Thursday, April 30, 2009

New podcast: Summer movies

Joe and I talk about this year's crop of summer movies, those that look promising and those that ... don't.

Reeling Backward: "All of Me"

I believe in serendipity, at least when it comes to movies. In a recent podcast, Joe Shearer and I were talking about body-switcheroo movies, and I cited "All of Me" as one of the best ones. I hadn't seen it in probably 10 to 15 years, and sure enough it appeared on television in time to be recorded and reviewed here.

Made in 1984, "All of Me" arrived a year after "The Man with Two Brains," which also starred Steve Martin and was directed by Carl (father of Rob) Reiner. Four years before that, Reiner directed Martin in "The Jerk." That's three great comedies in five years. (During that span, they also teamed up for "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," but we'll leave that alone.)

"All of Me" is above all a triumph of physical comedy, something that's become less prominent in recent years, unless you consider the towel-dropping in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" hilarious. Martin, who has a cerebral bent but appreciates the joys of slapstick, is terrific as he portrays a man with the soul of a spoiled rich woman (Lily Tomlin) trapped inside him, as the two fight for control of his body. The scene where she first invades him, after the bowl that was the conduit for her soul falls from a skyscraper and bops him on the noggin, would make Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin proud. Martin drags the left half of himself (which he controls) across the sidewalk, while the right side (Tomlin's) pulls him the other.

Then there are the gender jokes, as Martin rages over Tomlin's tendency to act in a very feminine manner, walking with an exaggerated lilt and waving a limp wrist while appearing in court (Martin plays a lawyer). At one point Martin falls asleep, and Tomlin, in full control of their shared body, puts on an excruciatingly funny caricature of macho behavior, in all its ball-grabbing glory. And of course, the scene where they must first negotiate a trip to the bathroom as a team effort is a classic bit. "Shall I tap?" Tomlin asks when business is concluded. Martin demurely assents, and then Tomlin stage whispers "tap, tap" as she executes the deed.

One of the wonderful devices in the movie is that whenever Martin looks in the mirror, he sees Tomlin's reflection. The metaphysical logistics of "All of Me" are, of course, utter hooey -- Tomlin's character wanted to transport her soul from her dying body into that of the stableman's daughter, who is just out for inheriting her fortune. But it works because we get to see these two wonderful comedic actors interacting, rather than just hearing Tomlin's voice projected out of Martin's body.

3.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Reeling Backward: "The Grand Illusion"

Some very respectable film authorities have opined that Jean Renoir's "The Grand Illusion" is the finest motion picture ever made. I've been meaning to see it for years, but it's not exactly the easiest film to find on video. I finally caught it on Turner Classic Movies (which, incidentally, is where I find most of my "Reeling Backward" review candidates).

It is indeed a wonderful film, although I don't think it's going to knock "Citizen Kane" off the all-time-best list anytime soon.

"The Grand Illusion" is a prisoner-of-war movie set during World War I, but released in 1938 when everyone in Europe surely knew that another cataclysmic struggle was about to ensue. This sense of forbidding permeates every scene and piece of dialogue in the movie. Even moments of hopefulness are fleeting and bittersweet.

Take, for example, the early section of the film, which plays out much like "The Great Escape" did a quarter-century later. There's an international group of Allied officers (mostly French) who are prisoners in a German camp. They seem to get along well with their captors, offering them cigarettes and nibbles out of the generous aid packages they receive from home. Meanwhile, they've bored a hole in one of the cabin floors and are slowly tunneling to the fence perimeter. They even dispose of the dirt from the tunnel in the same manner as "Great Escape," carrying it in their clothing out to gardening plots and surreptitiously dumping it into the flower beds.

But this plot thread ends abruptly, when the officers are transferred to another prison the day before the tunnel will be finished. There's a wonderful scene where one of the French soldiers helps one of the British officers who will be taking their place at the camp, and tries to warn him about the tunnel in their new home. Alas, the Frenchman does not speak English, the Englishman does not speak French, so the French contingent leaves with all their hard work wasted. And think of those British officers, spending the rest of the war as prisoners while freedom lurks beneath them, a few shovelfuls between them and escape!

There is a large cast of characters, but three are prominent: Lt. Marechal (Jean Gabin), a heroic working-class pilot; Lt. Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a Jewish intellectual; and Capt. de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), a somewhat aloof nobleman. Marechal and de Boeldieu are captured together after their plane is shot down by a German aristocrat, but they are not friends. Marechal, a mechanic before the war, feels inadequate compared to the rich and well-educated de Boeldieu, and for his part the French aristocrat does little to disabuse him of the notion. Instead, Marechal buddies up with the good-natured Rosenthal, and hatches an escape plot once they've been transferred to their new prison inside a towering castle.

De Boeldieu does form a meaningful relationship, but oddly enough it is with their chief captor, Capt. von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), who was the German ace who shot them out of the sky. Von Rauffenstein is now an earthbound paper-pusher, suffering from terrible wounds that ended his flying career. He wears a constricting neck brace, and is always dressed formally in a spotless uniform, right down to white gloves. Von Rauffenstein explains that he dresses thusly because his entire body is covered in burn scars. One senses that he does not mind the physical pain of his injury such much as the indignity it consigns him to as a "mere policeman," as he puts it. To him, the highest honor is to die in battle, and the fact that he will not reach this fate torments him. In his office, a solitary geranium is fussily watered and tended to, a symbol of his carefully-cultivated ideals.

Except von Rauffenstein's ideals are not so much idealistic as Old World anachronistic. He finds it irksome that men like Marechal and Rosenthal are permitted to serve side-by-side with aristocracy like de Boeldieu. Honor is the birthright of the noble elite, the German believes, but de Boeldieu is more realistic. He predicts the nobility's pedestal will crumble soon after this war is over. Still, it's clear that de Boeldieu greatly prefers the company of von Rauffenstein to that of his own Frenchmen.

If I were to take a stab at what I think the film's title refers to, it would be this notion of honor being bequeathed from parent to child, rather than something that is earned. Marechal and Rosenthal may be commoners, but they are as capable of bravery and love and compassion as any duke or prince. And von Rauffenstein and de Boeldieu may cherish their courtly mannerisms and air of superiority, but the are just as capable of venality and pettiness as the lowliest peasant. The very concept of nobility, those finest ideals that reside in men's hearts, is elusive, and the idea that one class has a monopoly on it, illusory.

3.5 stars out of four.

More movie reviews this week

Events have conspired (in a positive way) so I'll also have reviews of "Battle for Terra" and "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" this Friday.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

We've seen "Wolverine"

Bob Bloom and I have safely made it home from our Chicago trip to see "Wolverine." We had to pay $16 in parking fees plus another $10 or so in expressway tolls, not to mention giving up most of a Tuesday. Still, I'm glad we made the trip.

You'll have to wait until Friday to read my review, of course.

It was cold and rainy the entire trip. I was astonished by how many members of the press were at the screening -- around 35 to 40, I'd say. I can't believe there are that many outlets with critics in the Chicago area. The last time I attended a big-city press screening was for "Star Trek VI" in New York City in 1991. It's an entirely different game there, unlike Indianapolis where we have to beg and scrape to get screenings.

On a disappointing note, Roger Ebert was not in attendance. I was hoping to introduce myself. Ah well...

World's Greatest Summer Movie Preview!

Here it is, the world's greatest summer movie preview. I look over some of the more notable summer flicks coming our way, discuss the buzz on each one and give my own opinion of what I think its prospects are.

X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE (May 1) -- This flick would seem to have everything going for it. It's a spinoff of the most popular character from the "X-Men" franchise, starring Hugh Jackman as the feral hero with razor-sharp claws, unbreakable bones and a mutant healing factor that combine to make him virtually indestructible. Anticipation for it has been through the roof. And yet the buzz is worrisome. An unfinished version of the film was leaked online recently, and there's been a lot of chatter about how the studio didn't have much faith in director Gavin Hood, who'd only helmed small art films before this. The fact that they're declining to show it to critics in many markets, including all of Indiana and Ohio, is never a good sign. On a personal note, I've read part of the origin comic of Wolverine that this movie was based on, and I'm not a big fan.
The Buzz: Shaky, but probably will still have a huge opening weekend.

STAR TREK (May 8) -- The trajectory of "Star Trek" is the opposite of "Wolverine." It started out somewhat down, with people mocking the idea of another Trek movie -- and not just any Trek movie, but with the original character roster of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Sulu, Uhuru, Checkhov and Scottie. They're just being played by younger, mostly unknown actors. It's a risky move by director J.J. Abrams, who's mostly worked in TV and whose last attempt to reinvigorate a film franchise with "Mission Impossible III" didn't exactly work out. And yet audiences at geek conventions have gone nuts for the preview footage they've seen. Personally, it looks a little too jacked up for my taste -- Trek movies have always had action, but it was subservient to the characters and plot. I fear this is an iteration of Trek tailor-made for the ADD set.
The Buzz: Looks like an action-packed reboot of Trek for Generation Y. They will beam it up.

