a group of people does must be kept secret in order for their aims to succeed.

The lines can grow fuzzy, but fundamentally most people understand that in communicating with each other, sometimes we have to shout, and sometimes we must whisper.

The problem with Julian Assange and his website WikiLeaks is they do not make this distinction. While claiming transparency for the whistleblower as its ultimate calling, the group is happy to trample on the rights of individuals and nations in pursuit of what it deems the common good. Sometimes what the site publishes is helpful; sometimes it smacks of leaking secret documents as an end unto itself.

The film version of WikiLeaks’ rise and fall, “The Fifth Estate,” portrays the operation as an amalgamation of journalistic enterprise and gleeful computer hacker playground. The central figure, of course, is Julian Assange, the oddly charismatic leader with long white hair played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

In Cumberbatch’s quicksilver portrayal, Assange is part visionary, part con man and all manipulative bully. We start out admiring his brio and style. But over time it becomes clear that Assange is less concerned with disseminating the truth than making himself the oracle of a new technological age where information flows like water wherever it wants – with a little engineering assistance from Assange and his merry band of groupies.

Director Bill Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer based their film on a book by Daniel Berg, Assange’s former right-hand man who split off at the moment of WikiLeaks’ greatest triumph – the mass publication of thousands of American diplomatic cables leaked by Army Pfc. Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning – who was recently in the news being sentenced to prison.

As played by Daniel Brühl, Berg is a fairly apolitical programmer who gives up his cushy job in the corporate world to help Assange take down a major bank. They come up with a method to protect the identity of their whistleblowers so foolproof they themselves don’t know who is giving them information.

At first, Berg sees this as a strength. He’s all-in on Assange’s method of publishing everything their leakers give them, without alteration. “Editing reflects bias,” he insists.

But over time Berg begins to see how Assange has manipulated him, the mainstream media and the rest of the world.

Condon and Singer opt for way, way too many scenes of men (few women in this club) hunched over laptop computers, typing away furiously as bright beams of colorful gibberish splash across the screens. I can’t help but compare this movie to “The Social Network,” which eschewed the guts of geekery in favor of focusing on the personalities behind the code.

Instead, we’re given recognizable actors (Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci) in small roles where they pop up from time to time and spout something apocryphal for the benefit of the audience, like a British newspaper editor (David Thewlis) bellowing: “He’s the head of a huge global media empire who’s accountable to no one. And we put him there!”

The result is a jangled mess of a movie, Deep Throat meets “War Games.”

Today, WikiLeaks and Assange are largely neutralized. He is essentially a captive inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, subject to immediate arrest and extradition should he ever leave. A visit to the WikiLeaks site shows only four new leak articles posted in the last year, and those restricted to rather obscure matters.

The obsession with leaks continues, with Edward Snowden aided and abetted by mainstream media who ought to know better.

We’ve reached an age where we have substituted the principled whistleblower who leaks a piece of information they think the world needs to know in favor of anarchists who believe the very concept of secrets represents tyranny. So they spill everything in hopes of finding a few drops of insight in a vat of brew. They literally know not what they leak.

“The Fifth Estate” is a better idea for a film than the one they made.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Video review: "Pacific Rim"

“Pacific Rim” tied the knot on a substandard summer of movies – it had something old, something new, plenty of stuff borrowed and something totally badass.

Some have dismissed co-writer/director Guillermo del Toro’s film as a mere mash-up of old Japanese science fiction, mecha and kaiju. And there is some truth to that: he basically took the big monsters of Godzilla and the mammoth robots of 1960s TV and said, “Hey, what would happen if they fought each other?”

The premise is that the Earth is under siege by skyscraper-tall alien creatures that emerge periodically from a portal at the bottom of the ocean. At first they laid waste to large swaths of the planet, but eventually humanity banded together to create the jaegers – hulking metal automatons controlled by two humans whose minds are linked through something called “the Drift.”

