Thursday, April 30, 2015

Review: "Avengers: Age of Ultron"

No, it's not quite the same thrill as watching the first Avengers movie. Really, how could it be?

Marvel spent years putting together the first super-hero supergroup movie, patiently setting up characters in their own solo flicks. So finally seeing a bunch of mini-gods in spandex fighting for a common cause was the ultimate payoff.

We're built to like what's shiny and new, so anything after that is bound to be a letdown. Still, "Avengers: Age of Ultron" is a worthy successor, managing to layer in plenty of incredible action scenes while also exploring what the whole "hero" concept means to those behind the masks.

(I say "masks" pejoratively, since only Iron Man wears one, and only then because it's not wise to leave obvious holes in your armor. Most comic book heroes keep their identities concealed, but Hollywood prefers not to spend big bucks on pretty faces and then hide them.)

Writer/director Joss Whedon combines a fanboy's appreciation for the intricacies of super-hero mythology with a cineaste's head for fast-paced mayhem. The result is a fun, giddy movie that occasionally rambles off the narrative tracks, but always manages to land its emotional punches.

If you'll recall from last time, the gang -- Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.); Thor (Chris Hemsworth); Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson); Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner); and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) -- had successfully fought off an alien invasion led by Loki, Thor's wayward brother. Half of New York was destroyed in the process, but hey, that helped set up Marvel's "Daredevil" show on Netflix.

"Ultron" opens with the Avengers stamping out the last traces of Hydra, a Nazi holdover that had captured Loki's magical staff.  Instead of returning it to Thor's home world for safekeeping, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner -- that's Iron Man and Hulk's nerdy scientist alter egos, of course -- decide to use it to build an artificial intelligence capable of safeguarding Earth from all threats.

Alas, their creation, Ultron -- wonderfully voiced and motion captured by James Spader -- decides that the biggest threat to the planet is humans. So he sets about on a nefarious plan to wipe out the Avengers and the regular folks they protect.

The hard part about defeating Ultron is that he can replicate himself, so he creates an army of robots -- all variations on Iron Man's suit -- which means you have to destroy every one of them to eradicate his mind.

Adding spice to the mix are Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, wayward young mutants who become Ultron's apprentices. He can run as fast as a bullet, hence his code name Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). She's the trickier of the two, capable of telekinesis as well as a limited degree of mind control. Aptly named Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), she invades the inner psyche of each of the Avengers, forcing them to face their darkest fears.

The upshot of all of this is that being a hero isn't always that super. Stark and Banner in particular would like to hang up their mantles -- especially Banner, who can't control the Hulk and views his time in that form as a kind of madness. Black Widow is the only one who can calm him down, and that leads to the beginnings of a romance.

There's plenty of other cool stuff, too. We learn that Iron Man has a fail-safe option for when the Hulk goes berserk, and it's an even bigger iron suit that goes on top of his regular one, and comes with the absurd codename of "Veronica." We also get to meet the Vision (Paul Bettany), an artificial creation that ... well, best to discover on your own.

You can't put lightning back in a bottle, and you can't entirely recapture the spark of cinema's first super-hero team. But you can have a helluva good time trying.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison" (1957)

"Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison" is something of a forgotten relic, despite being nominated for two Academy Awards and the presence of some very high-wattage talent, including stars Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr and writer/director John Huston. It's a solid World War II adventure/romance flick that served as a precursor to "Cast Away" and other stories about characters surviving in isolation, though it hasn't aged particularly well.

Mitchum is generally regarded as one of Hollywood's greatest talents, if one who was somewhat under-acknowledged during his career -- including by himself, who often made dismissive comments about his abilities or the acting craft in general. Kerr, on the other hand, was widely regarded as one of the premier actresses of her day, as her six Oscar nominations (including one for this film) attest. Losing six times, she eventually was given an honorary Oscar.

I should note, however, that like many female performers before and after her, Kerr's career as a film star waned sharply starting around age 45 -- an almost magical number that serves to delineate the trajectory of everyone from Julia Roberts to Susan Sarandon. Some do successfully extend an ongoing career roll past this unfortunate sell-by date (e.g., Sandra Bullock), or come back from a lull stronger than ever (Meryl Streep).

Still, it's the rare film actress who enjoys a sustained career arc of undimmed popularity from their 30s to 60s, as untold male counterparts have -- Harrison Ford, Charleton Heston, Cary Grant, Paul Newman, to name just a few.

Based on the novel by Charles Shaw and adapted by Huston and John Lee Mahin, "Allison" is the tale of the title character, a meathead career Marine whose rubber raft washes up on a lonely island in the South Pacific after the submarine carrying his team was forced to submerge and strand them. (The movie was actually shot in Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, so as to take advantage of British film industry funding and tax revenue.)

There he finds a primitive village, completely deserted, but with a Western-built church atop the hill. There he stumbles across Sister Angela, a young nun in angelic white robes. She, too, has been stranded by her fellows. She and a priest came to the island to rescue another priest, but it turned out the Japanese had already attacked, capturing or killing everyone. Her companion died himself a few days later of old age and exertion.

The rest of the movie is the tale of their relationship as they struggle to survive and come to terms with their fate. Allison is natural-born survivor, the sort who could be plopped down most anywhere on the globe and find a way to get on. She's a bit more sheltered, but tougher than she seems.

Needless to say, they wind up developing romantic feelings for each other, and much of the tension is about whether she'll give in and forsake her vows, and if he'll ask -- or force -- her to.

They'd probably have stayed that way together, for months or years until the war ended, eating coconuts and breadfruit till they were rescued. But the Japanese take over the island, not once but twice, first as a tiny meteorological monitoring station, and later as a full-blown staging area holding thousands of enemy soldiers.

Allison and Sister Angela are forced to decamp to a well-hidden cave near the island summit, subsisting on whatever food they can pick, kill or steal from the Japanese. In one (over)long sequence, Allison sneaks into the enemy camp, armed only with his service knife, to pilfer some cans of food. He's cornered by a pair of Japanese in the supply depot, and must hide atop some bags of rice while they finish a long session of drinking sake and playing board games.

