Thursday, August 28, 2014

Review: "The November Man"

"You can be a human being or a killer of human beings, but not both. Sooner or later, one of those will extinguish the other."

So says Peter Devereaux, and he should know. After more than three decades as a top CIA operative, he left a trail of bodies so long it earned him his unofficial codename, from which the movie "The November Man" takes its title. That's because after he comes through a place, one of his grizzled old handlers relates, nothing is left alive.

That analogy doesn't really make any sense -- of course plenty of things are still alive after November; that's how we get spring -- but then neither does much of the rest of the movie. It's a frenetic mish-mash of shootouts and bombastic dialogue, with some damsels in distress and vague geopolitical outcomes in the balance.

Pierce Brosnan optioned the rights to the book series by Bill Granger right around the time he was given the boot as James Bond in 2005. It's too bad they didn't actually make this movie back then, because it would've seemed a lot fresher.

Stop me if this sounds familiar: a past-his-prime spy is forced into taking One Last Job, but things go bad and he is forced to wade through a quagmire of thugs and bosses of uncertain loyalties, all the while sternly lecturing the whippersnappers about what a badass he is, before providing them a demonstration.

Liam Neeson, Kevin Costner and other have already taken their stab at this premise, with varying degrees of success. (Up next: Denzel Washington with this fall's "The Equalizer.") Now it's Brosnan's turn, and while he makes for a nicely creased, convincing geezer spy, the story never becomes coherent enough to land any real emotional punches.

The setup is that someone has a very big secret about Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski), a Russian pol in line to take over the presidency. It seems he was a bad boy during the Chechnyan uprising, executing people and even taking a young girl named Mira as his personal sex slave. So Federov wants to take out anyone who knows anything about it, while the Americans (Will Patton and Bill Smitrovich are the senior spooks on the scene) want to leverage Mira against him.

Trouble is, no one can find her. So they settle for the next best thing, Alice Fournier (Olga Kurylenko), an advocate against sex trafficking who counseled Mira. Devereaux gets brought in to do a simple "exfil" -- that's "sneak somebody out" in spy talk -- of Federov's assistant, who has the goods on him. Alas, nasty things happen, setting off a chain reaction in which everybody is after Alice, and Devereaux becomes the only one she can trust.

There are a couple of X factors, both in the forms of younger, lean and hungry assassins. Alexa (Amila Terzimehić) works for Federov, has the body of a ballet dancer, the beak of a hawk and the stare of a killer. David Mason (Luke Bracey) is a CIA stooge who used to be Devereaux's protégé, until an op went bad and they became antagonists.

Much of the screenplay by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek -- too much, really -- is concerned with a chess match of wits between Devereaux and Mason, with the young guy better at rough-and-tumble skills while the older chap plays the superior long game. It's the old "teacher still has a few lessons to impart to the student" shtick.

But then the movie morphs into a relationship story between Devereaux and Alice, with her bearing a terrible secret (which I figured out around the 45-minute mark). Neither dynamic gets enough air to survive on its own, and both end up suffocating.

Director Roger Donaldson has made some terrific thrillers, including "No Way Out," which ratcheted up the tension inch by inch. But "The November Man" ends up as a lot of gunfights interspersed with confusing dialogue.

Or to put it another way: "You can have a revenge saga or a May/November romance, but not both."

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review: "Rich Hill"

“Rich Hill” is a pure and polished documentary, a Grand Jury prizewinner at Sundance, but can’t escape a fatal sense of incompleteness. It follows the travails of three dirt-poor teen boys in the titular Missouri town for a year or so, as they struggle against back-breaking economic and familial challenges no child should have to face at so tender an age.

Yet -- we leave them much as we found them, with little substantial movement in their squalid lives, and no real insight gained on the part of the audience. ‘Here they are,’ the movie seems to say, ‘and isn’t that terrible.’ We wait expectantly for something more. I never really felt like I got to know any of the boys much past the first five or 10 minutes spent with them.

Their situations range from just plain bad to seriously in danger of falling through the cracks.

Andrew, 14, probably has the best circumstances of the lot. He’s tall, good-looking and athletic, does well in school and at sports, and shares a close love between his parents and sister. (No last names are used for any of the subjects.)

But Andrew’s father Willie works itinerantly, out of choice rather than necessity, as he favors odd jobs over being beholden to any one employer. (He also croons on the side as a rather decent Hanks Williams Sr. tribute act.) And his mother has serious health problems that often lay her up for days at a time, so Andrew acts more as caregiver than receiver.

As a result, money tends to run dry suddenly, usually necessitating the family pick up sticks and move somewhere else. One wrenching scene shows Andrew and his sister trying to remember all the places they’ve lived.

Appachey is 13 and seems to wreak havoc on everything he touches. Our first glimpses of him tell the tale: he lights a cigarette using a toaster, then accidentally flips his skateboard down a storm drain. There’s a telling moment where he starts to walk off, affecting manly nonchalance, but he turns around to hunker down on his knees to try to retrieve it because hey, it’s his skateboard – transportation, rebellion and identity all in one.

His mother is authoritarian and somewhat clueless, dispensing harsh parenting (and sometimes the back of her hand) to Appachey and his siblings in their shabby house, where clothes and trash are underfoot everywhere. After Appachey is put on long-term suspension for a fight at school, his destructive tendencies only seem to escalate. But somewhere inside there is a kid who dreams – he talks about his love for Chinese illustrations, and turns a frozen puddle into a muddy work of art.

Most disturbing of the trio is Harley, who seems to be simultaneously not very bright and extremely stubborn, which is a scary combination. His mother is in jail for attacking his father – the family claims she was protecting the boy from his dad’s sexual abuse – so Harley lives with his ineffectual grandmother. He’s frequently absent from school because he claims he doesn’t feel well. (The film’s website reports that he was subsequently diagnosed with a brain tumor.)

“I’m very easy to make mad,” Harley says about himself, and that’s the simple, scary truth. The filmmakers encourage us to sympathize with Harley – such as when they show him going around to other kids at school on his 16th birthday, asking them if they know what’s special about today, and nobody seems to have a clue.

