Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Review: Oscar-nominated shorts -- Animated

A Single Life -- This fiendishly clever Dutch short manages to encapsulate an entire life in just two minutes. Well, an unnecessarily abbreviated life. Filmmakers Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins, Job Roggeveen show a young single woman who receives a record at her apartment, a jaunty tune of the same title. She finds that by moving the needle forward and back across the record, she can speed up or slow down time. So the pizza she was eating disappears and reappears, or, with bigger skips, her belly swells with a growing baby. Slyly simplistic-looking animation and a coy message about not letting anticipation ruin the moment.

Feast -- This year's entry from Disney is another winner -- both in terms of quality and its prospects for taking the golden statuette. (Disney/Pixar has had quite a run in this category over the years.) Told entirely from the floor-level perspective of gobsmackingly cute street puppy, it spins the tale of his adoption by a young man, who eventually gets a girlfriend, which puts a major crimp in their shared gastrointestinal bliss. Great-looking and heartfelt from director Patrick Osborne, an ode to food, bachelorhood, and life changes.

The Bigger Picture -- This funky and inventive British short combines stop-motion animation and chalk-like drawings to give a bold impression of movement and dimension. Two sons, Nick and Richard, are at odds over the care of their elderly mum. Richard is a well-to-do professional while Nick gave up his ambitions to be a full-time caretaker. Terrific voice work, and a truly original vision by writer/director/animator Daisy Jacobs.

Me and My Moulton -- An autobiographical tale by Torill Kove about growing up in Norway in the 1960s (with English narration) is a sad-but-sweet reminiscence on how parents can both disappoint and inspire you. Young Torill and her two sisters pine for a bicycle like all the other kids. But her mom and dad -- both conceptual architects -- are determined to do everything differently, from their three-legged dinner chairs (frequent child tip-overs be damned) to her father being the only one in town with a mustache. Spare visuals, bleak Norwegian outlook.

The Dam Keeper -- Brave, dark and daring, "The Dam Keeper" is a beautiful tale about finding acceptance from others, and oneself. In a fable-like setting, a lonely pig child operates the dam and windmill that keep the tidal forces of darkness at bay from the bucolic town below. But he is ostracized and ridiculed for his shabby appearance, until a new student arrives bearing a sketchpad and a dollop of hope. The animation is dense and deliberately vague by filmmakers Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi. Haunting, yet hopeful.

Review: Oscar-nominated short films: Live Action

La Lampe Au Beurre De Yak (Butter Lamp) -- The entirety of "Butter Lamp" takes place in front of a photographer's backdrop as he and his assistant take portraits of the people of the remotest reaches of Tibet. Occasionally they change the background to taste -- a famous palace, the Great Wall of China, and other schmaltzy scenes. Meanwhile the people in the foreground tell us much about themselves simply through their smiles and a little dialogue. The big news delivered by the mayor is of a missing yak. A sullen young man refuses to wear modern clothes and leaves in a huff. Eventually, business is conducted and something is revealed that is revelatory. A short, smart piece by Hu Wei.

Parvaneh -- A traditional Afghani girl living in Switzerland must travel to Zurich to wire money to her family for a relative's surgery. Despite barely speaking the language and feeling ostracized in a society suspicious of people from the Mideast, Parvaneh (Nissa Kashani) negotiates a foreign culture that seems bizarre and dangerous to her. Since her ID is invalid, she enlists the help of a local teen (Cheryl Graf), who at first seems tempted to take advantage of the situation. But they end up forming an unlikely bond. Talkhon Hamzavi's film is sensitive and observant.


The Phone Call -- Sally Hawkins gives a tender performance as Heather, a woman working a British crisis hotline who gets a call from "Stanley" (Jim Broadbent), an older man who has just taken a lot of pills and is overcome with despair. Lamenting the death of his wife, Stan and Heather form a bond in a matter of minutes, connecting over lost love and jazz music. Directed by Mat Kirkby, who also co-wrote the script with James Lucas, this is a film that doesn't offer a lot of surprises but does what it does with great craftsmanship and care.

Boogaloo and Graham -- Director Michael Lennox is a filmmaker born, who instinctively knows the rhythms and reveals of cinematic storytelling. Set in 1978 Belfast, this short concerns two Irish brothers whose dad gives them a pair of chicks, whom they dub Boogaloo and Graham, who soon turn into noisy, scratching chickens -- much to the consternation of their mum. It would seem things will come to a head, and they do, though in unexpected ways. Sun-dappled, bright and witty.

Aya -- An exercise in mood and character, "Aya" is about a chance encounter that somehow becomes deeper. A young Israeli woman (Sarah Adler) is waiting at the airport to pick someone up, when by happenstance she is mistaken for a driver there to transport a stranger. For some reason she agrees to take the fellow, a bookish Danish music researcher (Ulrich Thomsen), to his hotel. They begin a languid conversation that is at times profoundly uncomfortable and comfortably profound. She confesses that she feels closer to strangers than her loved ones, and he tells her never to follow her heart in life, because it will inevitably lead to regret. From directors Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis, a smart movie that eschews answers for provocative questions.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Video review: "The Judge"

One of my favorite pieces of obscure movie dialogue is from “Casablanca.” An old German married couple is practicing their halting English before leaving for America, and the husband asks her the time. “Liebchen, what watch?” “Ten watch.” “Such much?”

I thought of this while watching “The Judge,” a dramatic star vehicle for Robert Downey Jr., which he also produced. It has a solid premise and terrific performances by Downey and Robert Duvall (who deservedly earned an Oscar nomination for his work). But the movie is so overloaded with secondary characters and needless subplots the main dynamic is left weakened.

This is an ambitious film that suffers from a case of “such much.”

Downey plays Hank Palmer, a big-city attorney summoned back to his tiny backward Indiana hometown after the death of his mother. He and his dad, Joseph (Duvall), a prominent local judge, have never seen eye-to-eye, and it would seem that after the unpleasantness of the funeral they are both fully prepared to never speak again.

Then the judge is accused of deliberately running down the town miscreant – whom he sent to prison long ago – and Hank must defend him in court against a high-roller prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton) brought in special to bring the elder Palmer down. The latter half or so of the movie is dominated by the trial, with all three actors spouting crackling dialogue and chewing the scenery. Good stuff.

But then there’s “the other.” An old flame of Hank’s (Vera Farmiga) now runs the local bar and seems to have an open window to his innermost psyche. His brothers are a cantankerous ex-pro baseball prospect and a feeble-minded boy/man who makes 8mm movies. Hank’s estranged daughter shows up for a visit. And a young town chick is looking for a hookup. And the prosecutor’s got a personal grudge against the Palmers. And it goes on.

Director David Dobkin and screenwriter Nick Schenk keep piling on the tertiary material, until the weight of it threatens to topple the delicate balance of volatile personalities that are the core of the film’s ample appeal.

“The Judge” is still worth watching, if only to see these veteran actors ply their craft. But when it comes to storytelling, sometimes having “such much” results in subtraction by addition.

Bonus features are merely adequate. The DVD has only a single featurette, “Getting Deep With Dax Shepard” (who has a small, funny part as an inept local attorney). Upgrade to the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack and you add a commentary track by Dobkin (so disappointing not to have Downey along for the ride!) plus deleted scenes with their own commentary.



Thursday, January 22, 2015

Review: "Mortdecai"

"Mortdecai" is a piffle, a lark, an utterly inconsequential movie that wears its insipidness like a badge of honor.

There is virtually no acting in it, only cartoonish behavior. It does not have a plot, but simply a collection of scenes ill-strung together. It bets its entire stake on the onscreen appeal of Johnny Depp, but the former World's Biggest Movie Star seems determined to continue to ostracize audiences with another in a string of precious, fey characters that are amusing only to himself.

