Sunday, May 31, 2009

What you get when you cross web promotion with video games

So we've got the nifty Film Yap logo that has been tweaked the way we want it. So how do we get it out there? Beyond the usual routes, I figured out how to upload the logo into "Left 4 Dead," a very popular zombie-killing game that's hot right now.

Your characters can spray-paint various images onto surfaces, and there's an option for you to upload your own file. How does the Yap logo look?

Coming this week: "The Hangover" and much more

A very busy week in the captain's chair. I'll have reviews of "The Hangover," "My Life in Ruins," "Tyson" and probably "Land of the Lost," though the latter won't be up until Friday afternoon.

The DVD review will be "Defiance," starring Daniel Craig. A lot of people didn't catch this World War II drama when it came out last winter, and they were missing a solid war flick.

And don't forget on Friday, I'll be guest-hosting the "Film Soceyology" show on WFYI 90.1 HD2. Joe Shearer from The Film Yap will be joining me.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Friday, May 29, 2009

Catch the Captain on WFYI next Friday!

Good news: I'll be guest hosting Matthew Socey's "Film Soceyology" show on WFYI 90.1 HD2 next Friday (June 5) from 5-6 p.m. I've had the pleasure of appearing on the show before, and Matthew graciously tapped me to sub for him while he's vacationing.

Thanks, Matthew! I'll be the Joan Rivers to your Johnny Carson anytime!

Joining me will be my partner-in-crime over at The Film Yap, Joe Shearer. Join us as we review new movies, including "Land of the Lost," "The Hangover," "My Life in Ruins" and "Tyson." We've got a whole hour to be as expansive as we'd like, and we look forward to your calls and e-mails.

If you don't have satellite radio, you can listen live here.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Reeling Backward: "On the Town"

I have to say I was rather disappointed with "On the Town." It's one of the Golden Age musicals I hadn't seen before, and the image of Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin strutting through New York in their white sailor uniforms, singing and dancing, is one of the most enduring cinematic icons.

But for me, musicals rise and fall with the strength of the music, and to my ear the songs in "On the Town" just aren't particularly memorable.

Other than the opening number of "New York, New York," there isn't a tune that you would walk out of the theater humming. Compare that to the other great Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen musical, "Singin' in the Rain" -- the title track, "Make 'Em Laugh," "All I Do Is Dream of You," "Beautiful Girl," "You Are My Lucky Star," "Moses," "Good Morning" and many others stick with you for days afterward.

With a little research, I learn that co-directors Kelly and Donen scrapped most of the Leonard Bernstein songs from the 1944 Broadway hit for their 1949 film version, replacing them with other songs written by Roger Edens. This was a fatally mistaken decision.

It's still an engaging and entertaining romp. The film's saving grace is the wonderful cast, the bright colors and Big Apple scenes. I especially liked the strong female cast, who are forceful counterpoints to the three sailors, and fairly progressive images of decisive, independent women for 1949.

Betty Garrett plays Hildy, a cab driver who chauffeurs the boys around town and takes an immediate shine to Chip (Sinatra), who seems to be more interested in visiting tourist traps than wooing girls. But Hildy is persistent, pressing him to "Come Up to My Place" (one of the few other songs that made the translation from stage to screen).

Ann Miller plays Claire, a glamorous egghead who's sworn off men in favor of study time at the museum. She falls for Ozzie (Munshin) because of his resemblance to a model of prehistoric man.

Vera-Ellen plays Ivy Smith, a song-and-dance girl whose picture is plastered all over the New York subway as June's "Miss Turnstiles." The naive Gabey (Kelly) mistakenly thinks she's a big celebrity, instead of a working girl struggling to make ends meet. He pursues her all over the city in search of his romantic ideal.

As weak as I feel the songs are, the performers are all accomplished vocalists. But what really stands out is the dancing. Kelly, of course, was perhaps the greatest movie dancer of his era, or any. So different from the Fred Astaire make-it-look-effortless mode, Kelly's dancing was athletic and daring, combining classic vaudeville tap with modern dance, even ballet moves.

The other actors keep up the best they can, but the dancing really takes off during Gabey's dream sequence where he imagines he and his two Navy buddies performing on Broadway with their girls, except the other two couples are replaced by professional dancers. Kelly does things that defy gravity and several other laws of physics.

I still liked "On the Town," but in my book it doesn't belong on the exclusive roster of all-time great musicals. They should've kept the Bernstein numbers.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Review: "Up"

"Up" doesn't soar to the same heights as "Finding Nemo" or "Wall·E," but it's another triumph from Pixar Animation -- and another cartoon that will likely be appreciated more by adults than their offspring.

When I first saw previews for "Up," it looked like a short film about a crotchety old man who takes his house to the skies via a cloud of helium balloons, with a tubby Boy Scout as stowaway.

A delightful concept, to be sure, but how could they sustain such a fanciful notion over more than 90 minutes?

The simple answer is, they don't. Or rather, they don't try to.

The oldster reaches his destination fairly early in the movie. It's the adventures he has after he's gotten where he thought he was going that constitute the story's real heart.

Carl Fredricksen's life has been something of a disappointment. In the enchanting opening sequence, he meets Ellie as boy and girl. They're both fans of Charles Muntz, the famous explorer who disappeared into the South American veldt. They vow to follow in his footsteps, and build their house at the foot of Paradise Falls, a primordial enclave.

But life has its curveballs to throw, and after they are grown and married, Ellie and Carl keep getting distracted, and quotidian disasters like blown tires and fallen trees deplete their adventure fund. Carl, old and tired, finally lays Ellie to rest, crossing his heart to keep his promise and travel to Paradise Falls, alone.

Or at least so he thought. It turns out that Russell (Jordan Nagai), a young Wilderness Explorer looking for his final merit badge, has tagged along, and gets caught up in the adventure. Russell has faced his own setbacks, such as a mostly absent father, but he's too full of boyish exuberance to be weighed down by it. They're kindred souls, 70 years apart.

Now, you can't really tie a million balloons to the base of a fireplace and float a house away, much less navigate it with clotheslines rigged with ropes. But it's easy to swallow this bit of illogic, since the house acts as a metaphor for lost dreams.

"Up" was directed by Pete Docter, who also helmed the wonderful "Monsters, Inc.," and was co-directed by Bob Peterson, who also shared script duties with Docter. Peterson also provides the engaging vocals of Dug, a dog who's been outfitted with a high-tech collar that translates his hyper thoughts into spoken words.

Ed Asner gives a terrific vocal performance as Carl. It's not easy to make a sour-pussed elderly man with a walker into a likable character, but Asner and the filmmakers do it. Perhaps it's because we get to see the hopeful, somewhat meek Carl before he became a widower, and understand how that loss subtracts from his soul.

Children will enjoy the high-flying action and host of goofy animals, but I suspect that like "Wall·E," "Up" is a film that will reverberate more deeply with those whose faces have some lines in them. Pixar has gone beyond making entertainment, and is using animation to create serious cinematic art. High hopes, indeed.

3.5 stars out of four

Reeling Backward: "Damn the Defiant!"

Boy, I just loved this film.

Forty years before "Master and Commander," "Damn the Defiant!" is a rousing sea adventure with wonderfully staged ship-to-ship battles, and an engrossing dramatic storyline.

Based on the novel "Mutiny" by author Frank Tilsley, the film was called "H.M.S. Defiant" in its native Britain and everywhere else, but given a livlier title for the U.S. release. It was directed by Lewis Gilbert, a little-known name who directed several James Bond flicks, the original "Alfie" and "Educating Rita."

The main conflict is between Captain Crawford, wonderfully played by Alec Guinness, and his first officer, Lt. Scott-Padget (Dirk Bogarde). Crawford is a seasoned naval officer who believes in being humane to his crew, but is not above the severe treatment common during British Navy at the tail end of the 18th century -- such as flogging, and pressing civilians into service against their will. As the story opens, the Defiant is about to leave port a few dozen men short of a full crew, so a press gang is sent out to the streets and taverns to literally beat candidates into submission.

Still, Crawford is the sort of captain who believes in inspiring rather than subjugating a crew.

Contrastingly, Scott-Padget is a brilliant young officer, but believes sparing the rod spoils a crew. He has connections in high places in London, and Crawford learns that he has had his last two captains "broken" -- i.e., their careers ruined. Crawford is determined not to let it happen again.