ANGELS & DEMONS (May 15) -- This one is interesting. It's a sequel to "The Da Vinci Code" based on the best-seller by Dan Brown. But it's based on a book that actually came out before "Da Vinci" -- the filmmakers have simply jiggered the timeline around. And the film version of "Da Vinci" was widely considered a failure, at least in the U.S. But it did boffo box office on the foreign market, so we're back for another go with Tom Hanks as a professor who gets tangled up with ancient secret societies. I've read the book, and it's a page-turning potboiler set inside Vatican City, with enemies of the Catholic Church killing clergymen in the most gruesome fashion. I have a suspicion that this may be the rare sequel that is superior to the original.
The Buzz: Has a lot of competition from huge films before and after its release date; may get lost in the crowd.

TERMINATOR SALVATION (May 22) -- It's not good when the thing most people associate with your movie is an expletive-laden, egotistical rant made by the star, which became a downloaded audio sensation on the Web. Personally, I find it hilarious that Christian Bale was so maniacally serious about his "process" as an actor in a movie about killer robots from the future. This is the fourth "Terminator" movie and the first without the Governator. Audiences haven't exactly gone wild for the current television incarnation of "Terminator" sans Schwarzenegger, so they may not be dying to see a movie without him. Plus it's not helpful that the new movie and TV show exist in parallel universes, where each uses the same characters without regard to what the other is doing. Still, we've only seen glimpses of the apocalyptic nightmare where machines rule the earth, with Bale as the leader of the scrappy human renegades. For me, I've never been a big fan of director McG -- I don't think I really need any other reason than the fact that professionally he goes by the name some beer buddies probably gave him. But on top of that, he directed those awful "Charlie's Angels" movies.
The Buzz: I don't think it'll be very good, but there's still life in those robot servos. Audiences will show up.

UP (May 29) -- Pixar Animation has never made a bad movie; the worst of them, like "Cars," have merely been very good. But there's no denying their movies have grown more esoteric of late, with corresponding dips in their box office performance. "Wall-E" was their finest motion picture since "Finding Nemo," so I have high hopes for "Up." It's an unlikely tale about a crotchety, kid-hating old man (voiced by Ed Asner) tying a horde of balloons to his house to float it halfway across the world. When I first heard the concept, I thought it was for one of the award-winning shorts that always precede a Pixar feature film. Can they really sustain so fanciful a concept over a 90-minute movie? And centering on a character who essentially despises the movie's target audience? We'll see.
The Buzz: Who am I kidding? You know it'll be great.

LAND OF THE LOST (June 5) -- To people of my generation, "Land of the Lost" was similar to "Speed Racer" -- a 1970s TV show you watched religiously without quite ever knowing why. It certainly wasn't very good, with its weird setup of some folks who jump through a portal to a bizarre universe where dinosaurs roam and slow-moving lizardmen called Sleestaks rule. So I guess I'm relieved that this is being made as a comedy vehicle for Will Ferrell. I'm not sure I'd want to see a super serious "Land of the Lost" -- that would be almost as stupid as making straightforward "G.I. Joe" movie ... oh wait, they did! That comes out Aug. 7.
The Buzz: Will Ferrell's always worth some yuks.

THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1 2 3 (June 12) -- Most people who know me have heard my John Travolta story -- how he built a home in the smallish Florida town where I was working, and I spent two years unsuccessfully trying to get an interview with him. I negotiated with his PR people, showed up at events I heard he might attend, even sneaking onto the fly-in community where he lived, parking my car on the tarmac and trying to deliver a hand-deliver letter (before being intercepted by some very large security guys). Travolta's career always seems to be either in the toilet or cresting a new wave of revitalization. He's currently up, with his last three films ("Bolt," "Hairspray" and "Wild Hogs") all taking in more than $100 million at the box office. I'm not so sure about the premise of this film: Remaking a 35-year-old flick that wasn't a big hit in the first place. Travolta plays an ex-con who takes a subway train hostage, with Denzel Washington as the dispatcher who must foil him.
The Buzz: Two fiftysomething stars in a remake of a movie few people remember. What's not to love?

THE PROPOSAL (June 19) -- There are some people who would sooner undergo a proctology exam than see another Sandra Bullock romcom. But I have to say this one actually looks pretty good. She plays a nasty boss who forces her younger assistant (Ryan Reynolds) to marry her so she can retain her U.S. visa status. Interesting to see Bullock paired up with a romantic partner who's nearly 15 years her junior.
The Buzz: The trailer is pretty hilarious; did they blow all the best jokes in it?

TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN (June 24) -- To paraphrase Roger Ebert, I hate, hate, hated the first "Transformers" movie. Granted, it was about robots both heroic and villainous from outer space. But I've never seen a big blockbuster with some incoherent a plot. I literally found it hard to follow what was going on at any given moment. And the transformers were hard to tell apart from each other. And just to stack things up further against the sequel, it's coming out only two years after the first one. Movies with budgets as big as this generally take years of preproduction and up to a year of post to do the computer effects. By my reckoning, they must have written the script in about 17 minutes.
The Buzz: It couldn't possibly be worse than the first one, could it?

PUBLIC ENEMIES (July 1) -- This one looks really promising. It's loosely based on the exploits of Indianapolis' own John Dillinger, the most notorious bank robber of all time. Johnny Depp, the quirky character actor-turned mega movie star, should be a hoot as the fun-loving, bank-busting Robin Hood of the 1930s. Christian Bale plays the grim fed on his tail. And it's co-written and directed by Michael Mann, a master of mood ("Heat," "Last of the Mohicans," "Manhunter," "The Insider"). I have a feeling this is going to be the breakout hit of the summer.
The Buzz: The "Untouchables" for the next generation?

BRÜNO (July 10) -- In what is essentially a sequel to "Borat," comedy renegade Sacha Baron Cohen takes another one of his weird, irony-proof characters and sets him up against unsuspecting Americans in a quasi-documentary. It's basically a one-joke concept -- clueless foreigner with a shaky grasp of English commits all sorts of politically incorrect atrocities to see how regular people will react. In this case, it's an outrageously gay German model who does things like perform a striptease and make-out session with another man in front of 15,000 blue-collar Arkansans who thought they were going to see a cage fighting show.
The Buzz: Get ready for another round of squirm-inducing comedy with a hidden message about American culture.

HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE (July 17) -- Whenever somebody asks me why I think the "Lord of the Rings" books are vastly superior to the "Harry Potter" franchise, my response is, "At least Tolkien didn't write the same book over and over." As good as some of the "Potter" movies have been, it's frustrating to a non-fan to shell out to see what is the same basic premise repeated ad nauseum: It's a new year at Hogwarts wizard school, there's a new strange professor, Harry and the gang must confront a shadowy threat that eventually turns out to be the work of the evil lord Voldemort, and all the grown-ups conveniently disappear in time to let the kiddies face the bad guys. The one redeeming factor about "Half-Blood Prince" is that it supposedly reveals Voldemort's full backstory, which we've only heard bits and pieces of. Anything that moves the chains plot-wise is a step in the right direction, in my spellbook.
The Buzz: It's "Harry Potter" -- another $250 million, minimum.

JULIE & JULIA (Aug. 7) -- One of the few summer movies that isn't a sequel, a remake or based on a comic book or video game. From writer/director Nora Ephron, Meryl Streep plays cooking icon Julia Child and Amy Adams plays an anonymous government worker who decides to plow through every recipe in Child's classic cookbook, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." In a quirky move, their characters' stories progress a half-century apart, so the two never actually meet. Sounds tasty to me.
The Buzz: This may be the sleeper hit of the summer.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (Aug. 21) -- Is it me or does it seem like Quentin Tarantino is making movies that would only appeal to Quentin Tarantino? His weird fetish for trashy '70s exploitation flicks is not shared by me or about 99 percent of the movie-going public. So this remake of an Italian cheapie seems destined for the same video discount bin and "Death Proof" and "Jackie Brown." Brad Pitt plays the leader of an all-Jewish squad sent in behind Nazi lines during World War II to wreak havoc and spread fear amongst the Germans. OK, right off we've got Brad Pitt cast as a Jew, so the movie is already a stretch.
The Buzz: Face it: "Pulp Fiction" was as good as it was ever going to get.

DVD review: "Bride Wars"

For some movies, watching the trailer is like seeing the entire movie in a two-minute-and-30-second version compilation of the best moments, with all the boring stuff edited out. "Bride Wars" is one of those.

As far as chick flicks go, it's not awful -- just utterly predictable. Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson play two friends who have shared the childhood dream of holding their weddings at the Plaza Hotel in New York. But whoops, the über-powerful queen of wedding planners (Candice Bergen, apparently consigned to these old battle-ax roles now) accidentally books them on the same day, and neither will back down. So the BFFs become bridezillas from hell trying to sabotage each other's dream wedding.

The obvious solution is to have a joint wedding, of course, but we've got a movie to put on here, so out the window that goes.

There are clever bits, such as Hudson tinkering with Hathaway's tanning machine. The scene where she walks down a New York sidewalk, emerging from the crowd the color of a neon carrot, is priceless. As for the grooms, the movie mostly seems to forget they exist.