But more often, I felt less like I was observing Harley’s struggles that intruding upon the descent of a boy desperately in need of help. This young man doesn’t need to have his story told; he needs a raft of social services, a strong parental figure and the privacy necessary to deal with his daunting issues.

There is definitely some value in “Rich Hill.” Directors Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos are technically skilled and chose a brave subject for their documentary. But it feels like the start of something noble, rather than the completion of that endeavor. This movie is a placeholder for a better one.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Ten Commandments" (1956)

It's funny; when "The Ten Commandments" sticks to the letter of Biblical scripture, it's rather overwrought and stiff, despite the at-the-time incredible special effects of the parting of the Red Sea and columns of fire.

But the bulk of the early going, which is mostly Hollywood B.S. based on historical conjecture about Moses' life until age 30, is riveting and packs a lot of emotional punch.

I thought Charlton Heston gives a marvelous performance as a prince of Egypt who learns he's the son of Hebrew slaves, a man honor-bound to do the right thing even at great personal cost. Once he obtains the white fright wig and starts delivering declarations to the masses instead of speaking dialogue to other characters, though, the film goes into a mortal tailspin.

The great Cecil B. DeMille seemed to sense this, too, since about three-quarters of the film's famous 3 hour, 39 minute run time is devoted to the preamble of Moses convincing the pharaoh to "let my people go." Once they're actually let go, the movie speeds up to almost a dangerous canter, spinning fecklessly through the creation of the commandments, years of wandering in the wilderness, conflicts between the great Hebrew tribes, etc.

Nominated for the the Academy Award for Best Picture, "The Ten Commandments" ended up losing to another even more unworthy epic, "Around the World in 80 Days." Its lack of Oscar nominations in anything other than the "minor categories" is probably indicative that it wasn't really a favorite going in. It failed to garner any acting nods, though Heston got a Golden Globe nomination.

Even its spectacular sets, purported to be the largest ever built, didn't win in the art direction category, nor the extravagant and beautiful costumes. In the end, the film won only one Oscar for special effects.

In the foursome of screenerwriters' version of the tale, Moses was a Hebrew babe placed in a basket on the river Nile to escape the wrath of the pharaoh, reacting to the prophecy of a deliverer who would free the race of slaves. He was plucked from the waters by Bithiah (Nina Foch), sister of Pharaoh -- his name means "to draw forth" -- and raised as her own.

Flash three decades forward, and Moses has become the main rival of Rameses II, deliciously played by Yul Brynner in full strut-and-pout mode. The only son of Pharaoh Sethi (Cedric Hardwicke), the egotistical and vain Rameses seethes as his father favors his cousin to succeed him upon the throne. Moses has just conquered all of Ethiopia -- keep an eye out for Woody Strode as the King of Ethiopia, and later as one of Bithiah's bearers -- and succeeds in building Sethi's "treasure city" where Rameses failed.

The "brothers," as they refer to themselves, are not only competing for the crown but also the hand of Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), the "house daughter" who must marry the next pharaoh. She and Moses love each other deeply, though Nefretiri turns out to be quite the scheming vixen. It's she who reveals the truth about Moses' heritage to him. Later, now married to Rameses and mother to his child, she convinces the pharaoh to defy Moses' call to free the slaves, resulting in a series of plagues and a terrible backlash against her own family.

I should mention that at one point only Moses and Nefretiri know about his heritage, and he's all but wrapped up the throne. He could've just waited until the elderly Sethi died and then, as pharaoh, freed all the slaves by edict rather than resulting in thousands of horrible deaths. But, as I learned from years of Sunday school, religious types aren't too keen on you pointing out massive plot holes in the Good Book.

Edward G. Robinson has a terrifically fun role as Dathan, a Hebrew slavemaster who schemes against his own people and, when Moses is busy on Mount Sinai obtaining the word of God upon the stone tablets, whips them into a frenzy of idolatry. In perhaps the film's most ridiculous moment, Moses doesn't just break the tablets in fury, he actually hurls them at Dathan and the golden calf, causing them explode and fall into a rift in the earth that swallows everything.

(This leads directly to the second silliest, a throwaway line in the last scene where Moses is forced to explain how they got the remains of the Ten Commandments back, so they could be placed in the Ark of the Covenant and thus "Raiders of the Lost Ark" could be made. He blathers something about the stone tablets, "which were restored to us." So God replaced the exploded commandments, but only in their broken form?)

I was slightly cheesed off that at no point in the movie does Robinson sneer, "Where's your Moses now?!?" Turns out that was just a Billy Crystal routine, a bit of made-up showbiz lore, like Bogie never actually uttering the words "Play it again, Sam."

Other notable actors include John Derek as Joshua, a foolhardy stonecutter who becomes Moses' chief lieutenant; John Carradine as Moses' brother Aaron, who actually performs most of the miracles with his sibling's shepherd staff; Debra Paget as Lilia, a pretty Jewess who catches Dathan's eye; Martha Scott as Yochabel, Moses' real mother; Yvonne De Carlo as Sephora, Moses' long-suffering Bedouin wife; and Vincent Price as Baka, chief stone builder for the Egyptians.

I was struck how fleshy and sensual the movie is. Released prior to the MPAA system, it was awarded a "G" rating for its subsequent theatrical re-releases, which seems rather tame for a movie in which not a lot of clothing is worn, and women dance quite lasciviously on numerous occasions. In a rare bit of historical accuracy for this era of filmmaking, most of the cast is dusky-skinned, whether naturally or with help from makeup.

"The Ten Commandments" remains a great piece of entertainment, a full-of-itself package of Hollywood spectacle, at once haughty, laughable and glorious. I'll be interested to see if Ridley Scott's "Exodus," which is to be released later this year, can find as much treasure in the after-slavery portion of the Moses myth as this movie did in the before part.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Video review: "The Walking Dead: The Complete Fourth Season"

“The Walking Dead” is one of those television shows that seems to garner affection and resentment in equal (and extraordinarily large) portions.