Things haven’t been going so well for humanity lately, with the jaeger program nearly shut down while the monsters are bigger and badder than ever. A washed-up pilot (Charlie Hunnam) gets recruited by his old boss (an imposing Idris Elba) to make one last stand.

The action scenes are tremendous, and del Toro gives a terrific sense of the awe-inspiring scale of the jaegers and their foes. The characters aren’t particularly deep, but they’re designed to be stand-ins for the audience to experience the roller coaster of thrills.

“Pacific Rim” is an exceedingly entertaining movie, easily the best this summer had to offer.
Special features are quite excellent, and you don’t have to pay more for the priciest edition in order to get the good stuff.

The DVD version includes a feature-length commentary track by del Toro, deleted/extended scenes, blooper reel and several featurettes focusing on different aspects of production, including the technology/psychic bond of the Drift.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray combo pack, and you add “The Director’s Notebook,” consisting of personal video by del Toro detailing the journey from conceptualization to post-production.



Monday, October 14, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Von Ryan's Express" (1965)

There are many different variations of the World War II film -- the submarine adventure, the combat pilot thriller, the romance-amidst-the-horror drama. One of the most enduring sub-genres is prison movies.

Some of these dealt with life inside the prison/concentration camp ("Stalag 17") while others focused on escape attempts by daring Allied P.O.W.s ("The Great Escape"). Some of these movies combined a bit of each, including the grand poo-bah of WWII prison movies, "The Bridge on the River Kwai."

"Von Ryan's Express" starts out as a prison movie and morphs into an escape movie, and does neither particularly well. It was one of Frank Sinatra's most commercially successful films, a great rousing war adventure that culminates in a spectacular action sequence where prisoners fleeing on a train are pursued by fighter planes and German soldiers.

Sinatra plays the title character, Joseph Ryan, an American pilot who's shot down in Italy during the waning days of the war. Taken to the nearest P.O.W. camp, he finds the prisoners in a state of near revolt, whipped up by the acting C.O., Major Fincham (Trevor Howard). It seems the old C.O. just died after being locked in a hot box by the haughty Italian commander (Adolpho Celi).

As a colonel, Ryan finds himself the ranking officer. At first he is reluctant to take up the mantle of leadership. But his clashes with Fincham escalate as he has organized the entire camp around attempting to escape or defying their captors. Ryan rationalizes that the war is nearly over -- American troops have already landed in Italy and are pushing north. If they just wait a few weeks, they'll be rescued peacefully.

When two of the handful of American G.I.'s -- Brad Dexter and James Brolin -- get in trouble for stealing medicine Fincham had set aside for escapes, Ryan takes over. He even leads the Italians to the tunnel the Brits had been digging, in exchange for the clothes, showers and first aid packages the prisoners had been denied.

This leads Fincham to start referring to Ryan as Von Ryan, dubbing him a collaborator who will earn the Iron Cross for assisting the enemy so well.

I think the film would've done better if the had made the Ryan/Fincham the central conflict of the entire story. Instead their rivalry exists in the background, occasionally heating up as events transpire.

The odd thing is, Fincham is portrayed as being the deranged one, burning with a mad lust for revenge -- "justice" he calls it -- against their enemies. But in every occasion where the two men disagree over strategy, Fincham makes the right call while Ryan's decisions end up costing lives.

For example, when Italy surrenders and their prisoners flee, Fincham wants to try and execute the prison commander as a war criminal, which Ryan refuses, putting him into the hot box instead. Later the man is rescued by the Germans and leads them right to the prisoners, who are all killed or recaptured.

Later, they are put on a train heading deeper into Nazi-controlled territory. The prisoners eventually take over, killing all the German guards except for the officer and his Italian mistress (Wolfgang Preiss and Raffaella Carrà). Once they reach a point of no return and their captives become expendable, Fincham wants to do away with them. Ryan against refuses, and they later escape, kill a British lieutenant and imperil the entire group.

In this context, Ryan's acts are the humane option while Fincham would become the very thing he holds in contempt. But nice guys come in last here, and Ryan's leniency comes back to bite him every time.