Inevitably, though, the movies takes a sappy turn as the comedy dries up and the tear ducts start flowing.

The extras are appallingly skimpy. There are three very brief deleted scenes, including an alternate opening. And a featurette titled "The Perfect White Dress" is nothing more than a 5-minute commercial for Vera Wang. Perhaps the product placement deal the studio struck with the dressmaker mirrored one of the funnier lines in the movie: "You don't alter a Vera Wang to fit you; you alter yourself to fit Vera Wang."

I guess in the real-life bride wars, integrity is the first thing to surrender.

Movie: 2 stars
Extras: 1 star

Monday, April 27, 2009

IFJA growing again!

The Indianapolis Film Journalists Association is pleased to announce yet another new member: Caine Gardner of the Greencastle Banner-Graphic.

With his addition, our little club is now up to eight members!

Coming this week: "Wolverine"

Yes, I am driving to Chicago on Tuesday to see "Wolverine." They wouldn't show it to critics here in Indianapolis, or pretty much anywhere else in the Midwest. So Bob Bloom of the Journal & Courier in Lafayette and I are making the trek to Second City to catch it.

I will make a concerted effort not to hold the fact that they wouldn't show it to us against the movie. Who knows, maybe you'll find me here on Friday calling it the best summer flick ever.

The DVD review will be "Bride Wars" starring Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway as a pair of best friends-turned bridezillas.

Also, on Tuesday look for my own summer movie preview, where I give the buzz and some snark about some of the bigger releases coming our way.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Goodbye, WoW

Another personal note here: I have decided to quit playing World of Warcraft, permanently.

For those not in the know, WoW is the most popular online role-playing game, with something over 10 million people playing as warriors, mages, shamans and death knights. I started playing in February 2006. Tuesday is my last day.

I have thought and written extensively about my WoW time. It has been cited as one of the more addictive video games out there, and I worried about it taking too much time away from more important things. I left the game for about seven months in 2007-08, but felt the urge to go back.

I'm glad I did, because the last year or so of my experience with the game has been the best. I managed to conquer nearly all the available content, slaying mighty dungeon bosses, and pimping out my characters in the best gear available.

In a front-page article I wrote about video game addiction, I quoted an expert who said that people reveled in the acclaim they got in-game, perhaps making up for deficiencies in their real lives. This was never the case with me, and I can't say as I ever played the game excessively on more than a few isolated occasion. Even during my unemployment, when I've obviously had more time on my hands, I can't say that I suddenly became a Warcraft fiend.

I decided to quit for rather mundane reasons: I'm bored with it. After more than three years, I've done pretty much everything there is to do. I want to do other things.

If you think I'm planning to stop playing video games altogether, you'd be wrong. In fact, a part of the reason I'm giving up WoW is that there are a few other games out there I want to try. Now that I have a new computer, I'm actually able to run some of these high-end games that would have left my old system curled up in a fetal ball. I've already been playing "Left 4 Dead," and would like to try "Fallout 3" and one or two others.

So I leave the game with few regrets, a whole lot of fun had, and the recognition that my Warcraft days are over.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


In this time when it seems like the only news about newspapers is soul-crushingly bad, it's always welcome to hear about the good work they still do.

On that note, I'd like to congratulate my many former Indianapolis Star colleagues who won awards at the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists award contest. The Star had another impressive year, picking up 19 first-place wins and 38 all together.

I'd especially like to laud Neal Taflinger and Konrad Marshall, who won first and third place, respectively, in the lifestyle feature category. Feature departments at the Star and most newspapers have been especially hard hit during the economic downturn, so it warms the heart to see them honored.

I myself won second place in the A&E feature category. It was for an IndySunday cover story I did about the rising influence of African-American film.

I do have a cautionary note, though, to all those who won and especially to those who thought they might and didn't: Don't let an award, or lack of, lay too heavily on your ego. If they're honest, the people who run these contests will confess how arbitrary the process is. It falls to a tiny group of journalists, usually out-of-staters, to pass judgment, with their own biases and predilections.

I remember one of the biggest awards I won in the early part of my career, for the SPJ regional contest covering the entire South. I won the top award, known as the Green Eyeshade, for breaking news about a shooting in rural Florida. I was about 26 years old at the time and over the moon. Then I submitted the same story, in the same category, to the state SPJ contest and didn't even rate an honorable mention.

So, to those who won: Cherish this award, but don't let it go to your head. To those who didn't: Keep plugging; your time will come.

Friday, April 24, 2009

New podcast: Movies about journalists

This week's podcast is about "The Soloist," "State of Play" and other films about journalists.

A little business...

In an effort to generate a little revenue, I'm pleased to announce a new advertising effort here on this site.

I'm starting out with some product links, and hope to add a few banners and widgets as soon as I get it figured out.

The terms of the agreement preclude me from saying who my new partner is, though it's pretty obvious if you scroll through the posts below.

It's pretty simple: If anyone clicks through my portal and buys a DVD, I get a piece of the sale. I have now added these links to all my DVD reviews and "Reeling Backward" features from the first of the year.

So please, if you were planning to buy any DVDs online anyway, please come here to Captain Critic and click on my link. It doesn't cost you anything extra; the only difference is I get a little taste.

Review: "The Soloist"

"The Soloist" isn't your typical uplifting drama. No great obstacles are overcome, no epiphany about the nature of mankind descends from the heavens. It's about two men who are each in their own way pretty screwed up, and as the story draws to a close they're pretty much the same people they were when they met.

If anything, "The Soloist" has the tone and timbre of an elegy. It's a sad song about regret and loss, about the things that are cast aside carelessly and can't easily be found again. Still, it's in remembering those things and grasping for them that we find that touch of grace.

Robert Downey Jr. gives what is perhaps the finest performance of his career as Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Divorced, a stranger to his son, so bitterly alone that his longtime next-door neighbor feels compelled to introduce himself when they have a late-night encounter, Steve writes stories about unlikely people and subjects. So when he meets Nathaniel Ayers, he sees him as just another source for an interesting column.

He first sees Nathaniel perched beneath a statue of Beethoven, dressed in ridiculous rags and sawing away on a battered violin that only has two strings. In between Nathaniel's rambling Rain Man speech patterns, Steve hears him say he used to attend Julliard. On a lark, he calls the school and finds out the homeless man really did go there more than 30 years ago. Steve bats out what he thinks will be a great one-off column about a kooky street character.

Except that he does too good a job. People are really affected by Nathaniel's story, and an old woman sends Steve her cello to give to the street musician. Steve agrees to do so only on the condition that Nathaniel attend a local center for the homeless, which he agrees to after much cajoling.

The center is situated in another part of L.A. away from the gleaming Times tower, in what looks like a battle zone of a third-world country, where the lost souls fight and smoke crack and kill each other right out in the open.

In sweeping gestures director Joe Wright ("Atonement") sends his camera soaring above the heights of L.A., looking down on the wasted human detritus spread out on cots, in contrast to birds-eye views of neatly manicured neighborhoods. It's an elegant commentary on the contrasting values we place upon property versus people.

Steve continues writing about Nathaniel because it's good copy, and it seems to be having an effect -- the mayor even announces a new initiative to clean up Nathaniel's streets.

But Steve resists the urge to take responsibility for someone else. He arranges for Nathaniel to attend a rehearsal of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and even convinces the lead cellist to give him lessons. Yet he convinces himself he's doing it for the story, not for friendship. His ex-wife, who's also his editor (Catherine Keener), not so gently calls him out on it.

Written by Susannah Grant from Lopez' book, "The Soloist" isn't perfect. Foxx's performance, while emotionally resonant, relies a little too heavily on previous film portrayals of mentally fractured souls. And a concert seen through Nathaniel's eyes as an explosion of colored lights was a daring flight of fancy that remains earthbound.

Despite these off notes, "The Soloist" is a wonderfully engaging piece about two people who, despite being so cut off and alone, find in their friendship a soothing harmony.

3.5 stars out of four

Review: "Earth"

Before computers made anything possible, film audiences used to react to spectacular special effects or stunts by exclaiming, "How'd they do that?!" For the amazing new documentary "Earth" -- which uses no digital trickery of any kind -- the quandary becomes, "How'd they get that?!"

The wildlife footage is not only stunning, it bedazzles the audience by making us wonder how so many spectacular moments were captured. The film puts us in the middle of a deadly chase between a cheetah and antelope, a battle between a starving polar bear and walruses, into a swirling cloud of tiny fish being fed upon by seals, amidst a torturous desert convoy of elephants, and sends us reeling over titanic waterfalls.

Based on the footage, you would think the filmmakers possessed an army of remote-controlled cameras scattered all over the globe, recording constantly to capture these fleeting moments of exhilaration. But no, some outtakes over the end credits show us how they climbed into hot air balloons, hid out in frozen cabins, and dove into oceans teeming with sharks to get this amazing footage.

"Earth" is actually a feature-length compilation of the TV show "Planet Earth," directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield. It's being released all over the globe with different narrators for each country (James Earle Jones does the honor for the U.S. version).