An avid watcher since its inception, I’ve been both transported and annoyed at the show’s portrayal of a post-zombie apocalypse, based on a popular comic book series. In the past, such as the interminable farm sequence during season two, the storyline has gotten stuck in a quagmire that drags on and on. The survivors talk and quarrel, with little narrative momentum.

(At one point there was actually an episode featuring only a single “walker,” bringing us dangerously close to having an utterly zombieless zombie show.)

Season four, however, largely managed to stay away from these pitfalls. Some of the more vexing characters have been mercilessly killed off – good riddance, Lori! – and the show runners and writers seem to have found the magic sweet spot between gruesome splatterings of undead and dramatic tension.

The first half of the season is mostly concerned with the decline of the group’s sanctuary at a former prison, and its ultimate destruction at the hands of the Governor, the main villain from season three – who also gets his own compelling solo story thread.

In the latter half, former lawman Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and the other main characters are scattered to the winds, and must struggle to endure and regroup. Particularly affecting is the plight of Daryl (Norman Reedus), a country boy with mad survival skills and a dark shadow on his soul, who falls in with a band of brutal killers.

We also get to catch up with Carol (Melissa McBride), the timid wallflower-turned-Machiavellian warrior, who was banished from the group last season and takes steps to reconstitute her own little family unit, with breathtakingly tragic results.

By keeping things constantly on the move, “The Walking Dead” realized perhaps its finest season yet.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Review: "If I Stay"

The harsh truth is that kid stars, even fantastically talented ones like Dakota Fanning, Abigail Breslin or Haley Joel Osment, basically get one shot to transition from child roles to adult ones. A few make it, but most don't.

Part of it is looks. (Again, this is tough love time.) The physical features that make for an irresistibly cute kid -- huge liquid eyes, cherubic cheeks, Popeye chin -- don't look so good on an adult face. Part of it is a talent that fails to evolve from simplistic portrayals of a child's emotions to the more nuanced, hidden expressions of grown-ups.

Chloë Grace Moretz would seem to have a leg up, since even as a kid she's usually played characters who seemed much older than their years. I first remember her from "(500) Days of Summer," playing Joseph Gordon-Levitt's younger but world-weary sister. Of course, most people know her as the pint-sized, homicidal Hit Girl from "Kick-Ass."

If "If I Stay," based on the book by Gayle Forman, is to be her jump into more adult roles, then it's a stumble. It's not that she's bad in it -- if anything, she's the best thing in the wobbly romantic supernatural drama.

The problem is the movie around her is not equal to her abilities. It's another one of these stories about people severed from their mortal existence, who must watch on from a ghostly perspective as life turns on without them. Here, as the title implies, her character is trying to decide if she should hang onto a life that she has come to see as meaningless, or return to chase a love that seems lost.

This film contained absolutely no surprises for me. I knew everything that was going to happen before it did, from the very moment Mia Hall (Moretz) first stumbles upon teen heartthrob Adam (Jamie Blackley) to the last glimpse we see of them.

I don't need a movie to constantly throw twists and surprises at me, or labor to keep the audience on edge. But when we know exactly where it's going and are just waiting around for the story to arrive, we feel like the film is just going through the motions.

The set up is that Mia and Adam are musicians from opposite worlds: he's a confident rocker, she's a wallflower cellist. Their initial courtship is almost painful to watch, as if the cocky guitarist feels like he's doing the unpopular girl a favor by wooing her.

The romance gets a little better, but not much. His band starts making a name for itself and doing tours all over the Pacific Northwest, while she's still got another year of high school to finish and an application to Julliard to fret about. The separation strains their relationship, and they're officially quits when Mia's family is involved in a terrible car accident.

I'm not giving anything away by stating that most of her family members are severely injured or killed. Mia herself wakes up next to her body, a wraith who follows herself to the hospital to witness her surgery and subsequent coma. She must decide whether to fight on or (literally) walk into the light.

This is one of those movies where people with life-threatening injuries are depicted with just a hairline cut or two on their face, their hair artfully arranged on a pillow. There's little sense of true peril.

Directed by R.J. Cutler from a script by Shauna Cross, "If I Stay" is tired and uninspired filmmaking. The romance, told entirely through flashbacks, is an uneven jumble of contradictory emotions and motivations. At one point Adam says, "I'm not going to be that a-hole who keeps you from going to Julliard." Then, two scenes later, he is the jerk who doesn't want her to go to Julliard.

I hope that the rule doesn't hold true for Chloë Grace Moretz, and that she gets another shot at a grown-up gig. Some kids deserve mulligans.

Review: "When the Game Stands Tall"

“When the Game Stands Tall” is a very good and very atypical sports drama. The hook is that it’s about the longest winning streak in American sports history, as the De La Salle High School Spartans from Concord, Calif., went 11 years without losing -- 151 wins in a row.

But the man at the middle of that story, Bob Ladouceur, seems almost embarrassed about the win streak. In fact, the sport of football is practically secondary to the lessons he’s trying to impart -- about giving a perfect individual effort, relying and being relied upon by those around you, and forming a bond of brotherhood that will help ease the journey from boyhood to manhood.

Played with a calm, almost monotone voice and personality by Jim Caviezel, Ladouceur was repeatedly courted by big college football programs waiving huge paychecks. But he chose to remain at De La Salle until his retirement last year, because he felt he had something to teach high schoolers that would be lost on men at university.

Upon hearing one of his players promise before a game that he would rather die than fail to give his best effort, the coach sternly corrects him and provides the sort of perspective you never hear in a sports flick: “Collapse -- not die. It’s a high school football game.”

He is in many ways the polar opposite of the central character in “Coach Carter,” which was also directed by Thomas Carter. While that coach was an immense personality who took the extraordinary step of benching his entire team of starters, Ladouceur is the sort of fellow who disappears in a crowd. He barely speaks from the sidelines during games, occasionally grabbing a player’s shoulder pads so he can whisper play calls into his ear.