The Japanese leave as suddenly as they came, leaving behind a treasure trove of supplies -- not to mention some rather hefty-looking buildings that they apparently constructed in a day or two. Allison gets roaring drunk on the enemy booze and makes some vaguely threatening comments to Sister Angela about them being just like "Adam and Eve." Fearing a rape attempt, she runs off into the jungle, gets trapped in a downpour and falls deathly ill.

Allison nurses her back to health, but by now a major landing of Japanese have taken over the island again. (Fickle about their strategic deployments, they are.) Allison tries to steal supplies again but is forced to kill a soldier who discovers him, and it seems only a matter of time before they're captured or killed.

Narratively, there's not a whole lot going on in the movie. It's essentially just these two actors playing off each other. Kerr, not bothering to hide her natural-born Scottish brogue for this role, is a stalwart presence as a woman who has a strong sense of herself and her moral inner center. Even though she's attracted to Allison, we never really sense that she truly contemplates abandoning her faith for him. It's more a what-if temptation for her.

Mitchum is something of a conundrum, which Mitchum often was. Even in his most straightforward heroic roles, Mitchum always had an element of danger about his characterizations. Allison seems like a man playing a role as the tried-and-true Marine, though we later learn he had a scrappy, crime-filled upbringing as an orphan. Here is a man who has done bad things in his life and set them aside, but appears capable of going back to them if needs be.

Huston and Mahin received their own Academy Award nomination for their screenplay, which is essentially a character study set against a war-romance backdrop.

Mitchum was just shy of 40 when this movie came out, his famous 48-inch chest starting to fall southward, sucking in his gut mightily in his own imitable way during a few shirtless scenes. With his barrel chest and broad shoulders, wide cheekbones and pointed chin, Mitchum resembled one inverted triangle perched atop another.

I also chuckled to myself at how this man who seemingly never gets to bathe or visit a barber always has perfectly coiffed hair.

Kerr is almost completely covered head to toe in her habit, though during her illness sequence we discover that she did indeed shear her famous red locks close to her head in the traditional nun style. That's a pretty brave move for a single scene -- possibly it's a wig, but it looks authentic.

I enjoyed "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison," which is a great-looking film featuring a pair of immensely charismatic stars. It's not remembered as a great film, which it isn't, but it certainly deserves more of a reputation than it has.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Video review: "Paddington"

“Paddington,” a British film adaptation of the popular books by Michael Bond, opened in the U.S. without much fanfare or media. In the biz this is known as ‘being dumped into theaters’ -- a practice usually reserved for low-budget fare of dubious quality.

I’m puzzled as to why “Paddington” received this treatment, since it’s probably the best live-action family film thus far in 2015.

Paddington is a young bear from Peru whose home is destroyed, and his elderly aunt and uncle forced into the old bears’ home. He decides to seek out the British explorer who befriended his family years ago and introduced them to the miracle that is marmalade.

He takes the name of the London railway station where he’s stranded and is taken in -- albeit temporarily -- by the Brown family (Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville play the mum and dad).

Paddington is portrayed using some excellent CG animation and the tender voice of Ben Whishaw. He’s a wondrous creation, with his shy charm and signature floppy red hat.

Director Paul King, who write the screenplay with Hamish McColl, keeps the tone light and the action delightfully goofy -- such as a flooded bathtub on the Browns’ top floor that goes for a ride.

Samuel Joslin and Madeleine Harris play the Brown kids, and Nicole Kidman rounds out the cast as the villainess, who’d like to see Paddington stuffed -- and not with marmalade. She’s got a great Cruella de Vil vibe going on.

Here’s hoping this wonderful, gentle movie finds a home of its own on video.

Video extras are a bit skimpy. The DVD has several making-of featurettes: “Meet the Characters,” “When a Bear Comes to Stay” and “From Page to Screen,” plus the “Shine” music video. Step up to the Blu-ray and you add only “The Making of ‘Shine’” featurette.



Friday, April 24, 2015

Review: "Little Boy"

"Little Boy" is a little film that, like its main character, seemingly has no friends. I guess I'll have to do.

This sweet and, yes, somewhat sappy movie is being released into a few theaters with very little fanfare or media. (No screenings were arranged for critics; heck, we weren't even told it was coming out. I had to backdoor it to the studio's publicity chief to beg an online screener.)

It's a faith-based production, which tend to be seen as less legitimate by the press and audiences of a certain persuasion. As if stories and characters that come from the wellspring of Christian beliefs somehow cannot be worthy as, say, the latest horror flick or mushy romance.

I was raised Catholic myself, and if "fallen" isn't quite the right descriptor that requires being added to that designation, then let's just say I'm a few floors down from flush.

Still, the religious aspects of the film are not a wall but an invitation. I found "Little Boy" to be an utterly charming picture with a terrifically engaging performance by young Jakob Salvati as Pepper Flynt Busbee.

Pepper is being raised in the idyllic California fishing town of O'Hare during World War II. Eights years old, he's still the size of a toddler. Earnest and intelligent, Pepper wonders if he really is a "midget" like he keeps getting called. The local doctor (Kevin James) isn't sure if Pepper actually has dwarfism, or if he's just a "little boy."

Alas, nicknames like that tend to stick; soon all the other kids in town bully and mistreat him. His only friend is his dad (Michael Rapaport), who plays all sorts of games of imagination with him where they pretend to be cowboys, or pirates, or masked detectives, and so on. Their adventures always conclude with dad asking Pepper, "Partner, do you believe you can do this?!?"

The lad's faith is tested when Dad goes off to war and is soon declared a prisoner of war. Worse, Pepper follows his volatile older brother London (David Henrie) in taking his frustrations out on Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the local Japanese-American who suffers a similar ostracism from the townsfolk.