Oh, the title character is entertaining, at least for the first few scenes. Charlie Mortdecai, the lord of something-or-other, is a down-on-his-luck British art dealer who owes the government a bundle of money. His latest schemes have proven disastrous, so he's enlisted/arm-twisted into running down a famous stolen painting by MI5.

Mortdecai dresses like the lord of the manor -- which he is, though everything in his massive country mansion is about to go up for hock -- has an elaborately pompadoured sweep of hair, very sophisticated erudition, and an appropriately snobby manner. He has also recently grown a mustache, of which he is very proud, even though it is somehow sparse and splayed at the same time, and most resembles, as his wife puts it upon seeing it for the first time, a female body part that has been grafted onto his face.

But Mortdecai's kvetching and strutting -- the man has not an ounce of courage in him -- quickly grows tiresome. This is the sort of character best used as a foil in another story, rather than the main guy. We feel as if we must have fallen asleep, and the movie took a wrong turn.

Let's put it this way: this is the sort of flick in which Mortdecai has a weirdly devoted manservant/bodyguard (Paul Bettany), who has a tendency to bed women wherever he goes, often in the space of a few minutes, whose name is "Jock Strapp." I thought Mortdecai was calling him Jacques, but it's just his swishy accent.

Gwyneth Paltrow plays Johanna, Mortdecai's long-suffering wife, who is nonplussed by both their impending penury, as well as the aforementioned face fur. Johanna is more or less the only person in the movie who doesn't behave like an over-the-top nitwit, so it's a bit unclear if she's actually mad with Mortdecai or if this is another round in a long game of twisted flirtation they like to play.

Back in college Johanna chose the exuberant Mortdecai over sweet, sensitive Martland (Ewan McGregor), and now he's a top British intelligence agent who's still carrying a huge torch for Mrs. Mortdecai. Martland forces Mortdecai to run down a rare, rumored Goya painting, which the usual array of criminals and rich jag-offs all want for themselves.

Thus we set off on an international escapade to various famed cities, illustrated by some cheap-looking CGI of planes flying hither and yon.

There are a few genuine laughs in "Mortdecai," which is based on a series of books by Kyril Bonfiglioli. But they are fleeting, and mostly we feel like we've been shoved into Johnny Depp's closet full of idiosyncratic marionettes.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

I've had something on my mind lately...

I guess tumors of the head are a thing for film critics: Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel ... and me. Not that I would ever compare myself to those giants. Except tumor-wise.

Anyway, I recently was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I'd been vacillating on whether or not to make this information public. I considered just letting a few close family and friends know, which I did. But then it became a game of second-guessing myself about who knew and who didn't. Family being what they are, they told a few others and ... ye olde whisper game commences.

Besides, my long tenure as a journalist/film critic/marketing writer has ingrained in me such a strong proclivity to share news that, even when it's about myself and very personal, I find I have a hard time keeping anything in for long. As I once wrote on my profile for a dating website, "My big, dark secret is that I have no big, dark secrets," and that still holds true.

So -- band-aid off!

It's not a tumor!

Well, the first principle of reporting is to be accurate, so I should say first off that technically, what I have is not a brain tumor. It's what's known as an acoustic neuroma. And it's not really in the brain, but next to the brain stem. It's a rare type of tumor, only about 3,000 diagnoses every year, according to the Acoustic Neuroma Association, the information/support group that's sprung up around it.

Actually, though, "acoustic neuroma" is a misnomer -- it's really a vestibular schwannoma. A neuroma is a tumor of the nerves, while a schwannoma is a tumor on the myelin sheaths that insulate nerves. Medical distinctions like this are important, I've learned.

I just find it slightly hilarious that the association created to address a disease is misnamed after another kind of disease. You'd think somebody at some point would have suggested making the switch: "Hey Bob -- maybe we should actually be named after the thing we're fighting? Like, the tuberculosis people don't call themselves the Asthma Council."

Though as someone whose day job has been in marketing/branding the last few years, I'll be the first to admit that "vestibular schwannoma" just doesn't have the schwing of "acoustic neuroma."

And of course neither holds a candle to "brain tumor" -- which is what I've been using for shorthand, and really has no equal for putting the fear of God into people when you say it out loud. I've found that most other patients do this, too.

Anyway: I'd been experiencing some hearing loss in my left side, following an ear infection in the spring. It never really cleared up properly; the Flonase my family doctor prescribed to help do so did diddly, so I made an appointment with an otolaryngologist (ear, nose & throat doc), who pierced, drained and tubed the eardrum.

Problem solved, we all thought.

But the issue persisted, a hearing test showed mild to moderate hearing loss on one side while an examination suggested something else, so an MRI was ordered, and walla: My schwannoma.

(Will you think less of me if I tell you that since the diagnosis I keep singing The Knack's "My Sharona" inside my head, with the words transposed? I'm considering rewriting the lyrics entirely to fit my situation: "Oh my little pretty polyp, pretty polyp. When you gonna get into my spine, schwannoma?")

First, the good news: it's benign, as all schwannomas are. It's a slow-growing tumor, usually only 1 to 2 millimeters per year. Mine is rather small, but even so it's likely I've had it "on my mind" for some time. The ear infection didn't cause it, merely happened to happen around the same time. In all likelihood, the infection helped reveal the tumor early. And in about one-third of cases, the tumor grows to a certain size and stops on its own.

Now, the unpleasantness. Treatment options are, well, kinda crappy. There's radiation and microsurgery, which have a very good chance of reducing/eliminating the tumor, but also about a 50-50 chance of rendering you completely, permanently deaf on that side. Even a hearing aid won't help.

The radiation might have to be repeated every few years in case the tumor does grow back, with the same crapshoot for hearing loss each time. In general, most radiation patients find their hearing significantly degrades over time. And in a very small percentage of cases, instead of killing the tumor the radiation turns it instantly malignant; it's essentially a death sentence.

Surgery has its own legion of downsides. There are three different ways to go in, all involving opening up the skull, cutting through the dura (protective membrane ) around the brain, draining the cerebrospinal fluid, probing deep into the intracranial spaces near the middle of the skull, and getting the bugger out.

The surgeon is messing around with the major nerve controlling hearing, motor control and balance, and face muscles. So even if hearing isn't destroyed, common side effects are facial paralysis and the inability to walk or drive. Many patient lose the ability to blink, at least temporarily, and must keep an eye bandaged to prevent it from drying out and suffering permanent lens damage.

Typically, surgery means a week in the hospital and up to four months until you can return to work (though many patients are back into a normal routine much sooner). And, needless to say, massive medical bills associated with brain surgery.

So. Well. Shit.

Sussing all that out, there's a pretty miniscule chance of this being life-threatening -- about the same as getting run over by the Wienermobile while walking to my car -- but a pretty decent chance that I'll lose all hearing on the left side, or need a hearing aid to augment the hearing I have left. And an invasive surgery with a prolonged recovery, and the possibility of useful vision in only one eye, at least for a time. Or repeated bouts of radiation the rest of my life.

Umpires and movie critics

Don't think being half-deaf is a big deal? Try going into a large, crowded space with lots of talking and background noise, and plug up one ear with your finger. It becomes very difficult to filter out one sound source from another. Ditto for a modern movie theater sound system. Only by concentrating on a single thing at a time can you make sense of it all. It's the auditory equivalent of tunnel vision.

