Monday, December 30, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Joe Kidd" (1972)

Later generations knew Elmore Leonard primarily as a novelist whose books often were turned into movies ("Out of Sight," "Get Shorty"), but during the 1970s and '80s he was fairly busy writing original screenplays. This includes, God help him, "High Noon, Part II: The Return of Will Kane," starring Lee Majors in the Gary Cooper role.

Goes to show that even the best of us sometimes do stuff just for a paycheck.

In that vein, I'm not sure what to make of "Joe Kidd," a 1972 Western actioner starring Clint Eastwood. By all accounts Leonard was inspired by a real-life Mexican movement to reclaim their ancestral lands from Anglo hands, which led to the storming of a New Mexico courthouse. Leonard switched it around to the turn of the century in fictional Sinola County and introduced the main character, a former bounty hunter who gets caught up in the conflict between Mexican revolutionary Luis Chama (John Saxson) and rich land baron Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall).

In 1972 Eastwood was so big he practically had his own gravitational pull, so I have no doubt the story got shifted around considerably from its original script. Although it starts out on a twist, with Kidd dressed up like a dandy and rotting in jail for a drunken binge, he soon takes on the prototypical Eastwood mantle: a man of few words and considerable skill at killing ... and humiliating others.

Plot-wise, there's not much there there. Chama rides into town and briefly holds the sheriff (Gregory Walcott) and judge hostage, burning up the deeds held by settlers to what they claim are their land. A posse is formed to catch him and his gang, but returns unsuccessful -- largely due to the absence of Kidd, a seasoned tracker.

Harlan arrives with a large entourage of men carrying high-end rifles with scopes and other newfangled weapons. He takes over the entire second floor of the hotel, throwing out the existing guests in the process, and tries to enlist Kidd as his guide for $500. Sensing a murderers' row, he declines. But upon learning that Chama raided his own farm of some horses, he returns and accepts the offer (after doubling the price).

Along their way they encounter Helen (Stella Garcia), who participated in the courthouse invasion and would appear to be Chama's squeeze. Kidd keeps silent about his knowledge of her relationship to their quarry, apparently willing to go along so he can get his own revenge on Chama and collect $1,000 in the process.

But when they happen across a small village of Mexicans, Harlan takes the entire town hostage and threatens to shoot five people every few hours until Chama gives himself up. The egotistical Chama refuses to do this, claiming their movement will die with them, but Kidd "convinces" him to turn himself into the sheriff, offering his help to get him there safely. This leads to the final, inevitable and rather dull shootout.

Kidd has a tendency to get into hassles over nothing, which keep coming back to bite him. He assaults another prisoner while in jail because the man refused him coffee during his hangover, and later has to kill him when it comes back on him. (He turns out to be one of Chama's man, another reason for tension between them.)

He also has a running feud with Lamarr, one of Harlan's junior flunkies played by Don Stroud. Lamarr, referred to as "Kid" by his fellows, is a hot-headed ingrate whose combat skills aren't on par with his ability to antagonize. He carries around a fancy repeating pistol to which he can attach a wooden stock to turn it into a serviceable long-distance rifle. Kidd, after showing up Lamarr several times and finally dispatching him for good, uses it to scatter Harlan's men while making good his escape.

(The Internet Movie Firearms Database, with which I have recently become acquainted, claims this to be a C96 "Broomhandle" Mauser, and also that it can only hold a 10-round clip -- though the movie depicts it as being able to spray an entire village several times.)

There's also a totally superfluous love interest played by Lynne Marta, Harlan's kept woman whom he keeps around for sex. There's a funny, goofy scene where she and Kidd meet in the hotel, and he just saunters into her room and starts kissing her with barely a few words passing between them. I know Eastwood was a big sex symbol 40 years ago, but you've got to at least provide some semblance of an invitation before he starts mackin' on the ladies. Otherwise it's just creepy.

Director John Sturges knew a thing or two about Westerns ("The Magnificent Seven"), but his and Leonard's storytelling skills are strangely flat here. None of the characters really makes any sort of impact -- Chama only gets a couple of dialogue scenes, Duvall gives Harlan a sort of matter-of-fact ruthlessness that's not really hateful, and Kidd is just another empty vessel for Eastwood to inhabit with his squinty glares and pistol-work.

By Leonard's own account the actors were intimidated by the legendary director and didn't initiate any of the regular push-and-pull of the collaborative filmmaking process. Personally, I don't think Leonard just wanted to admit that his script stank. According to legend the finale where Kidd drives a train through the Sinola saloon was a lark suggested by a producers as a joke, and not part of anyone's plan.

I believe it, because to watch the film it's hard to believe there was ever much of a scheme at all.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Video review: "Don Jon"

If you thought "The Wolf of Wall Street" was raunchy, then take a look at "Don Jon," the directing debut of star Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The funny/sad tale of a lothario who's obsessed with Web pornography and one-night stands, it gives "Wolf" a run for its money in the flesh department.

For those who aren't put off by a story that's all about sex, "Don Jon" is actually a rather charming movie. It's about a guy who thinks he's got it all figured out, hurts a lot of people carelessly and gets hurt himself, and gradually discovers there's more to life than the bits between his legs.

Scarlett Johansson is terrific as Barbara, the girl Don falls hard for. They trade Jersey accents, a lot of sass and not a little electricity between them.

Of course, it's bound to happen that his online activities throw a wrench into his real-life romance. It's around here the movie goes a little sideways, with Don encountering an older woman (Julianne Moore) at his community college classes who gives him something else to think about.

It's a trenchantly observant movie that knows its character and community down to the ground. I liked the way Don's family dinners devolve into vitriol and screaming, or how he can drive like a demon out of hell, screaming at other motorists, while being a devout church man. The movie shows these contrasts and foibles without making the narrative seem any less human.

"Don Jon" isn't  great movie, but it's quite a good one for a first-time director, not to mention a lot more daring than most filmmakers are right out of the gate.

Video goodies are rather sparse, with a standard making-of documentary and a few behind-the-scenes featurettes, including one on the origins of the Don Jon character and another on the hats worn by one of his wingmen.



Friday, December 27, 2013

Top 10 Films of 2013

If you'd asked me what sort of movie year we were having at the end of August, I'd have told you 2013 was one of the worst on record. Based on the magnificent crop of films that arrived during the last four months, however, I will call it one of the best in memory.

Spring was flat and lifeless, with only a few good movies to perk us up. Then came a drab, dull summer of soulless sequels, including "Iron Man 3," in which Robert Downey Jr. seemed to make it clear that he really doesn't want to do this anymore. The comedies were talkie and  mirthless ("This Is the End"), the animated features more about merchandising than storytelling ("Despicable Me 2"), and some of the so-called "serious" movies were aggressively awful.

Then September roared in with a wonderful spate of movies, and things never really let up from there. The final inning of Oscar-wannabe films was not quite a home run, but still connected cleanly with several movies that made my Top 10.

I gave one film my highest rating, the first one bestowed since 2011. I don't think I'm an especially harsh critic -- I'm the guy who loved "Oblivion," after all -- but I do admit to being gun-shy about throwing out my highest grade too readily. When I do that, to me I'm saying a movie is immortal, that it will live throughout the ages.

The space between the top rating and the next one down is oceanic, ranging from very good films to truly magnificent ones. That's why I look forward to the annual task of making a "Best of" list, because it helps me sort them out clearly for all to see.

Without further ado, here is my list of the finest films of 2013, followed by 17 more that were in the running.

1.    Her -- Because of scheduling issue, only three of the regular crew of Indianapolis film critics were able to make it to the screening of "Her" prior to voting on our group awards. All three ranked it as their #1 of the year. I have little doubt that if more of our members had been able to see it in time, it would have won Best Film from Indiana  critics instead of "12 Years a Slave," a fine film with a splendid performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor that just missed making my Top 10. (I found the Michael Fassbender character, conceptually and as executed, to be positively cartoonish. Also, I cannot support a film that, in 2013, includes the dialogue: "I don't want to survive ... I want to live!")