Father Oliver (Tom Wilkinson), the gutsy town priest, takes Pepper under his wing and advises him to keep his faith that his father will come home. The priest gives him a list of actions he must perform in order to build his faith: clothe the naked, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, etc. Chief on that list, which is part penance and part hope, is to befriend Hashimoto. The slow, tenuous way in which the boy opens up to the "foreign" stranger are quite stirring.

But the boy is also taken with the idea of Ben Eagle, a magician/hero of the serial movies and comic books Pepper consumes. When a live stage version of Ben Eagle comes to town, Pepper is picked out of the audience to perform a feat of telekinesis that, of course, he believes is real.

In the kid's mind, the teachings of the priest and the charlatan sort of get mashed up together. Pepper begins to think he's capable of actual super powers, pointing his hands and groaning with concentration. Every evening performs does his prestidigitations toward the setting sun, where his father is a prisoner.

It's a great-looking movie, with authentic period costumes and cars, and bright, sun-dappled cinematography. Visually and thematically, it reminded me a lot of "Forrest Gump."

Some might dismiss the story -- director Alejandro Gómez Monteverde co-wrote the script with Pepe Portillo -- as pure pap. And it surely is an earnest, sentimental picture. But I believe "Little Boy" earns its emotions, by carefully showing how the characters arrive at their feelings instead of just assuming they're there.

And Jakob Salvati holds our attention, and our emotions. With his open face and green-gray eyes, he evokes a sense of inner toughness and sensitivity in equal measures. Emily Watson also has a nice turn as his mother, dealing with challenges from several fronts.

I'm really glad I saw "Little Boy." Sometimes, you just have to exert your will -- and show a little faith -- to achieve your goals.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Review: "The Age of Adaline"

"The Age of Adaline" is a movie with a little going for it.

It wants to be a lush romantic tale with a science fiction twist -- beautiful young woman suffers a strange accident and remains young and beautiful forever. Like Dorian Gray and Orlando, Adaline Bowman wanders the decades, eschewing love but eventually drawn into entanglements that inevitably end with pain.

Emotionally, though, it's a remarkably staid film, with neither lead actress Blake Lively or the story providing much in the way to cause our hearts to go pitter-patter.

Until, that is, Harrison Ford shows up in the second half and almost rescues the picture with his raw, naked vulnerability.

Which, I'm aware, is a strange thing to say. Whatever else you think of Ford's thespian skills -- I happen to believe he's been gravely underestimated over his four decades of acting -- he's never been known as a particularly emotive performer. Gruff, hard everymen who occasionally let their veneer slip is more his line.

So to see him stripped bare, stammering with eyes that seem just on the edge of tears, is quite a thing to experience.

The rest of the film picks up on his tragic energy, and concludes with a great deal more emotional momentum, even if the plot is a bit predictable. It's like the movie suddenly remembers to get out of its own way.

Lively plays Adaline, born to a wealthy San Francisco family in 1908. She led a pretty normal life, we're told -- the strangely flat, precise narration is a pure bust -- until the age of 29. During a rare California snowstorm, her car crashed into an icy river, where she went into hypothermia and was then revived by an electrical current from lightning.

All this caused her DNA to undergo "electron compression" and ... actually, don't bother trying to figure out the science-y gobbledy gook; it all just means that she stopped aging. She soldiered on with her life, raising her daughter, until it became clear that she could no longer fool others with talk of miracle Parisian face creams to explain her unaging appearance.

Adaline went on the lam, taking up a new identity and existence every 10 years. And never let her guard down, we learn, except once.

Flash to 2015. Adaline, now going by the name Jenny, celebrates her 107th birthday with her daughter, Flemming (Ellen Burstyn), who is now quite elderly, and her only confidante. She's preparing to spend her next decade on a farm in Oregon, until she runs into an effusive man named Ellis, played by Dutch actor Michiel Huisman, who pronounces his name as "Alice."

He isn't a particularly interesting or engaging character. He's that tiresome cinematic canard, the charming guy who got fabulously rich at a young age but doesn't make a big deal out of it because, y'know, it's just money.

(Axiom: the only people who say they don't care about money are those who already have gobs and gobs of it.)

Ellis/Alice woos Adaline/Jenny with a fierce urgency bordering on creepiness. She eventually succumbs, of course, because otherwise there wouldn't be a movie. They go on a trip to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his parents, played by Ford and Kathy Baker ... and there I'll have to stop, to prevent giving away too much.

It may seem an odd comparison, but this movie reminded me in some ways of "Funny People." That 2009 Judd Apatow comedy started out very strong, but then about halfway through we stumbled upon a new character and storyline that knocked the whole movie off its rails.

"The Age of Adaline" is the opposite: it wanders the wilderness for nearly an hour, then Harrison Ford rides in like a white knight. Neither film winds up a total success, but it's better to gain vigor than watch it dissipate.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Review: "Ex Machina"

Moody and evocative, “Ex Machina” is a well-made science fiction thriller that I quite admired even as I realized it didn’t reach its full potential. It starts out with a very novel concept and moves forward with it in such a direct way that it held very few surprises.

It seems like a smart movie that outsmarted itself.

The idea is the creation of the first real artificial intelligence by mankind, manifested in a robot named Ava. She has been built as an expressly female entity with all the imperatives of attraction that entails. So a man -- technically brilliant but socially awkward -- interacts with her and begins to develop feelings.

This premise is not entirely original; other movies like “S1m0ne” and “Her” have explored the idea of a guy falling for a virtual construct, with varying degrees of success. Writer Alex Garland (“Never Let Me Go”), who also makes his directing debut, cleverly adds the idea of the third wheel: the man who created the robot, has hired the other man to test it, and watches the two of them interact with some apparent mix of scientific inquiry and malevolence.

The result is a weird, disquieting love (?) triangle in which three beings, one of them mechanical, wage a struggle of wills.