Unfortunately, the conniving lieutenant has a vulnerable point with which to exploit his captain -- Crawford's son, who is on his first voyage aboard the Defiant as a midshipmen. It's one of the more interesting aspects of this period of history, when young boys could serve aboard warships, and even command grown men into battle.

Scott-Padget begins a campaign of targeting young Crawford for punishment, having him beaten for minor infractions and even inventing ones, such as carving the boy's initials into a table himself and then blaming the lad for it. At one point the boy nearly collapses from pain while high up in the rigging -- likely a fatal fall. Captain Crawford, intent on not showing favoritism toward his son, seems helpless against Scott-Padget's bold ploy to grab the upper hand in their contest of wills.

Observing all this is the crew, who have a scheme of their own to mutiny at a critical juncture in the British Navy's war against Napoleon's France. A large number of crews have made plans to simultaneously grab control of their ships and present demands for better pay and treatment. This is based on an actual incident in 1797 called the Spithead Mutiny, in which 16 crews staged something more like a strike than a violent mutiny. No one was killed, and most of their demands for better treatment were met.

Anthony Quayle plays Vizard, the ringleader of the Defiant crew, who must vie to keep in check the more vengeful members of his group, who want to see the hated Scott-Padget hauled up on a yardarm. If any officers are harmed, it makes it much more unlikely that the mutiny will end peacefully.

Interestingly, the smarter crew members point out that the hard-driving lieutenant actually helps their cause by invoking such harsh punishments for minor offenses. It's harder to make a case for ill treatment if it were only the benevolent Captain Crawford running the show.

With its blend of exciting action, flawless period costumes and settings, and the tense psychological warfare between captain and first mate, "Damn the Defiant" is a thrilling and sobering sea drama. I'm glad I discovered it.

4 stars out of four

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

DVD review: "New in Town"

There's not much that's really new about this Renée Zellweger romcom, which appears to be stitched together from "Fargo," "Doc Hollywood," "Sweet Home Alabama" and a host of other flicks. But like a quilt made up of pieces scavenged from other hand-made blankets, "New in Town" is warm and comfy despite its frayed edges.

Zellweger plays a corporate climber from Miami who's sent to the tiny frozen Minnesota town of New Ulm to oversee a struggling dairy plant, with an eye to shutting it down. She butts heads with the growly foreman (J.K. Simmons), and is annoyed by the cloying secretary (Siobhan Fallon, in a real scene-stealing performance), who loves Jesus and tapioca -- not necessarily in that order. And there's a hunky local dude (Harry Connick Jr.) for her to hate, then fall for.

Eventually, the cold-hearted executive from the land of sunshine realizes that these small-town folks can warm her spirit, even if her toes are frostbitten from all the oppressive snow and ice outside. There are also some timely themes about regular folks worried about losing their jobs, as greedy corporations look upon their paychecks as line items waiting to be cut in favor of executive bonuses.

Extras are ample, if a bit crimped by the modest participation of the two main stars, Zellweger and Connick. The commentary track work is left to Simmons and Fallon, who are quite a hoot, as well as screenwriters Ken Rance and C. Jay Cox. Simmons reveals his disappointment that critics described him as wearing a fat suit for the part, when he actually gained 40 pounds for what he jokingly calls "my 'Raging Bull' role."

There are also a dozen deleted scenes -- including several with an unexplained subplot involving trolls -- a making-of doc that captures filming in Winnipeg in minus-56 degree weather, and amusing featurettes on tapioca and scrapbooking.

Movie: 3 stars
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, May 25, 2009

New on DVD for 5/26

Here's this weekly's roundup of new video releases, with handy links to purchase if you so desire.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Coming this week: "Up"

Another busy week. No rest for the wicked!

I'll have reviews of "Up," the new Pixar animated film about an old man who takes house for a flight. I'm excited and perplexed by this movie; it seems like a difficult topic to sustain for a feature-length film. But after "Wall-E," I've come to set aside my doubts about Pixar. Their worst movie was a three-and-a-half star flick.

The DVD review will be "New in Town," a romcom starring Renee Zellweger that died at the box office, but deserved better.

I'll have retrospective movie reviews of "Damn the Defiant!" and "On the Town."

Friday, May 22, 2009

Podcasts now on iTunes

You can now subscribe to the weekly podcast at The Film Yap through iTunes!

Download the podcast to your iPod or other portable device and listen in the car, at the gym or wherever you want to hear us yap about movies.

There are several ways to subscribe. You can simply put this url below into your browser, and if you have iTunes it will prompt you to open it. Follow the easy steps to subscribe.

From the iTunes store, you will be able in a day or so to search for "filmyap" and have it come up. It wasn't there the last I checked, but should be searchable soon.

Or, if you want to download the podcasts directly, you can find them at:

We should have the last half-dozen or so podcasts up now.

New podcast up at The Film Yap

This week's podcast is about "Terminator Salvation" and other movie franchises that carry on without their original star or filmmakers.

We are very pleased to have the first guest on our podcast, Ed Johnson-Ott of NUVO!

Review: "Sugar"

I like baseball movies more than I do baseball itself.

Give me "The Rookie," "Eight Men Out" or "The Natural" and a bag of crackerjack, and I'll happily burrow into a seat and watch all day. But the idea of sitting through a double-header strikes me as a form of punishment.

Baseball progresses at a snail's pace, with infrequent bursts of action, and has so many rules and so much arcana that the game seems meant for study rather than play. It's telling that to diamond purists, a perfect game is one in which nothing happens (i.e., no hits or walks).

The only time I've been able to get interested in baseball is when there's some compelling human story driving the (in)action -- the home run race of Sosa and McGuire, the subsequent steroid scandals, the unlikely rookie who makes it to the big leagues despite missing an arm or having severe diabetes.

Miguel Santos is one such story, and that's what makes "Sugar" an engrossing, if bittersweet addition to baseball's cinematic canon.

Miguel -- called "Sugar" for his sweet tooth -- comes from the Dominican Republic, where he's the next hot thing in the farm system of the fictional Kansas City Knights. But "Sugar" is not the tale of the next Pedro Martinez, a hotshot who makes it big and struggles with newfound fame.

Rather, "Sugar" is the sobering story of Miguel and thousands of guys like him, who bet all their chips on baseball, dropping out of school to hone their skills at the island's many baseball factories. Failing to make it to the show means having no safety net to fall back on.

Miguel (sensitively played by Algenis Perez Soto) is sent up to play single-A ball in Bridgetown, Iowa, and the culture shock is extraordinary. Speaking little English, Miguel needs a translator to understand his manager (Michel Gaston) and lives with a family of devout farmers.

At first, he's the shining new star in that little universe, throwing a cooking fastball and a new curveball that rack up the strikeouts. But an injury, coupled with the fear of failing, put his prospects in doubt.

Written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck -- the same team behind the Oscar-nominated "Half Nelson" -- "Sugar" is about what happens when lofty ambitions meet earthbound realities. Some audience members may be put off by the film, since it eschews conventional crowd-pleasing gimmicks to concentrate on Miguel's spiritual descent.

There isn't a whole lot of baseball action in this film, which is perhaps why someone like me enjoyed it. "Sugar" doesn't care about the scoreboard, but the men behind the numbers.

3 stars out of four

Thursday, May 21, 2009

New trailer for "9"

I'm really looking forward to this animated feature coming out in September. Shane Acker won an Oscar for a short film version of "9" a few years ago, and Tim Burton came on as producer to make a feature-length version.

It has a very disturbing look and tone. I for one am glad to see people realizing that animation is a mode for serious art, and not just fun kiddie flicks.

The one I almost gave away

My cat, Dot, was put to sleep at 4 p.m. today. Jean and I were there to bid her farewell.

It's hit us pretty hard, in part because it happened so suddenly, and without the multiple medical professionals who worked on her ever being able to give a definitive answer of what was wrong.

She had the sniffles on Monday, and by Tuesday night her breathing was labored. I tried to get her into the vet Wednesday, but Thursday morning was the earliest they could see her. In between visits to the vet and the pet hospital this morning, she was walking around and even accepted several treats from my hand.