But here I am, talking about my #11 film instead of my #1. "Her" is a strange, disturbing yet enlightening cinematic experience that could only have become from Spike Jonze, Hollywood's maverick genius, and wayward actor Joaquin Phoenix. In telling the tale of a man who falls in love with his computer -- there's more to it than that, but that glib summation will suffice -- they approach a subject many would find ridiculous and treat it with utter earnestness and lack of irony. Marvelously acted, smart and funny/sad, it was easily the most original film of the year.

2.    Prisoners -- This bracing drama starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal resembles a crime procedural, wherein an agonized father searches for his missing daughter. But really it's a morality play in which many questions are raised, but none satisfyingly answered. Good and evil are real, the film seems to argue, but it's the people who skate in between them, willing to do horrendously awful things in the service of a noble goal. It was one of the few lengthy movies I saw that I didn't wish to see trimmed even a bit.

3.    The Wolf of Wall Street -- Martin Scorsese's latest criminal autobiography, told very much in the manner of "Goodfellas" with the main character addressing the audience, shows that in his sixth decade as a filmmaker he hasn't lost a step. Ostentatious and audacious, it stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a real-life stock market manipulator, who made piles of money and made sure the entire world knew about it. The movie careens all over the map in between comedy and drama, and inhabits each fully and creatively. A smorgasbord of a movie, untidy but brilliant.

4.    Pacific Rim -- I can think of no movie more purely entertaining I saw in 2013 than this action/fantasy masterpiece from Guillermo del Toro. Whenever anyone questions my adoration for this film, I feel like a precocious 14-year-old having to explain himself to seriously uncool grownups: "Did I not already make it clear that this movie features giant monsters and giant robots, and that they fight each other?!?" Well-crafted and orderly, with sharply drawn characters and action scenes that never let us forget the enormity of the colossuses we are witnessing.

5.    Rush -- No film's reception was more depressing to me than that for "Rush," an excellent character study hiding inside the costume of a racing movie. Director Ron Howard delivered the thrilling, dizzying action scenes, while Peter Morgan's screenplay brought the rivalry between 1970s Formula 1 racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda into sharp focus. Daniel Brühl delivers an Oscar-caliber performance as a man who related to machinery better than people. Hopefully more people will get up to speed on this excellent film when it comes out on video.

6.    Dallas Buyers Club -- A showcase for Matthew McConaughey's return to dramatic leading man status, "Dallas Buyers Club" is also a historically compelling story about the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. As a hateful redneck playboy who contracts the disease, McConaughey paints a portrait of utter determination and bravery, reflected outwardly by the incredible weight loss he endured to play the role. The fact that the filmmakers never devolve into maudlin sentiment is one of the things that makes this a great movie.

7.    All Is Lost -- J.C. Chandor is not a household name. He's directed two feature films that hardly anybody saw, 2011's "Margin Call" and this nautical drama starring Robert Redford as a lone seamen facing death. Both are gems. Almost totally without words, "All Is Lost" immerses us in the tale of "Our Man" (never named), an aging, apparently well-to-do man enjoying a sailboat cruise around the world when disaster strikes. It's an existential journey told with grace and beauty.

8.    Gravity -- Standing both beside and counterpoint to "All Is Lost" is this space adventure/drama that puts Sandra Bullock in much the same predicament as Redford was on that boat. A fledgling astronaut is isolated when her space shuttle is destroyed in an asteroid storm, and must find some way to make it back to Earth alive. A true marriage of science fiction and filmmaking science, in which Bullock manages to give a great performance despite dealing with green screens and confining costumes. Great old-fashioned you-are-there moviemaking.

9.    Mud -- Writer/director Jeff Nichols broke onto the scene this year with this powerful and original drama inspired by the writings of Mark Twain. Two preteen boys in the bayou discover an abandoned boat on a nearby island, and entertain thoughts of adventure until they encounter a strange vagrant named Mud (McConaughey again) living aboard it. This sets off a great spin of adventures, entanglements and lies, in which the truth is all relative depending on the person relating it. Both elegant and brutal, it hums with energy.

10.    Nebraska -- It's hard to conceive that director Alexander Payne is considered a comedic filmmaker, despite films ("Sideways," "About Schmidt") that are so often spare and sour. Yet there is a lot of humor in this sobering black-and-white picture starring Bruce Dern as an ornery, addled old man who thinks he's won a million dollars in a magazine contest. And also some compelling drama, as the man and his son face up to the predicament of their own emotional limitations. Filled with terrific supporting performances by June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk, if it's a comedy then it's one that is black as night.

These other 17 films may or may not have come close to making this list above. But they were all movies I saw and appreciated greatly over the past year (listed alphabetically):

12 Years a Slave
About Time
The Act of Killing
Before Midnight
Captain Phillips
The Great Gatsby
Enough Said
Great Expectations
Lone Survivor
*Olympus Has Fallen
Short Term 12
The Spectacular Now
The Way, Way Back
The Wind Rises
*White House Down

*You could practically list the two terrorists-taking-over-the-White-House movies together, so similar were they in plot. Some may blanch at seeing dopey action films on a critic's best-of list, but I will forever defend the virtue of big, dumb movies that are aware of their own bigness and dumbness.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Review: "The Wolf of Wall Street"

If it seems like "The Wolf of Wall Street" bears more than a passing resemblance to Martin Scorsese's masterpiece "Goodfellas," that's because it does. Both films follow similar themes in relating a first-person account of a young guy who stumbled into way more wealth and power than he deserved, and how he set about squandering it.

For Henry Hill, the mafia was his ladder up to the stratosphere of egomania and drug abuse; for Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), it was the stock market.

This mostly-true story, based on Belfort's own book of the same title and translated by screenwriter Terence Winter, is a bacchanalia of drugs, hubris and debauchery. At three hours, it's a sprawling, untidy film that nevertheless often flirts with brilliance.

Tonally, the movie wanders this way and that, from raucous comedy to straight drama to fizzy caper and eventually into tragedy. But rather than being a film that seemingly can't decide what it wants to be, "Wolf" just opted to be everything at once -- and does a very good job at it.

Set in the late 1980s and 1990s, the story follows Belfort as he rises (or descends, depending on your perspective) in the world of stock trading. Wiped out as a young broker in the crash of '87, he latches onto the penny stock market, where the values are tiny but the potential for huge commissions is like dripping red meat to a slavering, greedy talent like himself.

Recruiting some of his buddies -- including a spot-on Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff, his veneer-wearing, sycophantic right-hand man -- Jordan founds Stratton Oakmont, a firm with a name designed to appeal to old-money types who normally wouldn't have anything to do with shady characters like themselves.

It's an overnight success, and they start attracting a lot of attention for their wild spending and frat-boy antics. Such as the dwarf-tossing competition that first opens the movie, where Jordan throws $25,000 in cash on the ground as a bet.

Eventually, his operation attracts the notice of a dogged FBI investigator (Kyle Chandler) and the SEC. Jordan makes a show of wising up, even hiring his father (Rob Reiner) to be the office watchdog. He marries a beautiful model, Naomi, whom he dubs the Duchess of his sprawling empire, and then uses her poorly. She's played by Margot Robbie, who in the tradition of Scorsese leading ladies has a sweet exterior covering up a hard-bitten core.

Rounding out the cast are Jon Bernthal as a street thug Jordan sometimes uses for muscle; Jean Dujardin as a slimy Swiss banker; Joanna Lumley as Naomi's somewhat helpful British aunt; and Ethan Suplee, Kenneth Choi and Barry Rothbart as Jordan's lunkhead recruits.

Matthew McConaughey has a brief, kooky but delicious cameo as a seasoned broker who first instructs Jordan in what it takes to be successful in the stock trading game -- in short, a total disregard for others plus astonishing quantities of cocaine.

And there is plenty of both depicted in the movie. Scorsese has been criticized throughout his career for his reliance on violence, but with "Wolf" he trades in the gore for debauchery. He flaunts the sex-and-drugs material with the same relish he previously showed in beating people to a bloody pulp. There's enough nudity and kinky sex here to give "Blue Is the Warmest Color" a run for the title of most explicit Oscar contender this year.