Oscar Isaac plays Nathan, a genius programmer who created Bluebook, the world’s dominant search engine, while still a teenager. (Think Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, combined.) Now he lives in a research facility in the middle of a vast mountainous estate, where the only way in is a two-hour helicopter ride. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a meek young coder in his employ, wins a contest for a special week-long stay with a life-changing (but unspecified) opportunity.

The underground domicile, with weird amalgamations of modern and traditional appointments, is something between a retreat and a prison. Caleb can go some places but not others. It’s comfortable, antiseptic and stifling. Like the hotel in “The Shining,” it serves as another character in the story.

Nathan lives there seemingly alone, bingeing on work, alcohol and exercise. He’s at once very charismatic and off-putting. He jokes with Caleb about having the men who installed his power grid killed afterward, and seems to enjoy the ambiguity his tone leaves in the younger man’s mind. He tells Caleb that he has created an A.I., and he has been chosen to test it to see if it can pass as human.

Caleb’s first interactions with Ava are hesitant and promising. She is an amazing creation, played by Alicia Vikander with some arresting makeup and CG effects. Her face, hands and feet are seemingly human, but the rest of her is a twist of metal parts, lighted circuitry and a geodesic mesh covering.

They interact through a glass wall; Ava has apparently never left the room in which she lives. Despite this distance, they soon start to share intimacies about themselves. Given the opportunity for more private conversation, they each reveal their suspicions about Nathan’s true motives.

Things go from there, which I will not reveal. Suffice it to say that on several occasions I thought Garland had an opportunity to take a sharp turn into bolder territory, and each time he chooses the straightforward course. There’s one bit where the story starts to wander down a more interesting path, but quickly retreats to the road more traveled.

“Ex Machina” hints at deeper themes that are largely left unexplored -- how men objectify women, can consciousness be created artificially, etc. But for what it is, I recommend the film for its dark imaginings.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Video review: "The Babadook"

One of the most chilling and original horror films of recent years, “The Babadook” didn’t even make it to theaters in most cities. If you’re up for some really imaginative thrills, give it a look on video… just keep a few lights on when you do.

It tells the story of a widowed Australian mother, Amelia (Essie Davis), whose son Samuel (a terrifically emotive Noah Wiseman) has started to exhibit strange, even violent behavior. He worries about a fictional character named Mister Babadook, a shadowman who haunts those who learn about his existence.

Samuel’s antics grow more troublesome; eventually, he is expelled from school and his nightmare visions invade their home. A mysterious children’s book with horrible imagery turns up, warning of what’s to come.

Writer/director Jennifer Kent, making her feature film debut, uses a clever mix of paranoia and subtle special effects to evoke the dread of the invading entity. Babadook’s power seems to feed off the grief and fear of his victims. His evil taint seeps into their souls and they become physical manifestations of his malevolence.

I also appreciated the creepy, atonal soundscape, and the way the Babadook says his own name -- a cross between a children’s nursery rhyme chant and growling epithet.

No less a personage than William Friedkin, director of “The Exorcist,” called “The Babadook” the most terrifying film he’s ever seen. It’s not quite that scary, but it’s up there.

Video extras are decent. There are deleted scenes, interviews with cast and crew and a making-of documentary short film. Bonus: “Monster,” the 2005 short Kent made that formed the basis for this film.



Thursday, April 16, 2015

Review: "Unfriended"

Though it's not quite the game-changer that "The Blair Witch Project" was, "Unfriended" is an innovative and bold twist on the horror genre. The entirety of it takes place through the computer screens of six teens communicating with each other via Skype, Facebook, IM, Google searches and so on.

They're being hounded by an Internet troll, who claims to be their friend Laura Barns -- which is impossible, because she killed herself a year ago after being harassed online. But this unknown entity, which calls itself "billie227," invades their video chat room, seemingly takes control of their computers, and threatens to start killing them one by one if they log off.

If you think this may not seem like enough narrative to sustain a feature film -- even one that barely crosses the 80-minute mark -- then you'd be dead wrong.

Director Levan Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves cleverly layer in additional story elements as time goes on and the threat level increases, along with the body count. It borrows liberally from classic horror tropes -- such as the virginal "nice girl" as the main character -- while burrowing itself deeply into the instant-everything culture of today's teenagers.

Their computers, smartphones and ear buds are not just tools; they're biometric accessories they rely upon to augment and enhance their interaction with the world at large (even when they never leave their rooms).

The idea of the "ghost" haunting the characters translates easily to the anonymity of the Web, where people feel free to treat each other in a loathsome fashion because of the remove from their intended victims. The characters are represented through thumbnail video boxes transmitting from their webcams (which change in size and position to reflect who is currently the main focus).

Shelley Hennig is Blaire, the heroine. The movie opens with her flirting with her boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), doing a tame striptease and promising to consummate their relationship on prom night. Their friends join the video chat just in time to break it up ...along with a mysterious hanger-on.

Adam (Will Peltz) is the headstrong one of the bunch, quick with an insult and our prime suspect as the person who posted the embarrassing video of a drunken Laura that pushed her to commit suicide. Val (Courtney Halverson) is the rich snob whom the others just tolerate. Jess (Renee Olstead) is the party girl who's not as tough as she projects. Ken (Jacob Wysocki) is the tech nerd who we suspect helps the more popular kids with their homework.

If most of the cast members look like they're closer to 30 than high school algebra classes, that's because they are. Hollywood loves to make movies about teenagers, but pathologically shuns the real acne-and-awkwardness of those years. So actors in their mid- to late-twenties get the job. (Hennig is the most convincing of the bunch.)

Things go from there, with billie227 quickly offing one of the kids to prove its power, then forcing the rest to play a revolving game of "Never Did I Ever." They're forced to reveal the horrible things they've done online and to each other. It seems these seemingly normal upper-middle-class kids are capable of great cruelty and selfishness.