If there's a weakness to the endeavor, it's the lack of a narrative theme like we had in "March of the Penguins," with the squat birds' epic journey to gather food and protect their young. "Earth" attempts to do this by concentrating on three families of animals: a humpback whale and her calf; a polar bear family with two cubs; and an elephant mother and her young. We watch them on their journeys of migration and finding prey.

But these are by no means the only subjects of the documentary, which also glimpses dozens of other species. There are birds of paradise pimped out in plumage to attract a mate, baby ducks in free-fall, and the incongruous sight of monkeys wading chest-deep through the floodplains. As entertaining as all these asides are, they serve to detract from the theme of animal families nurturing their young.

As a result, the movie feels a bit fractured, like we're watching an educational nature documentary with no unifying point. The film would have been stronger by focusing on the three families, and only including other material as it relates to their quests.

Still, even with its slightly rambling nature, the power of the movie's spectacle is impressive.

"Earth" also touches on how climate change is affecting these animals -- for example, the father bear gets caught out in open ocean because the sea ice is thawing earlier and earlier. These events are presented factually, without bias or histrionics -- an all-too rare occurrence in the global warming debate.

3 stars out of four

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Catch the Captain!

I'll be taking to the airwaves again this weekend, appearing on John Strauss' show on WIBC this Sunday to talk about summer movies. We'll explore some of the wannabe blockbusters out there waiting for us, and discuss the buzz -- good or bad -- surrounding the notables.

My spot will be a little after 11 a.m. on WIBC, that's 93.1 on your FM dial.

Tune in!

DVD review: "Notorious"

For someone who had never acted before, Jamal Woodard gives a confident, swaggering performance in "Notorious" as legendary rapper Biggie Smalls, aka Notorious B.I.G. This affecting biopic tracks Biggie's life from the tough streets of Brooklyn, where few would have believed that the shy boy named Christopher Wallace and labeled "too fat, black and ugly" would become one of the transformative figures of the hip-hop world.

With his mix of sweetness and braggadocio, Woodard captures the essence of Biggie, who quickly climbed from two-bit street dealer to the top of the charts, only to be gunned down at age 24 in the East Coast-West Coast rap rivalry of the 1990s that also claimed the life of Tupac Shakur. "Notorious" doesn't back away from showing the rivalry's nastiness, although it generally depicts Biggie as the victim, rather than the instigator of the feud.

That's not surprising, considering this film was produced by Biggie's real-life friends and business partners, including Sean Combs (who's ably portrayed in the movie by Derek Luke). Other key figures in Biggie's life include his mother Voletta Wallace (Angela Bassett), protégé/lover Lil' Kim (Naturi Naughton), wife Faith Evans (Antonique Smith) and mentor-turned-enemy Shakur (Anthony Mackie).

The "Notorious" DVD comes with both the theatrical and unrated director's versions of the films, plus an exhaustive amount of extras. In addition to the usual making-of documentary, there's also featurettes about casting and training the actors, many of whom studied with their real-life counterparts; a look at the lyrical creation style of Biggie; how they re-created the raucous concert scenes; 10 brief deleted scenes; and archive footage of the real Biggie performing.

A clever addition is the "Biggie 360" feature with a rotating view of the Los Angeles intersection where he was murdered, with keys to video clips about various landmarks and personal perspectives.

There are two separate commentary tracks, one by the filmmakers (including director George Tillman Jr. and screenwriters Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker) and the other by Biggie's real-life family and friends, including mother Voletta.

Movie: B-plus
Extras: A-minus

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Some dap to Warner Bros.

I wrote quite a bit about the hi-def battle between Blu-ray and HD DVD formats, which ended decisively when Warner Bros. decided to stop putting out titles in HD DVD. They are the largest studio, and were the only one to release video titles in both formats. When they announced they were choosing sides, it essentially ended the format war overnight.

Now Warners is doing something that I think is pretty cool: They're offering to let owners of their HD DVDs to trade them in for the same title on Blu-ray, at a pretty nominal cost. This way they don't have to get stuck with some discs that will be totally useless when all the new hi-def players are in the other format.

Here's the official word from the studio:

Warner Home Video has announced a new program, “Red2Blu,” for those who want to upgrade titles they currently own on HD-DVD to Blu-ray. By visiting, consumers can trade up virtually any of their WHV HD-DVD titles (up to 25) for the same title on Blu-ray for a small fee plus shipping and handling. For details and restrictions, visit “Red2Blu” is available to residents of the United States only.

Financially, there was no reason for Warners to do this, other than customer loyalty. I'm not normally in the habit of giving publicity to individual studios, but I have to say I think this move is worthy of some props. Way to go, guys!

Reeling Backward: "Ivanhoe"

In reading about "Ivanhoe," the 1952 film version of Sir Walter Scott's classic novel, I learn it was the most expensive movie made in England up until that time. All I can say is, they must have been shooting movies with pin-hole cameras before that, with the crew subsisting on Ritz crackers and pond water.

Granted, it's more than a half-century old, and we have digital trickery now and costume budgets that run into the millions. But still, after the spectacle of movies like "Braveheart" and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "Ivanhoe" looks positively embarrassing.

The hero, a beleaguered knight just returned from the Crusades, first shows up in this green-and-red outfit, posing as a minstrel. He rides a mule and claims that he has no armor or horse to joust in the tournament being held by evil Prince John, who's trying to usurp the throne. Well, how did he lose them? How does a knight go to battle in Jerusalem, survive and make it back without the tokens of his profession? Was his sword stolen by a thief, a la King Arthur in "Excalibur"? Did his armor get itchy, so he ditched it?

Nevermind. Because it turns out that when he finally does get some armor, he looks even more ridiculous than his minstrel show. All the knights in this production wear draping chain armor and helmets that are obviously not made out of metal. There's one scene where you can see how uneven the surface of the helmet is, like warped wood.

And the battle scenes are simply laughable. At one point the squire of Ivanhoe is caught in battle, and you can see his fake sword bending and swaying after it's struck.

And arrows. My God, the arrows.

There's a big castle siege scene, and you'll see the soldiers running here and there, and then suddenly what looks like a bundle of sticks appears from off-screen, rapidly dispersing into a cloud of wooden arrows. Most of them aren't even pointed in the right direction. They travel too slow to have been launched from a tot's slingshot, let alone an English longbow. You can see them hit some of the actors and bounce off like matchsticks. It literally looks like they had a crew member standing with a pile of fake arrows just outside of camera range, and then on cue he hurls them into the scene.

The one exception I can cite is the final showdown between Ivanhoe and his arch-enemy, Sir Brian De Bois-Guilbert (played by George Sanders). Ivanhoe fights with an axe, and De Bois-Guilbert wields the ball-and-chain, and it's actually a pretty convincing fight.

I did not think much of Robert Taylor as Ivanhoe. When I was young and hadn't experienced a lot of classic movies, one of the things I didn't like about them was what I considered a very stiff sort of acting style that was prevalent around the time. Taylor delivers his lines in fast, crisp tones that barely modulate, and a facial expression that occasionally slips from blank to serene. Now, of course, I know that there were plenty of actors of that era who were much more expressive. I guess Taylor's just a dud, or at least he is in this picture.

"Ivanhoe" also features a 20-year-old Elizabeth Taylor as Rebecca, the Jewess who sells her jewels to outfit Ivanhoe and becomes enamored with him. Nowadays she would be the young ingenue just breaking into movies, but this was actually Taylor's 19th film. People tend to forget that she was one of the few child actors who went on to have a truly robust career that spanned decades.

I'm sure in its day, "Ivanhoe" probably looked like a grand spectacle to audiences. But some films simply don't age well, and this is one of them. It's stiff, cheap-looking and dull.

2 stars out of four

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

When newspapers lay off Pulitzer winners

Amid all the celebration of the annual announcement of the winners of the Pulitzers, the highest honor in journalism, was word that the tiny East Valley Tribune shared the award in the local reporting category.

Reporters Ryan Gabrielson and Paul Giblin wrote the Pulitzer-winning series about immigration enforcement operations of a local sheriff.

Sounds great. Except for one little thing: Three months earlier, the Tribune laid off Giblin.

Now, call me old-fashioned, but if I were a newspaper editor or publisher at a paper who had just seen fit to cut ties with someone who would go on to win a Pulitzer, I might happen to think that I have a whole lot of egg on my face. No self-respecting newsroom leader would choose to get rid of someone who had earned the newspaper the biggest award in the biz.

So how does the Tribune handle the announcement? By omitting any mention of the fact that Giblin was laid off. Check out their story and an editor's column about the win, in which they simply refer to him as a "former" reporter.

Now imagine if the Tribune was covering some local business or government entity that had gotten rid of someone, and then a few months later that person was given the highest honor in his profession for the work he or she did there. Do you think they would report the fact that the person was let go? Or would they hide it behind weasel words and obfuscation?

If I was writing that story, his being laid off would be in the lede, or first sentence.