After the German train officer and his mistress escape, Ryan himself is forced to gun them both down lest they are given away. Shooting an unarmed woman in the back is a pretty ballsy scene for 1965, and director Mark Robson milks it for every ounce.

I noticed throughout the movie that he rarely gives his stars close-ups, preferring medium shots where they interact together. According to the film's Wikipedia page, Robson and Sinatra clashed throughout the production -- so perhaps this was his way of paying his petulant star back. It certainly isn't one of Sinatra's better performances, seeming almost stiff at times.

Once the story gets rolling along the train tracks it has a certain amount of momentum, with the Allies staging an elaborate con job to convince all the enemies along the line that their German captors are still in charge. The highlight is the mild-mannered vicar (Edward Mulhare), the only one who speaks fluent German, being forced to impersonate an imperious Nazi. He succeeds, but then faints from the stress.

I couldn't get terribly engaged with "Von Ryan's Express." The movie feels distant and impersonal, a humdrum war adventure where nothing much is at stake.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Review: "Captain Phillips"

“Captain Phillips” is in some ways two separate movies tied together by the same event: the first capture of an American ship by pirates since the 1800s. Both are equally effective at evoking a harrowing sense of tension – even though, since the film is a chronicle of real events, we know the title character makes it out alive.

Based on a book co-written by the actual Captain Richard Phillips, the story starts out as the tale of a group of cargo ship crewmen resisting armed intruders, a classic us-versus-them saga. The audience is encouraged to look upon the Somali pirates as bloodthirsty killers and thieves, while the resolute captain (Tom Hanks) is the noble hero beset by them.

Then a curious thing happens, and the second half of the film shifts to the confines of a stuffy, tiny motorized lifeboat where the four pirates have escaped with Phillips as their abductee.

Screenwriter Billy Ray swings to an intimate character study, where we learn the Somalis are thinking, feeling individuals who capture ships not out of pure greed, but to appease the tyrannical warlord who rules them. They come from a society where men are valued by how much ransom money they bring in. Their desperation in many ways mirrors that of Phillips.

Director Paul Greengrass is a seasoned expert at portraying real, violent events with a clear eye and a steady hand (“United 93,” “Bloody Sunday”). By not overdramatizing the proceedings but letting them play out with organic emotions, Greengrass manages to underline the humanity of the peril without becoming maudlin or manipulative.

And, of course, the movie is a showcase for yet another one of Hanks’ brilliant performances. He’s been so good for so long that we’ve come to expect nothing less than excellence out of his acting roles. In a perverse sort of homage, we tend to under-praise his efforts because of the high standard he has maintained for a quarter-century. I certainly hope the Academy Award voters do not do so.

I was pleased to find Greengrass employed authentic African actors to play the Somalis rather than relying on performers from the U.S. or England or wherever. They all acquit themselves well, especially Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the scrappy, cagey pirate leader, and Faysal Ahmed as Najee, the excitable enforcer who often butts heads with him.

Really, Phillips and Muse are the main characters of the piece, and Greengrass and Ray give us pivotal scenes of each man before, during and after their confrontation. We discover the two “captains” aren’t so very different than we’d imagined – including facing larger pressures from their superiors to carry out policies that won’t endear them to their underlings.

As Phillips himself puts it: “We’ve all got bosses.”

Things build to a fever pitch when a U.S. destroyer arrives on the scene, followed by a team of Navy sharpshooters. You may have already read the astounding account of how SEAL Team Six managed to put an end to the kidnapping, but seeing it rendered in sight and sound is a spellbinding experience.

The film’s version of events does omit some key facts, such as the fact the pirates’ comrades were trying to bring in other captured vessels carrying more than 50 hostages to act as human shields. From a storytelling standpoint it’s a wise move, but it leaves the film open to charges of focusing on the plight of an American to the detriment of foreign-born victims.