I won't bother with the medical details -- beyond saying her vitals were all way down, and her prognosis was poor. Veterinarians are understandably reluctant to tell their clients what to do, but I used the inquisitive skills I've picked up in my career to get her to answer two basic questions: Are our continued efforts just throwing good after bad? What would she do if it were her cat? Both responses confirmed our decision to give her peace.

I am ashamed that I found so few tears to let pass for her. I am not an overly emotional person by nature, and I subscribe to old-fashioned mores about men putting their feelings on display for any other than those closest to him. Still, it pains me to think that the last time I went through the euthanasia process at a vet clinic, it was for a dying dog I found on a lonely road, and I wept openly. Why could I have such an outpouring of grief for a strange animal, and not for my companion of the last 13 years?

Perhaps it's more helpful if I talk about our life together.

I have never admitted this to anyone, but I only got Dot in order to give her away. I was in a relationship with a girl that was circling the drain, and getting her a kitten was my pathetic attempt at solidifying the fracturing connection between us. She refused the little kitten, which I'd gotten from a co-worker, but insisted that I keep it myself.

In that parting, I found a new bond.

I was so inept as a first-time cat owner that I didn't even know the basics of their bathroom habits. Her first bit of "business" was done into an old frying pan lined with newspapers.

The co-worker who gave her to me said she was eight weeks old, but experienced cat owners told me she was probably closer to five. She was so tiny that she would curl up in the narrow pencil drawer of my desk. On her second night with me, she somehow got herself trapped in a kitchen cabinet, which led to a frantic search in the dead of night trying to locate her by her tiny peeps.

A few months later, her brother came to join us. The family that adopted him had to give him back, and he had essentially become a stray hanging around his mother's house. Their initial reuniting was a tense standoff. But after a few days, they seemed to remember their kitten wrestling matches, which they resumed with relish. To this day, they had regular play-fights, usually instigated by Dot, and usually ending with her leaving the room in a huff.

I have to admit that she was something of a bully early in life. My third cat came along a year later, and Dot mercilessly dominated the juvenile male. But he soon outgrew her, and the tables were turned. She became something of a deposed queen, vying for attention and hissing whenever her usurper came near.

All my cats grew monumentally fat, as I found it more amenable to my crazy schedule to leave a feeder allowing them to eat whenever they wanted. Dot tipped the scales at 18 pounds at one point, which brought all sorts of warnings about her health. Over the last three years I'd had them on a careful diet that allowed them to shed weight, and she was 13 pounds on her last day -- just a pound or two more from ideal.

I'm a firm believer that every pet's personality is unique, and Dot found many ways to distinguish herself. Her favorite way to greet me was to get our faces at eye level, push her snout into my eyebrows, then slowly trace her nose up my forehead to the hairline, sniffing, then back down again. This was generally followed with a flop onto her back, giving me her belly for the prerequisite tummy rub.

Lately, her best sleep spot was in a cushioned bed underneath my nightstand, so she slept but a couple of feet below my head.

Being 13 years old, I knew she was coming toward the latter part of her given span, but she surprised me with her continued vitality. Not two weeks ago, she brought a live chipmunk into the house that she'd caught. As I shooed the frightened but unhurt critter out the door, Dot shot me a look of undisguised pride.

Just a few years before, as the vet expressed concern about her weight and I proposed that she could be supplementing her diet with wild fare, the vet confidently told me that Dot was much too old and fat to catch the swift lizards and small mammals that make up feline prey. I'd laughed at the doctor's unintended comedy at the time, and recalling that I looked upon my aging kitty with newfound respect.

I never intended to become a cat owner. But it goes without saying I'm glad Dot came into my life. Until I met Jean, she was the only female in my daily existence. Jean used to joke that it was her and Dot against a household of boys. Now she's on her own.

So I bid adieu to the companion I intended for someone else. Life has such crazy sharp turns and sidesteps, but being with Dot was a path I'm glad I stumbled upon.

Review: "Terminator Salvation"

If you can still keep the time-space continuum for the "Terminator" franchise straight in your head, you must be a Nobel-winning astrophysicist.

With four movies now, a TV show (which was canceled on Monday) and original director James Cameron and star Arnold Schwarzenegger long departed from the scene, "Terminator Salvation" is the latest in a long line of endeavors to rejigger history's orderly march in the name of science fiction mayhem.

You'll remember that Arnie played a cyborg who travelled back from the future to kill the mother of John Connor, who would become the leader of the human resistance movement to Skynet, the machine hegemony. To fight the terminator, Connor sent a soldier named Kyle Reese, who knocked boots with mom and thus became Connor's own father.

The first movie made it very clear that the time machine was destroyed after Reese and the cyborg went through, but in subsequent iterations more and more terminators and human protectors have popped up, every one of them trying desperately to alter the future.

So in "Salvation," it is the future --- 2018, to be specific. And Skynet is now trying to change the past, by hunting down Reese, so Connor can't send him back in time to change the future, which is right now, but it might be a different now if they succeed.

Or something.

"Terminator Salvation" is the latest attempt to revive a moribund film franchise via pyrotechnics. There are so many explosions it seems the movie itself is combustible. Christian Bale, as John Connor, survives two separate helicopter crashes, two thermonuclear detonations and dozens of exploding cars, buildings and robots. One starts to expect random things to blow up during quiet dialogue scenes.

In the supporting roles, Anton Yelchin (who played Chekov in another recent franchise reboot, "Star Trek") is Kyle Reese; rapper/actor Common is Connor's right-hand man; Bryce Dallas Howard is Connor's very pregnant squeeze; Helena Bonham Carter is a Skynet flunky; and Moon Bloodgood (stage name, ya think?) is a hot pilot.

The x-factor is Marcus (Sam Worthington), a burly Aussie who we see executed in a prison in 1993. He wakes up in 2018 not knowing what happened to him, but now he has amazing physical abilities. Even a Nobel-winning astrophysicist's janitor can figure out that it's not Marcus' personality that is magnetic.

"Terminator Salvation" would operate pretty well if it was a standalone flick about humans battling robots in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It's fast-paced and often exciting -- director Joseph McGinty Nichol (I refuse to call him by his asinine handle "McG") may be ham-handed at scenes where people just talk to each other, but the man knows how to stage action scenes.

Where the movie gets bogged down is in having to shoehorn itself into the limitations of the previous "Terminator" shows. Astute fans will be able to spot a half-dozen inconsistencies in the "Terminator" universe -- I know, because they were doing so after the screening I attended. ("Why don't the robots just kill Reese the minute they capture him?")

It's never good when your fan base knows more than you do.

2.5 stars out of four

Reeling Backward: "From Russia with Love"

Nobody expected "Dr. No" to be anything more than a pleasant little spy flick, so when it became an overnight sensation, launching the James Bond franchise, the studio was eager to cash in. So the follow-up, "From Russia with Love," was pushed out exactly one year after the 1962 release of "Dr. No" -- an incredibly short turnaround, even by the generally quicker standards of that era.

In fact, the first four Bond films came out in 1962, '63, '64 and '65. They finally decided to give Sean Connery a year off before coming back with "You Only Live Twice" in 1967. Then they gave Connery the boot, reportedly because he was too old, even though the actor was still in his 30s. He came back for 1971's "Diamonds Are Forever," and again in 1983 for "Never Say Never Again."

Connery was an unknown Scottish actor when he achieved stardom, but in "Russia" you can start to see him making the Bond role his own. There's a streak of cruelty and misogyny to the character, even more starkly than in "Dr. No." Bond's assignment here is to romance a Russian agent to get his hands on a Lektor, a decoding machine and classic cinematic red herring (i.e., no one knows exactly what it is or what it does, except that it's important and everyone wants it).

What Bond doesn't know is that the agent, Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), has been co-opted by the evil crime syndicate SPECTRE into believing she's working for Mother Russia. In fact, their plan is to help Bond steal the Lektor, then have their own agent kill Bond to claim it and sell back to the Soviets at great profit.

So there are scenes where Bond goes from wooing the girl to slapping her around in the blink of an eye. There's little attempt to mollify audiences into thinking Bond is doing anything other than using her. Sex becomes just another weapon in his vast arsenal.

A few interesting additions for the second Bond film. We have the first appearance of a "Q" figure who outfits the superspy with some new gadgets. In this case, he gets a nifty briefcase that emits a stun gas if you don't open a certain way, a hidden stash of gold coins and a pop-out knife. Pretty crude stuff compared to what would come later. But then, the movie only cost $2.5 million to make -- more than doubling the budget of "Dr. No."