The story, written by Scott Marshall Smith (“Men of Honor”) based on the book by Neil Hayes, follows the team through the tumultuous 2004 season, when a team of relatively unseasoned players blew the winning streak in their opening game and then lost their next game, putting not just their season but the entire identity of the school on the brink.

It’s an interesting and appealing twist on the old saw of taking a bunch of misfits and turning them into winners. Here, we glimpse the highs and lows of the sport, as winners become losers and must carefully, painstakingly earn their way back to the top.

The De La Salle program isn’t like most others. It’s a Christian school, so the players’ and coaches’ faith plays a pivotal role in their ethos. They literally walk onto the field hand-in-hand with each other, both as a sign of their fraternity and to psyche out opponents. Players are made responsible for each other’s performance, even writing out their goals for the next season and another teammate charged with holding them to it.

Challenges await as one season ends and preparation for another begins. A beloved player (a charismatic Stephan James) is murdered two days before leaving for college on a football scholarship. Ladouceur endures troubles on the home front (Laura Dern plays his wife, Matthew Daddario his son) and a personal setback. The team’s captain and star running back (a solid Alexander Ludwig) is ridden hard by his superfan dad (Clancy Brown), who pushes him to strive for the state touchdown record rather than leading the team.

I also enjoyed Michael Chiklis as Terry, Ladouceur’s jumpy assistant coach and best friend; Joe Massingill as Beaser, a stolid offensive lineman; and Jessie Usher as Tayshon, a lightning-fast but callow wide receiver who resists his coach’s altruistic teachings.

“When the Game Stands Tall” succeeds by shunning almost every trope of the rah-rah sports genre, celebrating selflessness and solidarity over outsized personalities and individual glory. This is a movie about what it takes to be great, rather than reveling in any one win, or many.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Duke of West Point" (1938)

There's a long though not terribly busy cinematic tradition of stories about young men attending military academies. In my lifetime there has been "An Officer and a Gentleman," "Taps" and "The Lords of Discipline." Nearly all of them tie together the themes of boys coming of age and free spirits struggling under the yoke of military culture. (Perhaps notably, there haven't been any mainstream films since the 1980s that I can recall.)

It turns out they were making "cadet movies" even back in 1938. "The Duke of West Point" is about an American-born but British-raised fellow, Steven Earley, who struggles to fit in with his Yank brothers. Or rather, he spends the first half of the movie as an outsider and scamp with little regard for the traditions of the United States Military Academy. Then he faces his great crisis and spends the last act struggling to reconcile himself with his adopted community.

I thought it a rather good comedy/drama, and enjoyed discovering it as part of my extended, open-ended classic film education. I had never heard of Louis Hayward, who plays Earley, and found him to be a charming twinkly leading man in the Cary Grant tradition. His character always seems a little smoother and effortless than everyone around him.

Hayward had a lengthy career, first in films in a lot of adventure and swashbuckling roles -- including the first screen iteration of Simon Templar, aka "The Saint" -- before moving on to television work. He was successful enough in "Duke" to land a three-picture deal and cement his career.

I should point out he was almost 30 years old playing a character who is a freshman, and later a sophomore in military college. It seems Hollywood has always feared casting actual teenagers as themselves.

The story is fairly straightforward. Earley, the son of an American colonel-turned-diplomat, is a BMOC at Cambridge who returns to the Americas to attend West Point, something every son going back five generations has done. He's a facile fellow, good at most everything he tries, especially sports and the ladies. He smugly assumes his life of easy achievement will continue at West Point.

Quickly dubbed "Duke" for his British accent and suave, superior manner, Earley does seem to take it all in stride in the early going. He quickly draws the ire of his "yearling corporal," Cadet Strong (Alan Curtis), a second-year student who takes it upon himself to school the striplings in the ways of the Point.

Things build, seemingly unavoidably, to a mano-e-mano bout of fisticuffs between the two. In a rare break from Hollywood tropes, the hero actually seems to take the worst of it from the oafish antagonist.

He does get along well with his two roommates, Jack West (Richard Carlson), the straight-arrow son of a poor widow, and Sonny Drew (Tom Brown), a flamboyantly enthusiastic cadet who sometimes gets picked on for his eager-beaver ways. They both later get to play a key role in the education of Earley -- as the unwitting recipient of charity and a George Gipp stand-in, respectively.

Joan Fontaine has an early memorable role as Ann Porter, the daughter of "Doc" Porter (Charles D. Brown), the medical trainer for most of the sports team. Doc washed out as a cadet years before, and gets to have a stirring speech about places like this getting into the blood of young men -- not unlike Charles S. Dutton role in "Rudy" many decades later.

Ann is ostensibly the girlfriend of Strong, though she seems to regard him more as disposable arm candy than the other way around. Earley makes a full-court press for her attentions, including sneaking out of barracks after hours -- a court-martial offense. Much of the fun-and-games tone of the early part of the movie derives from the cat-and-mouse games he plays with Strong and others to flout the rules on her behalf.

The big transition is when Earley sneaks out again and is caught, though this time for non-selfish purposes. Wishing to protect the reputation of others, he lies about his activities that night. As a result, he is allowed to remain at West Point but is "silenced" -- aka, no other cadet will speak to him or even acknowledge his presence (with the exception of his two buddies).

After so much laughter and romance, it's a startling change in tone, and not a transition that director Alfred E. Green and George Bruce manage completely. We keep expecting Earley to have a big laugh at the whole thing, but after a time we begin to realize how much his treatment weighs upon him.

He resolves to earn back their trust by becoming the best cadet that ever was -- top of the class academically, the unquestioned star of the football and hockey teams, and so on. It does little avail him of their affections.

A lark that segues into a study of a man's mettle, "The Duke of West Point" is a little-remembered but worthy soldier in the military school genre.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Video review: "The Amazing Spider-Man 2"

Sophomore slumps are an unfortunate reality for plenty of big-budget sequels, and that includes “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” It’s still an enjoyable comic book flick featuring everyone’s favorite web-slinger, but it can’t muster the verve and pizzazz of its predecessor.