Whether as a reporter, movie critic, editor or marketing copywriter, a large chunk of my life has been spent keeping my ear to the ground and eyes on the horizon, sensing information that might be useful to others (even if it was just my own opinion) and finding a way to transmit it. So the prospect of losing key parts of my sensory array has left me more than a bit unnerved.

Literally a couple of weeks before my diagnosis, I wrote about the sound mix in the film "Interstellar," complaining that I couldn't make out much of the dialogue. Though it turns out this was a conscious choice by director Christopher Nolan -- and, I still deem, an unwise one -- I could only imagine how this observation would've been received after going public with my condition. People joke about baseball umpires being blind; how will they feel about a film critic who can't hear in stereo or see in three dimensions?

I am aware, of course, that in the grand spectrum of medical challenges mine is dwarfed by those of many, many other people. I am personally acquainted with people with Alzheimer's, who are dependent on wheelchairs, or have Parkinson's, or various other maladies that make their daily life a challenge I could never hope to understand, even if I were to suffer the worst possible outcome of side effects from treatment.

Just in the last two years I have lost my father and sister to cancer, including the latter to a brain tumor that went undetected in her head while they fiddled with and irradiated her nethers. I've been told that, as brain tumors go, mine is the "good" kind to have.

Still, that's kind of like saying that some hurricanes that make landfall in populated regions are preferable to others. It's a statement that is at once absolutely true and completely ridiculous.

To me, the only "good" hurricanes are the ones that stay out in the ocean, remote and lacking a quantifiable toll of death and damages. The same goes for brain tumors, methinks.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Reeling Backward: "The Truman Show"

There are literally college courses taught about "The Truman Show," which is not something most pop-culture movies can say. People have made allusions to its alleged deeper meanings via Christian, urban planning, political and psychological interpretations. I generally find that sort of analysis a waste of time, though the film's insights on the insidious power of media are hard to deny.

Consider that, coming out in 1998, "The Truman Show" predated most of the reality TV crazy, with the exception of MTV's "Real World" and a few other shows. Ron Howard would, a year later, try a similar theme with "Edtv" starring Matthew McConaughey. I don't think it's an insult to note that movie is barely remembered at all.

Though it's important to emphasize that while "Edtv" and all reality shows are about people who proactively decide to have their activities taped -- an arrangement that attracts a certain type of personality -- "Truman" is the only creative production I can think of in which the main character -- and only he -- is unaware of the fact that his doings are being viewed.

In addition, Truman Burbank also believes that his tiny hometown island of Seahaven is real, when in fact it is all an elaborate facsimile -- a TV set the same size and economic impact of a small nation. This basic premise, of our hero living in a constructed world inside of the real one, in which he becomes the main focus of audiences both helpful and antagonistic, would be repeated in a science fiction version in the following year's "The Matrix."

"Truman" even presages the only recently realized phenomenon of the "reality talk show," in which programmers create an additional (and revenue-generating) venue for people to chat about the main show. The movie's "TruTalk," hosted by Harry Shearer, is the forbear to today's "The Talking Dead."

"Truman" also marked the delineation of Jim Carrey's career shift from straight-out funnyman to more dour, ambitious projects, especially "Man on the Moon" a year later. His career has bobbled and wobbled since then, though the recent "Dumb and Dumber To" announced his full retreat back into the comedy safe zone.

Though I usually have difficult naming my all-time favorite films, I have no such reservation about citing directors I most admire. And Peter Weir would certainly be on that list (plus the likes of Ridley Scott, John Boorman, George Miller and David Lean ... apparently I only go for Brits and Aussies.)

Along with "The Truman Show," Weir has "Gallipoli," "Witness," "Green Card," "Picnic at Hanging Rock," "The Year of Living Dangerously," "Fearless," "Dead Poets Society" and "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" to his name.

Not a bad cinematic epitaph, that.

(Though personally I hope Weir, who recently turned 70, stays with us a very long time and, Sidney Lumet-like, continues cranking out amazing films right up until the grave beckons.)

Of course, the premise of "The Truman Show" is absurd. It's preposterous to think that you could raise a man to the age of 30 without him ever realizing that everyone around him is actors pretending to be his neighbors, friends -- even his mother and father. And that the perfectly tidy town, with its cotton candy coloring and eternal sunshine (actually Seaside, Fla.), is not real. Plus the treacherous legal and moral implications -- Truman is essentially an imprisoned slave, owned by a corporation.

But Weir and screenwriter Andrew Niccol (an accomplished director himself of films like "Gattaca") cleverly delay the big reveal of what's really going on until about one-third of the way into the movie, so the audience never really questions the conceit. By then Truman has become so known and endearing to them, they don't even have to suspend their disbelief.

As the tale opens Truman is starting to grow antsy, shucking off the "script" of a perfect life that producer/eye in the sky Christof (Ed Harris) has constructed for him. Though married to incessantly upbeat Meryl (Laura Linney), he still pines for Sylvia (Natascha McElhone), a background character who caught his eye and found herself ditching the rules to be with him.

Of course, whenever something happens to break through this "fourth wall," the show has a small army of burly men to rush in to block Truman's view and clean things up. Over the years various saboteurs have attempted to breach the show's sanctum by parachuting into Main Street or holding up signs saying "It's a show!" But Truman has remained blessedly indifferent.

(Though, now that I think about it, I'm not sure if this really constitutes breaking the fourth wall, which is supposed to exist between an ongoing work of art and its audience. In this case, it is not the creative act that is disrupted by acknowledging itself, but internal sabotage by unwilling participants. Someone needs to come up with a name for that.)

I was surprised watching the movie again (for I think the first time in 16 years) how weak Truman's relationships are with the actors playing his mother and father. They only really get one substantial scene apiece, and dad's is when he is reintegrated into the show after his supposed death when Truman was a boy. (This was a calculated psychological manipulation by Christof to render him afraid of water and thus unlikely to want to leave his water-bound hometown.)

Even his relationship with Meryl goes relatively unexplored, or the morality of how the actors who have spent their life participating in the charade feel about it. Only Marlon (Noah Emmerich), who plays his best friend, appears to hold any genuine affection for Truman. Though he carries out Christof's orders, he often seems on the verge of blurting out the truth.

The character of Truman remains something of a goofy cypher, a mix of Carrey's manic early stand-up comic persona and the script's plot demands. In "Ace Ventura" and a lot of Carrey's other early movies, there was an overt aspect of "performance" to the characters, of them playing a part in order to carry out the intended comedic effect, and I think we see a lot of that in Truman. Even he thinks he's putting on a front.

His interactions with other Seahaven residents, often repetitive from day to day, are boring even to Truman. So he's more apt to notice little screw-ups like accidentally receiving the radio signals of the crew tracking his movements via his car radio, or a set light falling from the sky. Indeed, one of the subtlest of subsidiary themes is the notion that, after three decades on the air, the puppeteers pulling the strings have gotten distracted and careless.

Thought-provoking and eerily prescient, "The Truman Show" will likely be one of those films that withstands the tests of the ages -- at least, until we've all got cameras sewn into our bodies, and everything everyone does is recorded and transmitted, everywhere. Say, 2030?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Video review: "The Boxtrolls"

“The Boxtrolls” was easily my favorite animated film of last year – partly because the stop-motion gem is so visually alive and imaginative, but also because there really wasn’t much in the way of competition. Let’s face it, once we got past this movie and one or two others, 2014 was something of a cartoon wasteland.

This picture, based on a book by Alan Snow, simply oozes with British culture and appeal, from the Cockney accents and damp cobblestone streets down to the diaspora of wonky teeth. Set in the late 19th or early 20th century, the story concerns a secret society of gentle pointy-headed critters who live underground and wear castoff cardboard boxes instead of clothes.