Guys, laying off Giblin makes you look bad. But then you made yourselves look even worse by abandoning the basic tenants of journalism when it came time to focus the story on your own paper.

To the editor and publisher of the East Valley Tribune: For shame. First you showed the incredibly poor judgment to lay off a worker who is among the finest in the field. Then you compounded the error by not owning up to it.

Reeling Backward: "This Is Spinal Tap"

"This Is Spinal Tap" has become such a part of the pop culture lexicon, and indeed even created a new genre of film called the mockumentary, that it is possible to feel like you've experienced it without ever having actually seen it. Like me.

I had seen numerous clips from "Spinal Tap," such as the infamous our-amplifiers-go-to-11 bit, and a few other bits and pieces. But I'd never actually watched it all the way through.

Now that I have, I'm probably going to commit a little bit of heresy by saying that I was slightly disappointed by it. Yes, there are quite a few laugh-out-loud moments, and the improvisational nature of the comedy by Michael McKeon, Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest and the rest of the cast is truly infectious. Many of the same performers would go on to more success in the fake documentary genre with "Best in Show," "A Mighty Wind" and so on.

But when you strip out all those classic bits, the movie -- seen nearly 30 years later -- comes uncomfortably close to reality. The behind-the-stage scenes of band members falling out with each other, wives and girlfriends intruding into the creative mix, the put-upon manager trying to keep it all together -- we've seen it all before in real documentaries. They don't seem so funny viewed in the context of all the other stuff we know about actual bands.

Plus, coming in 1984 "Spinal Tap" ended up heralding some of the worst trends in rock 'n' roll -- big hair bands, Spandex, simplistic chords and sex-addled lyrics that turned rock over to the mindset of a pubescent boy for a while.

The songs, which were intended to be ridiculous, could actually pass for real radio hits of one era or another.

For me, the strongest part of the movie was the relationship between David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel (played by Michael McKeon and Christopher Guest, respectively) as the Lennon and McCartney of Tap. Old school chums who've managed to keep the band going through thick and thin (mostly thin), they have a vibe that's sort of touching amidst all the goofery.

Harry Shearer, as the bassist and third wheel, has a wonderfully self-deluding personality where he convinces himself that they really are on their way back to being rock gods, despite the fact that they never were in the first place, and gigs are being canceled underneath them left and right. And, it's hard not to laugh at a guy who hides a cucumber down his pants. (Although why that would set off the metal detector in the famous airport scene mystifies me.)

I feel like I'm being too down on this movie. I quite enjoyed long stretches of it, and it's somewhat amazing to sit there and think that this idea of making an uber-serious documentary about ridiculous or patently fictitious subjects hadn't been tried before. It's just that when you look back at it over a few decades, you realize that the mockumentary hadn't yet been perfected, merely created.

3 stars out of four

Monday, April 20, 2009

New this week: "Earth" and "The Soloist"

The new reviews this week will be "Earth," a documentary following several families of animals, and "The Soloist," a drama starring Robert Downey Jr. as a journalist writing about and befriending a gifted musician (Jamie Foxx) who has become homeless and mentally lost.

The DVD review will be "Notorious," the biopic of iconic rapper Biggie Smalls.

Over at The Film Yap, this week's podcast will touch on "The Soloist," "State of Play," "Marley and Me" and other movies about newspapermen.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

For my Jean

I hope you'll indulge me on a personal note.

One year ago today, Jean Gileno became my bride. It has been without question the best 365 days of my life, and I eagerly look forward to 15,000 or so more days together.

We've been through a lot since we've been a couple. There have been health scares with both of our parents, the loss of Jean's beloved grandmother, and each of us has lost their job. I've tried to remain upbeat during my current unemployment, although I admit it's hard for me. I've held a job of one sort or another since I was mowing lawns at age 10. Whenever my mood begins to falter, Jean is there to buck me up and tell me how wonderful I am. (In addition to her many other lovely qualities, she's a terrific liar.)

I can't believe a whole year has flown by already. I love you, Jean, and I'm so lucky to have you that sometimes I watch your head resting on your pillow while you're asleep, and have to remind myself that I'm not in a dream; you really are mine.

And I shall always be yours. Thank you for marrying me.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Catching up with "State of Play"

They did not screen "State of Play" here in Indianapolis, which I confess is mightily irksome to myself and the other local critics. One has to fight the urge to let one's opinion of a movie sour when those behind it don't think enough of their own film to let the critics see it beforehand.

That's especially true of movies about journalists. There's a long and mostly noble history of films about newsmen and newswomen, from "His Girl Friday" up to "All the President's Men," which is generally agreed to be the most accurate depiction of journalists. So the idea that they're reluctant to show a flick about journalists to journalists leaves a bitter taste.

"State of Play" slides confidently into the second tier of newspaper movies. It's a good, solid engrossing portrait of a scruffy reporter (Russell Crowe) digging into a sex scandal story surrounding an old friend of his, a young congressman played by Ben Affleck. It's directed by Kevin McDonald, who broke out a couple years back with "The Last King of Scotland."

What I liked most about it was the authenticity of the newsroom, the studied nonchalance of grizzled journalists, the ball-busting of the editor (played by Helen Mirren), who has to balance the desire to land the big scoop with the new faceless corporate owners who have taken over and value profits over quality.

Crowe has a relationship with a young blogger (played by Rachel McAdams) that is hostile at first, but slowly becomes more nurturing as she demonstrates she's got chops. At one point he complains to his boss, "I've been here 15 years and I've got a 16-year-old computer, and she's been here 15 minutes and has enough gear to launch a Russian satellite." I've heard very similar lines in newsrooms, where grousing is raised to an art form. Astonishingly, I learn from an article by a Washington Post reporter who served as a consultant on the movie that Russell Crowe ad-libbed that line himself.

The Ben Affleck character is leading an investigation of private military contractor that's gaining more and more control of the security job in Iraq, Afghanistan and at home, so the reporter is convinced he's being set up. But as he keeps digging, the story keeps showing more and more angles, and more and more people keep dying.

At some point the movie kind of gets lost in its own vortex of energy, with confrontational scenes with an expanding array of supporting characters (Jason Bateman has a brief but effective turn as a soulless but very human PR flack caught in the middle.) It becomes less about journalism and merely a potboiler. I also found it unlikely that both Crowe and McAdams get shot at in separate instances.

Still, it's never a dull moment, and gives viewers a little taste of the life of a newspaper journalist in 2009.

3 stars out of four

New podcast now up at The Film Yap

We got a little behind this week, but this week's podcast is now up at The Film Yap!

Touching on the release of "17 Again," we launch into a chat about the ever-popular body-switcheroo genre, from the original "Parent Trap" up to "13 Going on 30."

Friday, April 17, 2009

Studios cut advertising in newspapers

In a development as depressing as it is unsurprising, movie studios are increasing eschewing print advertising in newspapers for their new movies.

The LA Times has a piece about the trend here.

You can see the effect locally. In looking at the movie listings in today's Go! section in the Star, I noticed that the AMC theater chain does not have any ad. For awhile they were running a shortened ad that didn't list the individual theaters and showtimes, but simply directed you to their web site for a schedule. Now it's missing completely.

Susan Boyle ain't got the blues...

...but she does sing them.

Obviously, the Scot sensation is feeling pretty happy these days after becoming an overnight star on "Britain's Got Talent." Her version of "I Dreamed a Dream" has wowed millions all over the world.

Now it turns out she did once make a record -- 10 years ago, for a church charity CD. Only 1,000 copies were ever made.

I confess I'd worried that she might only be good at that one song -- something she'd sung to herself so many times, she'd gotten really good at it. If she tried other songs from other genres, I worried she might fall flat.


Check out her version of "Cry Me a River." Just as flawless, passionate and nuanced as the Les Miserables tune.

Review: "17 Again"

Yes, "17 Again" is, by some counts, the 5,765th body-switcheroo flick. And no, it doesn't make us want to see the 5,766th.

And yet it's not terrible. In an unfortunately resilient genre that's produced exactly one genuinely terrific picture (that would be "Big") a whole lot of dreck, though, it passes as a reasonably entertaining bit of candy. Even if it never quite rises to the level of being more than a disposable distraction, at least it manages to never become tedious.

One thing I liked about the movie was that it is self-aware. It does not try to fool us with plausible arguments for why a guy nearing 40 would suddenly be transformed back into his 17-year-old self, or skirt around the obvious implications of doing so.

For example, when Mike O'Donnell first meets his estranged wife, Scarlett, again after losing 20 years (only he has aged backward; everyone else has stayed the same) she immediately remarks how much he looks like her husband in high school. And Scarlett can't explain why she's so attracted to her son's new best friend, even after getting the necessary cougar jokes out of the way.

And when Mike goes to his nerdly friend, Ned, to find out how this could have happened, they consult a host of books, comics and videos to see what other fictional versions of his experience have to say. "It's your basic transformation story," Ned ponders. "Were you by any chance struck by a gamma ray?"