We also have the first appearance of what would become a spy film archetype -- the older female villain with a lesbian overtone. Here it's the Russian colonel Rosa Klebb, who would seem to be the basis for her spoof version in the "Austin Powers" films, Frau Farbissina.

There's a boat chase with lots of explosions that's pretty impressive for 1963, and a side visit to a camp of gypsies that becomes high camp itself. All the gypsy women are barefoot and ready to knife one another over possession of a man, which must make for a pretty generous dating pool for gypsy guys. Knowing how competitive men are, they probably count how many chicks have been killed over them as a measure of their manliness.

There's also a top-notch villain for Bond to contend with, with the incomparable Robert Shaw as Red Grant, a psychotic criminal turned assassin by SPECTRE. It's hard to believe with his blinding blonde hair and rock-hard physique that this is the same actor who would portray the crusty, creased Captain Quint in "Jaws" a dozen years later.

Red has several chances to kill Bond and hesitates, and even saves his life during a melee at the gypsy camp, just so they can have their mano e mano showdown. And it's quite a doozy, taking place in the constrained quarters of a train sleeping car.

"From Russia with Love" is hardly one of the better James Bond movies, but it marked the evolution of the character from vanilla spy agent to iconic rogue.

3 stars

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Captain Blood" and "The Adventures of Robin Hood"

"Captain Blood" was supposed to be just another quickie action flick for 1935 Depression-era audiences, a pirate adventure with an unknown actor. It was such an unexpected success, it made Errol Flynn an overnight star -- arguably the biggest star in Hollywood's first half-century.

In fact, Warner Brothers so liked the pairing of Flynn, Olivia de Havilland as his leading lady and director Michael Curtiz that they quickly ordered up two more pictures with the same group -- "The Charge of the Light Brigade" in 1936, and "The Adventures of Robin Hood" in 1938, which would become Flynn's signature role.

It was not at all unusual for Golden Age studios to re-use the same grouping of actors from a successful movie, which is why John Wayne always seemed to have the same supporting cast. So it's not surprising that Basil Rathbone played Flynn's rival in several pictures, including both "Captain Blood" and "Robin Hood," as well as "The Dawn Patrol," which was the subject of a Reeling Backward review a few weeks ago.

These two movies are strikingly similar in theme and the portrayal of Flynn and de Havilland. Flynn is a noble figure -- a nobleman in "Robin Hood," a physician in "Captain Blood" -- who stands up to injustice and becomes an freedom-loving outcast as a result. He has a taunting, cocksure bravado that infuriates his enemies to no end. De Havilland is the unattainable rich woman who, despite her higher station, finds herself attracted to the impudent adventurer. Their relationship is classic love-hate -- mostly hate until near the end, when she decides she loves him.

There's plenty of battle scenes in "Captain Blood," and they're pretty convincing for the most part. The vintage ships from circa 1680 appear very authentic -- if they used models, it must have been extremely high-tech stuff for 1935, because I can't tell.

Rathbone has a rather brief role in "Blood." He plays Captain Lavasseur, a French pirate who becomes Peter Blood's partner as soon as he's introduced, then two scenes later they're bitter enemies and having a deadly sword fight on a rocky beach.

"Captain Blood" ends on a rather strange note. His biggest enemy is Col. Bishop, the governor of Port Royale, who buys Blood as a slave, and vows to hunt him down after Blood leads a slave revolt to capture a ship, becoming pirates in the process. But just as a big showdown with Bishop appears to be looming, an emissary from the English king shows up with a letter of marque for Blood, wiping away his criminal record.

By contrast to the relatively cheap budget of "Captain Blood," "The Adventures of Robin Hood" was a major showcase for Warner Bros., the most expensive movie made to date. Unlike "Ivanhoe," whose production values I commented negatively upon previously, you can see every dollar up on the screen in "Robin Hood." The colors are vivid and bold even 70 years later, and everything from the armor to the woodsmen tights looks spot-on. And all the arrows thunk into their targets convincingly.

Claude Rains is delicious as a slightly sexually ambiguous Prince John, and Basil Rathbone has a meatier role here as Sir Guy of Gisbourne, Robin's chief antagonist. Interestingly, the Sheriff of Nottingham is a minor player in this version of Robin Hood, a fat and bumbling figure who's more of a comic relief than a villain. Eugene Pallette is a much more martial version of Friar Tuck than other iterations, as quick with his sword as the cross.

There's a wonderful tone to "Robin Hood" that makes it an infectious film to watch. Even some of the dialogue, which is typically stilted for its time, doesn't land with a thud like it might. I think the rousing music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold has much to do with it -- it won the Oscar for best score.

Robin Hood is such an indelible cinematic character, that a host of actors have portrayed him over the years. Douglas Fairbanks played him in 1922, there was a 1950s TV series, an older Robin played by Sean Connery, and of course Kevin Costner had a very successful turn in 1990, portraying Robin Hood with an accent that alternated between light English and California dudespeak.

As I'm writing this, I learn that Russell Crowe is set to tackle the green tights in a new film version coming out in 2010, directed by Ridley Scott and co-starring Cate Blanchett. It seems this quiver never runs empty.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

DVD review: "Valkyrie"

Even with an eye patch, a stump where his right hand used to be and two missing fingers on his left, Tom Cruise still looks every bit the dashing movie star in "Valkyrie," the tale of the failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler and stage a coup against the Nazi regime.

It's an apt metaphor for the movie itself, which is skillfully made and great to look at, but ultimately registers as a glammed-up retread of history.

The best portions deal with the tactics of the assassination attempt itself -- Cruise, as a wounded war hero, sneaks a bomb into Hitler's Wolf's Lair bunker, hides it under the conference table, and must make his escape amidst the ensuing confusion. But the story reaches this pinnacle fairly early, and what follows is a dizzying and droning sequence of phone calls and running soldiers as the conspirators attempt to seal the coup.

This is one of the few instances where a movie could have been improved by running longer. The personal and family life of Cruise's character, Lt. Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, is given such short shrift that when he calls his wife to let her know the plot has failed and he is doomed, we can barely remember who she is.

The DVD comes with an excellent set of additional features. Kevin Burns directs an in-depth, 40-minute historical documentary of the actual events surrounding the coup, including mesmerizing footage of a judge insulting the surviving conspirators at the show trials that followed. A 16-minute making-of doc follows the usual patterns.

There are two top-notch commentary tracks. The first is by Cruise, director Bryan Singer and co-screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie -- an all-too rare collaboration of a film's principal talents. Among their many insights is an acknowledgement that they consciously recruited actors from other World War II movies, including "Downfall" and "Black Book." McQuarrie pulls double duty by contributing another separate commentary track with his writing partner, Nathan Alexander.

Movie: 2.5 stars
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, May 18, 2009

New on DVD for 5/19

Here's a quick list of what's new on home video this week, with quick links to buy:

Coming this week: "Terminator" and more

Another busy week in the Captain's chair. I'll have reviews of "Terminator Salvation" and "Sugar."

The DVD review will be "Valkyrie." And I'll have retrospective movie reviews of "Captain Blood," "The Adventures of Robin Hood" and perhaps one more.

Over at The Film Yap, our podcast will focus on rebooting stale movie franchises. And look for a special guest star this week!

New contributor to The Film Yap

My partnership with Joe Shearer at The Film Yap has now brought in an addition: Caine Gardner will occasionally contribute essays and reviews.

You can read Caine's first two contributions here:

VHS Memories
Is Shatner owed an apology?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

New podcast on Ron Howard's films

Our weekly podcast is now up at The Film Yap:

This week's topic is the directing career of Ron Howard, starting with his new film "Angels & Demons."

Review: "Angels and Demons"

Tom Hanks' hair is sleeker, shorter and just plain less ridiculous. The movie, too.

"Angels & Demons" is the sequel to "The Da Vinci Code," which managed to be both controversial and lackluster. Hanks, as symbologist Robert Langdon, wore a ridiculous swoopy hairdo that made Wolverine's coiffure look tame, plus a perpetually glum expression as he uncovered nefarious plots by the Catholic Church.