Its main problem is an overabundance of characters and plot. The best super-hero movies tend to focus on a single villain or existentialist threat, but here we’ve got storylines splayed all over the place like random spider webs.

Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) has to deal with at least three bad guys, including his best friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) slowly turning into the Green Goblin and Paul Giamatti rampaging (briefly) as the Rhino.

The main heavy is Jamie Foxx as Max, a shy social outcast who idolizes Spidey. He gets zapped by some electrical eels and turned into a living power generator who dubs himself Electro – with his emotions clearing having no voltage regulator.

Foxx makes for a terrific villain, a man deluded by his own quest for power, and compares favorably with Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus from the last Spider-Man iteration. But he’s not given enough screen time to fully flesh out the character. Similarly, the Harry/Peter and Green Goblin/Spider-Man twin conflicts show just enough promise to suggest they deserved their own movie to fully explore.

On top of all these super-villains to fight, Peter’s got a lot weighing on his shoulders: a will they/won’t they romance with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), guilt over the death of Gwen’s cop father, tensions with Aunt May (Sally Field), and the mystery of Peter’s disappeared parents.

The CG action scenes are still a blast, but sometimes less really is more. A more focused film would’ve been a better one.

Fortunately, the video extras are first-rate. The DVD comes with four deleted scenes with commentary by director Marc Webb, a feature length commentary track, and the “It’s On Again” music video with Alicia Keys.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray edition, and you add nine more deleted scenes and a comprehensive making-of documentary, “The Wages of Heroism: Making The Amazing Spider-Man 2.”



Thursday, August 14, 2014

Review: "Magic in the Moonlight"

One of Woody Allen’s most briskly entertaining movies in years, “Magic in the Moonlight” is about love, mysticism and con jobs.

Set in 1928, it boasts gorgeous locations in the south of France, incredible vintage cars and costumes, and lots of beautiful rich people to stare it. In many ways, this looks and feels like Woody’s riff on the Jay Gatsby era (and the movies made about it).

Colin Firth supplies a delicious performance as Stanley, a famous magician and man of science. The marriage of those vocations may sound like a contradiction, but the erudite and very snobby Stanley would correct you -- and probably quote Nietzsche while doing it.

Because he approaches the craft of illusion with methodical precision, Stanley fashions himself a genius in ferreting out the difference between truth and charlatanism. Indeed, he has a healthy side venture debunking purported mystics and seers. A professional faker who has made his fortune at it, he looks down his nose at others for using similar talents to fool the gullible rich.

Alas, Stanley’s cold rationality has translated into a bleak pessimism about all forms of spirituality, and indeed most human endeavor: “It’s all phony, from the sales counter to the Vatican and beyond,” he sniffs.

Peevish, arrogant and yet slyly magnetic, Firth gives Stanley a sort of petulant charm.

But then he’s recruited by a fellow magician pal, Howard (Simon McBurney), to debunk a young American woman who has ensorcelled a fabulously wealthy family.

The matriarch (Jackie Weaver) has agreed to fund a foundation for her and even dangled a marriage with Brice (Hamish Linklater), the handsome, amiable but dim eldest son. Howard himself was brought in to disprove her, and ended up stumped. Stanley is quite sure he’ll have no problem ferreting out her tricks.

Their meeting, however, serves to lend credence to her psychic abilities. Despite the fact that Stanley is known only by his stage personality, a Chinese wizard by the name of Wei Ling Soo, and he adopts a fake name, career and backstory, the woman soon figures out who he is.

The fact that Sophie (a beguiling Emma Stone) is young, ravishing and full of vim catches the crusty, older Stanley off guard.

Sophie represents a beguiling puzzle to him: her occult act and amateurish demeanor would seem straight out of a carny sideshow, complete with a controlling mother (Marcia Gay Harden) who accompanies her and handles the pressing of flesh and conveying of funds. Yet Stanley can’t pierce the veil of her performance, and even begins to wonder if her gifts are authentic.

He’s finally convinced when he takes her to visit his beloved Aunt Vanessa (a spot-on Eileen Atkins), and Sophie is able to summon intimate details about the older woman’s life by clutching her favorite set of pearls. This revelation throws Stanley’s entire life of rationality and divine asceticism into peril.

If there is a great beyond, then why not a God, and love at first sight, and if there is such love, could it be shared between Sophie and Stanley?

Allen seems to be having a great deal of fun here, playing with his characters’ and the audience’s expectations. One soon senses that it’s not just Sophie and Stanley, but the venerable filmmaker himself, who enjoys wielding the tradecraft of deception.

Funny, smart and wry, “Magic in the Moonlight” conjures up a delightful impression.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Review: "Of Dice and Men"

"Of Dice and Men" will play at Gen Con Indy on Friday, Aug. 15 and Sunday, Aug. 17. Click here for more details.

For anyone who's ever fawned over an especially lucky 20-sided die like Gollum fondling his Precious, or spent countless hours hand-painting tiny metal figurines to use with Dungeons & Dragons or similar role-playing games, the new feature film "Of Dice and Men" offers a funny but also surprisingly heartfelt look at those who game, and why.

(For instance, if you're not a gamer you might not know that "die" is the singular of "dice" -- which gamers use frequently in varying shapes -- and not the verb for becoming deceased -- something gamers also do prodigiously.)

Based on a stage play by Cameron McNary, who also stars and co-wrote the screenplay with Francis Abbey, "Dice" looks at a group of young-ish friends who all play D&D together. They're getting older, some are married with kids and others are on the brink of moving on with their lives. They've got just a few sessions left of gaming together to make some memories -- assuming they don't kill each other first.

Directed by Kelley Slagle, this is super-low-budget filmmaking that makes up for its lack of production values with some snappy dialogue, invested performances and cackling-good in-jokes about the geek passion of role-playing games. The cast and crew approach the material not as too-hip outsiders looking to score some cheap jokes on nerds, but as folks who have sat on both sides of a gamemaster's screen, and have the graph-paper maps to prove it.

This is a movie by gamers, for gamers.