Mike is played by Zac Efron as a youngster and Matthew Perry as the elder. The two actors bear little physical resemblance to each other, and there doesn't seem to have been much of an effort to match the performances, either. Perry's still doing his ironic wiseguy routine from "Friends," and Ephron is still the blandly nice heartthrob from "High School Musical."

With the help of Ned (Thomas Lennon), who got rich off the downloadable music thing, Mike figures he's been given a second shot to re-live a life gone awry. He blew off a college basketball scholarship to marry his pregnant girlfriend, and has become a stepped-upon dweeb who blames his wife and alienates his kids.

So he spends his days befriending his son, Alex (Sterling Knight), coaxing him out of his shell to try out for the basketball team and ask out that cute cheerleader. There's also a bully to be put in his place, who also happens to be the boyfriend of daughter Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg), who's been admitted to Georgetown but is looking to throw it all away to be with the loser.

Scarlett is played by Leslie Mann, who's been a standout in supporting roles in movies like "Knocked Up." She brings an earnest, believable quality to the role -- which helps when you're talking about a woman approaching middle age who gets the hots for a teen-ager.
"17 Again" is an old familiar story that didn't need to be told again. But at least it doesn't feel like we're wasting our time. That's good, because there are no body switcheroos waiting to give it back to us.

2.5 stars

Thursday, April 16, 2009

An open letter to my former Indy Star colleagues

I'd planned to remain silent on this issue, since it's doubtful speaking out will affect the situation, and probably only serve to alienate me from colleagues I still hold dear.

But if you've read the Indianapolis Newspaper Guild's post about the new contract you'll soon be voting upon, you'll know why I couldn't hold my cyber-tongue.

I am disappointed in the company's proposal, as I'm sure all of you are, as it includes pay cuts and a general weakening of the guild's influence. But, frankly, I'm also disappointed in the guild leadership for not better highlighting what I think is a critical aspect of the proposal.

Only at the very bottom of the long post do we learn that approving the contract would mean dropping the arbitration for employees who were let go in violation of the seniority clause back in December. In essence, the company is demanding that the guild abdicate its rights under the old contract in order to sign a new one.

Before you ask, yes, I am one of the seven people being represented by the guild in the arbitration process. We have already met with national guild representatives, and are scheduled to testify at the arbitration hearing in July. We have been told that our case is very strong. But if you approve this new contract, our case goes away.

Now, I could argue this from a selfish perspective and try to shame you into not cutting the seven of us loose in order to gain some stability for the remaining newsroom employees. Instead, let me tell why I think this clause is bad for you:

  1. Legally, there is no way the company could force the guild to drop ongoing arbitration proceedings. It's only because it happens to be a contract year that they're able to insist upon this. In legal terms, it's called ex post facto -- trying to retroactively change something you don't like using lawyerly maneuvering. Understand: The company cannot make the arbitration hearings go away. Only the guild can, by agreeing to do so.
  2. If the company succeeds in using negotiating tactics to make the union give up rights it had already agreed to, what's to stop them from doing it again? You're looking at this new contract that seems to guarantee no more furloughs or layoffs, and that seems pretty good right now. But I subscribe to the old, "Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me" axiom. The company already broke the seniority rules it had agreed to in the last contract, and now is asking you to validate that act.
  3. This is a rather brazen attempt to pit employee vs. employee, or rather current employee vs. former employee. I don't know about you, but I don't care for that sort of tactic.
  4. Dropping the arbitration drives a wedge between the guild and its membership. It basically says, "Sure, the union negotiates on our behalf, but no one believes they have the power to enforce it." The guild contract is not just an agreement between a union and the company; it's also a binding pact between the union and its members. If a union is muscled into giving up on rights it had already won, how can its members have faith in it to bargain for their future?
Now, I want to say that I don't blame the guild leaders for this bad contract offer; given the fiscal climate, it's probably the best they could get. And I've been told that they offered to endorse the contract in exchange for removing the arbitration clause, and were refused, which is why this contract is being put to a vote without any endorsement or recommendation from the union officers. I have also been assured that at least some of the leaders themselves are planning to vote against it.

There will be informational meetings coming up before the contract vote, and I hope you'll attend one. I plan to be there as well, if they'll let me, to further explain why I think dropping the arbitration is not only bad for the December Seven, but for all of us.

DVD review: "The Reader"

Judging by box office receipts, "The Reader" was the Best Picture Oscar nominee that most people missed.

They'll get a chance to make amends when one of the best films of 2008 hits video this week. The erotic drama, which won Kate Winslet her first golden statue, is the tale of a 15-year-old German boy, Michael, who has an affair with Hanna, a woman two decades older during the late 1950s. Years later, he learns a terrible secret about her past that he chooses not to reveal, an act of omission that has a devastating impact on both their lives.

Directed by Stephen Daldry from a screenplay by David Hare (the same team behind "The Hours"), "The Reader" isn't a typical Holocaust movie. Rather, it explores how people live in the shadow of tragedy, and how guilt can be passed down from generation to generation.

There's no commentary track with the DVD, although the views of Daldry, Hare, Winslet and co-stars Ralph Fiennes and David Kross are well-represented in a healthy set of extra features.

There's a making-of documentary in which all of them speak at length, and an interview between Daldry and Kross (in which the 18-year-old actor expresses worry about his grandparents seeing him appear fully nude in the film). A look at how Winslet was aged 30 years via makeup is unexpectedly entertaining, including a bit where she goofs around with a fake breast. Also included are short looks at composer Nico Mulhy and production designer Brigitte Broch.

Finally, there's a substantial collection of 11 deleted scenes. Unlike most such excised material, which tends to be short and inconsequential, the extras include both longer versions of existing scenes and entirely new ones. All told, it represents more than 42 minutes worth of material never seen before. These include a clandestine visit by Hanna to Michael's house, an encounter with a truck driver with a past, and a much longer sequence of young Michael reading books to her, where their roles of tutor and pupil are reversed.

Movie: 4 stars
Extras: 3 stars

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Shane"

"Subtext" is a word I heard tossed around a lot at the New York University Cinema Studies department. To put it simply, it refers to the message that is hidden beneath the text. In a book, it's the things that are implied without ever being overtly stated. For movies, subtext means that which is never said aloud, but is given voice by subtle and often non-verbal cues.

"Shane" is a film that's positively loaded with subtext.

On its surface, it seems like a very simplistic tale: An ex-gunfighter comes to an untamed town in the Old West and inserts himself into the battle between ranchers and farmers. In fact, it's often pointed to as one of the most family-friendly Westerns, and its early appeal was primarily young audiences. This is bolstered by the presence of Joey, played by Brandon De Wilde, a young boy who idolizes Shane and serves as the eyes through which the audience views him.

(Funny aside: My dad likes to tell the story of his college friend Bill Goldman running around yelling, "Shane! Shane!" as Joey iconically does at the end of the film. They thought it was a hoot. Bill would go on to win two Oscars as a screenwriter.)

Since the film has become such a classic, it's difficult to think now of what a risky move it was for director George Stevens ("Giant") and star Alan Ladd to make Shane as remote as he is. In the course of the two-hour film, we don't learn a single concrete fact about who Shane is, what is in his past, or why he does what he does. He is the ultimate ronin, a warrior without a home or creed.

But oh, that subtext speaks volumes.

With his mournful eyes and the reticent way he takes on the toughs of the head rancher, Ryker, it's clear that Shane is trying to make a change in his life. If I were to guess, I'd say that Shane had once been someone who reveled in his status as a gunslinger -- look at the showiness of the fringe-lined outfit he first shows up in -- and did something so terrible, it made him ashamed of who he'd become. Did he kill a woman or child? Gun down his own brother? Whatever it was, the stain of its guilt colors Shane's every expression.

In another place and time, Shane might very well have been Jack Wilson, the hired gun Ryker brings in to oust the farmers, who are led by Joe's father, Joe Starrett (Van Heflin). Played by Jack Palance in one of his most iconic roles, Wilson is a chilling construction of pure terror who hardly ever speaks. He's simply a professional who's very good at what he does, and enjoys doing it, and that just happens to be killing. With a face so rawboned it looks like his skull is trying to pry its way past the flesh of his face, Wilson is a grinning death's head, a mocking counterpoint to Shane himself.

Then there's the barely-hinted at romance between Shane and Starrett's wife Marian, played by Jean Arthur. It's so subtle that both Joe and son Joey catch no glimpse of it. This being a 1953 film, there's no overt depiction of adultery. Ironically, it's the villain Ryker who quickly surmises that Marian is the real reason Shane sticks around. Watch the early scenes, and see how indifferent Shane is to Joe Starrett's plight before he meets Marian. Just before Shane leaves for the big final gunfight, Marian asks him if she's doing it for her sake -- the movie's only, and fleeting, acknowledgement of the connection.

Perhaps because so much goes unsaid in "Shane," it's one of those movies that does not diminish with time but seems to gather more resonance with repeated viewings. This was probably the fourth or fifth time I'd seen it, and frankly I can't wait for the next time.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Susan Boyle takes England "Idol" by storm

I LOVE this:

I haven't paid attention to "American Idol" since the first or second season. It seemed like a very cynical affair to me, an overhyped, over-promoted opportunity for commercial tie-ins and product placement. Oh, and some singing. Nevermind that, with the exception of Kelly Clarkson, none of them have ever put out an album actually worth listening to.