They don’t have a discernible language or even names; they each go by whatever picture is on their boxes, which they pilfer – along with many other things – from the humans above. The exception is Eggs (voice of Isaac Hempstead-Wright), a human boy who was kidnapped (sort of) by the boxtrolls as a baby and raised as one of their own.

Their adventures take them above ground, where the terrifying Archibald Snatcher (a delightful Ben Kingsley) has appointed himself chief boxtroll catcher. Soon most of the troll population has been grabbed up and tossed into his dungeons. The daughter of a local lord (Elle Fanning) provides reluctant help, mostly out of resentment toward her absentee father.

It seems Snatcher dreams of joining the cadre of “White Hats” – genteel gentlemen who run the town, ostensibly -- though they don’t seem to do more than sit around sampling exotic cheeses. By portraying the boxtrolls as a scourge, Snatcher hopes to stoke public fear and use it to springboard himself into their good graces.

Visually arresting and impishly funny, “The Boxtrolls” is a family-friendly treat.

Fortunately, the film is being released on video with a host of excellent extra features. There’s a feature-length commentary track by directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable, and a raft of featurettes touching on all aspects of production, from casting the voice actors to creating a fancy ballroom dance scene with stop-motion puppets.

There are also preliminary animatic sequences and much more.



Thursday, January 15, 2015

Review: "American Sniper"

“American Sniper” is a complex portrait of a simple man. By “simple” I don’t mean to imply that Chris Kyle was stupid; merely that, like a lot of us, he wasn’t particularly self-reflective or complicated in his emotions. What he was was the perfect instrument for war, but one that didn’t work so well for peacetime.

Bradley Cooper gives a poignant performance as Kyle, a Navy SEAL and sniper who’s been dubbed the most lethal marksman in U.S. military history. After four tours in Iraq he is officially credited with 160 kills, and in all likelihood slew many more than that. This film, directed by Clint Eastwood with a screenplay by Jason Hall, based on the book by Kyle, is an attempt to get at the man behind the legend.

“Legend” isn’t just hyperbole; it’s what Kyle was referred to by his fellow soldiers. He was their eyes in the sky, the avenging angel from above, who perched on rooftops and covered the grunts on foot patrol from threats they couldn’t see. While he took so many human lives as to be staggering, Kyle saw it as protecting his buddies. In his calculus, he saves lives with his long gun and ice-cold reflexes.

Cooper, known for playing fast-talking schemers and loverboys, is barely recognizable here. Sporting a bull neck, thick beard and even thicker Texas twang, Cooper fully embodies the ethos of the Texas cowboy and unapologetic patriot that Kyle was. As his daddy taught him – along with marksmanship – there are three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. The dogs protect the sheep from the wolves.

The story, after an opening interlude about Kyle’s rodeo days, bounces back and forth between Iraq and stateside along with Kyle. Back home he woos and weds a fiercely smart and strong-willed woman, Taya (Sienna Miller). They start to have babies and build a life of normalcy. Except that Kyle will disappear for nine months at a time, and even when he’s back home he finds himself stuck in sniper mode, reacting to lawnmowers or family pets as deadly threats.

The movie shows just enough of Kyle’s domestic life to serve as a counterpoint to its real focus, the war. Eastwood doesn’t comment on the rightness or wrongness of our Iraq adventure, but simply deals with it on the ground as the troops did.

Unlike most war pictures, which tend to depict the chaos and madness of conflict, “American Sniper” shows battle from the controlled perspective of the marksmen, who take out enemies with surgical precision from hundreds of yards away. The worry here is not that you will be shot, but that you will shoot someone by mistake, or doom your comrades by failing to pull the trigger.

A couple of moments stand out, both involving children. In the first, Kyle witnesses an Iraqi mother passing what looks like a grenade to her son, who starts to move toward some American troops. Should he take out the boy? What if he’s wrong?

Later, Kyle kills an insurgent with an RPG. But then a little kid starts to creep toward the rocket launcher. “Don’t pick it up. Don’t pick it up,” Kyle chants from behind his scope trained on the kid’s back -- thinking of his own son while prepared to act if he must.

It’s a wrenching conundrum, to contemplate doing something terrible to prevent something even more terrible.

Excellent as it is, I suspect some people will be turned off by “American Sniper” because it celebrates someone like Kyle (who was murdered in 2013 while volunteering to help a troubled fellow veteran). He’s a throwback to an antiquated sort of cinematic manhood – resolute, remote, adept at violence – that has fallen out of favor in our age of irony and myth-busting.

But Eastwood & Co. aren’t trying to hold up Chris Kyle as an ideal, but present him as a real American doing an essential job many of us would pale at taking up. The sheep may quiver at the sight of the wolf, but the truth is the sheepdog makes us nervous, too.

Review: "Blackhat"

Michael Mann is a sumptuous visual stylist ("Heat," "Manhunter") who sometimes has trouble with the ABCs of storytelling. Case in point: "Blackhat," a cyber thriller set mostly in China and Indonesia that wavers between confusion and utter incoherence.

When you're not struggling to comprehend dialogue uttered by non-native English speakers, you'll find yourself trying to remember all the various plot threads and centers of power at play. This movie is a double-dip into ponderous bewilderment.

Chris Hemsworth plays Nicholas Hathaway, a hacker doing 15 years' hard time in prison for past antics. And right now I know you're thinking to yourself, "Chris Hemsworth? The blond dude who plays Thor? Looks like a surfer on steroids? Not exactly what I picture a computer nerd looking like."

And it's true, Hemsworth is believable neither as a guy hunched over a laptop typing code out at a furious pace, nor as a toughened inmate with killer hand-to-hand combat skills who somehow manages to maintain salon-quality hair and a torso completely waxed of man fur. That prison must have a helluva commissary.

Anyway, the story (screenplay by Morgan Davis Foehl) starts with a cyber attack on a Chinese nuclear reactor resulting in an explosion and near meltdown. This is illustrated by a long, tedious CG animation sequence taking us deep into the inner recesses of a computer chip, which resembles the labyrinthine goblin tunnels of "The Lord of the Rings."

The Chinese and American governments reluctantly agree to team up -- or "liaise," as they call it, which sounds dirtier than it is -- and decide that Hathaway is the only guy in the world who can  break the code of the mysterious villain, or blackhat. He's recruited by Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), a captain in the Chinese anti-hacking agency who also happened to be Hathaway's college roommate.

It seems that back when they were young and foolish the pair wrote the RAT program -- remote access tool -- that the blackhat has incorporated into his stratagem. So they feel a sort of obligation to bring him in. Plus, Hathaway gets sprung from jail if they're successful.

Tagging along, for reasons that are never made entirely clear, is Chen's kid sister, Lien (Wei Tang), who soon falls madly in love with Hathaway, adding an extra wrinkle to his dilemma: if he doesn't catch the bad guy, he goes back to prison and their romance dies.

Viola Davis has a solid turn as Barrett, the FBI agent assigned to the case, who knows when to lead the dog and when to give him slack. I also liked Holt McCallany as the gruff, stolid U.S. marshal; officially, he's there to make sure Hathaway doesn't escape but morphs into his defender.

Soon the intrepid group is flying to all sorts of locales, running down leads and getting into scrapes with henchmen. Hathaway proves to be an old-school combatant, preferring magazines strapped to his body and an improvised shiv instead of body armor and a gun. Kinda strange, considering they're able to procure a private jet, new computers and vehicles on the fly.

Occasionally "Blackhat" finds some genuinely tense moments, such as when Hathaway must hack into a super-secret NSA database to further their manhunt, or a couple of shootouts with jarring results. Here Mann reveals his chops as a filmmaker who instinctively understands the weight and flow of action scenes.