It has been 25 years (!) since I last sat down at a table for role-play gaming, though I still RPG a little on the computer and paint lead figurines when I have the time. So I know this world, and appreciate how well and lovingly "Dice" reflects it.

For those who don't know role-play games, each player takes on the part of one or more characters and tries to reflect their personalities and abilities in-game as they strive to overcome challenges. One person usually serves as the game-master or dungeon-master, acting as the storyteller, judge and coach.

"It's like rules for playing pretend," is how one kid aptly describes RPG.

Evan Casey plays John Francis, the longtime GM and well-meaning protagonist. His best friend is John Alex (McNary) -- they've been buds since grade school and share the same first and last names; thus the middle monikers to distinguish them.

John Alex is a wiseacre and cynic, the sort who reflexively rubs most people the wrong way, but endears himself to his friends. Somewhere along the way they picked up Jason (Ricardo Frederick Evans), a jock type with a knight-errant's moral code for smiting evil and defending the weak.

Given those descriptions, it's probably not surprising that John Alex plays a back-stabbing rogue ("Spango Garnetkiller, 17th of that name") and Jason is holy-warrior paladin.

Gwen Gastorf plays Tara, who is frustrated inside the game about her character's penchant for gruesome death, and her  unrequited affection for John Francis outside of it. She's one of those people who tends to come up with overly elaborate backstories for her character; in this case she's a "half-elven double princess wizard."
Tara: "Why do I keep dying?"
John Francis: "You're the party's wizard; it's kind of your job."
Tara: "No, it is my job to be smarter and prettier than everyone else, and to make things blow up real good."
Rebecca A. Herron has a delicious role as Linda, who has strong maternal instincts but likes playing a male dwarf who brags constantly about the size of his member. Greg Thompson has a soulful turn as her husband Brandon, who doesn't really care a whit for D&D but likes spending quality time with his beloved.

It's a lot of fun-and-games at first -- quite literally -- but things grow tense when one member of the group reveals some critically important life-changing plans, and another secretly contemplates something with equal ramifications, if an entirely different path.

Some of the best sequences take place in-game, where the actors dress up as their character's characters, trade quips and vie with (largely unseen) beasties.

I'm constantly complaining about most movies nowadays being too long, but at 75 minutes "Of Dice and Men" is one of the few I wished would've lingered a little longer. I liked spending time with these people, and wanted a little more.

If you're seriously into RPG or are just die-curious, this is an enjoyable insider's look at the hobby, tongue in cheek and heart on sleeve. Game on.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951)

Honestly, I found it a little slow. And heavy-handed.

"The Day the Earth Stood Still" has lived far too long on my list of iconic classic films that I've never seen. The fact that I had watched the awful 2008 remake with Keanu Reeves but not the original weighed on my conscious as someone who purports to be a serious critic.

I can see why many people regard it as one of the most seminal science fiction movies ever made. The special effects, for 1951, were quite extravagant, with the spaceship descending upon the National Mall in Washington D.C. like an angelic discus. Gort, the 8-foot-tall metal(ish) robot who acts as the alien ambassador's personal bodyguard as well as the turn-the-Earth-into-a-cinder failsafe for his mission, is scary enough and imposing.

(Even if his legs do crinkle at the back of the knee like trousers when he walks.)

With a ton of extras, military hardware, scenes of chaos from around the globe, armies of vehicles being moved around, an A-list director in Robert Wise and a musical score by the great Bernard Herrmann, it had the scope of a big-budget spectacle in what is really a B-movie at heart.

Sometimes just being first gets you forever tagged as the best, too. Indeed, "Day" established many of the tropes of science fiction, from Herrmann's use of a theremin to suggest something alien and eerie, to the saucer-like shape of spacecraft. You also have robot sidekicks who frequently pose a threat to humans.

But perhaps its most lasting legacy is as a piece of cautionary propaganda. You may already know the basics of the story: alien ambassador Klaatu (Michael Rennie) comes to Earth to deliver a message of peace, and a warning. But he's shot and wounded by a jittery soldier, and after escaping from the hospital becomes a fugitive from justice.

After slumming around at a boarding house and getting to know some humans, Klaatu warns that the grand federation of peaceful planets are disturbed by humans' development of atomic weapons and missiles, which they see as a threat to their tranquility. Unless mankind chooses to put aside its squabbles and embrace non-violence, they will have no choice but to turn the planet into a smoking ruin.

Most subsequent films and TV shows about humans encountering a more scientifically advanced alien race involve some aspects of this rather paternalistic disposition: "Behave, or you'll be spanked." You can also see it flipped around in the Prime Directive of the Star Trek universe, which essentially treats more primitive cultures as children to be watched over with benevolent neglect.

I'd like to talk a little bit about the philosophy embodied by Klaatu, since it's pretty clear that director Wise and screenwriter Edmund H. North (based on a short story by Harry Bates) enthusiastically agree with the sentiments espoused.

For starters, it's totalitarianism. "Conform to our expectations of behavior or we'll end you" is hardly an example of the exercise of free will. People who are peaceable only because they'll be killed if they aren't haven't really embraced non-violence as a way of life. Rather, the explicit threat of violence against them is what prevents them from expressing their passions, even if it is in negative and destructive ways.

In my experience, people who are forced to bottle up their emotions in one way usually find an awful way to express them in another venue.

I also feel compelled to point out that Klaatu and Gort are rather slippery on the internal logic of their own dictums. Klaatu describes Gort, who fires an energy beam out of his visor that can vaporize anything, as part of an intergalactic police force that enacts the will of the peace-loving planets. He states that this enforcement exists outside of their control, and that once it has begun, they do not have the power to stop it.

Except, of course, that's exactly what happens, when Klaatu instructs a sympathetic human woman (Patricia Neal) to utter the phrase "Klaatu barada nikto" to Gort after he has been killed. Apparently it's a failsafe command that instructs the robot to halt his attacks upon humans and retrieve Klaatu's corpse so it can be revived.