Holding it all together is DiCaprio in his second magnificent performance of 2013, along with "The Great Gatsby." Callous yet charismatic, Jordan is a Quaalude-dropping, prostitute-hording, filthy-mouthed messiah to those who follow him. Making money is their first, and only priority in life. That, and a good party.

While some might be put off by the length and subject matter of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” it’s another career high point for both Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, and one of the year’s finest films. I’m betting they just might work together again, if they can pay dividends as good as these.

Review: "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"

There’s a point in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” where the film pokes a little fun at “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a movie I’ve always felt deserved a little poking. The irony is that director/star Ben Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad are operating in much the same mode as that 2008 fantasy-drama, and pursuing a similar audience.

Based on the James Thurber short story but diverging sharply from it, this is a comfortable, life-affirming movie that doesn’t challenge audiences too much. Yet it’s still an enjoyable, heart-warming time. The movie starts slowly … okay, very slowly … but when it hits its stride it’s as engaging as anything I’ve seen lately.

Walter (Stiller) is a workaday drone at Life magazine, heading up the cave-like photo archive. He’s just turned 42, has no close relationships or connections, and seems to have had his personality slowly extracted out of him over time. He is also prone to fits of fancy – “zoned out,” his family and friends call his little spells – where he imagines himself living a life of notoriety and high adventure.

These days the chief object of his daydreams is Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), a new worker who plays a starring role in the movies playing inside his head. Mostly these involve coming to her rescue, or performing some kind of heroic deed, or otherwise impressing her enough to instantly ensorcel her into becoming his love-mate.

But disaster happens when the magazine is set to publish its final print edition, seguing over to an online-only production with most of the staff losing their jobs. (In the journalism game, we call this “transitioning.”) The changeover team is headed up by a colossal jerk (Adam Scott) who alights upon the mild-mannered Walter as his chief whipping boy.

They want to use a shot by legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) for the final cover, and he’s sent Walter his last roll of film (he’s old-fashioned that way) with still #25 described as his best photo ever: “the quintessence of life.”

Trouble is, photo 25 is missing, so after some prevaricating Walter sets off on a journey to Greenland, Iceland and eventually Afghanistan in search of the elusive photo. He finds himself living exactly the sort of adventures he once only dreamed of: fighting off sharks, jumping aboard a helicopter with a really drunk pilot, etc.

There are a lot of things the filmmakers do right, and some they do wrong. Stiller being a comedian at heart, he inserts some obvious laugh moments to perk up the dreary parts. (The Benjamin Button scene is undoubtedly the funniest.) This has the effect, though, of making the tragedy of Walter’s humdrum life less tragic. We feel less for him than we might have.

I also disliked the fact the screenplay didn’t give Wiig more to do. As we’ve seen from her starring roles, she can be quite a distinct onscreen presence; here, she exists more or less as a vessel for Walter’s fantasies. Pity.

The cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh is just spectacular, as Walter careens on a skateboard toward an erupting volcano or traverses a high mountain ridge. (I think they used the same one from the “Lord of the Rings” movies, but it’s still impressive.)

The use of product placement in the film is bold, and interesting. Rather than having products and logos hanging around in the background as subliminal cues, Stiller & Co. bring it right to the fore, working company brands directly into the storyline. For example, Walter has a running conversation with an eHarmony consultant (Patton Oswalt) about beefing up his profile. And his teenage experience working at Papa John’s pizzeria comes in handy.

And of course there’s Life magazine itself, which is presented in the movie as a last bastion for vivid photographs and stories, a place where every employee embraces the company’s mantra as their personal mission. (I feel compelled to point out the real Life ceased publishing as standalone magazine 13 years ago.)

I enjoyed myself at this movie, even as I realized it didn’t quite hit the mark, and its aim was not all that high to begin with. It’s a perfectly agreeable film that perhaps, a few years down the line, another movie will gently mock, and we’ll smile.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Five Steps to Danger" (1957)

In the grand tradition of mis-named movies comes "Five Steps to Danger." Though it's not quite as egregious as "Across the Pacific," a Humphrey Bogart war espionage drama in which the Pacific Ocean is never even seen, most of the action in the 1957 thriller takes place on the highway from Arizona to Santa Fe.

It's a road picture, and not a very good one, and when and where these five misplaced steps take place is never made clear. The book writer/director Henry S. Kesler adapted it from is called "The Steel Mirror," so gosh knows where the concept of this ill-fated walk came from.

Sterling Hayden, who was more or less the antithesis of a movie star, plays John Emmett. He's such a nondescript Everyman that we never even learn where he's from or what he does for a living. If not for Hayden's inimitable, ornery charisma the character would have slid off the screen like a melted Popsicle.

It's a dippy, third-rate spy flick with a gooey love story tacked on top like a sheepskin spread across the hood of Emmett's ragtop convertible. His car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, so he sells it to the mechanic for $400, intending to continue his trip by bus. Emmett's got a month's vacation lined up and a cozy spot for fishing and hunting picked out.

Until, that is, he runs into Ann Nicholson (Ruth Roman), a woman on the run -- in her own convertible, of course. She's driving from Los Angeles to Santa Fe for mysterious reasons, and recruits Emmett to be her wheel man. Soon they start running into trouble involving German spies, Soviet spies, intercontinental ballistic missiles, the FBI and the CIA.

Talk about a dame who's all trouble.

Roman's role is to basically just look confused and vulnerable all the time, and hoping a dashing hero comes to her rescue. At first she claims to be married, but then we're told she's a widow, and rich to boot.

Even at 80 minutes, the movie is a slog of dull dialogue scenes interspersed with a car chase or two, and some improbable canoodling between Ann and Emmett. If I've got my math right, they end up getting married two days after first meeting. Officially that's to keep Ann's psychiatrist, Dr. Simmons (Werner Klemperer), from having her committed to a mental institution against her will. But also because -- don't ya know -- he's fallen in love.

I love the hamminess of the scene where Emmett tells her he loves her. As hard-boiled a performer as there was, Hayden summons up all the emotional feeling as if he were ordering a pork chop dinner.

"Five Steps to Danger" is a prime example of mid-century B-movie filmmaking. It's plodding, unbelievable and dull all at once. Kesler was a TV guy -- this was the only narrative feature film he ever directed. I'm can't say I'm surprised.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Video review: "Elysium"

“Elysium” was one of my personal biggest disappointments of 2013. Along with “Pacific Rim,” it was one of the two summer films I had alighted upon as holding the most potential for thrills. Alas, while “Rim” soared as high as expectations, “Elysium” was a clanky, clunky mess.

Set in the year 2154, “Elysium” imagines a world in which all the rich people have departed the planet to float serenely in a grand space station where they make their home. There everyone is happy and healthy, due in large part to the amazing medical beds everyone has in their houses that can instantly cure any sickness or heal every wound.

Down on Earth it’s a different story: it’s overcrowded, environmentally fouled, crime is rampant and healthcare elusive. Needless to say, the downtrodden are very eager to get up to Elysium to make use of these magic cure boxes, so illegal immigration is a big problem for the richies.

Matt Damon is a worker drone who accidentally gets irradiated and only has five days to live. Outfitted with a powerful exo-skeleton by some criminal types, he agrees to do a dirty job in exchange for a trip to Elysium. But things grow more complicated when he gets caught up in a political plot involving the conniving defense minister (Jodie Foster). She sics her fearsome pet mercenary (Sharlto Copley) on him, and the latter half of the film essentially becomes one long chase scene.

The action sequences are engaging enough in their own right, but the attempt to continually draw parallels with our own time are rather blatant, not to mention inept. If those privileged folks have so many of the miraculous medical devices, why wouldn’t they install a few planet-side – if for no other reason, to address their problem with infiltrators?

Writer/director Neill Blomkamp (“District 9”) comes up with some terrifically original ideas. But “Elysium” bogs down in boneheaded plotting and political posturing.