The rest of the time, though, it's an overlong head-scratcher that's pretty to look at but makes little sense.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

2015 Movie Preview

Despite recording the lowest number of ticket sales last year since 1995, Hollywood apparently thinks you want your 2015 to be a whole lot like 2014. Because the cinematic menu looks very much the same.

Super-hero spectacles? We’ve got ‘em. High-toned dramas populating the year-end calendar, grubbing for awards? Ditto. Same for kids’ animated flicks, science fiction thrillers and crime stories.

Even the “new” stuff that people are most excited about -- including me -- is mostly reboots of decades-old franchises: Star Wars, Mad Max, Terminator, etc.

Everything old many be new again, but we should still see a few surprises and risk-taking in the coming year. So here is our look ahead to 2015 movies. (Release dates are subject to change.)

Pictures I'm personally excited about get awarded the Golden C. 

Blackhat (Jan. 16) -- An action/thriller in January might not seem like a good bet, but the presence of moody auteur Michael Mann in the director’s chair gives this a leg up. Chris Hemsworth plays a hacker freed from jail for a mission.

Mortdecai (Jan. 23) -- Johnny Depp plays another one of his slinky/kooky characters in this tale of an eccentric spy/art dealer’s search for a stolen painting and Nazi gold. With Gwyneth Paltrow and Ewan McGregor.

Jupiter Ascending (Feb. 6) -- The newest big-budget science fiction spectacle from the Wachowski siblings of “Matrix” fame could be a box office titan, or a new Titanic -- the sunken ship, not the movie. The fact it was bumped from a 2014 release is not a good sign. The fact it stars Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum -- a wooden acting tag team -- is even worse. She’s a maid who’s secretly the queen of Jupiter, and he’s her cloned protector.

Fifty Shades of Grey (Feb. 13) -- There’s been a lot of talk about the film version of the hit book, about an impressionable young woman who enters an S&M-heavy relationship with a successful businessman. Unknowns Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson star in the mommy porn adaptation.

McFarland, USA (Feb. 20) -- Kevin Costner does the Inspiring Sports Drama thing in this (semi) true tale of a gringo newcomer who starts a cross country team at tiny Latino high school.

Chappie (March 6) -- Sci-fi auteur Neill Blomkamp soared with his debut “District 9,” but follow-up “Elysium” fell to Earth. “Chappie” is about a robot designed to feel emotions like a human who is hunted by criminals and the government. Think sensitive and uplifting. Starring Hugh Jackman.

In the Heart of the Sea (March 13) -- Nineteenth-century sea epics haven’t been a thing since “Master and Commander,” but director Ron Howard may just be the man to give us our sea legs back. Chris Hemsworth (him again!) stars in this tale of a whaling ship that sunk chasing its Moby Dick. Based on the book by Nathaniel Philbrick.

Cinderella (March 13) -- Lily James plays the title role in a live-action version of the classic fairy tale about a young girl with a really terrible domestic situation but terrific footwear. With Helena Bonham Carter as the evil stepm… oh, wait, she’s actually playing the nice part for once as Fairy Godmother! Good for her.

Insurgent (March 20) -- The “Divergent” franchise/Hunger Games rip-off continues with its second film, in which young upstart Tris (Shailene Woodley) must help lead the revolt against the evil government that sets young people against each other.

Get Hard (March 27) -- Kings of comedy Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart team up in this tale about a billionaire about to go jail for fraud who recruits (he thinks) a street thug (actually a yappy beta male) to toughen him up.

Furious 7 (April 3) -- There’s a lot of morbid interest in the car racing franchise to see how they will get around the death of star Paul Walker, who hadn’t yet finished his scenes. Vin Diesel is joined by Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Kurt Russell and Djimon Hounsou in another souped-up joy ride.

Gold (April 3) -- Helen Mirren stars in this drama about an elderly Jewish woman who fights the government to reclaim artwork that was stolen from her family during the Holocaust. Co-starring Ryan Reynolds.

Ex Machina (April 10) -- The artificial intelligence angle gets a psycho/sexual twist in this sci-fi drama in which scientists (Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac) create a female robot who begins displaying disturbingly human emotions.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (May 1) -- Summer starts off with a bang, as the best super-hero movie of recent vintage sees its much-anticipated sequel debut. Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Hawkeye, Black Widow and Captain America face off with an alien artificial intelligence (James Spader) with world-crushing ideas.

Pitch Perfect 2 (May 15) -- The inevitable sequel to the hit musical comedy about collegiate women who form a competitive a cappella group. Now they’re chasing an international prize.

Mad Max: Fury Road (May 15) -- They’ve been talking a fourth movie set in the post-apocalyptic Australian outback for decades, but Mel Gibson finally got too old (and rant-y) to play the role of the iconic ex-cop-turned-death-racer. So director George Miller goes back to square one with Tom Hardy. The trailer is epic, so hopes are high. Co-starring Charlize Theron.

Tomorrowland (May 22) -- Director Brad Bird has conquered animated films (“The Incredibles”) and live action (“Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol”), so what’s left? How about an intriguing CGI-heavy story in which a teen girl can instantly transport herself to an alternate dimension that resembles the Disney World theme park on steroids? George Clooney co-stars as a mysterious inventor.

Jurassic World (June 12) -- Really, none of the return-of-the-dinosaurs flicks have been any good since the first one, so why should we have any faith in this go-round? Two reasons: it stars cinema’s smirky new wonderboy, Chris Pratt, whose touch has been golden. And it’s directed by Colin Trevorrow, who made the smart little sci-fi movie “Safety Not Guaranteed.” The story is set years down the road with the misconceived theme park now open for business.

Inside Out (June 19) -- Pixar, once the most inventive studio in the game, has been in a rut lately with sequels and recycling stale ideas. So their new animated feature looks very promising and, dare we say, original. It takes place inside the mind of a young girl, as critters represent the different parts of her psyche. With the voices of Amy Poehler and Bill Hader.

Ted 2 (June 26) -- Television titan Seth MacFarlane, having conquered one medium, seems intent on becoming a bona fide movie star. Last summer’s awful “A Million Ways to Die in the West” dampened those dreams, but a sequel to the 2012 hit comedy starring a foul-mouthed living teddy bear seems like a safe bet.

Terminator: Genisys (July 1) -- The first two Terminator films have attained iconic status in the science fiction genre, for good reason. The last two ranged from horrid to awful. Not coincidentally, the latter pair were not directed by James Cameron. So first blush may not hold out much hope for this new version, which stars Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney in a total “retcon,” or remaking of the franchise’s origin story. Still, it’s the first one in 12 years to feature Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Ant-Man (July 17) -- Marvel’s latest superhero movie iteration is closer akin to last summer’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” in that it’s more about fun and laughs than the usual dour great-power-brings-great-responsibility spiel. Paul Rudd plays a criminal who gets a second chance when outfitted with a suit that shrinks him to insect size and endows him with powers.

Pixels (July 24) -- Arcade game characters from the 1980s have come to life and are terrorizing New York, so it’s up to super-nerds Adam Sandler, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad and Michelle Monaghan to save the day.

Pan (July 24) -- The Peter Pan legend gets another crack with director Joe Wright at the helm, known more for high-toned costume dramas (“Atonement”). Here Peter is a young pip (Levi Miller) left an orphan in the real world until he’s transported to Neverland and finds the magic inside. With Hugh Jackman as an exuberant Blackbeard, flying pirate ships and Garrett Hedlund as a young Captain Hook who still has two hands and is… good?!?