In a late change to the script at the behest of Hollywood censors, Klaatu reveals that his resurrection is to be short-lived, since the ultimate power over life and death is reserved for "the Almighty Spirit." This underlines the suggestion of Klaatu as a Jesus-like figure -- he arises from the dead, but then departs for the heavens. While hiding out he goes by the name of "Carpenter," after the name on the suit he stole, which was the vocation of Christ.

Sam Jaffe has a small but effective role as Professor Jacob Barnhardt, the world's leading scientist who is recruited by Klaatu to present his message to like-minded individuals, since he can't convince the President of the United States or other world leaders to meet with him. (It's never made exactly clear why POTUS won't do this; we're simply told it's "impossible.")

The beginning and end of the film are terrific sci-fi, though the middle section drags badly, with Rennie wandering around with his congenial smile, pulling an "My Alien Father Knows Best" act.

"The Day the Earth Stood Still" is one of those Great Movies that assumed its mantle of greatness without ever escaping the fact that it's merely good. The film hasn't aged well, but then again not many of us do.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Video review: "Frankie & Alice"

It has been my considered opinion that any work of fiction based on the dubious psychological diagnosis of split personalities is doomed from the start. This sort of movie was already clichéd back in the 1970s, and since then many mainstream scientists have come to the conclusion the whole notion of different identities living inside the same body is bunk.

So I was prepared to detest “Frankie & Alice,” the new drama starring Halle Berry (who’s been slumming a whole lot since her Oscar win). Though I should point that calling this film “new” stretches the limits of the word. Shot in 2008, it was given a brief theatrical release in 2010 to qualify for award nominations – which were scant in arriving – before being dumped into theaters this past spring.

In short, everything about it screams “bomb.”

So I was surprised to discover a reasonably engaging movie featuring a strong performance by Berry, and another one by Stellan Skarsgård, who plays her doctor. The writing is at times amateurish and sloppy – with no less than six credited screenwriters, plus two others for story, this film is a prime example of the pitfalls of screenwriting by committee. But director Geoffrey Sax wisely keeps the focus on what’s best, the tense interaction between patient and doctor.

A delicate dance between mistrust and empathy, Frankie’s treatment by Dr. Oz gradually makes progress in uncovering her various personalities – who vary widely in blood pressure, IQ, left- or right-handedness and even race.

Set in 1974, Frankie is a veteran stripper at a swank club (who nonetheless manages to keep everything covered) and party girl on the side. Her tendency for sudden mood shifts, even violent outbursts, eventually lands in her in a mental hospital.

Dr. Oz uncovers two “alter” identities: Alice, a vain and bitter white Southern belle, and Genius, a timid preadolescent girl who acts as Frankie’s reluctant guardian.

The plot unfolds almost like a crime procedural, with the doctor’s psychoanalysis coupled with flashbacks to Frankie’s past providing clues to the wellspring of her mental breakdown. Phylicia Rashad shows up as her devout mother, who tends to turn a blind eye to her daughter’s dark spells.

“Frankie & Alice” isn’t entirely successful, but it smartly focuses more on the characters than the kooky psychology.

Extra features, which are the same for both DVD and Blu-ray editions, are limited to a single featurette, “The Making of Frankie & Alice with Halle Berry.”



Thursday, August 7, 2014

Review: "Into the Storm"

You may recall that another tornado-themed special effects extravaganza, 1997's "Twister," was turned into a theme park ride at Universal Studios Orlando. In it you sit in a theater with the scene of a small town square on stage in front of you, and animated props and special effects simulate the effect of a major tornado leveling the place. It's good hoky fun.

That's pretty  much the experience of "Into the Storm," an astonishingly similar new film with better (or at least newer) special effects but less interesting characters, mostly played by actors you've never heard of. Oftentimes they'll just stand there, staring at the devastation being wrought in front of them, and we know they are just serving as our video game avatars.

This new disaster flick, directed by Steven Quale, comes from a screenplay by John Swetnam that is purportedly original. Like "Twister," though, it focuses on a team of storm-chasers who are desperately seeking to record a mega-tornado event leveling entire towns in the Midwest. The two leaders of the expedition, the brainy woman scientist and the flash-and-showbiz man, constantly spar over the dangers and tactics of their mission.

Sound familiar?

The new movie adds a few twists. It also features a trio of teens who get caught up in the twister party, with some other stuff dashed in about tensions between working single parents and their kids. Most notably, though, is the use of the "found footage" style of filmmaking, in which many of the characters are constantly carrying around cameras, and the shots of what we see are (mostly) supposed to represent what they captured.

"The Blair Witch Project" more or less invented this style, and it's been copied so much that it's practically become a movie genre unto itself.

Of course, when it's used in the context of a massive weather event or other incredible disaster, it seems pretty ridiculous that people would continue to clutch and aim video cameras instead of, y'know, trying to save themselves.

Or help others. There's one shot where some people are trying to move a heavy I-beam that has trapped some people in a hole filling with water, and you wonder why the guy filming this doesn't lend a hand.

To their credit, the filmmakers do include one scene where a dad yells to his son, "Put down that camera and run!" The lad obeys half of his imperative.

Pete (Matt Walsh) leads the Titus Team, a band of storm-chasers who film tornadoes for a documentary film project. They've got a cool tank-like vehicle that's supposedly twister-proof -- want to guess if that theory gets tested? -- and a team of experts and cameramen. Unfortunately, it's been a year since they spotted a sizable tornado, their funding's about to be pulled, and Pete has lost faith in his new weather scientist, Allison, a single mom with pangs of regret about leaving her tiny daughter.

(She's played by Sarah Wayne Callies, best known for her role as "Please kill her now" on "The Walking Dead.")

In the amiable town of Silverton, Donnie (Max Deacon) is an amiable high school junior with mad video skills and a crush on Kaitlyn (Alycia Debnam Carey), a smart conscientious type. Donnie and his brash brother Trey (Nathan Kress) are supposed to film the school's graduation ceremony for their stiff dad Gary (Richard Armitage), who is vice principal. Instead, Donnie ditches the graduation to help Kaitlyn with a video project, which conveniently takes them out to an abandoned factory where they can become imperiled.