Actually, "Angels" was written by author Dan Brown before "Da Vinci" and takes place earlier, too, but director Ron Howard and screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman neatly sidestep that issue, rejiggering the timeline so that Langdon is ostracized by the church because he aired their dirty laundry.

This time, though, they need his help. The ancient order of Illuminati, a group of scientists persecuted by the church, has vowed to destroy Vatican City and everyone in it. The cardinals are all in conclave to elect a new pope, but four of them have been kidnapped. One will die each hour, publicly, until at midnight a device containing antimatter will detonate, killing the thousands of people gathered in St. Peter's Square to witness the election of a new pontiff.

At first, it seems that "Angels" will fall into the same trap that "Da Vinci" did, lulling into a seemingly endless churn of exposition and setup. But after 45 minutes or so, the chase through Rome's historical sites and legends takes on real urgency, and genuine horror as the holy men are put to very gruesome deaths one by one. (The film is rated PG-13, but is one of the "hardest" PG-13s I've ever seen.)

Langdon's partner is Vittorio Vitra (Ayelet Zurer), an Italian physicist who discovered the antimatter and is brought in to help recover it. Opposing them is Commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgard), the head of the Swiss Army detachment that guards the pope, who views Langdon disdainfully and accuses him of anti-religious bias.

More helpful is Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor), the carmelengo -- the chief aid to the Pope who temporarily holds the power of that office until conclave is concluded. The carmelengo is forthright in acknowledging past oppression by the church, and wants to let the world know about the current threat against it. But the young priest is overruled by Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who's in charge of running the conclave and seems to be angling for the top job himself.

The film version diverges in numerous ways from the book, although most of them are minor details, such as changing the carmelengo from Italian to Irish, and making the scientist whose murder opens the film Vittoria's colleague rather than her father. There are a few events toward the end that are changed more monumentally, but they are unobjectionable as they tend to streamline the action as it builds toward the climax.

It's doubtful that even the most educated audience members will be able to follow the dizzying assault of details thrown at them -- Biblical stories, names of artists and scientists, little-known chapels and monuments that form the pieces of the puzzle that lead Langdon to the lair of the Illuminati.

Ultimately, though, it's the chase rather than the history lesson that makes "Angels & Demons" compelling, and something "The Da Vinci Code" was not: Fun.

3 stars

Reeling Backward: "Touch of Evil"

Decades before anybody ever thought up the concept of a "director's cut," Orson Welles was trying to get his vision of "Touch of Evil" onto screens.

The story is familiar for serious cinephiles: Orson Welles, who was a virtual outcast from Hollywood after his early success, was brought in to star in the film and reluctantly (accounts vary) hired to direct as well. The studio hated Welles' cut of the film, so they ordered it re-edited with some additional footage shot by another director, Harry Keller. Welles issued a lengthy memo with specific suggestions for changes, which went unheeded. This memo was used as a guide when a restored version was issued in 1998.

More than a decade after his death, Welles' cut -- or at least a close approximation of it -- finally saw light of day.

"Touch of Evil" has the setting and mood of a cheap potboiler, but is executed with such daring and verve by Welles and his cast and crew, that even in its altered form it became a classic of film noir. Charlton Heston is the ostensible lead as Miguel Vargas, a crusading Mexican a law enforcement official, but Welles looms overpoweringly -- physically and and otherwise -- as corrupt border police captain Hank Quinlan.

The physical transformation of Welles was shocking. Gone is the slim wunderkind of 1941's "Citizen Kane," or even the cherubic raconteur Harry Lime from "The Third Man," released just nine years before "Touch of Evil." Welles bulked up to gargantuan size, transformed into an old beat-down border cop with a bad leg and a voice that dances between a strangled growl and bemused, teasing croak. He was still a young man, just 43 at the time, but seemed decades older and thousands of miles the worse for wear.

Quinlan is a legend for his ability to solve impossible crimes and find evidence to pin on suspects. But Vargas figures out that Quinlan, along with his partner, has been planting evidence for years. Through the film's convoluted plot, Vargas confronts Quinlan, who wreaks a terrible vengeance, before enlisting the aid of Quinlan's partner, before the final showdown and gunfight.

The beginning and end of the film, both astonishingly effective, deal with a crime that has little to do with what the movie is really about. In the famous long tracking shot, a bomb is planted in the trunk of a car, which then slowly drives across the border into the U.S., while an amorous couple -- Vargas and his new bride, Susan, played by Janet Leigh -- walks nearby. The bomb explodes, killing a prominent local businessman and a floozy.

Quinlan quickly latches onto Sanchez, a Mexican who has secretly married the businessman's daughter. Vargas is sympathetic to the young man's protestations of innocence, and appalled when Quinlan plants two sticks of dynamite at the man's apartment. (He knows it's a plant because he had inadvertently knocked over the empty box in which the dynamite miraculously appears a few minutes later.)

Vargas looks up Quinlan's old case files, and learns that he's been planting evidence for years. Enraged at being challenged, Quinlan arranges for a family of Mexican drug dealers to kidnap Susan, dope her and eventually frame her for murder.

In almost a throwaway moment at the end, we learn that Sanchez has confessed to the crime, blowing up his wife's father for the fortune she stands to inherit. It throws everything that came before into a loop, since even though Quinlan was a twisted cop who planted evidence to earn convictions, he was also unnervingly accurate in those he accused. He was twisted, but not dirty; he never took a bribe or sought to profit financially from his position. He simply found those who were guilty, and used any means necessary to put them behind bars. What are we to think of a figure who routinely breaks the law in order to uphold it?

In "Touch of Evil," moral clarity is as shadowy as the inky, light-and-shadow cinematography.

A few other random observations:

There are a number of prominent actors or actresses in small roles. Marlene Deitrich (still a vision at age 57) plays Tana, the owner of a small brothel/bar, who has a mysterious romantic past with Quinlan. When he shows up after years of sobriety to drink himself to a stupor, she comments on how fat he's gotten. "I'd rather be getting fat eating your chili," Quinlan says, and clearly the culinary is not the only type of indulgence for which he years. A very young Dennis Weaver is unrecognizable as a dimwitted and loony hotel night clerk. Keenan Wynn and Zsa Zsa Gabor turn up in tiny parts, and longtime Welles collaborator Joseph Cotten makes an uncredited appearance as a cop.

The depiction of Janet Leigh as Susan is unusually bold in its portrayal of sexual and pharmacological depravity. My wife Jean and I both shook with laughter at the torpedo-like profile of her brassiere. The scenes where Susan is holed up in a motel while young gang members stalk her are filled with sexual tension, even including some proto-lesbians. The way the Mexican bad guys openly leer at her must have seemed pretty shocking in 1958.

It is ridiculous now to think of Charlton Heston, Hollywood's favorite mid-century Aryan actor, cast as a Mexican. But the physical changes via hair and makeup are pretty convincing, although Heston makes little attempt at a Latin accent. (Perhaps this was for the best.) I was amused how his wife Susan referred to Miguel Vargas as "Mike" -- one wonders if it was done to mollify 1950s audiences, or if it was a private joke between the couple.

4 stars

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Bonus DVD review: "Cargo 200"

"Cargo 200" is a bleak and disturbing Russian drama about decay. Set in 1984, during a time when the old Soviet Union seemed to be replacing one expiring octogenarian leader after another, the country appears to be literally falling apart. Even a powerful colonel in the Army lives in a shabby apartment with cracked plaster.

Based on actual events, "Cargo 200" has an elliptical storyline that at first feels confusing, but slowly narrows to a single razor-sharp point, a rotting bedroom where a young girl is being repeatedly tormented and violated. Her captor is an icy police colonel, who kidnapped her and handcuffs her to the bed in his mother's apartment, convinced that she is his unfeeling wife. In one of his attempts to gain her ardor, the captain brings a violent convict he has shot in the arm to the apartment and has the prisoner rape her. When that doesn't work, he really gets nasty.

The captain is a symbol for the entirety of crumbling Communism: corrupt, irreligious, completely amoral, yet in some deep recess of his shadowy consciousness he recognizes that he's dying, and sees the girl as his last chance at rebirth. His elderly mother, who sits drinking vodka all day, watching television while indifferent to the horde of flies attracted to the increasing number of bodies in the next room, represents the complacent older generation. The girl and her erstwhile paramour, a hustler with a leather jacket and his own car, are the new wave emerging, content to enjoy the new freedoms allowed by the rifts in the old Soviet order, but in their own way equally corrupt and damned.