Grimsby (July 31) -- The latest film comedy from merry prankster Sacha Baron Cohen is about a football (soccer) thug who teams up with his super-spy brother in all sorts of hijinks and adventures. Expect lots of action and lowbrow humor.

The Fantastic Four (Aug. 7) -- The iconic comic book quartet, who’ve already been the subject of two other film adaptations, get rebooted with a new, younger cast: Miles Teller as stretchy Mr. Fantastic, Kate Mara as The Invisible Woman, Jamie Bell as The Thing and Michael B. Jordan as The Human Torch. With Toby Kebbell as Doctor Doom.

Ricki and the Flash (Aug. 7) -- Meryl Streep strives to continue her winning streak as an aging rock star trying to reconnect with the family she left behind long ago, including a daughter played by Streep’s real-life child, Mamie Gummer. With director Jonathan Demme (“Philadelphia”) and screenwriter Diablo Cody (“Juno”), this seems like a good hook.

Straight Outta Compton (Aug. 14) -- This rap biopic takes a look at the seminal 1980s Los Angeles group N.W.A., and includes Ice Cube’s real-life son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., playing his daddy, plus Jason Mitchell and Corey Hawkins as Eazy-E and Dr. Dre, respectively.

Black Mass (Sept. 18) -- Johnny Depp plays infamous gang leader Whitey Bulger, who ruled South Boston with an iron fist and later became an FBI informant. Co-starring Benedict Cumberbatch as his politician brother; directed by Scott Cooper, who helped Jeff Bridges win gold for “Crazy Heart.” An early Oscar contender?

The Intern (Sept. 25) -- Nine years ago Anne Hathaway played an intern to a power-mad fashion mogul, and now she’s playing one herself -- who takes on her own hapless intern, Robert De Niro, as part of a senior citizen community outreach program. From veteran comedy writer/director Nancy Meyers (“Something’s Gotta Give”).

The Walk (Oct. 2) -- Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in this biopic of French aerialist Philippe Petit, who was the subject of “Man on Wire,” an Oscar-winning documentary about him walking between the Twin Towers on a high wire. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, continuing his (much-appreciated) return from animation exile.

The Jungle Book (Oct. 9) -- The Disney animated classic gets a live-action redo (with CGI critters) directed by Jon Favreau, who last year traded in big-budget spectacle (“Iron Man”) for the tiny indie comedy “Chef.” Can he make the switch back, and can 10-year-old newcomer Neel Sethi carry an entire movie?

St. James Place (Oct. 16) -- Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks team up again in this Cold War thriller that just screams “Oscar bait.” In 1960 an American spy plane is shot down over the Soviet Union, and Hanks plays the lawyer recruited by the CIA to negotiate for the release of the captured pilot.

Crimson Peak (Oct. 16) -- Guillermo del Toro trades in the giant robots of “Pacific Rim” for a return to his horror roots in this tale with a distinctly Gothic flavor. Mia Wasikowska is a 19th-century writer who learns her new husband and house have supernatural issues. Co-starring Jessica Chastain.

Peanuts (Nov. 6) --  Charles Schulz’ beloved comic strip gets the computer-generated animation treatment, in which Snoopy runs away to fight the Red Baron and good ol’ Charlie Brown tries to bring him home.

Spectre (Nov. 6) -- Daniel Craig returns as James Bond for a fourth go-round as 007 -- and possibly the last, as rumors of Idris Elba taking over the role abound. Christoph Waltz plays the villain, which seems like a harmonic convergence, and Sam Mendes takes another turn in the director’s chair after the success of “Skyfall.” The title refers to an international cadre of villains Bond battled back in the Sean Connery days.

The Hateful Eight (Nov. 13) -- Writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s been on a roll of late, and he’s sticking to the Old West setting of “Django Unchained” for this tale of a bounty hunter (Channing Tatum) who gets caught up in intrigue during a blizzard.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 2 (Nov. 20) -- The blockbuster franchise comes to a close, with teen Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finally embracing her role as face of the rebellion against the evil Capitol, which has held gladiator-like games where youths from the oppressed districts kill each other for entertainment. Meanwhile, her former partner and would-be lover, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), has been brainwashed into wanting to kill her.

The Martian (Nov. 25) -- Ridley Scott, master of science fiction and spectacle, remains one of Hollywood’s busiest directors well into his 70s. The plot of his latest remains something of a mystery, other than Matt Damon plays an astronaut stranded on Mars and various NASA folks back on Earth are trying to get him back.

Sisters (Dec. 18) -- There is much anticipation for this latest pairing of comedy queens Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, in which they play warring siblings with opposing personalities. Though people seem to forget that while they’ve been great on TV, co-anchoring on “Saturday Night Live” and hosting award shows, their last big-screen pairing was the execrable “Baby Mama.”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Dec. 18) -- Am I the only one bothered by the fact this ambitious continuation of the Star Wars universe is debuting in December instead of the traditional May? What’s the story about, since the evil Empire has been vanquished? Are people ready to watch Luke, Leia and Han Solo after they’ve gotten fat and old? Who are all these other young whippersnappers? Is J.J. Abrams ready to take over the mantle of creator George Lucas? What’s the deal with that three-beam lightsaber? Will any of these questions matter when it racks up the inevitable billion dollars?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Video review: "Men, Women & Children"

Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women & Children” is a noble effort but not a successful film. It’s worth a look on video, because there are a few moments of quiet power in its ensemble cast and intersecting storylines. Other sections, though, wander.

The topic is sex, specifically how modern technology and digital interfaces reverberate in how we relate to each other romantically. The drama serves as a cautionary tale about letting contrived expectations interfere with the actual flesh-and-blood human beings we’re affectionate with.

The focus is mostly on teenagers, though adults figure into the mix, too. Kaitlyn Dever and Ansel Elgort play decent but confused kids who embark on a tender romance. Meanwhile, though, her mother (Jennifer Garner) is tracking her every movement and text message, terrified of what’s roaming out there in the digital ether.

Other stories include a mom (Judy Greer) who is distributing risqué photos of her own daughter on the web to paying customers, and a middle-aged couple (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt) who are bored with each other but find excitement in random hook-ups with strangers they meet online.

Even more unsettling is the tale of a young girl who struggles with her body and her virginity, both of which she views as a burden rather than things to be celebrated. So she punishes herself by starving herself, and receives encouragement (!) from like-minded young women online.

There’s a lot to admire about this film, as it dares to ask uncomfortable questions about how we live and love today. The movie ultimately loses its way, but the journey is worthwhile.


Thursday, January 8, 2015

Review: "Selma"

"Selma" has been mislabeled as "the Martin Luther King Jr. movie," which it is not, just as the three months of demonstrations for black voting rights in 1965 Alabama was not merely his doing. (Others had been organizing and protesting for two years before King arrived.)

The drama, directed by Ava DuVernay from a screenplay by Paul Webb, is a bit stodgy at times -- characters sometimes feel like they're reciting speeches instead of talking to each other. It also takes a bunch of well-publicized liberties with the historical record, such as depicting President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) as MLK's chief antagonist in opposing the Voting Rights Act, when the two coordinated closely.

(And it was Robert Kennedy who unleashed the FBI to spy on King on his cohorts, not LBJ.)

Still, it depicts several moments possessing great power, such as the recreation of the "Bloody Sunday" event in which state troopers ran down defenseless non-violent protestors marching from Selma to Montgomery. DuVernay brings to life the incredible struggles during the civil rights era, especially the pervasive sense of African-American being marginalized and oppressed.

Some of the quieter moments are the best, such as when a workaday woman (Oprah Winfrey) attempts to register to vote and is given an impossible citizenship test by the court clerk. (After correctly answering how many county judges are in Alabama, 67, she is instructed, "Name them.") The reality of Jim Crow would not begin to fade until hearts and minds were changed, not just laws passed.