What's wonderful about Susan Boyle's debut on the Brit version of the show is how everyone -- everyone -- writes her off. She's old, she's frumpy, she's got a cheeky sense of humor, and eyebrows like a runaway caterpillar. Everyone in the audience, all the judges on the panel, all the hosts and crew saw her as a chance to score some cheap laughs. Scroll ahead to the 1:20 minute mark and catch the reaction of the young woman rolling her eyes. Everyone was ready to laugh at Susan and then forget about her.

Except for one little thing:


Not kinda/sorta sing. Not parlor-room good. Really effing good!

This is what these types of reality shows should be all about: Actually taking nobodies and giving them their shot. If "American Idol" were actually like this, I would watch it religiously.

Reeling Backward: "The Bad and the Beautiful"

Have you ever noticed that movies about making movies are usually outstanding?

Yes, it's true that it is self-indulgent for millionaire movie stars, directors, screenwriters and other filmmakers to spend their time pointing the camera at themselves, so to speak. And they've done it a lot -- almost since the birth of cinema, movies about movies have been commonplace, like Buster Keaton's "Sherlock Jr.," in which a projectionist gets stuck in the movies he's showing.

I'd knock them for their narcissism, except for one thing: These flicks are usually just so darn good.

"Singin' In the Rain." "The Player." "Get Shorty." "Wag the Dog." "Adaptation." "Swimming with Sharks." "The Aviator." "Barton Fink." "Shadow of the Vampire." "Cinema Paradiso." "8-1/2." "Sunset Boulevard." Those are just a few of the great movies made about the craft or business of motion pictures.

I'd long heard that "The Bad and the Beautiful" was a worthy addition to that list, and after catching it recently I'm happy to report it's true.

This 1952 film stars Kirk Douglas as Johnathan Shields, an all-powerful movie mogul who manages to estrange nearly every person who's ever worked with him. Lana Turner, who plays a lush actress Shields turns into a superstar, actually got top billing over Douglas since Turner was at the height of her fame, and he was still relatively early in his film career, despite being 36 years old at the time.

The story plays in flashback as Shields' right-hand man has assembled the greatest actress, director and writer he ever worked with, and begs them to give him one more shot. He's exiled in Paris and hasn't made a picture in two years, mainly because he's alienated half of Hollywood, and gets them together in a room so he can (via telephone) make his one last pitch.

The stories tells how Shields done each of them wrong. There's his early film career with a film director. They spend their days making third-rate B pictures on a shoestring budget. When the director convinces Shields to take a shot at a real movie that's he's written the screenplay for, he double-crosses him and goes with another director after the studio chief greenlights the project. It launches his career, but ends their friendship.

He and the Lana Turner character are lovers, of course, although it's something of a teacher/pupil relationship at first that slowly blossoms into love. She's the daughter of a great film actor, now deceased, and believes all she's inherited from him is his love of the bottle. Shields convinces her otherwise, casts her in a huge make-or-break starring role, and then treats her like garbage just when her star is born.

I found the third sequence the least compelling of the three, as Shields befriends a professor who's written a popular novel and convinces him to move to Hollywood and become a screenwriter. Perhaps it's just the character, played by Dick Powell, who's very cut off from others and too unwilling to give of himself. I guess the movie did too good a job of making him seem like an actual writer.

"The Bad and the Beautiful" was directed by Vincente Minnelli, a top Hollywood genre director whose other credits include "Gigli," "Lust for Life" (also with Douglas), "Father of the Bride" and "An American in Paris." He shows his usual deft hand, turning up the melodrama and sexual energy as the situation allows.

A couple of random observations: I noticed how the Shields character often took off his shoes in an office setting -- something pretty unorthodox at the time. I wonder if it's supposed to show his contempt for the people he works with, or just that he's a man who doesn't abide by societal rules.

I also saw that the Latin Lover actor character, Goucho, was played by Gilbert Roland. His final film role was as the revengeful Don in "Barbarosa," the excellent 1982 Western starring Willie Nelson. Yes, Willie Nelson. Go rent it if you haven't seen it; it's wonderful.

Monday, April 13, 2009

New this week: "17 Again" and DVD review of "The Reader"

Any critic who is afraid of holding an opinion that is outside of the mainstream, especially within the small circle of society that film critics comprise, isn't worth reading.

I had the pleasure a couple of months of ago in sitting in with Matthew Socey on his show "Film Soceyology" along with Lou Harry of Indianapolis Business Journal as we discussed the Oscars. They are two great guys whose opinion I respect enormously. And they both hated "The Reader."

Not just hated it, but were actually cracking jokes about it. So I had to be the guy who stood up (symbolically speaking -- we were all sitting) and say not only did I like the movie, I loved it, and in fact put it #3 on my Top 10 List for 2008.

Did I get some knocks for it from my colleagues? You bet, but that's what being secure in your own opinion is all about. Any one who would change or shade their opinion to elicit the approval of their peers -- well, I don't even have a name for what that is.

I'll be reviewing the DVD release of "The Reader" this week, so we'll see if the video package measures up to the flick.

The new movie of the week to be reviewed is "17 Again" starring Zac Efron in a comedy about an old person becoming young again.

Incidentally, I really wanted to review "State of Play," starring Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck, since I like to see how movies portray journalists. But they're not screening it here, in another sign of how sorry the state of affairs is for Indiana-based critics.

Friday, April 10, 2009

New podcast up at The Yap

Our new podcast this week is about movies set in a mall, whether partially like "Blues Brothers," or totally like the new "Observe and Report."

This was our first remote podcast. So check it out!

Review: "Observe and Report"

"Observe and Report" starts out on a promising note, with a few scenes genuinely worth a guffaw or three, and for a time I'd hoped that the incubating genre of mall-cop comedies was taking a leap forward after "Paul Blart: Mall Cop."

But then the Seth Rogen character goes on an extended depression bender where he starts threatening people, smashing store displays and getting into bloody fisticuffs with real police officers. There's a scene where he gets perp-walked out of his own mall, face battered to a bloody pulp as he glares at the television cameras, where I thought the filmmakers had actually experienced a psychotic break during production.

It's not just that the movie forgets to be a funny for a while; it seems to revel in its bleak and dreary phase. If it's possible for a film to go off its meds, this one did.

Here you are expecting a dippy comedy, and then it decides to go all "Taxi Driver" on you.

Fortunately, "Observe" gathers itself together for an outrageously funny ending that makes the towel-dropping in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" look pretty tame.

Is it worth paying for a flick that's funny two-thirds of the time, and nearly unwatchable the rest? It depends on your pain threshold. For my money, that's an awful lot of sour to swallow with the sweet.

The set-up is similar to "Paul Blart": Rogen plays Ronnie, the chief mall cop who takes his job way, way too seriously. Ronnie wants to outfit mall security with automatic weapons, and publicly threatens to "effing murder" the flasher who keeps exposing himself to women.

It's not just that Ronnie has delusions of grandeur; even his delusions are pretty screwy. He wants to help people, but only if it involves killing. He seems to envision himself as a cross between Shane and the Columbine nutcases.

Ronnie is sweet on the bleach-blonde girl at the makeup counter (Anna Faris) because he's too dimwitted to see what a skeeze she is. Meanwhile, the coffee girl (Collette Wolfe) with a bum leg and inner sunshine would clearly like to offer him more than a free cup o' joe.

Some of the best scenes deal with Ronnie's leadership of the security crew, which consists of a lisping lieutenant (Michael Peña), a pair of Asian-American twins and a trainee. When the trainee complains that their meetings are conducted off the clock, Ronnie berates him with equal measures of passion and cluelessness: "How much did they get paid to storm Normandy? How much did King Arthur get paid to kill Merlin?"

Rogen has great dim-bulb charm, like an oversized puppy that destroys stuff and slobbers in your shoes, but you forgive him when he looks at you that certain way. But even Rogen can't save the movie during its scary phase.

"Observe and Report" was written and directed by Jody Hill, who did a little kung fu comedy called "The Foot Fist Way" starring Danny McBride that charmed a lot of showbiz comedy heavyweights. (McBride makes a very short but very funny cameo here.) Hill seems to have solid comedy instincts, so I'd love to see if he can make a movie that's funny all the way through, without going completely off the rails, like this one did.

2 stars

Thursday, April 9, 2009

DVD review: "The Day the Earth Stood Still"

When it comes to remakes of science-fiction classics, Steven Spielberg proved with "The War of the Worlds" that you can revisit a cherished film and update it with cutting-edge special effects, big movie stars and contemporary themes. But "The Day the Earth Stood Still" showed how hard it is to pull off successfully.