Bonus features are aren’t bad, though they tend to focus more on the nuts-and-bolts of filming a big-budget science fiction film than the creative process.

The DVD contains just two featurettes, one focusing on assembling the cast and crew, and the other on designing the utopian space station. Go for the Blu-ray set and you get three more featurettes on the technology and visual effects to depict the distant future. You also get an extended scene and “The Journey to Elysium,” a video diary covering the pre-production, film shoot and post-production processes.



Thursday, December 19, 2013

Review: "Saving Mr. Banks"

Hollywood loves to tell stories about itself, and here’s a movie from Walt Disney Pictures about the making of one of its own iconic films, and starring Walt himself. Or rather, co-starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, a supporting role for the main character of author P.L. Travers, played by Emma Thompson.

The tale is quite simple: the irascible, guarded Mrs. Travers – don’t you dare call her Miss – doesn’t want to sell her novel “Mary Poppins” to Disney and see it turned into a piece of puffy fantasy. But she needs the money, and agrees to come out to California to collaborate with the film’s production team, while Old Walt works his twinkly charm to convince her to sign over the book rights.

The movie is essentially one long dance between Travers and Disney, with the two struggling mightily to understand a person so extravagantly different from themselves. Of course, we know how it all turned out.

(Or, at least we think we do. The film ends with the pair more or less making their peace over their very different conceptions for “Mary Poppins,” but in fact she so reviled what Disney did with her work that she forbade any further adaptations of her books.)

I really wanted to like this movie, but it held so very few surprises for me. We know early on from the flashbacks to Travers’ Australian childhood that she adored her sweet, alcoholic wastrel father (Colin Farrell) and used him as the basis for the father figure, Mr. Banks, in “Mary Poppins.” So it’s all a matter of Disney learning enough about her to puzzle out the truth.

The scene where he finally confronts her about her fears is splendidly acted by Hanks and Thompson, but flat as dry toast. It’s never a good thing when the audience is three steps ahead of the characters.

The early section is mostly about Travers playing the fish-out-of-water role, peevishly negotiating the Hollywood scene. She’s disruptive and contemptuous, treating everyone she meets quite shabbily, especially Disney’s underlings. She even dismisses the songs written for the film by the legendary Sherman Brothers (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman), and regards some animated critters as vile interlopers.

Bradley Whitford turns up as screenwriter Don DaGradi, Kathy Baker is a tough studio exec and Rachel Griffiths plays Travers’ aunt. Paul Giamatti brightens things up as her appointed chauffeur, an obstinately cheerful man who serves absolutely no purpose in the story, but we just like having him around.

Since we’re discussing a film about the creative process, let me tell you a little bit about mine. I prefer to see one movie at a time, write the review within the next 24 hours, more or less be absorbed in that experience, and move on to the next. The crush of late-year screenings made that impossible, and quite frankly, I’m having trouble recalling “Saving Mr. Banks” very well. It’s only been a few days since I’ve seen it, but mentally it’s already slipping through my fingers like sand.

The best movies, and sometimes even the worst, stick with you because they make a strong impression that lingers. There are films I’ve seen only a single time many years ago that I can evoke with great clarity, both the movie itself and how I reacted to it at the time.

I’m afraid “Saving Mr. Banks” is already floating away like Poppins herself, she to her next nanny job and me the next movie review. I just wish there had been a spoonful of magic while we journeyed together.

Review: "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues"

I admit I never got what the big deal was about "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy." The 2004 comedy was a modest commercial hit that somehow went on to gain near-iconic status as a comedic masterpiece. Word of a long-delayed sequel set off a flurry of rapturous attention, followed up by a marketing campaign so omnipresent that folks living in the Himalayas must be thinking Will Ferrell & Co. are becoming a tad overexposed.

The first film had a few uproarious laughs interrupted by long dull spaces in between, and the sequel is much the same.

I will further admit that I laughed three or four times during "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" as hard as anything I've seen this year. But it's a hard slog in between those wonderful moments, particularly in the dull-as-toast second half.

Are a handful of truly great comedic moments enough to make a movie worth a dollar bill with Andy Jackson's face on it, plus two hours of your time? I vote no, and I got to see it for free.

If you're a novice to the world of Burgundy: he's the world's worst newscaster, a dim-bulb egomaniac played by Ferrell with trademark obliviousness. Ron's the sort of guy who can be offending everyone in the room and not even be aware of it.

His look is pure late 1970s: neon-hued suits with ties as wide as a Buick, cheesy mustache, sideburns and a hairdo that's over-primped into ridiculousness.

As the story opens, Ron gets dumped by his San Diego network and his wife (Christina Applegate) in one fell swoop, and ends up as an announcer at the local Sea World. His drunken binges doom even that job, until a new gig lands in his lap with a crazy idea: news 24/7.

Of course, their Global News Network is a barely-concealed spoof on the early days of CNN and the fracturing of the news audience into a thousand little pieces.

Burgundy assembles his old crew and heads to New York, only to find he's relegated to the 2-5 a.m. slot, while slimy top dog Jack Lime (James Marsden) gets the primetime slot and becomes Burgundy's chief tormentor.

They respond by giving people what they want -- cute animals, car chases, jingoistic patriotism and other pap. The audience eats it up, vaulting Burgundy into the stratosphere.

The M.O. of Ferrell and Adam McKay, his director and co-screenwriter, is pretty familiar by now. The characters stand there and spout ridiculously off-the-wall nonsense in the hopes that some of it will be click with the audience.

And some of it does. Steve Carell puts the most points on the board as Brick, the innocent naïf weathercaster. As played by Carell, Brick has the social skills of an infant who was suddenly zapped into adult form. Because it's married to that sweet, dumb persona, his ramblings are funnier because it comes from a place of utter simplicity.

"A black man follows me everywhere when it's sunny," Brick says.

"I think that's your shadow," Ron offers helpfully.

At one point, the gang attends Brick's funeral, and he shows up to give the eulogy, and has to be convinced that he's still alive. He even gets a love interested in Kristen Wiig, who plays his female intellectual and emotional equivalent.

Other weirdo plot twists include having Ron date his black producer (Meagan Good), just so we can have a scene where he sits down to dinner with her family and spout one racially insensitive malaprop after another.

Things culminate in a massive battle between news teams that's more notable for the incredible number of celebrity cameos -- Will Smith, Kanye West, Jim Carrey and Tina Fey among them -- than for any actual humor generated. It's a fitting end for a movie that seems to have fallen in love with its own hype.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Review: "Inside Llewyn Davis"

The Coen brothers are among my favorite filmmakers, but over the last decade or so they’ve run hot and cold … or I have.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is their latest oh-so-sober effort, a dark and dreary portrait of a wayward folk singer trying to make it in the early 1960s. It’s shot in muted colors, contains little in the way of their trademark ironic humor, and doesn’t appear to be about anything than it superficially is.

It feels more like an exercise than a movie.

The film is wonderfully crafted, as is everything by Joel and Ethan Coen, and the music is often quite tremendous, especially Oscar Isaac in the title role. If you ask me if I wouldn’t mind owning the soundtrack, the answer would be yes.

But when I ask myself the question every filmmaker should before they start a new project -- “What is this movie really about, and why does it need to exist?” -- I’m afraid I come up empty.

The point, if there is one, is that serious artists who refuse to compromise their craft usually end up discarded and forgotten instead of celebrated. It’s only the lucky and the malleable who make it in the music biz. This comes as startling news, I’m sure, to exactly no one.

Llewyn is literally a man without a home, trundling his guitar case and duffle bag from apartment to apartment in New York City, where he crashes on the couches of his friends. The word “friend” is relative in Llewyn’s case, since a relationship with this man only flows in one direction. Food, accommodations, emotional support, invitations for gigs and a meager paycheck -- Llewyn only takes, not gives.

The one place where pours out his soul is behind a microphone. Isaac has a terrific voice and musicianship, and I loved the fact that the Coens actually let the actors perform the songs from start to finish, instead of that montage-and-segue thing you usually get.