Writer/director Alexey Balabanov arrives at these themes methodically, building his vision in a way that requires a patient audience. The first half of the film offers few clues to the horrors that will follow, following a different set of characters that intersect, and slowly cede the stage to darker creatures. A flighty professor, the brother of the army colonel, suffers a car breakdown while traveling to see his mother, and begs help from a moonshiner, with whom he argues about the role of religion in society.

The title of "Cargo 200" refers to the codename given to Soviet soldiers who are killed in Afghanistan, and brought home in cheap boxes to await burial by an indifferent bureaucracy. The sadistic police captain at one point is ordered to take charge of such cargo -- a none too subtle example of the dead burying the dead.

As for extras -- there aren't any, not even a theatrical trailer.

Movie: 3 stars
Extras: 1 star

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

DVD review: "Taken"

Part of the joy of a movie like "Taken" is that it seemed to come out of nowhere. It was released earlier this year with virtually no marketing or fanfare, starring an actor, Liam Neeson, who's well-regarded by hardly a box office heavyweight, with a storyline about an ex-spy that seemed overly familiar. But its spare style and intense energy propelled it to become the sleeper hit of early 2009.

Neeson is perfectly suited to the roll of Bryan Mills, a former spook who has retired so he can be closer to his teen daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). Mills at first seems a bit of a loser, moping around a tiny apartment and crashing his daughter's birthday party at her wealthy stepdad's mansion. But when Kim is abducted by a prostitution ring while in Paris, he springs into hunter mode.

Neeson skillfully underplays, turning his character into the antithesis of the boasting, self-regarding cinematic action hero. He can take out a small army of goons by himself, but there's no bravado in the way he does it -- it's simply the job, one he's gotten very good at. He's coldly efficient, saving the life of a prostitute strung out on heroine not out of benevolence, but because it helps his quest.

There's a healthy set of DVD extras, including both the theatrical and unrated versions of the film, though I was hard-pressed to tell the difference. A making-of documentary is fairly rote; a more clever addition is a feature showing how they shot some of the more harrowing scenes, with side-by-side comparisons of the stunts and the final version. A commentary track (in French, with subtitles) by director Pierre Morel and cinematographer Michel Abramowicz gets bogged down in the technical aspects of filmmaking. But a separate (English) track by co-screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen (who also wrote the first two "Transporter" flicks) is much livelier -- including his description of an ending that was tacked on by the French backers against his wishes.

Movie: 3.5 stars
Extras: 3 stars

Monday, May 11, 2009

New on DVD for 5/12

Here's some quick links to Tuesday's new video releases:

New this week

I'll have a review of "Angels & Demons" on Friday, taking a look at the sequel to the lackluster "Da Vinci Code."

The DVD review will be "Taken." I was going to do "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans," but they sent me the wrong version of the movie.

Still figuring out what Reeling Backward reviews I'll have.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Review: "Star Trek"

"Star Trek" seems less a reboot of the fortysomething space franchise than a compilation of Trek Greatest Hits, as performed by a bunch of fresh-faced unknown actors tossing winking nods to Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the gang.

Directed by television wunderkind J.J. Abrams from a screenplay by Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman (the same writing team behind the incomprehensible "Transformers"), "Star Trek" loads up on familiar bits from the Trek TV show and movies, as if they were trying to cull our favorite moments into a cinematic mix-tape rather than building upon the foundations of "Trek."

See Kirk and Spock trade blows right on the bridge! See Sulu wielding a sword! See Uhuru canoodling with a member of the crew (though not the one you think)! See the mind-warping bugaboo from "Wrath of Khan" inserted into a captain's orifice! See the Kobayashi Maru test force cadets to face the unwinnable scenario! See McCoy call Spock a "green-blooded hobgoblin" and protest that "I'm a doctor, not a physicist!"

This movie is "Trek" made for the Gen-Y, ADD-addled segment of the population -- all action, all the time. If you're looking for layered characterizations or cerebral ruminations about the Prime Directive, you might as well punch the escape pod now.

The heavy is Nero (Eric Bana), a Romulan who's come back through time to do very bad things to the Federation in retaliation for something that happens more than a century hence. Unfortunately, he pops out 25 years too early, and destroys the ship on which James T. Kirk's father is serving. Daddy Kirk saves the ship and his expectant wife by sacrificing himself, which throws the temporal loop into flux.

That's right, this is one of those "alternate reality" deals, where the presence of Nero changes history. It also gives Abrams and his cohorts an excuse to jettison a lot of Trek lore and draw on a blank slate.

So Kirk is not the natural-born leader destined to sit in the captain's chair, but a loser punk who steals cars and gets into fights with Starfleet cadets. Challenged by Capt. Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) to make something of himself, he jumps aboard the shuttle to cadet school at the last minute.

Three years later, the crew are assembled aboard the Enterprise and must engage Nero, who has reappeared and is wreaking terrible destruction across the galaxy. In an unlikely series of events, Kirk assumes command and must save the day.

The biggest question mark Trek fans have is how well the newcomers fill in for the original cast. As Spock, Zachary Quinto looks astonishingly like Leonard Nimoy (who also appears, playing an older Spock) and manages to crystallize the balance between logic and emotion. Chris Pine, on the other hand, bears little resemblance to Shatner, and his Kirk is shallow and smirky.

Simon Pegg is enjoyable as a brainier portrayal of Scottie than we've seen before, and Anton Yelchin is a hoot as the chirpy, hyperactive teenage ensign Chekov.

Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana and John Cho all manage to sketch a fleeting glimpse of Dr. McCoy, Uhuru and Sulu, respectively, although they're not given a lot of screen time to work with.
Stuffed with action but yearning for a little contemplation, "Star Trek" will leave audiences exhausted but not exhilarated.

1.5 stars out of four

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Vanishing Point"

"Vanishing Point" has to be the most contemplative car chase movie ever made.

This cult hit from 1971 is about a guy in a super-charged Dodge Challenger on the run from the law. He hasn't actually done anything wrong, other than drive too fast and recklessly, but nevertheless manages to gather the attention of an army of police and state troopers. It's the chase itself that puts him at odds with the authorities, as if by the act of running he hopes to force them to come after him.

The antihero is Kowalski, a thoroughly enigmatic figure played by Barry Newman. When we first meet him, he's been driving for days with hardly a stop, and the police have laid a trap for him that seems flawless. A crowd of gawkers and newmen have gathered to witness the outlaw's last stand.

All we know about Kowalski at first is that he works for a car delivery service. He arrives in Denver with a midnight delivery, and insists he be given another car immediately, and is given the Challenger going to San Francisco. It's not due until Monday, but Kowalski insists he can make the trip in 15 hours.

There doesn't seem to be any reason for his hurry, other than he needs to be constantly on the move. A stop-off at a local biker hangout to score some speed pills is his only pause before hitting the road.

When a pair of motorcycle cops try to get the speed demon to pull over, Kowalski barely notices them at first, then unthinkingly runs them off the road. This sets off the escalating series of chases, first in Colorado, then Utah and finally California.

On a side note, I loved the contrast between the state trooper headquarters. In Colorado and Utah, it's a couple of goold ole boys hanging lazily around the office, talking on a phone to their interstate counterparts and making tepid promises to catch the offender. In California, it's a very modern office teeming with the latest equipment and a horde of officers, all of them women.

Through very terse, elliptical flashback scenes we learn that Kowalski use to be a cop himself, before being drummed out of the service for standing up to corruption. He had a girl he loved, who died, and he stumbled through a variety of jobs driving in demolition derbies, motorcycle races and car races. He was also a decorated soldier in the early days of Vietnam.

He has a variety of encounters out on the road, the most mesmerizing being a trip through Death Valley to lose the cops. He meets an aged prospector who combs the desert not for gold but snakes, which he trades to a cynical local preacher for food and supplies. The preacher uses the reptiles for snake-handling ceremonies to fill his tent. The old man helps Kowalski hide his car from the police helicopter searching for him, then barters with the preacher for gas. There's a rousing concert of rock/gospel going on, and the preacher emerges long enough to tell the prospector he doesn't need the snakes anymore, because he's got the music now to entice worshipers, so he casts out the vipers, flinging them out of the basket en masse.