And that, perhaps, is the hidden subtext behind "Unfriended" -- the banality of inhumanity we all experience, or contribute to, whenever we log onto a computer or mobile device these days. We have seen the face of evil, and it is a reflection of ourselves that reverberates through a million virtual connections.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Review: "True Story"

A man sits in a dusty tent in a foreign land, taking notes. He's asking some teen boys about awful experiences they've been through via an interpreter. We've seen this movie before: he's obviously a journalist, doing important work, and we know it's just a matter of time before we hear the words "New York Times" or "Washington Post." (It's the Times.)

One of the boys is reluctant to divulge. The man says you can trust me. More hesitation. So the journalist coolly flashes a $100 bill, neatly folded between his fingers. The interview concludes, the money changes hands, a terrific story later appears on the cover of...

...wait, what?!?

I would hope that most people would know that paying sources to talk is a big journalistic no-no. So obviously something's not right with this guy, Michael Finkel, played by Jonah Hill. We're not surprised when, a few minutes later into "True Story," he's fired for fudging the facts. Disgraced, shunned by colleagues, he retreats to his Montana hometown.

The problem is, the filmmakers want us to like this guy. Or, at least, identify with him. "True Story" is supposed to be the tale of a guy who reaches rock bottom and then pulls himself back to the top with the story of a lifetime. Instead, Finkel remains a moon-faced mystery, a guy who never fully confronts the depth of his deceptions.

If Finkel is a puzzle, then Christian Longo is a total enigma. He's the big story Finkel is after: a seemingly normal man who is accused of murdering his wife and three young children. His tale wouldn't even be known if it weren't for one thing: while on the lam, he sometimes used the alias of Mike Finkel of the New York Times.

The real Finkel is intrigued to know why Longo impersonated him, and reaches out to him in prison. "I was wondering if you could tell me what it's like to be me," he writes. The men meet. Longo is cryptic, but offers his story, exclusively. Finkel sees a shot at redemption and a big payday.

Things go on from there, with the two forming a quick bond with deep undercurrents of mistrust. Is Finkel repeating his mistakes, trying to mold the facts to fit the killer story he's pitched to book publishers? Is Longo a manipulative fabulist exploiting the reporter for his own ends?

This sounds more interesting than it actually is. Director Rupert Goold, who co-wrote the script with David Kajganich, wants to give us a mix of "Shattered Glass" and "In Cold Blood," a probing tale about the intersection of crime, truth and justice.

Instead, it turns into a rather dull succession of scenes in which Hill and Franco spar listlessly across a bare table in the prison interview room.

Hill, I think, is a promising young actor whose head has been swelled by a couple of Oscar nominations he clearly didn't deserve. He hasn't developed enough nuance in his screen presence to carry a dramatic picture. His Finkel comes across as a disaffected dope. Franco is better, snaky and sharp, but it sometimes feels like he's smirking at the camera.

Felicity Jones plays Finkel's wife, whom he uses as a financial and emotional reservoir to sponge off of. In lesser hands this sort of role turns into a thankless, dreary distraction -- and these filmmakers' hands are lesser.

There are the bones of a good story in "True Story," but the movie is content to take us to places we've already been to before. For instance, it never satisfactorily answers the question behind the main premise: why did Longo impersonate Finkel? 

The only thing more disappointing than sloppy storytelling is the lazy kind.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Reeling Backward: "My Life As a Dog" (1985)

"My Life As a Dog" is one of my personal touchstone films. It was one of the first foreign language movies I saw that seemed vibrant and alive, and so tantalizingly different from the standard, safe Hollywood fare of the mid-1980s.

It's not an exaggeration to say this film played a key part in my educational and career choices. Were it not for Lasse Hallström & Co., you might very well not be reading this.

"Dog" was one of the rare films not to be nominated for an Academy Award for foreign language film but receive Oscar nods in other major categories, director and adapted screenplay. Interestingly, although the film was released in its native Sweden in 1985, it didn't make it to the U.S. and U.K. until 1987, thus making it eligible for the Oscars given out in 1988.

The prestige the movie garnered allowed Hallström to segue to English-language filmmaking, where he has more or less resided ever since, producing films magical ("What's Eating Gilbert Grape"), lavishly overpraised ("The Cider House Rules") and criminally underrated ("The Shipping News").

Not bad for a guy who started out as the pet music video director for ABBA.

Watching it again for the first time in a long time, I was struck to learn that "My Life As a Dog" is based on the middle of a trio of autobiographical novels by Reidar Jönsson. That probably shouldn't have been a surprise, as the film undulates with the rhythms of real life, rather than trying to conform to a pat three-act narrative. It has a confident authenticity absent of any big show-me moments.

My memory was that the main character, Ingemar, was a very young Swedish boy, but the character is actually supposed to be 12, as he deals with the pending pressures of pubescence. Part of that's the sheer apple-cheeked nature of actor Anton Glanzelius, who was 11 when the film was made but looked closer to 7.

The story, which starts in 1958, is mostly about Ingemar's relationship with his mother, or, more accurately, his anguish over the emotional and physical abandonment he feels. His mom (Anki Lidén) is dying of tuberculosis, though the boy is in pathological denial about this. But even when she's well, she's not a particularly maternal figure, estranged from her husband and resentful of the way Ingemar and his older brother impinge on her poor health and book-reading.

The first image in the movie is a brief snippet of a summer vacation where Ingemar clowns around on the beach for his mother, who takes her nose out of her novel long enough to be delighted. It lasts only a few seconds, and is repeated several times during the movie, and thus becomes a totem of the boy's frustration about being pushed away by her.

Another recurring visual theme is a dreamy, staring shot into space with a million twinkling stars, which shows up for voiceover musings by Ingemar on a variety of topics. He's especially fixated on the fate of Laika, the Russian dog who was the first Earthling shot into space, only to die months later when her food supply ran out. Ingemar can't reconcile the fact that humans would deliberately send an animal to perish, even in the name of scientific exploration.

Again, this relates right back to his own gradual orphanhood from his mother. It's not just that some things must die, which even a child can understand, but that it was intended to die.