The movie does not engage in so much equivocation as to make the Somali pirates seem blameless, or the Americans appear as unflawed. But in treating both the captors and captives as full-blooded human beings, “Captain Phillips” plumbs depths a lesser film would’ve skimmed over.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Video review: "The Hangover Part III"

If it stood on its own, “The Hangover Part III” would probably go down as a pretty decent comedy, agreeably raunchy without being terribly ambitious. Following in the wake of the brashly original 2009 film, though, it was bound to seem a letdown.

I give writer/director Todd Phillps and company points for recognizing they couldn’t just keep repeating the gimmick of a bunch of early-middle-aged buddies waking up from a night of debauchery and trying assemble the missing pieces to solve some mystery. It worked once, brilliantly, and was already old hat by the second time round. A third retread would’ve been fatal.

This time it’s all about irrepressible man-boy Alan (Zach Galifianakis), the one-time fifth wheel who’s undeniably the star of the show now. After being devastated by the death of his dad, the rest of the “Wolf Pack” – including rakish Phil (Bradley Cooper) and pernickety Stu (Ed Helms) – are driving Alan cross-country to a detox center.

Of course they run into all sorts of trouble, mostly involving an overbearing gangster (John Goodman), but also returning crazed con-man/exhibitionist Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong) to the fold. There’s not quite as much nudity and foul behavior as the previous two films, though stick around for the end credits for an extra helping of filth.

“The Hangover Part III” may be a pale shadow of the original, but it’s funny enough to remind us what made it so good in the first place.

Extras are rather good, and in a rare occurrence are the same whether you opt for the Blu-ray combo pack or the regular DVD edition. So many releases today require you to pay more for the really good goodies.

There are extended and deleted scenes, outtakes and a host of making-of featurettes that are intended to be informative as well as ladle on more laughs. Probably the best is a prank pulled on Galifianakis in which they secretly filmed other actors auditioning to replace him in the role of Alan, then let the tapes “leak” out.



Monday, October 7, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Kiss of Death" (1947)

"Kiss of Death" is a movie that's well-remembered, but mostly for the wrong reasons.

Like "From Here to Eternity," it's a film that's come to be summed up in the popular gestalt for a single scene, even though that scene isn't particularly representative of the movie around it. It's like putting an unexpected ingredient in the middle of a sandwich, say a chocolate bon-bon inside a turkey on rye.

It doesn't matter if the sandwich was bland or wonderful; people are going to remember the bon-bon.

For "Eternity" it was the beachside kiss. For "Kiss of Death," it's a soulless hood pushing a woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs to her demise.

Like many people I'd seen snippets of the wheelchair scene, but not the whole movie. Having recently viewed "Kiss of Death," it struck me that within the context of the story, it's a rather brief, almost throwaway scene. It exists not because the woman is important -- we're introduced to her moments before she dies -- or that her death plays a pivotal role in the story. It's simply intended as a shocking moment to depict how despicable the villain, Tommy Udo, really is.

To audiences in 1947, it surely must have been quite a surprise to see a disabled woman ("crippled" they would have said in those days) killed by a giggling lunatic for no good reason at all. But it's a shame that people more readily recall that act of depravity than the character behind it, or the actor who created him.

Truthfully, "Kiss of Death" is a rather flat and unengaging example of early film noir, a crime story that's meant to underscore the value of upright citizenship. But its real thrill is luridly exposing the audience to a wildly charismatic villain.

For my money, Tommy Udo should be right up there with Keyser Soze and Hannibal Lecter on the list of greatest cinematic villains. He's a jittery, shivery figure who makes you feel like bugs are crawling all over you whenever he's onscreen.

It was the first film role for Richard Widmark, who'd mostly been known for his stage work, and would earn him his first and only Oscar nomination. It also set the tone for his career, in which he largely played men who easily turn to violence during his younger years, and corrupt cops or misguided soldiers as he got older. Even his heroic roles like "Warlock" are shot through with moral ambiguity.