Armitage, for those who don't know the name, plays Thorin Oakenshield in the "Hobbit" movies, though you probably won't recognize the face as it was covered by hair and prosthetics. He's reasonably engaging, though like most British actors his American accent sounds forced and inauthentic. (Honestly I can think of about two who are really good.)

There are some genuinely fun moments in the movie, such as when a tornado makes a tanker truck explode, and the flames get sucked up into the vortex, resulting in a nightmare vision straight out of hell. I also liked the scene where the mega-twister picks up jetliners and they perform an eerie airborne ballet.

(Though it's highly curious as to why a little dink town like Silverton has such a huge airport.)

Though in general the movie's pretty go-go serious, there are some moments of levity. Most of these are bound up in scenes with a pair of yokels named Donk and Reevis (Kyle Davis and Jon Reep), who perform "Jackass"-like stunts and decide to get into the tornado-chasing game on a whim, with amusing results. I chuckled at the screen titles informing us of Donk's stats of "312 YouTube hits" and Reevis' job title of "Instigator."

"Into the Storm" is reasonably entertaining and disposable, the sort of movie you watch, enjoy and immediately forget.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Orlando" (1992)

"Orlando" has sometimes been described as a surrealist film, but I don't think that's accurate. It is certainly fanciful, relating the tale of Virginia Woolf's novel about the titular character, who lives hundreds of years as both a man and woman. And it ignores a lot of conventional storytelling tropes, such as having the main character (Tilda Swinton, in her breakout role) interrupt the goings-on to stare at the camera and offer a quip or two about the proceedings.

Obviously, when you're dealing with a character who lives for centuries and switches genders, we're well outside the rigid paths of realism. But just because something isn't plausible doesn't mean it can't make good fodder for important ideas and stories.

Writer/director Sally Potter ("Ginger & Rosa") liberally adapts Woolf's book, changing around or eliminating much of the plot. For instance, Shelmerdine (Billy Zane) is a pretty minor character in the movie, showing up to have a torrid affair with the female Orlando and then departing for the Americas and a life of adventure. The book version is a merchant marine captain who becomes her husband.

Similarly, a recurring theme in the second half of the film, after Lord Orlando becomes Lady, are various court challenges to her ownership of her mansion and estate, since it was bequeathed to his male version by Queen Elizabeth I (played by Quentin Crisp in a further play on gender-bending). She eventually loses her property in the movie, but wins the judicial contest in the book.

(Her opponents' legal reasoning is novel. It's not so much about the notion that women aren't allowed to own property, but the fact that since she used to be a man, she is no longer the person who was bequeathed to. Also, since at the start of the case Orlando is already about 200 years old, she must be presumed to be deceased. Although the court would seem to concede this latter point as it spends decades suing a dead person.)

I found the movie delightful and visually sumptuous, if a bit on the light side thematically. At 93 minutes, it's one of those rare films you wish would tarry longer. Potter doesn't appear to be striving for a grand statement on the differences between genders or the subjugation of women. She's simply presenting a what-if tale about how life could be if one walked in Orlando's boots -- or high heels, later on.

It's a graceful rumination on the nature of humanity -- what it's like to be born a man, or a woman, noble or not, rich man or pauper, in 1600 or the 20th century. Orlando him/herself remains something of a cypher, a tourist in his/her own life who reacts to everything that is happening. Through Swinton's mercurial performance, we sense goodness in Orlando, if not exactly a searching intelligence.

The story proceeds in time breaks of roughly 50 years apiece, with each chapter given its own title: Love, Politics, Poetry, etc. The poetry section is rather brief, depicting Orlando as a serious if ungifted student of prose.

At one point he engages with a celebrated poet (Heathcote Williams) he admires, and convinces him to read some of Orlando's own, awful poems. When he later learns that the poet wrote witheringly about him, Orlando orders the parchment buried under a large pile of manure -- but honors his promise to give the man an annual stipend of £300 a year -- "paid quarterly."

The gender switch is handled almost dismissively. While serving as an ambassador for the Crown in the Middle East, Orlando is overcome with emotion during a battle and flees. Sleeping for days at a time, he awakes to look in the mirror and find the nude body of a woman. "Exactly the same!" she declares, and moves on with her new life with little change, except for some necessary sartorial choices.

The costumes and sets are marvelous in depicting the Elizabethan period on up, from 1600 to 1992. Both earned well-deserved Academy Award nominations.

I've been meaning to see "Orlando" for years, and glad I finally got around to it.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Video review: "Divergent"

It may be too reminiscent of “The Hunger Games” for its own good, but “Divergent” is the superior young-adult story, with a sensation of fun and danger missing from that other, pompous franchise.

Given a choice between me-me-me District 12 girl Katniss Everdeen and Tris, the wallflower-turned-badass of the Dauntless tribe, give me Shailene Woodley any day.

Woodley plays Beatrice, a member of the selfless Abnegation faction in a dystopian future where America is split up into different vocations. Every young person is tested to see which one they’ll best serve, but the final choice is up to them.

Tris, as she renames herself, proves equally adept at three factions, thus rendering her a rebel Divergent whose life is in peril. She is advised to keep this a secret, and disappoints her parents by choosing to join the warrior tribe instead of sticking with the family.

There she is put through her paces, and learns the ways of combat with the help of her hunky instructor-cum-love-interest, Four (Theo James). Alas, other Dauntless are not so welcoming, and war appears to be on the verge of breaking out between the different factions, with Kate Winslet as the silky/steely intellectual leader behind it all.

It’s overlong at 139 minutes, and the silliness occasionally outweighs the thrills, but “Divergent” comes out as the clear victor in the YA fiction games.

Video extras are quite good, even with the basic DVD version. That includes a feature-length audio commentary by director Neil Burger, another commentary by producers Lucy Fisher and Douglas Wick, deleted scenes, music video and a temporary tattoo sheet.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray combo pack, and you add “Bringing Divergent to Life,” an expansive multi-part making-of documentary, and the featurette “Divergent: Faction Before Blood.”