He’s facing a new crisis when Jean (Carey Mulligan), a friend and one-half of the husband-and-wife singing team of Jean & Jim, announces that she’s pregnant, possibly with Llewyn’s baby. He has to come up with the money for the abortion, in addition to concealing this fact from Jim (Justin Timberlake).

The rest of the story wanders as Llewyn does. He ends up on other couches in other apartments, encountering other would-be folk singers and their enablers. Among those he meets is Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), an Army soldier who sings during his furloughs. Everyone adores him, and he certainly has talent, but Llewyn aptly wonders if Troy possesses higher brain function.

During one long, strange trek to Chicago to meet a producer, Llewyn finds himself ensconced inside a car sharing a ride with Roland Turner, a crippled jazzman played by John Goodman, who needles Llewyn that those in his profession “play all the notes” instead of just three or four chords. His largely mute driver, Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), seems like he wandered in from the “On the Road” film adaptation.

There’s one terrific, heartbreaking scene where Llewyn finally gets to audition for that producer (F. Murray Abraham). The man clearly recognizes there’s a bonafide artiste sitting in front of him, but crass concerns prevail: “I don’t hear any money there,” he says, less a judgment than an apology.

Here’s a good Rorschach test to see if you’ll be drawn to “Inside Llewyn Davis”: What did you think of the Coens’ “A Serious Man”? If you were put off by that impenetrable rumination, which to me played like an inner dialogue inside the directors’ heads, then this new film will feel like more of the same. If you loved “A Serious Man,” you’ll probably enjoy this one, and we can find something else to talk about.

Review: "American Hustle"

In one of his final reviews, the incomparable Roger Ebert declared a film “fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air.” I felt much the same way about “American Hustle,” which boasts an entire crowd of Academy Award-winning and -nominated thespians, one of Hollywood’s most lauded writer/directors, a buzzy historical subject, and a crushing identity crisis.

What the heck is this movie about? Ostensibly, it’s a fictionalized version of the Abscam scandal of 30-odd years ago that led to the conviction of a bunch of Congressmen and other government officials on corruption charges. But in the sprawling, unwieldy adaptation, it seems like merely an excuse for a bunch of actors to dress up in horrid ‘70s fashions and exchange frenetic volleys of dialogue that often make not a lick of sense.

Eric Singer’s screenplay exploring some little-known peculiarities of the imbroglio had languished around Hollywood for years, turning up on lists of the best non-produced scripts. Director David O. Russell did his own rewrite to intentionally turn the real-life characters into caricatures, and make the shenanigans even crazier than they actually were.

(Fittingly, Singer’s original title was “American Bullpucky,” though he used a different word.)

The cast is led by Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld, a brilliant but complex con man. Outwardly the role is showy, with Bale putting on weight to gain a big belly, and wearing an elaborate comb-over hairdo, tinted glasses and cheesy facial hair. But Irving lives mostly inside his own head, and sometimes has difficulty putting his schemes into action.

Bale never quite breaks through the wall between an actor’s creation and the audience, and Irving largely remains a sphinx to us.

Irving’s muse and partner in crime is Sydney Prosser, played by Amy Adams, who adopted the persona and lilt of a refined British woman so long ago, it’s taken over her identity. She cares deeply for Irving, for reasons that are unclear to her, and us. Adams gets her own makeover with a poodle perm and necklines that perpetually plunge down to her navel.

The third, and unsteadiest leg of the triad of leading characters is Richie DiMaso, played by Bradley Cooper, who is the FBI agent who busts Sydney and Irving and forces them to become his operatives.

They entrap politicians (including a sharp Jeremy Renner as a New Jersey mayor) with promises of a massive casino financed by a mysterious Arab sheikh. Richie lets the power go to his head, and convinces himself he and Sydney are soul mates.

If you thought this was yet another story about a love triangle, then you’d be wrong, because it’s actually a quadrangle.

Jennifer Lawrence turns up as Irving’s wife, Rosalyn, a walking electric ball of neuroses. Feeling abandoned by her husband’s criminal antics and his attentions for Sydney, Rosalyn inserts herself into the mix by sheer force of will, which proves troublesome when their business dealings wander into the purview of the mafia.

Narratively, Rosalyn doesn’t really serve much purpose in the story, other than to gum up the works and generate chaos. Lawrence is so crackling good, though, that the film goes into a torpor whenever she walks off-screen.

Rounding out the cast is Louis C.K. as Richie’s put-upon boss and Michael Peña as a Mexican-American fed who gets tapped to portray the sheikh. Robert De Niro also makes an uncredited appearance in a familiar role.

The experience of seeing “American Hustle” is like being at a wild party where you don’t know anybody, and find yourself shoved into a corner watching the mayhem happening all around. You never really understand the whats and the whys of it all, and you stroll out the door unchanged from how you were when you walked in, mostly trying to remember who sent the invitation and why you accepted it.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Video review: "Prisoners"

I often harp on the fact that I think most movies today are too long. And “Prisoners” is not a short flick: just a hair over 2½ hours. But it’s one of the rare films I think is exactly as long as it needed to be. It’s also one of my favorite cinematic experiences of 2013.

This psychological drama/thriller is wound tighter than an alarm clock ready to go off. Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard play fathers and best friends whose daughters mysteriously disappear on Thanksgiving Day. Dover (Jackman) goes on a one-man crusade to follow any leads, frequently stepping on the toes of Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), the meticulous detective assigned to the case.

Suspicion quickly centers on Alex (Paul Dano), a mentally challenged man who drives an RV and barely talks. But the police have no evidence to link him to the kidnapping, so they let him go. When Dover takes matters into his own hands, it sets off a chain reaction of events with all sorts of tricky moral implications.

The characterizations are really deep and vivid, with even the supporting parts standing out. When you have performers the caliber of Viola Davis, Maria Bello and Melissa Leo in the cast, you know things are going to get interesting.

Director Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”) and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski give us one of the most ambitious films of the year, one that raises all sorts of head-scratching conundrums while resisting the urge to provide any easy answers. This is the sort of movie were parsing out the good guys from the bad is a difficult and ultimately pointless exercise.

Splendidly acted and well-told, “Prisoners” is one of the year’s best.

Video extras, which are the same for the DVD and Blu-ray editions, are sorely lacking. They both contain a pair of featurettes focusing on the story and performances, and that’s it.



Monday, December 16, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Battle of the Bulge" (1965)

All movies are on some level flimflam, even the ones that purport to be based on "true events." This is doubly so for war pictures, which must take the chaotic and bloody gruel of combat and some turn it into a digestible cinematic meal. If an obvious narrative doesn't present itself in the historical record, Hollywood will bend over backward to impose one -- never mind how much the made-up characters and plot diverge from reality.

You know you've got a problem with historical accuracy, though, when Dwight D. Eisenhower emerges from his post-presidency blanket of privacy to hold a press conference denouncing your movie. Such was the fate of 1965's "Battle of the Bulge."

This borderline awful war drama is like a Tinseltown Cliff's Notes version of one of World War II's most decisive battles. The real Battle of the Bulge lasted nearly a month, stretched over a huge chunk of Western Europe and involved hundreds of thousands of soldiers and pieces of equipment. The movie version, however, focuses on the plight of a handful of American soldiers at various levels of command, ranging from sergeant up to general.

Not only is the role of the British downplayed in the Hollywood version, I'm not sure if an English soldier even shows up once during the movie's 170 minutes. That's ironic, considering director Ken Annakin is an Englander who directed the British scenes in the far superior "The Longest Day."

Astonishingly, despite being one of the most famous winter military deployments since Valley Forge, there's barely a hint of snow in the film, which looks like it was shot during the full bloom of summer.

My biggest complaint is that all the American soldiers are not individuals but character "types" -- usually ones that synch up nicely with the star persona of the actor playing him. So Henry Fonda is Kiley, a careful and reasonable man whose warnings about a German offensive go unheeded. And Charles Bronson is Wolenski, a tough no-nonsense major who leads a group of hardcase dogfaces.