This also ties into the disposition of his own dog, Sickan, whom he is told is being put into a kennel when he and his brother are sent away for the summer while their mother recuperates in a sanitarium. There's a heartrending photo session of the boy and his dog posing together, amusingly resembling each other, helped by Ingemar's signature swoopy haircut.

Of course, the pet is being sent away just like the children, but on a more permanent basis.

 Interestingly, the tale Ingemar relates about Laika is actually inaccurate -- she died mere hours into her flight from heat exposure. The Soviets did disseminate a false tale about her demise, but it was that she was euthanized prior to her oxygen running out on day six. I'm sure Hallström and his fellow screenwriters, Per Berglund and Brasse Brännström, were aware of this.

But somehow, having the boy concoct his own faulty version of events and then obsess over the meaning of them only serves to make the character seem more accessible and immediate. At that age, emotional truth often prevails over strict adherence to facts.

Ingemar's summer is a completely magical experience in the pastoral province of Småland with his uncle Gunnar (Tomas von Brömssen), a carefree man-child who has a wife but no kids of his own, and works in a glass-blowing factory. The boy finds other children to play with, along with an interesting array of colorful local characters.

There's Fransson, the guy who is constantly hammering away at roof repairs, or Mr. Arvidsson, a dying old man who likes to have Ingemar read to  him from the lingerie catalog he keeps hidden under his mattress. He doesn't even look at the pictures, but enjoys the lad droning on about the new miracle fiber caressing the female form or whatnot.

There's a kid whose blond hair is tinged green from swimming in the chemical-laden ersatz pool his grandfather creates out of the factory machinery, along with a cable-fed "spaceship" whose final frontier is the cow-patty-laden field across the boulevard.

And we have Berit (Ing-Marie Carlsson), the blonde bombshell who is the object of lust by half the factory workers, especially Uncle Gunnar. When she poses nude for a local artist, and brings along Ingemar as a pint-sized chaperone and guardian of her virtue, it sends the town into a tizzy. He sees her as a combination replacement mother and receptacle of his own burgeoning curiosity in the fair gender.

Ingemar becomes best friends with Saga (Melinda Kinnaman), a girl his own age who has short hair and dresses as a boy so she can play on their football (soccer) team. It's funny because there doesn't appear to be any confusion in any of the townsfolk's minds about Saga's true gender. They all just feel compelled to go along with appearances so they don't lose their star player.

(Perhaps the ruse is intended for opposing teams.)

The relationship between the two children, the faintest beginnings of romance, is so incredibly tender and true. She feels compelled to express her affection for Ingemar via her tomboy identity, such as sparring in a barnyard boxing ring, each sharing one-half of a pair of gloves. They mostly just bump fists, though things get more heated as competitive zeal and hormone levels rise.

Saga complains about her budding breasts and how they will doom her athletic career, and enlists Ingemar in helping her tape them down. She even displays her nascent bosom to him, and the confusion on the boy's face is just priceless.

Ingemar returns home in the fall renewed with optimism, as if his positive experiences in the countryside will somehow rescue his mother's deteriorating situation. She soon passes away, without ever giving the boy any kind of sense of warmth toward him. He and his brother briefly go to live with his other uncle in the city, but Ingemar's jocular tomfoolery -- he's a born mimic and mime -- soon gets him banished.

He returns to Småland, but things have changed in winter. A Greek family has taken over most of Gunnar's house, so he has to sleep with peevish old Mrs. Arvidsson, now widowed. Fransson finally comes down off his roof, but not in a good way. The artist has become world-famous, but Berit is mortified by the sculpture he created from her naked form.

Saga is there, with more promise for both affection and conflict. When another girl makes flirtatious moves toward Ingemar, Saga is incensed but, with typical adolescent projection, directs her anger at him rather than the interloper. Having finally accepted the reality of the death of his only parent and dog, her rejection is the final blow.

"My Life As a Dog" ends on somewhat hopeful note, with the coming of spring and a renewed acceptance of everyone's roles. Ingemar finally seems ready to let go of his stubborn hold on childishness and begin the journey toward manhood. Saga starts wearing dresses and realizes that doing so won't deteriorate her identity.

Rather than a pat, happy Hollywood ending, however, this one is fulfilling not because everything ended the way it should, but because the characters evolved in a naturalistic way toward their ultimate, deserved harmony. This gem contains not a single false note.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Video review: "Big Eyes"

I’ve been hard on director Tim Burton for spending the last 15 years (mostly) cranking out soulless remakes of moldy intellectual property – “Alice in Wonderland,” “Planet of the Apes,” etc. He finally diverged to make “Big Eyes,” a low-budget original dramedy about an interesting historical curio.

The result was a funny/sad tale with some first-rate performances by Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. The film got lost in the holiday shuffle and overlooked by the Academy Awards, but I urge you to give it another look on video.

It’s the true story of Margaret Keane (Adams), an artist whose paintings featuring waifs with enormous eyes became a huge commercial hit in the 1950s and ‘60s, appearing in ubiquitous reprints all over the country. Except it was her husband, a magnetic huckster named Walter (Waltz), who claimed credit for the work. He was a more established artist and better at selling himself.

Plus he convinced her that her paintings wouldn’t be taken seriously if people thought they were created by a woman. (Sadly, he was probably right, which doesn’t make his deception and bullying any more palatable.)

The story (screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) is about the rise and fall of their relationship, culminating in a real-life court battle in which the estranged spouses engaged in a paint-off before a judge.

Adams is sensitive and endearing as a weak-willed person who eventually finds her own inner voice. And Waltz is delightful as the charismatic, conniving Walter.

Sometimes it’s best to paint outside the lines.

Video extras are pretty disappointing. The DVD comes with a standard making-of featurette, and the blu-ray adds Q&A highlights with cast and crew.