I'm a bit ambivalent about the performance of David Oyelowo as King. Impressions are the shallowest portion of capturing a public figure's persona, but MLK's musical cadences during his speeches are so inextricably linked to his iconography that it's distracting when Oyelowo conspicuously avoids them. (Imagine someone playing Winston Churchill without the gravelly growl.)

Undoubtedly, some of this criticism is unfair. King is such a giant in our national heritage, the closest thing we have to a secular saint, that any attempt to depict him is fraught with all sorts of challenges. We bring so much baggage into the theater with us that watching the film becomes an exercise in separating our conception of him with what we see onscreen.

The movie depicts King as a man of great conviction but also one of cold calculation, who knew he was putting others in harm's way -- counting on bloodshed, even, to capture headlines and newscasts. In one somewhat shocking moment, he cheers the presence of a backward hillbilly sheriff, since he can be counted upon to split skulls and generate sympathy.

Webb's screenplay does a poor job of working in the other civil rights giants who organized the Selma protests, including James Bevel (Common) and Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce). They wind up as a vague chorus of hangers-on and also-rans.

Stephan James stands out as John Lewis, then a college student beaten bloody during the march (and now a Congressman), as does Keith Stansfield as Jimmie Lee Jackson, murdered in cold blood by police.

It's rather disappointing that "Selma," directed by an African-American woman, does a rather poor job of representing black women in other than window dressing roles. Winfrey (also a producer) has little more than a cameo, and Lorraine Toussaint is a frequent, vivid screen presence who gets to say astonishing little. (Other than one contrived-sounding speech, she barely has any lines.)

Carmel Ejoga as Coretta Scott King is largely relegated to the home front, clutching and fretting over threats to her husband and children.

"Selma" is the sort of movie that earns respect but not ardor. It tackles a big subject, fleshes it out reasonably well, but labors to find the passion and beating hearts of those brave marchers in Selma.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Two Thousand Women" (1944)

"Two Thousand Women" is one of those movies that was destined to be bad right from the point of conception. The notion of making a prisoner of war picture about a bunch of British women interred in France during World War II is a strong start. But when you set out deliberately to make it a comedy, and a mawkish romance to boot, you've pretty much doomed yourself from the start.

According to the film's Wikipedia page, writer/director Frank Launder later acknowledged this himself, lamenting that it "would have been a bigger film" if he had concentrated more on the drama and not the laughs. He was referring to its box office performance, or lack thereof, but here we're more concerned with the movie's legacy (or lack thereof).

It's too bad, because I really liked the cast of British actresses. Some fall into predictable stereotypes, but for the most part the characters seem actively thought-out and authentic. Phyllis Calvert is especially good as the ringleader, Freda Thompson, a strong and independent-minded woman who manages to outsmart the Germans and keep the rabble of female prisoners in check with their competing thoughts, desires and idiosyncrasies.

The set-up is that English women living in Europe at the outbreak of the war are rounded up to be interred in France. Their "camp" is actually a luxury hotel the Germans have commandeered, so the prisoners all have gigantic rooms, comfy beds, a lounge for mixers and even a grand ballroom in which to stage musical productions and whatnot.

There are a few downsides, such as a lack of running water in the rooms -- it must be trucked upstairs by hand in pails, heated by the boiler in the basement, with the women taking turns in the bath a dozen in a row. Curtains must be kept closed during air raids (the light from the ground helps the Allied bombers fix their altitude), the food's pretty awful, and the lovely vistas are spoiled by barbed wire and guard towers strung up around the hotel's perimeter.

Still, as POW accommodations go, this is the life of luxury. The German guards don't even go upstairs to the women's rooms much, largely granting them their own zone of privacy.

This doesn't go for the hotel proprietor, Guy Le Feuvre, who barges in unannounced to check on any damages so the Germans can be properly billed. An elderly, unctuous man, he thinks nothing of walking right in while the women are in a state of undress.

That's another thing notable about "Two Thousand Women": it's a rather fleshy film for its era. Many of the women are shown in their nighties or underwear, or even topless (from behind). There's a fight scene between two women in short skirts, and as their legs went akimbo up in the air while they battled, I briefly though we had wandered into Russ Meyer territory.

Things grow complicated when three British airmen crash-land nearby and make their way to the hotel, climb up the fire escape and drop into windows. It's a little unclear why soldiers on the run would choose a structure that's clearly being guarded to break into, but what have you.

Predictably, one of the men (James McKechnie) falls for one of the women (Patricia Roc), and literally within a few minutes' time spent together he's declaring his protestations of love and talking about honeymooning in a small cottage on the British coast.

Her name is Rosemary Brown, and she has the most interesting history of the lot, as she was a nun who was arrested by the Germans for being a "fifth columnist," or spy for the British. She really was a nun, who entered the order after a romantic scandal, but of course the gallant airman doesn't care about all that.

"Two Thousand Women" wasn't released in the U.S. until 1951, when it was cut down and renamed, "House of 1,000 Women." Among the things they lopped out was Rosemary Brown's backstory.

Other notable figures include Flora Robson as a haughty-but-stout upper crust woman; Muriel Aked as her prim spinster companion; Renée Houston as a brassy type who gets to have a big song number during the inevitable pageant to distract the Germans while an escape plan is in the works; and Anne Crawford as a stalwart type.

Betty Jardine plays Teresa, a tomboyish floor leader who turns out to be a Nazi agent. In the film's most (unintentionally) laughable moment, she is discovered when one of the gals rifles through Teresa's purse in order to retrieve her keys, and finds her identification papers and photo showing her to be a member of the Nazi party. Not a particularly smart thing to have around when you're deep undercover.

Other than the likeable cast of actresses, there's really nothing to recommend about "Two Thousand Women." It takes the greatest conflict in the history of mankind and renders it into a slamming-doors farce with gushy romance and cartoon villains.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Video review: "Boyhood"

“Boyhood” is running away with awards for best film of the year from various regional film critic groups -- including my own here in Indiana -- but I’m not quite as high on it as others. It’s a wonderful cinematic effort, a beacon of originality and brash, ambitious filmmaking.

I just don’t think it’s a great film.

As you’ve probably heard by now, writer/director Richard Linklater spent 12 years filming a single child actor, Ellar Coltrane, as he grew from a young boy to manhood. They would shoot a little each year, so we literally get to see his character, Mason, grow and age right before our eyes. Ditto for Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and Lorelei Linklater, who respectively play his mother, father and sister.

The script was also written as they went along, so the result is a very organic narrative that flows like a river, meandering this way and that, occasionally picking up speed and turbulence or slowing down into a contemplative eddy.

There are no big, clashing events like you’d see in a typical drama -- nobody dies in a car crash, or encounters a terrorist, or is diagnosed with a brain tumor. It’s just life, unspooling. Sometimes languorously.

Mostly, the movie is a series of revolving conversations, especially between Mason and his parents, which reflect and affect the path of his growth. His mom and dad divorced long ago, and each present a set of good and bad attributes to emulate or avoid. She tends to make poor choices about the men she falls for, while he still harbors dreams better suited to an adolescent, even as he’s raising one.

It’s a splendidly well-made film, especially the acting -- I expect both Hawke and Arquette to receive Academy Award nominations. Unfortunately, “Boyhood” sometimes feels more like an exercise in creativity than a work of creation.

Video extras are rather modest, and are only to be found on the Blu-ray edition -- DVD has nothing. They are limited to a Q&A with Linklater and his cast, and a making-of documentary, “The 12 Year Project.”