James MacArthur plays Weaver, an untested young lieutenant who quickly gets wised up by the German Panzer incursion and the tutelage of his wiser sergeant. Robert Ryan is the determined, methodical good general and Telly Savalas is Guffy, a tank sergeant who runs a black market racket on the side and operates as the movie's Bronx-accented comic relief.

None of these actors makes much of an impression, with the exception of Fonda, who could play a telephone switch operator and make it snap.

The real star of the show is Robert Shaw as Hessler, the ambitious, take-no-prisoners German tank commander given a prime spot in the counteroffensive of the Third Reich. Hessler is loosely based on the real-life Panzer commander known for his aggressive tactics that resulted in high casualties among his own forces, while also crushing the enemy.

Outfitted with the platinum blond hairdo he wore in "From Russia with Love" and a few other films, Shaw is the model of the icy Aryan Nazi, who would rather the war go in forever in stalemate than lose his status as a military hero. Hans Christian Blech plays Conrad, his right-hand man and conscious, who whispers in his ear not to be so cruel. In the end, they break ways and Conrad is assigned to tote fuel drums. The final shot of the film is Conrad tossing away his rifle and ammunition belt as the defeated Germans march away home.

Hessler is also implied to order the execution of captured American POWs at Malmedy, an actual war crime that is depicted briefly in the film without a lot of emotional power. Mostly it's used as the turning point of the Weaver character when he stops being callow and learns to accept the consequences of command decisions.

Weaver survives the massacre to, in the movie's depiction, nearly single-handedly stop the German tank advance by rolling some cans of fuel at Hessler's column, blowing them up. Neat trick, that.

Shaw is a real treat as a hiss-able screen villain, but in terms of nuance "Battle of the Bulge" is severely lacking. It's a dumbed-down cut-up of a movie about a great, tragic event. I don't think Ike was the only one who thought it was a serious disservice to the men who fought and died.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Review: "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"

The sort of people who slavishly read fantasy novels in general and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien in particular (like me) also tend to be the sort who play video games, especially the role-playing variety. (Again, me.) These overlapping constituencies are no doubt familiar with the concept of the expansion pack.

This is when the creators of a successful game issue a supplement that keeps the basic architecture in place, and just adds new elements -- extended storylines, new characters, new monsters, fresh hardware and so on.
There isn't nearly as much work involved in churning out an expansion pack as an original game, so they tend to be handsome going concern for game-makers.

In blowing up Tolkien's modest novel "The Hobbit" -- 287 pages in my ancient Ballantine paperback edition -- into a trio of movies tipping near three hours each, director Peter Jackson and his cohorts have essentially applied the M.O. of the expansion pack to moviemaking.

Oh, Tolkien's delightful children's story is still there, about an unassuming hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) who gets recruited to accompany 13 dwarves and a wizard on a journey to faraway lands to slay a dragon and win back a stolen kingdom. But it's been "augmented" to such a ridiculous degree that keepers of the original flame might have a hard time recognizing the quaint little tale they remember so fondly.

I still liked the final product, which is a rip-roaring, action-packed good time, because as I said this sword-and-sorcery stuff is totally in my wheelhouse. But in giving it the grand, elongated "Lord of the Rings" treatment, I fear casual fans may feel Tolkien's tender prequel has been burgled of much of its charm.

At the outset of the second film of the triplet, "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," Bilbo, dwarven leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), sage wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and their companions have successfully crossed through the Misty Mountains and escaped the clutches of a horde of goblins and orcs who want their heads.

They still have a long way to go to reach Erebor, the lonely peak where the eponymous dragon lies sleeping under a mountain of treasure. To get there, Bilbo & Co. must brave the suffocating Mirkwood Forest, battle giant spiders and encounter some woodland elves who aren't so sprightly in their attitudes toward dwarves.

For me, this section contains some of the most rapturous portions of Tolkien's novel, as the wayward adventurers are forced to navigate both treacherous terrain and tricky political/racial territory. For some reason, though, Jackson and his co-screenwriters (Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro) decided this is precisely they area where they must economize the story down to bare bones.

Thus, the party's encounter with fearsome "skin-changer" Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) is over almost before it begins. Likewise, the claustrophobic taint of the Mirkwood isn't allowed time to settle in. And Bilbo's comedic-yet-scary rescue of his compatriots at the hands of the spiders, employing his new magic invisibility ring, stinging sword and a bit of clever poetry, doesn't summon up the scares or the laughs it ought to.

Instead, we're treated to a whole bunch of byplay involving elven king's son Legolas (Orlando Bloom), brought back from the "LOtR" movies for another go-round, and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a badass warrior elf woman who's completely invented out of whole cloth. We also get to know a lot more about the internal power struggles of Laketown and its would-be hero, Bard (Luke Evans), than is really necessary. Plus an expanded look at Gandalf's investigation of a mysterious Necromancer down south.

And, most bizarrely, the stirring of an interracial romance 'twixt elf and dwarf. Yes, really. The way Jackson and the gang are building this thing up, I think we're in store for the full Romeo/Juliet entanglement in the third installment.

I couldn't help noticing that  nearly every time the film deviates significantly from the book, it's to diminish Bilbo as a character. Instead of being the center of the action and the doer of deeds, he becomes merely the person who sets in motion events that others take full advantage of.

So for example, instead of single-handedly rescuing the dwarves from their elvish captors using empty wine barrels, he's a bit player in a big action set-piece starring Legolas and Tauriel. And rather than being the one who notices the not-so-proverbial chink in the armor of the mighty Smaug (captivatingly voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), here he merely confirms what others have told him.

I still enjoyed the second "Hobbit" film. But in piling on so much extraneous other stuff, we feel less like we're watching a movie than playing it on our game console. Consequently, it's less consequential.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Video review: "Despicable Me 2"

“Despicable Me 2” is essentially more of the same, with super-villain-turned-super-daddy Gru (voice of Steve Carell) turning his attentions away from dastardly plots to raising his three adopted daughters and manufacturing “jams and jellies.” But he gets sucked back into the old life, this time on the side of the good guys, and dallies in a little romance to boot.

It’s not the most ambitious sequel ever made, and if you measure your age in more than single digits, it will likely grow a tad monotonous. But for the young’uns there is a lot of zippy action, cool ray guns and other mad scientist hardware, and plenty of gastrointestinal humor featuring Gru’s gibberish-spouting army of little yellow minions.

Kristen Wiig provides the voice of Lucy, a junior agent of the Anti-Villain League who is assigned to be Gru’s partner. Seems a noxious serum has been stolen that turns the imbiber into a purple berserker, and they believe one of the proprietors of the local mall is the culprit. Gru and Lucy pretend to be cupcake bakers and set about mixing things up.

Gru’s chief target is the owner of the local Mexican restaurant, who bears a resemblance to a presumed dead bad guy named El Macho. But his new bosses aren’t buying the suspicion. Meanwhile, ardor blooms between Gru and Lucy, and his oldest daughter gets all swoony for the putative El Macho’s son.

Most of the best gags involve the minions, including a subplot where they are gradually kidnapped and injected with that serum. (If, like me, you’re wondering why they don’t just make a movie featuring the ochre-hued, overall-wearing little dudes – since that’s what the kiddies really want -- “Minions” is set to drop in 2015.)

I’ve despised a lot of lackluster sequels, but not this one. For a movie that doesn’t try very hard, it’s fun and reasonably entertaining.

The movie comes with a host of good extra features, headlined by three new mini-movies further exploring the world of Gru & Co. Of course, the minions get their own wee adventure. They even come with their own making-of featurettes.

There’s also an interview with Steve Carell, a profile of El Macho, featurettes on gadgets and Gru’s girls, and a commentary track by directors Chris Renaud & Pierre Coffin – who also moonlight as the voices of the minions.



Monday, December 9, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Das Boot" (1981)

"Das Boot" is one of the first foreign films I saw more or less contemporarily to its debut in U.S. theaters. A German submarine war epic is not exactly first pickings for most preadolescent kids, so I can only imagine my parents' reaction when I asked them to take me to see it.

It's not one of those films that slides in under the radar and whose reputation is burnished with the passing of years; seeing it, you immediately sense you are in the presence of greatness.