Thursday, April 9, 2015

Review: "The Longest Ride"

Movies based on Nicholas Sparks books tend to be short on brainpower but long on emotional tug. "The Longest Yard" is the best one since "The Notebook," making up most of the yardage in smarts without sacrificing too much in the way of passion.

Like all Sparks flicks, it centers around a volatile relationship between two young people from different worlds. It also borrows the familiar technique of giving us a parallel story of another love from another time, with connections between the two growing stronger as the film goes on.

It stars Britt Robertson and Scott Eastwood as one couple in the current time, while Oona Chaplin and Jack Huston are the antique pair.

If some of those names sound familiar, that's because they are. Chaplin is the granddaughter of the great Charlie Chaplin, and Eastwood is the son of Clint Eastwood. (I thought Huston might be one of the Hollywood Hustons, John/Danny/Angelica, but no, he's a Brit.)

Overall it's a nice cast, with each couple sharing warm chemistry between them. It also features Alan Alda in the old man role, and he's quite effective in an understated way.

The story is this: Sophia (Robertson), smart art student from Wake Forest meets Carolina bull rider Luke (Eastwood). They fall hard for each other, but she's soon headed to New York to work at a gallery, while he's chasing the elusive championship after some very hard knocks. On the way home from a magical first date, they rescue Ira (Alda), an old man whose car has run off the road, along with a box of old letters.

While visiting Ira in the hospital, Sophia reads the letters to him, which chronicle the tale of his lifelong love, Ruth (Chaplin). Part of the close-knit Jewish community in Greensboro in the 1940s, they fell in love themselves and started a life together, but not without certain challenges and tragedies along the way. Huston takes over the role of Ira as a youngster.

"Love requires sacrifice -- always," says elder Ira, in the sort of movie where characters just blurt out its main theme.

In the case of Luke and Sophia, that means he must give up the ranch and cracking his skulls falling off bulls, and she has to shelve her dreams of curating great art, or both.

Robertson is a charismatic and likeable star. Her face looks like a cross between Lena Headey ("Game of Thrones") and Linda Hamilton, and she has the spunk of a young Reese Witherspoon about her. Eastwood is like a prettier version of his dad, and much of the early going involves both cowgirls and college girls growing woozy at the sight of him. His acting's a bit stiff in the talkie scenes, but again, just like pop.

The Chaplin/Huston pairing is even better, enhanced by spectacular period costumes, cars and sets. Director George Tillman Jr. ("Men of Honor") shows off Sparks' North Carolina backyard in all its sun-dappled gorgeousness. He even manages to capture the frenetic, bestial grace of bull riding -- though, like the quarter mile races in "The Fast and the Furious," those 8-second rides somehow get stretched out to a minute of screen time.

"The Longest Ride" is a big cinematic piece of caramel-covered melted cheese, unapologetically sweet and sappy. But it will cause warm swells in the heart and a tear or two to be shed.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Review: "While We're Young"

Writer/director Noah Baumbach makes movies that often seem lightweight at first glance, even frivolous, but creep up on you with their hefty themes and cerebral contemplations.

The newest from the filmmaker behind “The Squid and the Whale” and “Frances Ha” is “While We’re Young,” about a married couple in their 40s (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) who fear life has passed them by and want another shot at youthful liberation. They do so using another couple who are about 20 years younger as surrogates, befriending them and absorbing their carefree lifestyle.

“Young” is simultaneously very funny and very thoughtful. The movie is trenchantly observant about how we live today as individuals within a changing society, especially how evolutions in technology have affected the ways in which we communicate with each other and tell stories – for good or ill. (Mostly ill, in Baumbach’s take.)

Baumbach visited some of these same themes in “Greenberg,” which also starred Stiller as a Generation X guy trying to fit in with the Millennials, and looking poorer for the effort.

Josh (Stiller) is a formerly successful documentary filmmaker whose career has been swallowed by his latest project, 10 years in the making and not any closer to completion, or even coherence. It’s something about power in America, but not only is Josh incapable of summing it up in an elevator speech for potential financial backers, he couldn’t even do it if they took the stairs.

His wife Cornelia (Watts) is a producer for her father (Charles Grodin), a storied documentarian – think Pennebaker or Maysles -- who used to be Josh’s mentor until they diverged on aesthetics. Josh promotes the idea of the “personal documentary,” in which the filmmaker is an active participant in shaping a narrative.

Cornelia and Josh get along seemingly well. They’ve got their work, they don’t seem to want for money, and they have a small circle of acquaintances their own age. But there’s an undercurrent of regret there.

They have no children (after failed attempts years ago), and feel estranged from their closest friends, Marina and Fletcher (Maria Dizzia and Adam Horovitz, both terrific), who just had a baby that their lives now revolve around. And Cornelia sits in the middle of the schism between her husband and father.

Things change when they meet Jamie and Darby, played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. They’re 25-ish hipsters, married but otherwise seemingly untethered to adulthood. He’s an aspiring filmmaker who attends one of Josh’s classes, and she makes her own ice cream. In very short order the two couples have glommed onto each other, with Jamie seeking professional help from Josh and Cornelia finding emotional support from her counterpart.

This section contains quite a lot of laugh moments, such as Cornelia’s horror after being roped into her friend’s baby music class, or Josh pathetically copycatting Jamie’s slouchy fedora and vinyl obsession. There’s also a great scene in which they attend a New Age-y session where people drink ditch water to inspire hallucinations and purge the soul (and stomach). Stiller ponders dizzily, sounding like Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now.” And the shaman, who rides a hip Vespa, frets about his charges purging onto his carpet.

But things get more somber, and smarter, as time goes on. Jamie, played assuredly by Driver, proves to be a sly manipulator, affecting too-cool nonchalance while quietly directing events in his favor. Josh begins to resent his young pupil/guru and his film methodology, especially regarding a project about a disturbed Afghanistan veteran (Brady Corbet).

If the film has a weak spot, it’s that the female characters start out as full partners in the storytelling process and gently recede into the background. The movie becomes more and more focused on Jamie/Josh, with the Grodin character as the third leg.