Kowalski also has a brief encounter with a pair of homosexual hustlers whose car, festooned with a "Just married" sign, has broken down. They stick a gun in his face, and Kowalski just laughs at them before throwing them out of his car. It's an odd, brief scene that -- like a lot of the movie -- doesn't really explain itself; it just unfolds and demands that we accept it for what it is. Were the robbers proto-gay marriage activists, or did they steal the car from a married couple?

In his last significant encounter before the final show-down, Kowalski scores some more speed from a biker hippie, whose girlfriend tools around their trailer home riding a motorcyle completely nude. In most movies this would be the set-up for some gratuitous sex, but Kowalski demures at the girl's offer of "anything you want," clearly thinking about his dead girlfriend. It's also suggested that she may be the girl he saved from being raped by another cop years ago, and they have this touching little conversation while she's completely naked.

(Another aside: In a little research, I learn that this actress, Gilda Texter, only made two other acting appearances, both also in 1971. But she went on to a very busy film career in costumes, including "Romancing the Stone" and "The Green Mile." How ironic that the hot naked mama from "Vanishing Point" should find her calling putting clothes on people!)

During all of his run, Kowalski receives commentary and guidance from a blind, black radio DJ named Super Soul (played by Cleavon Little, who would become famous a few years later as the sheriff in "Blazing Saddles). Super Soul listens in on the police radio frequencies, subtlety alerting Kowalski to the dangers ahead while building a popular following for the speed freak. Eventually, some plainclothes policemen brutally assault the radio station.

The car chase scenes are pretty amazing, even though by most standards there aren't any spectacular crashes or gravity-defying jumps. What makes them work is that they've obviously been filmed at full speed, with the Challenger really going incredibly fast. For safety reasons, most movie chases are done at normal speeds and made to look faster by under-cranking the camera or perspective tricks, and it always feels artificial. They actually burned some rubber to make this movie.

The white Challenger is a character unto itself in the movie -- to the point that it would be fetishized by Quentin Tarantino in "Death Proof." The new Challengers out now were designed to look nearly identical to the one in "Vanishing Point." These sleek, flat-nosed muscle cars make us think of days past when gas was cheap, speed limits went mostly unheeded and the only thing limiting your freedom was how hard you stepped on the gas pedal.

3.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Reeling Backward: "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon"

"She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" is considered one of the all-time great Westerns, and supposedly John Wayne himself regarded it as his favorite role. But after finally catching it, I found it strangely unaffecting.

"Ribbon" is about a man who is retiring, and he doesn't really want to. In a way, it's sort of an Old West version of "About Schmidt," except John Wayne doesn't suffer from modern neuroses like Jack Nicholson. Both men have lost their wives, and are essentially alone as they face a horizon that holds who-knows-what for them.

The two films diverge in that Schmidt is leaving behind a business that could care less about one more old timer packing it in, whereas "Ribbon" is very much about the manly camaraderie of U.S. Cavalry troopers scratching out some semblance of law and order in the wake of an American Indian uprising. The men love Captain Nathan Cutting Brittles (now there's a cowboy name for you) and want him to stay as much as he does.

There's a strange little ritual Brittles performs every morning. The crusty, boozy Sgt. Quincannon (Victor McLaglen, a mainstay of John Ford's Westerns) wakes him up and escorts him outside for the morning review. As soon as they exit his barracks, they are joined by a couple of young troopers, and they all fall into a military cadence as they walk, without any order being given. The two older men -- Quincannon is also due to retire soon -- lurch along in a bow-legged crawl weighted by their years, while the youngsters are crisp and straight.

Wayne's character is supposed to be in his early 60s or so, though he was actually about 20 years younger than that. He wears gray dye in his hair and a walrus mustache in a rather unconvincing attempt to age him up.

The film's title comes from the character of Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru), the commander's daughter who is ordered to leave the post, along with her mother, now that the Sioux are on the warpath in the wake of Little Big Horn. It's tradition in the Cavalry for a woman to wear a yellow ribbon in her hair to indicate that she is bonded to a member of the troop. Though in Olivia's case, she leads two hot-headed young lieutenants to each believe she's wearing it for them.

I honestly found the whole subplot of the romantic triangle incredibly tedious, and hated whenever it diverted the movie from the main storyline, which is about Brittles' final mission.

He's supposed to lead a patrol out with several objectives: To deliver the women safely to the stagecoach landing, to reconnoiter with another patrol that is in danger of Indian attack, and to prevent a rogue government agent from selling rifles to the rebellious Indians. He fails all three.

The Cavalry is portrayed as unambiguously heroic, stalwart and true -- men who love the life in the company of others with similar natures. Ben Johnson plays Sgt. Tyree, the troop's best scout and a Rebel during the Civil War who good-naturedly throws barbs at his Yankee commanders.

With all the talk about the massacre of Gen. Custer at Little Big Horn, it's hard to reconcile that these same glorious figures in the movie were also the same responsible for atrocities against the Indians, slaughtering innocents at Wounded Knee and enforcing the capricious will of a federal government that repeatedly made and broke promises to the Indians.

My main complaint with the movie is how everything revolves around the character of Capt. Brittles. If the Cavalry was really as comradely as the film portrays, it seems unlikely that one man would so dominate the action and emotions of the group. One senses that if the role were played by an unknown actor instead of John Wayne, it would seem ridiculous that everyone is paying so much attention to the doings of what is just one member of a troop of hundreds.

So he's sad about retiring? Big deal. And the fact that the minute he rides off the post, the commanders send Tyree after him to offer him a new job undercuts everything that came before it. You've got nearly two hours of conflict about a man who doesn't want to leave his old life behind, tough and deadly though it may be, and then boom, he doesn't have to. The ending is so anticlimactic, it feels like that Gilda Radner character from the early days of "Saturday Night Live," who would get all worked up over something and then say, "Never mind."

2.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

DVD review: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"

I am not trying to be flip when I say that the impressive set of extras that come with the two-disc DVD edition of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" are more enjoyable to watch than the movie itself.

Despite a Best Picture Oscar nomination, "Benjamin Button" curiously lacked emotional punch. The tale of a man who is born old and ages backward (based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald) was an unmitigated technological triumph, as director David Fincher and an army of computer animators believably changed Brad Pitt from a handsome middle-aged movie star into a decrepit old man and eventually a teen, and every age in between.

But even though the nearly three-hour running time skips along crisply, the film fails to resonate on a human level. Pitt comes across as a Zelig-like figure, trotting through history without his journey ever coalescing into a coherent theme or purpose. Even an affecting performance by Cate Blanchett as Benjamin's lifelong love doesn't overpower the fascinating physical transformation they both go through.

Every minute detail of how this change was achieved is explored in the special edition DVD (from the unmatched Criterion Collection). We see how a succession of body doubles wearing blue masks performed the early scenes, and Pitt -- wearing green kabuki face paint -- is recorded, his features aged and transposed onto the body.

The extensive featurettes can be watched individually, or as a single hefty making-of documentary that touches on every aspect of the production. Producers are unusually forthright in describing the two-decade-long process to bring "Benjamin Button" to the screen, with a succession of directors dropping out.

There is also a lavish set of still galleries including the entire film storyboard, and feature-length commentary by Fincher. In digesting all this material, one senses how seriously the entire cast and crew approached making this movie. Unwittingly, the extras provide an arresting portrait of a filmmaking effort gone awry.

Movie: 2 stars
Extras: 4 stars

Monday, May 4, 2009

New this week on DVD

I thought I'd start a new weekly video feature on top of my DVD review: A simple listing of new video releases every Tuesday, with links to buy them.

This way, people can simply drop by here to look at what's coming to video, and if desired buy it online (and thus giving me a piece of the action).

Here's what's coming to video stores and outlets Tuesday, May 5.

New this week

The movie review will be "Star Trek," which I saw on Saturday with a group of enthusiastic Trekkies. We'll see how my opinion stacks up against the masses.

The DVD review will be "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." In way of preview, I'll just say it has a loooooot of extras.

I'll have retrospective reviews of "Vanishing Point" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon."

This Friday's podcast on The Film Yap will be, of course, on Trek movies.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Review: "X-Men Origins: Wolverine"

Wolverine's spin-off is a cut below the other "X-Men" movies.