I remember the movie causing quite a stir at the time. In part because foreign films rarely got mainstream attention in America, but also because it was a German film that was purported to show German soldiers as brave and competent. Shunting aside that claim is easy, since the strength in writer/director Wolfgang Petersen's finely-crafted workmanship is that the submariners are depicted as real flesh-and-blood creatures with all sorts of varying qualities -- some of them vile, but a few of them noble, too.

Besides, it is a fundamental flaw in human thinking (and thereby our cinema) to believe that genuine heroism cannot be performed in service to a cause that is evil. The Confederacy fought for the preservation of slavery, our country's original sin, but that hardly obliterates the great gallantry shown by many of its officers and foot soldiers.

The soldiers in "Das Boot" are German naval seamen who are in some ways at the most forward front in the war against Britain: the North Atlantic sea battle of late 1941 and early 1942. It was a war of attrition Germany was destined to lose, as too few U-boats were available to stop the convoys of supply ships and destroyers feeding the Allied strength. They essentially acted as more or less autonomous rovers, hunting for juicy targets and wallowing in misery and boredom otherwise.

There are more versions of "Das Boot" than can be easily counted. There was a European version during its initial release, and an American one that ran a hair under 2½ hours. It also played on German television as a mini-series, six episodes of 50 minutes each, including recaps from the previous show, for five hours total. Petersen was allowed to present his own edit in 1997, but this 209-minute version wasn't available on Blu-ray until last year.

In general, I'm not a fan of director's cuts of films. Except in rare cases where a studio clearly took over a picture and hacked it to pieces -- say, Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" -- most of the time I find that when a filmmaker gets the opportunity to present "their" version of a picture, the original was better. Director's cuts are invariably longer, lose narrative cohesiveness and have a self-indulgent vibe.

(James Cameron would be the glaring outlier in this regard -- his re-cuts of "The Abyss," "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" and "Aliens" are all improvements, with one notable exception.)

Petersen's cut of "Das Boot" is an hour longer, but somehow doesn't dramatically change the experience of watching it. The reinserted scenes are nearly all quiet character moments where the officers and crew interact with each other more deeply than we saw in the theatrical versions. We see an unnamed crew member complaining about the captain's bold tactics, or more reminiscing between the junior officers about their lives back home.

I can't definitely say which version is "better," other than the new version is "more" of the same movie. My judgment would probably be that if I was watching it in the theater, the original cut would make for a more engaging experience. But the slower rhythms of home video lend itself better to the expanded version, where we can get inside the heads of the characters a little more.

"Das Boot" is the sort of movie where you probably walk away unable to list the names of more than one or two characters, but they exist as distinct, easily recognizable individuals. There's the resolute captain (Jürgen Prochnow), a brilliant but overly aggressive strategist who repeatedly presses the luck of the U-96 and its crew. He's like a wolf pack leader who is often sullen that circumstances require him to be more careful than his instincts would dictate.

The first officer (Hubertus Bengsch) is a ramrod straight Nazi, the only man onboard who burns with ideological purity -- reflected in his carefully groomed appearance, in stark contrast to the pale, scruffy bearded submariners around him. Klaus Wennemann plays the quiet, hard-working chief engineer, his mind occupied by an unspoken problem with his wife at home; Martin Semmelrogge is the impish second officer and comic relief.

Erwin Leder has a memorable role as Johann, the chief mechanic known as "The Ghost" for his wan, sickly appearance and tendency to haunt his beloved engine room without ever leaving. The most seasoned man aboard, it is Johann who cracks in the middle of a tense battle with a British destroyer, attempting to escape out the main hatch (and thereby killing the entire crew). He redeems himself with his subsequent heroic efforts.

Acting as the eyes and ears of the audience is Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer), a war correspondent sent to chronicle a U-boat mission for propaganda purposes. Young, intelligent and sensitive, he has trouble fitting in with the hard-bitten camaraderie the men share -- even the captain takes great pains to keep him at a distance and uncomfortable. Appearing to confide in the young writer, he's actually mocking him most of the time.

Werner is a clear stand-in for Lothar G. Buchheim, an actual German journalist who spent several months aboard the real U-96. Buchheim milked his experience for literary purposes not once, but thrice. There was the initial short story published during the war, then a 1973 novel upon which the movie is based, and finally a nonfiction account of the same journey three years later.

(Interestingly, when the film came out Buchheim was a lonely voice criticizing it for historical inaccuracy, which is an odd choice for a man who exploited his time on a U-boat for propaganda, fiction and supposed neutral observation. Most of his ire seems to stem from the fact that Petersen preferred to write the screenplay himself instead of turning it over to a cinematic novice.)

For all its length and majesty, the storyline can be neatly divided into four unequal parts. The first is the initial launch of the U-96 and several dreary weeks spent at sea waiting for some action, other than a brief encounter with a British destroyer in rough seas where the German have their hats handed to them, though they escape serious damage. Then there is the successful attack on a convoy in which the U-96 sink two ships, only to be pursued and nearly destroyed by two avenging warships.

The third section is a brief visit to a German supply ship off the coast of Spain; at this point the audience has been confined inside the sub for two hours, so when the men emerge into the bright, sumptuous atmosphere aboard the merchant vessel, it seems practically like stepping onto an alien planet. Finally, there is the long sequence where U-96 attempts to sneak through the well-guarded Straits of Gibraltar, and is literally sunk -- stranded on the bottom of the sea, unable to move. An amazing undertaking manages to raise the submarine to the surface and escape to freedom, until being strafed by Allied planes while at dock and sunk.

The final image is of the captain, kneeling on the dock after being fatally wounded, watching through a steely gaze as he watches his ship slowly bubbling downward on its final death dive. Strangely, this somehow seems like a victory, since the captain got to die on his own two feet in the sunlight, instead of a cold, dark demise under the frozen ocean.

For most vessels, a captain going down with his ship is seen as a grand gesture. But as this film well shows, submariners have a love/hate relationship with their ships. Beyond stealth, they have virtually no defensive capabilities -- they are essentially a spear point, hurled at the enemy with little regard for what happens after to the weapon.

Petersen's claustrophobic camera work is simply brilliant, roving up and down the narrow 10-foot-wide shaft of the submarine like a wandering spirit. They built a real-size replica for the production, which lasted a full year and required the actors to stay out of the sunlight so they could take on the real pallor of submariners.

The sound design and editing is especially important to the success of "Das Boot," since there are long stretches where the movie is utterly silent, as the U-96 crew waits for the sound of enemy ships or the feared depth charges. When we first hear the harsh ping of a sonar array, searching for the submerged vessel like a groping, eyeless and icy finger of Death, it's positively chilling.

"Das Boot" would end up with six Oscar nominations, including screenplay and direction, though it would not be represented as Germany's "official" entry for the Academy Awards -- so no nod for Best Foreign Language Film. Personally, I think it's the definitive submarine movie.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Review: "Great Expectations"

Film adaptations of 19th century British and American literature have a tendency to be stiff and remote. The characters in those books were often more like archetypes than flesh-and-blood creatures. They spoke in lilted sentences adored in upper-class salons of the day, but which were unlikely to actually spill out of anyone’s mouth extemporaneously. Movie versions tend to translate this distance between author and audience.

At first I thought “Great Expectations” was falling into this fold, based on Charles Dickens’ classic tale of a blacksmith’s apprentice transformed into a young gentleman. The early section where we’re introduced to the main players and set the plot in motion drags rather badly. Pip is plucked out of obscurity and given a sizeable fortune by a mysterious benefactor.

But something happens along the way. The actors grow comfortable in their roles, director Mike Newell and screenwriter David Nicholls trim away some of the book’s extraneous subplots and characters, and the movie actually grows deeper and richer the further we travel along with it.

By the end, I was fully caught up in the emotional journey of Pip (Jeremy Irvine) and his long-estranged lady love, Estella (Holliday Grainger). Their on-again, off-again affair is somehow both restrained and ravishing.