Thursday, January 1, 2015

Top 10 Films of 2014

Usually it's easy to designate an entire year as a good or bad one for cinema. You think about the totality of the films that came out, the impact they had on you and those around you, and make a subjective judgment about how they stack up to previous years.

But 2014 has been a puzzle to me.

On the one hand, I gave two films my highest score (four stars, five Yaps or an "A," depending on where it was published). That's unusual for me; I've had entire years go by -- even multiple changings of the calendar -- without awarding it once. So that would seem to indicate a very good year.

(I don't think I've ever given out three or more in a single year since I've been doing this professionally, 1995. But if I had been doing it in 1994, there would have been.)

On the other hand, once you get past my top four or five films, the list drops off dramatically for me. Essentially, I saw two great movies in 2014, a handful of very good ones, and then a bunch of stuff that was above-average but didn't blow me away. To my mind, that's indicative of a sub-par year.

When I'm making this list, I usually don't have any trouble coming up with a roster of films I think are Top 10 contenders. It generally is between 12 and 15 long, and then I undertake the painful task of deciding which will be cut and sent to the secondary list of "also rans" that I always publish.

Here, though, after I decided on my top five, I had difficulty going through the pool and deciding which were worthy of being "promoted" to the main list. If I were truly honest, I'd make a Top 5 list and stop there.

But tradition is tradition, and this is one I like to keep. So here is my Top 10 list, with a few thoughts about each. Then I'll have a roundup of 18 other films I deemed worthy of mention, in no particular order. (Normally I comment that they 'vied for a spot on the 10 best' something to that effect, but as I stated that wasn't really true this year.)

I'm not going to bother with a "worst of" list. As I've previously discussed, I usually don't see the truly awful flicks because the studios don't screen them for us, and I haven't the time to follow up on movies I know will be a chore to watch, just to report they are so.
  1.  "Whiplash" -- No surprise here, as I've been singing this film's praises for months. Writer/director Damien Chazelle's tale of ambition and antagonism posits a young jazz drummer against his tyrannical conductor, who is a monster but also pushes him farther than any other teacher could. The performance of the year by J.K. Simmons; Mile Teller has great things behind and ahead of him.
  2. "Life Itself" -- It's rare for documentaries to make my Top 10, but Steve James' tale of film critic Roger Ebert is a fully-fleshed portrait of a man whose gifts and faults were both prodigious. His final chapter dealing with medical challenges that robbed him of the ability to speak or eat -- two of Ebert's favorite things -- is haunting and illuminating in equal measures.
  3. "St. Vincent" -- On several occasions I have referred to "St. Vincent" as my favorite film of the year, which I still hold to be true even though it is listed as #3. I guess what I mean to say is that it was my most gratifying cinematic experience of the year, and I utterly cherished spending time with these characters. Bill Murray, who I think gets called a genius too much for his own good, truly is great as a self-loathing man with a heart of gold under many, many layers of black detritus. Melissa McCarthy made me smile again, ironically in a non-comedic role.
  4. "The Imitation Game" -- I predict this biopic of WWII codebreaker Alan Turing will win the Oscar for Best Picture. It simply has that classic Academy Award pedigree: historical subject, a commanding lead performance (by Benedict Cumberbatch), commentary on a past social ill with modern reverberations -- and it's British. A superbly crafted film with no weak links in the chain.
  5. "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" -- Proof that summer movies can be big-budget spectacles with lots of action sequences and yet cerebral and emotionally resonant. A true watershed film in which the stars of the show are totally represented through CGI based on motion capture performances by Andy Serkis and a host of other actors. Too bad the flesh-and-blood humans were a tad dull.
  6. "Wild" -- People who go off to climb mountains for no reason or trek through deserts alone are celebrated as adventurers, but they've always struck me as nuts who must have yawning holes in their psyche in need of patching. So perhaps it's not surprising I was thrilled by this biopic of a dysfunctional woman (Reese Witherspoon, triumphant) who walked a thousand miles because she really didn't have anywhere else to go.
  7. "American Sniper" -- I really liked Clint Eastwood's portrait of America's deadliest soldier when I first saw it, and it's only grown in my estimation since then. Bradley Cooper, Hollywood's twinkly rascal of the day, gives a career-changing performance as a stoic man who had the mental and physical traits of a perfect killer, yet remained utterly human.
  8. "Grand Budapest Hotel" -- I've been cold on Wes Anderson for awhile, particularly the glum, familiar parade of characters all giving the same deadpan delivery. (I hold this to be true: If a character finds their own existence irretrievably boring, so will the audience.) So it was great to see such an inventive, gleeful romp anchored by Ralph Fiennes giving a bounteous, emotionally layered turn. Funny, charming, a twinge sad, it almost makes me forgive Anderson for "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou." Almost.
  9. "My Old Lady" -- I am convinced I am the only person in America who saw this film, which is either a drama or a comedy darker than the blackest night, written and directed by Israel Horowitz from his own play. Otherwise people would be talking about the fact it's the finest performance of Kevin Kline's career, as a benighted man who comes to Paris to claim his dead father's apartment and finds it occupied by Maggie Smith.
  10. "Gone Girl" -- I had reservations about this adaptation of the popular book when I saw it, but over time most of those complaints have faded. Rosamund Pike is a mystery inside an enigma as the dissatisfied housewife who disappears and is presumed murdered. Ben Affleck continues to enjoy one of the most well-deserved second acts. One of the few films I can remember where it gets better the more we grow to dislike the main characters.

The Best of the Rest

"The Homesman" was two-thirds of a great Western and contained what I thought was the best female lead performance by Hilary Swank. But a muddled last act drained it of momentum. I was delighted to see Tim Burton engage in restraint with "Big Eyes," and it served him well. I liked "Guardians of the Galaxy" quite a bit, though not as much as others, and actually preferred "X-Men: Days of Future Past" of this year's crop of comic book movies.

"The Boxtrolls" and "How to Train Your Dragon 2" were the best of a very weak field of animated films. "Unbroken," like "12 Years a Slave," was undermined by a cartoonish villain. I didn't see enough foreign films this year, but "Two Days, One Night" and "Force Majeure" were the best of those I did. "Under the Skin" proved that dreamy, nontraditional narrative movies can move you. "Foxcatcher" has two great performances, and Channing Tatum.

Beyond a harrowing tale of sickness, "The Fault in Our Stars" shone because it depicted awkward teenage love like it really is, rather than the Hollywood facsimile we're so used to. "When the Game Stands Tall" eschews every trope of the sports drama and triumphs. "The Babadook" showed that there can still be originality and imagination in horror films. Woody Allen delighted in "Magic in the Moonlight," and Philip Seymour Hoffman reminded us why he'll be so missed with "A Most Wanted Man."

"Boyhood" is a great idea that resulted in merely a good movie. It still strikes as more of an exercise than the result of a pure creative impulse. It's showoff-y and self-indulgent; it's all tell and no show. It's like a painter who decides he will only work on a painting a few strokes at a time, devoting himself to other projects in the intervening months and years. It's an amazing undertaking, but it's doubtful the result will be counted among his most memorable works.

I've always felt the most sacred duty of a critic is to champion films nobody knows about or cares about. "Labor Day" is the ultimate cinematic orphan, pulled from a Christmas opening, dumped into theaters in January, disavowed by director Jason Reitman, and even openly mocked in some circles. (It doesn't even own a year, receiving the barest of theatrical runs to claim a technicality as a 2013 film; I claim it here because, well, no one else will.) I found its delicately balanced tone and sensitive performances a marvel. Ignore the lemmings and give this one a look on video.