Packed with loads of claw-whirling mayhem but not a whole lot of soul, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" manages to take the most mysterious and popular member of the team of mutant super-heroes and turn him into a patsy with a Cain and Abel complex.

That is, if those Biblical brothers both had freaky long claws and the ability to instantaneously heal from virtually any wound. That's the familial legacy of Wolverine/Logan (Hugh Jackman, looking very veiny) and his brother Victor Creed, otherwise known as Sabretooth, and played by Liev Schreiber.

There's a load of bad blood between them -- and splurted on them -- with the basic conflict being that Wolverine wants to keep his animal instincts in check, while Sabretooth believes in letting his feral flag fly.

Complicating matters further, Sabretooth was a character in the first X-Men movie, in which he was played by another actor and looked completely different, and also didn't see fit to mention anything to Wolverine about being siblings. But continuity is not a big priority when summer box office records are in the offing.

The story opens back in 1845 (both Wolverine and Sabretooth's mutant powers slow the aging process), when Logan was a sickly boy. His powers first manifest during a terrible family argument in which several people are killed, and Logan and Victor flee as outcasts.

A montage shows the pair fighting together in virtually every American war from the North vs. South to Vietnam. Sabretooth's killer instincts grow even more out of control when they join a secret team of mutant super-soldiers led by Col. Stryker (Danny Huston). After some civilians are messily caught in the crossfire, Wolverine walks off to live the quiet life lumberjacking in the Canadian Rockies with a lady friend (Lynn Collins).

But old troubles return when Sabretooth starts hunting down the old team members, and a predictable tragedy leads Wolverine to strike a bargain with the human devil Stryker to obtain the tools to defeat his evil brother. He agrees to undergo an experimental process to bond an unbreakable metal called adamantium to his bones.

The rest of the movie is a confusing gumbo of double-crosses and MacGuffins, with Wolverine and Sabretooth tangling in a blur of claws every 20 minutes or so. A few other characters from the X-Men universe crop up, notably the Creole mutant Gambit as a potential ally.

The action scenes are well-executed by director Gavin Hood ("Tsotsi"), but this movie's problems began before the first foot of film was shot. Since the final events in "Wolverine" take place about 20 years prior to those in the first "X-Men" flick, screenwriters David Benioff and Skip Woods have to perform some major contortions to get things to sync up. In one laughable moment, Stryker produces a gun loaded with adamantium bullets he intends to use on the wayward Wolverine to induce amnesia. The final showdown also takes place in a very famous spot, with some architectural rearrangement that surely would not have gone unnoticed.

Some mysteries are better left unplumbed, and sometimes characters are most compelling because of what we don't know about them. They should have left "Wolverine" well enough alone.

2 stars out of four

Review: "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past"

I'm not going to lie: I went into this movie kind of expecting to loathe it. But Jean wanted to see it, and now that I'm not playing World of Warcraft I have to find ways to fill my evenings, so off we went to the promo screening.

I was pleasantly surprised. The last few Matthew McConaughey romantic comedies have been just terrible, to the point that I avoided "Fool's Gold" like the plague (along with, apparently, most everyone else). "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" actually manages quite a few laughs, some genuinely tender moments in the latter half, and to keep McConaughey's dude-ish acting tendencies in check.

Perhaps I shouldn't have been shocked, since upon looking over the film's credits I see that the director is Mark Waters, who made the wonderful "Mean Girls" a few years ago.

The story is a takeoff on the old Ebenezer Scrooge tale. Instead of being a miserly old businessman, McConaughey is Connor Mead, a celebrity photographer and the ultimate ladies' man. That term, ladies' man, is perhaps not the most suitable, since Connor most definitely belongs to himself and no one else. He has had hundreds of girlfriends, most of them for just a few weeks, and juggles them so capriciously that in one of the movie's early scenes he breaks up with three of them at once via video conference call. The man is efficient, if nothing else.

Connor is following in the footsteps of his Uncle Wayne, played as a ghostly apparition by Michael Douglas, decked out in perpetual sunglasses and slicked-back hairdo a la Robert Evans. Uncle Wayne got filthy rich, built a mansion and drove a Cadillac with a license plate that says "Stabbin' Wagon." Now he's returned from the grave to show Connor the error of his ways, via visits from ghosts representing girlfriends past, present and future.

Emma Stone has a hilarious turn as the first ghost, who wears braces and disturbingly accurate '80s garb. She was Connor's first conquest as a teen, and she takes him on a journey though all the women he's hurt.

At first, Connor misses the point of the exercise, such as when he watches the scenes of Uncle Wayne (not the ghost, a flashback of the real thing) tutoring him how to use and dispose of women. "The man was a legend," Connor remarks with awe. "Do you know he invented the term, 'milf'?"

But eventually Connor learns that he's spent his life hiding from pain, chiefly in the form of Jenny Perotti (Jennifer Garner, doing a lot with an underwritten role), the girl he grew up with and was dumped by. Jenny and Connor are both in the wedding party of his brother, which is a huge opportunity for Connor to drink too much, decry the value of marriage, and chase a little bridesmaid tail.

One of the things that I liked most about the movie is that it is self-aware. It knows the constraints of the romcom genre, and happily acknowledges and comments upon them. For example, at one point Emma Stone's ghosts introduces the next scene: "Now we're going to watch a romantic montage of you and Jenny set to Cyndi Lauper's 'Time After Time.'"

Who would have guessed that "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" would be the best movie coming out on May 1?

3 stars out of four

Review: "Battle for Terra"

"Battle for Terra" is essentially the same familiar story of alien invaders we've seen a hundred times before, with a single twist. But, oh, what a doozy it is.

In this animated tale, the weird bug-eyed aliens are the peaceful earthbound denizens, and the killer conquerors from outer space are humans. Low on budget but long on ambition, "Terra" has plenty of whiz-bang action scenes, and a gentle message that's not exactly subtle, but at least isn't shoved down your throat.

A little history: This movie was made by tiny independent company for a fraction of the price of a Pixar or DreamWorks animated flick. It's been floating around awhile -- I saw it a Midwest film festival last fall, when it was called just "Terra" -- until it was picked up by a major distributor and tweaked for 3-D.

If you judge it by the animation standards of a "Kung Fu Panda," "Terra" looks a little dated, but not by much. Director Aristomenis Tsirbas and screenwriter Evan Spiliotopoulos have created a densely-imagined world with layers of detail, even in the corners and background. The aliens are arresting, resembling flying tadpoles with arms and huge, expressive eyes.

Interestingly, since this film was not originally produced for 3-D, there are none of the usual self-conscious gestures to show off the medium -- things flinging themselves at us, etc. The effect simply adds more depth to the 2-D images, making them pop off the screen without any distracting tricks.

An all-star voice cast is led by Evan Rachel Wood as Mala, a Terran science whiz who likes to test her peaceful society's many rules, which ban things like creating new technology or poking her nose (if she had one) into off-limits areas.

Luke Wilson plays James Stanton, part of an invading force of warlike humans, the last remnants of an Earth destroyed by conflicts. They've been traveling through space for generations, and their aging craft is barely holding together. They need a place to settle, and Terra is the target -- even though it's already inhabited by Mala's people.

The humans' Machiavellian general (Brian Cox) orders a full-scale assault on the planet, but Stanton crashes and is saved by Mala. Together with his four-legged pet robot Giddy (David Cross), Stanton soon allies with Mala to resolve the conflict before it destroys both their peoples.

The rest of the voice cast includes Justin Long, Dennis Quaid, Amanda Peet, Danny Glover, Chris Evans and many others.

The filmmakers paint an interesting contrast between the humans and Terrans. The technology of Mala's people is organic and free-flowing, spare yet elegant (we never hear what Terrans call themselves; maybe they're IKEAns). The humans' gear and ships are all aging metal, bulky and brutally efficient. The fact that the humans have highly exaggerated facial features and torsos -- Stanton looks like he could bench press a Buick -- makes them seem more cartoony than the "aliens."

"Battle for Terra" isn't a huge leap forward, merely taking a familiar story and refreshing it. But in light of disastrous other recent indie animation efforts ("Delgo"), it's nice to see somebody giving the big boys a reason to look over their shoulder.

3 stars out of four