The cast is just spectacular, with the characters really popping off the screen despite many of them having limited screen time. Jason Felmyng has sort of shy, proud grace as Joe, Pip’s brother-in-law and passive protector. Robbie Coltrone is a fearsome, fulsome presence as Jaggers, the mercenary lawyer put in charge of introducing Pip into society. Ewen Bremner, Sally Hawkins and Olly Alexander are spot-on as, respectively, Jaggers’ assistant Wemmick, Pip’s abusive older sister and best chum Herbert Pocket.

The real standouts are Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes, both of whom deserve consideration when the award season rolls in.

As Miss Havisham, the wealthy spinster who takes young Pip under her wing, Carter is an eerie presence, a victim and victimizer who has shut herself away from life. Abandoned at the altar by a conniving embezzler, she still wears her wedding dress, now reduced to ragged strips, while the mice make a feast on her never-served banquet dinner. She’s both vile and pitiable.

It’s no secret Fiennes can be utterly unnerving onscreen, so his early scenes as escaped convict Abel Magwitch are fraught with terror. Later, while never losing his hard edges -- he’s a willing murderer who sleeps with a blade in his hand -- Magwitch is also exposed as more human than we might have supposed.

Irvine is fine in the lead role, though it’s more of a reactive part where the actor is required to play off of the other, more interesting people around him. Grainger has a nice feel for the coldness inside the heart of Estella, Miss Havisham’s adoptive daughter.

She delivers perhaps the most memorable line of the book and movie: “I have been bent and broken, but -- I hope -- into a better shape.” This surprisingly touching version of “Great Expectations” certainly breaks the mold for this sort of literary adaptation, breathing life into those dusty pages.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Video review: "The Wolverine"

So they made a Wolverine movie to spin off the most popular character from the X-Men film franchise, and it didn’t do so well. In the spirit of recent Hollywood tradition when it comes to superhero flicks -- their motto could be “try, try again” -- they decided have another go. Hugh Jackman reprises his role as the feral, be-clawed mutant with extraordinary healing powers.

As with the Superman and Hulk movies, the do-over wasn’t markedly better than the first attempt. Which begs the question of why they bothered in the first place, other than sheer naked money-making.

“The Wolverine” goes for an adaptation of a popular 1980s graphic novel set in Japan, but booted most of the narrative and replaced it with a confusing mish-mash of fight scenes, wooing and, for some reason, a cyborg.

Logan aka Wolverine is summoned to Japan to the deathbed of Yashida, whose life he saved in World War II. He is stripped of his mutant power and thrown into the middle of a family squabble between his friend’s son, Shingen, and granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), over control of their billion-dollar corporation.

Soon Wolverine is fighting ninjas, Yakuza mob thugs, and a mysterious Western doctor with her own poisonous powers. Jackman frequently sheds his shirt for these, revealing his weird, veiny bod. Meanwhile, he and Mariko manage to fall deeply, irrevocably in love in about a minute and a half, leading to some obligatory damsel-in-distress scenes.

Some of the action scenes are engaging, but the story is such a shredded mess, it looks like a Japanese tapestry that had a nasty encounter with Wolverine’s adamantium claws.

The video release is accompanied by some nice extra features, though you’ll need to shell out for the Blu-ray version to get the best stuff. The DVD comes only with a making-of featurette.

Go for the Blu-ray edition and you add an alternate ending, an interactive mobile device app, a more in-depth look at Wolverine’s journey, and a sneak peak of the upcoming “X-Men: Days of Future Past” set.

For the most complete experience there’s the “Unleashed” version that includes an extended, unrated cut of the film: “more violent and hardcore than ever before,” the jacket promises. And you get a feature-length commentary track by director James Mangold.



Monday, December 2, 2013

Reeling Backward: "The Lady Eve" (1941)

I've been thinking about the Reeling Backward selections I've written about recently, as well as the piles of potential films to feature -- mostly in the form of DVDs/Blu-rays sitting on my desk, stuff I've DVR'd off Turner Classic Movies and titles filling up my Netflix queue (more than 100, counting both streaming and DVD lists).

Conservatively speaking, it'll take me two to three years to get through all the films. And that's not accounting for any flux in the lists, as titles available for streaming suddenly disappear (annoying) or my interests change and I add new movies as I come across them (frequent). But it gives me a good idea of what sorts of things I've been watching or planned to watch.

Anyway, I've noticed a possibly disturbing trend: Reeling Backward has become a very testosterone-laden space. Most of the recent columns and queues are dominated by war pictures, crime stories, sports dramas and Westerns. There hasn't been a whole lot of comedy, and there's been even less of the "chick flick" variety.

The irony, of course, is that back in Hollywood's Golden Age they didn't think to divide films into "women's pictures" or "children's movies" or such. It was assumed that more or less everybody was more or less interested in every genre of film, and that as long as they made good pictures people of all ages and genders would come to see them.

(They most definitely thought of a certain subset of movies as being for "colored people," and indeed there was a little-known subsystem of films produced for and even by black folks. But that's another story.)

Romantic comedies have been one of the mainstays of popular film going back to its silent days, and Preston Sturges was widely considered a master of the genre. "The Lady Eve" is one of his better-known examples. Technically it's best described as a screwball comedy, but since most screwballs were subsets of romantic films, the categorization still works.

What's most notable about the film is the way Barbara Stanwyck completely dominates the film, even with the considerable Henry Fonda as her leading man. Fonda plays Charles Pike, an ophiologist (snake expert) who also happens to be the heir to the Pike's Ale fortune. Charles, having just spent a year doing research in the Amazon, is a socially inept bumbler who seems uncomfortable around the hordes of women zeroing in on him.

Until, that is, he meets Stanwyck's Jean Harrington, a con woman and daughter of hoary card shark "Colonel" (a fictional title) Harrington (Charles Coburn). Jean is a schemer and a shyster, but isn't quite the total mercenary that her father is. She finds herself genuinely falling for the patsy.

Their seduction scenes are quite electric, especially in that the man is totally submissive to the woman in a way you don't usually see in this era of film. First she makes Charles remove her busted shoe and replace it with another, in a paean to foot fetishism that probably drove Quentin Tarantino crazy. Then she nudges him off the divan and and hovers over him, lustily stroking his hair, in a clear stand-in for another part of his anatomy. Her midriff-baring outfit is quite racy for the time.

Later Charles is wised up by his bodyguard/protector Muggsy (William Demarest) that Jean and her dad are con artists, and he gives them the heave-ho. Segue to a few months later, and Jean decides to pull his chain again. Posing as a bogus Brit noble, the Lady Eve, she inserts herself into the upper-crust Connecticut set, and wheedles an invitation to a party being thrown by Charles' father, Horace (Eugene Pallette, famous for his rotund carriage and gravely voice).

Of course, it's ludicrous that Charles wouldn't immediately recognize Eve as Jean. But he insists that someone trying to fool him would change their appearance, so the fact that she looks exactly the same is proof in his mind that they actually are two women. For a scientist, Charles seems pretty impervious to logic.

The dinner scene of Charles falling over himself as he is flummoxed by Eve remains a high point, with the doltish boy having to repeatedly change tuxedos when he keeps getting an array of food spilled on his duds.

In the end he falls for Eve just as he did Jean, and following a quickie marriage she extracts her revenge, fabricating a litany of former lovers (including at least one elopement) as part of the Lady Eve's backstory. Mortified, Charles literally jumps off the train they were riding to their honeymoon destination.

Eric Blore is a real treat as Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith, a fellow scam man who teams up with Jean to help her perpetrate her ruse as an English lady. I love how, when introducing himself to his fellow rascals, he prefaced his name with "at the moment" -- indicating that such things are as interchangeable as the hats he favors.

I liked a lot of little bits 'n' pieces about "The Lady Eve," though as a whole I found it somewhat disappointing. The best screwball/romantic comedies have a little heart to them as well as flimflam -- "It Happened One Night" being the classic example. "Eve" is straight go-go-go comedy, and in the end I felt more breathless than charmed.

Perhaps I'm just too used to manly flicks.