After Tommy Udo, straight heroics were out for Widmark.

Widmark's look and mannerisms in the film are highly stylized and memorable. He always wears dark shirts with a light-colored tie, the mark of an operator. He moves in a languid style, almost as if the world around him bores him. When he's talking to someone he tends to stare them straight in the eye, virtually without blinking, a rictus smile seeming to split his skull horizontally. His teeth somehow seem malovelent.

He speaks in a nasally Noo Yawk pattern, warping his vowels and swallowing his consanants, to the point where it can be hard to understand what he's saying. At one point on a train he announces that it's his birthday, but it comes out something like, "Ehz meeh boithdoy!"

If Widmark's Tommy Udo seems evocative of a certain other character, that's because he is. Widmark was reputedly fascinated with the Joker in the Batman comics of that era, and patterned his look, smile and laughter after the famed psychopath who would later be portrayed by Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger and others.

The only difference is there's no joking to Udo, despite his nearly non-stop laughter. That giggle seems to escape out of him like noxious gas out of cesspool, unable to be contained. According to biographer Kim Holston, Widmark would be approached by strangers for years afterwards asking him to reproduce the famous laughter, or even record it for them.

Udo laughs at those around him, whom he divides into two categories: "squirts," the everyday folks who deserve only to be browbeaten and murdered, and a "big man" who carries himself above the rest.

The only other person in the movie Udo regards as a big man is protagonist Nick Bianco, played by Victor Mature in a performance that can only be described as bored. Nick's a thief who gets shot by the police during a jewelery heist in the opening sequence, and eventually gets squeezed into being an informant for the assistant district attorney (Brian Donlevy).

The first half of the movie is utterly tedious, apart from a brief couple of scenes where Nick first meets Tommy in jail. It's basically a morality lesson where Nick tries to play the part of the proud criminal who refuses to become a snitch. But then his wife kills himself over being left destitute with two young daughters, and he sees the error of his ways.

That sets up the pursuit of Udo, which doesn't go very well when he's acquitted by a jury and comes after Nick. Or, more accurately, Nick -- now living under an assumed name -- seeks out Tommy to settle things between them once and for all.

That doesn't really make much sense, since it's doubtful Tommy could have even found him. But it's all part of the nitwit plot concocted by screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, based on a story by Eleazar Lipsky.

It's a decent-looking film (directed by Henry Hathaway) though it doesn't have much of the extravagant juxtaposition of light and dark that other noir films would use so expertly. The movie also opens with a strange scrawl assuring the audience that everything they see was shot in the actual location where it happened -- odd, considering it is a fiction film.

Interestingly, Widmark was not considered by the studio to be any big shakes when they were marketing the movie -- his name does not even appear on the poster. Coleen Gray, who was also making her film debut playing Nick's nanny-turned-new-wife (ick!), got the glamorous "and introducing..." treatment.

Frankly, if it weren't for Widmark's wonderfully off-putting Tommy Udo, "Kiss of Death" would have been a completely forgettable film -- even with the wheelchair push.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Review: "Gravity"

Everyone knows they're going to die, Dr. Ryan Stone muses during a rare peaceful moment in "Gravity," but it's an odd thing realizing that your death will happen today -- in the next few minutes, most likely. This gripping new science fiction dramatic thriller is the story of one woman accepting, and then rejecting, the embrace of her impending doom.

Director Alfonso Cuarón, who co-wrote the screenplay with his son Jonás, uses state-of-the-art cinematic technology to make a very old-fashioned type of movie. It's classic "you are there" filmmaking, in which the audience is inserted right into the harrowing action, experiencing it unfold from the perspective of the characters as it happens.

The characters aren't very deeply drawn, because they're mostly there to serve as a stand-in for the people watching. Stone, played by Sandra Bullock in a mesmerizing turn, is something of an enigma at the start -- a medical engineer given a crash training course by NASA to fix a faulty computer on the Hubble telescope. By the end of her journey we don't know too much more about her than when we started, other that her resignation has turned to resolve.