My objection is a mild one, based not on political correctness but regret for missed opportunities for insight. At 97 minutes, this is the rare film these days that could stand to be longer.

In many ways, “While We’re Young” is Noah Baumbach’s most mature work to date. For a little while I thought the movie had simply forgotten to be funny, but it was deliberately morphing into a second half that is decidedly less jovial but inarguably more profound. Such is life, and moviemaking.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Video review: "A Most Violent Year"

Young writer/director J.C. Chandor made the wonderful but little-seen “Margin Call” in 2011, then followed it up with the virtually wordless “All Is Lost” starring Robert Redford, earning a well-deserved Oscar nomination for screenplay in the process.

After such a dazzling career start, I was expecting great things out of his third feature film, “A Most Violent Year.” But while most other critics found this 1980s crime-and-punishment drama worthy, I was put off by its circuitous plotting and unrealized themes.

Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, owner of a heating oil business serving the New York City area. It’s an industry rife with corruption, grudges, protection money and outright thievery, and nobody keeps their hands entirely clean – including Abel. He’s about to buy a fuel terminal that will give him a huge leg up, but challenges abound.

His trucks are being routinely hijacked and the oil stolen. Meanwhile, the local district attorney (David Oyelowo) is breathing down his neck with pending charges, which causes the financing for his big deal to teeter. And his Lady MacBeth-ish wife (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of an infamous mobster, chastises Abel for refusing to fight fire with fire.

It’s a whole lot of intriguing, disparate elements that never really solidify into a coherent whole. Abel is presented as reluctant to use violence to get what he wants, but as he is the only person in his realm who thinks this way, it makes him seem hopelessly naïve and impotent. The wife character, meanwhile, feels like an amalgam of other tough molls we’ve seen in film noir pictures over the years.

Chandor avoided the “sophomore slump” that often affects promising filmmakers on their second outing. But given the heights of his fledgling career, his third effort registers as a major disappointment.

“A Most Violent Year” is being released with solid video extras, starting with a feature-length commentary track by Chandor and two of producers. There are also three making-of featurettes focusing on production, the original concept for the film and a conversation with Isaac and Chastain. Plus, deleted scenes and outtakes.



Thursday, April 2, 2015

Review: "Furious 7"

"Furious 7" features a lot of great stunts and a great deal of silliness. This franchise started out 14 years ago about a bunch of punk twentysomething street racers, and by now it's morphed into a James Bond clan in which everybody does martial arts, spy infiltrations and super stunts in addition to being expert wheel men (and women).

You pretty much know what you're getting with any of the "Furious" flicks: aerobatic car stunts, smashmouth fights, explosions galore, booties shaken, muscles engorged, exotic locales and lots of quips. The first 20 minutes or so features very little action, with main star Vin Diesel repeatedly threatening the camera, vaguely: "They're gonna pay for their mistakes... big time."

That's not actually what he says, but it could be. One of the main failings of these movies is that the dialogue often sounds like it was written by a pair of 15-year-olds who were locked in a vault with a bunch of video games and no contact with other humans.

(Chris Morgan, who penned the first, fifth and sixth movies, is officially given credit.)

Justin Lin, who directed the last four films in the series, is replaced by horror filmmaker James Wan. He adds a few new flourishes of his own, such as rotating the camera to follow the trajectory of an actor spinning through the air during a fight or crash, and then flogs them like a deceased equine.

Still, it's hard to deny that many of the chase scenes in the latter half are truly thrilling. The best are a multi-car road duel on a twisty mountain road, and a super-valuable sports car being jumped from one high-rise skyscraper to another... and another.

Dwayne Johnson, as supercop Hobbs, is actually sidelined for most of the movie after sustaining serious injuries during an early tussle, which is notable for a couple of reasons. First, we don't get to enjoy Johnson and Diesel engaging in another pointless battle of behemoths. Second, this is virtually the only time a character gets more than a scratch during the entire flick, despite an unrelenting barrage of bullets, shrapnel, kicks, punches and sudden g-force trauma.

The plot is an incomprehensible muddle of MacGuffins, red herrings, come-and-go villains and set pieces. Our travels take us from Los Angeles to London, Abu Dhabi, the Caucuses, the Dominican Republic and more.

Ostensibly it's about catching Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the brother of the bad guy from the last movie. He's a British black ops chap who wants revenge, so he starts tracking down the "family" members of Dom Toretto (Diesel), leader of the crew. Dom doesn't believe in playing defense, so soon they're chasing the guy chasing them.

Somehow this morphs into the search for an international hacker named Ramsey, who has created a program called the God's Eye, which uses cell phones, security cameras and virtually every electronic device to track anyone, anywhere.

(You may recall this is the same thing Batman used during the finale of "The Dark Knight"; it was goofy then, and it's still goofy now.)

Other familiar characters include Paul Walker as cop-turned-wingman Brian; Michelle Rodriguez as Dom's squeeze Letty, still struggling with amnesia after returning from the dead; Roman (Tyrese Gibson), ladies' man and comic relief; and Tej (Ludacris), computer expert and Roman tamer.

(Walker's death mid-production is handled by using CGI to paste his face on other actors' bodies; if you're not looking for it, you probably won't even notice. He also receives a send-off at the end that's genuinely touching.)

Joining the fray are Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), head of a vague American government arm that wants God's Eye, and Mose Jakande (Djimon Hounsou), an African crime lord who desires it, too. Things build up to a spectacular showdown in L.A. with all parties taking part in a very destructive fracas.

"Furious 7" is not the sort of movie you're supposed to spend more than a few seconds thinking about, because if you do it all falls apart like sand. (For instance, how does the God's Eye track Shaw when he drives through a barren desert? Are the geckos rocking Samsungs?)

You're invited to just sit back, drink in the crazy action scenes and sneering attitude, and cheer. There are plenty of moments worth a huzzah, but many others that earn their derision.