This murky, muddled remake manages to broadcast a timorous environmental message while laying on the upscale pyrotechnics. (I think the mantra for blockbusters is "When in doubt, blow something up.") Keanu Reeves stars as Klaatu, a hitman from outer space who's come to pull the plug on the human race because of how badly we've messed up the Earth. Jennifer Connelly plays a scientist trying to convince him to spare us, and arrives with an extraneous foster child (Jaden Smith) in tow. (I think the second blockbuster mantra is, "If you've blown stuff up and are still in doubt, throw in a cute kid for no good reason.")

The DVD comes with a nice mix of extras, which help explain how this movie went awry. In the making-of doc, director Scott Derrickson seems more a chaperone of an expensive brand than a visionary. Screenwriter David Scarpa introduced a few nice twists, like turning the original's flying saucers into mysterious balls of swirling energy based on a concept by physicist Freeman Dyson. Both men are fairly upfront about the fact that the project changed dramatically when the studio decided to bring in Reeves as the main character.

Scarpa also provides a solo commentary track which is interesting, but he often falls silent for several minutes at a time, demonstrating that it's best to have two or more people to bounce off each other.

There's also a separate doc on how the filmmakers went far afield in their concept of Klaatu's robot protector, Gort, before going with a more conservative design that matched the iconic figure of the original film. There's also an interesting look at how real scientists search for signs of alien life, three deleted scenes, still galleries and theatrical trailer.

Movie: 1.5 stars
Extras: 3 stars

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Bonus DVD review: "Let the Right One In"

This Swedish vampire film came out a little bit before "Twilight," and received glowing reviews in many circles. I finally caught up with it, and although I enjoyed seeing it I didn't think it was any great shakes.

In fact, what struck me about it is that its problems mirror those of "Twilight." Both deal with a troubled youngster who encounters a vampire their own age (or apparently so), and becomes emotionally attached to it. OK, they fall in love with the vampire.

In both cases, though, the vampire is the interesting character and the bedazzled human is kind of a drag. In "Twilight," Kristen Stewart's glum Bella doesn't really have much to do, other than sit around and mope and wait for Edward to show up and do something cool.

It's much the same with Oskar, a 12-year-old loner who is the target of some bullies. It's only after he meets Eli, the new girl who moved in next door but never goes to school, that he becomes remotely interesting -- and then only in relation to her.

Eli walks around barefoot in the snow and often wears tattered clothing and forgets to bathe. Despite this, she and Oskar become friends, and then the boy wants something more. There's a disturbing nature to their relationship; although it doesn't become overtly sexual, Oskar wants a girlfriend because of the improvement in status in would buy him. Just because she drinks blood and smells bad doesn't seem to bother him.

Eli arrives with a man who takes care of her, finding victims to kill and drain their blood for her to sustain herself. He's getting old, though, and has a couple of close calls where he's nearly caught and fails to bring back the food. So Eli starts hunting among the crew of alcoholic stiffs occupying the dreary apartment complex where she and Oskar both live.

The extras are pretty sparse, the notable component being a making-of documentary that focuses more on the filmmaking process than the inspiration behind it.

"Let the Right One In" is a decent entree addition to the cinematic vampire menu, what with its international pedigree and focus on children. But like "Twilight," it struggles to find a way to make the unlikely romance between human and nosferatu a compelling one.

Movie: B-minus
Extras: C-minus

Reeling Backward: "Carnal Knowledge"

I actually watch more old movies than I write about. In the past week I've also seen "The China Syndrome" and "This is Spinal Tap." But if I don't react particularly strongly to a movie, or don't feel like I have anything particularly pertinent to say about it, then I don't pick it for a Reeling Backward feature.

It's not necessarily a matter of good or bad. I did not particularly care for "Carnal Knowledge," but I found it interesting. It seems to me to be a fairly self-conscious attempt by American filmmakers and actors to make a European-style erotic movie. This was 1971, and filmmakers were just beginning to test the limits of the new MPAA ratings system, and porn films had not yet entered the popular mainstream.

Time works wonders. It's amazing to think that this movie was highly controversial in its day. In terms of nudity and overt depictions of sexuality, I think "Carnal" would get a PG-13 rating if it were released today. The language is another thing, as two pals (Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel) deal with sexual issues from college through early mid-life. So they talk a great deal about women's various assets, in terms ranging from giggly to venal.

I think director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Jules Feiffer were trying to make a grand statement about the immaturity of men, or at least men of their generation who came of age in the late 1940s and early '50s, too young to fight in the big war. In that sense, it grows less and less resonant as the two characters age.

It's perfectly normal for 18-year-old freshmen to think about women in such terms, as essentially a collection of boobs and legs and other body parts waiting to be graded and scored upon. But for men to remain stuck in that mode into their 20s, 30s and beyond isn't an indictment of either a gender or a generation, but simply two headcases who never mature.

The early section really sings, especially with Candice Bergen as a girl who unwittingly ends up stringing both men along. Bergen strikes sparks in every scene she's in, with her bundle of desire, ambition and reticence. She marries the Garfunkel character, but somehow gets lost in one of the time shifts. We assume they divorced, but Nichols never lets us see a glimmer of its decay. The effect is to take an interesting, vibrant character and kick her to the curb.

The later stages grow more and more dirge-like, as the two men grow more and more remote to each other, and the audience. In the end, Garfunkel is dating an teenage flower girl he's convinced is his sexual mentor, and Nicholson has become an aging misogynist who hires a prostitute to berate the ball-busting nature of womankind in a ritualistic attempt for him to get it up. We don't know these men, and we don't even care enough about them to despise them.

"Carnal Knowledge" isn't very titillating, and it certainly doesn't reveal any great truths about men, or women, or sex, or much of anything other than how not to make an erotic film.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Reeling Backward: "The Dawn Patrol"

I had never seen an Erroll Flynn movie before.

I know, I know. It seems astonishing even to me that a film fanatic of my degree had never encountered a picture by perhaps the biggest cinema star of the first half of the 20th century. Known mostly for action films, he also did plenty of romance and drama. During the 1930s and '40s, he was basically Harrison Ford and Tom Hanks rolled into one.

And to boot, I'm an amateur buff on World War I aviation. So it makes sense perhaps that my first Flynn flick was not "Captain Blood" or "The Adventures of Robin Hood" but "The Dawn Patrol," the 1938 movie where he and David Niven play hard-drinking British pilots who carouse and sing by night, and watch their squadron decimated by day.

On a side note, this film was a remake of another movie just eight years earlier, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the David Niven role. Back then, Hollywood honchos thought nothing of re-using scripts with different stars.

Anyway, "Dawn Patrol" is a solid flick, but two things especially struck me about it.

First, for a dogfighting movie, there's relatively little action in the sky. The big battle is your first real taste of airborne action, and it arrives about halfway through the movie. Then there's another bit of action near the end as Fairbanks sacrifices himself by going on the suicide mission assigned to Niven. But other than that, most of the movie takes place in the squadron bar, as the pilots get stupefied while waiting for fresh green recruits to replace the comrades they've lost each day. I can just imagine some kid in 1938 getting juiced up by the posters calling this the best air combat movie ever, and then feeling ripped off because there's only two scenes of actual fighting.

UPDATE: Bob Bloom, my colleague at the Journal & Courier in Lafayette, informs me that the flying scenes were actually all recycled from the earlier film. Now that's a way to cut down production costs!

(By the way, I believe they're flying Sopwith Camels in the movie, which are highly romanticized planes of the era but were actually rather underpowered machines, though quite maneuverable. The S.E.5 was a much superior craft.)

The other thing the movie impressed on me was its bleak view of war. One expects movies of that era to be full of derring-do and heroic yet unthinking characters. But a great deal of the movie has to do with the officers cursing their generals, and despising the futility of war even as they carry out their duties with carefree bon vivant attitudes. In several of the war movies of the 1930s-50s that I've encountered lately, so many of them contain a much more nuanced and pessimistic approach to war than I had expected.

The plot has a nice simple set-up: Flynn plays Captain Courtney, the top pilot, and Niven is Scottie, the lush who barely sobers up for his morning combat missions. They despise their squadron commander, played by Basil Rathbone, for accepting the overly dangerous assignments given to them by their superiors without complaint (so they think) and not giving any of the green recruits a chance to learn a few basic maneuvers before sending them up into the skies for slaughter. There's a haunting aspect to the recurring scenes of young pilots pulling up to the base in a car, singing with all their might, not realizing they're replacing men who just arrived full of song and brashness a few days earlier, and were blown out of the sky.

Anyway, Scott and Courtney, sickened by the taunts of the local German ace, take off on a drunken unauthorized revenge flight in which they destroy the enemy base. Thinking their commander ordered the daring mission, the generals promote Rathbone, and Courtney becomes the squadron commander, sitting and fretting as he waits back at base, counting the diminishing number of planes that return from each mission. He and Scott become estranged when Scott's younger brother shows up as the greenest of recruits, and soon perishes.

Flynn is suitably dashing in the film, though there's a certain impenetrability to his countenance that I found puzzling. Nowadays we would consider this under-acting, but I think in Flynn's day audiences preferred their heroes a little more reserved.

Looks like I'll have to seek out some more Errol Flynn movies to compare.