Using a mix of CGI and live-action shots, Cuarón creates a landscape in space hundreds of miles above the surface of the Earth that feels genuine, both in its eerie beauty and its utter lethality. A thoughtless mistake can quickly result in a horrible death, made even more dreadful by the knowledge that it will occur in total silence, since sound doesn't transmit in space.

Watching entire space stations rendered into dust without any corresponding sound effects somehow makes it even more terrifying.

It seems as if Cuarón's camera is roaming freely through this space, so occasionally it is very far away from Stone and Matt Kowalski, the savvy veteran astronaut played by George Clooney. Other times we're right up in their faces, or even seeing things from out the claustrophobic viewport of their helmets.

Likewise, sometimes we're assaulted by the sounds of a Stone's heavy breathing as she rapidly consumes her precious oxygen, or by the musical score by Steven Price. The voice of mission control (Ed Harris) soon fades away completely, though Stone and Kowalski still keep transmitting as if they can be heard.

Ostensibly it's in case they do manage to get back into contact with those on the ground, but we get the sense their self-narration is mostly for posterity.

Things are set into motion mere minutes in, as a cascade of destroyed satellites creates a minefield of debris. Their space shuttle is shattered and the rest of the crew killed, and Stone is sent tumbling off into the darkness of night. Kowalski is a jabber and a teller of tall tales, but his bravado is comforting to the withdrawn, clinical Stone, and when they're separated she begins to panic.

I can't go into all the different legs of Stone's arduous journey to find a way back safely to Earth, since it would spoil your experience. Suffice it to say it makes "Apollo 13" look like a cakewalk. Stone must leverage her meager skills as a space voyager against her analytical mind, learn to risk all instead of playing it safe, and improvise on the fly.

Watching "Gravity" is much more a visceral experience than an intellectual one. The movie grabs you by the chest and sucks the air out of your lungs, and while you're sitting in the theater it's an utterly immersive experience. I'm just not sure if it's the sort of film that lingers in your brain for months and years afterward.

Still, I'd be lying if didn't call this one of the best films I've seen this year, because it is.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Video review: "The Croods"

“The Croods” was pretty typical of this year’s crop of animated family films. Pleasant enough, great-looking and featuring a catchy song or two, it nonetheless didn’t offer anything that was especially engaging or clever. Designed to entertain wee ones with lots of bouncy slapstick action and cute critters, it accomplished exactly that, and little more.

It’s not a bad movie; not a great one, either; just good enough to satisfy as throwaway entertainment.

Set in prehistoric times, the titular family is a gaggle of ape-like cave people who live in utter fear every second they spend outside their darkened cave. Dad Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage) has a motto: “Never not be afraid,” and it’s one they live by religiously.

Until, that is, rebellious daughter Eep (Emma Stone) pushes them to explore the wider world out there. They encounter danger and some fantastic creatures – the walking land whales were my favorite -- but also have amazing adventures. They hook up with a somewhat more evolved guy named … Guy (Ryan Reynolds), who shows them neat things like fire and shoes.

If this sounds familiar, as if it’s been repurposed from other movies, that’s because it has. It’s basically a stitch-together of “Ice Age” and “The Flintstones.” Some characters, such as the inexplicably reptilian-tailed Gran, exist only as comic relief.

Visually, “The Croods” is a marvel, with even stuff in the corners of the frame worth looking it. I just wish they could’ve given the same level of attention to the storytelling.

Extras are decent, and like the movie tend to be aimed at kids and ignore their parents.

The DVD comes with a handful of deleted scenes and two featurettes, one of which consists of music videos from other DreamWorks Animation flicks. “Belt’s Cave Journal” is a new short film featuring a couple of supporting characters.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray/DVD combo, and you add another featurette, “The Croodaceous Creatures of Croods!” spotlighting more of the film’s colorful beastiary. There’s also a drawing game for children, and a mobile app that lets kids build their own Croods storybook and color it, too.